Tag Archives: AI

Short Story Review: “This Long Vigil” by Rhett C. Bruno

Title: This Long Vigil
Author: Rhett C. Bruno
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Perihelion Magazine, 2015

A while back, I gave a friendly review to Mr. Bruno’s debut novel The Circuit: Executor Rising. As a result, the author asked me to also review This Long Vigil, his first professionally-published short story. I was more than happy to do so, and only regret that life kept getting in the way and delaying this review. As of this writing, if you click on the title of the story up top there you can read it for free on the interwebs. Not sure how long that stays up….

Orion has spent twenty-five years as the lone conscious human inhabitant of the Interstellar Ark Hermes, his only companion the ship’s AI Dan as he monitors the various functions of the ship’s age-long trip to a likely new home for the human race. Now the time is approaching for him to be placed back into hibernation, there to sleep away the rest of his life before being recycled into fertilizer for the ship’s garden. Unless he manages to do something unthinkable…unless he manages to escape….

On the whole, I enjoyed the short story. It managed to get me to care about the main character despite the brevity of our encounter, and I definitely enjoyed the role reversal in the naming structure. Usually the AI/computer characters have the more exotic names, but not here. Here, we have a computer named Dan and a human named Orion. Would the constellation Orion be visible from Alpha Centauri? I kind of doubt it would, but the factual discrepancy didn’t actually occur to me until a moment ago, so I’ll let it slide. Most importantly, I was actually satisfied with the ending to this tale, which is not always the case.

CONTENT: No profanity. No sexual content. Some musing on death, but no real violence.

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Review: “The Book Of Apex Volume IV,” The Apocrypha

You may remember a year ago I reviewed the stories contained in The Book Of Apex: Volume IV Of Apex Magazine. This anthology reprinted the fiction from Apex Magazine issues #30-44, in it’s entirety (or so I thought.) Turns out, there was at least one story from each issue left out of the collection! So far as I can tell, all of these were reprints when they appeared in Apex, but I’m a completist. And so, I give you the omitted stories from Apex #30-44!

