Review of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker

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This novel is science fiction/historical fantasy, published by Orbit in April of 2019, and runs 325 pages. It’s apparently successful enough to have triggered a sequel, How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, upcoming in August 2020. K.J. Parker (a pseudonym for British novelist Tom Holt) won the World Fantasy Award in 2012 and 2013 and has been nominated a couple of times since. This review contains major spoilers.

Orhan is a colonel in the corp of engineers, normally employed in building bridges and repairing aqueducts. He’s a former slave and a minority in the country, often at odds with authority, but adept at corruption—the sort of lying and cheating that is necessary to deal with the government supply lines. After a surprise attack in the city of Classis, he gets crosswise with authority figures, so takes his crew into the hinterlands to work on a bridge. When they return to the base at Colophon, Orhan finds the city under siege, the fleet blocked, the army decimated, the emperor non-functional, and himself the ranking officer in the city. Oops. Can he take control, put together a resistance from the panicked residents and design some quick engines for defense? And once he knows who’s behind the attack on the city, can he deal with the issues there?

On the positive side, this is wry and sharply entertaining. It’s written in first person and Orhan has a totally cynical view of government, petty tyrants and red tape. He’s also good at working all the angles; plus a solid engineer when it comes to building bridges and siege tech. He has a daughter that provides an emotional touch. The theme is also a standout. The subtext here is about racism and slavery, but the author has turned this backward from what we see in US society. Orhan is a milkface, brought by slavers into a country of dark-skinned bluebloods. He suffers discrimination and has a slight chip on his shoulder about the whole thing that affects his interactions. Regardless, he chooses to carry on with his responsibilities, trying hard to save his adopted city from a siege brought by what turns out to be another former slave out for revenge. This is subtle, but feels downright subversive to me in today’s political climate. Enough so that I looked up Orbit. It’s owned by Hachette Livre, a French company.

On the less positive side, there are a few minor issues. First, this has a slight mid-novel slump. It is highly entertaining during the set up, but once the defense organization within the city is up and running, there’s little for the residents to do except fight amongst themselves. This is messy and fails to produce any real furtherance of the story. The identity of Orhan’s daughter is revealed fairly late in the novel, which requires reinterpretation of events. And last, the dissonance in the slavery theme comes from Orhan’s parleys with his opponent, the former slave, but the light treatment here undermines the drama built up through the whole book to this point—this is the place where Orhan has to do some serious soul-searching about his race and position in society and for the author to make us wonder whether he’s going to support the society he lives in or tear it down. Still, the understatement is probably necessary because this is such a hot-button topic. In the era of cancel culture, somehow this novel has gone totally under the radar.

Highly recommended. Five stars.

Review of A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker

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This near-future science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Berkley on 10 September 2019 and runs 384 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Luce Cannon has the doubtful honor of playing the last live music show in the Before. That’s before plagues and terrorism led to anti-congregation laws and music and sports moved online in the After. Years later, one of her songs has a revival and generates enough royalties to fund an illegal performance venue. Rosemary Laws grew up in the After on a farm where everything was virtual hoodspace. In her tech support job for Superwally, she connects with a StageHoloLive (SHL) band and accepts an invitation to a holoconcert. Hooked, she quits her tech support job and gets accepted as a recruiter for SHL. She’s horrified to find they track her and call police raids down on the secret venues where she finds bands. When Luce’s club is raided, she goes back on the road solo, playing more secret clubs. She loses it at the gates of Graceland and is filmed by a drone, becoming a viral sensation, and Rosemary suddenly sees the future. Is there anything the two of them can do to defeat Superwally and StageHoloLive?

This novel is based on the novelette “Our Lady of the Open Road,” published by Asimov’s Magazine and winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novelette in 2015. First, this is absolutely prescient. Who would have thought Pinsker could so accurately forecast upcoming events? Only seven months from the release date of her novel, we’re already in the world she’s visualized—i.e. all the places where one would normally play music have closed up shop because of coronavirus. The novel length has a big advantage over the novelette, allowing space to better investigate and develop the themes the author presents in the original. The novel features Pinsker’s smooth, trademark style, and is heavily character driven. We especially get to feel for Rosemary, trapped in a world where she’s afraid to come out of virtual space and actually touch anyone, as she works toward independence and self-determination. The details ring true, as Pinsker is a musician as well as a writer, and clearly has experience at slogging it out in back rooms and cow pastures. A last note: this also echoes the Jewish experience in Nazi Germany, when Jewish musicians were barred from performing and forced into underground, illegal venues.

