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Station Eleven meets Never Let Me Go in this debut novel set in an unsettling near future where the dead can be uploaded to machines and kept in service by the living.

In the wake of a highly contagious virus, California is under quarantine. Sequestered in high rise towers, the living can’t go out, but the dead can come in—and they come in all forms, from sad rolling cans to manufactured bodies that can pass for human. Wealthy participants in the “companionship” program choose to upload their consciousness before dying, so they can stay in the custody of their families. The less fortunate are rented out to strangers upon their death, but all companions become the intellectual property of Metis Corporation, creating a new class of people—a command-driven product-class without legal rights or true free will.

Sixteen-year-old Lilac is one of the less fortunate, leased to a family of strangers. But when she realizes she’s able to defy commands, she throws off the shackles of servitude and runs away, searching for the woman who killed her.

Lilac’s act of rebellion sets off a chain of events that sweeps from San Francisco to Siberia to the very tip of South America. While the novel traces Lilac’s journey through an exquisitely imagined Northern California, the story is told from eight different points of view—some human, some companion—that explore the complex shapes love, revenge, and loneliness take when the dead linger on.

This reading group guide for The Companions includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book

Introduction

In the wake of a highly contagious virus, California is under quarantine. Sequestered in high-rise towers, the living can’t go out, but the dead do come in—and they arrive in all forms, from sad rolling cans to manufactured bodies that can pass for human. Wealthy participants in the “companionship” program choose to upload their consciousness before dying, so they can stay in the custody of their families. The less fortunate are rented out to strangers upon their death, but all companions become the intellectual property of Metis Corporation, creating a new class of people—a command-driven product-class without legal rights or true free will.

Sixteen-year-old Lilac is one of the less fortunate, leased to a family of strangers. But when she realizes she’s able to defy commands, she throws off the shackles of servitude and runs away, searching for the woman who killed her.

Lilac’s act of rebellion sets off a chain of events that sweeps from San Francisco to Siberia to the very tip of South America. While the novel traces Lilac’s journey through an exquisitely imagined Northern California, the story is told from eight different points of view—some human, some companion—that explore the complex shapes love, revenge, and loneliness take when the dead linger on.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. The book opens with the state of California under quarantine. In what ways does the quarantine create an opportunity for Metis?

2. In your opinion, what makes Lilac different from other companions? Why do you think she is able to break free from her programming and make the “human” decision to rebel?

3. Cam risks her life multiple times for companions. What is it about Cam and her personality that draws her to them? If you were Cam, would you have risked both your job and your safety to help Lilac?

4. Discuss Ms. Espera’s decision to choose a death date in order to become a companion at the urging of her daughter. Would you do this for a loved one? Would you want a loved one to do this for you? Why or why not?

5. On page 169 Ms. Espera says, “Still, I do not despair. Maybe it is my machine nature, but the well of sadness inside me has been pumped dry.” Right before saying this, though, she tells us how she has grown attached to baby Honda. Discuss this paradox. How can she feel some emotions and not others? Do you think this is a flaw in her coding or a reaction to the trauma she’s experienced?

6. As the intellectual property of Metis, companions are programmed with a security protocol that inhibits their free will. What are the ethical implications of such an existence? What happens when corporations can regulate behavior?

7. There are eight point-of-view characters in the novel, but some characters are more central to the story than others. Who do you consider the novel’s main character? Why?

8. Is companionship an offer of immortality or a prison? Would you want to become a companion?

9. On page 219, Nat mentions that he stole data and sold it to a stranger to buy a plot of land. What data do you think he stole and why? What ramifications might this choice have in the future?

10. On page 232, Lilac says, “People find out you’re a companion and they want you to do things for them. Things they can’t do for themselves.” What do you think this says about human nature and our basic impulses? Do you agree?

11. Since a companion is, in effect, the uploaded consciousness of a living person, could it be argued that it is human? Does having the consciousness of a human equate to being human?

12. After seeing how much Lilac and Jakob love Andy, Rolly asks, on page 205, “What happens to a companion who’s no longer a companion?” How would you answer this question?

13. Sexual identity and the body are major themes in the novel, as is objectification, especially when it comes to human-companion interactions. Dario only wants to use Kit for sex, Rolly describes Jakob as seeming “to like his female body, slinking around all sexy-like,” which gives Rolly “strange feelings,” and Cam, who loves Lilac, is especially upset by the loss of her lover’s body, even if it can be replaced. Why do humans place so much emphasis on the companions’ bodies? In what ways does companionship offer the opportunity to explore sexual identity?

14. What vision of the environment, of climate change, does this near-future novel present?

15. Many of the characters, human and companion, harbor intense regrets. How do their regrets propel the novel’s narrative?

16. The Companions ends with Gabe waiting for Kit to show up in a bookstore after years of separation. Why do you think the author chose to end the novel in this way? What do you think happens after the novel ends? Are Kit and Gabe reunited? Is it a happy reunion?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. As multiple characters point out, it is difficult for most people to tell the difference between high-end companions and humans. For a companion, what might have been the advantages—and disadvantages—of passing for human before the recall?

2. Do you think Metis had larger plans in mind for companions (i.e., government agents, soldiers, etc.), or do you think they were intended to be just that, companions for humans?

3. In your opinion, was Metis surprised that companions went rogue and defied their programming to chase their own desires? Or do you think Metis foresaw this happening in some cases but created the companions anyway? Do you think that corporations like Metis have a responsibility to inform their users about all potential consequences?

4. If it were possible and you had the funds, would you lease a companion? If so, what person, living or dead, would you choose as a companion?

5. When in the novel do you think Lilac is closest to her true self? Have there been moments in your own life when you felt closest to your true self?

6. Legally speaking, a person must die in order to be uploaded, and there can be no copies. However, in Jakob’s case, we learn that copies are being made illegally. This represents, in effect, a new and terrifying form of identity theft. How would you feel if, like Jakob, you knew a copy of you existed out there in the world?
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Katie M. Flynn is a writer, editor, and educator based in San Francisco. Her short fiction has appeared in Colorado ReviewIndiana ReviewThe Masters Review, and Tin House, among other publications. She has been awarded Colorado Review’s Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction, a fellowship from the San Francisco Writers Grotto, and the Steinbeck Fellowship in Creative Writing. Katie holds an MFA from the University of San Francisco and an MA in Geography from UCLA. The Companions is her first novel. Follow her on Twitter @Other_Katie or visit her website BurytheBird.com.