Review of Weaponized Math by Jonathan P. Brazee

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s military SF and was published in The Expanding Universe, Vol. 3 anthology. This review contains spoilers.

Marine sniper Staff Sergeant Gracie Medicine Crow and her spotter Lance Corporal Christopher “Rabbit” Irving are enjoying a cup of coffee on the roof above the village square. It’s supposed to be a routine security mission because a member of the brass is coming to a meeting with the local commissioners. Sergeant Rafiq and his squad are conducting a sweep below and it looks like it will be a cold mission, so Gracie is entertaining herself by running through the target positions and remembering the range for each one—an example of weaponizing math. A cargo hovertruck approaches the village and she notices some strange reactions from people she’s been watching. Sure enough, they’re under attack from FLNT fighters and things quickly go from bad to worse. Can Gracie save the day?

Good points: The author is ex-military, so this has the feel of a real experience. There’s a lot of detail about the maneuvering and responses to the attack, and we get the interactions of the marine fighters. It has a feel good ending, where Gracie decides to bend the truth a little to benefit the fallen Rabbit. Going from the names, this is a pretty diverse fighting force. Crow is a Native American name, and Brazee sometimes is, too, though I don’t see the author advertising himself that way.

Not so good points: This is all about the experience, which has the feel of a video game. I didn’t end up with much of an idea what the world looks like, what the conflict is about or even a clear picture of the technology available. The characters are flat, and about all I gathered is that Gracie seems to be immune to PTSD. I had a flicker of interest when she decided to lie at the end, but there wasn’t really any investigation of the morality of this.

I expect this story meets the specs for the genre and that fans will enjoy it.

Three stars.

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Review of “A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It was published in Clarkesworld and probably rates on the hard SF scale. It’s also finalist for the 2018 Hugo Awards.

Helena Li Yuanhui of Splendid Beef Enterprises makes beef forgeries for local restaurants. She had to leave the Hong Kong Scientific University Bioprinting Lab in a hurry after being blamed for an organ design that went wrong, and took the lab’s Sculpere 9410S printer with her so she could establish a livelihood when she got to Nanjing. An anonymous caller seems to have discovered this, and demands that she make 200 T-bone steaks for him gratis. Because she’s scared and the deadline is short, Helena hires Lily Yonezawa to assist, who says she has a background in baking. They hurry through designing the steaks, while Mr. Anonymous sends creepy threats, and eventually a hired thug to apply pressure. Helena has to admit to Lily what’s been going on. Can the two of them get the steaks done on time? Can they find out who Mr. Anonymous is? Sabotage his operation? Escape with their lives?

The plotting and world building here is excellent, as the author projects medical science, three-D printing and criminal possibilities into a smooth whole. The story also has a lot of humor and a distinctly Asian flair. Helena is struggling as an entry level criminal, but Lily is obviously well into it, complete with bunny-design accessories and ornate bracelets that double as brass knuckles.

On the negative side, all these people are somewhat over-the-top, which makes them caricatures. That feeds the humor and entertainment quality, of course, but it reduces the depth of characterization and keeps us from really getting into the characters’ heads.

Recommended. Four and a half stars.

Congrats to the 2018 Hugo Finalists!

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Here’s what I got for the diversity count: Short stories – 6 women, 0 men, 3 Asian, 1 mixed race African/Native American. Novelettes – 5 women, 1 trans, 3 Asian. Novellas – 5 women, 1 trans, 1 Asian, 1 African American, 1 bipolar. Novels – 4 women, 2 men, 1 Asian, 1 African American.

Three short stories, 2 novelettes and 1 novella (6 of 24) are from Uncanny; 1 short story, 1 novelette, 5 novellas and 1 novel (8 of 24) are from Tor and Orbit published 4 of the 6 novels. The pro print magazines scored poorly, as Asimov’s squeaked in with one entry, but F&SF and Analog were totally shut out this year.

As usual, there’s quite a bit of overlap between these finalists and those of the Nebula Award, including 4 of 6 short stories, 3 of 6 novelettes, 4 of 6 novellas and 2 of 6 novels. Like the Nebulas, there is also repetition of names, as Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Sarah Pinsker and Yoon Ha Lee appear in more than one category. There’s also overlap with last years’ Hugo finalist list: N.K. Jemisin, Yoon Ha Lee, Seanan McGuire, Fran Wilde and Ursula Vernon were all finalists in 2017. Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorifor were finalists in 2016.

