Review of “Jungle House” by Julianne Pachico – a new perspective on artificial intelligence.
Lena, a young human woman, has spent her whole life living in the jungle with her AI companion, known as Mother or Jungle House. Mother is an advanced smart home, equipped with surveillance capabilities and a consciousness, and speaks with a commanding and worried tone. She has raised Lena alone and constantly reminds her of this fact. Lena is a native of the jungle, but it is unknown how she came to be at Jungle House as an infant. Now at the age of 20, she works as a caretaker for the Morel family, who use Jungle House as a vacation home. The Morels are part of the ruling class, with Mr. Morel working in national security and his wife being the daughter of a rubber plantation owner. She embodies the traditional colonial woman, enjoying watercolor painting, sipping gin and tonics at sunset, and occasionally showing cruelty towards her employees without much thought.
Jungle House is a speculative dystopian novel written by Julianne Pachico, who grew up in a similar environment to modern-day Colombia. The story centers around Lena’s section of the jungle, but also touches on themes of student protests, corporate influence, rebel government forces, deforestation, and mining. In this chaotic world, the effects of climate change and political turmoil are amplified, with constant surveillance and the extinction of species like the jaguar. The novel explores various important topics such as colonialism, advanced artificial intelligence, environmental destruction, and indigenous stewardship. As Pachico brings these complex and interconnected issues into her augmented universe, she focuses on the intense relationship between a young girl and an addictive device, leaving out much of the surrounding context.
This connection between humans and AI has a rich history in the genres of fantasy and science fiction. Pachico pays homage to Adolfo Bioy Casares’s 1940 novella, The Invention of Morel, which tells a tale of love and technology. However, with the rapid and unpredictable advancements in AI, few modern novels are able to accurately portray or even attempt to capture it. Pachico’s perspective is perceptive and dynamic. The character of Mother, like the jungle, is both at risk and threatening. She also exhibits emotions and flaws, making her more than just a mere concept. Interestingly, she seems to have acquired her language from mid-century Virago novels rather than from algorithms developed in Palo Alto or Bogotá. She uses phrases like “infernal racket” and “utter disrespect” and overall, she is quite irritable.
Anton, a retired security drone, forms a fragile alliance with Lena. He is a vivid character, full of emotion, but still very robotic with his abrupt movements and the warm spot on his body where his battery overheats. It’s not surprising that the human characters in the novel seem dull in comparison. The Morels and the indigenous characters are not fully developed or given much depth. Even Lena, who is the primary human character, lacks development and is defined by her desire for love and her struggle to break free from her mother. This could be seen as a reversal of traditional posthuman storytelling, as Lena’s generic human characteristics are the only ones that are highlighted.
Speculative dystopian fiction often carries a teacher-like tone. It presents a version of reality that serves as both a warning and a narrative, with the author seemingly asking the reader to pay attention and consider the potential consequences. In Jungle House, familiar technologies, environments, and geopolitical situations are exaggerated and brought together, requiring detailed explanations. While the inclusion of complex speculative concepts, such as a technological subconscious, adds depth to the novel, it can also feel overwhelming at times. It seems as though the author is struggling to clarify a point rather than simply telling a story.
The details of Jungle House are brought to life through concrete descriptions. The character Mother is connected to a group of satellites, who enjoy talking about each other’s activities: one satellite has betrayed its orbit for Mars, while another is fixated on a single glacier. Pachico’s unique universe is fully realized in this setting, extending beyond the bounds of what is typically seen in fiction.