Review of “You Have Arrived at Your Destination” by Amor Towles

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This is a science fiction novelette published by Amazon Original Stories in September of 2019, part of the Forward Collection edited by Blake Crouch. Towles is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow. The story runs 46 pages. This review contains major spoilers.

Sam and his wife Annie are investigating the possibility of conceiving a child with the help of Vitek, a fertility lab. Sam has an appointment with Dr. Gerhardt, who explains how the firm’s genetic engineering options might influence the life of the couple’s projected son. With the help of Sam’s wife, Gerhardt’s staff has prepared three possible scenarios of how their child might live out his life. Disturbed after the appointment, Sam begins to reconsider the way he’s lived his own life. Instead of meeting Annie, he stops at a bar, The Glass Half Full, where he gets drunk and confides what’s going on to the bartender Nick and his new friend Beezer. Beezer thinks Vitek is a division of Raytheon (the defense contractor). Sam has already provided a sample for Vitek, and he’s two hours late and now he’s really in trouble. He tries to reach Annie, but he can’t, so he goes back to Vitek and bangs on the door. Can he get his sample back?

There’s a certain amount of symbolism in this work, and some social commentary. It jumps around quite a bit, like it doesn’t know quite what it wants to accomplish, from Gerhardt explaining how conforming to societal expectations is so important, to the disturbing life scenarios, to Sam looking back and rating his own and his father’s lives, to his growing remoteness from Annie, and finally to the revelation that Vitek might not be just a fertility clinic. The story has been marking time to get to that point, but when it gets there, it feels profound.

The plot is a bit jumbled, and I didn’t get a good feel for either the setting or the characters—but, the whole thing seems to be about ideas. When we start trusting some corporation to genetically engineer our children, what are we really going to end up with?

Four stars.

Happy Holidays!

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A Merry Christmas to those who observe it, and a happy New Year to all! Everyone please have a safe and peaceful holiday season.

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Review of “Randomize” by Andy Weir

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This is a hard SF novelette published by Amazon Original Stories in September of 2019, part of the Forward Collection edited by Blake Crouch. Weir is an award-winning writer, best known for The Martian. The novelette runs 28 pages, and this review contains spoilers.

Edwin Rutledge owns the Babylon Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, and he finds his IT guy Nick Chen has shut down the keno game. This is costing the casino millions of dollars, but Chen explains that the rollout of the Model 707 quantum computer has made it possible to analyze the pseudo random number system of the current game. Rutledge agrees to buy a new quantum computing system to counter this possibility, and sales rep Prashant Singh arrives to see to its installation. It should make the casino’s game foolproof, but Singh’s wife Sumi has a plan to crack the system. Can she carry it off?

On the positive side, this has a really solid hard SF core. Weir spends some time going through the issue of random number generation for the game and how this would change, given a really powerful computing system that could generate actual random numbers. It also illustrates characteristics of quantum particles that make for the creative plan the ultra-bright Sumi comes up with. It has a slight, humorous feel as the characters maneuver through the game, with something of a surprise twist at the end.

On the not so positive side, the personalities here are a little flat. There’s good description and color, but we don’t get much about their past or what’s going on in their heads, so they don’t really take on a lot of life. This might have been better at novella length so we could get to know the characters better, especially Sumi.

Recommended for geeks.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “The Last Conversation” by Paul Tremblay

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This is a science fiction novelette published by Amazon Original Stories in September of 2019, part of the Forward Collection edited by Blake Crouch. Tremblay is a Stoker Award winner. The story runs 56 pages, and this review contains spoilers.

You wake up in a room, feeling pain. You’ve been semi-awake for a long time, in and out of consciousness, and have memories about a house with a yellow room. A voice named Dr. Anne Kuhn tells you your immune system is compromised, and promises to take care of you. Function comes to you slowly, and Kuhn gives you a series of tasks to build up strength and muscle coordination. She reveals that in the past you were partners working at this biomedical facility, and takes you to a model of the house you remember. You get sick, and it seems you’re dying of a virus that originated at the facility. Dr. Kuhn wants you to give her permission to clone you and bring you back to life when you die. You say no, and you wake up in a room, feeling pain.

This story is circular, of course, and probably repeated numerous times. It’s written from the point of view of the ungendered subject/lab rat and so is very short on information. Kuhn says there aren’t many “blanks” left, and two other of her co-workers who survived have left the facility, but she doesn’t know what happened to them. This suggests a virus has escaped to the outside world, and Kuhn is obsessively working alone in the facility, trying to bring back someone who is important to her.

There’s not much plot or world-building here, and not much of an action line. It’s mostly experiential, as the subject/lab rat slowly progresses through Kuhn’s animation and rehab process. We get vague revelations at the end about what’s going on, but all of it remains unclear. There’s an undercurrent of tragedy, but it’s not fully expressed. I’m wondering about the point. If this is the apocalypse, why does Kuhn need any blank’s permission to clone their DNA? Who’s left to sanction her? I don’t get it.