Best Novel

The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi (Tor)
New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit)
Provenance, by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty (Orbit)
The Stone Sky, by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit)

Best Novella

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing)
And Then There Were (N-One), by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny, Mar-Apr 2017)
Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com Publishing)
The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang (Tor.com Publishing)
Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey (Tor.com Publishing)

Best Novelette

“Children of Thorns, Children of Water“, by Aliette de Bodard (Uncanny, Jul-Aug 2017)
“Extracurricular Activities“, by Yoon Ha Lee (Tor.com, February 15, 2017)
“The Secret Life of Bots“, by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld, Sep 2017)
“A Series of Steaks“, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld, Jan 2017)
“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time“, by K.M. Szpara (Uncanny, May-Jun 2017)
“Wind Will Rove“, by Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s, Sep-Oct 2017)

Best Short Story

“Carnival Nine“, by Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2017)
“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand“, by Fran Wilde (Uncanny, Sep-Oct 2017)
“Fandom for Robots“, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny, Sep-Oct 2017)
“The Martian Obelisk“, by Linda Nagata (Tor.com, July 19, 2017)
“Sun, Moon, Dust“, by Ursula Vernon (Uncanny, May-Jun 2017)
“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™“, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex, Aug 2017)

Review of “Utopia LOL?” By Jaime Wahls

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This short story is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award, published by Strange Horizons. According to the biography with the story, Wahls works for the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, a nonprofit corporation that does basic research on the question of how to make super-intelligent machines safe and beneficial. This review contains spoilers.

Kit is the Tour Guide to the Future and full of enthusiasm for her job. When Charlie is thawed out after “like billions” of years in cold storage, she is there to towel him off, get his cancer fixed and give him an introduction to life as it is now. She introduces him to the AI Allocator and offers him simulated Universes to live in. Charlie is unhappy with life as a bird and rejects Kit’s recommendation that he try floor tiles, and chooses a LOTR universe instead. After a few years, Charlie is bored silly, and Kit and the Allocator have to find something else to fill his need to be productive. Would Charlie be interested in a star probe?

In case you can’t tell from the summary, this is humor. Kit is a total airhead, and likes to be a floor tile because it allows her to form complete thoughts. The story also pillories social media, cos players, over-obsessive fans, smug perfect people, gamers and various other unproductive devotees of popular culture. There is also a serious side, as the Allocator is in charge of providing for humanity. It is constrained by its programming and facing the issue of overpopulation and the ongoing destruction of Earth. If they’re all like Kit, maybe humanity is well on the way to self-destruction, too. The stock of humans in cryostorage represents a resource to deal with these crises. This is pretty clear, but then the story goes off the rails into vagueness at the end when they start talking about a memory wipe for Kit.

I didn’t understand this, so I went looking for other opinions. The best explanation I found was that Kit is valuable for her total air headedness and her enthusiasm, and Allocator wants to preserve this for its next candidate for revival. Presumably this is because of its programming, which requires that humans have to want something from it and provide affirmative consent to its recommendations, and that Kit has a predictable effect on the old-timers. This doesn’t quite hold water for me.

Humans in this future (except the cold storage ones) are post-Singularity, only an uploaded digitized consciousness. I can accept that Allocator’s resources are running low to support the human population, but I don’t see how a digitized consciousness can reproduce at all, much less at an unmanageable rate. Also, I don’t see how Allocator can memory-wipe a digitized consciousness without altering what she is. Couldn’t it just produce a disposable copy? And what’s the deal with sending just one person off on a star probe? If they find a great place, how is one person going to procreate? Cloning? Who’s going to be in charge of this? Hm.

Regardless of the niggling logical failures, this is a hugely successful story because of the scope and humor.

Four and a half stars.

Review of “The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata

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This story is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Awards. It’s hard science fiction and was published in 2017 by Tor.com. Note: review may contain spoilers.