  • This Creeping Thing, by Rob Shearman. (***)
    From issue #30, originally appearing in Love Songs For The Shy And Cynical. Susan has trouble loving, but once she gets there….once she gets there, her love can move mountains. I didn’t like this one, and I can’t explain why. It just rubbed me the wrong way. It wasn’t poorly written, though. You may like it okay, I just didn’t. CONTENT: Sexual content, non-explicit. Mild profanity. A cat gets euthanized after being hit by a car, so I suppose that counts as violence. Occult-wise, we have ghosts….
  • The Yellow Dressing Gown, by Sarah Monette. (*****)
    From issue #31, originally appearing in Weird Tales #63.2. A museum curator obsessively tracks down the yellow dressing gown worn by a famous artist during the last days of his life, alone in his gallery painting away while he slowly went mad from syphilis. This one was delightfully creepy! I highly recommend it if that’s your thing. CONTENT: Brief sexual innuendo. No profanity that I can recall. No overtly-depicted violence, although the aftermath of a murder or suicide is dealt with. The story is also fairly creepy, it should be pointed out. Occult-wise….there are implied to be some supernatural figures that don’t overtly appear in the story but hover around the fringes. I won’t say more because spoilers.
  • The Prowl, by Gregory Frost. (*****)
    From issue #32, originally appearing in Mojo: Conjure Stories. A former slave tells the tale of how he came to America, his troubles once he arrived, and the strange creature that came along with him in disguise. I cannot stress enough the high level of quality in this tale, nor how much I enjoyed it. Go read it–you won’t be sorry you did. CONTENT: Mild profanity. Some frank but non-explicit discussion of sex. Violence, occasionally a bit gory. I don’t think the plateye quite counts as occult content, but he is a semi-spiritual figure, so that may depend on your definition.
  • Useless Things, by Maureen McHugh. (***)
    From issue #33, originally appearing in Eclipse 3: New Science Fiction And Fantasy. A woman battles the New Mexico desert, the economic downturn, and the general ups and downs of life. This tale contains doll-making, burglary, illegal immigrants, cheating spouses, all kinds of stuff. I didn’t connect with it, personally, but I do have to admit that it was well-written. Just not up my alley. Unlike most of the stuff published in Apex Magazine, I don’t think there was anything fantastical or speculative about this story. Very bleak, which I’m not usually a fan of. CONTENT: Mild profanity. No violence. The only sexual content comes when the protagonist breaks down and uses her doll-making skills to craft specially-ordered sex toys in order to make ends meet.
  • Lehr, Rex, by Jay Lake. (****)
    From issue #34, originally appearing (so far as I can tell) in Forbidden PlanetsAn Imperial scout ship is dispatched to the rescue when a twenty-year-old distress signal is finally received from the INS Broken Spear. On arrival, however, the rescuers discover that the now-delusional Captain Lehr has no intention of leaving, and that there may be more to their mission than meets the eye given the planet-buster stored in the hold of their ship. What was on the Broken Spear that the Empire deems so dangerous? This was a very fun story, with a twist that I at least did not see coming until the very end. CONTENT: Very mild sexual innuendo. Some sci-fi violence. No profanity.
  • Alternate Girl’s Expatriate Life, by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz. (****)
    From issue #35, originally appearing in Interzone Magazine #229.  I can’t describe this story. It wasn’t my favorite, but it was obvious that the author put a lot of effort into shaping exactly how much is revealed and when, and to describe that would be to upset the balance she worked so hard for. Like I said, I wasn’t a huge fan (and that’s a subjective judgement I can’t quantify), but it was a well-written piece nevertheless. Some would call it beautiful. CONTENT: Mild sexual innuendo. Some implied violence. No profanity.
  • The Chaos Magician’s Mega Chemistry Set, by Nnedi Okorafor. (****)
    From issue #36, originally appearing in Space And Time #101.  Ulu wants to be a chemist like her uncle, and spend her days protecting the land from pollution and other threats. Ulu is a very orderly little girl. So, her dad stops at Ugorgi’s store and buys her The Chaos Magician’s Mega Chemistry Set. Ugorgi’s store is a very interesting place, full of things that shouldn’t exist–a six-legged dog, for example. But when a “laboratory accident” disrupts the local space-time continuum, it’s up to Ulu and her chemistry set to make it right…. CONTENT: Brief profanity. Mild violence. No sexual content. Occult content….that depends on the conclusions and definitions of the reader.
  • Blocked, by Geoff Ryman(****)
    From issue #37, originally appearing in The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction. This one was….confusing. I first took it to be a dream, (it does begin with “I dreamed this….”) but now I think that the narrator was speaking figuratively. I didn’t like this story, per se, but I do have to admit that it was well written. It was quite a scathing indictment of humanity’s discontent…. CONTENT: Brief profanity, mild innuendo, and no real violence despite some very adult themes such as suicide.
  • Wolf Trapping, by Kij Johnson(****)
    From issue #38, originally appearing in The Twilight Zone Magazine. A disturbing tale of obsession and its consequences, how far we will go to achieve the thing we want. Richard is living alone in the woods, observing the wolves and their behavior. One day he stumbles across a lone woman doing the same, but whereas Richard strives to remain detached and not affect their behavior, this woman wants to join the wolves and be a part of their pack….. CONTENT: R-rated language. No sexual content. Some disturbing and gory violence.
  • Undercity, by Nir Yaniv(*****)
    From issue #39, originally appearing in Hebrew in Dreams Of Aspamia #19, in English as a bonus novellete in The Apex Book Of World SF II. There is a city that exists beneath the Tel Aviv that you know. No, that’s not quite right…you couldn’t dig your way to the Undercity. It exists in another plane entirely, a cold, sunless echo of the world that we live in. And tomorrow the two Tel Avivs will switch places….I’m not entirely sure I “got” what the author was trying to tell me here, but I was very much pulled into his world. This was a dark, very atmospheric tale, and whether or not I completely understood it, I have to say that I loved it. CONTENT: No profanity that I recall. Some mild sexual content, fairly non-explicit. Mild violence.
  • Sacrifice, by Jennifer Pelland. (***)
    From issue #40, originally appearing in Dark Faith: Invocations. A woman sits by her father’s bedside as he lays dying of lung cancer. A voice offers to allow her to trader her life for his…. OR A man stands outside his daughter’s funeral, mourning with every fiber of his being the deal he made to save his own life at terrible cost…. Was this well done? Yes. I have to admit that it was. Did I like it? No, I really didn’t. You should have noticed by now that I’m really not a fan of stories that cast God as a sadistic old creep. CONTENT: R-rated language. Mild sexual references. Mild violence and the heavy subject of death and sacrifice.
  • Sonny Liston Takes The Fall, by Elizabeth Bear. (****)
    Also from issue #40, originally appearing in The Del Rey Book Of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Sonny Liston was a boxing legend back in the day, until the day he faced off against a young up-and-comer by the name of Cletus Cassidy. Cassidy? He went on to change his name to Muhammad Ali. Liston lived a hard life, full of controversy, and died the way he lived. Elizabeth Bear spins a poignant tale of this controversial figure, and I’ll admit I had no idea about any of this. Prizefighting legends from fifty years gone aren’t really my specialty, you see. I did enjoy the tale though…. CONTENT: R-rated language. Fighting violence. Mild sexual innuendo, non-explicit.
  • Simon’s Replica, by Dean Francis Alfar. (****)
    From issue #41, originally appearing in the Philippines Free Press. An aging queen, feeling her mortality creeping up on her, commissions a perfectly accurate replica of her lands so that the golden age of her kingdom will be remembered. I have to admit that I did see the ending coming, but it was still a pleasant tale. CONTENT: No language, no sex, and no violence.
  • The Glutton: A Goxhat Accounting Chant, by Eleanor Arnason. (****)
    From issue #42, originally appearing (so far as I can tell) in Tales Of The Unanticipated #22. Here we are treated to an epic poem by an alien race very different from our own. This is my first encounter with the Goxhat, but apparently their culture has been the author’s pet project for quite a while now…. CONTENT: No sex or profanity, some violence.
  • Relic, by Jeffrey Ford. (**)
    From issue #43, originally appearing in The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet Of Curiosities: Exhibits, Oddities, Images, and Stories From Top Authors And Artists. Out at the end of the world, there is a church to a maybe-saint by the name of Ifritia. It only holds services four times a year, once for each season, and its main claim to anything resembling fame is the supposed relic of its namesake saint in a shrine behind the church. Father Walter is ordained by no particular higher authority; he simply built the church and recalled that the preachers from his boyhood were called Father. Sister North simply joined the church one day after an infrequent sermon. I feel like this story was supposed to tell me something, but I missed the message. Without whatever it was supposed to tell me, the simple almost-plot left much to be desired. Maybe it’s something you’d enjoy, but I wasn’t particularly impressed. CONTENT: No profanity. Some violence, some non-explicit sexual innuendo.
  • The Patrician, by Tansy Rayner Roberts. (*****)
    From issue #44, originally appearing in Love And Romanpunk. In the Australian outback, there is a town built of Roman stone, in the Roman style, and committed to the Roman way of life….as long as the tourists are looking, of course. But there are monsters that called Rome their home, and they are drawn to things that are Roman….there are also those who hunt them, on a quest to rid the world of its monsters. I absolutely loved this story, and I am very much looking forward to tracking down a copy of the collection it originates in. Roman monsters, monster-hunting, immortality, this tale has it all. Highly recommended. CONTENT: Mild profanity (At least, I don’t recall any that wasn’t mild, but its possible it slipped my attention. I was kind of distracted by the sheer awesomeness of the tale.) Some violence, usually perpetrated against dragons or manticores or lamia or some such, but occasionally extending to their victims as well. Some sexual content, not too explicit.