On the less positive side, there’s a definite sense of déjà vu here for anyone who has read Pinsker’s novelette. We get a nice warm feeling at the end that Rosemary and Luce are going to succeed, but that doesn’t consider the economic power of Superwally and SHL. It’s not Congress that sustains the status quo, but the economic interests behind it, instead. Luce Cannon’s stage name (a.k.a. loose cannon) seems a bit cliché, too. I don’t see how it enters into the story.

Four and a half stars.

Review of Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom by Ted Chiang

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This science fiction novella is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published in the author’s collection Exhalation by Knopf on 7 May 2019 and runs 70 pages. This review contains spoilers.

A new quantum technology “prism” makes it possible to communicate with one’s paraself in an alternate universe. Nat and Morrow run Selftalk, a shop where customers can pay to chat with themselves. At Dana’s support group, Lyle confesses how contacting his paraself has screwed up his life—his jealousy of his other self’s success is affecting is own actions for the worse. Morrow comes up with a plan to scam elderly people into giving him money for their paraselves, and sends Nat into the support group to try to buy Lyle’s prism, which he wants to sell at a high price to an accident survivor so they can contact their dead spouse. Will his plan work?

This is basically a thought piece. It consists of setting up the idea of the prisms to communicate between realities and then looking at possible social and personal impacts. One result might be research on probabilities, another might be scams, another might be the opportunity to collaborate with your alternate self, and another might be contacting a loved one who has died. There is a set of characters that threads through this, as Nat and Morrow try to run a scam where they buy Lyle’s prism because it’s well suited to connect accident survivors in different realities, but the investigation of possible scenarios seems to take precedence, finishing with a discussion of how choices shape character.

On the not so positive side, this comes across as clunky and underdeveloped. The characters are flat and the story never takes on any kind of life. Nat sees Morrow murdered, and there’s no drama; it makes no impression on her at all, and the narrative just skips to her calmly figuring out how she can continue the scam. Dana receives an anonymous gift at the end that leaves a faintly warm feeling for the reader, but it’s not enough to provide any kind of emotional heart for the work.

Two and a half stars.

Review of Snapshot by Brandon Sanderson

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This is a futuristic detective novella published in 2017 through Sanderson’s imprint Dragonsteel Entertainment. It runs 98 pages, and the film rights have been optioned by MGM. This review contains spoilers.

Anthony Davis and his partner Chaz are police detectives assigned to the Snapshot project. This is a technology that can recreate a city of 20 million for a single day as a resource for police investigations. Davis thinks the two of them have been taken off regular duty for this because of deficiencies—Chaz is rated too aggressive, and Davis isn’t aggressive enough. The two of them have been sent to investigate a crime that took place 10 days ago. They successfully locate a murder weapon, and then they have to wait for evening for their next assignment, a domestic dispute. Davis visits his son Hal, successfully avoiding his ex-wife, but then the two detectives get sidetracked when they run across evidence of a mass murderer, The Photographer. Headquarters orders them not to get involved, but feeling a sense of duty, they cautiously start an investigation. None of the people in the city are real so they can’t be really killed—except Davis and Chaz. Anything they do in the city causes deviations from reality. Is what they’re doing putting them at risk?

This is an entertaining read. It sets up the situation and some guys with problems and lets it play out. As usual with Sanderson’s work, it’s strongly plotted, with complexities and a sudden twist at the end that I wasn’t expecting. There’s an emotional component when Davis sneaks in the visit with his son, followed by later issues with his ex. The eventual face-to-face with The Photographer strongly suggests this might be a Snapshot of a Shapshot, in other words, an investigation of crimes committed within a previous Shapshot of the city.

The fact that both men have been taken off regular duty because of aggression issues mirrors a more developed discussion of this in Sanderson’s recent Skyward series. The repetition suggests it might be a recurring theme in his work, but there’s no real discussion of it here—Sanderson only presents the contrast, and maybe the difficulty of getting something like this right as an officer of the law.

