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 Bot 9 is obsolete, and notices its job is 944 in the maintenance queue.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 “Extracurricular Activities” by Yoon Ha Lee

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s science fiction and was published by Tor.com. This is a stand-alone story that falls into Lee’s Machineries of Empire series. Novels in this universe include Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, both from Solaris, and Revenant Gun, coming soon.

The young Shuos Jedao is promised a promotion to moth commander if he can successfully carry out a special ops mission to rescue a crew captured by the Gwa-an and held at Du Station. Incidentally, Jedao went to space academy with the crew leader, Shuos Meng. Jedeo joins a merchant group which provides a cover, but apparent pirates turn out to be Gwa-an military. He allows himself to be arrested in order to infiltrate the station. Can he rescue Meng and the crew? And what should he do about that lusty fellow Techet?

This is more humorous than serious, starting with the shipment of goose fat from his mom that Jedeo takes for a bomb at the beginning, and ending with a final joke about the use Techet finds for the goose fat. The plotting is decent if not dramatic, including a twist ending. Lee drops the reader right into the universe without any explanation, so this becomes an experience in creative world-building. Since I’ve read a couple of Lee’s novels set in the universe at this point, it’s no longer new to me, but fresh readers are likely to be entertained by the complexity of the culture and the gender roles. The running joke about the goose fat and other lubricants is also amusing.

Not so good points: The complexity and lack of explanation will be hurdles for some readers. Also, I understand this is supposed to be humorous, but the particulars of the execution really stretched my suspension of disbelief—it’s just not convincing and actually comes off a bit slap-stick. Plus, the story didn’t generate much in the way of drama or investigation of the human condition, either one.

Presumably it’s just for fun.

Three stars.

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Review of Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

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This is volume 2 of The Murderbot Diaries, begun in 2017 with the entertaining and award winning All Systems Red. It’s a novella published by Tor/MacMillian and runs 160 pages. This review may contain spoilers.

Murderbot has successfully escaped a quiet existence at PreservationAux and set out to find what its dark half-memories of a massacre are about. The transport it hitched a ride on arrives in port, and Murderbot transfers to another outbound transport, headed for the Ganaka mining pit where it thinks the massacre took place. This time, however, it has hit on a highly intelligent research vessel hired out for transport by its university. The two of them get off to a rough start, but ART (Asshole Research Transport) eventually comes around to the point of helping with Murderbot’s mission. Murderbot hires out as a security consultant to a group of young humans trying to get their research files back from a local company that confiscated them. This is intended for emigration purposes, but Murderbot gets involved in their problem. Meanwhile, news that it’s a rogue SecUnit has emerged. Can it keep the kids alive and find out about its past before the authorities catch up with it?

Good points: The interactions with ART are pretty much a necessity to deal with the realities here. ART challenges Murderbot’s stubborn, poorly thought out assumptions about how it can masquerade as a human and get to Ganaka Pit to find out what happened there. ART is a great character with some pretty transparent failings itself, and the two of them turn out to be a good team. Murderbot contracts for work itself and shows the same empathy and responsibility on the job that it showed for the last set of clients, which is the heart-warming part.

On the not so good side: It looks like the four installments of this will make up a full-length novel, but each installment is priced like a full-length novel. This installment feels short and incompletely developed (i.e. not worth the price), but hopefully the further installments will integrate it into the story better. I’m of the opinion that events and characters shouldn’t be introduced unless they’re going to contribute to the overall plot. In this case, it appears that Murderbot has rescued the kids and their files and neutralized all threats against them. However, this company had better be part of the Ganaka Pit problem, or else it’s just leading the reader on. As the novella ends, there’s no indication of this connection.

Three stars.

Wrap Up of the 2017 Nebula Reviews

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First, I have to admire how the SFWA manages to produce this much of what I think is real diversity in the finalists. I’ve been assured that the list is not produced by committee, but it does seem that some kind of grassroots movement must be working to make sure the organization is well represented and that no one much can complain about being left out. The list includes humor, military SF, urban fantasy, high fantasy, Asian fantasy, Native American fantasy, alternate reality, historical fantasy, satire, horror and absurdist fiction. This kind of representation is a big step, considering the political strife about inclusion that’s recently afflicted the SFF community. There was also a lot of diversity in the list of authors. The list of publishers/magazines includes both print and online sources.

Regardless of this bounty of diversity, themes did tend to repeat. For example, a high proportion of the works featured trans or non-binary characters and/or non-standard forms of marriage. In a couple of cases, this seemed peripheral and extraneous, as if an editor had recommended the additions. Several works addressed sentience in robots or similar constructs.

As is usual in the last few years, ordinary white men were frozen out of most categories. Several of the finalists (especially the men) had credentials as publishers or editors, which suggests they may have attracted nominations because of these connections. I’m also wondering why Amberlough was accepted for the list of finalists. Like last year’s World Fantasy finalist Roadsouls, this just didn’t seem to meet the requirements for SFF.

