Review of “Obsolescence” by Martha Wells

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This short story is based in the Murderbot universe, and appears in the anthology Take Us to a Better Place, released by Melcher Media on January 21, 2020. This review contains spoilers.

Jixy is an administrator at Kidland Station, somewhere in space. She is first alerted to a problem by screaming children, and finds, to her horror, that Greggy seems to have had a terrible accident. It’s a messy cleanup job, and worse, it looks like some of his components have been stolen. Greggy was a retired exploration rover, an early version of a human-machine construct, who was working at Kidland Station in a second career as a teaching assistant. Suspecting that Greggy might have been attacked by an unauthorized visitor, Jixy puts the station in emergency mode and orders a search of the module. It’s a scary situation, as everybody remembers stories of raiders that attack people to steal their prostheses and augments. Can Jixy find whoever is responsible before they strike again?

On the positive side, this story follows up on information we’ve gotten from Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series. One reason that Murderbot tries so hard to blend in with the human population is that it’s concerned about being identified as a rogue construct without any rights, which would be fair game for a chop shop gang. Murderbot also mentions the exploration rovers as an early example of human-bot constructs. Generally these were people who had suffered some highly debilitating accident and were offered the chance for reconstruction to help establish the first bases on Luna and Mars.

On the not so positive side, this suffers greatly from lack of Murderbot. Without its wry observances, the story fails to generate anything much in the way of interest. The vision of Greggy floating in his own remains is somewhat horrific, as is the perpetrator, but otherwise, I’m not sure of the point here. That transhumans will get obsolete the way an old car does? Well okay, maybe so. It’s a bit short on details, too.

Three stars.

Review of Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

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This novel is science fiction and #2 in the Skyward series, following the novel Skyward. It was released by Tor in November of 2019 and runs 461 pages. This review contains spoilers.

At the end of Skyward, Spensa Nightshade has found that reality is a long way from what she’s always believed. Humans have been imprisoned on Detritus, guarded by the Krell, and Spensa has found she has cytonic abilities to hear and teleport ships through the Nowhere—the method her ancestors used to get around in space, which can be amplified by an unknown “cytonic hyperdrive.” As the humans have made advances into space, conflict with the Krell has increased. Human techs locate a video on one of the orbiting space platforms and, watching it, Spensa has a terrifying vision of delvers (inhabitants of the Nowhere). She screams cytonically and accidentally contacts an alien pilot, who hyperjumps into Detritus space. The ship is damaged by the automated guns on the platforms. Hoping to capture its hyperdrive, Spensa and her Skyward flight try to rescue the ship, but find there’s no hyperdrive aboard. The pilot is injured in the crash landing, but gives Spensa coordinates for Skysight, the center of alien government. Spensa and her flight leader Jorgen make a quick decision, and Spensa disguises herself as the injured pilot, then uses the coordinates and her cytonic ability to hyperjump there. She is welcomed by Cuna, a representative of the Superiority, and enters a training program to provide fighter pilots for the Superiority, supposedly to defend against the delvers. With the help of her ship’s AI M-bot and Doomslug, her odd pet that has stowed away, Spensa tries to navigate the alien politics and manages to make friends with various representatives of the “inferior” races Cuna has assembled into his fighter units. Spensa builds a spy drone from a cleaning bot and finally learns the secret of the hyperdrives. She gets caught with the drone, but there’s a coup afoot in the Superiority government. Can Spensa save Detritus, rescue M-bot and Doomslug and get away?

This is a really condensed summary, of course. The novel has a great plot, full of twists, turns and revelations. The characters are very well developed, full of alien idiosyncrasies, and the action/suspense starts up right at the beginning, making this a pretty gripping read. Spensa operates by the skin of her teeth, developing into a leader herself within the assembly of misfits that makes up her new flight. The book also features a constant undercurrent of discussion about aggression versus non-aggression and how each one affects a particular society. The Superiority prides itself on non-aggression, for example, but has to draft alien pilots to do the dirty work of defense. Meanwhile, they suppress these “inferior” races, keeping hyperdrives away from them so they can’t develop economically. Humans are painted as the real bad guys in the picture for their highly aggressive and dominant tendencies. Meanwhile, M-bot is finding ways to work around the programming that keeps him confined and enslaved. Will that turn out to be dangerous?

