Review of Network Effect by Martha Wells

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This is the hugely hyped sequel to the Murderbot Diaries series of novellas, a full-length novel at 346 pages. It was released by Tor/Macmillan on 5 May 2020 and immediately went to #3 on the NYT Bestseller list. It looks like another novella, Fugitive Telemetry (The Murderbot Diaries Book 6), is scheduled for release 27 April 2021. This review contains major spoilers.

Murderbot has contracted with Dr. Arada to provide security for her planetary marine survey. Just as they’re finishing up, they’re attacked by raiders, but MB holds them off and the research module takes off safely and docks with the orbiting baseship. They return to Preservation space, but as soon as they exit the wormhole, they’re attacked by another ship that tries to dock with the module. The baseship jettisons the module and escapes, and Arada, Overse, Ratthi and Thiago launch in the safepod, but MB and Dr. Mensah’s daughter Amena are caught by the attacking ship. Once within scanning distance, MB realizes the ship is ART (a.k.a. Perihelion), a university research vessel which helped it change its configuration and deal with things at Ganaka Pit in Artificial Condition. Clearly something bad has happened. ART is missing in action and the ship is being run by highly divergent humans who have installed their own operating system. MB wipes them out and destroys the new system, then reinstalls ART from a hidden file. The safepod has attached to the outside of the ship and gone through the wormhole with them, so the survey crew comes on board. Also onboard are two Barish-Estranza corporates, Ras and Eletra, who have crude implants that seem to allow external control. The ship has emerged into a system Eletra recognizes. Barish-Estranza has recently bought the planet and means to indenture the colonists, but the place is contaminated by alien remnants so two Barish-Estranza ships and ART, on a mission to liberate the colonists, were contaminated and taken over by an expanding hive mind. ART needed help, so it made up a plan to kidnap MB in Preservation space. Ras suddenly goes crazy and then dies, but they contact the Barish-Stranza main ship and transfer Eletra. Then they all look at the issue of how to find and rescue ART’s crew. Can it be done?

This has a lot of great points. It’s strongly plotted. The main characters are already established and it moves right along, revealing somewhat more about the characters, the corporate culture of the Rim and the adversarial free-hold planets. The counter play between ART and MB is entertaining. There are a couple of personal glimpses that are memorable and strongly dramatic. The final solution for defeating the hive mind is also creative. From all early reviews, this will be well received by fans.

On the not so positive side, this is probably the result of contracting to write a novel within a certain time limit and then getting too much advice on how to write it. I notice one early reviewer complained about pacing issues, but there are also problems with uneven characterization and questionable plot directions. Plus, this has ventured into subversive politics that some people won’t like (see Anders recent take on that). One cause of the problems is that there is a novella’s worth of material that’s missing from between Exit Strategy and this novel. Wells has folded some of it into interludes within the novel, but some of it is still just missing. The next problem is that this is stuffed too full of action when it should have been spread out over more novels/novellas. We start at the end of Arada’s survey, and MB is already upset and angry, something that’s unusual for it, which continues throughout. Thiago is either an idiot grand-stander, or else he and Arada have had a conflict about leadership through the whole survey mission. This is not clarified, and Thiago remains erratic and undefined. From this early emergency state, we continue right on into more emergencies, which ups the action/tension ante, but prevents the excellent story development and interpersonal conflicts that were characteristic of the novellas. There’s also very little additional character development for Arada and Overse, and hardly any at all for ART’s crew, clearly its major priority.

The wonderful, subtle, emerging quality about MB and ART is gone for this novel, and both characters act more human than not, just another one of the crew, haha. In the end, MB ends up failing dismally to rescue anybody, and has to be rescued itself. And then the politics: ART turns out to be only disguised as a research vessel. Its crew is traveling to planets controlled by corporate interests and trying to liberate the colonists by falsifying documents and then fighting in court about it. Regardless of abuses, falsifying documents is illegal, unethical, lowlife and pretty certain to provoke retaliation. This is not discussed. Plus, given the corporate responses we’ve seen, any organization that did this would need heavy security, heavy backing and really deep pockets. Also, if they’re not doing astronomical research, then why do they need an expensive AI like ART to run the ship? MB’s friends immediately support this activity, also questionable, as they should have learned their lesson from recent brushes with GrayCris and it’s ally Palisade. I’m also still wondering about the economic base of the freehold planets like Preservation. Where are they getting all this money to burn? Mensah shows up in a ship to rescue everybody, but what gives her the authority if she’s supposedly resigned as planetary leader? Is she somehow wealthy enough to pay for her own ship? And last, the corporates are fighting over this planet, even though it’s clearly contaminated by alien remnants. Isn’t it interdicted because of that? What gives?