This is just one of a series of posts I did on this anthology. You can find the others here:
Part One (My personal favorites….)
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
-Apocrypha (The reprinted stories from the relevant issues, not included in the anthology)

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Review: “Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie

Wow. Just….Wow. Earlier this week I posted my review of Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter’s The Long Earth. In that review, I said it was the best book I’d read in a while. If I had chosen differently when prioritizing my shortlist of upcoming books to read, I might have spoken differently. Or maybe not. I’m not really good at looking at two incredibly excellent pieces of work and saying one is better. Sometimes its easy. Sometimes its not. This time its nearly impossible. I’ve already expounded on the virtues of The Long Earth, if you want to see that go click on the title in that first sentence. It’ll take you right there. Here, I will attempt to make you understand just how brilliant Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice (*****) is. All I can say is that I cannot wait for the next book in her trilogy to come out….

On a remote and frozen planet far beyond the boundaries of the Radchaai Empire, the lone figure calling herself Breq draws nearer the completion of a quest for vengeance twenty years in the making. Twenty years earlier the Justice of Toren was a mighty troop carrier, one of the largest ships in the Radchaai navy. Her AI controlled and monitored the actions of the entire ship as well as the host of “ancillaries” that serve her human officers as aids, servants or soldiers as the occasion demands. Spread across the stars, the Radchaai Empire has been built on the metaphorical backs of ships like Justice Of Toren and the ancillaries they command. Annex a system, integrate them into the Empire, grant citizenship to those deemed worthy (i.e. “pure” humans), then seize a portion of the population to be converted into ancillaries–corpse soldiers, as they are referred to by resentful annexees. Suitable human bodies are placed into cryostorage, ready to be revived, given implants and slaved to their ship’s AI as readily expendable troops, flawlessly-coordinated and for all intents and purposes an extension of the ship. Twenty years ago, Justice Of Toren was one such ship with millenia of service behind her, orbiting a newly-annexed world notable only for being the final addition to the Empire, until an unthinkable betrayal tore it all away. Now Justice Of Toren lives on only as a fragment of herself, the ancillary One-Esk Nineteen, now known as Breq. She does not understand why everything she once was has been stripped away, not completely, but she does know who is responsible–Anaander Mianaai, the immortal Empress of the Radch. She must pay. But how does one kill an enemy that occupies a thousand bodies spread across the stars? And why does Breq keep risking her life and her mission to help Seivarden Vendaai, an officer who served on her a millenia ago? She herself cannot answer that question, not even to her own satisfaction. She only knows that her course is set. There’s no turning back now, not when she is so close to her goal. May the cast fall as it will….

