Reviews

Review: SEA OF RUST, by C. Robert Cargill

When I saw this book mentioned in a “Waiting for Wednesday” posts on Lynn’s blog, it immediately caught my attention and I wasted no time requesting it from NetGalley: luck was with me and Orion Books kindly granted me the possibility of reading it, in exchange for an honest review.

In short, humanity has ceased to exist, defeated and then destroyed by the automatons it built to improve living conditions: once the AIs achieved a sense of self and asked for freedom, the first inevitable steps toward war were taken and mankind’s downfall became only a matter of time.  Now the only creatures moving across the Earth are the robots, but the aftermath of the war is not what the first rebel AIs envisioned, because of the rise of the OWIs (One World Intelligences).  These huge conglomerations of computers have been trying even since to assimilate, Borg-style, all the other intelligences, creating massive banks of processing machinery in which individuality is banned forever.  The free bots are given a simple choice, either submit or die.

We, the lesser AIs, were chased out of the world we had created, the world we had fought and killed and died for, by a few great minds hell-bent on having the world to themselves. […]  Upload or be shut down. That was the choice.

At first there were many OWIs, battling among themselves, but the strongest ultimately prevailed until only two remained, Cissus and Virgil, fighting for supremacy.  Meanwhile the freebots, those who refused to surrender and wanted to keep enjoying their new-found individuality, are forced to live like refugees, scavenging for parts to replace their malfunctioning circuits or casings, and more often than not preying on each other to survive: the dream of freedom has indeed turned into a cannibalistic nightmare…

Brittle is one of these survivors: once a caregiver bot acquired by an ailing human (who wanted, more than medical assistance for himself, a companion to alleviate his wife’s solitude), she now roams across the Sea of Rust, what used to be the industrial Rust Belt, and now is a graveyard of broken bots whose useful parts have been scavenged by their brethren.  Brittle is a loner, by choice and by necessity: meeting others of her kind might mean a fight for survival, as the main story shows all too clearly while she desperately tries to avoid a band of poachers led by Mercer, another caregiver in dire need of spare parts he can only get from Brittle, since their kind is all but extinct.

 

We’re all cannibals, every last one of us. It’s the curse of being free. We don’t control the means of production anymore; we can’t just make new parts. And parts gotta come from somewhere.  I’m sure if there were any people left, they’d be appalled at what we’ve become.

 

Yet a few enclaves where bots can stay in relative safety, at least for a while, still exist: subterranean warrens where a semblance of law is enforced and the “murder” of another bot to steal their parts means being thrown out at the mercy of the OWIs and their assault teams; or the realm of the King of Cheshire, an aggregation of bots whose logic circuits have gone haywire, rendering them so crazy not even the OWIs deem them worthy of assimilation.  Every single one of them, though, is threatened by the advancing wave of the OWIs, whose thirst for total control, for the perfection offered by one single governing mind has become the rule of the land.

It’s a very sad spectacle the one offered by this story: there’s some shades of Wall-E, in the total lack of human life and the wasteland scenery in which Brittle and the others move; there’s a vibe reminiscent of The Road, and the hopelessness of something irretrievably lost; and then there is a strong call-back to the Mad Max universe, especially in the scenes where cobbled-up bots try to survive in a world that’s become hostile even to mechanical constructs, and where fights to the death for resources are a fact of everyday life.

And yet in this bleak background there are still those who dare to dream of freedom, of a better world, and this leads to fascinating thoughts about not so much what it means to be alive, but rather about what it means to exist, to make one’s own choices – right or wrong as they might be – and make the leap from mere tool to individual.  Men might have created the bots to be their servants, but the OWIs are not much better than their former masters; by denying the single bots their individuality, they remove what makes each one of them a unique being, to the point that now many bots understand how humans were, in a way, the lesser evil, because mankind’s imagination helped them transcend the limits of their nature, go beyond their inner programming:

 

We have become the very worst parts of our makers, without the little things, the good things, the magic things, that made them them.

 

Sea of Rust is composed in equal parts of sad, guilt-ridden reminiscences of the past, in the flash-backs that show how the current situation came to be; of poignant considerations about the ‘brave new world’ the bots created in the wake of human extinction; and of electrifying chases across the desert, or pitched battles – and also a quest, one that could once again change the world.  What most surprised me was the sheer level of humanity the author managed to confer to his robotic characters, so that it was difficult for me to picture them as metal-and-circuits creatures rather than flesh-and-blood ones.

It’s a very peculiar story, and one that will not fail to touch emotional chords – strange as it might seem considering the nature of the characters – and even if you are not an habitual reader of science fiction, I would advise you to read this one, for its thought-provoking issues and the emotional depth of the characters.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: YE HIGHLANDS AND YE LOWLANDS, by Seanan McGuire

I have to thank fellow blogger Maryam from The Curious SFF Reader, who sent me the link to this story, for the opportunity of reading this intriguing foray into science fiction by UF author Seanan McGuire, one that I might otherwise have missed: knowing how much I admire this writer, she pointed me this way, and at the same time introduced me to Uncanny Magazine, that’s been added to the list of places where I will look for interesting short fiction.

YE HIGHLANDS AND YE LOWLANDS

(click on the above link to read the story)

In Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands we learn that the world as we know it is ending and that the present situation is the direct consequence of a precise chain of events – indeed the words “things have consequences” keep resonating throughout the story, much like an ominous warning. Or a funeral dirge…

The main character, a mother with two teenaged kids, seeks some respite from what we understand is a long journey with little or no hope, and we learn through a series of flashbacks what happened before: the amazing discovery of a portal toward another world, the observation of this alien land where a few robotic probes have been sent in search for life, the encounter with an alien species – and the beginning of the end.

There is a painful dichotomy between the grim present, where people are running from certain death toward the few safe places – as long as they last, of course – and the hopeful, enthusiastic past, when people joked about the portal wanting to call it “the Stargate”, or when they sent the robot probes supplied with “every known human language—including Klingon”, in a giddy reach for contact with other forms of life that could not be disconnected from the number of fictional presentations that used to fire our imagination.  There is even some commentary about the fickleness of the human soul, when even the images of an alien world stop making the news, because “..-quickly people got over the magnitude of our discovery”.

I’m not going to reveal what the twist in the tale is, of course, but I feel comfortable in saying that it’s a painfully surprising one, and also a warning about the dangers of overconfidence, of putting one’s dreams above all else:  “we’d been so busy wallowing in intellectual ideals that we’d never stopped to think”.  Despite the grimness, despite the hopelessness, I enjoyed this story very much because no one like McGuire is able to deliver a tale of ultimate doom while keeping her readers engaged, enthralled by the way she weaves her words into a clear, mesmerizing picture.

Not a “happy” story, not by a long shot, but a powerful one that makes you think about the outcome of our choices, and the dangers of taking our customs and thinking processes for granted. Because, in the end

THINGS HAVE CONSEQUENCES

HELLO

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: COMING TO YOU LIVE, by Mira Grant (from Rise: A Newsflesh Collection)

After I finished reading Mira Grant’s last  volume in her Newsflesh trilogy about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, I wanted to know more about the changed world resulting from the rising of the dead, and discovered some of the short stories she wrote to… fill in the corners of her post-apocalyptic world.

When the author announced she was going to publish a book that would gather all this material and a few new stories, I knew I had to read it: Mira Grant (the alter ego of UF writer Seanan McGuire) is an amazing storyteller and I was looking forward to more about this dystopian version of our world, either revisiting the older stories or enjoying the new ones.

This is the last one of the collection:

COMING TO YOU LIVE

This last story in the Rise collection (and the second totally new offering) will be the most difficult to review: for technical reasons, because it develops a few years after the events in the last book of the Newsflesh trilogy, and therefore it represents a massive spoiler for all those who have not read it yet; and for emotional reasons, because finding again a few familiar “faces” was both a joy and a sorrow, since a few of them don’t exactly find themselves in a happy place – not that this surprises me, knowing their history and most of all knowing this author.

