The Startup Wife – Tahmima Anam

A satire on the world of tech startups, with some feminism thrown in. The book holds its pace well but misses to gain depth in all the rush. Good entertainment with loftier ambitions. 

Another of the Books that Matter acquisitions to join Beautiful World Where Are You – Sally Rooney, The Inland Sea – Madeleine Watts, Skin – E.M. Reapy, Weather – Jenny Offill and How Much of These Hills Are Gold by C Pam Zhang. I’m really making progress 🙂

Asha Ray is a programmer, coming from a family of Bengali pharmacy owners. She had a high school crush on cool and aloof Cyril, but moved on with her life and finally grew into herself in college and at MIT. Only to meet Cyril again at a wake for a high school teacher.

It turns out Cyril is now a spiritual guru, unattached to any religion. Offering people who abandoned religion a new form of spiritual rituals that match their values and needs, without the burdensome institution. With Asha now a lot more confident Cyril takes note and an insta-affair ensues. This was the part I had a really hard time buying into, their feelings magically explode, but really we don’t find out much about Cyril as a person, other than he was shaken by his mother’s death and basically refuses to grow up and face the world. Instead, he is staying within the nebulous spiritual space, sharing his vast knowledge of hte traditions with others. And to me looking very presumptuous in the process.

Nonetheless living with Cyril and his Wasp friend Jules Asha comes up with an idea. She is working on an ‘empathy module’ for AI as part of her PhD. She thinks if we can equip AI with empathy it will really become the better version of the human mind, it will not fail where we do. Not to mention empathic AI would be incapable of being a danger. But her PhD seems to be stalling so she channels her energy into using what she has of the emphatic module and combining it with what Cyril is doing to create a spiritual platform. A new type of social platform, that will gather people looking for meaning and connect them based on their values. While also proposing bespoke rituals based on their answers to some questions. 

The weird thing is that it doesn’t even sound that crazy, in today’s world we crave spirituality and the religions of the world don’t seem to be up to the challenge of evolving with us. So Asha and Jules pitch their idea to Utopia, a tech incubator in New York. And they are successful.

The way they develop the startup is a flurry of all-nighters, weird meetings and schmoozing. But what is interesting is the concept of Utopia, because this is where Anam lets her imagination loose, the ideas of other startups in the incubator are this borderline crazy, where they do in fact answer a need, but in an unexpected way. Social media life after death is not beyond imagination now, neither is a vape that you use to inhale oxygen, there’s also a few end-of-the-civilization ideas. 

However the crux of the book is that the more the company grows, the larger role Cyril plays. Cyril who was reluctant to join and almost refused initially starts basking in the adulation of the masses. And if he was a bit nebulous to start with now he becomes an outright ugly, self-righteous ass. And somewhere along the way, Asha managed to marry him, and he was also made the CEO of the company that was based on her idea and code.

You kind of see where this is going. And it’s not that what happens doesn’t ring true, it does. But it is as if the satire ate the meaning for breakfast here. Anam has something to tell us and the way Asha matures emotionally is believable. What I wasn’t buying was the premise of the affair in the first place.

It is a witty and funny book with darker undertones, if it aimed at changing the world it failed. If it is aimed at entertaining us and on the way highlighting some issues then it is in a way successful.

Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska

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