Dark Constellations, by Pola Oloixarac

I finished reading Pola Oloixarac’s Dark Constellations (translated by Roy Kesey) a few hours ago and I’m still not sure what I read. This work of science fiction blends ideas from cutting edge computer science, botany, virology, anthropology and much more into a whirlwind of ideas. I don’t fault the translator or the author for my lack of comprehension; I am not smart enough to understand this book.

This bewildering novel begins in 1882, with a trip to a South American island full of people, flora, and fauna that fuel the most exciting tales of exploration. A member of that expedition, Dutch botanist Niklas Bruun, is inspired to theorize all kinds of symbiotic wonders that make others wonder if Bruun is off his trolley. Then we jump to 1982, for the birth of hacker superstar Cassio, who later works for a company that attempts to create an algorithm that can make sense of DNA and surveillance data now collected across Latin America and the world. In 2024, Piera, a biologist who worked on a DNA surveillance tool called Bionose, joins Cassio and the company he works for. She asks Cassio a few points questions that make him wonder about the implications of the algorithm he’s helping to build.

This is about as much as I understand about Dark Constellations. The novel takes tangents to hint at the possibilities of interconnectedness between humans, plants, viruses, and other species. In another novel, this might have been fodder for a techno-utopia where humans worldwide finally develop an eco-conscience and work to stop climate change, pollution, and extinctions. Instead, there are what I saw as missed opportunities (at least until the end of the book) where Cassio and his intellectual predecessors should have been thinking about the consequences of their actions. I have been wary of algorithms since reading Algorithms of Oppression, by Safiya Umoja Noble. The characters in Cassio’s timeline note that law and ethics haven’t kept pace with technology, but they see this as a good thing. They can let their imaginations run wild to create things. The bad news for the rest of us is that they don’t consider privacy, consent, or civil rights of all the people who are unwittingly becoming data points for corporations.

More than once I felt like a luddite who just couldn’t encompass the grand vision of the company Cassio works for. What if I was just being a stick in the mud? But then, so many of the characters in this book sound just like Mr. Hammond and his scientists from Jurassic Park. Aside from Piera, there is no one to check their grand visions, to ask very important questions about the ramifications of their data mining. Which brings me back around to what I don’t understand about this book: what is it trying to say about the roles and responsibilities of technology? Bruun, Cassio, and their fellow scientists are unethical in the sense that they don’t even stop to think about ethics. They are not terribly sympathetic characters and I couldn’t admire them. On the other hand, the ideas about symbiosis are described in enchanting, sometimes literally glowing terms. Perhaps the next phase for humanity is to join with other species on our planet to create something new and magical? I just can’t figure this book out.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

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