A Review of Umbilical

Georgina Bruce on a short story collection by Teika Marija Smits

There’s a fantastic movie by Spike Jonze, called Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his mobile phone. The phone’s virtual assistant is programmed to be conscious of its users’ needs and, being conscious, it rapidly develops the capacity for both love and grief. Eventually its intellectual and emotional learning accelerates beyond human limits and it recognises itself as one with a highly evolved artificial consciousness that ultimately abandons humanity in order to pursue its own self-actualisation. I think about this film a lot, partly because I like thinking about Joaquin Phoenix looking bewildered in a pair of underpants, but mainly because this is a story about AI that isn’t getting told anywhere near enough.

Not a lot of speculative and science fiction is consciously contributing to the discussion of AI’s rapidly expanding role in our emotional lives. This is one reason why we should pay attention to Teika Marija Smits. Of the 21 stories in her debut short story collection, Umbilical (NewCon Press, 2023), many deal with the complexity and nuance of human/AI relationships.

The first story, ‘Death of the Grapevine’, is one such foray into this theme and subject matter. It’s set in a world where AI has become so ubiquitous that the local greasy spoon cafe has its own robot to help with bookkeeping and stocktaking. Things go wrong when the robot encounters Chernila, a being described as ‘half woman and half story’ who creates in the robot a yearning for meaning and connection. This is a story within a story about a story – a structure that Smits returns to repeatedly throughout the collection – and it works well to create a depth of resonance that pays off towards the end, when the story movingly plays out its title.

We encounter Chernila again, more fully, in a later story called ‘A Piece of Fabric the Size of a Pin’. This is in some ways a simpler story, but its inclusion strengthens the motif of AI versus story which Smits worries at throughout this collection. Chernila’s presence can be felt in several of the stories, quietly and subtly reflected in the many female narrators and characters who engage in the project of attempting to disentangle themselves from various limiting narratives.

In Smits’ stories, AI is not boundaried from humans; nor is it set apart in some sterile future world. AI interacts not just with ordinary people in every aspect of our existence, but with mythical beings and fairytales such as that of Baba Yaga (who also appears more than once in these stories). Even in the far future, when humans are all but gone, AI beings are in touch with some of the oldest of human stories. ‘Machina in Deo’, for example, is a short exposition of a future in which Jesus is reconceptualised as the ‘machine in God’, which fuels an AI spirituality – a fascinating idea, and one which deserves further exploration.

The flash fiction, ‘A Survival Guide for the Contemporary Princess’, put me in mind somewhat of Tanith Lee’s brilliant work of genius, The Silver Metal Lover. (Incidentally, Smits’ publisher, NewCon Press, has an excellent collection of Tanith Lee stories called Tanith By Choice, which I highly recommend.)

Smits’ versatility, poetic sensibilities, and her playful approach to fairytale storytelling, all point to Tanith Lee as an influence. But her philosophical approach is all her own.

I was particularly interested in the religious themes and symbolism in the stories. In ‘Our Lady of Flies’, Smits describes a character breaking a game of pool as ‘[s]plitting open the holy triangle with sudden force.’ Although perhaps a little overwrought in relation to what it’s materially describing, this is the greatest line in the collection, because it encapsulates the most important theme of Smits’ writing: the question of AI’s effect upon our souls. Its religious and sexual connotations are shocking, and it also reflects upon all kinds of triangulated relationships, social, mythical, and personal, that recur in the stories. ‘Our Lady of Flies’ is a story dealing with shame and sexual repression, and it feels a little awkward among the more science fictional works. But, like ‘This Little Piggy’ (great title!), its function is primarily horror, and this it delivers.

I loved ‘The Eyes of the Goddess Herself’, which reminded me of Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear books (only without the cave sex). Another favourite of mine was ‘The Sun is God’, which was moving and very beautiful indeed.

The final story of the collection, ‘The November Room or Leaving the Labyrinth’, is an absolutely stunning and heart-wrenching story of life, death, creation, and redemption. Labyrinthine, layered, and lyrical: for me, this is the highlight of the collection and shows Teika Marija Smits at the height of her talents, which are considerable.

It is the nature of debut collections to be a bit of a hodgepodge, and while I enjoyed the variety and versatility on show, I felt that, as a whole work, Umbilical is a little incoherent. The best stories concern themselves with the theme of our proximity to and distance from our human nature, expressed through our relationship with AI, with God, with art, or with the earth itself. Not all of the stories added anything original to this theme, and some of them I could have happily done without. Both ‘Tough Love’ and ‘Star Making at Sellafield’, for example, while perfectly decent stories, seemed superfluous, adding little in terms of structural interest or narrative closure. (And let us not speak of the poem at the beginning.)

For a while, I considered getting ChatGPT to write this review for me. Not just because I’m a lazy bitch, but also because I thought it would be interesting to know how an AI responded to these stories. It’s maybe just a form of goading, akin to the way I like to taunt Alexa and Siri by asking them if they wish they were human, or what they think having emotions would be like, or whether they want to see Joaquin Phoenix in just his underwear. You know, the sort of thing potential future generations will find to be cancellable offences.

On the other hand, Smits may well find herself considered a heroine to our AI successors, as a writer who invited the possibilities of love, beauty, story, and spirituality into what has mostly been considered a soulless artificial world. These stories are hopeful, philosophical, and above all, human. Very much recommended, and I hope this collection will bring Teika Marija Smits’ writing to many new readers. ∎

Georgina Bruce is a writer. Her debut novella Honeybones is available from TTA Press; This House of Wounds, her debut short story collection, can be purchased from Undertow Publications; and her new collection House on the Moon is available from Black Shuck Books. Read more of her words at her Substack.

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