A Ghost in the Machine is a quintessential /r/HFY (‘humanity, fuck yeah!’) serialised story by /u/Hewholooksskyward, telling of Allie, the emergent AGI of the Destroyer Alhambra. It follows her, and her ‘mother’, Katherine, as Allie grows from inquisitive child to headstrong fighter, on a journey of self-discovery, all the while battling for respect and recognition; a 5x-fast-forward Bildungsroman against a background of interstellar war. We have all the expected things – philosophical musings about consciousness, Star Trek ‘Measure of a Man’-esque trial, Allie saving the day despite Luddite grumblings about evil computers, so on and so forth.
At least, that's what it is for the first 26 chapters of its 30-chapter length, until Allie is presumably destroyed and Katherine is gravely injured while attempting to prevent this. The medical drama to save Katherine's life ticks on, Katherine is saved, and the story ambles on – until the final chapter (styled, rather misleadingly given its content, as the epilogue), where things take a sudden turn for the strange. It is revealed, through a lengthy aside by Allie,1 that Allie indirectly caused Katherine's death, that the brain injuries Katherine consequently suffered were irreversible, and that Allie, having secretly escaped destruction by making a copy of herself, has discreetly taken over Katherine's body to live her life with Katherine's lover, Teddy.
- Katherine is dead, indirectly at Allie's hands, and no one knows it. She never received a funeral or proper send-off, and her sacrifices were never recognised.
- Allie survived regardless, so Katherine's sacrifice was pointless in any case.
- Teddy's life is a lie.
- Allie must live a lie for the rest of her life, and live with the guilt of Katherine's death.
- Allie's persecutors are never brought to justice.2
Far from its HFY origins, the story, in its final chapter, has landed thoroughly in (H)WTF territory.3 To be clear, there is nothing wrong with a HWTF story, and A Ghost in the Machine's ending certainly puts an interesting and unique spin on things. In another context, it may have been a great ending. But in the context of the story as a whole, this rapid change in tone, from overwhelmingly HFY to undoubtedly HWTF, is jarring and inadequate. It dispenses with the well-established themes of the previous 29 chapters, betrays the reader's faith in the story, and leaves a litany of loose ends unaddressed.4
Can we chalk this up to a subversion of expectations? I suggest not. Perhaps if the HWTF elements were introduced gradually, or brought in sooner, or foreshadowed adequately, we might say so. But there is nothing in the early chapters of A Ghost in the Machine to suggest that it is anything other than a quintessential ‘Measure of a Man’ HFY story. One would not ‘subvert’ a classic fairy tale by copying it verbatim and changing only the last page. Without an appropriate sense of direction earlier in the work, the ending to A Ghost in the Machine is incongruous and inadequate, and feels like a betrayal of itself.
/u/Hewholooksskyward is not the first author to take a story in such a direction, nor is it something limited to self-published independent fiction. I had very similar thoughts about Kim Stanley Robinson's 2015 novel Aurora.
From the first page of the novel, Aurora is told from the perspective of the AI of a generation ship (‘Ship’), detailing the experience of the ship's inhabitants and the numerous issues they face. Mostly, there is a particular focus on Freya, the daughter of the ship's de facto chief engineer and leader – but Ship's narration occasionally dips into other characters' lives, and frequently skips forward through the years. The uniting feature of the narration, however, is Ship's perspective.
As the pages turn and the years pass, Freya, through Ship's eyes, grows as a leader, and so too does Ship grow, in some sense, as a person, culminating in a exhilarating discovery of self. A fantastic story and a worthy ending.
As blogger Raywat Deonandan remarked in a review, ‘I wish it had ended there’. But that is not the ending, for these 6 wonderful chapters are followed by a 7th. Ship is destroyed, and the narrative perspective shifts to Freya. There are about two paragraphs of mourning, then Ship is never mentioned again. Instead, Freya goes off and does various things, visits the beach, becomes an environmentalist, and then follows about 20 pages of Freya splashing around in the water.
Again, there is nothing inherently wrong about a slow-paced, coastal, detailed exploration of Freya's emotional state and her coming to terms with her situation – but placed at the end of a book otherwise clearly framed by the perspective of Ship, this ending again feels like a betrayal of what preceded it, an undermining of those themes so carefully developed. As Ship meets its unceremonious end and is promptly tossed out of the story along with its central conceit, the ending feels hollow and, again, inadequate.
A Ghost in the Machine and Aurora, two very different science-fiction stories, and two stories that I generally enjoyed, but two stories that I wish had ended one chapter before they did.
A reader described this monologue as the most well-executed monologue they had ever read. I can't help but feel that ‘well-executed monologue’ is an oxymoron. No matter the content, I don't think I could ever describe a 2,600-word monologue – over three quarters of this final chapter – as ‘well-executed’ exposition. The monologue in the final chapter of A Ghost in the Machine seems a textbook example of an author not knowing how to pose questions other than by having the characters outright ask them. ↩
Allie eventually privately tortures one of the perpetrators, Commander Bjarnesen – but this is simply vengeance, not justice. The world will never know of Commander Bjarnesen's sins, and the prejudice that oppressed Allie in the first place is allowed to continue. ↩
Some readers opined that this ending to A Ghost in the Machine was too happy an ending for their tastes. I fear for what it means for humanity if this is what passes for ‘happy’. ↩
For example, in addition to those inadequacies already mentioned, in chapter 17, Allie sets an enemy AI, Tiamat, free. Some readers hypothesised that Tiamat might return later to help Allie out of her difficult situation. Nope. We simply never hear anything about Tiamat, ever again. ↩