Review of “The Rule of Three” by Lawrence M. Schoen

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Award. It is (somewhat) hard science fiction and was published by Future Science Fiction Digest in December of 2018. Full disclosure: Schoen is a member of the Board of Directors of SFWA, the organization that runs the Nebula Awards. This review contains spoilers.

The narrator works for the State Department in Washington D.C. and finds an alien has landed in China near his grandmother’s house. Rushing to her aid, he books a flight to Beijing and then makes his way to the small rural village, forgetting to tell anyone where he is going. The alien’s ship looks like a giant pearl floating in the river. The alien itself seems friendly and has been teaching local children how to make grass float in the air. The narrator introduces himself and offers an exchange of knowledge. The alien, named Foom, is concerned that the narrator is darkened by “unlife” things like synthetic clothing and a cell phone, but the narrator works this out by changing to some of his grandfather’s old clothing. Foom then exchanges knowledge: instruction in Grandmother’s indigo Batik craft for instruction for the narrator in how to change and influence natural things to avoid the environmental damage caused by unlife manufacturing. It turns out Foom intends to release an infertility virus to remove the unlife problem from Earth. What can the narrator do?

On the positive side, this is an interesting reinvention of the hard SF genre, where Schoen uses the standard format to present a message about irresponsible damage to the environment. This is a problem most people never think about, where manufacturing that produces wealth for some is given a free pass to cause public costs for everybody else. In other words, we’re blind to the debit side of the balance sheet where we should be recording damage to resources and poisons in the environment. The plot here is creative, and Grandmother is a wonderful character who makes everybody behave, including Foom.

On the less positive side, Schoen makes no useful suggestions about how we might successfully ditch capitalism and change back to a simpler and safer lifestyle. If he thinks a cottage industry of Batik dyeing is an example of this, then he’s misinformed—indigo is a toxic dye. Next, this story feels really long and slow, and would have been much more entertaining at about half the length. Using Foom for the alien’s name may have been a questionable choice, too. For me, this immediately invoked the evil, shapeshifting dragon lord Fin Fang Foom from Marvel Comics. But then, that creature is an alien, too, so I wonder if Schoen meant to make the connection. And last, isn’t this cultural appropriation?

Three and a half stars.

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Review of “Interview for the End of the World” by Rhett C. Bruno

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This short story is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is hard science fiction from the anthology Bridge Across the Stars, edited by Chris Pourteau and Rhett C. Bruno and published by Aethon Books in January of 2018. This review contains spoilers.

An asteroid is about to strike Earth, and Trass Industries is readying a ship to evacuate a group of 3000 humans that will establish a colony on Titan. A horde of people is camped outside the Arizona desert compound, hoping to make the grade for the project. Knowing he will bear the fate of everyone he doesn’t accept on his conscience, company director Darien Trass is conducting interviews, trying to sort out the best and the brightest of humanity to take along. As the launch date arrives, violence on Earth increases, and some other colony ships are destroyed by angry mobs. When they start loading the Trass ship, Darien’s daughter Kara alerts him to a problem: one of the accepted colonists Frank Drayton has attempted to smuggle his small daughter aboard. The mob outside has found out, and now they attack the compound, triggering retaliation from Trass security. The crew and passengers take refuge inside the ship, but now there are too many people on board. They need to launch now. What can they do?

This is a fairly standard hard SF setup, with a world-threatening event, a high-stakes tech problem and an emotional dilemma. There is some subtle foreshadowing in Drayton’s interview that suggests he’s lying about his family situation. I also liked the imagery that places the big, ugly asteroid in the night sky right alongside the moon.

On the less positive side, after reading a bunch of stories I thought were too long, I think this one is a little too short. There are some issues that could have added depth to the story if they’d been addressed. For one thing, the foreshadowing went a little too far, making the solution to the problem too obvious. The characters seem manipulated to suit the plot, which leads to suspension of disbelief issues. For example, I didn’t quite buy the fact that the elderly Trass could outrun the mob storming his compound. Any why was his security so faithful? Clearly they were going to be left behind. Why didn’t they panic and storm the ship, too? I would have also expected panic from the passengers. This could have been quite a bit more complex.