In conception alone, this is probably the single most original piece of science fiction I have ever had the intense pleasure of reading. Leckie creates a meticulously-imagined world to explore, filled with fascinating characters that walk the line between the familiar and the completely alien, all conveyed with a sparsely elegant prose that somehow manages to put you inside the mind of an interstellar warship. This was an incredibly ambitious novel, and I was completely blown away by how well executed it was. If I hadn’t visited the author’s website myself (it’s here, by the way, in case you’re interested) I would in no way believe that this was her first novel. I would even go so far as to say that it is dang near perfect. I wouldn’t change a thing about the book itself, save one sentence I found that got mangled in restructuring–probably fixed in the release version, since I’m reading an ARC. I do think the book would benefit from an author’s note at the beginning regarding one artistic choice she made, but I’ll discuss that in a minute.

It’s no secret that writing in first-person can be incredibly difficult; many times you are faced with the impossible choice of either breaking form to convey vital information about goings-on somewhere other than where your POV character happens to be, or leaving said information untouched. The Hunger Games ran into this a few times, I thought, and the films are really benefitting from their ability to show President Snow discussing why things happen the way they do. In this book, however, the author manages to pull an end-run around the issue. In the present, there’s no need to cut away–Breq is alone, or Seivarden is with her. Either way, everything important happening centers on her. In her flashbacks explaining how she came to be in her position, she’s an AI with eyes everywhere there’s an ancillary, ship’s camera or sensor. This allows the author to write in first person omniscient for those sequences, which I’m not sure I’ve ever seen done before. We the reader can sometimes be mystified by a secondary character, can be left wondering why they said or did something, but this is okay because we’re seeing them through Breq’s eyes, and she is just as mystified as we are! This is especially confusing during the pivotal moment in Breq’s flashbacks where everything hits the fan and we learn just what happened, again because she doesn’t completely understand it herself. It is very apparent, however, that Leckie understands these things, and in time all will be revealed. This book isn’t actually out yet, it releases October 1st of this year from Orbit press. I have no idea how wide their reach is, so I don’t know whether you’ll have to go on Amazon to get it (here’s a link!) or if you’ll be able to pick it up at your favorite bookstore. However, I cannot emphasize enough how much you need to read this!

My one suggestion: an author’s note regarding the use of gender language throughout the book. The Radchaai language has no gender, so it’s not part of Breq’s “native thinking” to use gender-specific terms in her own head. All well and good, kudos for consistency, but I spent a good five minutes trying to figure out if it was a typo that Seivarden was referred to as “she” despite having been said to be male. (Ships are female, so everyone is “she.”) It works, it’s just a little confusing at the start. Certain characters, I still have no idea what their gender was. That’s ok, just….confusing. Most of the cast is female in my head, probably more than should be. (UPDATE: This is exactly what I was talking about. This or something like it should have been in the front of the book.)

Thanks and disclaimers: I received an advance reading copy (ARC) of this book for free through the ARCycling program with the understanding that I would review it. Basically, the idea is that people who get free copies of these books in order to generate reviews and publicity will pass their copies along to other bloggers (or anyone else who fit the profile–see their site for details) in order to better serve this purpose and spread the word. Its a great program, and I owe them (and the donator, of course!) thanks for getting this into my hands. I had seen ads for it, and thought it would be an interesting read, but it wasn’t a very high priority until I saw it on the list of offerings. I don’t know for sure who donated this one, but I seem to remember seeing The Little Red Reviewer credited when I requested it. (LRR, if you end up reading this, please confirm or deny so I can properly credit you? Awesome.) And by the way, if you like sci-fi/fantasy and aren’t following her, you should totally do that. My review is in no way influenced by the fact that I was given a free copy, except to ensure that I was able to write this in time to convince some of you to read it.

CONTENT: Language, R-rated but not gratuitous. Violence, occasionally gory, plus the whole concept of the ancillaries is a bit unsettling–especially the scene where they thaw out a new body and have to link it into the network. Some sexual innuendo, nothing explicit.

