Autistic Book Party, Episode 37: Mirror Project

Today’s Book: “Mirror Project” by Michael Scott Monje, Jr.

The Plot: A wealthy businessman tries to build a robot body in which to resurrect his dead wife. But the AI consciousness that arises is not his wife, and is horrified by his coercive attempts at making her into something she isn’t.

Autistic Character(s): The author.

Let me just say this up front. This is a friggin’ terrifying book. It’s a book from the point of view of a protagonist who spends almost the entire book imprisoned by people who control her so completely that they can turn off her limbs, consciousness, and senses at will – and who don’t at all have her best interests at heart.

Just how terrifying and potentially triggering this book is will be obvious to anyone who reads the blurb. It’s important to note that it’s actually less awful than I was afraid it would be. It’s not written exploitatively, for shock value or titillation. It’s actually written quite well, and with a constant focus on what the protagonist is thinking and planning, how she is using the limited agency allowed to her to cope and push back against her situation. There are no rape scenes (although the threat of rape, and other violations, hangs constantly over the protagonist’s head). There is no tropey, SFnal mind control of the type that often happens in stories where a person can be reprogrammed (although the protagonist IS gaslit, constantly, by everyone). We know that the protagonist is eventually going to escape, because the book opens with a framing story in which she is narrating her origins to someone who downloaded a program of hers. These are small mercies that made “Mirror Project” a lot easier to get through than it could have been. It is still a TERRIFYING BOOK. I cannot stress this enough. I had a slow and difficult time getting through it, because AAAAAAAAA.

Yeah. So.

If we put aside these emotional concerns then there is a lot to admire about “Mirror Project”. There is a calm, unflinching groundedness to the way the book describes the protagonist’s situation, the options available to her, the reactions she has, and the choices she makes.

(I am having intense difficulty describing the protagonist with a name. The author refers to this series as the “Lynn Vargas universe”, but Lynn is the name of the dead wife that the protagonist is built to resemble, not the protagonist herself, so I cannot bring myself to refer to her that way. I am also not convinced that she/her pronouns are correct for this protagonist, but alternate pronouns are never mentioned or used in the book, so here we are.)

The author has obviously put thought and research into situations of imprisonment and isolation and their psychological effects. The people who the protagonist encounters during her imprisonment are also interestingly portrayed. Some are completely unreasonable; some have some sympathy and do some kindnesses for her, but still ultimately aren’t on her side; at least one is clearly unaware of the scope of what’s been done to her, and is manipulated into actions that harm her anyway.

Interestingly, there is one, small, blink-and-you-miss-it mention of autism in the book. This is in a scene where two characters are intensely gaslighting the protagonist and telling her that she does not have real volition and her actions are not real actions; they are “autism-like” behaviors. This small mention, I think, is very telling of where this kind of story might be coming from, and what it might mean for its author. Autistic people are not generally put into robot bodies and told that they are someone’s wife, but institutionalization and dehumanizing medical control is something that happens to a lot of autistic people, and abusive relationships are another thing that often happens. If you somehow merged those two nightmares together, “Mirror Project” is probably what you’d get. I don’t know much about the author or their history and don’t want to presume, but “Mirror Project” reads to me like the kind of book that is by and for survivors. It’s also an interesting angle on the ethics of strong AI, of the kind that an autistic author might be uniquely positioned to make.

Anyway, this book is going to be intensely triggering for many readers. But it does what it does very well. If you’re the kind of reader who likes reading respectful depictions of intense trauma, who feels seen and understood by that kind of story instead of wanting to run to the hills, then this book is for you. I’m glad that it’s out there. And now I’m going to go hide under a blanket and try to never think about it again.

The Verdict: YMMV

Ethics Statement: I have never interacted with Michael Scott Monje Jr. I bought an e-copy of this book and read it on my Kindle app. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.