Three stars.

Review of “Going Dark” by Richard Fox

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This short story is military SF and a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Award. It was published in the anthology Backblast Area Clear, edited by Ellen Campbell and published by Bayonet Books. This review contains spoilers.

The setting is Utica City and an air battle between Terran Union fighters and Naroosha saucers. Ground soldiers from Battle Construct Auxiliary unit 117, commanded by Sergeant Chris Hoffman make their way up through the sewer and set up a position. Although Hoffman is a human clone, his unit is made up of human-machine constructs called doughboys. Hoffman coordinates with other units as his troops make heroic efforts against the enemy. Vaccaro, one of the unit commanders is killed, and Hoffman encounters tech difficulties in reassigning his doughboys. Has something gone wrong?

On the positive side, this story provides a well-built setting and exotic future-tech weapons. It features an action and strategy packed battle that shows how members in the units have each other’s backs. As it winds down, we get into more emotional issues as Hoffman faces the loss of his unit, and especially his right hand doughboy Diamond. I expect this satisfies all the requirements for a successful military SF story.

On the not so positive side, the main problem here is flat characters with little or no background. We actually get more on the doughboys than Hoffman. I’m guessing he’s a cloned human because the narration notes that he and Vaccaro share the same face; there’s no other mention of this at all. When Hoffman pursues diagnostics on his troops, we get a brief history of the constructs and their creations, but not really enough to provide understanding of their internal processes, their loyalty, their feelings, etc. There’s also no visible theme, except that maybe everybody wears out and dies in the end.

Three stars.

Patterns in the Nebula finalist list

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I had mentioned in the comments section of my announcement of the Nebula finalists that I thought recent shifts in the makeup of the SFWA membership had led to changes in the ballot. To clarify, this is the sudden appearance of indie press military/hard SF on the finalists list when it had been recently trending (as in most awards) to primarily female and fantasy nominees. As it turns out, some other people noticed this pattern shift, too. In the last few days, there has been a huge and embarrassing battle raging on Twitter about a recommended reading list posted before the vote at 20booksto50K a self-publishing writers co-op. Although the post stated that this was NOT intended as a slate, it was still taken that way by some readers who claimed it had unfairly influenced the results.

Annie Bellet and Marko Kloos (apparently still suffering from PTSD acquired from their experience with the 2015 Hugos) challenged the list on Twitter and demanded that the finalists whose stories had appeared on it withdraw. Author of the post Jonathan Brazee immediately issued an apology and offered to withdraw his novella from consideration. Other nominees hunkered down in horror and kept their mouths shut, as did the SFWA Officers and Board of Directors. However, Sri Lankan writer Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, angered by racist accusations that he cheated because he couldn’t otherwise make it as a POC, stepped up to fight it out. Welcome to the SFF community Yudhanjaya Wijeratne. Bellet and Yudhanjaya eventually kissed and made up on Twitter, but not before fairly serious damage was done to both their reputations.

I’m sure no one knew who Yudhanjaya was before his name appeared on the Nebula finalist list. For folks still in the dark, he is an established novelist and a hybrid writer, with both traditional and self-published works. His novelette “Messenger” with R.R. Virdi appeared in the anthology The Expanding Universe 4, and scored 15 recommendations on the 2018 Nebula reading list, plenty of votes to get the nomination without any slate. So, this comes off like another case of bullying successful POC writers.

See File 770 for a roundup of posts on the issue here and here. See Yudhanjaya’s blog here about this enlightening experience with the Nebulas so far.

