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.

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 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 Little Darlings by Melanie Golding

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This novel is a dark fantasy/psychological thriller and won the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel. Golding is a UK based author, and this looks to be her first novel. I also notice it’s soon to be a major motion picture. It was published by Crooked Lane Books in April, 2019, and runs 315 pages. This review contains spoilers.

After a difficult delivery, Lauren Tranter is the new mother of twin boys, Morgan and Riley. A crazy woman in the hospital ward tries to take Lauren’s babies and substitute her own. Lauren hides in the bathroom and calls the emergency number for help, but when the police arrive, there’s no sign of anyone there. The doctors suspect mental health issues. The Tranters take the boys home to the Peak District, and after his brief paternity leave is over, Lauren’s unsupportive husband Patrick moves into the guest room, leaving her to care for the boys both day and night. Lauren struggles with exhaustion, but with encouragement from her friends and a shove from Patrick, she finally gets it together and takes the boys out for a walk along the river. The babies are kidnapped–quickly found in the brush. But, the creatures now looking out of their eyes aren’t Lauren’s babies any longer. What does she need to do?

This is the classic changeling story, placed into a modern setting. Best points are the depth of the characterizations, the details of Lauren’s postpartum struggle, and the uncertainty throughout the whole thing about whether Lauren is suffering from postpartum psychosis or whether the crazy woman who wants the babies really is fay. There are some other themes here, too, including how women struggle with the heavy responsibilities of motherhood and how bonding can so easily turn to an unhealthy anxiety. Police investigator Joanna Harper follows up with research on historical events that suggest the problem is a recurring issue in this locale, and the narrative dips into some real horror as Lauren falls into the clutches of the mental health establishment.

It’s hard to find something to say on the less positive side of this. Maybe Joanna’s background seems slightly contrived. The author is trying to give us reasons why she’s so obsessed by the case, but she comes off more rebellious than conscientious, and not always a clear thinker. Patrick is something of a stereotype, too, put through some unflattering motions.

Regardless of little niggles, this story really delivers the goods. It’s no surprise it’s won the Dragon and been picked up for a film.

Five 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 Black Helicopters by Caitlin R. Kiernan

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This is a science fiction/fantasy/horror novella published by Tor in May of 2018. According to the description it’s “the expanded and completed version of the World Fantasy Award-nominated original,” and leaning to Lovecraftian horror. The original chapbook was published in 2013 by Subterranean Press, and this version runs 208 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Near Deer Isle, off the coast of New England, a fallen star has poisoned the sea. Authorities evacuate everyone they can, blow up the bridge and fire rockets from Black Hawk helicopters, but still fail to stop the Great Old Ones from rising out of the sea. The agent Ptolema waits at a pub in Dublin for agents from the other side, who have maybe turned, but maybe not. When they arrive, she plays a recording that alarms them. In a later meeting, one of the agents identifies the important characters in the recording as psychiatrist Dr. Twisby and albino twins. The twins, Bête and Ivorie, are the result of sadistic experiments, lovers, and maybe entangled quantum particles on the run in a chaotic universe. Ptolema later assassinates the two agents she spoke with. Twisby has Ivorie killed, collapsing the twin souls into Bête. Years later, the White Woman drops the vial that poisons the sea.

On the positive side, this seems to have a theme. The agents apparently represent chaos versus order, playing a symbolic chess game with butterfly effects through the years. There are layers of post-modern symbolism where we encounter various literary allusions, a chess game, quantum entanglements and a time loop. The characters are very well developed, and given a recognizable conflict to work with, might actually be likable. The author provides chapter headings that describe place and time—somewhat helpful to track the way this skips around.

On the not so positive side, this has serious readability issues. The story gets off to a promising start with Ptolema and the two agents in Dublin, but after that, it pretty much collapses into chaos. Although there are a couple of linear threads that weave through it, most of the chapters seem nonsensical and unrelated; put together, they achieve no apparent meaning. Be prepared to break out your French language; one chapter is written almost entirely in French. There’s some gratuitous sickness here, too, where a production company streams seppuku type suicides. (The victim hesitates, maybe not sedated enough…) Ick.

Two stars.

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