by Helen Patterson
Emily Eternal is author M.G. Wheaton’s debut speculative novel about an artificial consciousness named Emily who is “growing up” as the world ends.
In Emily Eternal, Earth is in the middle of a global, unsolvable crisis: the sun is shifting from an Earth-friendly yellow dwarf to a life-destroying red giant. This eventual fate of our sun is not surprising; scientists predict this will happen in about 5 billion years. However, in Emily Eternal the predictions were wrong: Earth has months left and, despite the ingenuity and intelligence of humans, our delicate bodies are not built for space travel or the varied conditions of other worlds, and we don’t have the resources or the technology for large-scale colonization.
Emily has been designed to help people recover from traumatic experiences through algorithm-driven therapy that allows patients to achieve closure by facing their painful memories. However, she has the capacity to do more than she ever imagined, and she and her team are given an assignment by the president of the United States: make digital copies of the entire human race—DNA, memories, neural maps, everything that comprises an “individual”—to be sent into space in a digital ark. Emily is faced with an existentially terrifying question: is this plan the best way to save the human species or will it dehumanize it completely?
Wheaton did a great deal of research to create characters with a wide variety of backgrounds and specialties, making this world authentic. For the most part, I found the reasoning and the science sound. Many things seemed far-fetched or a stretch of the imagination, but technology moves so quickly, especially in the face of such pressures as the end of all life, that the plot still felt possible to me. However, there were a few key moments in the novel, especially those involving theories regarding human evolution on the individual level, which came across as implausible. These moments made me skeptical and pulled me out of the narrative.
Emily Eternal isn’t a perfect book, but it is a very human one—it made me think more about what it means to be a human being, to belong to the species homo sapiens, than anything I’ve read for the past few months. Reading this book, seeing through Emily’s eyes, gave me a strange kind of optimism about humanity and what we might be capable of—despite all the horrors and cruelties we commit on a daily basis. It is a brave book, tackling a complicated subject in myriad novel ways, ultimately coming across as a philosophical thriller. We don’t have an Emily to save us, as far as I know, and perhaps we never will, but maybe we can learn how to save ourselves.
Originally hailing from Colorado, Helen Patterson is a graduate of The University of Tulsa. She works at the Tulsa City-County Library, writes literary horror, and loves a wonderful Okie boy.