Reviews

Short Story Review: THE STREETS OF BABEL, by Adam-Troy Castro

 

(click on the link to read the story online)

 

This was one of the most distressing stories I ever read, and not because of any overt or implied violence, since there is effectively none, but because of the feeling it engenders, something that goes well beyond the powerlessness and anguish experienced by the protagonist.  The setting is probably the future, a future where cities are animated, ever moving entities roaming the planet in search of humans to people them.

As the story starts, an unnamed man wakes up conscious that the city has finally overtaken him: after days of desperate flight over the plains, he had to give in to exhaustion and rest, and that’s when the city built some walls around him, trapping him.  Once awake, the man is driven by the shape-shifting pavement into the direction chosen by the city, washed, dressed and channeled together with hundreds or thousands of other hapless captives through the motions of the activities everyone can observe in a modern city.  The only difference is that humanity has lost the meaning of such activities – like sitting at a computer and completing various tasks – together with the ability to communicate with one another: the language each person uses is not understood by others, and even if it were, the city would not allow such interaction, ever driving its captives toward fulfilling the senseless jobs it assigns them.

From the musings of the man we learn that the human race has somehow regressed to a very primitive state, and the only sign of civilization comes from these moving cities, able to create any environment and any object or piece of clothing that people might use: how that came to pass, no one knows, but what we see here paints a very gloomy picture. And the dismay turns to horror once we are shown what the city needs those people for, why it hunts the savages hiding in the plains and keeps them for a while in the travesty of the life in a modern urban context…

A terrible vision, indeed, but one that is also a very compelling tale: reading it will be a challenge, but it’s one I encourage you to face.

 

My Rating: 

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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

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

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: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: THE PRESIDENT’S BRAIN IS MISSING, by John Scalzi

 

I stumbled by pure chance on this short story by John Scalzi while searching for one of his earlier books that I missed, The Android’s Dream, and of course there was no doubt that I would read this brief work as well: the title was indeed intriguing, and knowing the author’s penchant for humor I expected to be amused by it – and indeed I was.

Part of the fun in this story comes from my familiarity with shows like The West Wing and its ‘dark side’ twin House of Cards, detailing the dynamics of the White House behind the closed doors the public never crosses, especially where appearances and public image are concerned.

In this particular case however the presidential aides are faced with an unconceivable situation: an MRI scan on the President reveals that his brain has disappeared, and yet the man is still alive and functioning – well, apart from the impossibility to submerge his head in the pool, since every time he tries, the head “pops back up like a cork”.  This is the premise from which the short, hilarious story starts, poking some fun at the intricacies of politics and the dichotomy between appearance and reality: even though the staff’s descriptions don’t give a shining picture of the President – a man who is not exactly brilliant and who won the election because his opponent was involved in a sex scandal during the campaign – they worry about the possibility of a situation they might be unable to deal with, and so they start to search for the cause of the mysterious disappearance, and of a possible solution.

Quick, entertaining and in line with what I’ve come to expect from a Scalzi divertissment.

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Short Story Review: A WORLD TO DIE FOR, by Tobias S. Buckell

 

 

A WORLD TO DIE FOR

(click on the title to read the story online)

 

This story started out as something out of a Mad Max movie, with cobbled-up vehicles manned by people armed to the teeth and bent on attacking a convoy for its resources, but it soon turned out into something else.

Chenra is the gunner for Cheetah Cluster, one of the quasi-military groups led by Miko: years ago she was taken in by Cheetah as she staggered out of the desert, more dead than alive, and given a home and purpose, even if that home is a harsh one and the purpose looks more like raiding and killing than anything else.  Still, what she has is more than enough: in a world that’s been transformed into a dust bowl, where people need respirators to breathe and death lurks around every corner, the clusters are the closest thing to family that the survivors can gather into, places where loyalty matters a great deal.

Cheetah’s latest confrontation, however, develops in a very unexpected way when their quarry not only fights back but offers them a deal in exchange for information on a specific person, who turns out to be none other than Chenra…  From this weird encounter the story takes a strange and intriguing turn, one where we learn much about the way the world became such an inhospitable place, but also that there is some measure of hope, not so much in planning for a better future but rather by taking a… lateral step.  To say more would mean spoiling the surprise of this very interesting story that kept my attention tightly focused from start to finish and made me wish – as it happens often with good short stories – that this subject could become a full-fledged novel.

Highly recommended.

