Review of “The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s science fiction and was published by Clarkesworld, September 2017. This review may contain spoilers.

Multi Bot 9 is wakened from storage to remove a “biological infestation” on the ship. It sets to work pursuing the vermin, which is highly destructive, something like a rat and something like a bug. Bot 9 is obsolete, and notices its job is 944 in the maintenance queue. This suggests the ship needs a lot of work. There are lots of newer bots working on the maintenance and Bot 9 makes their acquaintance, as well as chatting with the ship’s AI. Soon it realizes that the ship is a junker, has a minimal human crew and is on a final suicide mission to save humanity from an alien invasion. Can Bot 9 fix that problem, too?

Bot 9 is endearing because of its totally positive attitude, regardless of how nasty the vermin. Its abilities might be limited compared to later models and Captain Baraye calls the model “unstable,” but its primitive manufacture also allows for reconfiguration and improvisation. When you transfer this theme to the real world, the story demonstrates the kind of gung-ho spirit and creativity that solves even the toughest problems. The narrative switches back and forth between the desperate humans trying to carry out their mission on a crippled ship and the bots trying to fix it well enough to carry out the planned suicide. The bot interactions add humor, and of course the humans are totally flabbergasted when 9’s activities are revealed. The plotting and execution here are both creative and entertaining.

On the not so great side, this has the fairly standard failing of making the bots and the ship’s AI too human in their interactions. That means it fails on suspension of disbelief. The ship’s AI, especially, comes across as an indulgent parent figure that makes good-hearted threats to the bots and lies to the human crew. At the end of the story, we get the impression that 9 plans to ignore its orders like a willful child. Besides that, I didn’t think there was enough of a rising action line to support the story’s length. Nine’s pursuit of the ratbug gets routine fairly quickly and seeing the incident from its perspective insulates the reader from the drama of the human’s situation.

Four stars.

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Review of “Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon

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This short story is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s fantasy and was published by Uncanny Magazine.

Allpa dying grandmother gives him a magic sword that contains three warrior spirits: Sun, Moon and Dust. When Allpa draws the sword the three of them appear and try to carry out their mission of turning him into a heroic warrior. Allpa is a potato farmer and there is no current threat to the kingdom, so Allpa isn’t really interested in this, but he goes along just to make them happy. How can he deal with the three of them and tend to his crop at the same time?

This isn’t quite Vernon’s standard fare, but it does contain something of the same philosophy, which is the value of everyday people and everyday ways of making a living. In this case, she has turned the usual heroic fantasy story on its head, where the lowly farmer rejects the opportunity to become a heroic warrior, bored with the difficult training and worrying about his potato crop. There’s also something of an investigation of the opportunity cost involved, as Moon comments on what he’s given up to become a warrior and the two of them form a bond.

On the not so good side, there are some reality check issues here. First, I’m wondering why Allpa isn’t taking care of his own grandmother. It’s a very recent innovation that the elderly are farmed out to caregivers, and the traditional family puts anybody to work who can help with the chores. In a farming community, it takes a lot of labor to bring in the crop, so I’m expecting Allpa’s grandmother would have dropped dead in the potato field instead of dying in bed. How was she wealthy enough to pay a caregiver anyway? Next, Allpa rushes home from her funeral to water his wilted plants at mid-day. This is not advisable—at mid-day water evaporates instead of sinking in. Also, potatoes are a tuber crop, so they won’t normally wilt unless they’re diseased. If his crops need irrigation, then Allpa ought to do better than carry water in a bucket. In other words, he doesn’t know squat about farming.

What the story had to say was interesting, but the reality check issues detracted from the substance of the story. It came off a bit thin.

Three and a half stars.

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Review of Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

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This is volume 2 of The Murderbot Diaries, begun in 2017 with the entertaining and award winning All Systems Red. It’s a novella published by Tor/MacMillian and runs 160 pages. This review may contain spoilers.

Murderbot has successfully escaped a quiet existence at PreservationAux and set out to find what its dark half-memories of a massacre are about. The transport it hitched a ride on arrives in port, and Murderbot transfers to another outbound transport, headed for the Ganaka mining pit where it thinks the massacre took place. This time, however, it has hit on a highly intelligent research vessel hired out for transport by its university. The two of them get off to a rough start, but ART (Asshole Research Transport) eventually comes around to the point of helping with Murderbot’s mission. Murderbot hires out as a security consultant to a group of young humans trying to get their research files back from a local company that confiscated them. This is intended for emigration purposes, but Murderbot gets involved in their problem. Meanwhile, news that it’s a rogue SecUnit has emerged. Can it keep the kids alive and find out about its past before the authorities catch up with it?