Moving on to some other observations, once you get to looking for patterns in the Nebula finalist list, then there are at least a couple more that show up. I had meant to discuss this after the reviews, but since it’s been pointed out on other venues, this seems to be a better time. The dominance of certain traditional publishers on the list is troubling, for example, Tor. In the categories where Tor publishes (novelette, novella, novel) about half of the finalists this year were released by Tor. I’ve discussed this issue in the past, and the most likely explanation is the system of promotion, which includes give-aways, recommended reading lists, and reviews and recommendations in elite publications. I really almost think I could predict the finalists from a review of these promotions, and the same choices tend to appear in the Hugo Awards. The promotions determine what books everyone has read, so they become the award-winners, too.

The last pattern that shows up in the Nebulas is the inclusion of SFWA insiders on the list. This year, four members of SFWA Board of Directors out of five appear on the list of finalists, including: Sarah Pinsker, Andy Duncan, Lawrence Schoen and Kelly Robson. According to the rules, officers are ineligible for Nebula nominations because of their administrative access, but board members remain eligible. Mary Robinette Kowal, in line for president next year, is also a finalist. When asked about this on the SFWA forum, board members brushed it off as inconsequential.

There are also some patterns in the themes and styles this year, but I’ll get to that in my wrap up after the reviews.

Review of Echopraxia by Peter Watts

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This is Book #2 of the Firefall series, sequel to the Hugo finalist Blindsight. It was released by Tor Books in August, 2014, and runs 384 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Daniel Brüks is a biologist and a baseline human, which is a serious anachronism at the end of the 21st century. He’s collecting samples in the Oregon desert, looking for baseline DNA, when he gets caught up in a firefight between the hive-mind Bicameral monks and a squad of zombie soldiers. He wakes onboard a spaceship, along with some Bicamerals, a female vampire Valerie, a couple of her zombie bodyguards, and various transhumans including the pilot Sengupta, looking for the man responsible for her wife’s death, a friendly jargonaut Liana Lutterodt, and an old soldier Jim Moore who lost his son Siri on the Theseus expedition. The Bicamerals seem to have a plan and Brüks is stuck going along. They travel to the Icarus power station, where they find an alien slime infesting the facility. Brüks takes samples and investigates its biology. Too late, he realizes it’s intelligent and trying to capture humans as biological samples of its own. Most of the crew is lost, but Brüks, Moore and Sengupta manage to undock from the station and escape. They find that Valerie has fastened onto the outside of the ship, but expect reentry into Earth’s atmosphere will burn her up. Can they make it back alive? What will humanity do without Icarus station?

This book continues in the same vein as Blindsight. The plot is thin, and most of the pages are taken up with theme and discussion. I didn’t get the feeling of alienness from this book like I did from Blindsight. Instead, this seems to be about God, the nature of transhumanity, the blind success of evolution and how everyone eventually becomes extinct through natural selection. This may all seem fantastical, but Watts has written an addendum at the end that includes references for all the science behind the story. It’s kind of scary that this really is a projection from research and ideas already out there in the human knowledge base.

On the negative side, I didn’t like any of these people. Plus, this novel suffers even more from the high density, disturbing quality and poor readability that went on in Blindsight. The description isn’t really descriptive, as it tends to metaphor, and I ended up without any idea what these people look like and not much better idea of what the ship looks like, even though most of the story takes place within it. Readability is so poor that a quick Google suggests most readers didn’t understand the ending. Huge spoiler alert here: Brüks thinks he dealt with the problem, but he’s infected, and he’s about to be the agent that infects every living thing on Earth. (In my humble opinion, of course.)

Again, this gets a good score for the science and the ideas, but not for the execution.

Four stars.

Review of “The Colonel” by Peter Watts

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This novelette was released by Tor.com in July of 2014. It’s hard SF, serves as a bridge between Watts’ novels Blindsight and Echopraxia and features some of the same characters as Echopraxia. This review may contain spoilers.

