Review of “Randomize” by Andy Weir

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This is a hard SF novelette published by Amazon Original Stories in September of 2019, part of the Forward Collection edited by Blake Crouch. Weir is an award-winning writer, best known for The Martian. The novelette runs 28 pages, and this review contains spoilers.

Edwin Rutledge owns the Babylon Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, and he finds his IT guy Nick Chen has shut down the keno game. This is costing the casino millions of dollars, but Chen explains that the rollout of the Model 707 quantum computer has made it possible to analyze the pseudo random number system of the current game. Rutledge agrees to buy a new quantum computing system to counter this possibility, and sales rep Prashant Singh arrives to see to its installation. It should make the casino’s game foolproof, but Singh’s wife Sumi has a plan to crack the system. Can she carry it off?

On the positive side, this has a really solid hard SF core. Weir spends some time going through the issue of random number generation for the game and how this would change, given a really powerful computing system that could generate actual random numbers. It also illustrates characteristics of quantum particles that make for the creative plan the ultra-bright Sumi comes up with. It has a slight, humorous feel as the characters maneuver through the game, with something of a surprise twist at the end.

On the not so positive side, the personalities here are a little flat. There’s good description and color, but we don’t get much about their past or what’s going on in their heads, so they don’t really take on a lot of life. This might have been better at novella length so we could get to know the characters better, especially Sumi.

Recommended for geeks.

Three 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 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 Doyle’s Law by Sam Roberts

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This is a hard science fiction novel, self-published by the author in November of 2018. It runs 486 pages. Roberts is an English writer, and this looks to be his first novel. This review contains spoilers, but I’ll try not to give too much away.

It’s 2142. The Neith is a space station in a high Venus orbit where scientist Jim Ryburn has spent a large part of his career conducting energy research. He’s getting slightly old and slightly alcoholic and his research has never produced anything at all of value. A decommissioning crew headed by Chief O’Connor has arrived and begun removing the station equipment for salvage. This is fairly typical all over the solar system. Without any means of really efficient spaceflight, maintaining the stations is just too expensive; plus, there’s no real way to get to the stars. A last shipment of ore comes in from Mercury on an automated hopper, and things start to go wrong. The hopper collides with the station, shifting its axis. Systems in the station begin to throw off alarms. The crew’s behavior starts to get erratic. Then, one of the airlocks blows out, throwing the station out of its orbit. What’s going on? Sabotage? Theft? Will someone come to rescue them before they fall into the planet? And what are those strange magnetic properties in the ore?

For anyone who’s wondering, Doyle’s Law as used in the book is apparently a play on Murphy’s Law, but not quite the same thing. It seems to be something like: “things that have happened, will happen.” This is a tight, entertaining plot with a major twist about midway and another at the end of the story that keeps the reader guessing. After the first twist, you can go along for the ride on most of it, but then the suspense builds up again at the end when you don’t know which way it’s going to go. The characters are engaging, especially Ryburn and Chief O’Connor, who ends up carrying most of the action, while at the same time trying to deal with his own failings as a leader.

On the not so positive side, I’d have preferred slightly more world-building. What’s here is adequate, and it’s a nice touch that everybody seems to work for soulless corporations, but I’d have liked a little more detail about what’s going on back home on Earth, and more on where this is headed in the future. I’m thinking everybody here is a little too trusting about that, but maybe the issue will be addressed in a sequel. It was a little uphill when the complexity started to build up, but that smoothed out about three-quarters of the way through. Also, the ending is the tidy, emotional wrap up that hard SF readers will expect, but I thought it was a little too pat. Things just don’t happen like that in real life.

Regardless of these little niggles, this is an entertaining, uplifting story about humanity’s quest for the stars. Recommended.

Four 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 Permafrost by Alistair Reynolds

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This is a novella published by Tor.com. It is hard science fiction and runs 176 pages. This review contains spoilers.

