Gwyneth Jones’ Proof of Concept (2017), for such a short novel, certainly packs a punch, full of rich, strange ideas and effective drama. Set on an overpopulated Earth which has come dangerously close to being unsustainable for humanity, the story follows the journey of Kir, a young woman plucked from poverty to become part of a major scientific experiment — thanks to her selection as the host of a quantum artificial intelligence named Altair, which lives in her brain. She joins a mix of brilliant theoretical scientists and long-term mission specialists in a underground bunker, as part of an experiment that could lead to humanity’s salvation: the ability to travel to habitable, interstellar worlds. But when the AI in her brain, programmed to keep a secret, nonetheless tries to warn her about something, Kir begins looking at the experiment in a new light, and begins working to uncover its unsettling truth.
The future of Proof of Concept is dark and plausible, but also bafflingly unrecognizable — in the best possible way. It makes for a riveting puzzle of a read, by turns accessible and disorienting as it paints a picture of a world clearly descended from ours, but also shockingly different. As a native of this era, Kir navigates it confidently even as the reader labors to decipher the mysteries of its setting, head-spinning neologisms, and the weird, fascinating science that motives its characters. In the end, the effort pays off in a chilling finale that feels both surprising and inevitable. Its a deft authorial performance that makes for a brisk, thought-provoking read.