On the not so positive side, I thought the sudden twist wasn’t that well supported by what had gone on before. It was foreshadowed some by The Photographer, but the conflict we saw didn’t quite build up enough motivation for the main characters. This could have also tied in better with the theme of aggression. What the mass murderer was doing didn’t quite make good sense, either. Still, these issues don’t detract from a good story.

Three and a half stars.

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 “The Last Conversation” by Paul Tremblay

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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. Tremblay is a Stoker Award winner. The story runs 56 pages, and this review contains spoilers.

You wake up in a room, feeling pain. You’ve been semi-awake for a long time, in and out of consciousness, and have memories about a house with a yellow room. A voice named Dr. Anne Kuhn tells you your immune system is compromised, and promises to take care of you. Function comes to you slowly, and Kuhn gives you a series of tasks to build up strength and muscle coordination. She reveals that in the past you were partners working at this biomedical facility, and takes you to a model of the house you remember. You get sick, and it seems you’re dying of a virus that originated at the facility. Dr. Kuhn wants you to give her permission to clone you and bring you back to life when you die. You say no, and you wake up in a room, feeling pain.

This story is circular, of course, and probably repeated numerous times. It’s written from the point of view of the ungendered subject/lab rat and so is very short on information. Kuhn says there aren’t many “blanks” left, and two other of her co-workers who survived have left the facility, but she doesn’t know what happened to them. This suggests a virus has escaped to the outside world, and Kuhn is obsessively working alone in the facility, trying to bring back someone who is important to her.

There’s not much plot or world-building here, and not much of an action line. It’s mostly experiential, as the subject/lab rat slowly progresses through Kuhn’s animation and rehab process. We get vague revelations at the end about what’s going on, but all of it remains unclear. There’s an undercurrent of tragedy, but it’s not fully expressed. I’m wondering about the point. If this is the apocalypse, why does Kuhn need any blank’s permission to clone their DNA? Who’s left to sanction her? I don’t get it.

Two and a half stars.

Review of “Ark” by Veronica Roth

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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. Roth is best known as the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Divergent trilogy. The story runs 39 pages, and this review contains spoilers.

An asteroid named Finis is on the way to strike the Earth. Scientists have known this for a long time, so Earth has been evacuated. All that’s left are two Arks based at the northern and southern hemisphere seed banks, where crews of scientists are trying to catalog and preserve as many unique plant samples as possible before leaving. Samantha works at the north seed bank in Svalbard. As she works, she remembers her father. Nils Hagen has a greenhouse on the site where he cultivates orchids, and Samantha strikes up a relationship. Nils isn’t planning to evacuate, and eventually Samantha makes that same decision. But meanwhile, has she found a new species of orchid?

This is mostly experiential. As far as I can tell, it’s joy in the endless variety of plant life on earth, and how poor humans are at appreciating and recording it. There’s not much plot or world building in the story, and only Samantha seems well-defined as a character. There’s not really an action line, either, as it rambles from Samantha’s work to her memories of the past to her encounters with Hagen. I’m left with questions including: How did they manage the evacuation? Did they take all the animals with them? I gather I’m supposed to appreciate that Samantha has made a human connection in the last days of the Earth, and that the two of them share the joy of finding a new plant, but this just didn’t strike me. It feels more like a vignette than a story.

Two 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 Numbercaste by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

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I was sort of taken by “Messenger” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi, a finalist on the 2019 Nebula ballot, so I went looking for more of Yudhanjaya’s work. This novel was originally self-published in 2017 and runs 300 pages. It was the winner of the 2017 Virtual FantasyCon Award. Yudhanjaya is Shri Lankan and has worked as a programmer, tech journalist and social researcher. This review contains spoilers.

It’s 2030 and Patrick Udo lives in Chicago where automation means jobs are scarce. At his mother’s funeral, he meets Julius Common, who wants his father to do marketing and publicity for NumberCorp. About the same time, Patrick’s banking app asks him to log in with his number and UN-ID, and to supply social media accounts. When he checks to see what’s behind the app, it’s NumberCorp, a six billion dollar financial tech company based in Silicon Valley. The UN-ID is a global blockchain-based ID system, and the number rates your social worth. Fascinated, Patrick takes the job instead of his dad, where he goes to work in the Communications department. They do battle with Facebook and win, go on to capture America. Patrick is transferred to a project in Sri Lanka, where he helps launch the number in South-East Asia, then Europe. Patrick becomes the company’s man as they launch campaigns to take India and China. The number will build a new world order, but is what they’re doing right?

