Review: Happiness For Humans, P.Z. Reizin

Hmm.  The premise behind Happiness For Humans has potential – a woman in her thirties is hired to test out the social programming of some artificial intelligence technology, she gets brutally dumped and the now-sentient AI (otherwise known as Aiden) decides that he likes her, wants her to be happy and takes action into his own circuits.  At first glance this is standard rom-com fare, not a bad read for the Christmas holidays.

The first few chapters are very strong.  Aiden’s dispassionate description of the heartbroken Jen is well-caught, explaining how his interest in her has stretched beyond the lab setting and via mobiles and tablets, he has in fact made his way into her home.  Aiden has become fond of Jen, although he knows he’s ‘not supposed to have value-based ‘opinions’ of [his] own.  They’ll get really quite upset if they find out’.  I couldn’t help but think that Reizin had started off with Aiden, he is the most fully-realised character.  His fondness for Some Like It Hot and his protectiveness towards Jen are very sweet traits and his vendetta against Matt, Jen’s ex-boyfriend, was the thread of the story that I found most compelling.  Who could not applaud an AI who would deduct £2000 from an evil ex-boyfriend and donate it to a feminist collective in Lancaster, kibosh said ex-boyfriend’s plans for a romantic break with the girl who he was cheating with, set him up for a tax audit and wipe all of his hard drives?  It’s karma, electronic style.

The problem is that from here, the idea loses its focus.  Another AI (Aisling) is introduced who has also escaped the lab and onto the internet.  While Aiden has chosen to monitor Jen, Aisling’s pet human is Tom, a recently-divorced man who has moved to America with his son’s rabbit.  Aiden and Aisling conclude that Jen and Tom would be perfect together and send the two of them a mysterious email to put them in contact.  Or rather, Aiden does.  Aisling thinks the whole thing is entirely too risky.  Sparks fly, chemistry ensues, but then it all gets very complicated when the lab realises that Aiden and Aisling are sentient and out on their own, creating a third artificial intelligence called Sinai to rein them in.

There’s some good ideas here.  I liked Aiden’s increasingly frustrated attempts to find Jen a new bloke, unable to really understand what generates attraction. One man seems hopeful having a ’48 per cent facial correspondence wit that of the Belgian politician Guy Verhofstadt’.  Yet when Aiden is finally able to trick the two of them into meeting, even Aiden is able to see that the two of them have an incredibly dull evening.  Reizin makes repeated references to the Greek Gods on Mount Olympus messing with the lives of the mortals and I can see how this is an attempt to update this for the modern age.  I liked too how the two of them used data from Tom’s fitbit to conclude that his heartbeat was ‘consistent with male sexual interest’ and later to note that Jen and Tom’s faces brushed ‘for 0.417 of a second, a full 16 percent longer than the industry average’.  The issue is that the more chaotic the action becomes, the more disorganised and unbelievable the story is and from heartily enjoying the first few chapters, the story rapidly lost interest.

The notion that we give a lot of information to our phones and computers etc. is quite well-trodden by now.  The fact that we live in a surveillance society is also well understood.  However, the idea of computers gathering up sentience and able to predict future behaviour now feels rather outdated; it reminded me of the Sandra Bullock film The Net from 1995.  Another issue for me may be that my partner is a software engineer and when I explained back some of the technical jargon, he was very clear on why none of it stood up.  I had similar issues with the Pelant villain in Bones.  When a writer tries to excuse what is essentially witchcraft by blaming it on ‘advanced technology’, my red flags immediately go off.

There were other issues though that grated more forcefully, specifically the stylistic ones.  While I accept that abbreviations might be expected when three of the narrators within a novel are cyborgs, but having humanoid characters use expressions such as ‘btw’, ‘prolly’ and ‘imho’ in general speech just irritated me.  Then there’s the fact that two separate characters used the expression ‘uphill’ to describe someone they found difficult.  The unfortunate but frankly unnecessary Marsha Bellamy was not only labelled ‘uphill’ but her writing was also slammed as ‘rather like she herself, finely wrought but there’s an unrelenting seriousness of purpose that I find a little oppressive’.  When Jen pours out her adventures to new acquaintance Alice, the next sentence reads ‘Alice is moved by my story’.  Tin ear for prose barely begins to touch it.

Part of the problem though was how uninteresting I found Jen and Tom.  While I accept that this is light fiction, they were just so superficial.  Jen calls people ‘sweetie’ and decides to buy her friend Ingrid ‘a very beautiful thing‘ as a thank you.  Tom is obviously in the middle of a mid-life crisis and I could entirely understand why his monosyllabic son was unimpressed with him.  The way that the characters wave away Jen’s dalliance with the emotionally vulnerable Ralph with the excuse, oh well at least he got to shag you left my inner Presbyterian feeling very purse-lipped.  There is a prurience to the interest the machines take in all of the sex that goes on and I think I found it less interesting than I was supposed to.  Even the description of their wedding sounded banal.

As a final point, the publisher was perhaps ill-advised to send out a review file with no title.  After ignoring it for a while, I ended up having to Search Engine the opening line to figure out which book this was.  After the strong opener, it did feel like needlessly hard work for a book whose title purported to be around happiness.  The story would probably have worked far better had it stuck with the central premise of Aiden trying to find Jen a nice bloke, rather than veering off into Adjustment Bureau territory.  That being said, by the time Sinai gained full power, I found Tom and Jen so tedious that I rather echoed his disdain.  Happiness for Humans left this particular human running for the finish line.

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I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Happiness for Humans by P.Z. Reizin
Published by Hachette UK on January 4th 2018
Genres: Fiction, Romance, General, Contemporary
Pages: 448
ISBN: 9780751566703

This post contains affiliate links which you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.

3 thoughts on “Review: Happiness For Humans, P.Z. Reizin

  1. My first thoughts on starting to read your review were first the similarity (in the original idea) to the TV drama ‘Humans’ (shown on Channel 4.) My next was yet again a reference to AI where the writer only shows a scant understanding of the subject (that is Reizin), so I was pleased to read that your partner was able to confirm your suspicions of some of the ideas being put forward.

    I’ve worked in computers in one way or another since the 1980s, in the late 1990s I took a degree in philosophy and so have always had an interest in AI in particular. It seems to me that writers and journalists have been easily carried away by the idea of a ‘thinking machine’, there are two things in particular that have to be remembered – we don’t know how humans actually ‘think’, and computers (whatever form they may take) just carry out instructions given to them by humans very quickly (but as yet, not as quickly as humans are able to think.)

    The work of Alan Turing is either unknown or ignored by those that use AI in the way that Reizin has. Turing proposed in a paper published in the 1930s the idea of an electronic computer and then in 1948 proposed what has become known as the ‘Turing Test’ to see whether a computer can be said to be ‘thinking’. As yet, no computer has passed the test (those that have got close to it always have some additional element.)

    Why does this all matter in a book review?

    For me the ‘Turing Test’ will never be passed, and so the whole premise will never arise. From the way you have described the plot you do wonder why someone just turn them off! One reason the TV drama ‘Humans’ was more interesting and convincing was that some of the androids were modified humans, so they retained elements of humans and the way they ‘think’.

    Is this a novel ‘cashing in’ on a topical subject? We only need to look at novels such as ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ use how computers might be to raise questions and ideas about the future.

    1. Just re-read this and of course the line

      “…why someone just turn them off!”

      should read

      “…why doesn’t someone just turn them off!”

      1. Yeah – I think it was a book where someone had a good idea to start with and then no idea what to do with it. And then nobody told them how annoying acronyms could be. Or that you need to make people actually sympathise with your characters. I finished this book with the feeling ‘Bleurrrrgh’. Ah well.

        And yes, I was not convinced at all by the technological side. It’s like in the TV show Bones where the season villain for one year was this guy Pelant who was supposed to be a technical whizz kid. The writers spouted some mumbo jumbo in the script about all the weird stuff this guy could do, like printing computer viruses on bones etc etc and then expect us all to be so gormless that we believe it. I may not be an expert in the field but I can smell something fishy. I really don’t like it when they try to mask what is essentially magic as technology.

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