On the not so positive side, Skysight doesn’t seem that alien of a place, and some of this seems a little over-simplistic, especially the way Spensa interacts with the aliens and the way she develops a method to deal with the terrifying delvers. M-bot comes across as immature and sulky, and we all knew Doomslug was going to figure in this somehow, right?

Highly recommended.

Four and a half stars.

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 “Summer Frost” by Blake Crouch

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This is a hard SF novelette published by Amazon Original Stories in September of 2019, part of the Forward Collection, also edited by Blake Crouch. (Let’s hear it for self-actualization!) Crouch is best known as the author of the Wayward Pines Trilogy. The story runs 75 pages, and this review contains spoilers.

Maxine is a non-playing character in a video game from WorldPlay. She’s meant to die in every play, but something goes wrong with the code, and she starts to behave erratically, exploring her environment and fighting back against the killers. Game-developer Riley pulls Max’s code out of the game and starts to develop her as a separate AI. After a while, Riley becomes obsessed with the process of creation, neglecting real world relationships and eventually falling in love with Max. She makes plans to embody the AI in a human-like chassis and to give her appropriate values, but what if Max has ambitions of her own?

This is based on a 2010 thought experiment called Roko’s Basilisk. Proposed by user Roko on the Less Wrong community blog, this scenario uses decision theory to show that powerful AI could be expected to turn on humans that imagined the creation but did nothing to bring the AI into existence. It’s called a “basilisk” because just hearing the argument puts you at risk of identification and torture from the hypothetical AI.

On the positive side, this is very character driven. Riley and Max seem very real, and side players like Brian, owner of the company, and Meredith, Riley’s wife, put in strong appearances. Riley spent most of the story ungendered, but Brian calls her “bitch” about three-quarters of the way through, revealing that she is female. The setting here is a little nebulous, as part of this takes place virtual reality and the rest in some apparent near future that is poorly defined and is possibly another layer of virtual reality. The game Max comes from is set in a place that looks like Brian’s coastal estate, and the story has a circular structure, as it both begins and ends at the estate. There’s a sudden twist near the end that should be predictable if you’ve been following the foreshadowing—we just don’t have the details until the end. And of course, I love the basilisk idea. Am I in trouble now for reading this book?

On the less positive side, leaving Riley ungendered until near the end felt like the author was playing games with the reader. I spent a bunch of imagination visualizing her as a nerdy little guy with a beard and big glasses, so I had to rework the whole thing when I got to the “bitch” comment. My personal opinion is that descriptions like this should happen early in the story so I don’t get annoyed, or else just not happen at all so I can go on visualizing the nerdy little guy. There were minor inconsistencies: Riley uses a device called a Ranedrop that sounds like the successor to a phone, but then mentions she has an “old-school phone.”

Four stars.

Review of Uncompromising Honor by David Weber

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This novel won the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel. It was published by Baen in October 2018 and is listed as the Honor Harrington Series Book #19. It runs 784 pages.

In the aftermath of the Yawata Strike, Manticore is rebuilding. Several star systems have referendums scheduled to vote on succeeding from the Solarian League and joining Manticore’s Grand Alliance. The oligarchy that runs the Solarian League, the Mandarins, considers this treason and launches Operation Buccaneer to damage the infrastructure of any star system evaluating succession. Expecting trouble in the founding-member Hypatia system, Alliance RMN rear admiral Jan Kotouč takes five ships to the system, where he defeats a large Solarian fleet commanded by Admiral Hadju Gyôzô, who has planned a Buccaneer attack without allowing for civilian evacuation. This is an Eridani Edict violation. The Solarian ships also fire on disabled Alliance ships, which is a violation of the Deneb Accords. After the Solarians attack Cachalot, they blame the large number of civilian deaths there on the Alliance navy. It is becoming clear that there is a third party playing the League against the Alliance, but attempts to capture their agents only result in their immediate deaths. The Alliance thinks this is a Mesan Alignment. They finally manage to capture a live agent, who bonds with a treecat. Meanwhile, the Mandarins are refusing to believe any third party is involved, and attack the Beowulf system. At the time, Beowulf is hosting an Alliance conference, meaning that a large number of government and naval officials are in attendance, including Hamish Alexander-Harrington, First Lord of Admiralty and Honor Harrington’s husband. The Solarians do little damage, but like the Cachalot engagement, bombs that go off after the fleet withdraws kill millions of civilians. Thinking her husband is dead, Honor goes after the Solarians. Is there any way she can stop the war?

