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 Black Chamber by S.M. Stirling

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This book won the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Alternate History Novel. It’s billed as A Novel of an Alternate World War Book 1, strongly suggesting this will be a series. It was published by Penguin in July of 2018, and runs 400 pages. This review contains spoilers.

It’s 1916. President Taft has died in office and his vice president is terminally ill, so Teddy Roosevelt is re-elected president for another term. He has invaded Mexico to stop the Mexican Revolution and established a Protectorate. World War I is raging in Europe, and it’s looking more and more like the US will be drawn into the war. Intelligence suggests the Central Powers are working on a plot against the USA. Luz O’Malley Aróstegui, an agent of the US secret spy organization the Black Chamber, boards an airship headed for the Netherlands, posing as the aristocratic Mexican revolutionary Elisa Carmody. She identifies the German agent onboard, Horst von Dückler, and establishes a relationship with him. She helps him fight off French agents trying to assassinate the German Professor von Bülow he is escorting, and after they land in the Netherlands, they engage in a shoot-out and a perilous race across the German border. Horst takes Luz to the German base at Schloss Rauenstein in Saxony, where his superior Colonel Nicolai presents her to Irish American revolutionary Ciara Whelan, who personally knows Elisa Carmody. Ciara surprises Luz by confirming that she is Carmody, and the two room together at the castle. They are asked to attend a demonstration of von Bülow’s new superweapon, the Breath of Loki. This turns out to be a nerve gas that kills the victims in a horrific way and leaves a deadly pollution in the environment. Luz has found the plot, and she and Ciara need to save their country. Can Luz steal the plans and somehow get the information back to her contacts in the US?

So, this is a little hard to sort out. On the surface it’s one thing, but there’s a dark underbelly when you look at it more closely. The characters, setting and world building are all well-developed. There’s also a well-designed action line, but because of the amount of detail between plot events, this moves somewhat too slowly to be a thriller. There’s a slight mid-novel slump, when Luz and Ciara are stuck with nothing better to do than discuss what a great cook Luz is (in spite of her privileged background). Because of rampant Mary-Sueism, this also strains belief.

In the positives, Sirling has definitely caught the flavor of adventure fiction from 1916. He name checks Burroughs more than once, suggesting this might be one of his sources—though I didn’t find any definite allusions. Sirling took the opportunity to fix a few things that haven’t gone well in real history, like early passage of an Equal Right Amendment. Besides this, Luz is a New Woman, liberated by close of the Victorian Age, and a wealthy member of a (still) underserved minority in the US. She takes revenge for her parents’ deaths, travels by herself, wears comfortable clothing, and is accomplished in various fighting arts. This story has the feel of visiting a living history museum, as Sirling has done a lot of research, and writes loving descriptions of everything from Luz’s underwear, to characters, to setting, to politics, to the emerging technology of the day. He’s also caught the flavor of morality, duty, honor and country that was prevalent during WWI, where a bunch of innocent farm boys became cannon fodder in Europe, or worse, were trapped and died in trenches filled with poisoned gas. Warfare had been changing, and the carnage in this war took a lot of people by surprise. As we would expect, Luz never questions. She is willing to risk anything to defend her country.

On the not so positive side, there’s that dark underbelly. Taking over Mexico looks like a major case of US Imperialism, at the least—this is not the US we like to think of as holding the moral high ground. I also gathered Roosevelt isn’t planning to give up the presidency any time soon, and may be setting himself up to become President-for-Life. Luz has a personal relationship with him, and calls him Uncle Teddy. Besides this, all three of the main characters suffer from a really over the top case of Mary-Sueism. Luz, especially, is unbelievably talented, aristocratic, beautiful, smart and athletic. Horst comes in a strong second, and Ciara a slightly anxious third. I had a little bit of trouble sorting out the character interactions here—but maybe this will work out in a later installment. Because Horst is such an attractive character, I expected him to feature more strongly in the wind-up to this story. After Luz seduces him, we get a scene where she fights naked in front of him, which seems somewhat gratuitous, but eventually she goes off to romance Ciara instead. Horst is injured, and just disappears out of the narrative. When you add all this to the “duty, honor and country” values, the imperialism and the President-for-life thing, I almost suspect an undercurrent of satire.

This was a very interesting read. I’d highly recommend it for the historical qualities, if nothing else. If it were just a little different, I’d recommend it as an old-fashioned adventure romance, too, but instead it’s definitely bent.

Four stars.

Review of Reactance by Dacia M. Arnold

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This young adult dystopia novella was self-published in August of 2018. It’s listed as Book #2 of the series, a companion piece to Apparent Power, and runs 144 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Sasha Bowman is 18 and on the point of graduating from high school when disaster strikes. The awakening of a dormant gene divides society in the city of Denver into a new hierarchy of haves and have-nots. The haves can control and channel electricity, making them an asset, but also a danger to the general population. Sasha has the gene, which means people are afraid of her and the government wants to control her abilities. She and her mother are captured by the government, and put under control of DiaZems, people who can gather and use the power of people affected by the gene. The power-hungry Queen DiaZem murders everyone in the city without the gene, including Sasha’s father. Attracted by a friendly boy, Sasha writes some documents and then finds she is helping form a subversive organization, the Reactance. Can they fight against the new order and find some way to return the gene to a dormant state?

