Review of The Furthest Station by Ben Aaronovitch

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This is a paranormal novella published by Gollancz in 2018. The story is set after the fifth but before the sixth novel in the author’s Peter Grant series. This review contains spoilers.

Commuters on the Metropolitan line are reporting strange encounters, oddly dressed people who seem to be trying to deliver a message. The travelers call police, but tend to forget the whole thing before response can get there. Sergeant Jaget Kumar calls Peter Grant, investigator for London’s Special Assessment Unit (a.k.a. the Folly). Peter brings along the unit’s summer intern, his teenaged niece Abigail, plus Toby the dog for the ghost hunting operation. Can they figure out the message and lay the ghost to rest? And what about that odd child that turned up part way through the investigation?

Good points: Aaronovitch creates very warm and engaging characters. His vision of London is diverse, and the police are actually concerned about your problems—we’re sure they’re going to take care of all those things that go bump in the night. Besides that, the narrative features a lot of dry humor, beginning with the name of Grant’s unit, and continuing along in like vein. The story is engaging and carries you to a satisfying conclusion that also sets up future installments of the series.

On the not so positive side, there nothing memorable here. It’s a warm, feel-good story without anything much in the way of depth or social commentary. The diversity itself is a kind of comment, of course, but like the humor, it’s understated. As someone who doesn’t follow this series, I’d liked to have a little more background on Abigail, who seems to be positioned in this installment for a future with the police.

Three and a half stars.

Review of the Clocktaur War by T. Kingfisher

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This two book fantasy series by T. Kingfisher (a.k.a. Ursula Vernon) includes The Clockwork Boys (2017) and The Wonder Engine (2018). This set appears to be self-published.Vernon appears as an award finalist fairly often for her shorter works, and generally the stories are good enough that I’ve been meaning to read more of her work, so here we are. This review likely includes spoilers.

The Dowager Queen is getting frantic, as an army of mechanical centaurs called Clockwork Boys is devastating her kingdom. Previous expeditions have been unsuccessful in dealing with the problem, so the queen commissions a squad of criminals to go after the creatures at their source. This includes Slate, a forger, Brenner, an assassin and her former lover, Sir Caliban, a demon-possessed knight, and the Learned Edmund, a scholar of the church. This motley crew (except Edmund) is outfitted with magical, flesh-eating tattoos and set off on a journey to perform the impossible in Anuket City. Can they live through actually riding horses? Can they stop the war? Destroy the Clockwork Boys?

The best thing about this series is the humor. There are plenty of snarky comments in general, especially from Brenner, as romantic interest starts to develop between Slate and Sir Caliban. I actually laughed out loud as Slate and Brenner resort to palliative drugs to alleviate the saddle weariness. The plot is character-driven, reasonably complex and moves along pretty smartly, as the crew deals with threats along the journey and picks up the gnole Grimehug. There’s enough imagery and world-building to make Anuket City, and especially the gray market, come alive. It all works out to a surprisingly reasonable conclusion, considering the apparent impossibility of the task.

On the not so great side, the humor eventually got to be a bit much, along with the suspension of disbelief. The tipping point for me was in book 2, and had to do with the gnoles, a race of creatures apparently employed in the city for menial labor. They’re treated as inferior, but Slate and Grimehug form an instant bond, maybe because she treats em with respect? Whatever, there’s enough here to indicate the gnoles have a complex society and should have an agenda of their own—this is an entirely different story. Meanwhile, I can’t see why this bunch of dustmops would be happy to serve Slate and her team just because they’re asked. Plus, they lighten the plot too much when it should be getting darker and more serious.

The world-building here seems to borrow a lot from Bujold’s Penric series, including the demon possession, the gods and the structure of the church. The artisan works in Anuket don’t quite fit in. Why aren’t they widely marketed? Why don’t we see them elsewhere? And finally, I wasn’t really surprised by the plot-twist involving Brenner—I just don’t know why the other characters didn’t see it.

Niggles notwithstanding, this was fairly enjoyable. Four stars for the humor.

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 “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.

Review of “Utopia LOL?” By Jaime Wahls

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This short story is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award, published by Strange Horizons. According to the biography with the story, Wahls works for the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, a nonprofit corporation that does basic research on the question of how to make super-intelligent machines safe and beneficial. This review contains spoilers.

