Set in the world of tech businesses, Tahmima Anam’s new novel, The Startup Wife, follows Asha Ray, a computer scientist who abandons her PhD at Harvard and sets up a social media app called WAI (We Are Infinite). This “church/Facebook mash up” offers users religiously-inflected rituals to find connections and form communities based on “what gives life meaning.” It looks to how technology can hold humanity together (the plot closes in a Covid-19-like setting). The result is The Social Network meets Frankenstein.
Utilising her husband Cyrus’s spiritual knowledge—once her high-school crush, he now performs secular “rituals” for non-religious people—she creates the “Empathy Module”: an algorithm designed to “unlock the empathetic brain for artificial intelligence.”
WAI is a hit. Overnight, Cyrus goes from “humanist spirit guide” to the “new Messiah.” Although his four-point manifesto claims “We don’t sell our souls (we don’t sell anything),” the WAI makes him a huge success.
Meanwhile, sidelined from the boardroom and her brainchild, Asha realises that she can’t build a code to fix her marriage—let alone humanity. “Sometimes being right is worse than being wrong,” she says, spiralling towards the dramatic ending.
The author asks some big questions: what happens when ambition goes awry, when money and fame come before your marriage and morals? When technology becomes menacing and monstrous—and turns against its creators? When you’re a woman of colour smashing glass ceilings in a rich man’s world—but also constantly dealing with being stereotyped?
Anam’s prose is erudite and bursting with bold humour. It satirises the male-dominated tech industry and the self-perpetuating and unequal systems that fuel its power. At its heart, though, this is a story about ways of loving—innocently and unthinkingly, then selfishly and obsessively.
“People need to hold onto something,” Asha says, in the early days. Who—or what—we choose to hold onto, and at what cost, makes all the difference.
The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam (Canongate, £14.99)