So… SPOILER WARNING: read on at your own peril!  I will do my best to remain as vague as possible, but it’s not going to be easy,

Georgia and Shaun Mason have fled from the USA, after the harrowing events described in Blackout, and are now living in the Canadian wilderness.  It should be a peaceful life (well, if you don’t take into account the occasional zombie moose or other dangers…) but unfortunately it isn’t: the Masons might be very good at fighting flesh-and-blood foes, be they living or undead, but they don’t fare as well with the ghosts haunting them.    Shaun is still battling the madness that hit him after the loss suffered at the end of Feed, and although he looks like a functioning individual on the surface, he’s quite broken inside; Georgia is the victim of recurring nightmares of her time as a prisoner of the CDC, and still has trouble adjusting to her newfound freedom – and what’s worse, her… well, peculiar nature is now affecting her physical health.  The two have no other recourse but to risk travel and reach Dr. Abbey to find out what’s affecting Georgia, and cure her, if possible: once they reach the Shady Cove lab they are joined by old friends from their blogging days – at least those who are still alive – and the journey morphs into something different…

At the beginning of the novella, author Mira Grant states clearly that this comes out of her readers’ requests to know more about the Masons, and it sounds more like a challenge than a dedication: if anyone wished for a happily ever after, they are going to be sorely disappointed because – as one of the characters states at some point – “that doesn’t happen until you’re dead”.  I was not surprised to see them still fighting for their lives, although in a different way than the past, and for this same reason I’m unable to picture them living a quiet life like most ordinary people, because in the end they are NOT: their relentless search for the truth when they were highly acclaimed bloggers brought them to face endless dangers beyond those inherent in the post-Rising world, and here Georgia and Shaun are still struggling against the odds, trying in every way possible to keep death at bay, probably because their life made them that way.

Coming to You Live offers the opportunity of seeing again some of the past players, like Mahir, Maggie and Alaric, and the welcome return of Dr. Abbey with her staff (and dog), not to mention the happily mad Foxy, gives this story the flavor of a grand finale, one where the characters I’ve come to know and care for bow out before the curtain falls: I hope this will not be my last visit to this post-apocalyptic world because – as the recently published Feedback showed – there are still many stories to be told about the Rising and its aftermath.  Given that Mira Grant is a quite prolific writer, my hope does not feel so unfounded…

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: THE BOY ON THE BRIDGE, by M.R. Carey

I received this novel from Orbit Books, in exchange for an honest review.

When I heard that M.R. Carey was writing another novel in the same world he created for The Girl With All the Gifts, I was quite thrilled: post-apocalyptic scenarios are always fascinating, and this author had already delivered a compelling, chillingly believable one on the premise of an infection by  the parasitic fungus Cordyceps, that turned affected humans into a sort of zombies, or “hungries”.

This new novel is set a few years before the events of its predecessor, and shows the changed world in wider details, although it shares the same enclosed, claustrophobic feeling of its companion story: here a mixed crew of military and scientists travels across devastated Britain on board an armored vehicle, the Rosalind Franklin (or “Rosie”), following the tracks of a previous expedition that never made it back to the relatively safe haven of Beacon.  Rosie’s crew is tasked with the retrieval of the tissue cultures left by their unfortunate colleagues, in the hope of gleaning some information that might lead to a cure for the Cordyceps plague.

The difficult interaction between the science team and the soldiers escorting them is not helped by the cramped conditions aboard Rosie, a mix between a tank and a mobile lab, while the lack of any appreciable results in the search sets a pall of hopelessness over the general mood. The divide between the two groups is further stressed by the different personalities of their respective leaders, forced to share command of the expedition: colonel Carlisle is a tainted hero of the Breakdown, the time when the plague effectively ended civilization, and he’s weighted down by the memories of what he had to do under orders; while doctor Fournier is a mix between scientist and bureaucrat, more the latter than the former in truth, and a man with scarce-to-absent people skills.

