Review of Infinite Lives: Short Tales of Longevity, edited by Juliana Rew

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This anthology is #26 in the series, issued in October of 2019, a collection of speculative fiction short stories related in some way to long life or immortality. It’s edited by Juliana Rew and is offered as both an e-book and a paperback. There are 28 stories that range across genres, and the book includes some short humor pieces at the end. This review may contain spoilers.

Third Flatiron Anthologies is now pretty well-established as a source for solid, well-written stories, without the heavy political messages that sometimes turn up in SFF works. I’d love to mention all the stories but I don’t have the space here. The selections include “Tunnels” by Brian Trent about a long-lived man looking for the woman of his dreams; “A Billion Bodies More” by Sloan Leong where a woman dies a million deaths; “At the Precipice of Eternity” by Ingrid Garcia about an alien nano-swarm that communicates with a Madrid-based scientist; “Abe in Yosemite” by Robert Walton where Abe Lincoln and John Muir have a conversation about that event at the theater; “Cold Iron” by Wulf Moon about a Spaniard and an Indio woman trying to lay the Conquistador Pizzaro to a final rest; and “Find Her” by Konstantine Paradias, where an angel and a demon fight one another through eternity. The short humor pieces provide a laugh at the end, including letters to an Airbnb host and a listing of “best-selling” items from (ghost story writer) M.R. James’ collectibles catalog.

These offerings follow that standard, including everything from hard SF to out-and-out mythology. The cast of writers is diverse and international. Authors include: Brian Trent, Sloane Leong, Matt Thompson, J. B. Toner, Larry C. Kay, David F. Schultz, D. A. Campisi, Russell Dorn, Samson Stormcrow Hayes, Ingrid Garcia, Maureen Bowden, Brandon Butler, Caias Ward, Leah Miller, Megan Branning, Robert Walton, K. G. Anderson, Louis Evans, John Paul Davies, David Cleden, Tom Pappalardo, Philip John Schweitzer, Martin M. Clark, Wulf Moon, Mack Moyer, Konstantine Paradias, E. E. King, and Sarah Totton.

Four 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.

Wrap-up of the 2019 Dragon Reviews

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The Dragon Awards are pretty much impossible to review before the vote because of the short time between the announcement of the finalists and the end of the voting period. However, I don’t want to neglect them in any way, so this year I’ve gone on to review the 2019 fiction winners. For a look at the whole list of finalists, see my blog on it here.

First, here are the winners again:
Best SF Novel: A Star-Wheeled Sky, Brad R. Torgersen (Baen)
Best Fantasy Novel: House of Assassins, Larry Correia (Baen)
Best Young Adult Novel: Bloodwitch, Susan Dennard (Tor Teen)
Best Military SFF Novel: Uncompromising Honor by David Weber (Baen)
Best Alternate History Novel: Black Chamber by S.M. Stirling (Ace)
Best Horror Novel: Little Darlings by Melanie Golding (Crooked Lane)

As usual in my analysis, here the diversity count of the finalists:
Best SF Novel: 2 women, 5 men, 2 LGBTQ, 2 Jewish (Note: James S.A. Corey is 2 men)
Best Fantasy Novel: 3 women, 3 men, 1 LGBTQ, 2 Jewish, 1 Hispanic
Best Young Adult / Middle Grade Novel: 4 women, 3 men, 1 Jewish
Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel: 2 women, 6 men, 1 Hispanic
Best Alternate History Novel: 2 women, 4 men, 2 Jewish
Best Horror Novel: 2 women, 5 men, 1 Jewish.

Apologies if I missed anybody or mixed anybody up; it’s sometimes hard to tell about diversity from online biographies. There are other names in the list that look Jewish, for example, but I couldn’t confirm. The gender issue is complicated by the number of cowriters among the finalists, all men, as it turns out. Comparing on the numbers, the gender count works out to be 15/41 (37%) women and on the books 15/37 (41%). The minority count includes 3/41 (7%) LGBTQ, 8/41 (20%) Jewish and 2/41 (5%) Hispanic. I know there’s an argument about whether European Spanish/Portuguese should be considered Hispanic—this category in the US generally counts Latino writers, who are typically mixed race—but I’ve just noted the names here as Hispanic, as I’m not sure how they identify.

So, the ~40% gender count on female-written books isn’t bad, considering that the categories separate SF and fantasy and include a military SF category that you’d expect might skew the results. The LGBTQ count turns out very low compared to say, the Hugo Awards, but it’s actually sitting fairly close to the 4.5% self-identified US demographic. Like most of the awards this year, the count for Jewish writers is much higher than their US demographic of 2%. Other than this, the diversity count really sucks. I’ve had to really stretch for the Hispanic names, as Corriea and Cordova are both likely of European extraction, and there aren’t any apparent black, Arab, Asian, Native American, trans or non-binary writers in this list at all. It’s clear that white writers were strongly preferred by the voting population, leaning to men, especially in the winners (4/6 or 67%). This isn’t unexpected for a popular award; the Hugos, for example, also leaned heavily (75%) to white winners this year, only to women instead of men.