 

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

Review: ADRIFT, by Rob Boffard

 

 

 

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

When a book manages to surprise me by offering much more than I expected from it, it’s always a wonderful discovery: this was indeed the case with Adrift, a story that ended up being more than the sum of its parts, and a compelling read. The Red Panda is a dilapidated tour ship taking groups of tourists around Sigma Station to admire the Horseshoe Nebula, and this trip does not look much different than the countless others that preceded it: the travelers are restless and grumpy because they had to wait for their guide, young Hannah Elliot, who is on her first day on the job and understandably flustered and lost; Captain Volkova is a disgruntled veteran of the recent war that pitted Frontier and Colonies against each other, and prefers to keep to herself in the cockpit, drinking and chain-smoking; and last but not least, the ship’s barman just called in sick, so the tourists can forget any catering during the excursion.

If this collection of small annoyances can remind us of the unavoidable hiccups of organized tours, what happens next is totally, shockingly unexpected: out of the jump gate linking Sigma to the rest of the galaxy comes an unknown ship that proceeds to attack and destroy the station and the gate itself – only the Panda, thanks to Volkova’s piloting skills, manages to remain unscathed and out of sight of the enemy ship. With limited resources and a run-down vessel, the ten survivors of the attack face a bleak and short future: the destruction of the jump gate cut them off from any kind of communication and help, and with no easily reachable destination their life support and supplies will be depleted soon. Worse still, the attackers might return and this time discover there are still witnesses to what happened…

It’s at this point that what might have been a relatively simple survival story, set in a claustrophobic environment, turns instead into a detailed character study and one that singles out each personality, shifting our initial perspective for every one of them while showing the individuals’ changes brought on by the harrowing situation they find themselves into.  One of my favorite narrative themes is that of a group of people thrown together by unforeseen circumstances and forced to work together for their survival, and there could not be a less homogeneous crowd than the Panda’s passengers (and captain).  Hannah, the tour guide, is a young woman still trying to find herself and her path in life: shy, insecure, and plagued with a heavy burden of self-doubt, she finds herself in the improbable role of leader, if nothing else because she’s wearing the tour operator’s uniform.  At first I found it hard to sympathize with her, because she came across at somewhat whiny, but as circumstances forced her to take on the responsibility of keeping the group together, and as safe as possible, I warmed up to her and came to appreciate the effort she put into the unwanted task that fate dropped into her lap.

Another character whose outlook changed drastically is that of Jack, the equivalent of a present-day travel reviewer: he’s a man quite down on his luck due to a series of negative turns, and he has all but given up on everything and everyone, becoming a cynic and a listless drunkard.  During most of the story he tends to flow with the tide, letting his disillusionment with life guide his steps, and yet there is a powerful need for redemption in him, one that might lead him toward a much-needed change.

These are only two examples, but the entire group runs through some pretty wild alterations as the story unfolds: what happens aboard the Panda is indeed a thorough study on the effects of hopelessness and despair boiling over in the close quarters of the ship, a place with no escape – not just from the predicaments at hand, but more importantly from one’s own demons. And every one of the Panda survivors does have some demons to fight, even the two teenaged sons of the Livingstones, a couple on the verge of divorce.   What’s interesting here is that we are made privy to the characters’ background story, so that we are able to learn what shaped them in the past and what makes them the persons they are: these flashbacks are not only placed at very convenient points in the narrative, but they also blend in a seamless way with the survivors’ present predicament and in some fashion influence the way each character chooses his or her actions.

The Red Panda itself becomes a character at some point, because this dilapidated vessel, that probably never saw better days, is part and parcel of the troubles of its ten occupants and the way it’s described – the substandard parts, the accumulated grime, the scarce supplies that would have been inadequate even if tragedy had not struck – makes it stand out in sharp relief and share with the reader every one of its ominous creaks, obnoxious smells and claustrophobic environment.  Yet, like the humans it shelters, even the Panda becomes capable of unthinkable feats and manages to battle its way through incredible odds, to the point that it’s impossible not to root for it, as if it were somewhat alive and sentient.

Adrift is indeed the kind of story that compels you to turn the pages as quickly as you can as the narrative develops in often unpredictable, but always believable ways – maybe with the exception of the too-rapid change of heart of one particular character, that seemed much too quick given the beliefs that moved his actions and had informed his choices up to that moment.  Still, it was a little snag that I could easily move past in the breathless journey that was this highly enjoyable story.

 

My Rating: