Probably in the first time in a while, I have finished a Sword & Laser Book Pick not only in the month it came out, but I also have a review before the end of the month – such is the case for Machinehood by S.B. Divya – another first novel, and this time in a cyberpunk or cyberpunk adjacent subgenre, and it is an absolutely fantastic book.
Machinehood is one of the works of modern cyberpunk that I’d put in a similar tack as “A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min (which ran in Clarkesworld). I guess I’d sub-categorize it as “Cyberpunk (Maker/Influencer)” – being driven by the spread of homebrew maker and influencer culture, along with the gig economy. The world of the book’s setting is in a future where “businesses” as we know them don’t necessarily exist the way they used to. With the rise of biochemical enhancements through nanobots combined with other chemicals, the way to get ahead and keep up in school and the workplace isn’t through (necessarily) direct cybernetic augmentation – like you’d see in anime & manga like Ghost in the Shell or in tabletop RPGs like RTG’s Cyberpunk or Interface Zero, but through getting a chemical edge through medication.
In this world, there is an arms race to develop new pills to help push biochemistry further and further, to in turn push humanity further, along with battling the ever-escalating threat of super-bugs. People use their nano-machine swarms to monetize almost every aspect of their lives, and most people have some variety of gig job, often co-monetized through their digital tip jars. Also, much of society depends on WAI (Weak Artificial Intelligence) – AI Agents who help with most aspects of people’s lives, often working as a digital combination of a personal assistant and a butler.
Our two main characters are Olga “Welga” Ramirez – a bodyguard as part of an agency that provides security for “Funders” – super-rich elites who fund pill development (as well as various other gigs) – to help protect them from protesters. Protesting has also gotten increasingly more violent, with protest actions being what would (to our eyes) look not that far off from a straight-up assassination attempt, were it not for the fact that advances in medical technology making it harder to just straight-up succeed at killing a Funder (and for the bodyguards to kill a protester). So, when a Funder that Olga is protecting is murdered on her watch by a person from an organization calling themselves “The Machinehood” – an assassin who promptly self destructs – and the organization issues a manifesto calling for an end of all pill production, and equal rights to all WAI, a global panic ensues. Olga, who is ex-military, gets sucked back in as the government tries to find out who The Machinehood are, and what their ultimate agenda is.
While I contrasted Machinehood with Ghost in the Shell a little bit ago, I can’t help but view it in comparison to that work – the agency Olga works for has a real “Section 9” vibe, and the ultimate person or organization they’re investigating moves into similar territory both of the manga and the Stand Alone Complex TV series – with the pharmacological arms race the public faces reminding me a bit of how Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig got into issues with the Refugee population of Japan having to undergo more and more costly augmentation procedures just to be able to get jobs that pay less than what Japanese citizens could take, and while facing persecution by the police in general and members of the government (represented by Gouda) in particular.
All of that said, there are a few bits in how this plays out in the book that feels ableist – especially when it comes to the medication referred to as “Flow” – Divya is trying not to say “Adderall” in order to avoid dating the setting, but it’s being used and abused for academic success – and is indeed required for academic and professional success, the way that Adderall gets abused by college students in the present day. The problem being here is that, frankly, the level of abuse of Adderall has gotten to a point that I’ve encountered people in the neurodiverse community, particularly those with ADHD who take Adderall in order to manage their disability, who have faced stigmatization because people in the public sphere (in particular, Elon Musk) assume that the only use of Adderall is to abuse in order to succeed in school, and that there’s no legitimate medical use otherwise – something that is very much not the case.
I try not to be the person who goes through books trying to read like I’m cross-examining a witness, trying to prove that the book isn’t woke enough. However, as a person with Autism, in a world with a whole metric kilo-ass-ton of unexamined and unconfronted ableist privilege, permeating the world like incredibly loud background radiation, and where the tabletop gaming space is working harder to be more inclusive of people with disabilities (including how RTG’s Cyberpunk Red has re-done how the Humanity system works, and cybernetic augmentation in Shadowrun has pretty much dumped the whole “Cyberzombie” thing entirely, and the system effectively only uses the whole Essence/Magic balance on a game balance side of things) these sorts of unforced errors call attention to themselves.
That said, I really enjoyed the book – I started the book at the beginning of the month and finished the book by Thursday – not just born out of a sense of “I was just laid off from my job and now I have time to kill”. If you’ve seen my anime watchlist and video game pile of shame, I have plenty of things to do when I’m not job hunting. I tore through this book because I was absolutely engrossed while reading it. I truly like this new spin on Cyberpunk that is actively doing stuff with maker culture and influencer culture. I love how Watch Dogs 2 handled this in the semi-present day, and how this and Vina Jie-Min’s did it set in a further future, and I really would love not only to see more works of cyberpunk fiction handle this, but I’d also love to see other cyberpunk tabletop RPGs learn from this – whether in the supplemental material for existing games, or in new books completely.
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