Friday, June 22, 2018

A Robot Learns to Love Itself: Reflecting on the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

The Murderbot Diaries is an AI self-actualisation story which takes us far beyond the basic "can a robot feel?" question that is still the standard starting point for these kinds of tales.


There's a moment near the start of Rogue Protocol, the third in Martha Wells' Murderbot Diaries series (forthcoming August 7, 2018 from Tor.com Publishing), that quietly broke my heart. The self-proclaimed Murderbot, a rogue SecUnit (a human-robot hybrid "construct") which hacked its own governor module after an unfortunate murder-based incident that was subsequently wiped from its memory, is trying to distract itself from the endless, stupid problems of humans by watching a new show. Unfortunately, the plot isn't working out, and Murderbot is eager to get within range of a station so it can download something different. If only, it tells us, this terraforming horror series had a rogue SecUnit character who could stop the squishy humans from all getting horribly killed...

On the surface, this doesn't seem like a big deal. Murderbot watches rather a lot of shows  indeed, extensive media consumption is its most prominent character quirk  and it also does a lot of complaining, so the combination of the two is not exactly unusual. However, this is the first time it has articulated a desire to see itself represented positively in media. In the previous book, Artificial Condition, Murderbot had explained to its new "friend" ART the Asshole Research Transport (long story) why their favourite TV show is Sanctuary Moon, a show in a setting with no SecUnits or security issues at all. ART's favourite shows, in contrast, all tend to involve spaceships protecting their humans. Rogue SecUnits in media are all portrayed terrible monsters, because, it thinks, that's a rational way of looking at rogue SecUnits in general. To even fantasise about the existence of a heroic rogue SecUnit one book later is a serious step forward for Murderbot, even if it doesn't acknowledge the change of heart itself.

It's this constant grappling with the character's identity and self-worth that really lifts the Murderbot Diaries (a series which began with last year's Nebula winning, Hugo nominated All Systems Red, and is due to wrap up later this year with Exit Strategy) from being a merely hilarious story about a cynical construct to being something rather special. Like Moon, the central character in The Books of the Raksura (Martha Wells' other Hugo finalist this year), Murderbot is a convincingly non-human person who blends recognisable emotional responses with occasionally very alien reactions and behaviours; both are outsiders who find themselves offered friendship and community but have to learn how to accept it. In telling story it does, the Murderbot Diaries also turns the traditional robot narrative on its head: Murderbot isn't a robot learning to feel, it's a robot who is already all but overwhelmed by its emotions and has to learn how to manage and express them in a galaxy where many people still treat it as an unthinking tool.

And while Murderbot has it worse than most, it's apparent that a lot of people in this universe  be they humans, bots or something in between  are similarly struggling to establish their right to live and flourish beyond their usefulness to all-powerful corporations, who are not above mass murder to get what they want. When we first meet Murderbot in All Systems Red, it's been hired out to an uninhabited planet with a group of naive but (it grudgingly admits) likeable humans who are conducting a survey, when they find themselves in the middle of a highly subtle corporate assassination attempt. Murderbot, who has already gone rogue by this point but is pretending to be compliant, ends up accidentally "outing" itself as a fully realised sentient when it has to evacuate an injured party member, and spends the rest of the mission attempting to rebuff attempts  particularly from the mission leader, Dr. Mensah  to talk to it about its feelings and treat it like a person.

Murderbot is quick to tell us that this is because it doesn't want to make the humans uncomfortable, and the reader just as quickly realises that this is a planet-sized act of projection on our hero's part. Faced with a group of people with no preconceived notions of what a SecUnit should be, who discover that it's not a heavily armoured machine but a being with a human face, the ability to conduct caring small talk, and a massive addiction to trashy soap operas, means Murderbot suddenly has to cope with being treated like a person, forced to earn trust and friendship from its coworkers and treated accordingly when it does. To someone who has thus far dealt with being emotionally sensitive by insisting that nobody cares and hiding itself behind an opaque visor, this change is nearly impossible to process.

Because behind the sarcastic asides and wry commentary, Murderbot's narration is a veritable bingo sheet of unhelpful thinking styles; its propensity to internal self-sabotage is both relateable and excruciating to watch. Everything Murderbot does right is disqualified from positive consideration because it's just what SecUnits do, while everything that goes wrong is a total disaster that's all its fault. All of Murderbot's strengths are flukes or basic programming, while its weaknesses are all-consuming. Because Murderbot is very anxious around people, people must be objectively difficult things (except in media, where they are fascinating and enjoyable). All Rogue SecUnits are terrifying, terrible individuals who are very rightly the villains whenever they appear in media, and would be awful to meet in real life. Oh, and of course it's labelled itself Murderbot (and the first bot who sits down to watch TV with it "Asshole Research Transport"). While our hero does indeed recognise and label its own thinking as "anxiety", and can demonstrably think things through or talk itself down when required, the narration doesn't give us much second-order thought or self-reflection, leaving the mechanics of growth behind the scenes and leaving us with only subtle signs of growth behind Murderbot's aggressively curated self-image.