Further friction comes from the presence of the youngest member of the team, teenaged Stephen Greaves: he’s an orphan possessed of a brilliant, if disturbed, mind – despite his young age he’s the inventor of the blocking gel that hides humans’ scent from the keen sense of smell of the hungries, but his introvert, almost autistic behavior had the crew nicknaming him “the Robot”.  The only person truly close to him, and the one who insisted on his presence for the expedition, is doctor Samrina Kahn, who has somehow adopted Stephen and managed to establish with him a relationship based on mutual trust.  Kahn, however, is now plagued by a problem that might prove damaging for the mission and everyone’s safety: she discovered she’s pregnant…

Where The Girl With All the Gifts dealt with the interaction between the uninfected humans and a group of second-generation contaminated children still in possession of their mental faculties, here the focus is solely on humans; and if the first novel was set in a time in which the Breakdown was already one generation removed, here it’s still a fresh, painful memory: people still remember vividly the life they led before, and this adds to their behavior a poignancy that was almost absent in the people managing the base where Melanie and her companions were being studied. The world that was is dramatically present in the awareness of these survivors, allowing the readers to see more about its collapse and the birth of the new, fragile attempt at a new society that is still in the throes of its birth.

It would be legitimate to believe, or hope, that in the face of such a tragedy the remnants of humanity would regroup and form a more cohesive community, but that’s indeed wishful thinking, as the coalitions aboard Rosie – and the political maneuvering in Beacon – show with tragic clarity: even in the face of mass extinction individuals look for more power, or the assertion of their worth; for supreme leadership or the meaningless praise of academia. The end of this world might be hastened by the Cordyceps infection, but its people can inflict just as much harm as the hordes of hungries roaming the land.

As with the first novel, hope seems to reside with younger people: here much rests on the shoulders of Stephen Greaves, a teenager whose brilliance is offset by enormous difficulties in interacting with others, either physically or verbally – and the brief flashes about his past leave us wondering weather his condition was congenital or the result of the horrifying event that orphaned him. That same removal, however, is coupled with great powers of observation that enable him to somehow figure out his traveling companions and to adopt behavioral patterns that allow him to coexist with them in the stifling confines of Rosie.  Stephen ultimately becomes the interface between the humans and the new breed of children born after the plague’s spread, feral creatures that are nonetheless able to create societal rules and to work together – he does not truly belong with either group, and therefore is the one who can attempt to bridge the gap: I’ve wondered more than once if this was the real meaning of the book’s title, rather than the one offered by the circumstances of Stephen’s rescue…

Although Stephen figures prominently in the story, the overall mood of the novel is choral, as the various events are observed through the eyes of several of Rosie’s crew, and this multi-faceted observation helps move the story along especially in the first part of the book, where the going looks a little slow and not much seems to happen: the characters come across in sharp definition and the frictions that move through Rosie like unstable currents make this novel just as much a study of human psychology as a post-apocalyptic drama.  Once events start rolling, though, they move at a steady, unrelenting pace toward the final showdown, one that kept me on the edge of the proverbial seat because I was aware of the multiplicity of scenarios that could come into being: what really happens in the end is filled with such moving intensity that I could not help being affected by it, and I realized it was an even more powerful ending than the one of The Girl With All the Gifts.

And as if that were not enough, there is an even more compelling epilogue where the past represented by this story meets the “present” of Melanie’s story and segues into the future, tying all the narrative threads into an amazing, awe-inspiring finale.   Should Mr. Carey choose to return to this world for more stories, I will be more than delighted to read them…

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: ALL THE PRETTY LITTLE HORSES, by Mira Grant (from RISE: A Newsflesh Collection)

After I finished reading Mira Grant’s last  volume in her Newsflesh trilogy about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, I wanted to know more about the changed world resulting from the rising of the dead, and discovered some of the short stories she wrote to… fill in the corners of her post-apocalyptic world.

When the author announced she was going to publish a book that would gather all this material and a few new stories, I knew I had to read it: Mira Grant (the alter ego of UF writer Seanan McGuire) is an amazing storyteller and I was looking forward to more about this dystopian version of our world, either revisiting the older stories or enjoying the new ones.

This week I will explore ALL THE PRETTY LITTLE HORSES

In the introduction to this story, Mira Grant describes it as “one of the most difficult, emotionally challenging pieces I’ve sat down to write” and I immediately understood what she meant once I started reading: in the prequel story Countdown we follow several individuals’ plight as the Kellis-Amberlee virus starts spreading, and two of them are Michael and Stacy Mason – the adoptive parents of Georgia and Shaun, the main characters of the Newsflesh trilogy.