This should be well-received by the young adult age group. It’s a easy, quick read, written in journal format, that reveals Sasha’s problems and how her life suddenly changed when she became a captive of the DiaZems. Other issues investigated here include the responsibility of parents and the difference between activism and terrorism. I’m glad to see someone in young adult addressing that last topic.

On the not so positive side, this seems really soft-pedaled. I know someone wouldn’t instantly achieve wisdom when something like this happens, but Sasha has a lot of naiveté to overcome. It seems simplistic that she’s joined with a subversive group and doesn’t understand the consequences–or that the DiaZems don’t immediately come down on her in a really ugly way. If they’re murdering people, surely they’ve got means to watch, control and punish their captive population. I’ve missed the first book, so maybe I don’t quite understand the gene situation and the new political structure–a prologue to explain those would have been helpful.

Three stars.

Review of Dragon Child by Janeen Webb

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This is a fantasy novella published by PS Publishing Ltd., in July, 2018. It runs 105 pages. Janeen Webb is an Australian writer, critic and editor.

The shape-shifting dragons of Hong Kong can easily pass for human. They are wealthy, charming, sophisticated, glamorous, and completely ruthless. In a moment of high spirits, Lady Feng makes a mistake and eats a human infant in a remote mountain village. Feeling remorse, she leaves one of her own eggs as a replacement to be raised by human foster parents. The egg hatches, and the dragon child’s foster mother Mai Lin names the child Long Wei (Iron Dragon). The child quickly finds he can manipulate the village humans to do whatever he wants. The Lady Feng starts to worry, and belatedly, she tries to establish controls. She removes the child from his human family and places him in a school for young dragons, but he resists her authority, constantly at war with the other dragons and trying to break out of the school compound. Is there a solution for this problem?

This reads like a middle-grades story. Long Wei is a selfish, greedy, petulant child and constantly challenges adults. He has a huge chip on his shoulder because of being abandoned as a child, and hates the Lady Feng, even though other dragon young are not raised by their parents. He has no respect for people, and little for his dragon betters, at least until one of them slaps him down. He doesn’t seem to learn from that at all, and still looks for ways to get around authority to what he wants, which seems to be power and treasure. The story moves quickly and has a strong, rising action line that begins with Lady Feng’s oops and continues along smartly. The characterization and world building are decent for a novella, if not deep.

If this is supposed to be a morality tale, then it didn’t pan out so far. Long Wei doesn’t seem to learn anything in this installment. Lady Feng fails at getting him under control and he ends up more selfish and greedy than ever. On the not so positive side, the narration seems simplistic and the characters and world only painted in with broad strokes. There’s nothing intimate or touching here, and I didn’t really connect with the characters.

Three stars.

Review of Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

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This is a young adult science fiction novel published by Delacorte in November of 2018. It runs 515 pages. This is described as a trilogy, and book #2 called Starsight will be released in November of 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Spensa is seventeen. She lives below ground on the world Detritus, which is a desert planet encased in space junk. Periodic openings in the junk layer allow Krell fighter ships to descend and launch attacks that could crack the caverns and destroy human habitation on the planet. The DDF is in dire need of fighter pilots to defend both the surface Alta Base and the caverns. Spensa wants to fly like her father, but he was branded a deserter and a coward after the Battle of Alta, so she has to battle a lot of prejudice to get into the pilot training program. She finally succeeds and enters a class taught by her father’s wing mate Cobb. Because of the shortage of pilots, the cadets are forced into combat almost immediately, and members of the class start to die. Spensa stumbles over an ancient, abandoned fighter ship in a cavern near the military base. When she starts to rebuild it, she finds there are a lot of questions about the situation that she needs answers to. And was her father really a coward?

The characters are very well-developed here, and we get attached to the cadets. There’s a lot of experiential time devoted to the mechanics of the fighters and the experience of flying, a la military SF, but the best thing about it is the always-dependable Sanderson themes. The first is the nature of cowardice, and the next is the issue of independent thought. Spensa is a scrappy outcast, always having to fight to get ahead, and this gives her a different perspective than the entrenched wealthy and politically powerful people she is dealing with. As her goals turn out to be questionable, she starts to think for herself about the society where she lives. Her friend FM wonders what it does to have a military government and to glorify fighting instead of building a better society. “Most people never question,” FM says, “and doggedly go through the motions of an obedient life.”

