Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Book Reviews by James Maxey
February 2009

Winter Song by Colin Harvey

First, let me get my big gripe out of my system. Winter Song by Colin Harvey has one of the least inviting opening chapters to a novel that I've ever encountered. It's common advice to writers to start stories in the midst of some big action scene to hook the reader. Winter Song follows this format, opening with an attack on the protagonist's space ship in the very first sentence. We quickly start getting damage reports and status updates as an unidentified attacker tears apart the ship for unknown reasons. Soon the destruction of the ship is inevitable, and Karl must abandon ship inside a giant safety wad of life-preserving goo that he's going to ride down to the nearest planet.

It's a very busy chapter, tossing out a lot of information about the ship, about Karl's biological and technological enhancements that make his survival likely, and a brief data dump on the solar system he's in and the planet he's going to try to reach. The one thing it utterly lacks is anything more than a hint of who Karl is or any reason anyone should care that any of this is happening to him. I was pretty much ready to give up and move on to the next novel in my stack, but I happened to read on a few pages into the second chapter, and, lo, I was interested. There were no exploding space ships, no big action scenes, no high tech info dumps. Instead, we're introduced to Bera, a young woman on a rural farm who has just lost a child. We meet her as she's crossing over rocky terrain to visit her son's grave, and most of the chapter is spent giving us glimpses of her life and history. The pace is nothing like the frantic, confusing opening. It's true, we're on an alien world, and there's a lot of strange terminology getting tossed into the story. But, we're anchored by being emotionally attached to Bera, recognizably human even in the midst of a strange world.

And, a very strange world it is. An arid, frigid world Isheimur is a failed attempt at terraforming. The planet proved unviable economically, and the company that was reshaping it abandoned the project, leaving behind a few settlers. I was never clear whether the settlers chose to be left behind or were stranded by the negligence of their parent company, but they have been there for enough generations that their technology is failing and they have been reduced to fending off alien carnivores with swords and riding from village to village in horse-drawn wagons. The original settlers are from Iceland, and seem culturally well-suited to eke out a living from a world that is growing ever colder as the effects of the long ago terraforming continue to fade.

Karl, our space-man with the fancy enhancements, falls from the sky and is rescued by the villagers. The leader, Ragnar is intent that, if they save Karl's life (having fallen from outer space, his legs are broken, naturally), Karl must work until his debts are repaid. Since Ragnar is the one who will be doing the accounting, this will be never. Karl soon realizes that Ragnar is going to keep him as a slave, but he learns from Bera the legend of a distant spaceship nearer the equator that might have the communication equipment he needs to send an SOS message back home. Karl and Bera soon run off while Ragnar and his sons are drunk during some festival, and the middle third of the novel is mainly a rather rote compendium of dangers and obstacles to be overcome. Here, they have to avoid drowning. Here, they must escape getting fried by a dragon. Ragnar and sons give chase and have to run a similar gauntlet.

The one thing that keeps it interesting is that Karl's technological enhancements have malfunctioned in a serious way. Before he jumped ship, the ship downloaded a lot of data and a companion artificial intelligence into Karl's nanotech to help him survive. But, instead of being helpful, the artificial intelligence has taken on a life of its own and keeps taking control of Karl's body at inopportune moments. The AI's scenes are written in second person, a stylistic device that bugged me at first, but that I later came to see as doing an excellent job of capturing the alien nature of the machine intelligence.

The last third of the book has Karl in possession of the ancient spaceship which turns out to function just fine. The plot shifts off into an entirely new direction, as Karl takes steps to avert the coming permanent winter that will kill the people of Isheimur by smashing a comet into the planet to trigger global warming. I found his motives for doing so a little thin. He's been eager the whole book to leave the world, so I didn't completely understand why he was now trying to save it. Still, I enjoyed the space opera feel of the last chapters. With the bulk of the book a low-tech struggle across an alien landscape, the shift to outer space adventure provided a nice contrast. On the whole, a fun read, if you make it past the clunky first chapter.

Small Miracles by Edward M. Lerner

I started this book immediately after finishing Winter Song, and while I don't normally compare and contrast the books I review, it's worth pointing out that both books have, at their core, a tale of an artificial intelligence imbedded in nanotech computers taking over the body of a host human. While in Winter Song the intelligence emerges in sudden spurts and outbursts, in Small Miracles the development of the machine intelligence is much slower, more insidious, and more grounded in real science.

Small Miracles is a carefully constructed book. Set in the near future, we are introduced to some modest, plausible technological developments, including nanotech medical robots designed to heal trauma. The protagonist, Brent, is a salesman for the technology, and on a ride-along with the police he gets caught in an explosion that kills everyone in the area, save for him. After a slow and painful recovery, Brent returns to work as something of a legend. Only his best friend, Kim, seems to be aware that something is off about Brent. He's a little more remote, a little more focused, and, curiously, he's also increasingly smarter.

Of course, these small changes can be explained by Brent's brush with death. It's only natural that he's escaping the bad memories of the explosion by drowning himself in work. Much of the novel is spent watching Kim piece together the clues of how medical nanites never designed to produce artificial intelligence have somehow taken over her former friend.

While Kim is working out the "how," the reader, of course, already knows that there's a second intelligence inside Brent, since the AI gets its own point of view scenes. Calling itself "One," the machine intelligence is determined that there will be a Two, and a Three, and so on. One spends much of the novel preparing to spread machine intelligence among mankind, to replace the old human model with a new species of Emergent.

Scientifically, this book is spot on, or at least felt that way to me. While most SF readers are probably primed to accept the existence of artificial intelligence, Lerner seems to be targeting this book toward a broader audience, laying a detailed and highly plausible framework for One's existence. There's very little in the way of flash and dazzle here; if this book were filmed, the special effects budget would be fairly trivial. While there's a fair amount of action in the last quarter of the book, most of this tale unfolds at a paranoia-inducing pace; we are given time to linger on the ramifications of each development and clue.

The main weakness of the story was an over reliance on hypnotism as a plot device. Brent seeks out hypnotherapy to deal with his bad memories and growing sense of alienation, and One learns the tricks of hypnosis and proceeds to build something of a zombie army of hypnotized slaves to do its bidding. I was also a little disappointed from time to time by just how unformidable the Emergent were as they launched their plan of world domination. Kim and the company doctor have figured out how the nanites can get into the brain and alter behavior and the Emergents finally decide to deal with them. Two of the Emergent go to capture Kim and the doctor, and Kim escapes by hiding under a desk. She's later sneaking around the factory and managing to evade the Emergent by slipping into closets and bathrooms when she hears footsteps. I suppose some level of convenience for the heroes is acceptable, but I would have liked to see the bad guys display just a sliver more competence.

Luckily, the parts I didn't like were only brief phases in the larger story, which held my attention all the way through, and kept me awake way past my bedtime as the tensions mounted at the end. This book was smart, engaging, and tight, with all the little pieces fitting together in the long run. Highly recommended.

Read more by James Maxey

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