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. The effort pays off in a chilling finale that feels both surprising and inevitable. It’s a deft authorial performance that makes for a brisk, thought-provoking read.