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 “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 A Star Wheeled Sky by Brad Torgersen

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This novel is traditional adventure science fiction and won the 2019 Best Science Fiction Novel Dragon Award. It was published in December 2018 by Baen and runs 382 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Earth is lost in the distant past. Fleeing a terrible war, humanity launched arks that took them to the stars, where they discovered a network of Waypoints operated by Keys that give access to Othespace, and through it to different star systems. However, the number of Waypoint nodes and keys is limited. Humanity has divided into Starstates that operate on different political systems and contend for control of the available systems. In particular, the democratic Constellar system competes with the authoritarian Nautilus system, but is slowly losing ground. Then a new Waypoint opens to a system including a habitable planet. Both Starstates rush to stake a claim. Nautilus sends a military fleet and Constellar drafts civilian spacecraft to beef up their military flotilla, sweeping up Wyo Antagean, son of a shipping magnate, Garsinia Oswight, daughter of a First Family, and infotainer Zoam Kalbi. Can they secure the system for Constellar, or is something else going on that they need to deal with instead?

On the positive side, this is solid traditional SF. It’s strongly plotted, a strategy game between the two fleets that projects how established spaceflight technology and techniques could be used implement travel and set up the space battles. Torgersen goes into detail about the technology. There are a couple of major twists that raise the stakes on this and lead into what I expect will be a series of novels as the issues play out.

On the not so positive side, there are some serious problems here. First, this is mired solidly in mid-20th century technology. The author states that humanity has lost a lot in their years in space, but that doesn’t really excuse this, and I ended up with a lot of questions about how these people are doing things. In an age where I have a link to high-functioning AIs right in my pocket, these characters wonder if thinking machines are really possible. Hey Google tells me where I parked my car in a completely normal voice, so why are these people thousands of years in the future still using a keyboard to type at their onboard computers? Plus, I’m unsure how their fusion systems and weapons work. We don’t currently use fusion because of the high energy requirements and the associated high temperatures—so how did they solve these problems? Why is Constellar launching starships from the ground without shuttles to get back and forth? And Nautilus has only one shuttle? Why are they even using their starships to fight battles? Star Wars pretty much set the standard for smaller, more maneuverable fighters all the way back in 1977. And last, where did these people get the Waypoint Keys and how did they learn to work them? Etc. Lots of questions here.

The second issue I have is with the characters. These people must all be suicidal. They’re throwing the starships at each other like there’s no major cost in resources and human lives, the commanders willing to sacrifice their entire crews without really much promise that they’ll influence the outcome of the battle. Only the recovery of the lost Keys seems really important to them. I can see why humanity is not doing well in space. In particular, Wyo is conscripted and has little choice in the matter, but Garsinia and Zoam come across as really stupid. Oblivious to the fact this is a military operation and that Nautilus forces will be shooting nukes at them, both characters stick their lips out and insist on their right to go along with the expedition. Then, when things get scary, they panic and go off in all directions. They are represented as inconsistent, childish and immature, and this kind of character manipulation is a major eye-roller.

Still, it’s a great plot. Three and a half stars.

Dragon Award Finalists 2019

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The Dragon Award final ballot is out, revealing the finalists. The awards will be presented the first week in September and there’s not much overlap with other awards. That means I won’t really be able to look at many of the finalists I’ve not already reviewed. I will try to review the fiction winners in September.

Interestingly, there does to be more intersection this year, which shows the fan groups that normally drive the Nebula and Hugo Awards are becoming more active in voting for the Dragon Awards. This is especially visible in the fantasy category. However, the Dragon still looks to be a heavily male-driven award.

P.S. On August 31 time to vote on the awards is getting short. I’m happy to see that various people have done some background work on the finalists. See a helpful rundown by Cora Buhlert here also includes links to other analyses.

Best Science Fiction Novel
Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson
Europe at Dawn by Dave Hutchinson
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
A Star-Wheeled Sky by Brad R. Torgersen
Tiamat’s Wrath by James S.A. Corey

Best Fantasy Novel (Including Paranormal)
Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch
Deep Roots by Ruthanna Emrys
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie
Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett
House of Assassins by Larry Correia

Best Young Adult / Middle Grade Novel
Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand
Armageddon Girls by Aaron Michael Ritchey
The Pioneer by Bridget Tyler
Bloodwitch by Susan Dennard
Imposters by Scott Westerfeld
Archenemies by Marissa Meyer
The King’s Regret by Philip Ligon

Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel
Uncompromising Honor by David Weber
Order of the Centurion by Jason Anspach, Nick Cole
Marine by Joshua Dalzelle
The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley
Sons of the Lion by Jason Cordova
A Pale Dawn by Chris Kennedy, Mark Wandrey

Best Alternate History Novel
Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan
Black Chamber by S.M. Stirling
The World Asunder by Kacey Ezell
Unholy Land by Lavie Tidhar
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Iron Codex by David Mack

Best Media Tie-In Novel
Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn
Darkness on the Edge of Town by Adam Christopher
Big Damn Hero by James Lovegrove, Nancy Holder
Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray
The Replicant War by Chris Kennedy
The Way to the Stars by Una McCormack

Best Horror Novel
We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix
Little Darlings by Melanie Golding
Riddance by Shelley Jackson
100 Fathoms Below by Steven L. Kent, Nicholas Kaufmann
Zombie Airman by David Guenther
Cardinal Black by Robert McCammon

Best Comic Book
Black Hammer by Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston, Dave Stewart
Saga by Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples
Mister Miracle by Tom King, Tony S. Daniel
The Batman Who Laughs by Scott Snyder, Mark Simpson
Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man by Chip Zdarsky, Adam Kubert
Batman by Tom King, Tony S. Daniel

Best Graphic Novel
Berlin by Jason Lutes
On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden
Hey, Kiddo by Jarret J. Krosoczka
X-Men: Grand Design – Second Genesis by Ed Piskor
I Am Young by M. Dean
Monstress Vol. 3 by Marjorie Liu, Sana Takeda

Best Science Fiction or Fantasy TV Series
Game of Thrones, HBO
Good Omens, Amazon Prime
The Umbrella Academy, Netflix
The Orville, Fox
Star Trek: Discovery, CBS All Access
Lucifer, Netflix

Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Movie
Spider-Man: Far From Home by Jon Watts
Alita: Battle Angel by Robert Rodriguez
Aquaman by James Wan
Avengers: Endgame by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Captain Marvel by Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Best Science Fiction or Fantasy PC / Console Game
Life is Strange 2 by Dontnod Entertainment
Apex Legends by Electronic Arts
World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth by Blizzard
Assassin’s Creed: Odysssey by Ubisoft
Red Dead Redemption 2 by Rockstar Games
Outer Wilds by Mobius Digital

Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Mobile Game
Reigns: Game of Thromes by Nerial
Elder Scrolls: Blades by Bethesda Softworks
Cyber Hunter by NetEase
Grimvalor by Direlight
Sega Heroes: Puzzle RPG Quest by SEGA
Harry Potter: Wizards Unite by Niantic, WB Games San Francisco

Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Board Game
Nemesis by Awaken Realms
Root by Leder Games
Cryptid by Osprey Games
Everdell by Starling Games (II)
Betrayal Legacy by Avalon Hill Games
Architects of the West Kingdom by Garphill Games

Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Miniatures / Collectible Card / Role-Playing Game
Fallout: Wasteland Warfare by Modiphius Entertainment
Magic: The Gathering War of The Spark by Wizards of the Coast
Keyforge: Call of the Archons by Fantasy Flight Games
Magic: The Gathering Ravnica Allegiance by Wizards of the Coast
Call of Cthulhu: Masks of Nyarlathotep Slipcase Set by Chaosium Inc.
Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team by Games Workshop

Review of Free Dive by C.F. Waller

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This novel is a science fiction thriller published by Cosby Media Productions that runs 336 pages. It has apparently made the Amazon #1 Best Seller list in the past and was nominated for a couple of awards. This review contains spoilers.

Dexter Knight and his partners Cam and Lydia have developed AI operated robots to steal salvage from the ocean floor, and are currently working on retrieving teacups from the Titanic which they can sell for a nice price. Eventually one of their sales goes wrong, and a mob with guns moves in to kidnap them and hijack their operation. Uncertain of who they’re working for, the team deploys their robots in the Marianas Trench, where an unknown object starts to look like an alien artifact. Knight is attracted to the research team’s scientist Ronny, a little put off by the tough Russian ramrod Katya, and struggles to deal with the project’s gun-toting management. The artifact starts to look more dangerous as they continue to investigate. Is this a threat to human civilization?

On the positive side, this is a well-written adventure story with entertaining characters and a nice, rising action line that develops considerable suspense. There’s plenty of space in it for the character interactions and a few plot twists to keep the story interesting. It didn’t turn out like I was expecting at all. The maritime details are sketchy but generally believable. Waller also has an interesting take on AI bots, and I thought their behavior here was a little unsettling. Hmm. Following up on that could actually produce another interesting novel.