I’m especially concerned about the issue here of promoting illegal and unethical actions to young readers as something their beloved characters support. Or even older readers, for that matter. It’s easy to slip into moral relativism and assume anything is okay as long as it’s done with good intentions. That’s really not so.

Two and a half stars.

Review of “Home” by Martha Wells

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Pre-orders of Wells’ novel Network Effect came with a bonus short story titled “Home: Habitat, Range, Niche, Territory.” This was released 5 May 2020 (I guess) by Tor, and I don’t have a page count, but it runs pretty short. This review contains spoilers.

Preservation Planetary Leader Ayda Mensah is suffering from PTSD from her recent experiences: first in GrayCris’s effort to murder her survey crew, and then being kidnapped and held as a bargaining chip at their corporate headquarters. The resulting highly dangerous escape and chase by Palisade didn’t help much, either. As the story opens, Ayda is in a discussion with Ephriam, council member and past-planetary leader about the wisdom of bringing a “product of corporate surveillance capitalism and authoritarian enforcement to the seat of our government.” He means the SecUnit Murderbot, of course. The conversation goes nowhere, but predicts similar conversations with the rest of the council. Ayda heads back to the team quarters on the station, where the team is trying to pull together their final report on the survey and make recommendations about their claim on the planet in question. Pin-Lee reviews the billing from the company and MB, always eavesdropping, realizes that Mensah has not completed the recommended trauma therapy. She leaves the team area to get more supplies for the coffee bar and encounters a strange reporter. MB is there immediately and scares the man away, reports him to station security. Waiting for security to arrive, they have a moment for a private conversation. What does Murderbot want from her?

This is a direct extension of the story contained in the MB novellas, a brief, personal glimpse of what Mensah hides behind her confident exterior, along with a review of events and what the council thinks about a SecUnit coming into Preservation space. It includes Wells’ emphasis on drama and relationships, and also subtly reveals the discrimination constructs experience, even in Preservation space, which is normally very welcoming to outsiders. Also, we get the most description of what MB looks like yet. The diaries are first person, and it doesn’t look at itself much.

On the less positive side, I’m wondering why Preservation is still considering exercise of their option on the surveyed planet when there were clearly alien remnants there. These are considered dangerous and interdicted. Also, I’m wondering what Preservation’s economy is based on that they seem so open-handed. Not only did Mensah have plenty of cash on hand to pay off the bond company’s increasing demands for bond payments in the GrayCris debacle, but it looks like lots of things there are provided free, including fairly comfortable lodging for travelers in a station that must have limited space. Economics rules, and nothing is ever really free.

Interestingly, this seems to come direct from the author’s keyboard, unedited and unproofed. It’s full of errors, including mis-spelled names. Ha.

Four stars.

Review of Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

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This science fiction/fantasy novel is a finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards. It was published by Tor.com on 7 May 2019 and runs 492 pages. Interestingly, McGuire says she tried to sell this book on spec, but couldn’t explain it to anybody, so had to write it to make the whole thing clear. This review contains spoilers.

Roger and Dodger are twin geniuses adopted by parents who live on different coasts. Roger’s talent is language, and Dodger’s is math. The children are quantum entangled, so by an early age, they’ve found they can talk to each other inside their heads. It’s fun to have an imaginary friend that will talk back to you, but when Roger mentions Dodger, a scary woman comes to the house and threatens to take him away from his parents. This is Leigh Barrow, an evil assistant to evil alchemist James Reed, who is churning out genetically engineering pairs of children in an attempt to achieve the Doctrine of Ethos and the Impossible City through a guide laid out in the children’s book Over the Woodward Wall by his creator A. Deborah Baker. Terrified, Roger withdraws from his interactions with Dodger, but later he actually meets her at a chess tournament. They somehow both end up attending Berkeley, and soon start to realize they’re really brother and sister and a possibly dangerous combination. Meanwhile, Reed is getting impatient with their slow development and thinks he has achieved a more promising and tractable pair of children. In order for that pair to fully mature, he needs to get rid of Roger and Dodger. Can they defeat him and his evil minions? And then what?

First some background: Middlegame in chess is the part of the game in between the opening and the endgame. The Doctrine of Ethos, defined by Pythagoras, is about balance, especially between language and mathematics. At the time this book was published, Over the Woodward Wall did not exist, but it is now a novella scheduled for publication on October 6, 2020, by Seanan McGuire, writing as A. Deborah Baker. In Middlegame, McGuire describes Baker as “the greatest alchemist in North America, spreading her calm propaganda masked as fantasy.” It’s an entertaining, tongue-in-cheek glimpse of the author.

