N4: Novel Featuring an AI Character: Fools War – Sarah Zettel

Fool’s War is one of those books that you never see mentioned on lists of ‘must reads’ or random listicles (9 SFF Books that Prominently Feature Small Dogs), even though it would tick a lot of boxes that seem important to people today: female author; positive portrayal of Islam; and it plays with the idea of sentient AIs. Though it’s over 20 years old now (published in 2007), it doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves.

I come back to this book every so often because it hits a couple of my favourite space opera ideas. 

One is AIs. In science fiction, the ship’s AI is often written as either a) a really advanced ships computer, one step up from Alexa, but with no actual human emotions, or b) just another human-like character who you frequently have to keep reminding yourself isn’t human. Fool’s War plays with the transition from a) to b), when AIs becomes conscious. In-universe, when this happens, since the newly self-aware AIs tend to be frightened and dangerous, there is a race to capture between people who want to nurture the new AI, and those who want to destroy it before it can do any damage. One of the main players is the Fools’ Guild, who are firmly on the nurturing side. 

Fools are licensed entertainer/psychologist types who exist on ships to help manage crew stresses on deep space assignments. In the universe of Fool’s War, having a licensed fool on the ship raises a ship’s rating and allows it to take on bigger, more prestigious assignments. This is the other of the ideas that I like to see hit in space opera. I’ve often thought that some sort of societal outlet in a closed society like a spaceship would be necessary, from Star Trek’s Deanna Troi (professional counselor) at one end to Inara Serra from Firefly (licensed prostitute) at the other. In Fool’s War, Evelyn Dobbs is a licensed Fool, a sort of class clown slash psychologist, who exists to diffuse tensions, observe everything, and take the crew’s psychological temperature. And she’s also got a stake in tracking down a newly conscious AI who may or may not be on board. I’m not going to expand on the actual plot, since you can read the blurb on Amazon, but suffice to say if you like middle future space opera, you’ll like this. This book is very well written, the characters are relatable, and it’s a catchy read. I really don’t know why it doesn’t get more notice.



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