Review of Snapshot by Brandon Sanderson

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This is a futuristic detective novella published in 2017 through Sanderson’s imprint Dragonsteel Entertainment. It runs 98 pages, and the film rights have been optioned by MGM. This review contains spoilers.

Anthony Davis and his partner Chaz are police detectives assigned to the Snapshot project. This is a technology that can recreate a city of 20 million for a single day as a resource for police investigations. Davis thinks the two of them have been taken off regular duty for this because of deficiencies—Chaz is rated too aggressive, and Davis isn’t aggressive enough. The two of them have been sent to investigate a crime that took place 10 days ago. They successfully locate a murder weapon, and then they have to wait for evening for their next assignment, a domestic dispute. Davis visits his son Hal, successfully avoiding his ex-wife, but then the two detectives get sidetracked when they run across evidence of a mass murderer, The Photographer. Headquarters orders them not to get involved, but feeling a sense of duty, they cautiously start an investigation. None of the people in the city are real so they can’t be really killed—except Davis and Chaz. Anything they do in the city causes deviations from reality. Is what they’re doing putting them at risk?

This is an entertaining read. It sets up the situation and some guys with problems and lets it play out. As usual with Sanderson’s work, it’s strongly plotted, with complexities and a sudden twist at the end that I wasn’t expecting. There’s an emotional component when Davis sneaks in the visit with his son, followed by later issues with his ex. The eventual face-to-face with The Photographer strongly suggests this might be a Snapshot of a Shapshot, in other words, an investigation of crimes committed within a previous Shapshot of the city.

The fact that both men have been taken off regular duty because of aggression issues mirrors a more developed discussion of this in Sanderson’s recent Skyward series. The repetition suggests it might be a recurring theme in his work, but there’s no real discussion of it here—Sanderson only presents the contrast, and maybe the difficulty of getting something like this right as an officer of the law.

On the not so positive side, I thought the sudden twist wasn’t that well supported by what had gone on before. It was foreshadowed some by The Photographer, but the conflict we saw didn’t quite build up enough motivation for the main characters. This could have also tied in better with the theme of aggression. What the mass murderer was doing didn’t quite make good sense, either. Still, these issues don’t detract from a good story.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Obsolescence” by Martha Wells

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This short story is based in the Murderbot universe, and appears in the anthology Take Us to a Better Place, released by Melcher Media on January 21, 2020. This review contains spoilers.

Jixy is an administrator at Kidland Station, somewhere in space. She is first alerted to a problem by screaming children, and finds, to her horror, that Greggy seems to have had a terrible accident. It’s a messy cleanup job, and worse, it looks like some of his components have been stolen. Greggy was a retired exploration rover, an early version of a human-machine construct, who was working at Kidland Station in a second career as a teaching assistant. Suspecting that Greggy might have been attacked by an unauthorized visitor, Jixy puts the station in emergency mode and orders a search of the module. It’s a scary situation, as everybody remembers stories of raiders that attack people to steal their prostheses and augments. Can Jixy find whoever is responsible before they strike again?

On the positive side, this story follows up on information we’ve gotten from Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series. One reason that Murderbot tries so hard to blend in with the human population is that it’s concerned about being identified as a rogue construct without any rights, which would be fair game for a chop shop gang. Murderbot also mentions the exploration rovers as an early example of human-bot constructs. Generally these were people who had suffered some highly debilitating accident and were offered the chance for reconstruction to help establish the first bases on Luna and Mars.

On the not so positive side, this suffers greatly from lack of Murderbot. Without its wry observances, the story fails to generate anything much in the way of interest. The vision of Greggy floating in his own remains is somewhat horrific, as is the perpetrator, but otherwise, I’m not sure of the point here. That transhumans will get obsolete the way an old car does? Well okay, maybe so. It’s a bit short on details, too.

Three stars.

Review of Infinite Lives: Short Tales of Longevity, edited by Juliana Rew

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This anthology is #26 in the series, issued in October of 2019, a collection of speculative fiction short stories related in some way to long life or immortality. It’s edited by Juliana Rew and is offered as both an e-book and a paperback. There are 28 stories that range across genres, and the book includes some short humor pieces at the end. This review may contain spoilers.

