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 Bot 9 is obsolete, and notices its job is 944 in the maintenance queue.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 The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. As best I can figure, it’s steampunk, and it’s published by Saga. The sequel, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club), was published in 2018.

After years of declining health, Mary Jekyll’s mother dies, leaving her alone and without any means of support. Among her papers, Mary finds payment of a monthly charity allowance that supports “Hyde.” Knowing there is still a reward for information leading to the capture and conviction of her father’s associate Edward Hyde, Mary contacts detective Sherlock Holmes, who is working on a murder case. Mary follows up and finds she has a sister raised by the charity, Diana Hyde. As Holmes and Watson continue their investigation, it seems that Edward Hyde could be a prime suspect. Assisting with their case, Mary and Diana discover other women created by unscrupulous scientists in a secret society, including Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein and Beatrice Rappaccini. Can the women band together to help solve the mystery of who’s murdering girls in the streets of London?

This is a very fun and readable mashup of vintage mad scientist tales, including both historical and fictional characters from the 19th century, along with the wonderful addition of Holmes and Watson to handle the murder investigation. It also has the feel and flow of these old novels, without being too weighty. The text includes asides where the characters discuss the writing of the manuscript, which is supposedly handled by Catherine Moreau. There are also messages about sexism during this period, especially having to do with women’s fashion.

Not so good points: The story avoids the obvious questions like the ethics of scientific experiments on live subjects, and on humans especially. The messages about women’s fashion were interesting, and reinforced a couple of times, but Goss didn’t manage to tie this to current issues. Women reading it will think “oh, it’s great that we don’t have to wear all those old corsets and long skirts anymore,” but miss the pressures for children to wear sexy clothes and for adult women to look like film stars when the fashion industry is built on the backs of third world labor.

Four and a half stars. Not deep, but very creative and fun to read.

Review of Autonomous by Analee Newitz

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s science fiction, published by Tor and runs 301 pages. This review includes spoilers.

Jack is a subversive. She started her career as a student opposing a pharmaceutical system that produces cures and lifestyle drugs for the wealthy at the expense of the poor. She ended up serving a term in prison when a protest went wrong, worked for a while in a lab that produced open source drugs and then drifted into piracy to fund her own research. Jack reverse engineers a recently released drug and finds that people are dying from her sales. Worse, IPC agents are now hot on her trail, specifically the violent and ruthless Eliasz and his robot partner Paladin. The two of them seem perfectly willing to cripple or kill all Jack’s friends and colleagues to get to her. Can Jack produce an anecdote to the dangerous drug she counterfitted? Can she escape with her life? Can Eliasz and Paladin find happiness with each other?

So, this is a pretty complex novel. First, although I’m not that great at identifying the fine points of political ideologies, I expect the subversives are anarchists. The pharmaceutical system sounds oddly familiar, something we might find in the US capitalist system, for example, and the notion that there should be no intellectual property rights isn’t exactly libertarian. In opposition, presumably the IPC agents are fascist.

Second, I also suspect there’s some meaning in the particular drug that Jack pirates. It’s a productivity enhancer that gives people pleasure in their work. Uncontrolled, as Jack has issued it, this produces a deadly addiction that causes people to work themselves to death. This also sounds familiar in the current landscape, where some states and countries are now passing laws that provide workers a right to work-life balance and freedom from the expectation they will always remain on call. Once Jack breaks the addiction, the people in the novel find they don’t really like to work at all.

Third, there is a subplot related to slavery. Jack picks up an indentured kid called Threezed (from the number branded on his neck) after she kills his master. The laws allowing humans to become indentured in this world parallel laws allowing the indenture of robots. As we follow Theezed’s experiences, it becomes clear this is a system for human trafficking, especially of disadvantaged children, with shades of student debt. Again, it’s impossible not to draw parallels with our own society. And, of course, the intelligent and self-aware Paladin is also enslaved and trafficked, a more obvious parallel.