The Earth is dying and the Martian colonies have been abandoned. Financed by the wealthy Nathaniel Sanchez, architect Susannah Li-Langford is building a monument on Mars, using remote machines to clothe a spire in sparkling, white tiles. In a surprising development, the machines notify her they’ve received a signal. Could there be life still on Mars after all?

This is a pretty dystopian setting. With the Earth devastated by climate change and biological warfare, its people have lost their dream to move out to the stars. Instead, they are slowly dying in place. Li-Langford is nearing the end of her life but keeps plodding away at her monument, hoping to leave something lasting behind.

Good points: First, this is science fiction, somewhat on the hard side, but not technical enough to put anyone off. Next, the message is hope. Even with all that’s gone wrong, Li-Langford is willing to abandon her dreams to give someone else a ray of hope.

Not so good points: This reminded me very strongly of Weir’s The Martian, so I didn’t take it as highly original. I thought the characters were flat and not well developed; plus, there was a lot of exposition—I really didn’t end up feeling the devastation on Earth. I didn’t really feel Li-Langford’s dream, either. Why waste all the time and money on a monument when it seems like Earth needs it instead? Then she abandons it without a second thought and dismantles way more than seems necessary for the situation. And how are a few tiles going to help castaways? The plot didn’t quite hold water for me.

Two and a half stars because of the believability issues.

Review of Gravity of the Game by Jon Del Arroz

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This review is part of my campaign to include more diverse authors. The book is a novella, apparently self-published, and runs 60 pages.

World Baseball Commissioner Hideki Ichiro is facing increasing pressures and declining viewership in the World Baseball League, and he’s hoping to jump-start new interest in the sport with a league on the moon. This plan is not going well, as the players seem totally unable to compensate for the low gravity. Ichiro finds a scientist offering new technology that could make it work, but then he’s challenged by a faction in the World League. Can he salvage his career and move baseball into a new beginning?

Good points: This has a very traditional SF feel. Del Arroz has included diversity here, as his protagonist is of Japanese descent, and other characters are white or Hispanic. This is also a fairly original idea that sets you thinking about how major sports leagues might adapt to space or whether completely new sports would evolve. Despite the risks Ichiro encounters, there’s plenty of human interest, providing a positive story with a satisfying ending. Plus, the politics are strongly plotted. We all know that goes on in sports, right? All the competition isn’t just on the field.

Not so good points: Despite the strong plotting, the threats are fairly straight-forward, and the characters fulfill their roles without much depth. There’s not a lot of imagery or description of the moon culture, and there’s also a bit of a plot flaw here, I think. If there’s no gravity adjustment in the moon habitations, why don’t we see more issues with low gravity when Ichiro visits?

This is competently written and should appeal most to baseball fans.

Three stars.

Rocket Stack Rank Site Predicts the 2018 Hugo Winners

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For anyone who’s somehow not noticed, Rocket Stack Rank is a fairly new short fiction review site established by Greg Hullender and Eric Wong. The site posts short reviews and rankings of long and short fiction from major pro magazines and anthologies (no novels) during the year, and also compilations of how other reviewers rated the stories. The wrap-up at the end of the year shows three clear leaders for the Hugo Award, based on this system:

Best Novella – Nexus by Michael Flynn from Analog
Best Novelette – “A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad from Clarkesworld
Best Short Story – “The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata from Tor.com

In comparison, here’s what the Nebula Reading List predicts, based on the number of recommendations from SFWA members:

Best Novella – And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker from Uncanny Magazine
Best Novelette – “Small Changes over Long Periods of Time” by K.M. Szpara from Uncanny Magazine
Best Short Story (tie) – “Carnival Nine” by Caroline Yoachim from Beneath Ceaseless Skies and “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience (TM)” by Rebecca Roanhorse from Apex Magazine

Interestingly, Nexus rated right at the bottom of the Nebula Reading List, and “A Series of Steaks” rated fourth in its category. I don’t see “The Martian Obelisk” on the Nebula list at all. Does this suggest a bias toward hard SF among reviewers? A bias toward fantasy among SFWA members?

The Locus poll results will be available soon, so I’ll have a look at those when they come out. A quick skim of the ballot right now shows no sign of Nexus or “Small Changes over Long periods of Time.” I wouldn’t expect they’d rate as write-ins.

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