'I Still Dream' Gives Us Hope for the Tech Apocalypse

In a world of Palantir, you'll wish for Organon.

I Still Dream
James Smythe


Apr 2018


James Smythe's I Still Dream includes plenty of hallmarks of the futuristic sci-tech genre, including too-powerful technology and its devastating consequences, the dangers of human-less algorithmic development, recognizably human hubris and greed, and cataclysmic social consequences on an epic geopolitical scale. Yet at its core, I Still Dream is ultimately and notably not technophobic, and only mildly alarmist.

The blurb on the cover of my advance review copy of I Still Dream promises a blend of Cloud Atlas and Black Mirror. Yet that's selling the novelty of I Still Dream rather short in an attempt at finding quick marketing analogues. While Black Mirror often takes a frightening tone with regards to rapid advances in technology, I Still Dream makes it very clear that it's the humanity (or lack thereof) behind these increasingly powerful devices and systems that makes all the difference. And while the David Mitchell reference isn't far off, it's not Cloud Atlas' palindromic narrative that I Still Dream conjures up, it's Mitchell's more recent effort The Bone Clocks that's a more accurate parallel. Both The Bone Clocks and I Still Dream feature a vast, time-skipping storyline centered on the exploits of a young woman, beginning in the near past and eventually ending at a future that shows the ultimate consequences of human nature and consumption.

Refreshingly, the arc of I Still Dream isn't what we might expect, either. Leave behind your Zuckerbergs and isolated male nerds, and meet Laura Bow, a moody computer prodigy in late '90s England. The daughter of a deceased visionary software developer and a perpetually worried mother, Laura is most comfortable on her machine, where she's building herself a diary-turned-confidante named Organon, the eponymous remix of Kate Bush's "Cloudbusting" ringing out from her freshly-burned mixtapes.

I Still Dream divides itself into multiple sections that each skip ahead about ten years, keeping Laura and Organon (and Organon's growing development into the world's most quietly powerful artificial intelligence) at the center even as we meet a few new narrators along the way. We're often dropped into each new chapter in media res, giving us a sense of where Laura is now, how she's grown since we've seen her last, and how much more intelligent and post-human Organon has become. Laura goes to work for Bow, the Bay Area company her father started; she gets married; she keeps a secret only Organon can know; she becomes a respected if reclusive tech figure; she finds herself playing the unenviable role of Cassandra in a world of algorithm-led uber-convenience.

Alternate narrators include Charlie, a bitter ex-boyfriend and developer coworker we meet post-breakup in 2007 and Cesar, a tech journalist who becomes Laura's ally in 2027; while neither are as well-developed as Laura herself, switching the storytelling duties to Charlie so early on comes across as a bit of a misstep, as he doesn't really rise above the level of the character type he embodies. As Charlie's role in the gradual narrative path of I Still Dream becomes clear, he feels even more like a cliché.

On the other hand, Cesar's mere existence as a news writer in 2027 provides an ironically optimistic view of the future amid rising chaos and unease—apparently they still have reported news in the future, along with Vladimir Putin (more pessimistic) and various coastal cities un-submerged by rising sea levels (still positive!). Organon also becomes more and more of a character as I Still Dream leaps further and further into the future, and we eventually grow to feel some affection for Organon and even wish for its fundamental benevolence in all our gadgets and apps (or maybe that's just me).

Protagonist Laura Bow and her emotional intelligence are worlds away from the stereotypical computer geek-genius we envision when we think of the minds behind Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple—the technologies that seem to govern our lives more and more every day. It's ultimately because Laura puts stock in emotion and interaction that I Still Dream doesn't become a typical cautionary tale of artificial intelligence going Skynet: Organon is her constant companion, her child, and she's committed to its humanistic development like a parent, as opposed to building it to become endlessly expansive and greedy for knowledge (see: basically every other AI in fiction). Let's just say it's not Organon that eventually brings the narrative to a terrifying climax.

Unlike Dave Eggers, whose arguably tech-phobic The Circle had me wondering whether the author knew the differences among an operating system, hardware, and software, it's clear that James Smythe has done at least enough research to make Organon's capabilities fathomable, if not totally understandable on a nuts-and-bolts level. Smythe also has the upper hand on Eggers when it comes to marrying touching emotional resonance with his tech-y cautionary tale of sorts; as Laura's Organon grows more and more unique and capable, she comes to realize over the decades that even the best facsimile of a relationship, the clearest and most accurate hologram, pales in comparison to the real bonds we form with one another as we grow up. When you close I Still Dream, you'll find it hard to walk away from its strangely positive and uplifting view of the future and the tech that will shape it: in a world of Palantir, you'll wish for more Organons.





Laura Nyro's "Save the Country" Calls Out from the Past

Laura Nyro, a witchy, queer, ethnic Russian Jew, died young, but her non-conformist anthem, "Save the Country", carries forth to these troubled times.


Journalist Jonathan Cott's Interviews, Captured

With his wide-ranging interviews, Jonathan Cott explores "the indispensable and transformative powers of the imagination."

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Coronavirus and the Culture Wars

Infodemics, conspiracies -- fault lines beneath the Fractured States of America tremble in this time of global pandemic, amplify splinters, fractures, and fissures past and present.


'Switched-On Seeker' Is an Imaginative Electronic Reimagining of Mikal Cronin's Latest LP

Listeners who prefer dense rock/pop timbres will no doubt prefer Mikal Cronin's 'Seeker'. However, 'Switched-On Seeker' will surely delight fans of smaller-scale electronic filters.


IYEARA Heighten the Tension on Remix of Mark Lanegan's "Playing Nero" (premiere)

Britsh trio IYEARA offer the first taste of a forthcoming reworking of Mark Lanegan's Somebody's Knocking with a remix of "Playing Nero".


Pottery Take Us Deep Into the Funky and Absurd on 'Welcome to Bobby's Motel'

With Welcome to Bobby's Motel, Pottery have crafted songs to cleanse your musical pallet and keep you firmly on the tips of your toes.


Counterbalance 23: Bob Dylan - 'Blood on the Tracks'

Bob Dylan makes his third appearance on the Acclaimed Music list with his 1975 album, Blood on the Tracks. Counterbalance’s Eric Klinger and Jason Mendelsohn are planting their stories in the press.


Luke Cissell Creates Dreamy, Electronic Soundscapes on the Eclectic 'Nightside'

Nightside, the new album from composer and multi-instrumentalist Luke Cissell, is largely synthetic and electronic but contains a great deal of warmth and melody.


Bibio Discusses 'Sleep on the Wing' and Why His Dreams Are of the Countryside

"I think even if I lived in the heart of Tokyo, I'd still make music that reminds people of the countryside because it's where my dreams often take me," says Bibio (aka Stephen Wilkinson) of his music and his new rustic EP.

Reading Pandemics

Pandemic, Hope, Defiance, and Protest in 'Romeo and Juliet'

Shakespeare's well known romantic tale Romeo and Juliet, written during a pandemic, has a surprisingly hopeful message about defiance and protest.


A Family Visit Turns to Guerrilla Warfare in 'The Truth'

Catherine Deneuve plays an imperious but fading actress who can't stop being cruel to the people around her in Hirokazu Koreeda's secrets- and betrayal-packed melodrama, The Truth.


The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.