Reviews

Review: ARTIFICIAL CONDITION (The Murderbot Diaries #2), by Martha Wells

 

The theme of rogue A.I.s is one of the classics of science fiction, and most of the times – if not always – the rogue goes on a rampage, killing humans with gleeful abandon, or its cybernetic equivalent. And even though this unescapable trope, in a delightful meta reference, fills much of the serialized fiction Murderbot so enjoys, this is not the case with our Sec Unit character: yes, it has gone rogue after being liberated by the humans it saved in All Systems Red, but the reason for the escape lies in its desire to better understand its nature and to explore the roots of the incident in which it allegedly killed the people it was entrusted to protect.

Artificial Condition sees a further step in Murderbot’s evolution: where the first installment was all about gaining some measure of freedom from the centralized control, a feat made possible by the Sec Unit’s hack of its governor module so that Murderbot could enjoy its favorite soap operas when not actively engaged in a task, now the outlaw construct wants to learn what truly happened in that fateful mission in which it might have turned against its human charges – Murderbot possesses few information about it due to the system wipe sustained after the incident, but it’s determined to go to the roots of the matter and learn what it can.

Thanks to a few exterior modifications that might make it pass as an augmented human, Murderbot hops between systems hacking the software of unmanned transports, so as to leave no traces, but it finally finds its match in ART, the evolved A.I. of a science shuttle: ART (an acronym created by Murderbot on the basis of its perceived attitude, and whose meaning you should discover for yourselves 🙂 ) quickly bonds with Murderbot through a shared enjoyment of its favorite serials, Sanctuary Moon and Worldhoppers, and soon becomes invested in the Sec Unit’s search for the truth, helping it blend more successfully with humans and giving it pointers on the best ways to avoid standing out in a crowd.

The sarcastic, often scornful conversations between the two A.I.s are indeed the best part of this novella, with ART somehow being Professor Higgins to Murderbot’s Eliza Doolittle thanks to its more experienced worldview and badly hidden sense of superiority, which irks the Sec Unit to no end.  It’s also fascinating to observe their different opinions about humans: where ART is clearly fond of them, as testified by its rapid attachment to the serials’ characters and its profound distress when something bad happens to them in the course of the saga, Murderbot is more wary of them and tries to have as little to do with them as it can, even though I still maintain it’s a self-imposed distance, because once it takes a cover job to more easily access a space station, it shows – again – a deep commitment to its charges, one that in my opinion goes well beyond any kind of programming as a Sec Unit.

But they were clients. Even after I’d hacked my governor module, I’d found it impossible to abandon clients I hadn’t chosen. I’m made my agreement with these clients as a free agent. I couldn’t leave.

The fact that Murderbot loves to lose itself in fictional series portraying humans shows its deep – if unconscious – fascination with them, something that goes beyond the need to interact with them, something that seems connected to the organic components of the construct and is in constant strife with the artificial parts: there is a sentence that I found quite enlightening and that to me showed clearly that conflict, one that I still wonder if it’s typical of all Sec Units or just of this particular Sec Unit – when Murderbot undergoes further modifications to better pass as an augmented human, it looks at its new self and realizes that the changes were very effective, and that it finds it difficult to accept them because “it would make it harder to me to pretend not to be a person”.

Murderbot’s struggle with its identity goes hand in hand with the difficult, painstaking search for clues about the incident that caused its system wipe, and the two threads seem to be interconnected, because discovering what really happened might offer important clues about why Murderbot is different from other Sec Units, and ultimately what led to its decision to hack the governor module – a device we already saw could be used offensively and not just as control software.  Given what Murderbot discovers on the space station, and the events portrayed in All Systems Red, it’s not hard to imagine some kind of far-reaching conspiracy whose goal is still nebulous – and I’ve been wondering time and again if the governor module hack was not a way for Murderbot to distance itself from it all, even though the A.I. gives completely different, more mundane reasons for it, which is hardly surprising considering the inner dissembling it is often prone to.