Third Flatiron Anthologies is now pretty well-established as a source for solid, well-written stories, without the heavy political messages that sometimes turn up in SFF works. I’d love to mention all the stories but I don’t have the space here. The selections include “Tunnels” by Brian Trent about a long-lived man looking for the woman of his dreams; “A Billion Bodies More” by Sloan Leong where a woman dies a million deaths; “At the Precipice of Eternity” by Ingrid Garcia about an alien nano-swarm that communicates with a Madrid-based scientist; “Abe in Yosemite” by Robert Walton where Abe Lincoln and John Muir have a conversation about that event at the theater; “Cold Iron” by Wulf Moon about a Spaniard and an Indio woman trying to lay the Conquistador Pizzaro to a final rest; and “Find Her” by Konstantine Paradias, where an angel and a demon fight one another through eternity. The short humor pieces provide a laugh at the end, including letters to an Airbnb host and a listing of “best-selling” items from (ghost story writer) M.R. James’ collectibles catalog.

These offerings follow that standard, including everything from hard SF to out-and-out mythology. The cast of writers is diverse and international. Authors include: Brian Trent, Sloane Leong, Matt Thompson, J. B. Toner, Larry C. Kay, David F. Schultz, D. A. Campisi, Russell Dorn, Samson Stormcrow Hayes, Ingrid Garcia, Maureen Bowden, Brandon Butler, Caias Ward, Leah Miller, Megan Branning, Robert Walton, K. G. Anderson, Louis Evans, John Paul Davies, David Cleden, Tom Pappalardo, Philip John Schweitzer, Martin M. Clark, Wulf Moon, Mack Moyer, Konstantine Paradias, E. E. King, and Sarah Totton.

Four stars.

Review of Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

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This novel is science fiction and #2 in the Skyward series, following the novel Skyward. It was released by Tor in November of 2019 and runs 461 pages. This review contains spoilers.

At the end of Skyward, Spensa Nightshade has found that reality is a long way from what she’s always believed. Humans have been imprisoned on Detritus, guarded by the Krell, and Spensa has found she has cytonic abilities to hear and teleport ships through the Nowhere—the method her ancestors used to get around in space, which can be amplified by an unknown “cytonic hyperdrive.” As the humans have made advances into space, conflict with the Krell has increased. Human techs locate a video on one of the orbiting space platforms and, watching it, Spensa has a terrifying vision of delvers (inhabitants of the Nowhere). She screams cytonically and accidentally contacts an alien pilot, who hyperjumps into Detritus space. The ship is damaged by the automated guns on the platforms. Hoping to capture its hyperdrive, Spensa and her Skyward flight try to rescue the ship, but find there’s no hyperdrive aboard. The pilot is injured in the crash landing, but gives Spensa coordinates for Skysight, the center of alien government. Spensa and her flight leader Jorgen make a quick decision, and Spensa disguises herself as the injured pilot, then uses the coordinates and her cytonic ability to hyperjump there. She is welcomed by Cuna, a representative of the Superiority, and enters a training program to provide fighter pilots for the Superiority, supposedly to defend against the delvers. With the help of her ship’s AI M-bot and Doomslug, her odd pet that has stowed away, Spensa tries to navigate the alien politics and manages to make friends with various representatives of the “inferior” races Cuna has assembled into his fighter units. Spensa builds a spy drone from a cleaning bot and finally learns the secret of the hyperdrives. She gets caught with the drone, but there’s a coup afoot in the Superiority government. Can Spensa save Detritus, rescue M-bot and Doomslug and get away?

This is a really condensed summary, of course. The novel has a great plot, full of twists, turns and revelations. The characters are very well developed, full of alien idiosyncrasies, and the action/suspense starts up right at the beginning, making this a pretty gripping read. Spensa operates by the skin of her teeth, developing into a leader herself within the assembly of misfits that makes up her new flight. The book also features a constant undercurrent of discussion about aggression versus non-aggression and how each one affects a particular society. The Superiority prides itself on non-aggression, for example, but has to draft alien pilots to do the dirty work of defense. Meanwhile, they suppress these “inferior” races, keeping hyperdrives away from them so they can’t develop economically. Humans are painted as the real bad guys in the picture for their highly aggressive and dominant tendencies. Meanwhile, M-bot is finding ways to work around the programming that keeps him confined and enslaved. Will that turn out to be dangerous?