Last, the relationship between Eliasz and Paladin comes across like some kind of weird Stockholm syndrome. Paladin is a hulking military model, with a human brain in its belly and gun ports in its chest. I wasn’t surprised that the violent Eliasz got off on this, but he mutters about not being a “faggot.” When he finds out Paladin’s brain is donated by a human woman, the relationship blooms, and he suggests that the genderless Paladin should choose to be female. In the end, the two of them run away together to find a new life on Mars.

The subversive counter culture that Newitz presents as challenging the pharmaceutical industry with open source drugs is initially attractive, except that the kids and researchers involved seem to be addicted to drugs the same as everyone else. I can’t trust any of them because I suspect they’re doped up and driven by the system. All efforts will come to naught, of course, because Big Pharma has such a stranglehold on the political system. Next, there’s the issue of intellectual property. For example, Newitz’s copyright on the novel is intellectual property, right? And then, there’s that thing with Paladin and Eliasz. So, this is satire.

Newitz is actually making fun of all these things? That’s refreshing. But it’s fairly complex fiction, of course, so probably there’s not that much risk that people will take offense at her treatment of trans robots.

Not so good points: The novel is intellectually very interesting and the characters are reasonably well-developed, but the larger world setting, including the political and economic sphere, is not well defined. There are a few points, suspiciously symbolic, which are not well supported. Also, the prose here is on the dry and matter-of-fact side. If there was supposed to be a hook, I couldn’t find it. Because of these issues, I had a really hard time getting started. I suspect the book would be a lot more readable with a different rendition.

Four 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 Ghost (Paladin of Shadows 1) by John Ringo

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Recently author John Ringo was bullied out of a special guest spot at ConCarolinas 2018, apparently on the basis of his Ghost series. This is a troubling development, as many of his attackers cited the sexual fantasies in his work as a reason they didn’t feel “safe” with him at the con. This year an explicit sexual fantasy is a legitimate finalist on the Nebula ballot, and 50 Shades of Grey is on the average gal’s reading list, so complaints about sexual fantasies are a little hard to fathom. However, this turns out to be a more complex issue than I first thought. It sort of deserves a conversation.

There are three novellas in the book Ghost, all with the theme of white slavery. The first one looks like satire, the second is pretty straight-forward S&M erotica and the last looks to be another possible satire on prostitutes and human trafficking. I can see why this has tightened a lot of people up. It’s definitely transgressive fiction. It’s disturbing, and the social commentary is wrapped up with erotica so it’s hard to separate the two. Regardless, I think they need to be separated. Just because someone writes about “rape fantasies” doesn’t mean they’re dangerous. If they are, then we need to be questioning whether E. L. James should appear at cons, too.

Novella 1: Winter Born
Retired Navy SEAL Mike Harmon is going to college on the GI Bill. As he’s headed home from class, he sees a girl get kidnapped. Without thinking, he grabs onto the van and hitches a ride. He rescues two girls and finds enough information to catch a plane leaving the airport with a “shipment” of more girls. He stows away and ends up at a base in the Middle East where terrorists are planning to torture the girls to death and stream the video on the internet. Mike has managed to contact Special Ops, but it will be hours before a rescue mission can get there. The terrorists have already started their torture. Mike quotes “rough men stand ready” (incorrectly attributed) and goes to work. Can he get to the (naked) girls and organize them to hold off the terrorists until rescue arrives? Can he get a good lay out of it?

Novella 2: Thunder Island
Mike gets a monetary reward for his work on the rescue, and decides to contract out his services a la Travis McGee. He buys a nice boat to live on and takes up fishing. When spring break rolls around, he picks up two girls and takes them out on the boat. They later take him up on an offer to cruise to the Bahamas, and turn out to be interested in S&M sex. Because they’re going out of US waters, Mike has them call their parents for copies of their birth certificates and to get permission for the S&M part. They have a great time on the boat, but then Mike gets a call about a nuclear weapon in Bahamian waters. Can he deal with it?