Kit is the Tour Guide to the Future and full of enthusiasm for her job. When Charlie is thawed out after “like billions” of years in cold storage, she is there to towel him off, get his cancer fixed and give him an introduction to life as it is now. She introduces him to the AI Allocator and offers him simulated Universes to live in. Charlie is unhappy with life as a bird and rejects Kit’s recommendation that he try floor tiles, and chooses a LOTR universe instead. After a few years, Charlie is bored silly, and Kit and the Allocator have to find something else to fill his need to be productive. Would Charlie be interested in a star probe?

In case you can’t tell from the summary, this is humor. Kit is a total airhead, and likes to be a floor tile because it allows her to form complete thoughts. The story also pillories social media, cos players, over-obsessive fans, smug perfect people, gamers and various other unproductive devotees of popular culture. There is also a serious side, as the Allocator is in charge of providing for humanity. It is constrained by its programming and facing the issue of overpopulation and the ongoing destruction of Earth. If they’re all like Kit, maybe humanity is well on the way to self-destruction, too. The stock of humans in cryostorage represents a resource to deal with these crises. This is pretty clear, but then the story goes off the rails into vagueness at the end when they start talking about a memory wipe for Kit.

I didn’t understand this, so I went looking for other opinions. The best explanation I found was that Kit is valuable for her total air headedness and her enthusiasm, and Allocator wants to preserve this for its next candidate for revival. Presumably this is because of its programming, which requires that humans have to want something from it and provide affirmative consent to its recommendations, and that Kit has a predictable effect on the old-timers. This doesn’t quite hold water for me.

Humans in this future (except the cold storage ones) are post-Singularity, only an uploaded digitized consciousness. I can accept that Allocator’s resources are running low to support the human population, but I don’t see how a digitized consciousness can reproduce at all, much less at an unmanageable rate. Also, I don’t see how Allocator can memory-wipe a digitized consciousness without altering what she is. Couldn’t it just produce a disposable copy? And what’s the deal with sending just one person off on a star probe? If they find a great place, how is one person going to procreate? Cloning? Who’s going to be in charge of this? Hm.

Regardless of the niggling logical failures, this is a hugely successful story because of the scope and humor.

Four and a half stars.

Review of Super Extra Grande by Yoss

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If you’re unfamiliar with Yoss, he’s a Cuban writer. This novel is humorous science fiction, translated by David Fry and published by Restless Books. It’s short, running around 160 pages, and it didn’t make the Nebula Recommended Reading List. It’s just for fun.

Dr. Jan Amos Sangan Dongo is a very large man, so it’s only natural that his interest in biology leads him to become Veterinarian to the Giants. This story details a couple of his adventures in finding a missing bracelet in the gut of a giant Tsunami sea worm and rescuing two ambassador-folk from the innards of an even more gigantic laketon (similar to an amoeba). Sangan Dongo is successful in both ventures, happily, and settles down with the two ambassadors, who prove to be interesting (and gratifying) love interests.

This is sort of different. The story rambles along, in no way serious, and presents background on the narrator’s parents, how faster-than-light travel was invented by an Ecuadorean Jesuit and various alien species that humans have met “out there.” It’s also full of jokes, like the narrator’s name, meaning “really big” in Cuban slang (you get the idea), aliens with lots of breasts, and various jabs at gringos. Most interesting feature: The dialog is written in Spanglish. I’ve never encountered this before, but found it entertaining and very readable with only a rudimentary understanding of Spanish.

Highly recommended. Three stars.

Review of The Builders by Daniel Polansky

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Warrior
This is a 2016 Hugo Finalist in the Best Novella category. It was published by Tor.com.

The Captain is a mouse with a mission. He searches out members of his old gang, getting them together for one last effort ten years after the War of the Brothers. These characters include Boudica the opossum, Bonsoir the stoat, Cinnabar the salamander, Elf the owl, Gertrude the mole and Barley the badger, all retired desperados. The team cuts a swath of violent mayhem through the Gardens and into the Capitol where the Captain means to take his revenge on the Younger. There they meet his minions in the final battle.

Well, this is different. I’m not generally one for anthropomorphic characters, but this tale is so over-the-top that it just adds brilliance. If they weren’t animals, this would pass for a Sam Peckinpah Western. Minions are slaughtered right and left, though most of them seem to be rats. There are elements of humor and satire. It’s fun to read.

Four stars.

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