On the not so positive side, Skysight doesn’t seem that alien of a place, and some of this seems a little over-simplistic, especially the way Spensa interacts with the aliens and the way she develops a method to deal with the terrifying delvers. M-bot comes across as immature and sulky, and we all knew Doomslug was going to figure in this somehow, right?

Highly recommended.

Four and a half stars.

Review of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

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This film is Episode IX in the Skywalker saga. It is #3 in the current trilogy of episodes, following The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017). It was directed by J.J. Abrams, produced by Lucasfilm and Bad Robot and released in December of 2019 by Walt Disney Studios. Stars include Daisy Ridley as Rey, Adam Driver as Ben/Kylo Ren, John Boyega as Finn, and Oscar Isaac as Poe. There are also appearances from Carrie Fisher as Leia, Mark Hamill as Luke, Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, Anthony Daniels as C-3PO, and Joonas Suotamo as Chewbacca. Composer John Williams is featured as Oma Tres. This review contains spoilers.

Emperor Palpatine has returned and is building an armada on the planet Exegol. Kylo Ren captures a Sith wayfinder device that leads him to the Emperor, who demands that he kill Rey. Meanwhile, Rey is training to be a Jedi under Leia Organa. Finn and Poe obtain intel that Palpatine has returned, and a group of Renaissance fighters leaves on the Millennium Falcon in search of a wayfinder device so they can get to Exegol. On Pasaana they encounter Lando Calrissian, who gives them helpful information. Ren locates Rey through their Force bond and arrives on Pasaana, where Rey confronts him and Chewie is taken prisoner. C-3PO has seen the inscription that leads to the wayfinder, but is forbidden by its programming from translating. The group goes on to Kijimi to find a hacker, where Poe encounters an old friend/enemy Zorii. After obtaining the information, they mount an expedition to rescue Chewie from aboard an Imperial battleship. Ren tells Rey she is Emperor Palpatine’s granddaughter, and General Hux reveals himself to be a spy, allowing Chewie, Poe and Finn to escape. The group moves on to Kef Bir, where Rey locates the wayfinder on the remains of a wrecked Deathstar. Ren destroys the device and the two duel. Leia is dying and tries to reach Ren. Rey takes advantage of his distraction dring the duel and deals a killing blow, but then relents and heals him with her own life force. Upset by what she has done, Rey takes his ship to Ahch-To where she means to become a hermit like Luke, but Luke appears and convinces her she is wrong. She takes Luke’s ship and leaves for Exegol, where she expects to face the Emperor in a final battle. Is there any way the Renaissance can win?

In general this went very well. The actors have grown into their roles since the first film of this series, bringing a dignity and authority to their characters. It’s a fairly long movie at 1 hr. 22 min., but the plot keeps everybody moving, jumping from planet to planet in a quest to find the Emperor’s hidden stronghold. We encounter various colorful characters along the way while Rey and Ren keep up their personal conflict from within the Force. An interesting symbolism emerged when Rey was revealed as the Emperor’s granddaughter. She and Ren/Ben are a dyad within the Force, two sides of the same creature, presumably, we expect, representing good and evil. They grapple with love and hate and swing first one way and then the other, seeking for balance. Besides this excellent screenplay, Abrams has produced a visually artistic movie using both the live and CGI elements. He’s also made amends to the older fans, bringing back characters from the previous films, including Leia Organa, Han Solo, Lando Calrissian, Luke Skywalker and a host of others, through various glimpses and voices. The story ends, as it began, on Tatooine.

I was mostly pleased with this. On the not so positive side, the action sometimes seems a bit frantic; there were no quiet moments of reflection/decision, and it skips from world to world like driving down the street. Supposedly the Emperor’s battle fleet is docked within the planet’s atmosphere, but I wondered about action on the wing of one of the battleships. Shouldn’t the air be a little thin for that? Can’t the people inside the ship get out there to deal with things? And why do people keep disappearing? I know they’re supposed to be absorbed into the Force, but it still irks me.