Because of the way the categories are set up, there’s more diversity in the subject matter and type of work in this award than some others, with science fiction getting equal standing against fantasy, and military SF, alternate history, young adult and horror each getting their own categories. There was more diversity in publishers in the Dragons than in some other awards I’ve looked at, too. Tor had the highest count of finalists 5/37 (14%), with Orbit and Baen coming in next, both at 3/37 (8%). Two of the finalists were self-published (5%). On the other hand, all three of the Baen publications came in as winners.

I notice there’s been discussion online about the “legitimacy” of the Dragon Awards, questions about how they are administered and suggestions they’re a vehicle for the Sad/Rabid Puppies faction of the SFF community. Although Vox Day and the Rabid Pups made a good showing in the first year (and actually brought greater diversity), at this point I don’t see any indication this group has any real control of the awards. The award administrators encourage campaigning and voting by avid fan groups, so organization by particular groups to try and vote their candidate in isn’t against the rules. The results strongly suggest a different audience is voting on this than the Hugos, Nebulas and World Fantasy Award, but given the nature of the convention and the categories of fiction, I think that’s pretty much to be expected. The Dragon Award does seem to be suffering from the widespread tendency of the awards voting populations to nominate the same names every year. James S.A. Corey, Chris Kennedy, Mark Wandrey, David Weber, Kacey Ezell and S.M. Stirling were also finalists in 2018. James S.A. Corey, Becky Chambers, Larry Corriea and Mark Wandrey were also finalists in 2017.

As far as literary quality of the work goes, my reviews noted the same kind of wide variation I’ve seen in other awards systems. These novels are popular favorites, fairly straightforward, and only Little Darlings has the kind of strong subtext that I’d consider “literary” writing, though Black Chamber might be satire. The repetition of names from year to year suggests the voting population tends to vote for their favorite author, and maybe not for the particular book that’s up for an award. The short time between announcement of the finalists and the final vote likely encourages this, as there’s not really enough time to read and evaluate all the candidates.

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.

Review of Doyle’s Law by Sam Roberts

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This is a hard science fiction novel, self-published by the author in November of 2018. It runs 486 pages. Roberts is an English writer, and this looks to be his first novel. This review contains spoilers, but I’ll try not to give too much away.

It’s 2142. The Neith is a space station in a high Venus orbit where scientist Jim Ryburn has spent a large part of his career conducting energy research. He’s getting slightly old and slightly alcoholic and his research has never produced anything at all of value. A decommissioning crew headed by Chief O’Connor has arrived and begun removing the station equipment for salvage. This is fairly typical all over the solar system. Without any means of really efficient spaceflight, maintaining the stations is just too expensive; plus, there’s no real way to get to the stars. A last shipment of ore comes in from Mercury on an automated hopper, and things start to go wrong. The hopper collides with the station, shifting its axis. Systems in the station begin to throw off alarms. The crew’s behavior starts to get erratic. Then, one of the airlocks blows out, throwing the station out of its orbit. What’s going on? Sabotage? Theft? Will someone come to rescue them before they fall into the planet? And what are those strange magnetic properties in the ore?

For anyone who’s wondering, Doyle’s Law as used in the book is apparently a play on Murphy’s Law, but not quite the same thing. It seems to be something like: “things that have happened, will happen.” This is a tight, entertaining plot with a major twist about midway and another at the end of the story that keeps the reader guessing. After the first twist, you can go along for the ride on most of it, but then the suspense builds up again at the end when you don’t know which way it’s going to go. The characters are engaging, especially Ryburn and Chief O’Connor, who ends up carrying most of the action, while at the same time trying to deal with his own failings as a leader.

On the not so positive side, I’d have preferred slightly more world-building. What’s here is adequate, and it’s a nice touch that everybody seems to work for soulless corporations, but I’d have liked a little more detail about what’s going on back home on Earth, and more on where this is headed in the future. I’m thinking everybody here is a little too trusting about that, but maybe the issue will be addressed in a sequel. It was a little uphill when the complexity started to build up, but that smoothed out about three-quarters of the way through. Also, the ending is the tidy, emotional wrap up that hard SF readers will expect, but I thought it was a little too pat. Things just don’t happen like that in real life.

Regardless of these little niggles, this is an entertaining, uplifting story about humanity’s quest for the stars. Recommended.

Four and a half stars.

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