The Archive Undying – Artificial Limbo

Today, I get to review one of my most anticipated books of the year, which is always very exciting. The Archive Undying, by Emma Mieko Candon, is one of those rare books that I don’t know if I recommend. The novel has clear strengths and weaknesses, but the way the scale tips will depend on what kind of reader you are. Are you excited by challenges and alternative narratives and blurred lines? Or are you someone frustrated by having to put an enormous amount of work into your hobby? How you answer that question will determine if this book is for you.

Archive takes place in a world run by enormous mecha-sized AIs that control city-states in line with their different prerogatives. These cities exist as almost religious movements for their AIs, with the “priests” being individuals who are partially integrated with the AIs. Or rather, this is what the world used to look like. At the time that the book takes place almost every one of these AI behemoths has fallen. Some sort of unknown virus caused the AIs to explosively collapse, one after another, often taking their city with them. Now the world is an industrial wasteland populated by horrifying shards of these old AI that survived the fall. 

Our protagonist is Sunai, a priest of the fallen AI God Khuon Mo. For the seventeen years since Khuon Mo’s death, Sunai has walked the land like a ghost, unable to die, unable to age, and unable to forget the horrors he’s seen. He’s run as far as he can from the wreckage of his faith, drowning himself in drink, drugs, and men. But, when a team of individuals approaches him with claims that they have seen a resurrected Khuon Mo, Sunai senses his endless wandering may have come to an end and goes to investigate.

This book is the rare kind of story that starts off hard to understand and gets more difficult with every page. You are thrown into the deep end of The Archive Undying and left to find your way to the surface. As soon as you find yourself treading, Candon starts introducing new ideas, characters, concepts, and delivery. The book focuses a lot on the idea of merged consciousness and being a part of a greater whole. Accordingly, the narrative delivery begins to blur and blend the perspective and narration of different POVs in the story and intentionally obfuscates what is happening to simulate the confusion and mental collapse of its characters. It makes the book very original if you are into that sort of thing, but it is certainly not an easy read.

The other thing is I don’t know if the work is worth it. In many ways, the prize at the center of the maze of Archive is the maze itself. I didn’t have some sort of epiphany when I got to the center of the book, the themes and ideas of the story are very clearly worn on its shoulder all the way through, and the narrative feels challenging for the sake of being challenging. It made me feel old and tired and crotchety, but it might be that it brought out my latent flaws lingering under the surface. Like a dummy, I wanted there to be some sort of prize at the end of this quest and I feel like I was just rewarded with more puzzles.

On the other hand, while I struggled with the unique narrative, I was besotted with the world and characters. Candon has made a world that science fiction fans will love to wander, filled with Gundam-sized AI’s wither eccentric themes and charismatic personalities. These AI are portrayed as morally grey/neutral, but the giant robot lover in me couldn’t help but squeal over every flashback to what these AI once were. Digging up and recovering the past is another big theme of the story, and one the reader feels flood their mind when they are shown glimpses of the heydays of these mecha-cities. The AIs manage to feel both cleverly designed with layers of poetic symbolism and satisfy my lizard brain’s desire to see giant robots that smash.

Although the book primarily focuses on the unique experience of Sunai, we are also treated to a plethora of supporting characters, some of which are also POVs. Everyone is connected to the AI gods in some way, and most are connected to Khuon Mo. These connections are varied as each of the supporting cast served different roles in the giant machine that were these cult city-states, and everyone has different opinions on the positives and negatives of a return to the old days. This does wonders to flesh out the complicated and nuanced situation Sunai finds himself in and provides him with many foils and mirrors to hold up and reflect on. There is also a romance that takes up a good portion of the story that feels simultaneously touching and unearned. While I really liked the sentiment behind the many romantic gestures between Sunai and this second character, I never really understood or bought why these two characters were in love other than convenience for the plot.

The Archive Undying has a lot of ups and downs that make giving it a blanket yes/no recommendation difficult. It is certainly one of the most unique stories this year, both in substance and style. But it is also a book that felt a little too much like a job and I don’t need a second place of employment. I am very glad this book exists, and I think Emma Candon is an excellent writer, but I don’t know if I had a good time.

Rating: The Archive Undying – 7.5/10

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An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.

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