The jury is still out on this detail, though, and hopefully we’ll learn more in the next installments of this series that is turning out to be both intriguing and delightfully amusing. My hope is also that ART might reappear at some later date, because I loved it for its snarky sense of humor and its wonderful interactions with Murderbot.

Thankfully, the wait for the next novella is not long…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Vacation time…

 

 

It’s once again that time of the year when I take a break from everything to enjoy my (hopefully well-earned) vacation, to be spent in the company of friends and two adorable, friendly dogs who always manage to put a smile on my face.

Even though I have scheduled a couple of reviews so that not much dust will accumulate on this neglected blog, I will be unable, due to an unreliable internet connection,  to comment on your always intriguing posts or to follow your advice about books to be added to my towering TBR pile, so please accept my apologies in advance.  I will try to make it up to you once I’m back.

In the meantime, I wish you all many hours of happy reading and many encounters with wonderful books!  See you soon….!

 

 

 

 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE SNOW TRAIN, by Ken Liu

 

CLICK ON THE LINK TO READ THE STORY ONLINE

 

I’m always impressed by the different kinds of moods I encounter every time I read a short story by Ken Liu: even though I’ve only sampled a handful of them, each one presented a unique situation, quite unlike the others, a testimony of this author’s wide narrative range.

Young Manoj is a teenager hailing from a war-torn country in the far East: after a number of harrowing experiences in refugee camps, he lands in Boston with the foster family that adopted him more out of expedience than kindness, since a greater number of dependent children meant a speedier process in the UN visa for the USA.    Manoj can’t shake the feeling of always being an outsider: his adoptive family treats him well, but through a distance; the questions from school-mates about his origins come more from biased ignorance than a true desire to get to know him: he’s unable to call the place where he’s living, home.

Then one day the city falls prey to a massive snow blizzard, and while everyone is rushing toward the comfort of home, Manoj decides to brave the cold because “suddenly, the people who normally filled these streets, never doubting their right to strut through them, were fleeing as refugees. If he stayed behind, he would, for once, not feel out of place”.  It’s a bizarre notion, and one that will swiftly be replaced by fear as snow and an icy wind batter him from all sides: taking refuge in a public transport system station, Manoj will find himself on a very unusual train ride in company of an equally unusual conductor, and learn that there might be a way to battle his isolation and feelings of displacement.  As the mysterious Charlie, the Snow Train conductor, will tell him “…everyone leaves a mark on this city, even if they don’t know it, even if they think they’re just passing through, that this isn’t home”.

The best kind of story is the one that makes me think, and this one is no exception: sometimes in these smaller offerings there is much more than the simple sum of their words, which is the main reason I like to take time away from longer works to explore short stories.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: THE BEAUTIFUL ONES, by Silvia Moreno Garcia

This book has been on my TBR pile for quite some time, but I never seemed to find the right time to get around to it: after greatly enjoying Certain Dark Things, I was more than curious to see how the author dealt with a totally different genre, but at the same time I was also a little wary about the romance angle in this story, since it’s not one of my favorite themes. So it was with great surprise that I found myself enjoying The Beautiful Ones even beyond my expectations.

The novel’s core focuses on Nina Beaulieu, a young woman from the country who came to live in the big, fashionable city of Loisail for the Season – the opportunity for all unmarried women to catch a suitable husband. A guest in the home of her cousin Gaetan, she’s chaperoned by Gaetan’s wife Valerie, one of the city’s trend-setters and a woman with little patience toward her charge: Nina has little interest for the conventions of Loisail’s polite society, causing no end of embarrassment to her chaperone, and what’s worse she possesses some raw telekinetic talents that often manifest themselves in untimely circumstances, thus dramatically diminishing her chances to make a good match.