Novella 3: On the Darkside
Mike is in Eastern Europe where he’s apparently on a tour of brothels. An older hooker offers to sell him a nuclear weapon. He expresses his interest, but finds the old warhead has already been sold. Mike reaches his contact in the US and sets out to find the weapon. Chartering a jet, he heads to Bosnia, where he hangs around the slave market (which the US government pretends not to see) until he finds the van the weapon was transported in. The weapon is gone, so Mike books a whore for that night and treats her poorly, but she’s okay with it after he gives her a big tip. Mike looks at opportunities and decides the weapon is most likely going to be deployed in Paris during the Pope’s scheduled visit. He decides to buy the girl and takes her with him to Paris. Can he stop the nuke from going off? Will the girl be able to find a sugar daddy?

First, I’m impressed with the quality of Ringo’s writing. The basic Ghost stories are entertaining and character-driven, and you can tell the author likes strong women characters. He’s created a very appealing main character. Plus, he’s created some pretty decent satire, even if he has made his points with a sledge hammer.

My main concern with these novellas is that Ringo has had his appealing main character think a lot of politically incorrect stuff and act illegally in at least three instances (aside from killing a bunch of terrorists), which isn’t something I think you want to put out there without discussing consequences. This is something that kids have trouble with already, and I can see this kind of issue could create the reaction Ringo got recently about guesting at ConCarolinas. The first illegal act was battery on an unconscious woman; the second was serving alcohol to minors, and the third was buying a slave. A couple of these were part of the set up for his social messages, but the alcohol is really questionable. Aside from that, these are highly sexualized stories.

The book was published in 2005, and I’m a little surprised that Baen let this go through, but you can never tell when a #MeToo movement is going to come along and create a backlash. Unfortunately, you can’t unpublish something so Ringo is stuck with it. I looked up an interview he did about the book, which called this a “controversial stance” and he said he thinks it represents the viewpoint of his core audience.

Hm. As a counter to political correctness, I can buy that, but is he encouraging his fans to do illegal stuff? Is he complaining about the basis for the laws? Will fans read this and think it’s a fun fantasy, or will some of them take it as a serious primer on how to behave towards other people? Most readers are going to miss the satire. Will what he’s written encourage sexual violence? Mass murder?

Comments about it?

Review of “A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It was published in Clarkesworld and probably rates on the hard SF scale. It’s also finalist for the 2018 Hugo Awards.

Helena Li Yuanhui of Splendid Beef Enterprises makes beef forgeries for local restaurants. She had to leave the Hong Kong Scientific University Bioprinting Lab in a hurry after being blamed for an organ design that went wrong, and took the lab’s Sculpere 9410S printer with her so she could establish a livelihood when she got to Nanjing. An anonymous caller seems to have discovered this, and demands that she make 200 T-bone steaks for him gratis. Because she’s scared and the deadline is short, Helena hires Lily Yonezawa to assist, who says she has a background in baking. They hurry through designing the steaks, while Mr. Anonymous sends creepy threats, and eventually a hired thug to apply pressure. Helena has to admit to Lily what’s been going on. Can the two of them get the steaks done on time? Can they find out who Mr. Anonymous is? Sabotage his operation? Escape with their lives?

The plotting and world building here is excellent, as the author projects medical science, three-D printing and criminal possibilities into a smooth whole. The story also has a lot of humor and a distinctly Asian flair. Helena is struggling as an entry level criminal, but Lily is obviously well into it, complete with bunny-design accessories and ornate bracelets that double as brass knuckles.

On the negative side, all these people are somewhat over-the-top, which makes them caricatures. That feeds the humor and entertainment quality, of course, but it reduces the depth of characterization and keeps us from really getting into the characters’ heads.

Recommended. Four and a half stars.

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