Two and a half stars.

More on sales!

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I’ve sold another story. This one is a gothic dark fantasy about a wolf child, to be available in 2020.

“Possession” to Winter Wolf anthology, Deadman’s Tome

Also, Sensory Perceptions from Jay Henge is now available from booksellers. The link is to the Amazon listing. My story “The Mending Tool” about a lonely wife made the description in the listing. Enjoy!

Sensory Perception

Review of “Ark” by Veronica Roth

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This is a science fiction novelette published by Amazon Original Stories in September of 2019, part of the Forward Collection edited by Blake Crouch. Roth is best known as the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Divergent trilogy. The story runs 39 pages, and this review contains spoilers.

An asteroid named Finis is on the way to strike the Earth. Scientists have known this for a long time, so Earth has been evacuated. All that’s left are two Arks based at the northern and southern hemisphere seed banks, where crews of scientists are trying to catalog and preserve as many unique plant samples as possible before leaving. Samantha works at the north seed bank in Svalbard. As she works, she remembers her father. Nils Hagen has a greenhouse on the site where he cultivates orchids, and Samantha strikes up a relationship. Nils isn’t planning to evacuate, and eventually Samantha makes that same decision. But meanwhile, has she found a new species of orchid?

This is mostly experiential. As far as I can tell, it’s joy in the endless variety of plant life on earth, and how poor humans are at appreciating and recording it. There’s not much plot or world building in the story, and only Samantha seems well-defined as a character. There’s not really an action line, either, as it rambles from Samantha’s work to her memories of the past to her encounters with Hagen. I’m left with questions including: How did they manage the evacuation? Did they take all the animals with them? I gather I’m supposed to appreciate that Samantha has made a human connection in the last days of the Earth, and that the two of them share the joy of finding a new plant, but this just didn’t strike me. It feels more like a vignette than a story.

Two and a half stars.

Review of “Emergency Skin” by N.K. Jemisin

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This is a science fiction novelette published by Amazon Original Stories in September of 2019, part of the Forward Collection, edited by Blake Crouch. Jemisin is the multi-award winning author of The Broken Earth trilogy. The story runs 33 pages, and this review contains major spoilers.

An agent is sent to Earth, which the Founders of a new colony abandoned years ago. Most of the inhabitants of the new colony wear an artificial composite skin, but the Founders have promised the agent a perfect white skin and a long penis if they are successful in retrieving samples of the HeLa culture for use in life-prolonging applications. In order to monitor and direct the operation, an AI is implanted in the agent’s brain. Although the AI says the Earth is likely destroyed and the inhabitants ugly and devolved, the agent finds everything healthy and beautiful, with residents living in elevated cities that do little or no harm to the environment. The residents recognize the agent’s composite skin and readily offer samples of the HeLa culture. Intrigued, the agent activates their emergency skin, which produces a dark covering that includes “wooly” hair, and makes plans to stay with one of the Earth residents. Should they abandon their mission?

This is an experimental format, as the author writes in second person (you) and records only what the AI and the Earth residents say. This means the reader has to infer anything the agent thinks or says in return. As usual, Jemisin has set up a resonant foundation for her story. This particular one seems to be an allegory of rich whites fleeing the neighborhood while taking advantage of black contrubutions. Because of the format, there’s not much in the way of world-building, action or characterization. All that remains nebulous, second-person hearsay, and the reader has to work a bit to translate the message, which takes shape gradually as the story progresses.

HeLa is a culture of cancer cells harvested from Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman who died in 1951. The culture is apparently immortal and has been proposed for species-hood because it has a unique genome derived from both human and HPV chromosomes. It has been used for scientific and medical research since the 1950s, in important and highly profitable projects including Salk’s development of the polio vaccines. The culture has never been patented, and because of its commercial value, it remains controversial because the Lacks family has never been considered “owners” or compensated for its use.

Besides featuring the HeLa culture, Jemisin injects racism and genderism into the story by having the Founders dangle white-maleness as the sought-after reward in their culture. However, judging the difference between the worlds, the agent chooses a dark and (possibly) female skin over this, in order to better experience the culture of Earth, where getting rid of the wealthy elite has allowed the “ugly” dregs of humanity left behind to come together and save the world.

I know it’s necessary for the allegory, but there’s a fundamental inconsistency in what the Founders’ AI says. If the Founders think the Earth is in such bad shape, why have they sent an agent to look for the HeLa culture there? It lives in a science lab.

This is well executed as long as the message is seen as political commentary meant to provoke emotion. However, in real world terms, the idea of removing wealthy whites to improve the world seems simplistic. On the other hand, is Jemisin suggesting that black people need to stop lusting after whiteness and take care of things themselves? That’s a more complex subject.

Four stars.

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