Good points: The interactions with ART are pretty much a necessity to deal with the realities here. ART challenges Murderbot’s stubborn, poorly thought out assumptions about how it can masquerade as a human and get to Ganaka Pit to find out what happened there. ART is a great character with some pretty transparent failings itself, and the two of them turn out to be a good team. Murderbot contracts for work itself and shows the same empathy and responsibility on the job that it showed for the last set of clients, which is the heart-warming part.

On the not so good side: It looks like the four installments of this will make up a full-length novel, but each installment is priced like a full-length novel. This installment feels short and incompletely developed (i.e. not worth the price), but hopefully the further installments will integrate it into the story better. I’m of the opinion that events and characters shouldn’t be introduced unless they’re going to contribute to the overall plot. In this case, it appears that Murderbot has rescued the kids and their files and neutralized all threats against them. However, this company had better be part of the Ganaka Pit problem, or else it’s just leading the reader on. As the novella ends, there’s no indication of this connection.

Three stars.

Review of “Wind Will Rove” by Sarah Pinsker

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s science fiction and was published in Asimov’s September/October 2017 issue. This review contains spoilers.

Rosie Clay is a resident on a generation ship who teaches history and plays traditional fiddle in a weekly OldTime gathering. Rosie is third generation and never saw Earth, but she tries hard to maintain the history the ship has left. A few years out, a disgruntled programmer erased the databases of art, literature and history the ship carried, leaving the residents with nothing but memory to use in recreating them. Now the younger generations are starting to question why they’re required to learn and maintain this history when it is in no way useful to their own way of life. One group totally withdraws to form an artistic enclave and produce only new works. Is there any reason to save the past?

This isn’t just a question that people on a generation ship are asking. When should people expend resources trying to preserve the past and when should it all go in the trashcan? It’s a conflict between conservatives who want to preserve tradition and progressives who want to create a totally new future, all of it framed in music within this story. When Rosie accidentally creates a new song, she decides to document it carefully, creating a middle path. In the current political climate, this is a radical statement.

The music and efforts to recreate the past become the major players in the work. The story rambles, with Rosie’s narration moving from memories of her Grandmother Windy to music to events on the ship to encounters with students in her classroom. The author’s love of music comes through clearly, and anyone who has played in this kind of traditional group will share in her experience.

Not so good points: Because the narration centers so heavily around the music, generally the world building and the characters are poorly developed. We hear a lot about Windy and how she became a legend to the ship’s musicians, but know almost nothing about Rosie’s current family, the organization of the ship, the technology that runs it, etc. The conflict here is weak, too. The programmer’s act and the effort at recreation are both in the past, and at the point of the story, there’s nothing for Rosie to fight against except a minor rebellion in her classroom.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Dirty Old Town” by Richard Bowes

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This novelette is fantasy and a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It was published by F&SF magazine. The title of the story comes from a song by Ewan MacColl.

The narrator describes his childhood years growing up in an Irish neighborhood of Boston. He is bullied by boys from school, and his grandmother gives him a magic charm to protect himself. One of the boys is Eddie Mackey, but after his grandfather intervenes, the two become friends. Later Eddie goes off to the Vietnam War and then goes to acting school. When they meet again, the narrator is a playwright and Eddie is a young actor getting started. They become lovers, but then separate as Eddie goes off to Hollywood. Later they get back together after Eddie wins a Golden Globe for his work in a TV series called Dirty Old Town. Can they make one of Eddie’s dreams come true together?

This story is heavily character driven, without any real plot. The narrator talks about his childhood and the magic his grandparents shared, about struggling as a playwright and meeting Eddie off and on over the years. It’s a rambling reminiscence that comes together suddenly into a meaningful story at the end. It’s also metafiction to an extent, as the narrator includes sections he’s apparently written about similar characters.

Not so good points: The main complaints I’d have about this story is the length of the reminiscence and the liberal inclusion of metafiction, which I thought confused the storyline. Also, the magical workings here aren’t very well defined. Grandmother’s charm clearly works, but the rest of what the narrator considers magic is pretty nebulous. I’m thinking the dreams are symbolic rather than magical.