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Review: “The Long Earth” by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter

Title: The Long Earth
Authors: Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter
Series: The Long Earth #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Harper, 2012

I’m a huge fan of Terry Pratchett’s work, in case you hadn’t noticed. I’m slowly working my way through his Discworld novels (find reviews for #1-5 here and #6-10 here) and Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Predictions of Agnes Nutter, Witch, cowritten with Neil Gaiman, is among my favorite books of all time.* So when I discovered The Long Earth at my local library, I was ecstatic. I’d heard good things about Stephen Baxter, but never actually read any of his material. What I found was one of the best novels I have read in a very long time.

The premise here is that there are infinite worlds parallel to ours, spread out across the vast “contingency tree” of possible Earths, and in all of the Long Earth only one iteration has developed Human life–ours.  Throughout our history there have always been a few with the natural ability to “step” between worlds at will, and still others who did so unintentionally and disappeared forever, but the world at large was unaware of this phenomenon until a reclusive scientist posted the blueprint for a “stepper” device on the internet and promptly disappeared from his apartment. Suddenly, the whole of the Long Earth is opened up to humanity. Suddenly, there is no shortage of land or resources. Economies are hard hit, jobs are lost, and once again humanity’s pioneer spirit is stirred to go out into the frontier and try to make their way….

Joshua Valiente is a so-called “natural stepper,” but he is probably unique among humanity. In the stress of childbirth, his mother stepped out of her world and into a parallel forest before slipping back without him. She managed to get back and recover him pretty quickly, but nevertheless young Joshua spent the first ten minutes or so of his life completely alone in his universe. As a result, he is uniquely attuned to the Long Earth. He can step between worlds without nausea, and is keenly sensitive to the number of people around, growing intensely uncomfortable the more crowded things get. Now, fifteen years after the world learned of the Long Earth, he spends most of his time exploring where no man has gone before. Lobsang, on the other hand, is a keenly intelligent AI, who may or may not be the latest reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman. In collaboration with the shadowy Black Corporation, Lobsang has conceived a plan to test just how far the Long Earth goes. And he wants Joshua to go with him….the resulting journey is as much an exploration of what may have been as it is a geographical one, with most worlds mirroring our own, but a few display the effects of a cosmic “toss of a coin” going the other way–for example, there’s one where the Earth was completely destroyed by an asteroid strike sometime in the distant past.

Put quite plainly, this was the best thing I’ve read in a very long time. Very original, and to my (admittedly limited) understanding very faithful to the relevant science without losing quality of narrative or character. Pratchett’s humor and sardonic narrative voice shines through quite often in the interpersonal or introspective moments as well as those detailing more plot driven points–those scenes that would, in a film, become some form of montage showing that time is passing and this is what’s happening in the meantime. As I mentioned, I’ve never read Baxter before, so it’s harder to pick out his voice from their collaboration.

Infodumping has become something of a cardinal sin in the science fiction world, but sometimes you just have to throw some information at the reader so that he doesn’t get lost. I felt that The Long Earth handled that very well. We get our first glimpse at the long earth in montage mode, a series of vignettes that don’t make sense on their own, people popping in and out of worlds without understanding themselves what is going on. This is followed by the main story, twenty years after the discovery of the Long Earth, in which the bare bones are presented via a TV interview a character is half-watching while he waits. These bare bones of the conceptual basis of the book are then fleshed out in more detail as Joshua and Lobsang and introduced and get to know each other, discussing the various theories regarding the Long Earth at length in an effort to better understand it themselves. This is interspersed with flashbacks, sometimes Joshua recalling his experiences, sometimes Lobsang telling stories of other people based on his research into early encounters with the Long Earth. In this way Pratchett and Baxter manage to convey how humanity as a whole is dealing, not just Joshua and Lobsang. If I have one complaint with this it is not always clear why or how we are being told this–you don’t discover until the end of the chapter that Lobsang is telling this to Joshua instead of the authors just throwing in a tangential bit with no direct connection. And it is all connected–every revelation, every character you visit and then abandon early in the book will come back and have significance later on. This is perhaps not the easiest read–you do have to engage it to understand it properly–but neither is it an incomprehensible enigma. As long as you pay attention you should be fine.

CONTENT: Some R-rated language, but not nearly what you could find elsewhere. Some violence, some grisly aftermath of violence. Sexual references, but nothing explicit.

*I’m frankly a little surprised I don’t have a review of that one up here, I must have reread it last just before I started doing this. I’ll have to fix that in the near future….

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