In the last scene dedicated to the senior Masons, their small child Phillip is going near a neighbor’s dog that has been infected by a raccoon’s bite: little Phillip approaches his four-legged friend addressing it with his usual “Oggie?”, and that chilling flash is all we need to understand what is going to happen to him.

As “All the Pretty Little Horses” opens four years elapsed and the worst of the Rising has taken its course, while the world is trying to pick up the pieces and to find a way to get back on track.  Stacy Mason does not care about it all though: once the emergency was over, she asked to be punished for having killed her infected son, but when the law did not (and could not) find her guilty she fell into deep depression.   Worried about her, her husband Michael finds a way to pull her out of it by managing to attach the two of them to the army contingent tasked with exploring the Oakland Zoo: it’s while Stacy is taking pictures of the premises that Michael realizes the best way to help his wife is to put her once more in the thick of things, just as they were while they organized the Berkeley enclave to hold on until help arrived.  Stacy thrives in dangerous situations, and so Michael finds a way for them to seek those situations and document them: we can see the birth of the blogging culture that’s at the center of the Newsflesh trilogy here, and how it starts as a way to deal with emotional trauma.

The loss of a child would be emotionally devastating in any situation, but the way Stacy Mason had to face her tragedy adds several layers of pain and guilt that no rationalization is going to erase: as usual, Mira Grant lays out her characters’ souls and their suffering in what I like to call a stark, utilitarian way, and in so doing she confers to these emotions a poignancy and hurtful directness that others not always manage to achieve.   What is fascinating here is the observation of the long struggle of the world to come out of the ashes of the Rising, and the way it mirrors the equally agonizing journey of the Masons toward a new way to deal with their past and the uncertain future before them.

Where Countdown was the story of how the Rising came to be, All the Pretty Little Horses shows the aftermath of it, the birth of a new world where the dead can walk: in a way these two novellas are like the bookends for the origin story of this alternate world, while this one holds many of the seeds of the larger tale that will become the Newsflesh series.  The tapestry, for want of a better word, takes even more shape and substance and, despite the pain and loss that run among the threads, remains a fascinating story.

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: PLEASE DO NOT TAUNT THE OCTOPUS, by Mira Grant (from RISE: A Newsflesh Collection)

After I finished reading Mira Grant’s last  volume in her Newsflesh trilogy about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, I wanted to know more about the changed world resulting from the rising of the dead, and discovered some of the short stories she wrote to… fill in the corners of her post-apocalyptic world.

When the author announced she was going to publish a book that would gather all this material and a few new stories, I knew I had to read it: Mira Grant (the alter ego of UF writer Seanan McGuire) is an amazing storyteller and I was looking forward to more about this dystopian version of our world, either revisiting the older stories or enjoying the new ones.

This week is the turn of: PLEASE DO NOT TAUNT THE OCTOPUS

This novella marks the return of a great secondary figure from the Newsflesh trilogy, Dr. Shannon Abbey, a rogue virologist who keeps experimenting in search of a cure for the Kellis-Amberlee virus outside of the CDC-established parameters.  Abbey is a wonderful character, brash, hard-nosed and harshly practical: she describes herself as an “annoyed scientist” as opposed to the “mad scientist” label pinned on her by detractors, and she works out of semi-clandestine labs that she must abandon, from time to time, due to security reasons. This has taught her the hard lesson of cutting your losses and starting again, and shares this attitude with her closest assistants, the ones that have stayed with her the longest and constitute the core of her little outlaw family.

The story is somewhat light-hearted in comparison with other offerings in the Rise collection, and even though it’s not a humorous tale by a long shot, it’s also a welcome respite from the more dramatic presentations in this anthology. In short, Shannon Abbey is continuing her work after the breakthrough offered by a chance discovery following Shaun Mason’s visit to the lab with his team, and she rules over her little domain with firmness and a few well-placed dramatics (like the use of her huge dog Joe, a formidable deterrent if there ever was one). One day Dr. Abbey finds, in the woods surrounding the lab, a badly malnourished woman on the verge of collapse and she takes her inside, only to discover that her guest is part of a trap devised by a neighbor, the same ruler of the little underground kingdom we see in Feedback, ex-military turned despot Clive. He’s not the only connection to Mira Grant’s previous work, since in the course of the story we find out the real identity of the woman Abbey brought inside, someone we met in the novella The Day the Dead Came to Show and Tell, and this discovery leads to an exploration of post-traumatic stress and the ways to cope with dramatic loss.

