I Still Dream

Book cover: I Still Dream - James Smythe (I honestly have no idea but it's blue an orange and curvy)Laura needed someone to talk to, so she wrote Organon. She didn’t know what she’d created. She still doesn’t know what it’s capable of. But Organon will change the world… for better or for worse.

Organon was written to be teenage Laura’s confidante when she needed a therapist; but Laura’s coding skills are greater than she knows. As Silicon Valley pushes the boundaries of natural language processing and artificial intelligence, Laura keeps her best friend to herself and focuses on teaching it compassion rather than honing its competitive edge. When the data apocalypse threatens to destroy all chance of rational discourse, Organon may be humanity’s last best hope to avert the disasters spawned by our digital and social hubris.

I Still Dream is one of those books that was always going straight on my reading list: I love books about AI and (emerging) sentience, and here it comes with a side of social media apocalypse. But I had no idea just how many of my buttons I Still Dream would push – unwittingly obviously (but also appropriately).

I picked it up shortly after release, having heard James Smythe talk about it at SFX Bookcon 2. It turns out he managed to persuade his publisher to let him make changes between hardback and paperback release. Why? Because this is one of those books that channels nostalgia for the recent past into bruising commentary on the present before glancing at our near future. It’s a dangerous game – one that inevitably leaves the book wide open to ageing rapidly – and 2018 saw enough go down in the tech world to leave Smythe feeling that he needed to reference it.

Having read the first edition, I can say this: not referencing Facebook’s inevitable data sharing shame directly hasn’t stopped this catapulting belatedly into my list of favourite books published in 2018, a heart-ache and a balm in one.

I still can’t talk about I Still Dream without a disproportionately intense emotional response (I cry, okay?). I love this book because it both is and is not about the dangers of developing artificial intelligence. It paints the usual bleak picture of our arrogance and our unwillingness to grapple with whether we -should- do something when we -can- (with a particular and timely focus on techbros); but it undoes me because it refuses to give up hope for the future.

It asks questions that seem intensely relevant in an era where we’re encouraged to trust every detail of our lives to cloud-based databases, owned by companies with terrible track records for confidentiality. Can we move on from all our secrets being laid bare? Can we – and should we – ever let go of the past?

It also looks at whether there’s any meaningful difference between artificial intelligence and sentience, and by extension between the digital and the real – challenging the definitions of life itself. There’s an awful lot to digest, refracted through a series of imperfect human lenses.

Spanning a lifetime – glimpsed through an evocative episode from each decade in the lives of different but related characters – it’s got odd pacing, but I found it deeply satisfying.


I Still Dream is out now in paperback. Yes, I’ll probably buy or borrow a paperback copy too to see exactly what got changed. Any excuse for a reread, eh?

Content warnings: parental loss, abortion and dementia.