Later instalments have Murderbot truly going rogue and, in the process, straying even further outside of its comfort zone, passing as human while it pieces together evidence against the company which attacked its humans and discovers more about its own past (including the event which led it to call itself "Murderbot" in the first place). Intentionally or otherwise, it finds itself spending more time with humans similar to Dr Mensah's group: people it ostensibly finds insufferable, naive and incapable of staying out of danger but who treat it like a person, even when the "augmented human" identity slips.

We also get interactions between Murderbot and other bots and constructs, most notably ART in Artificial Condition, and the irrepressibly friendly (and, apparently, extremely annoying) Miki the helper bot in Rogue Protocol. Murderbot is rather rude about both of these characters, especially Miki, who it dismisses as a "human's pet": a dismissal which likely reflects its feelings about being offered a similar choice earlier in the series, rather than being directly Miki's fault. However, even while it's calling its fellow bots assholes and pets, Murderbot is also completely willing to accept them as people and in many ways treats them the same as humans: trustworthy in some ways but likely to betray you when their "programming" requires it. Even bots with demonstrably low capability get treated with respect by Murderbot, although it always puts its own self-preservation first. We are led to suspect the only thing that isn't a person to Murderbot is Murderbot itself: an ironic conclusion for the character to arrive at, given its narration leaves the reader in no doubt that Murderbot is quite definitely "one of us".

The Murderbot Diaries is an AI self-actualisation story which takes us far beyond the basic "can a robot feel?" question that is still the standard starting point for these kinds of tales in SFF. The series presents us with a robot character who we immediately accept as a funny, cynical, highly competent and resourceful person, and who I suspect many of us would love to hang out with, even knowing it would probably complain internally and make up rude nicknames for us if we did. In doing so, The Murderbot Diaries gives itself room to ask more complex questions about the relationship between how we see our own personhood and self-worth compared to how others see us; and how to find healing, growth and self-expression even when all one wants to do is self-isolate. For Murderbot, it's a slow, frustrating journey, and one which is largely obscured by bluster and sarcasm. But when the moments of growth shine through  when the Murderbot accepts that it might just be hero material  it's are all the more poignant and exciting for being so hard-won.

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke.


References: Wells, Martha. All Systems Red [Tor.com Publishing, 2017].
                    Wells, Martha. Artificial Condition [Tor.com Publishing 2018].
                    Wells, Martha. Rogue Protocol [Tor.com Publishing 2018]

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Reading the Hugos: Novelette

It's time for another entry of Reading the Hugos: 2018 Edition! Today we're going to take a look at the six stories up for Best Novelette.

Novelette is inherently a weird category. There's not really a substantial difference between a short story and a novelette, except that a novelette is just a little bit longer (but not as long as a novella, which really is a different form).

One thing that I find interesting about the Novelette category this year is that it contains two stories that are spun off recent novels. "Children of Thorns, Children of Water" is part of Aliette de Bodard's Dominion of the Fallen series and "Extracurricular Activities" is from Yoon Ha Lee's Machineries of Empire. Fortunately, for both stories, no previous knowledge of the books is required.

Shall we take a look at how the stories stack up against each other?


Children of Thorns, Children of Water,” by Aliette de Bodard (Uncanny, July-August 2017)
Extracurricular Activities,” by Yoon Ha Lee (Tor.com, February 15, 2017)
The Secret Life of Bots,” by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld, September 2017)
A Series of Steaks,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld, January 2017)
Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” by K.M. Szpara (Uncanny, May/June 2017)
Wind Will Rove,” by Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s, September/October 2017)


Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time: We've all read vampire stories and they're a dime a dozen. Whether they can walk in the daylight, are public about their identity, live in fear of being found out, or any variation that you can think of, you've probably read the story. Or, so I thought. On the surface, this can be any other vampire story, except for one thing. Finley, the victim about to transition to becoming a vampire is a transman.

"Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time" excels in exploring the intersection of Finley's transition to male with his transition to vampire. This is what science fiction and fantasy is all about - the exploration of different ideas and identities. What does the transition to vampire do to a body who has undergone gender transition? "Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time" is a sexy story of identity, belonging, heartbreak, and complication. It happens to be a vampire story. Szpara's story pushes boundaries and is an exceptional piece of fiction.


Children of Thorns, Children of Water:  I'm not sure if I can or if I even should attempt to separate my appreciation for "Children of Thorns, Children of Water" from my appreciation of de Bodard's excellent Dominion of the Fallen series of novels. If you've read the second of those novels, The House of Binding Thorns, you know that Thuon is a primary character and you can read this story as prequel. If not, or if you just don't remember, "Children of Thorns, Children of Water" is "just" a very good story of clashing cultures and an attempt to infiltrate another organization that runs not unlike a mob family.