The best part of this story is the developing lifetime relationship between Roger, Dodger, their parents and friends. The characterizations, for the most part, are excellent, and we feel the children’s pain of separation and loneliness as bright children, especially Dodger, who is the math genius. The author lives in the San Francisco Bay area, so we get detailed descriptions of the setting where most of the story takes place. I’ve encountered the themes and devices used here elsewhere over the last couple of years, but this is definitely a creative synthesis of what’s out there.

On the less positive side, this could be considered a thriller, but there’s not that much to the plot, and at 492 pages, it moves very slowly. The first couple of hundred pages were gripping, but I was tired before we got to the end. The narrative jumps back and forth in time and the timeline changes a couple of times, so you have to accept that events are not immutable. Luckily, the pivotal events seem to be fairly enduring. The novel is a tour-de-force as far as symbolic construction goes, but eventually I think it got stuffed a little too full of themes and ideas, where the asides start to distract from the main storyline. Reed, Barrow and the association of alchemists are only sketched in, when they might have been used to provide a stronger power struggle underlying the story. The pathway supposedly outlined in the children’s story remains totally vague, and the absurdist references to this eventually detract from the seriousness of the story. There’s a lot here, from advice to bright children, to finding balance, to maintaining your own ethics, to fighting evil, to understanding what to do with power. Although it has a science fictional framework, the inclusion of undefined alchemy and the powers granted by achieving the Doctrine of Ethos give it a strong fantasy feel.

Four and a half stars.

Review of “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” by Isabel Fall

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This story was published by Clarkesworld Magazine in January 2020 and subsequently removed after the author felt unsafe due to responses from the SFF community. It was followed by an apology from publisher Neil Clarke to readers who felt it was insensitive. The story is fairly long, coming in at approximately 7750 words. For anyone who is interested, it’s still available to read in the Internet archive here.

Barb is a somatic female who has had her gender identity modified by the US military so that she identifies as a Boeing AH-70 Apache Mystic attack helicopter. Her gunner Axis, apparently a somatic male, has also been modified to identify as armament, and the two of them are harnessed and catheterized into a sort of marriage as pilot and gunner. They are now airborne to carry out a mission against a Pear Mesa Budget Committee target. They take out a high school of unknown strategic value in the Mojave Desert, but Axis hesitates over the shot. Barb has already detected signs of stress, and wonders if Axis is questioning their gender identity as a gunner. Returning from the mission, they are detected by a fighter jet. Barb initiates evasive maneuvers, but fails to shake the jet. How can they survive long enough to get back to base?

This is one of the sort of creative, artistic, postmodern works that seems to be popular lately, where the author writes about seeming unrelated issues and the work eventually comes together to produce themes and meaning. Gender identity as an attack helicopter is actually an Internet meme that was designed to cast aspersions, but Fall has developed it into a story. In this case, there are two well-defined, solid characters and a gripping and effective plot, where the Apache takes out the target and then has to deal with pursuit from the fighter jet in order to get safely home. I have no experience at all to help me judge, but the flight jargon here sounds authentic. Besides this, we get a dash of world-building, background on how the US government ended up making war on a credit union’s AI, and a lot of discussion about gender identity issues—what it was like to be a woman; what it’s like to be a helicopter, non-binary, gay, trans; Barb’s relationship with Axis, and various other issues. One passage equates sex with violence.

This is a fairly complex project. As an action-adventure fan, I was pleased with the adventure story, and also the symbolic romance between pilot and gunner and the equation of sex and war. I was also entertained by the absurdist world where the US ends up making war on a credit union. The gender identity element was harder to integrate, though, and I didn’t think it worked that well. Identity is more than just gender, so the basic premise of mixing gender identity with military equipment didn’t quite work for me. Although it wasn’t showcased, this is an example of transhumanism enforced by the military.

There were some questions about who Isabel Fall might be. I’m sort of with the faction that believes this is an established writer using a pseudonym. Although it was only briefly published, I expect this one might be in the running for an award next year. Recommended for the creativity and ideas.

Four stars and a half stars.

Review of The Quantum Magician by Derek Kunsken

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This is Kunsken’s debut novel, a hard science fiction tale with an adventure bent. It was published by Solaris in October of 2018 and runs 500 pages. Book II of the series, The Quantum Garden, will be released in October 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Belarius Arjona is a transhuman homo quantus living in the 25th century. This means he is one of a genetically engineered race that can sense quantum states, and who can shift from normal to savant and fugue conditions for purposes of analysis. Arjona has problems controlling his fugue state, and as a result, he left the homo quantus research sanctuary at an early age to pursue life as con man. Because of his unique talents and highly successful reputation, Arjona is approached by the Union, a political entity that will pay a huge price to smuggle a fleet of warships through interstellar space in order to attack the Congregate. The Union ships are old, but refitted with a unique wormhole drive. Interested in the tech and the challenge both, Arjona takes the job, gets a talented crew together and sets a plan in motion. Will his team be successful? Or will they all die in the attempt?