In 2080 an event called the Scouring started with the death of a few insect species, leading to a cascade of extinctions that eventually destroyed human food production. Seed banks have failed; most animal species have died out, and now humans are also facing extinction. A group of scientists establishes a base on the edge of the Arctic Circle in Russia, hoping to retrieve self-pollinating seeds from a research project in the past. They mean to implant half of a Luda pair in the brains of people in 2028 through MRI machines, and then install pilots from 2080 who can drive their bodies to successfully obtain and hide the seeds for retrieval in the future. One of the pilots drafted for the project is Valentina Lidova, whose mother was the mathematician who laid the groundwork for Luda pairs. Valentina successfully implants into the brain of a young woman named Tatiana, but very quickly the project starts to go wrong. Can the pilots and their subjects save humanity? What if they change history for the worse instead?

So, this is creative, character-driven, and also rates pretty high on the Ideation Scale. Plus, it’s also that rara avis, real, hard science fiction. I’ve reviewed a couple of Reynold’s books now, and I’m starting to think he’s going to be reliable for good, solid, character-driven SF stories. The idea of using particle pairs for time travel is real science. Einstein’s relativity and quantum states actually allows for this. Then Reynolds has created a crisis with particle pairs as the solution, plus sympathetic characters willing to stake their lives on carrying it out. These aren’t the usual story elements, either: the characters are Russian and Chinese and the protagonist Valentina is 70 years old and apparently in poor health. The action line starts with ugly events, clearly makes the point that this is a desperate situation, and the setting also contributes to the feel and atmosphere of the story, the Arctic base, the military presence and austerity recalling the Soviet Russia of the Cold War.

On the not so positive side, I didn’t connect very deeply with the characters. There were events here with a lot of heart that left me touched and impressed, but I didn’t get a good enough feel for the characters to carry the story into their future, for example. It could have been a little bit longer to allow for more of Valentina’s inner thoughts, desires and feelings, and something of what motivated the project director Cho. There are self-aware AIs here, too, that could have raised the stakes on sacrifice. I would have loved to have heard more from them.

Recommended. Four and a half stars.

Review of “Interview for the End of the World” by Rhett C. Bruno

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This short story is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is hard science fiction from the anthology Bridge Across the Stars, edited by Chris Pourteau and Rhett C. Bruno and published by Aethon Books in January of 2018. This review contains spoilers.

An asteroid is about to strike Earth, and Trass Industries is readying a ship to evacuate a group of 3000 humans that will establish a colony on Titan. A horde of people is camped outside the Arizona desert compound, hoping to make the grade for the project. Knowing he will bear the fate of everyone he doesn’t accept on his conscience, company director Darien Trass is conducting interviews, trying to sort out the best and the brightest of humanity to take along. As the launch date arrives, violence on Earth increases, and some other colony ships are destroyed by angry mobs. When they start loading the Trass ship, Darien’s daughter Kara alerts him to a problem: one of the accepted colonists Frank Drayton has attempted to smuggle his small daughter aboard. The mob outside has found out, and now they attack the compound, triggering retaliation from Trass security. The crew and passengers take refuge inside the ship, but now there are too many people on board. They need to launch now. What can they do?

This is a fairly standard hard SF setup, with a world-threatening event, a high-stakes tech problem and an emotional dilemma. There is some subtle foreshadowing in Drayton’s interview that suggests he’s lying about his family situation. I also liked the imagery that places the big, ugly asteroid in the night sky right alongside the moon.

On the less positive side, after reading a bunch of stories I thought were too long, I think this one is a little too short. There are some issues that could have added depth to the story if they’d been addressed. For one thing, the foreshadowing went a little too far, making the solution to the problem too obvious. The characters seem manipulated to suit the plot, which leads to suspension of disbelief issues. For example, I didn’t quite buy the fact that the elderly Trass could outrun the mob storming his compound. And why was his security so faithful? Clearly they were going to be left behind. Why didn’t they panic and storm the ship, too? I would have also expected panic from the passengers. This could have been quite a bit more complex.

Three stars.

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