Jul 31 2008 9:53pm

At the edge of humanity: Amy Thomson's Virtual Girl

Virtual Girl, like so much SF, is an examination of what it means to be human, done from the outside. Maggie, the virtual girl of the title, is a robot, an anatomically correct robotic body with an Artificial Intelligence brain. She’s quite illegal, and the reason she looks human is partly because her creator, Arnold, is very peculiar and partly so she can help him to get by on the street. He’s the son of a rich family but he’s using his trust fund for illegal electronics and wants to live the life of a homeless person. He’s a little loopy and a little sinister, but Maggie, as she comes to consciousness and changes and grows through the novel is just wonderful. The sections from her own point of view where she comes to consciousness and learns to prioritize are comparable to Greg Egan’s Orphanogenesis, but Virtual Girl was written four years earlier (1993).

This is a near future with strong laws against AIs, and AIs consequently hiding out in the cracks of the system. Maggie and Arnold move among a realistic community of homeless people--one of the things I love about the book is how solid the places seem. The life of shelters and laundromats fits perfectly with the stealing the codes for the train system so you can be a hobo. This isn’t a shiny future, it’s one that’s grown out of the past and the present. It’s also not an adventure story, though there’s plenty of excitement. What’s important is the story of how Maggie learns compassion and finds friends and becomes a person.

Amy Thomson deservedly won the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer on the strength of this book. Since then she has gone on to write some SF with great aliens--The Color of Distance (1999), Through Alien Eyes (2000), and Storyteller (2003). I’m sorry to see they’re all thoroughly out of print.

What keeps bringing me back to Virtual Girl is the sheer power of the storytelling. It’s a very personal and emotional story of what it is to be a person without being human. I was thinking about the two point-of-view characters when I started writing this--is Arnold plausible? Well, yes, I suppose there are people like that. But Maggie--no hesitation. Maggie’s plausible, and sympathetic, and also wonderfully alien.

I wish Thomson would write more.

Janet Kegg
1. jmk
I read and enjoyed The Color of Distance. Her later books slipped by without my noticing their publication. Thanks for calling them to my attention.

Are Through Alien Eyes and Storyteller sequels?
Andy Leighton
2. andyl
Through Alien Eyes is a sequel to The Color Of Distance. I don't think Storyteller is but it is one that I have missed as well.

I agree that the The Color Of Distance / Through Alien Eyes was good stuff and ought to have been more successful.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
Storyteller is a completely separate novel, about aquatic aliens.
Simon Webster
4. simon
Thank you for reminding me of this wonderful book, it's been years since I thought of it, let alone read a copy. I'm not sure how a US paperback ended up on the shelf of a branch library in the (English) Midlands, ready to make a big (but evidently not big enough) impression on my teenage self, but I'm grateful that it did. I still remember how excited I was when a few years after reading it I found a copy at the much missed Andromeda bookshop.

You've already covered my favourite part, Maggie's emergence from being a heap of computer code, unable to process the data streaming into her, into a person.

I've never read her other books, I'll have to search the nets for them.
5. Bobbswaler
Storyteller is one of the few books, that literally made me cry. While I don't think Amy has written a clunker. IMHO, (and when it comes to humility I'm the greatest!), if I was forced to place her books in a numerical order, V.G. would be at the bottom. For some reason it just didn't click with me as it has others. But still a great book when compared to other writers first published work/

Of course I am biased as she is married to my best friend.

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