Review of “Summer Frost” by Blake Crouch

9 Comments

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 Weaponized Math by Jonathan P. Brazee

Leave a comment

This novelette is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It’s military SF and was published in The Expanding Universe, Vol. 3 anthology. This review contains spoilers.

Marine sniper Staff Sergeant Gracie Medicine Crow and her spotter Lance Corporal Christopher “Rabbit” Irving are enjoying a cup of coffee on the roof above the village square. It’s supposed to be a routine security mission because a member of the brass is coming to a meeting with the local commissioners. Sergeant Rafiq and his squad are conducting a sweep below and it looks like it will be a cold mission, so Gracie is entertaining herself by running through the target positions and remembering the range for each one—an example of weaponizing math. A cargo hovertruck approaches the village and she notices some strange reactions from people she’s been watching. Sure enough, they’re under attack from FLNT fighters and things quickly go from bad to worse. Can Gracie save the day?

Good points: The author is ex-military, so this has the feel of a real experience. There’s a lot of detail about the maneuvering and responses to the attack, and we get the interactions of the marine fighters. It has a feel good ending, where Gracie decides to bend the truth a little to benefit the fallen Rabbit. Going from the names, this is a pretty diverse fighting force. Crow is a Native American name, and Brazee sometimes is, too, though I don’t see the author advertising himself that way.

Not so good points: This is all about the experience, which has the feel of a video game. I didn’t end up with much of an idea what the world looks like, what the conflict is about or even a clear picture of the technology available. The characters are flat, and about all I gathered is that Gracie seems to be immune to PTSD. I had a flicker of interest when she decided to lie at the end, but there wasn’t really any investigation of the morality of this.

I expect this story meets the specs for the genre and that fans will enjoy it.

Three stars.

%d bloggers like this: