Gemma Church on a novel by Andrew Skinner
It would be easy to dismiss Origin Complex (Scarlet Ferret, 2023) by Andrew Skinner as yet another apocalyptic AI yarn. Yes, there are robots. Yes, there is an impending apocalypse. But the universe Skinner has created is one of darkness, danger, and delights. Origin Complex is a space opera with a heart; a brilliant, ballistic science fiction epic of dystopian corporations and enduring friendships which not only features a mind-bending virus, alien archaeologies, and artificial intelligence, but also reflects on the very worst (and best) of humanity. It was not easy to put down, and when I did, I was left screaming into its cosmic horror voids, wanting more (thankfully, there is more: while Origin Complex is a standalone novel, it is set in the same universe as Skinner’s 2019 debut Steel Frame).
Origin Complex is set in a future where militarised corporations are battling to own a slice of the abandoned tech of long-dead alien civilisations. When a corporation owns a technology, it tries to weaponise it – a wholly unsuccessful tactic thus far: the Sigund-Lem Corporation discovered an ‘inmate’ imprisoned on the planet Vija and decided to run tests to see if they could benefit from this discovery. Instead, Sigund-Lem unleashed a killer virus on Vija, exterminating 80,000 people. That virus continues to kill almost everything it touches – but it has been contained, guarded by watchers who will turn their backs on anyone who dares to enter the infected streets of Vija.
This is where we meet Crash: an expert analyst of the Sigund-Lem Corporation who has scammed her way onto Vija to recover the once-lost knowledge required to survive the infection. Crash is not your typical gun-toting protagonist. She’s fiercely intelligent but also fearful – and that’s where VALOR comes in.
VALOR is Crash’s ‘mirror’ – a robotic twin that matches Crash’s body in synthetic form. The pair’s physical characteristics are near-identical. They move in the same way and can sound the same, making it difficult to distinguish between human and machine when both are suited up. But there are differences between VALOR and Crash. Personality-wise, VALOR is fearless where Crash is fearful, with the latter often taking on dangerous situations to protect their human twin. VALOR is also immune to the city’s infection and (combined with VALOR’s fearless nature) this allows Crash to boldly go where no woman (and her robotic twin) has gone before. What the pair find in the darkness of Vija propels them deeper into the Origin Complex universe.
As the story unfurls, the reader is kept in the dark as well. Skinner gives you the bare minimum in world-building. The opening chapters guide us through VALOR and Crash’s exploration of Vija where details are used sparsely as if you are holding a flashlight and only getting glimpses of what horrors may or may not hide in Vija’s dark underground streets. It’s highly effective and immersive (bordering on claustrophobic): you feel like you’re uncovering the truth with the characters as they try to piece together the fragments of the past to prevent humanity from repeating the same mistakes in the future.
When Skinner does pause for description, his prose playfully skips between the familiar and the bizarre. Skinner avoids the usual sf tropes and cliches, while also grounding you in the familiar world of monoliths and space marines that any good fan of Warhammer 40K or Pacific Rim will recognise. And whether it’s ‘raining fire and planet-crackers’ or there’s a ‘sky of sapphire engine glow’, Skinner’s writing is seamlessly poetic, precise, and pacy.
I adored the synergy between Crash and VALOR. Skinner writes the human-machine interactions with subtlety and there are moments when the pair are entangled to the point where it’s impossible to see where one ends and the other begins.
Skinner’s robots mirror the biases of their operators. But this strange relationship between robot and machine becomes problematic for Crash. Crash struggles to grow as an individual and face her fears under VALOR’s (sometimes stifling) protection, which reminded me of the social media echo chambers where your own beliefs are reflected back at you thanks to some algorithm handpicking what you want to hear, making it difficult to form new opinions of your own.
Neatly, this situation reflects the real world where we’ve seen AI systems not only emulate human biases from the data fed into them – but also automate and magnify them. From gender bias in hiring algorithms to racial discrimination in criminal profiling systems, artificial intelligence often reflects society’s weaknesses and prejudices instead of transcending our human limitations.
Back in the Origin Complex universe, this mirroring is present in other human-machine relationships – and this is where Skinner excels in bringing a diversity and humanity to the machines that Crash encounters. For example, a species of dreadnoughts (known as ‘shells’) reflects their human operatives’ desires for destruction and war. When decoupled from their shells, however, we do see how the dreadnoughts’ operatives start to lose some of that bloodlust, raising questions about the symbiosis between human and machine.
Without wanting to give too much away, the ending looks deeply at the theme of mirroring. I was left questioning where the line between human and machine lay, and whether the true threat in the universe Skinner so skilfully created, and in our world, is organic or artificial. ∎
With two degrees in physics, Gemma Church has worked in science communication for 20+ years, currently heading up content at a quantum computing company. She has an Undergraduate Diploma in Creative Writing from Cambridge University, completed Faber’s Writing a Novel course and her speculative fiction short stories appear in various publications, including Indie Bites, Obsolescence and The Writer’s Forum.
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