On the not so positive side, I thought the resolution to this was a trifle simplistic. Besides that, it pretty much changes the meaning of everything that’s gone before, and leaves all of Spensa’s attitude, goals and efforts in this book completely empty. There was some foreshadowing of unexplained issues, of course, but nothing to predict the extent of the lies. Do the leaders of this society even know what it’s based on? It’s like all of the fabric of reality crumbles, and we have a sudden, fairly jolting shift in perspective. Sanderson says something in the acknowledgements about this being fueled by his own experience as a kid, so I’m thinking it’s an intended symbolism. There are also a few loose ends that I’m suspicious about. We’ll have to see how this develops in Book #2.

Four and a half stars.

Review of “I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land” by Connie Willis

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This is a speculative fiction novelette released by Subterranean Press in April of 2018. It runs 88 pages. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Connie Willis, she is an old hand at SFF, a multi-award winner and New York Times Bestseller. This review contains spoilers.

Jim is in New York City to make contacts for a book about the uselessness of nostalgia for obsolete technology. He does a radio interview where he gets in an argument with the host about how this applies to books. On the way to a meeting with a Random House editor, Jim is caught in a terrible rainstorm and ducks into a shop for rare books called Ozymandias Books. Although the store seems small, it opens into a storage area where Jim looks through the collection and eventually gets lost. He is rescued by a busy clerk and hurriedly catches a taxi for his appointment. When he tries to find the shop again later, he can’t.

“Ozymandias” is a Percy Bysshe Shelley sonnet from 1817 about great works that crumble and disappear. That states the story’s theme pretty clearly, about how we’re in danger of losing the body of knowledge contained in out-of-print books, now generally dumped in the landfill because they’re replaced by electronic media. Willis is excellent at creating entertaining characters and making things go wrong, and her work is always entertaining to read.

On the not so great side, nothing happens here. Jim leaves his interview, walks around, ducks into the store, looks at the books, leaves, and then can’t find the shop again. That’s it. It could have been a piece of flash fiction, but instead it’s been padded out to 88 pages. I was left feeling this is pretty empty.

Three and a half stars.

Review of The Glass Cannon by Yoon Ha Lee

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This novella is science fiction from Lee’s collection Hexarchate Stories and picks up the main plot just after Revenant Gun ends. The collection is published by Solaris and runs about 400 pages. The novella is billed as Machineries of Empire Book 4 and follows Ninefox Gambit, Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun. This review contains spoilers.

Hexarch Kujin is dead, but he’s left Shuos Jedeo in pieces. Ajewen Cheris, now retired from the Kel and hiding out as a simple math teacher on Esrala, still holds most of his memories. The newly resurrected Jedeo sort-of-clone remains memory deficient and is the guest (a.k.a. prisoner) of Hexarch Mikodez. Mikodez seems to be keeping Jedeo around 1) because he’s not sure how to destroy him, and 2) because Mikodez wants to know why Kujen’s command moth mutinied at Terebeg. Jedeo is restless, tortured by his lack of memory about the 400 and some years of his existence, so he conspires with the servitor Hemiola to escape and find Cheris, hoping that will answer some of his questions. He finds Cheris at her home on Esrala and demands to have his memories back. His arrival triggers troops that try to stop them, and the two fight their way out, while Jedeo explores the capabilities he gets from being made from a moth. Cheris and Jedeo escape in the needlemoth Jedeo has stolen and head for Kujen’s Avros Base where Cheris expects to find equipment she needs to aid in the transfer. Can they get inside the base? Successfully transfer the memories? What are they going to do about the bloodthirsty needlemoth, whose harness is now damaged? And has Mikodez been tracking them all this time?

This piece features Lee’s signature strong plotting, wry humor and lively imagery, only less so because it’s a shorter piece. This doesn’t fix the loose ends left at the end of Revenant Gun, but it does get us a little further down the road. Lee seems to be terrific at leaving those loose ends, so I expect this will be a never-ending series. The issue with Kujen is (maybe) done, and the survivors have successfully established a new order, but now they’re about to be faced with a revolt from both the moths and the servitors. This serves them right, of course, because they’ve been enslaving these beings for a long time. Plus, we now see Jedeo reintegrated as himself, with the additional powers he’s gained from being created from a moth. If he was dangerous before, he’s now even more of a weapon. Plus, he and Cheris seem to have ironed out their differences and joined forces.

On the not so positive side, this felt a little messy. The young Jedeo mostly throws himself at things instead of thinking, and Cheris/Jedeo just lets him take the punishment. This works, of course, because of Jedeo’s moth-derived body, but it still comes across as sort of stupid on his part. He doesn’t regenerate immediately, and he’s taking a risk that someone/something will figure out how to kill him. After all, we know that moths CAN be killed. A bunch of them died in the last book. Plus, there seems to be an excess of pain and torture here, as if Lee is catering to fans who enjoy it–and there’s a touch of humor about it that feels unhealthy. And last, Jedeo is in danger of losing his dignity as the author jerks him around through all these manipulations. I like him because he’s human, dangerous and effective, not because he’s a travesty and a puppet.

Four stars.

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