Colonel Jim Moore has lost his son Siri on the Theseus expedition and his wife Helen has retreated to existence in Heaven, a repository that links human minds for computing, while allowing residents their own virtual landscape. Moore is in charge of monitoring private hived human intelligences, and is awakened to a threat when one of these attacks a commercial compound in Ecuador. He approaches Dr. Liana Lutterodt, a representative of the Bicameral hive he suspects is behind the attack, and she gives him a copy of a faint transmission that may have come from Theseus. Should he conduct a military op against the Bicamerals? Or should he hold off and try to get more info from them about his son?

As usual with Watts’ work, the projection and world building are way out there, and his vision is of humanity post-singularity. He’s definitely a 5 on the Ideation Scale with the question of whether we might actually link consciousnesses to produce a human super brain. There’s a bit of furry interest here to humanize the story. Moore has taken in an abused and mutilated feline named Zephyr that lives mostly alone in their apartment with an automated kibble dispenser. When the Colonel comes home, he works on cutting down the distance he can approach before Zephyr runs to hide. Talk about loneliness and estrangement…

This story moves along fairly smartly. Because of its length, Watts is unable to make the lengthy digressions that slow down Blindsight and Echopraxia, so the readability score goes way up. There’s not much plot here, either, but it does seem to be enough for a story of this length. There’s no real ending because it leads directly into the events of Echopraxia, but it’s satisfying enough, and I’m sure it served well as promotion for the novel’s release. The prose and the science are still a little dense—I had to check a couple of definitions to find out the Ecuadorian compound is likely a pharmaceutical plant.

Four and a half stars.

Review of Blindsight by Peter Watts

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I enjoyed The Freeze Frame Revolution, so I thought I’d try a couple of Watt’s older novels. Blindsight is Book #1 of the Firefall Series. It was released by Tor in October 2006 and runs 294 pages. It is seriously hard SF and was a finalist for the Hugo Award in 2007. This review contains spoilers.

In 2082 a mysterious array circles the Earth and flashes, seemingly taking readings of some kind. Then an old space probe picks up a signal from a distant comet. Earth sends out fresh probes, then mounts an expedition, sending a live crew of transhumans on the ship Theseus to investigate. They include a super-intelligent vampire recreated by paleogenetics, a linguist with multiple personalities, and a combat specialist, a biologist and a synthesist augmented with electronic implants. There are other crew in ship’s storage in case of loss. The ship’s AI bypasses the comet and follows the signal to the Oort Cloud, where the crew wakes from hibernation to find a gas giant too small to ignite into a star, orbited by some massive artifact under construction. They board the artifact and take “samples” of the alien life forms, bring them back to Theseus and try to analyze their biology, intelligence and use of language. Quickly they find themselves under a terrifying counterattack. Can they destroy the alien artifact? Get word of what they’ve found back to Earth?

I’ve been asking for science fiction with more ideas. So, here it is. The plot in this novel mainly serves as a vehicle for theme and discussion, and the main theme seems to be alienness. Our protagonist is Siri Keeton, the synthesist, who lost half his brain to a childhood illness and had it replaced with electronics. He experiences no emotion and has no feel for real social interactions, mimicking behavior patterns instead. The other crew members are also radically different from baseline humans, and the aliens on the artifact are orders of magnitude different. We get some character development as background for the crew, but this serves mainly to point out the pressures and results of transhuman advancement. There is also an ongoing discussion on the nature of intelligence and consciousness.

Negatives: The worst problem here is with readability. The plot is actually very thin for the length of the novel, and Watts fills up the pages mostly with description and discussion. This makes the narration very dense and the story hard to get into. There’s no fun or adventure here; it’s all very cerebral, nihlist and disturbing–I had higher hopes for the future of humanity. Watts tends to belabor the points, too, forcing the characters to come to them in successive stages. As he points out in the acknowledgements, these are hardly warm, fuzzy characters, either, which makes it hard to care about what he’s saying. He gets points for brilliance in the ideas, but loses audience on the execution.

Four stars.

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