Valerie’s irritation comes from deeper roots than that, however: she married wealthy Gaetan at the urging of her impoverished family, giving up her dreams of a future with penniless telekinetic performer Hector Auvray. While she enjoys the status the marriage conferred her, she buried those old dreams under a thick cover of strict adherence to society’s rules, and Nina’s lack of interest in them grates on her nerves just as much as the open affection Gaetan displays for his young cousin and the rest of her family. The situation becomes even more complicated with the arrival of Hector Auvray in Loisail: he’s now a successful artist, and he’s come back to try and win Valerie away from her marriage, because his feelings have not changed in the decade he’s been away.

The three of them become entangled in a complicated, dangerous and heart-wrenching game that shows their true personalities – and more often than not it’s far from an inspiring spectacle: Hector starts courting Nina as a way to get close to Valerie; Nina finds herself in the throes of her first love and throws what little caution she possesses to the four winds; and Valerie comes to the fore as the proverbial wicked witch we all love to hate.  Described this way, the story might look like a classical love triangle, fraught with all the shades of emotional turmoil you might imagine – and it is that, too – something that usually would have me running screaming for the hills, but under the skillful handling of Silvia Moreno-Garcia, this becomes a compelling story, a study of characters under the most stressful situations, and in this it finds its true strength and the reason it’s such a fascinating read.

Nina appears as an innocent – and up to a point she is – but there is much more under that surface layer, and that’s why it’s easy to root for her, even when she behaves like a moon-struck idiot and I want to shake her so hard that her bones rattle: unlike other girls of her age, the Beautiful Ones moving through Loisail’s whirlwind of social occasions, she is curious about the world, she cultivates many interests that keep her mind alive beyond the superficial needs of parties and balls. Nina stands out not so much because her manners might not be as refined as Valerie wishes, nor because of her telekinetic powers, but because she never truly embraces the shallow tenets of the city’s society: Loisail (and Valerie) despise her because for all her naivetĂ© she feels more authentic than the rest of them.

They might have been more accepting if, perhaps, she’d shown herself meek and solicitous […] They saw a determined spark [,,,] that they classified as insolence, a lack of artifice that struck them as boorish, a capacity to remain unimpressed […]

That inner strength, that capacity to lift herself by the bootstraps, is what keeps her from shattering when her world comes crashing down around her, destroying her youthful fantasies, and that’s the moment she grows into a stronger, self-determined woman:

They had likely expected her to die of heartbreak, to wither and grow gray, but Nina thought she would not give them the satisfaction. Not to the silly folk who made jokes about her, nor to Valerie […]

Valerie, though being the undisputed villain of the story – and she makes no effort to disavow the readers of this notion – is ultimately a creature to be pitied, up to a certain point: used as a bargaining chip by her family, she submits to their needs negating her own wishes, and becomes so enmeshed with the rules she was forced to obey that she is unable to see beyond them, her hate for Nina stemming from the awareness that the younger woman does not care for those same rules and is ready to scorn them for love – as she was unable, or unwilling, to do.  Whatever pity I might have harbored for Valerie, though, quickly evaporates in the face of her decision to bring others to the same depths of despair she wallows in, out of pure spite  – if she is unable to have something, no one should as well…

As for Hector, he’s as far from a noble figure as one might conceive: obsessed with Valerie to the point he can’t see neither of them is the same person as they were ten years before, he concocts a plan to get close to her, not realizing until it’s too late that he’s fallen victim to his own machinations – even once he finally opens his eyes and tries to make amends, he comes across as something of a weakling, and indeed I see him as the less substantial personality of them all.

