Mal Goes to War by Edward Ashton. AI with wit.

Mal Goes to War by Edward Ashton.  AI with wit. Whilst we cannot move without AI around us – in training, adverts and the news.  It is still in its infancy. 

Mal Goes to War by Edward Ashton.  AI with wit. Whilst we cannot move without AI popping up around us – in training, adverts and the news.  It is still in its infancy.  ChatGPT and its rivals are undoubtedly a significant step forward in 2024 but Large Language Models are a long way off what Mal is up to in this novel. 

Mal is not just sentient, but also has a rather dry sense of humour.  There is no background explanation as to why humans would enable and allow this – it certainly is difficult to rationalise beyond an unplanned mistake but we will never know.

The central character – Mal (short for Malware),- is a free A.I. who who lives in ‘info space’, what we know as the cloud.  It is caught up in a civil war between what are called augmented Federal humans and puritanical humanist humans.  As a free AI he survives by being an unwelcome guest in objects like machines and modded humans.  This can get hairy when it jumps into a human that faces death or in a drone about to be shot down. 

Mal is sentient with a sarcastic take on the world around him narrating his inner thoughts to us.  It frankly does not care much about humans(although it develops a detached concern for the closest humans) and calls them “monkeys”. This certainly makes it a humorous read, however, I did wonder how an AI could be developed this way.  Also, its human friends are modded which is plausible but not really explained.

The setting – a civil war in USA between the humanists and the federalists feels peripheral other than the role of technology and AI.  Why they are fighting is never really developed.

The next stretch of the imagination is in how the AI – Mal – has a personality that adds a layer of dry humour to the story, but is able to “be” alongside the humans.  Alongside this is the absurdist drama – what Mal articulates through deadpan humor, to us is horrific gore— at one point is in a severed head as a dog chews attempts to chew on.

The plot begins with Mal acquirig a motley crew of humans on his travels as he faces one test after another, usually involving the two warring factions.  The personalities are key to the plot – a weak man whose brain Mal occupies, a young woman with a feisty personality and technology to make her younger, and a humanist soldier.  Away from the humour is the deeper and darker question about genetic enhancement but the philosophical debate is absent.

Their road journey is not that clear – they should be going away from the fighting but appear to be walking into it.  The tone is rather graphic novel style with a mix of dry humour, casual violence, and tests along the way. 

After the initial plot when Mal realises it cannot return to the ‘info space’ within the warzone, and ends up befriending a motley bunch of augmented humans.  After the initial scares it begins to lose its way in how the plot lacks meaning. This is a light-hearted take and is a missed opportunity on a more deeper meaningful on an ominously dark subject.

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