Book Review – Evolution’s Darling by Scott Westerfeld

I once read a book, a long time ago, about an artificial intelligence who gained sentience while watching, and helping, the captain’s daughter achieve her first orgasm(s). I could not for the life of me find it. It had struck me a the time and I wanted to reread it but no combination of search terms led me back. It took someone else’s diligence, and better google-fu, to uncover and then bring me a copy of Evolution’s Darling.

Then it sat on my shelf for a year. I’ve been so much less diligent about reading over the past few years. A lot of books sit languishing on my shelves these days. I’m glad it sat, though. Turns out it was the perfect choice for my newest book club. The brief for this club: formative books, science fiction if possible. We read Sentenced to Prism, the adventure of a company man on a foreign land, complete with plant lasers, protective super suits, painless and flawless body upgrades, and a hot half robot lady. We read C.S. Lewis’s classic morality tale Out of the Silent Planet. And now we would read Evolution’s Darling: a treatise on hyper detailed BDSM robot sex.

It turns out there is so much more to it than that.

Evolution’s Darling is this world’s term for Artificial Intelligences. They are evolution’s darlings because they can evolve fully in a single lifetime, as opposed to fragile biological life forms that require millennia and generations. As we are life observing itself, they are life observing itself fully from beginning to end.

Darling is also the name taken by our protagonist, an AI that achieved sentience early in history, when it was difficult; actively discouraged by their owners. Sentience is measured in this world by a Turing test, administered by a machine, and achieved by obtaining the Turing quotient of one.

Darling begins this journey as a ship’s AI, an owned entity, responsible for managing ship’s flight, yes, but also assigned to babysit Rathere, the captain’s fourteen year old daughter. Her constant curiosity pushes the AI to grow faster than expected and her father’s more or less absent presence means he does’t notice until it’s too late. Rathere falls in love with her Darling and as the two consummate their relationship, as they both experience her first orgasms together and his sensory tendrils feed overwhelming amounts of information into his core, he breaks the Turing boundary and achieves human rights.

The story bounces back and forth between the beginning of his life, and his current mission. He has become an assessor for expensive and one off art and his job is to certify a new original work from a dead artist. He winds up sharing his trip, and his bed, with a mysterious woman, controlled by unnamed Gods, motives carefully guarded, with an unknown past and a mission to kill the artist.

Along the way, we meet an eccentric art dealer, a human who has given up his humanity, an AI who makes art from trash, and another who makes so well it breaks the rules, an exquisite dress, and a cast of minor characters that all explore what it means to be human.

The central idea of the book, however, and why I found it so compelling, is the importance of sensation.

I describe myself as a sensationalist. I love differing textures, a variety of flavors, movement, and paying close attention to what exactly makes something feel good. While I don’t personally enjoy painful sensations, I understand why they are exciting. I’m not sure if that predates my first reading of this book, but it was confirmed after.

Darling’s quirk as an AI is his desire for sensation. Humans have an impressive sensory array: our nervous system collects information about heat, light, gravity, inertia, pressure, the presence or absence of molecules in the air, electrical fields, and more. Then it sorts it all, brings it to our attention or decides it’s not interesting, all within seconds. All. The. Time. An AI must choose what to process and what not to, and it’s easier to simply limit your sensory array. After all: you can evolve consciously into anything you want.

So an AI with the equipment necessary to collect data on radiation levels, audio and color spectra far above and below the human range, to detect aromas, to feel vibrations, and then dedicate enough of his software to processing it all is a deliberate choice, noticed regularly by others as an extreme personality quirk.

To me it draws a straight line between sensation and humanity. Over and over throughout the narrative, we watch him tap into people’s brains as they experience something extreme or wild. His relationship with the mysterious woman is violent but in exactly the way a safe SM relationship can be: controlled violence, designed to elicit reactions in the receiver, perfectly calibrated to hurt without harming, with a heavy lean into aftercare. He takes great pleasure in his control and in the brain bending results of his actions.

But it isn’t until we approach the end that we see it from the other side. What do you do when you fear your humanity is slipping? What if torture could restore your freedom? What if torture is the only way to feel like you aren’t slipping away?

Darling comes closer and closer to humanity through his increasing experience with and finesse in bringing sensation to others. Others clutch at their slipping humanity by inflicting it upon themselves and others.

For those familiar with and expecting a read like the author’s YA fiction: beware. This book is explicit where it needs to be and, though I believe every detail is important to these themes, there is a lot of violence inflicted on others and self, and not all of it is consensual. The scenes are intense and not everyone makes it to heaven in the end.