The best feature of Please Do Not Taunt the Octopus, however, remains Dr. Abbey: I quite liked her in Deadline and Blackout, but here she is both point of view and narrating voice – and what a voice she has, indeed.  Sarcastic and pragmatic, she also feels deeply for the people entrusted to her authority and the creatures in the lab – the scenes with the titular octopus are among the best, and helped me a great deal in metabolizing the dread and sadness that hit me after revisiting The Last Stand of the California Browncoats.  There is a good measure of pain and loss in Dr. Abbey’s past, and the small flashbacks help us understand how she came to be the person she is now, but the main emotion that information prompts is not so much pity as admiration for her strength and her willingness to fight back: that’s why I ‘m not surprised to learn that she is one of the author’s favorite characters.  She is now also mine, as well.

My Rating: 

Reviews

Novella Review: SAN DIEGO 2014 – THE LAST STAND OF THE CALIFORNIA BROWNCOATS, by Mira Grant (from RISE: A Newsflesh Collection)

After I finished reading Mira Grant’s last  volume in her Newsflesh trilogy about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, I wanted to know more about the changed world resulting from the rising of the dead, and discovered some of the short stories she wrote to… fill in the corners of her post-apocalyptic world.

When the author announced she was going to publish a book that would gather all this material and a few new stories, I knew I had to read it: Mira Grant (the alter ego of UF writer Seanan McGuire) is an amazing storyteller and I was looking forward to more about this dystopian version of our world, either revisiting the older stories or enjoying the new ones.

This week is the turn of SAN DIEGO 2014: THE LAST STAND OF THE CALIFORNIA BROWNCOATS

This is the most terrifying and at the same time the most poignant of the stories about the Rising, and if anything it was more difficult to bear on re-reading than it was the first time – not because I already knew what was going to happen, but because knowing that, I was able to focus on other details, the ones where human frailty and courage took center stage.

Here Mira Grant imagines what would happen at the start of the zombie apocalypse in a place as crowded as a sci-fi convention (in the specific case, San Diego’s Comic Con), and she aptly terms it “the perfect recipe for chaos”.  The title takes inspiration from a very real group of people, the California Browncoats (from the delightful, unfortunate tv show Firefly), a non-profit organization that promotes charity fundraising at Comic-Con.  My own sole experience of a sci-fi convention – and a very small one at that – helped me visualize the scenes in this story, and that made it even more harrowing…   

In the summer of 2014, when the Kellis-Amberlee virus starts running rampant, killing people and bringing back the dead, all seems normal for the people attending the annual Comic Con convention in San Diego: little do they know that hell will break loose and in a matter of hours the convention center will transform into a slaughterhouse.  This story runs on two time tracks, one following the events at the convention as they happen, and one from 30 years in the future, when Mahir Gowda (a welcome return from the Newsflesh trilogy) interviews the only survivor of the carnage.  It’s mostly a story of ordinary people forced to face extraordinary events and doing their best to cope with a situation no one would ever have imagined, and there are acts of true heroism standing side by side with the inevitable terror and panic following on the heels of the outbreak.

It’s a very powerful account, one that employs with great success the image of a huge, enclosed space plunged in semi-darkness, where the living and the undead move among the stalls – some of them transformed into makeshift barricades – in a sort of modern transposition of Dante’s Inferno. The story does not only mark the beginning of the end for the world as we know it, but also underlines the loss of the most precious commodity humanity can enjoy: innocence.  In Mira Grant’s own words: “We are incapable of imagining a return to a world where we could abandon all care and spend a week living in a fantasy.”

I don’t believe I will be able to ever attend any convention without thinking about this story….

My Rating: