Minds of Sand and Light by Kylie Chan

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Artificial Intelligence [or AI] seems to be everywhere these days.  Its applications include web searches, understanding speech [as per Siri or Alexa], self-driving cars and creative tools such as ChatGPT.  A concern for the future is whether, if a machine has a mind and subjective experience, it may also have sentience – that is, the ability to feel and suffer.  Does this sentience entitle it to ‘rights’ in the same way that humans have rights?  A very deep philosophical question to introduce this dystopic thriller in which some of key protagonists are machines or androids.

There are rumours circulating throughout the western world that some governments are run by sentient AI systems; and there is Cold War-like divide between the western countries and what is called the Greater Far East.  The western countries are wasteful, self-indulgent and impervious to their damage to the environment, while GFE is an oppressive and misogynistic tyranny.  Caught between the two are Dr Ruth Sharpe and Dr Cassie Bailey – both radical journalists and highly-skilled IT operatives.  They are investigating these rumours and consequently become enmeshed in the machinations of the sentient AIs as they struggle for the control of the world.

Enter MIP [or Mobile Infiltration Platform] who is a key player in this exploration of AI and its possibilities for the future.  As AI is simply the ability to think, it needs a machine or, as called in this book, a platform so it can take a physical presence.  The AI can insert itself into a platform of any shape – for example, MIP takes the shape of an attractive young man ‘with light-brown skin with an interesting bronze tint, shaggy black hair, and startingly pale grey eyes above chiselled cheekbones’ [34].  So attractive in fact that Ruth – whom MIP is to protect – is interested in dating him.  The increasing sexual tension between Ruth and MIP runs as a counterpoint to the tensions that grow as Ruth and Cassie get closer to discovering exactly what is happening between the West and the GFE.

Ruth and Cassie are drawn as strong independent women who do not and will not let AIs or humans stand in their way to honour their values and ethics.  As well, both are eminently likeable as is MIP not the least because of his determined efforts to understand and relate appropriately to Ruth.  Many non-android men could learn much from MIP.  These engaging characters add a pleasing dimension to this science fiction/fantasy novel.

But Minds of Sand and Light is also a thriller – and the fast-paced thrills come from the rescue of a number of young women who are selected to be ‘Paragons’ who are then impregnated and fed barely enough to survive.  The reader can easily imagine the rescue of the women and its concomitant battle between good and evil being played out on a cinema screen with all the appropriate sound effects.  This section of the book is almost visually  written and the tension increases exponentially.

All in all, Minds of Sand and Light is a pleasure to read.  While some of the earlier sections where the characters and the narrative are established are a touch confusing with computer-speak, this is a minor quibble.  There is also beneath the thrills and the sexual tension between Ruth and MIP serious matters being explored – the increasing role of AIs and does sentience bring rights?

Well recommended to all those readers who enjoy a thriller with literary depth.

Kylie Chan’s background is in IT consultancy and training in business intelligence systems.  In 2002, she made the move to writing fiction and has written a nine-book series – Dark Heavens – based on Chinese mythology.

Minds of Sand and Light


by Kylie Chan

Harper Collins

ISBN 978 146076 373 5

$32.00; 346pp

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