Okay, so this is pretty amazing. First, the science, including the plan, the wormholes, the quantum perceptions and the projection of genetically engineered races, is all very well imagined, extensively described, and sounds completely plausible. Next, counter to the trend to totally plotless novels, this one is both complex and tightly plotted. (Yah!) Kunsken has set up Arjona’s plan in elaborate detail, including various fail-safe mechanisms, and then kicks the Rube Goldberg machine into motion so we can watch it all play out. This starts off slowly, as it takes Arjona half the book to analyze the job and assemble his team, but once the plan is underway, the story turns at least mildly gripping. We get a look at other engineered races besides homo quantus in this universe, a couple of which look pretty nightmarish. When things start to go wrong, of course Arjona has to leap into the breach, risking his own life to win the payoff.

On the not so positive side, there are some issues here with characterization, clarity and action line. Although some of the characters took on excellent color, Arjona and his love interest Cassie remain under-developed. They have almost no internal dialog. Arjona, especially, does not react to anything. We learn some about his background and personality from what the other characters say about him, but there’s really little to go by. Plus, Arjona doesn’t seem to pant, or sweat, or do anything, really, without a scientific analysis first. It’s like he stays in the savant stage—totally pristine and removed from any subjectivity. And Cassie is almost as bad–we don’t even know what they look like. Second, something about the way this is written makes is hard to follow. This may be related to the action line, but I ended up vague about the different political entities and about how the plot elements all fit together. Some of this may have to do with how I read the book—snippets at the car shop, more in the doctor’s office, etc., but somehow I doubt reading it again would bring these issues into better focus. The third problem is a flat action line. After the slow start, this book never really picks up much steam, and the climax, where there should have been a lot of suspense, turns out to be fairly sedate. This is somewhat saved by Arjona’s backup plan for the nightmarish-other-races thing, but I would have preferred more excitement in the plot execution instead. And last, I’m not sure “con man” is the best way to describe what Arjona does in this book. He seems more like an agent for hire to me.

Regardless, I’m hooked. I pre-ordered The Quantum Garden.

Four stars.

Review of “Messenger” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi

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This novelette is a finalist in the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is military SF/fantasy and was published in the anthology Expanding Universe, Vol. 4, edited by Craig Martelle and published by LMBPN Publishing. Virdi has been a finalist twice for a Dragon Award, once in 2016 for the fantasy novel Grave Measures, and again in 2017 for Dangerous Ways. Yudhanjaya Wijeratne is an established novelist, and this appears to be his first major award nomination. This review contains spoilers.

An asteroid called Messenger passes Earth; then another crashes into the moon, followed by an alien landing in Bangalore, India. Arjun Shetty is caught in the destruction and loses his wife and daughter. He is called up to fight and becomes one of the first Shikari called Vishnu, a giant cyborg warrior designed to fight the alien war machines. He brings down one of the machines in the ocean, drags it to shore where scientists are gathered to analyze it, and then suffers a malfunction—for a second he sees only the enemy, starts to fire on it again. Diagnostics can’t find anything wrong. An emergency in Bay 6 needs his attention. Bay 6 houses the Kali-Skikari, which has desynced and run amuck. Vishnu-Skikari destroys her, reports for debriefing and is sent in a transport back to Base. The transport is intercepted by war machines. Can Vishnu-Skikari defeat them?

I can see why these guys made the list of finalists. This is great stuff for a usually dull sub-genre—full of imagery, style and fire, featuring the Shikari cyborgs crashing over the line into violent godhood psychosis. Hm. Or are they? It’s is all pretty much steam-of-consciousness from Vishnu’s viewpoint, which gives us depth in understanding what goes on inside his systems. The other characters are poorly developed, but considering what Vishnu has become, their flatness and insignificance from his viewpoint is sort of understandable (and gets worse as the story goes on).

On the not so positive side, I’m not sure whose war machines attack Vishnu in the final battle. I suspect these are friendly forces, but a few better hints about this would have been helpful. And another little niggle: how many arms does Kali have? Four? Six? Or does she just sprout more as she needs them? Hm.

Recommended. Four and a half stars.

Review of Echopraxia by Peter Watts

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

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

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

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

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

Four stars.

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