Controversies: Others weren’t quite so happy with the screenplay. Social media producer Klaudia Amenabar complained on Twitter about Rey needing men to help her succeed when she should have been powerful enough to do it on her own. Joonas Suotamo (a.k.a. Chewie) replied, calling this toxic fandom, and a squabble ensued. See a summary article about it here. Also, I’ve seen some comments about this installment generating the widest split between fan and critic ratings of any of the Star Wars films: 86% to 54% positive at Rotten Tomatoes. This is a gap of 32 points, apparently for catering to the masses.

Although this film didn’t quite pack the sense of wonder the first Star Wars movie did, it’s a very satisfactory ending to the series. Highly recommended.

Five stars.

Wrap-up of the Forward Series Reviews

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This series is an interesting idea, and you have to give Blake Couch credit for self-actualization, as he’s apparently pitched the idea to Amazon, worked as its editor, and at the same time created an opportunity to feature his own work in the series. The writers are all prominent in one way or the other, and I expect they’ve written these stories by invitation.

Here’s the authors diversity count, as far as I can tell: 4 men, 2 women, 1 African American, 1 LGBTQ. That means it serves as an apparent vehicle for white men (who may need it, after all, in the current climate). This also comes across as something of a vanity project. For one thing, it features the editor’s story, and the whole series looks to provide a publicity appearance for other writers who are already prominent or up and coming so their prominence can rub off on one another. Jemisin and Towles came through with thoughtful pieces, and Weir wrote something entertaining for hard SF geeks, but I didn’t quite understand the point of the others, which seemed low on substance—maybe just a guaranteed sale that didn’t require much thought. On the bright side, this series advances science fiction as a genre, and novelettes as an art form. It also allows at least one hard SF writer (Weir) an opportunity for promotion of his work–always a good thing.

Novelettes seem to be underserved as an art form. I expect it’s an awkward length for some reason, too long to fit in to a magazine or anthology and too short to make a profit as a solo publication. Whatever, I predict Jemisin’s “Emergency Skin” will feature in next year’s awards cycle.

This provides light, quick reads for anyone looking to broaden their reading horizons and sample new authors.

Review of “You Have Arrived at Your Destination” by Amor Towles

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This is a science fiction novelette published by Amazon Original Stories in September of 2019, part of the Forward Collection edited by Blake Crouch. Towles is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow. The story runs 46 pages. This review contains major spoilers.

Sam and his wife Annie are investigating the possibility of conceiving a child with the help of Vitek, a fertility lab. Sam has an appointment with Dr. Gerhardt, who explains how the firm’s genetic engineering options might influence the life of the couple’s projected son. With the help of Sam’s wife, Gerhardt’s staff has prepared three possible scenarios of how their child might live out his life. Disturbed after the appointment, Sam begins to reconsider the way he’s lived his own life. Instead of meeting Annie, he stops at a bar, The Glass Half Full, where he gets drunk and confides what’s going on to the bartender Nick and his new friend Beezer. Beezer thinks Vitek is a division of Raytheon (the defense contractor). Sam has already provided a sample for Vitek, and he’s two hours late and now he’s really in trouble. He tries to reach Annie, but he can’t, so he goes back to Vitek and bangs on the door. Can he get his sample back?

There’s a certain amount of symbolism in this work, and some social commentary. It jumps around quite a bit, like it doesn’t know quite what it wants to accomplish, from Gerhardt explaining how conforming to societal expectations is so important, to the disturbing life scenarios, to Sam looking back and rating his own and his father’s lives, to his growing remoteness from Annie, and finally to the revelation that Vitek might not be just a fertility clinic. The story has been marking time to get to that point, but when it gets there, it feels profound.

The plot is a bit jumbled, and I didn’t get a good feel for either the setting or the characters—but, the whole thing seems to be about ideas. When we start trusting some corporation to genetically engineer our children, what are we really going to end up with?

Four stars.

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