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.