There is an alarming timeliness to Katie M. Flynn’s debut novel The Companions: the book opens in a futuristic California during a quarantine lockdown due to a highly contagious virus that has killed large swaths of people. If you’re trying to avoid the terror of germs and health crises in general right now, don’t worry –– the virus is just a small part of this novel which also covers humans living as machines, a highly tech-driven world, and an encroaching coastline alongside questions of humanity, family, and what we could and should do with science.
The main premise and through-line of the novel is essentially exploring the question of living forever –– not a new concept, but one explored in a new way in The Companions. A company called Metis has discovered a way to transfer a dying person’s consciousness into that of an artificial body (and the more money you have, the nicer body you can get, ranging from a tin can to a nearly-indistinguishable model of a human.) These machine-humans are initially used as companions; some act as wards of their family members while others are sold to strangers to keep them company during the quarantine lockdown. Lilac –– a Gen I model no more than a square contraption on a wheel track –– is one of the first to show signs of being able to defy her programming, and thus begins our story.
As Lilac escapes her first companionship and sets off to find the person who murdered her in her human life, she engages with seven other characters who share the narrative point of view throughout the book. Cam is working at a senior-citizen facility before meeting Lilac and helping her find a body. Jakob is a heart-throb movie-star who has multiple companions made of him as part of his agent’s quest to keep making movies. Gabe (short for Gabrielle) is an orphaned nine-year-old who is untrusting and angry ever since the virus took her mother and sister. A handful of other humans and companions intertwine to reveal the larger workings of this science-fiction future and become part of Lilac’s mission to find her killer. As the years pass the virus is controlled and the quarantine lifted, but the companions survive.
Eventually the companions become more accepted, even desired, as the technology improves and the idea of living past your expiration date relieves the fear of what comes after death. A newer, younger body, with all your years of knowledge and memories –– who wouldn’t want it? Flynn’s prose is sparse, but her messages are powerful: if companions can dream, and remember, and make choices, and feel emotions, are they human? If they’re not, then what does make us human? The plot points also bring up questions of how our experiences shape and change us. Companions’ memories can be uploaded according to the last “backup” of sorts. So what happens if you upload your consciousness from years ago, without the most recent memories and experiences? Is that even you anymore? As the story grows more complex, it’s a thought experiment come to life: what would it be like to meet yourself from five years ago?
The characters are well-imagined, but the most impressive is Gabe, the spunky, aggressive, grieving girl who we watch grow up over the span of the 20-year arc. She is angry about the virus, angry about being alone, angry that she’s angry. But it’s all justified, and I found myself rooting for her anger and her distrust of even those closest to her. Flynn has done wonders with Gabe’s character, allowing space and time for a girl’s anger to land and be felt. It’s through Gabe’s eyes that we’re most led to question the morality of this world: should corporations really own a human’s consciousness? Should people upload themselves into a machine to continue living? Should those that choose that life have basic human rights?
The beginning of the novel takes off with some speed, but it sags a bit in the middle. We are meant to feel the jolt of each chapter’s transition to a new character –– much like a companion being switched on and off, awaking to a new place and perhaps even new time period –– but it takes some effort to keep up with the crossing timelines and narrative arcs. By the end third, however, there is a charge and a tension that keeps you turning the pages, questioning who is a companion and who is still fully human. The differences begin to dwindle to a point where the reality and the theory blend in a masterful stroke. Effects of climate change also begin to force the characters inland and growing fears of what the future holds for the world expand the story past the boundaries of these handful of characters. The world of the novel has changed since companions were invented and the virus reshaped the population, but fundamentals remain: pain of betrayal, desires of self-preservation, longing for family, love, fear, and hope.
Though a quality dystopian science-fiction novel, The Companions’ most compelling aspect is its commentary on the advancement of technology and the root of what powers humanity at its core. It’s an engaging debut with both speculative and literary gems, one we should read and think about now more than ever.
By Katie M. Flynn
Published March 3, 2020