On the not so positive side, I had some suspension of disbelief issues with the activities of the aliens and the tolerance of the technology the research team used in the Trench. Yeah, in an emergency, I can see stretching things a little, but (as little as I know about ocean exploration) I think working at the Trench depth went a little beyond that and wouldn’t really be possible. Also, I thought some of the characterizations were a bit over-the-top, which detracted some from the story.

Entertaining but not er, deep. Three and a half stars.

Review of Shadow Heart by Rawle Nyanzi

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This novella is young adult superhero and mecha-based military alternate history scifi/fantasy, and it’s more specifically billed as Shining Tomorrow Volume 1: Shadow Heart, meaning it’s a series the author expects to continue. It a quick read, is self-published, and runs about 200 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Irma is a heavily-indoctrinated high school girl who lives in the North American Federation, a territory under the control of the Japanese government since the Central Powers win World War I. Irma is very aware of modesty, responsibility and community obligations. She is respected as non-violent because she is involved in a YELOW (Young Elegant Ladies of the West) organization that carries out civic projects to benefit the disadvantaged. When her superhero friend Virginia is captured by the evil combat mech manufacturer Shadow Heart, Irma wants to do something about it, but she is limited by her own sexist cultural expectations about her role as a woman and how this relates to violence and initiative. But, Irma is also heir to a powerful Valkyrie superhero tradition. As a final battle looms, how can Irma reconcile being a superhero with what she’s always believed about herself?

This is a fairly free-wheeling and creative story, featuring a mash-up of cultural and fictional tropes, including superheroes and villain white supremacists, all thrown together in an action story with a slight tongue-in-cheek tone that suggests satire. You can tell the author really enjoys popular culture, especially Japanese-based Manga. But Nyanzi also has a feel for underlying philosophical questions. Where stories from Asian women often seem to be about rebelling against family and societal controls in Asian tradition, the author here looks at the internal inhibitions implanted by culture and how hard it can be to overcome these restrictions and change behavior. Even as Irma makes a decision to claim her birthright and act against Shadow Heart, she knows she has to walk a thin line in order to remain acceptable to both herself and her community.

On the not so positive side, a lot of this will be lost on readers who aren’t familiar with Manga, mecha or Japanese culture. The tone and free-wheeling action approach mean the story requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, and the characters tend to be fairly stereotypical. The philosophical questions in the subtext are subtle, and may not be picked up or appreciated by action readers. However, all this doesn’t mean that it’s not fun and different to read.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Going Dark” by Richard Fox

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This short story is military SF and a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Award. It was published in the anthology Backblast Area Clear, edited by Ellen Campbell and published by Bayonet Books. This review contains spoilers.

The setting is Utica City and an air battle between Terran Union fighters and Naroosha saucers. Ground soldiers from Battle Construct Auxiliary unit 117, commanded by Sergeant Chris Hoffman make their way up through the sewer and set up a position. Although Hoffman is a human clone, his unit is made up of human-machine constructs called doughboys. Hoffman coordinates with other units as his troops make heroic efforts against the enemy. Vaccaro, one of the unit commanders is killed, and Hoffman encounters tech difficulties in reassigning his doughboys. Has something gone wrong?

On the positive side, this story provides a well-built setting and exotic future-tech weapons. It features an action and strategy packed battle that shows how members in the units have each other’s backs. As it winds down, we get into more emotional issues as Hoffman faces the loss of his unit, and especially his right hand doughboy Diamond. I expect this satisfies all the requirements for a successful military SF story.

On the not so positive side, the main problem here is flat characters with little or no background. We actually get more on the doughboys than Hoffman. I’m guessing he’s a cloned human because the narration notes that he and Vaccaro share the same face; there’s no other mention of this at all. When Hoffman pursues diagnostics on his troops, we get a brief history of the constructs and their creations, but not really enough to provide understanding of their internal processes, their loyalty, their feelings, etc. There’s also no visible theme, except that maybe everybody wears out and dies in the end.

Three stars.

Review of The Shape of Water by Guillermo del Toro

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I know, I know. I’m late again with the film review. I hadn’t really noticed this one as it went by, but since there’s a big Oscar buzz, I figured I needed to get out there and see what the fuss was about. The film was written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor and directed by Guillermo del Toro. It has 13 Oscar nominations, another 84 award wins and 244 other award nominations.