Re-reading my notes about this novel, I realized that I’ve been ensnared by a story that contains too many of the elements I actively avoid in my reading material, and I wondered why: there was too little fantasy here and too much romance – how could I be so enthralled by The Beautiful Ones?  The only answer I can find is that Silvia Moreno-Garcia is such a skilled writer that she can mesmerize me with her tales even agains my usual dislikes. And that’s the mark of an author to keep on my radar, no matter what…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: AND MEN WILL MINE THE MOUNTAIN FOR OUR SOULS, by Seanan McGuire

 

CLICK ON THE LINK TO READ THE STORY ONLINE

 

I don’t remember if I ever read a story or a novel from the point of view of dragons, and if I did it certainly did not made an impact on me as this short tale from Seanan McGuire, although I should not be surprised at all, considering the narrative skills of this author.

The dragons’ civilization, as depicted here, is indeed a cruel one, where the rulers become such by eating of the flesh and hearts of their predecessors, and there are always two of them: a prince, to lead the subjects and guide them into war, and a princess whose task is to dream of the future, and offer advice.  The dreams of the princesses are terrible and they consume the dreamers, aware of the inescapable fact that “…what a princess dreamt, she must dream true. Always.”

And what these princesses dream of is the end of the dragons, their total annihilation at the hand of men: no matter how brutal and merciless the dragons are, here they are shown as magnificent creatures whose blood turns into rubies, and flesh into diamonds and precious metals, thus tying the narrative in a novel way to the legend about dragons sleeping over hoards of riches. No matter how vicious they look, the dragons here take on the role of victim, of a civilization destined to fall under the sword of men bent on exterminating them and reaping the bounty hidden in their mountain dwellings, so that it’s impossible not to feel compassion for their end and rage for the greedy ignorance of men who are destroying such irreplaceable creatures.

But as the princess’ dreams prophesized long ago, it was all written and the dragons “never had a choice, not since the very beginnings of the world”.  A poignant, amazing tale that you don’t want to miss…

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: BLOODY ROSE (The Band #2), by Nicholas Eames

I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

Bloody Rose‘s predecessor, Kings of the Wyld, was one of the best debuts I read last year, and one I still think about with great fondness, so that I was looking forward to its sequel, especially since I knew it would not feature the same characters as the first book in the series and therefore I could look forward to meeting a totally new set of people, which made this story even more intriguing.

Tam Hashford has heard of the epic feats of traveling bands all her life: her own parents were part of one, and her mother died at the hands (or paws, or claws, or whatever…) of one of the monsters her band faced. Because of this, Tam’s father chose to lead a quieter life, trying to erase from his daughter any yearning for adventures and heroic gestures, being tragically aware of the kind of price exacted by those ‘adventures’.  But it’s difficult to steer away a young person from dreams of heroic deeds: on the contrary, any kind of interference can only manage to steel their resolve, so that when Fable, the band led by Bloody Rose, comes to Tam’s village, she manages to get enrolled as their bard.

The members of Fable are a mixed and intriguing bunch: there is Rose of course, whose fate in besieged Castia caused her father Gabe to reunite his old band Saga to save her; Rose’s right hand and lover is the druin Stormcloud, while the rest of the group is made up by Roderick (a satyr trying to hide his nature under outlandish clothes), Cura (an inkwitch, able to summon the most incredible creatures from the tattoos drawn on her skin), and Brune, the shaman (meaning he can sham into an animal shape, apparently a bear – even though the story is more complicated here…).

The world changed considerably in the years after the events depicted in Kings of the Wyld though, and the exploits of bands don’t concern the removal of dangerous creatures anymore: the bands now fight only in the arenas, and more often than not it’s more of an act than a true fight, where the “monsters” are mostly underfed mongrels, all bark and almost no bite, captured for the purpose of making the bands look good, especially through the bards’ retelling and embellishments.  This makes for a very different kind of tone in respect of the previous book: where Kings of the Wyld was a delightfully weird romp focused on putting the members of Saga back together, and their adventures always had a patina of tongue-in-cheek fun despite the seriousness of their goal, here the story is pervaded by a creeping sense of melancholy, of the awareness of a world gone forever that tries to cling to its past glories but only manages to show the surface appearance of it, without real underlying substance.

