A Strange and Brilliant Light by Eli Lee – Book Review

Title: A Strange and Brilliant Light (review copy)

Author: Eli Lee

Genre: Speculative Fiction, Drama, Science Fiction

Blurb from NetGalley

A riveting, thought-provoking speculative literary novel exploring the impact of the AI revolution through the eyes of three very different young women.

Lal, Janetta and Rose are living in a time of flux. Technological advance has brought huge financial rewards to those with power, but large swathes of the population are losing their jobs to artificial intelligence, or auts, as they’re called. Unemployment is high, discontent is rife and rumours are swirling. Many feel robbed – not just of their livelihoods, but of their hopes for the future.

Lal is languishing in her role at a coffee shop and feeling overshadowed by her quietly brilliant sister, Janetta, whose Ph.D. is focused on making auts empathetic. Even Rose, Lal’s best friend, has found a sense of purpose in charismatic up-and-coming politician Alek.

When vigilantes break in to the coffee shop and destroy their new coffee-making aut, it sets in motion a chain of events that will pull the three young women in very different directions.

Change is coming – change that will launch humankind into a new era. If Rose, Lal and Janetta can find a way to combine their burgeoning talents, they might just end up setting the course of history.

My Review

A Strange and Brilliant Light is an utterly fascinating debut novel by Eli Lee. It’s a bold piece of speculative fiction that explores the potential impacts of an AI revolution on humanity on numerous levels but primarily on that of corporate economics and the financial survival of the common people. 

The story follows three distinctly different female characters through whom we see the unfolding realities of AI overtaking everyday humanity.

Lal is quite the simplistic dreamer. She just wants to provide for her family and please people at large… but this desire seems to be driven by a deep rooted sense of inadequacy and a soul crushing lack of self worth. All her life she’s felt herself to be in her academically gifted sister’s shadow. And it’s this feeling of being less than that drives her away from the realities of life on the ground and into the world of serving a corporate master that has ramifications for the livelihoods of her family and friends. 

Janetta is Lal’s academically gifted sister. And although she and Lal are the proverbial chalk and cheese in terms of their personalities, Janetta like Lal is also a simplistic dreamer… but her dreams are very different. They’re driven by her belief that AI should be created to have emotions. To be empathetic. She believes that AI (or auts as they are known in this novel) will inevitable gain individual consciousness and to prevent the worst from happening, ie AI becoming humanity’s overlords and/or destroying human life, then efforts must be made to ensure that when this happens that AI understand emotion and feelings which will hopefully give them a respect for all life. 

And then there is Rose, Lal’s best friend. Rose is a wannabe freedom fighter. She wants to revolt against the corporate greed that is rolling out this AI technology as auts are designed to take over practically every job including hers. She comes from a family of union members and gets embroiled with high brow ideals about a utopian society of sorts (a fascinating concept called Source Gain)… but deep in her heart she isn’t sure if this is the right way to go about things and spends the whole novel trying to discern what it is she should do and how to fight the good fight…

And it’s through the interwoven lives of these three female characters that we see this AI driven society take hold and the devastating impacts it has. 

I really enjoyed this novel. Admittedly I found it a little bit difficult to sink my teeth into it at the start… I did feel a little lost by the myriad of characters at the beginning and found it tricky to remember who was who… but by about 25% in I was utterly enthralled by the storyline. 

I liked how the three main characters were very different. They were certainly deeply flawed characters… and in Lal’s case that made her quite difficult to empathise with; she was definitely the character I struggled with the most as I did get very frustrated with her attitudes and how she got sucked down the corporate path… but conversely that frustration made me all the more eager to see how her storyline would pan out. 

Janetta was my favourite of the three characters. She was such a dreamer and had this almost innocent and naive quality to her… but then she was also capable of these great moments of insight and deep wisdom which made for rather satisfying storytelling. 

Rose to me was the character that glued the whole novel together. She was the one that it was easy to relate to because she was angry about how life was getting more and more difficult for the poor and underprivileged, and was also the character that seemed to be the only one actively trying to make a change. 

Overall this was a very smart book. It’s a little more on the literary side of science / speculative fiction so it’s not one for those sci fi action seeking readers who like thrills and spills on every page. This is a much more quiet read. But it’s incredibly thought provoking as it explores not just the moral aspect of creating artificial intelligence but also theorises about the economic and social impacts on society at large that an AI revolution could potentially cause. Plus it’s got a killer ending so the pay off for the languid pace of the novel is really and truly worth it. 


*An e-copy was kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley for honest review*

Publishing 22nd July 2021, Jo Fletcher Books (Quercus)

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