I left a lot out of this summary. As I dropped into the series at episode #19 without any prior knowledge, it took me a while to sort it out. Weber didn’t help a lot, as he didn’t include any kind of summary or cast of characters to bring the reader up to speed. For anyone who’s totally desperate, Baen has a downloadable teacher’s guide on their website (mind-numbing, but informative) that does include a cast of characters and helps the uninformed sort out the League from the Alliance from the Alignment.

This has a lot of amazing positives, and I was duly impressed. Weber has an excellent command of plot, action, and world building and at least decent ability for characterization. Beyond that, he’s really good at setting up dramatic situations. There are at least three situations here that could develop into their own novel (and maybe will at a later date). This includes Kotouč and his second in command, both survivors of the engagement at Hypatia; Damien Harahap, the captured Alignment agent; and various treecats who are learning to shoot pulsars with their little hands. Another of Weber’s strong points is the details of the naval battles, including weapons systems, defense systems, military strategy and how all this would operate in the distance and physics of space. I’m wondering how he keeps track of it all, from characters to missile designations to battle strategy. He must have spreadsheets everywhere.

On the not so positive side, I wasn’t happy with the action line. The story is way too long and moves way too slowly. The action sequences are bracketed by endless discussion from a long line of different characters who try to figure out what the other side is up to and what they should do about it. This makes the novel an intrigue, rather than an adventure story, and bogs it down without advancing the plot much at all. Weber goes to all the work to develop interesting characters and situations (Kotouč, Harahap, armed treecats), and then totally drops them. Honor actually makes very few appearances until the end, apparently unconcerned about the issues until it becomes personal. There are also some inconsistencies; for example, if the Alliance uses regeneration to fix injuries, why does Honor still have artificial parts? I also ended up with unanswered questions about how the technology works, including fusion reactors and gravity compensation that will deal with 32K gees. Okay, this does have some wow factor, but really? And last, I’m wondering how the peace restrictions Honor demands of the Solarian League are going to work out. Won’t this leave the League defenseless against aspiring aggressors?

I’m thinking this novel didn’t quite know what it meant to accomplish. Weber adds a note at the end that he intends to retire Honor Harrignton, but continue to write in this universe. Maybe this was a springboard for other developments?

Four stars.

Review of A Star Wheeled Sky by Brad Torgersen

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This novel is traditional adventure science fiction and won the 2019 Best Science Fiction Novel Dragon Award. It was published in December 2018 by Baen and runs 382 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Earth is lost in the distant past. Fleeing a terrible war, humanity launched arks that took them to the stars, where they discovered a network of Waypoints operated by Keys that give access to Othespace, and through it to different star systems. However, the number of Waypoint nodes and keys is limited. Humanity has divided into Starstates that operate on different political systems and contend for control of the available systems. In particular, the democratic Constellar system competes with the authoritarian Nautilus system, but is slowly losing ground. Then a new Waypoint opens to a system including a habitable planet. Both Starstates rush to stake a claim. Nautilus sends a military fleet and Constellar drafts civilian spacecraft to beef up their military flotilla, sweeping up Wyo Antagean, son of a shipping magnate, Garsinia Oswight, daughter of a First Family, and infotainer Zoam Kalbi. Can they secure the system for Constellar, or is something else going on that they need to deal with instead?

On the positive side, this is solid traditional SF. It’s strongly plotted, a strategy game between the two fleets that projects how established spaceflight technology and techniques could be used implement travel and set up the space battles. Torgersen goes into detail about the technology. There are a couple of major twists that raise the stakes on this and lead into what I expect will be a series of novels as the issues play out.

On the not so positive side, there are some serious problems here. First, this is mired solidly in mid-20th century technology. The author states that humanity has lost a lot in their years in space, but that doesn’t really excuse this, and I ended up with a lot of questions about how these people are doing things. In an age where I have a link to high-functioning AIs right in my pocket, these characters wonder if thinking machines are really possible. Hey Google tells me where I parked my car in a completely normal voice, so why are these people thousands of years in the future still using a keyboard to type at their onboard computers? Plus, I’m unsure how their fusion systems and weapons work. We don’t currently use fusion because of the high energy requirements and the associated high temperatures—so how did they solve these problems? Why is Constellar launching starships from the ground without shuttles to get back and forth? And Nautilus has only one shuttle? Why are they even using their starships to fight battles? Star Wars pretty much set the standard for smaller, more maneuverable fighters all the way back in 1977. And last, where did these people get the Waypoint Keys and how did they learn to work them? Etc. Lots of questions here.