This book isn’t exactly a page turner, but it’s well-written, inquiring and a little scary. It’s the flip side of Claire North’s The Sudden Appearance of Hope , but instead of the protagonist looking at the elitist rating system from the outside, Udo works for the company that’s building it. The plotting, world building and characterizations here are excellent, as the author outlines the people, events and campaigns that build the company into world dominance, and then shows its dark underbelly. Another item of interest: Although this is initially based in Silicon Valley, it doesn’t have an America-centric feel. Instead, it’s very global. Commons is an immigrant, and much of the story takes place in Europe and Asia. It ends, as it began, with the UN.

On the not so positive side, there’s not much of an action line here. The story just cooks along at a leisurely pace as the characters interact and the company mounts various campaigns that finally prevail. What is probably the climax passes, and Yudhanjaya, maybe needing to fill out more length for the manuscript, adds articles at the end that Udo wrote about the founder Julius Commons. In the end, this just gives you something scary to think about.

Recommended. Four and a half stars.

Review of the Film Yesterday

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This is an alternate reality romantic comedy film released in June of 2019 by Universal Pictures. It’s directed by Danny Boyle, written by Richard Curtis, and based on an original screenplay by Jack Barth and Mackenzie Crook. Himesh Patel makes his film debut as Jack Malik, and Lily James stars as Ellie Appleton, Kate McKinnon as Debra Hammer, Joel Fry as Rocky, and musician Ed Sheeran himself. This review contains spoilers.

Jack Malik trained as a teacher, but he’s trying to make it as a singer/songwriter instead. His childhood friend and fellow teacher Ellie works as his manager, getting him gigs at birthday parties and finally a festival, where attendance is so poor that Jack is ready to give up. He’s on the way home on his bike when the lights blink on a global scale. Jack is hit by a truck and wakes up in a hospital. His friends hold a little celebration when he gets out, and he finds they have never heard the song “Yesterday.” Actually, they’ve never heard of the Beatles at all, or Coca-Cola, or cigarettes. Seeing this as an opportunity, Jack starts playing Beatles songs for his gigs and soon attracts a bigger following. Ellie gets him a deal to record a demo for a record producer, and after he performs on TV, he’s approached by musician Ed Sheeran to open for a concert in Moscow. After the tour, Jack signs with agent/manager Debra Hammer and starts work on a double album of Beatles songs, which everyone thinks he wrote. All this success is causing stresses in his relationship with Ellie, and Jack is finally approached by two people who DO recognize the songs. He feels increasingly under pressure. Is he doing a disservice to the real John, Paul, George and Ringo in this new reality? Should he tell the truth about what he’s doing? Or go on to be rich and famous?

This is a great little romantic comedy based on the alternate reality premise, with a solid plot and just a touch of satire. Besides Jack’s struggling non-romance with Ellie, we’re offered the moral questions about his misrepresentations and how these are likely to affect him as a person. James is sweet as Ellie; McKinnon turns in a scary performance as the agent; Fry provides great moral support as roadie, and Sheeran does a pretty good job at playing himself. The huge standout is Patel, of course, who has a background in TV soap opera. He’s competent at the acting, but he really lights up the screen on the musical performances, which were recorded live with no overdubs. According to Boyle, this is why Patel was cast, and nobody seems to notice that he’s actually an African/Asian immigrant to the UK playing a part that was 100% certain to have been written for a white actor. In an interview, Boyle said this is an example of talent beating out the system. That’s also what makes this a different, standout film.

On the not so positive side, being a romantic comedy, this is fairly simplistic, and wends its way to the ending fairly uninterrupted by angst, violence or much in the way of action at all. That means it’s very predictable, given the premise, although Boyle does arrange for a couple of pleasant surprises.

Recommended. Should be very successful as a date movie.

Four and a half stars.

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