Also, the way names and publishers repeat among the finalists is troubling. For example, Sarah Pinsker and Vina Jie-Min Prasad appeared in more than one category, and some of the names repeated from last year. Four of 7 of the Best Novel finalists come from Orbit, and 4 of 6 of the Best Novella category come from Tor.com, plus one of the novelettes and one of the short stories. This outlines an inbred, elitist system. The SFWA recently broadened their membership qualification requirements, but the award finalists still look to come from a very small number of favored publishers. Surely there are other authors and publishers out there putting out deserving works.

It can be argued these publishers are the market leaders and so are attracting the “best” works, but this also speaks of how the list of potential candidates is put together. Small publishers and little known authors are often shut out by the “right” reviewers, so their releases have little chance of attracting notice. Somehow the SFF community needs to create a system to promote excellence in small presses and lesser known publishers who are doing good work in the shadows. Since major publishers have dropped the midlist, an award for self-published works might be helpful, too.

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 Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s science fiction and published by Orbit. It runs 361 pages.

Maria is one of a seven person crew on the generation starship Dormire, 25 years into a voyage to a new home on Artemis. Her clone wakes drowning in cloning fluid and it’s immediately obvious something has gone wrong. There’s no gravity. Once out of the vat, she sees her dead body is sitting there, like she’s hit the resurrection switch. The rest of the crew is struggling out of their own vats. They’ve awakened without any memory of what happened. Can they get control of the ship, unravel the mystery of who killed them all and stop the carnage from happening all over again?

This is a strongly plotted novel, as all the members of the crew are criminals/undesirables that have been given the option of crewing on the ship as opposed to legal penalties. As they give up their personal stories in the aftermath of the massacre, a picture emerges of conflict over cloning and the rights of clones, including riots, religious opposition, power politics and illegal hacking. This is the real meat of the novel, which investigates how human cloning might be regulated and what could go wrong. Eventually the crew puts together the story of how they’ve been used, and how this threatens the future of the ship and the passengers waiting to be revived into new life.

Not so good points: There are some bad-science errors here that an editor or beta reader should have picked up. For example, some of the systems work on “solar power” but there isn’t any of that in deep space. Also, the technology here sounds like it’s contemporary, not projected to the late 2200s. Why would they still be using computer labs and tablets with glass screens instead of something more integral? The technology also seems uneven, with the kitchen being clearly better equipped than the infirmary or the cloning lab. There’s a huge waste of space on the ship for apparently recreational woods and gardens. Last, the prose doesn’t flow well, and the dialog tends to be somewhat stilted.

Regardless of these issues, I’d recommend the novel because of the ideas it presents. Lafferty gets an A for effort here. She’s aimed at thoughtful hard SF.

Four stars.

Review of The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award and the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s SF/fantasy and was published by Orbit. It’s third and last in The Broken Earth series.

After the fall of Castrima, Essun and the survivors set out, looking for a safe place. Nassun and Schaffa leave Found Moon in Antarctica, taking the orogene children with them. Out of reach of the village, they abandon the children and continue north. The Stone Eater Hoa takes Essun through the Earth to Antarctica, where she sees Jiju’s remains and finds that Nassun has gone. Nassun and Schaffa arrive at a deadciv city where Nassun powers up a vehicle which takes her and Schaffa to Corepoint on the other side of the world. On the way, Nassun contacts the consciousness of the Evil Earth and Schaffa is mortally wounded. Hoa takes Essun to Corepoint where she struggles with the angry Nassun for control of the Obelisk Gate. Will the Earth be destroyed, or can Essun recapture the Moon into its orbit?

As I said about books I and II of this series, the best things about it are the creative ideas and the complex world building. This continues during this book, as we learn more about the deadly Seasons, the deadciv, the lost Moon, the Stone Eaters and the orogenes’ function in suppressing the Seasons and making the Earth livable. The characters are well drawn here, and I’m finally liking them a little better. Essun and Schaffa have both mellowed so they’re less cruel and angry. You also have to give Jemisin credit for avoiding cliché endings. This was different.

Not so good points: These also continue from books I & II, with the worst problem still being readability. There are a lot of pages here and not much in the way of events, plus shifting first, second and third person narration. We’re also up to a huge cast of characters—I notice there are character guides sprung up on the internet to help you keep track of who’s who, as it’s hard to remember given the gap between release dates on the books. There are also some logical issues that developed in this installment. If Stone Eaters can carry people through the Earth, then why have they made the key players walk around through all the dangers of the Season? Also, if Hoa is the narrator for the second person sections here, why does he refer to himself in third person? And why is everything about magic in this book, when there was no mention of it in the first book? And a loose end: what happened to Essun’s baby?

Three and a half stars.

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