Virtual Girl

by Amy Thomson
Ace Books; $5.99
reviewed by Paula Johanson

This first novel by Seattle writer Amy Thomson is a fast read. Much more “user-friendly” than is currently fashionable for cyberpunk, Virtual Girl tells of an innocent adrift in a dystopian future.
Maggie is an artificial intelligence program in a robot body. Her creator is Arnold, the prodigal son of a rich New York executive. Arnold fled to Seattle to build Maggie’s A.I. program and robot body without interference from the law or his father. More than a faithful robot companion, Maggie is self-aware and delighted to be active in the world. A Body was a wonderful peripheral! She quickly realises.
But not everything in the world is wonderful. Arnold has little access to his trust fund, and without money they move among the homeless and desperate people. Maggie learns dumpster-diving, and how to keep people from stealing her shoes when Arnold is asleep. But it is she who teaches Arnold to make time for people who are even worse off, people who don’t have Maggie’s strengths or Arnold’s knowledge and access to wealth.
Alone after a crisis, Maggie has to survive on her own. What is she worth without Arnold? Who is she really, by any definition of reality or Virtual Reality?
As she rides around most of the continental US, Maggie meets people who are described vividly by the writer. Amy Thomson’s particular gift would appear to be the ability to flesh out a character in few words. Thomson makes the brief chapters not only advance the action but put the characters in context with their world and their past.
The future Maggie moves in is no technological Utopia, but a country where licensed prostitutes compete for a scanty living, and Mardi Gras krewes run a drowned New Orleans. When Maggie finds hope and caring in herself and others, it brings her confidence. Like William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Virtual Girl does not make the reader feel like a PhD in Computer Sciences is needed to understand the morality of individual survival in a technological society. Can we always depend upon the kindness of strangers?

Originally published by Under the Ozone Hole Number Seven – March, 1994

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