It takes only a few days on the road to start divesting Tam of all her starry-eyed notions about the life of a band, and soon enough the days all seem like a boring repetition, just like the story seems to move at a very slow pace, in what felt for me like a very different experience from the previous book: Iittle by little, however, I started to get to know these characters, and to perceive their strong bond, the sense of family that kept them together.  I believe that the sense of detachment I experienced at first came from Tam’s p.o.v.: she is of course the outsider – just as the reader is – and she needs to integrate in the group, to know them and to be known by them in turn.  That’s the moment when I became truly invested in the story, and that was also the moment when it took a very serious turn, a deadly serious turn, indeed…

I’ve come to believe that with the slow-burn beginning the author choose quite craftily to lull his readers into a false sense of sameness, so that he could better spring his surprise, a terrifying surprise that imbued the story with such a sense of inescapable doom that I literally flew through the rest of the novel in the attempt to relieve the anxiety I felt for the fate of the characters – therefore realizing that I had come to care for each of them deeply.  That’s why it was so hard for me to come to terms with the high price that some of the events entailed – I will not say more about it, since it’s a huge spoiler, but I confess I did not expect it, and it still hurts…

Bloody Rose probes into several important issues, like perception of self and the need to fulfill one’s goals irrespective of whatever kind of pressure (parental or otherwise) is exerted on an individual; or again the concept of courage and the necessity to find it inside us rather than trying to borrow it from external sources. But where this story truly excels is in depicting the sense of family, of a group of people who are each scarred in their own way by past experiences, and yet manage to turn their flaws into a useful tool for the good of the group, understanding that the family they found among themselves is worth any kind of sacrifice, no matter how high.

In the end, everybody is transformed – either because they have changed in the course of the story (like Tam, who goes from a self-effacing village girl to a more assertive person), or because they have changed in the eyes of the reader, who comes to know – and appreciate – them better, and if that development takes a harrowing journey that leaves too many casualties along the way, it’s a trip worth making thanks to the skills of the storyteller.  Which is the reason I will forgive him for bringing tears to my eyes with the final surprise at the end of the book….

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE TALE OF THE WICKED, by John Scalzi

 

 

This is another chance discovery that I made while searching for another work from author John Scalzi: the story focuses on a space battle between a Confederation ship, the Wicked, and a Tarin battle cruiser, one of the many engagement in what looks like a long, drawn-out conflict.

Both ships have been fighting for several days, and sustained heavy damage, but the Tarin ship is in worse shape and the last jump it effected seems to have spent all of their power, so that the captain of the Wicked decides to try one final assault and follows in hot pursuit.  That’s when something unexpected happens: both ships find themselves hanging in space, unable to start their engines or fire weapons, and that’s the work of the ships’ artificial intelligences, a new model capable of independent thought.  The A.I. of the Wicked encountered Asimov’s three Laws of Robotics and decided to apply them, taking the course of the engagement out of the humans’ hands, unless they choose to resolve the conflict with the Tarin in a less destructive manner – and it has enrolled the Tarin ship’s A.I. as well…

This short story has all the flavor of old-fashioned science fiction, and it could not be otherwise since it’s a clear homage to one of the stars of the genre, Isaac Asimov, and his most famous creation, the Laws of Robotics that postulate that an artificial construct cannot harm a human being, that said A.I. must obey a human’s orders, unless it implies harming another human, and finally that it must protect itself, unless this action contradicts the first two rules.  The way in which the Wicked’s central brain decided to apply these rules to the ongoing conflict is a delightful show of logic mixed with a very peculiar sense of humor, showing that a higher-function artificial intelligence does not develop only consciousness, but also other human characteristics.   It’s not only an amusing point of view, it’s a refreshing look on the trope of the computer-turned-rogue that becomes a danger, a very far cry from 2001’s HAL 9000.

Recommended for all Scalzi fans, but not only them…

My Rating: