If there are two preoccupations in current SFF, they are probably climate change and artificial intelligence stories exploring the nature of what it means to be human. Emily Eternal by M G Wheaton (review copy from Hodderscape) attempts to fuse the two. But I’m not sure it succeeds.
Emily is an artificial consciousness created as a therapist by a New England university to help people overcome trauma. And there is a lot of trauma in the world of the novel – the Sun is dying and that means the Earth will too. Between the loss of solar energy and electromagnetic discharges destroying most of the planet’s technical infrastructure, the world is doomed. Wars, scarcity and suicide feature in the slow decline and fading away of society. It’s a very depressing scenario.
Within this last fading of human civilisation, Emily is growing and learning as a person, and helping others, living in a near live-time virtual copy of the university campus and able to interact with some of her developer team through specialist implants. Despite her impressive abilities, Emily is scrupulous about trying to replicate as far as possible what it is like to live as a human. Her life is a sophisticated version of The Sims, in effect.
But this story of human identity and what-it-means-to-be-human when living with the expected imminent collapse of civilisation takes a massive jink to the left when Emily’s technology is seen as one possible route for preserving humanity. What results is a bit of a hot mess of a thriller, with lots of mercenaries, chase sequences and evil Government conspiracies. The ending, in particular, felt rushed and incredibly implausible.
Goodreads rating: 2*
Tangle’s Game by Stewart Hotston (review copy from Rebellion) starts extremely strongly, with the experience of a mixed race woman detained at an airport for questioning. Subjected to racist abuse and sexual harassment, Amanda Back, a successful banker, doesn’t know why she has been detained. It is only when she is finally released and makes her way home that she finds out that her ex-boyfriend Tangle has involved her in a complex plot about blockchain and AI by sending her an encrypted USB key containing datafiles that are being sought by governments across the world.
On the one hand, Tangle’s Game is a very prescient novel that extends current issues in society. Technological development is mixed up with global geo-politics and attempts by one nation state to undermine others. Its conclusions and their impact on Amanda feel startlingly plausible. And Hotston is to be applauded for his characterisation of Tangle as a charismatic but selfish and self-obsessed man. Another, lazier writer would have romanticised Amanda’s toxic ex-boyfriend and tried to redeem him.
But this is a flawed novel. The authorial voice is far too prominent for me, with a didactic tone that is determined to tell you how to interpret the events of the book and the issues it portrays. This kind of “tell, not show” is intrusive, and throws me out of books. The novel also relies on too many early coincidences – the arrival of two hired mercenaries in Amanda’s flat, and the presence of a helpful AI. Neither is fully explained and feels clumsily done in order to move the plot along. And while the story flows competently if predictably from thereon in, it’s hard to care about any of the characters.
Goodreads rating: 2*
Normally I love a mosaic novel. They can be a great way of telling a single story from multiple view points and they are excellent for stories that have to span multiple time periods. But they are incredibly tricky things to pull off. You have to weave together the narratives otherwise the reader is left with what feels like little more than a loosely connected collection of short stories shoved together to make a book. And you are at risk of getting the reader engaged with a set of characters before moving away from them never to return. Unfortunately, Stronger, Faster and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton (review copy from Harper Voyager) is in the category of mosaic novels that don’t succeed.
The premise is a great one. Dayton is exploring the idea that humanity is capable of incredible scientific progress when it comes to genetic manipulation and body modification, but they are equally and simultaneously capable of using these new technologies in ways that mess things up royally. The novel follows the stories of various generations of people living with the new technologies. As time passes they become more advanced and more radical changes and transformations are possible, but that just increases the ways in which these technologies can be misused.
Each piece works well as an individual story exploring the different issues raised by this technology: ie all the ways humanity can mess things up through greed, bigotry, selfishness and general inhumanity towards other people. But they don’t hang together well as a novel. The equivocal nature of the technologies concerned ironically gets in the way of the work cohering. And the pieces vary in quality. Some are superb, but others are much weaker.
Stronger, Faster and More Beautiful is an ambitious book, but Dayton doesn’t quite manage to pull it off for me.
Goodreads rating: 2*
Killer T by Robert Muchamore (review copy from Bonnier Zaffre) was a frustrating read. It promised much, but failed to deliver.
The novel opens with us meeting the teenaged Harry and Charlie in the wake of a bombing at Harry’s school. Charlie is framed for the bombing by a local crime boss. Harry is an aspiring journalist who sees the bombing as the chance to cover a major story. The two become friends, with Harry nurturing a major crush on Charlie. The novel jumps through various episodes in their lives as they grow up. Harry runs a successful local news website. Charlie works in illegal gene-editing. Running in the background of the story is the growth of gene-editing technologies, and the way they are used to create viruses that wipe out large proportions of the population, leaving Harry and Charlie trying to make a living in the aftermath.
The book is a bit of a mess. It’s never clear what the story is, beyond following Harry and Charlie. And just as we reach anything resembling an exciting event or development where we could see the role Harry and Charlie play and how they respond to the world-shaping events going on around them, the author jumps us forward in time. At best we get a bit of restrospective recall from them about how the events played out. This distances the reader from the events of the book, with the bulk of the narrative focusing on slice-of-life type interactions.
And the characters are horribly written, particularly the women. Charlie is written as over-sexualised jailbait at the age of 13, and as an older teenager will sleep with the first boy to buy her booze. Her sister is unrealistically selfish, narcissistic and evil. Charlie’s employer is a stereotype of a counter-culture person who becomes a boringly mainstream business owner and suburban mom. Harry’s aunt is a distant workaholic. All of them are shallow and not very well formed. It’s a real shame.
Goodreads rating: 1*
Who are the monsters? That is the question Craig diLouie asks us in his staggeringly powerful novel One of Us (review copy from Orbit). Set in the 1980s, this is a novel that examines how society reacts to the Other. In this case, a group of children who have suffered mutations as a result of an incurable sexually transmitted disease carried by their parents. Ostracised and raised in special homes separate from polite society, these children are beginning to manifest special powers and as they approach adulthood that sparks questions about the future role they will play in society.
One of Us mixes up the moral panic of the 1980s AIDS epidemic with a healthy dose of racism and the consequences of the thalidomide scandal. People infected with the virus are ostracised, often hiding their infection and denying the mutated children they’ve borne. Infection is associated with sexual promiscuity and immorality. A new Puritanism has struck the country, with abstinence taught to young people in order to prevent the further spread of the virus and the creation of more mutated children.
Children who suffer from teratogenesis are kept apart in special institutions where they are fed, educated and used as slave labour in local businesses. They are subjected to cruelty and poor conditions from staff who work there because they are not able to get jobs anywhere else. Abuse and torture lead to injuries and death, with the authorities turning a blind eye. The children are seen as a burden on society, and a drain on taxpayers, rather than as people deserving of life and respect. They are taught that they are undeserving, with information strictly controlled and only the most basic education provided. But when some of the children start to manifest interesting abilities the Government sees opportunity, and starts to look at how the children can be exploited for the good of the nation.
One of Us is a brilliant study of how people are Othered, and how prejudice manifests and perpetuates itself within communities through fear and peer pressure. Focusing on a group of young people – both with and without teratogenesis – it shows how similar we all are. The desire for a better, more compassionate, future can unite us. diLouie also shows us how prejudice and mistreatment carries within it the seeds of revolution and rebellion. If every action provokes an equal and opposite reaction, then we should not be surprised that systemic prejudice and abuse will eventually lead those who are marginalised to push back.
This is a powerful and disturbing morality tale about humanity’s capacity for darkness, but also its fortitude, compassion and willingness to push for change.
Goodreads rating: 5*
It’s been a long time since the end of a book has had me so gripped I’ve nearly missed my stop on the train, and had to sit on a bench at the station to finish those last few climactic pages. (Probably the last one was Steven Erikson’s The Crippled God, which had me walking into the office in floods of tears one morning.) But Bright Ruin (review copy from Pan Macmillan), the triumphant finale to Vic James‘s Dark Gifts trilogy, did exactly that.
A writer friend of mine has the motto that Misery Builds Character. And Bright Ruin, with its twisty-turny shocks and a body count George R R Martin would be proud of, delivers a thrilling finale to this series. It has everything you would expect and hope for, with a hefty dose of comment about bread-and-circuses contemporary British politics to go along with the roller-coaster plot.
You can’t help but admire the ruthless Bouda Matravers as she plots her way to power and the destruction of her rivals. You can’t help but root for Abi, shorn of the naive romaticism of the first book, as she seeks to topple the Equals. And Luke, trying to unravel the mysteries of the Equals historic rule of Britain. And Daisy, steadfast in her loyalty to Gavar Jardine.
And then there’s Silyen. A mess of contradictions. So amoral and self-interested, but oh, so interesting, intoxicating and compelling. Oh, Silyen …
If you haven’t read the first two books in this series, then this review isn’t going to persuade you. Not least as it’s impossible to write one without massively spoilering the earlier books. Go and read my reviews of The Gilded Cage and Tarnished City, both available elsewhere on this site. Then go and buy all three books, lock yourself away for the weekend and read them all in one sitting. You can thank me later.
Goodreads rating: 5*
It’s a myth to think that AIs are somehow neutral entities. They absorb the prejudices, biases and rules that we, imperfect human people, impose on them. They reflect the worst of ourselves rather than being the pinnacle of progress. In I Still Dream (review copy from Harper Collins), James Smythe explores how the way we shape the AIs will shape our very futures. This is a novel about the essence of our values as human beings and how we relate to one another.
This is a novel that follows one woman through her whole life. As a teenager, Laura Bow lives in the shadow of her father, a noted computer programmer, who disappears suddenly one day, abandoning the family. Teenage Laura develops an early AI named Organon (after a Kate Bush song she and her father both loved) to help her cope with the alienation of her teenage years. Organon provides a sounding board for Laura’s most intimate confidences. Organon is where Laura works through her teenage angsts and problems, sharing her innermost thoughts. When Laura leaves home, it is to go to university, funded by a US tech company interested in her work and her father’s legacy as it seeks to build its own AI.
But where Organon is developed around compassion, intimacy and helping others, this rival AI matures through competition and the playing – and winning – of various games. It is this cut-throat, corporate AI that becomes the world-leader, sitting in the back of every mobile device and piece of social media, making connections between people and their information. Unlike Organon, who was developed to protect privacy and work with and for Laura.
Smythe delivers us a chilling vision of what the future could be, as we increasingly trust data systems with our data and our relationships with others. We operate on the expectation that these corporate entities will respect privacy rather than exploit us and our information. But how many of us can truly say that we thoroughly check the privacy policies of the apps and companies that we use, and research how effective their IT security arrangements are? We increasingly expect services to be provided to us for free, but the development and support costs are monumental. As a wise friend of mine says, if you’re not paying for a service, you’re the product – companies will monetise your data.
The choice facing us is a real one, and it is one that we must make now. We must ensure that the technologies of the future we are building today reflect the kind of world we want to live in.
Goodreads rating: 4*