Elisa Esposito is a cleaning woman at a secret Baltimore government facility in the early 1960s. She was a foundling with damaged vocal chords and is mute, plain and devastatingly lonely. Her only two friends are her neighbor Giles, an aging gay man, and Zelda, who looks after her at work. Colonel Richard Strickland brings a specimen to the lab—an amphibious humanoid creature captured in South America. He keeps the creature chained and uses a cattle prod to control it, leading to a violent encounter where he loses fingers. Called to clean up the mess, Elisa and Zelda find out about the creature. Elisa leaves food and makes friends with it, and when she hears the plan is vivisection, she enlists Giles and Zelda to help her free the captive. They successfully get it to Elisa’s apartment, and she plans to set it free when the canal gates open later in the month. While the creature is there, the two of them develop a closer relationship, including sex. Will Elisa be able to set the creature free? Will Strickland catch up to them?

I can see why this is in line for an Oscar. It’s a play on Creature from the Black Lagoon. It’s a beautifully made film, and the Academy seems to really like tributes to Hollywood’s past. Old film footage plays on the TV. There is a song and dance sequence where Elisa imagines herself a star. There’s sex. It has something of the feel of old fifties scifi where alien creatures wreak mayhem. There are Russian spies sneaking around. It’s also very inclusive, with disabled, gay, Hispanic and black characters.

Still, I don’t think this translates well. The script seems forced, and I can’t pull any meaning out of it that feels important. Elisa and Hoffstetler, the Russian spy, are sensitively played, and Del Toro makes an effort to develop Giles and Zelda as characters, but others are cardboard. Plus, it just doesn’t work for me. If Elisa can run away with her love, what kind of life would she have?

One thing the film does do successfully is display the attitude that “might makes right” in a glaring light. This used to be widely accepted, but is less so now, for good reason (think Nazi medical experiments). There is a lot of violence and abuse here. There is no appreciation from the military that the creature is intelligent. Everyone is caught in a cultural trap with no hope of salvation.

I don’t know what to think about this. Is it supposed to be postmodern? Kitsch?

Two stars for the logical failures. I almost left half way.

Discrimination in the SFF community?

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A while back I made the comment that the major SFF awards seem to be discriminating against Hispanic/LatinX/Native American authors. In the past few years, it’s been easy to run down the list of nominees and see a good representation of African American, Asian and LGBTQ authors, with a sprinkling of Arabs, Pacific Islanders, etc. However, there’s been a consistent shortage of Hispanic/LatinX/Native American names in the nominations and in the Locus reviews and other reading lists that feed into the awards. This is in spite of the fact that Hispanics are the largest US minority, and combined with Native Americans, come in at about 1/3 of the population. Comments on the blog suggested that the issue was that the people who vote for the awards just don’t like the type of fiction those people write.

The lack of representation is no surprise. Despite the large numbers of Hispanics/Native Americans in the US population, they’re still highly marginalized and discriminated against in jobs, education, housing, immigration and lots of other areas. There’s really no shortage of accomplished writers within this group, so it makes you wonder what’s been going on in the publishing and awards systems to keep the Hispanic/LatinX/Native America authors so unrecognized. Now, we have a clear case of discrimination within the SFF community that suggests what might be going on.

Jon Del Arroz is Latino and, as such, falls clearly into the marginalized minority brown author-of-color category. Like many Hispanics, he apparently also falls on the moderate to conservative side of the political spectrum. His current publisher is Superversive Press, known for pulp type fiction, but also a publisher of fairly right leaning works.

Del Arroz posted a blog here about his experiences back in the spring. According to Del Arroz, he was initially promoted at local Bay area cons as a minority author, but found himself placed in panel discussions that were political and left-leaning, rather than about SFF or promoting books. Once his politics became known, says Del Arroz, then the discrimination started, based more on his ideas than his race.

In the late summer, Del Arroz was lumped with those “middle aged white dudes” after his nomination for the Dragon Awards. This was followed by a campaign in December 2017 to try to get the SFWA management to reject his application for membership. He’s also been banned from WorldCon.

So, are Hispanics/LatinX/Native Americans being excluded from the SFF community mainly because of their political views? Clearly Del Arroz thinks politics is currently trumping his marginalized minority status as a Latino. How does a socially conscious community reconcile this kind of behavior?

Sales!

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My short story “Illegal Aliens” will appear in the upcoming Refractions (vol. 5). This is a literary type journal mainly aimed at children and teens, but also great reading for kids of all ages. It’s generally available from the Golden Fleece Press website, or from online distributors. I’ll post again when publication is imminent.

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