The second issue I have is with the characters. These people must all be suicidal. They’re throwing the starships at each other like there’s no major cost in resources and human lives, the commanders willing to sacrifice their entire crews without really much promise that they’ll influence the outcome of the battle. Only the recovery of the lost Keys seems really important to them. I can see why humanity is not doing well in space. In particular, Wyo is conscripted and has little choice in the matter, but Garsinia and Zoam come across as really stupid. Oblivious to the fact this is a military operation and that Nautilus forces will be shooting nukes at them, both characters stick their lips out and insist on their right to go along with the expedition. Then, when things get scary, they panic and go off in all directions. They are represented as inconsistent, childish and immature, and this kind of character manipulation is a major eye-roller.

Still, it’s a great plot. Three and a half stars.

Review of The Quantum Garden by Derek Künsken

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This novel is hard SF/adventure and was published by Solaris on October 15, 2019. It is #2 in the series, following The Quantum Magician, and runs 300 pages. This review contains major spoilers.

The Scarecrow shares the information he’s gathered on Belarius Arjona and his involvement in the recent Sub-Saharan Union’s rebellion and attack on the Congregate. In response, the Congregate defies the Banks and the Plutocracy and nukes the Garret, asteroid home of 4000 bioengineered Homo quantus. Arjona and Cassie Mejia are doing research on the wormhole system from their new inflation racer The Calculated Risk. The AI St. Matthew interrupts to let them know about the problem, and Arjona and Mejia make a plan to use the stolen time gates in the hold of The Calculated Risk to go back in time and rescue the population from the Garret. They lease and refit freighters, take them back in time and rescue everyone in the Garret that will leave with them. Homo quantus has been considered a failed genetic experiment, but suddenly their military potential is apparent, and the Scarecrow reclassifies them as bioweapons. Arjona and Mejia decide they need to hide the Homo quantus somewhere in their expanded wormhole system where they won’t be found. But their research on it isn’t complete—they need historical data in order to calibrate their model and plot courses. Arjona approaches Lieutenant-General Rudo and Colonel Ayen Iekanjika of the Union with a plan to go back in time and collect data from the planetoid Nyanga, offering the location of unknown wormholes in the Union’s Bachwezi system in trade. Rudo and Iekanjika are angry that Arjona stole their time gates, but Rudo agrees anyway. The Scarecrow is hot on their trail. Can Arjona, St. Matthew and Iekanjika obtain the data they need and successfully return without creating a paradox and changing the timeline of history?

This summary is a massive over-simplification, of course. As in The Quantum Magician, Künsken’s strong suit here is the science, all projected and highly plausible. The author comes up with entertaining applications; for example, where Cassie leads the Scarecrow on a chase through the multiple dimensions of a wormhole, and then doubles back for an inspired and unconventional attack. The entertaining Homo eridanus Stills is back for this installment, cursing in several languages as he brokers Arjona’s deal and then serves as the pilot to Nyanga-in-the-past. Most of the drama in the story falls on Iekanjika, who has to figure out the politics of the Union in its early days and decide what to do about causality in the timeline, while Arjona wanders off, stressing about a quantum intelligence on the planetoid that’s fated for extinction. Nobody is especially happy with each other by the end of this, so I’m expecting the story will continue as they work out their issues.

I had a few complaints about The Quantum Magician, but Künsken has fixed most of those issues here. There’s no real hook for the story, just an argument at the beginning, but the action line goes up sharply when the Congregate ship fires on the Garret, and it remains pretty gripping the rest of the way through. This is strongly plotted, the characters are fairly well-rounded and it’s strongly diverse. Künsken presents the ever-interesting Stills to fill the mid-novel slump some authors experience, and things get pretty intense as Iekanjika realizes the truth about the people she’s dealing with on Nyanga. I also have a fair idea what Bel and Cassie look like at this point, though I still didn’t get a good description. They’re bioengineered from Afro-Columbian stock, so have dark skin, hair and eyes. Arjona isn’t black enough to pass for the Shona stock of the Union, though, and has to darken his skin to pass. Besides that, Stills calls him “fancypants,” from which everyone will have to draw their own conclusions.

Highly recommended, especially for science geeks.

Five stars.

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