Four stars.

Review of The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang

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This novella is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It was released by Tor.com Publishing and is described as one of two stand-alone introductions to the fantasy Tensorate Series. The other book referenced is The Red Threads of Fortune.

Akeha is an extra child, an unexpected twin born to the Protector. Along with their twin, they are promised to the Grand Monastery, but as Mokoya develops a gift of prophesy, their mother wants them back, so Akeha comes, too. When their confirmation date arrives, Mokoya decides to become a woman and marry the new high priest of the Monastery, but Akeha decides to become a man. This further alienates him as his mother’s only son. He leaves the palace, and eventually finds himself aligned with the Machinist rebels fighting against the evils of the Protectorate. As events progress, the conflict begins to threaten Mokoya and her child. How can Akeha reconcile the demands of ideology with the family he loves?

There’s a clash here between the Monastery and the Protectorate on the one hand, and between the old order of magic and the new order of technology on the other. As this is only an introduction, there’s not much that happens in the way of development. We follow the children as they grow up together and then weather the rocky coming-of-age when they make the choice at confirmation that separates them. This process is not well explained. Apparently children in this world are born genderless, and their bodies are manipulated at confirmation to correspond to their choice. At least one character we meet did not undergo manipulation, but their sexual functioning isn’t addressed. As the novel ends, it feels like conflict is starting to heat up between the rebels and the Protectorate.

The plotting, prose, characterization and world-building here are adequate for a short novella. Even though the conflicts didn’t develop very far in this book, the tensions seem to be pretty well set up, and presumably the plot will thicken as we move into full length novels. The lack of a fully developed conflict is the biggest drawback to this story, as there’s not a lot at stake so far. People are just choosing up sides, which means there’s not much of a satisfying ending, either.

Three and a half stars.

Review of All Systems Red, Martha Wells

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This novella is a finalist for both the 2017 Nebula and the 2018 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor.com Publishing, and is also winner of the 2018 Alex Award. Three more installments in the Murderbot Diaries are scheduled for publication later in 2018.

Murderbot is bored. Most of the contracts it works on as a SecUnit are dull and boring. Because it has hacked its own governor module, it is able to access media while on the job, which is what it’s hoping to do today. However, this doesn’t work out because a giant, carnivorous worm suddenly erupts out of the crater where the team is taking samples and snaps up Dr. Bharadwaj. This requires a response, and has the unwanted effect of exposing Murderbot’s skills in a crisis to this particular group of the company’s clients. As problems continue on the contract, the team also discovers the hacked governor module. This is a serious problem that would normally result in a SecUnit being recycled. Can Murderbot solve the mystery of who’s trying to kill its human clients? Can it escape being stripped for parts?

This is extremely well set up. Murderbot is an AI security unit with cloned human parts, emotional capabilities and gun ports built in. There’s some dark episode in its past that the company techs have tried to wipe from memory that leads it to call itself Murderbot. (Presumably we’ll hear more of this.) The story is strongly plotted and the characters are extremely well drawn, from Murderbot itself to the touchy-feely team of clients that wants to help it get in touch with its human side. The worm is a great hook, and the ending is appropriately satisfying. It’s written in an engaging first person, which gives us Murderbot’s intimate, personal viewpoint on events. The SecUnits units are genderless, and (refreshingly) everybody goes right ahead and calls it an “it.”

Besides these strong points as a story, the novella investigates the issue of AI/human relations and AI ownership as a form of slavery. Murderbot is dangerous because it has established autonomy through hacking its own governor module—meaning humans are no longer able to control its behavior through punitive means. All the unit needs is a little shove to turn its attention from escapist media to actually dealing with humans on their own terms. And besides that, it’s got built-in weapons.

On the not so positive side: Even though the story is very engaging, some of this feels derivative. The worm reminds me pretty strongly of Dune, and the question of AI slavery is already pretty well investigated. Murderbot also sounds like the standard military killer robot unit, fairly indestructible, only updated with the “what if” of self-determination. Also, once discovered as a rogue unit, I thought its responses were a little too human.

Regardless of these little issues, this is pretty much everything I look for in SFF stories. I’m going to go five stars on it. Highly recommended.

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