It's good, people. You should expect this if you've read Aliette de Bodard before. She never disappoints. "Children of Thorns, Children of Water" tells the story of Thuon, a minor dragon prince (this is a literal statement) attempting to infiltrate House Hawthorn, one of several "houses" comprised of fallen angels (again, literal) ruling over Paris. It's complicated, risky, and there are problems in the house.

Because I have a poor memory, I spent half of the story thinking "this Thuon seems very familiar" - but that did nothing to lessen my appreciation for de Bodard's skill in telling a very good story.


The Secret Life of Bots: Suzanne Palmer is telling two stories here, though they are very much intertwined. The secondary story is that of the last gasp fight of humanity against an alien that has been winning the war and eradicating every human ship and outpost it can find and has launched a desperate attack in a derelict ship to hold the enemy back. The primary story is that of the titular "bots", which are used to do any number of menial task. The ship's AI is using bots to keep it operational, but sends one of the oldest bots, a now defunct model, after a rodent of sorts that has been damaging the ship.

The little robots are programmed to follow commands, but they have just enough AI to be able to interpret and figure out the best way to accomplish a task. It's that AI that gives the little robots fantastic personality. Palmer's story is charming, though coupled with the impending extinction of humanity perhaps charming shouldn't be the right word. It's tense, but the robots are the real heroes of this fight. I use this description a fair amount when talking about stories, but I wanted a whole lot more of this story while recognizing Palmer told it at the right length. "The Secret Life of Bots" isn't missing a thing and I was delighted the entire time I spent reading it.


A Series of Steaks: Since I've already written about the Short Story category, this is Vina Jie-Min Prasad's second story on the Hugo ballot and it is a real standout. Besides everything, what I really enjoy about "A Series of Steaks" is the framing of forgery and what makes a good forger. Ultimately, that's what "A Series of Steaks" is about. Helena semi-legally fabricates meat for restaurants that is otherwise undetectable for not being the real thing (ultimately, a forgery). She is offered a contract that she can't refuse because it comes with a threat to expose her.

The rest of the story is a tense game of Helena (and her new assistant) trying to fulfill the order and somehow protect herself. Prasad's writing is clear and pulled me right in. It's a damn fine story and I'm going to be looking for much more from Vina Jie-Min Prasad.


Extracurricular Activities: This is the second story on the ballot that is related to a novel. This one is set well before Yoon Ha Lee's novel Ninefox Gambit. "Extracurricular Activities" is a story of one of Shuos Jedeo's early missions well before he became a legend and a mass murderer, though already he had a reputation.

"Extracurricular Activities" will work perfectly well if you're not familiar with Shuos Jedeo from Ninefox Gambit or Raven Strategem. In one sense, this is a fairly straight forward story. It's an undercover mission to rescue another undercover crew that might be capture or otherwise in trouble. On the other hand, even if you're unfamiliar with Jedeo, there is a strong sense that Yoon Ha Lee is building a legend while showing what he was like as a man and an officer. Effective. Passionate. Creative and unconventional. Yoon Ha Lee's writing is on point and top notch. This is either a bite sized slice of a much larger story or it's a perfectly compact and excellent story that stands on its own. It's both, and it's exceptional.


Wind Will Rove: Though I don’t read nearly as much short fiction as I used to, it is becoming quickly apparent that Sarah Pinsker is one of my favorite short fiction writers and that her name on a story tells me that not only do I want to read it, that it is also likely to be exceptionally good. “Wind Will Rove” is one of two stories from Pinsker on this year’s Hugo ballot and, like “And Then There Were (N-One)”, it is fantastic. I want to use the phrase “top notch”, but I’m afraid I’m beginning to overuse it to the point that “top notch” has lost some of its meaning.

“Wind Will Rove” is a story of history, music, and a generation ship. I’m a sucker for a generation ship story. I almost always want more and more from the story, and that includes this one. With so much lost to a virus that destroyed databases worth of knowledge and culture, the residents of this particular ship have clung to what they can recall and what they were able to recreate – even knowing that so much of it is only partial truth mixed with imperfect memory. Depending on who you ask, of what generation, the culture of the ship has either stagnated or it is focused on remembering where they’ve come from. Sarah Pinsker asks important questions about what cultural identities are important to bring along untouched into the future and what culture should shape and reform around who the people are at that moment and in that place. What relevance does a song of an “Oklahoma Rooster” have for people several generations away from ever having even seen a rooster or a barn or the feeling of natural air on a planet? What meaning does learning the history of a long departed planet have for children who will live and die on a ship speeding between the stars?

Pinsker examines history and culture through the lens of “oldtime” fiddle music and through the passage of time on a generation ship. She doesn’t offer an easy answer but does suggest a way through. Perhaps she’s looking at a unique situation of a particular generation ship, but there are still things to consider in how we respond to changing culture today. Sarah Pinsker’s easy storytelling pulls you in, takes hold of your hand, and guides you on a journey. I don’t play music, and I know Pinsker is a musician, but the traditions and the art of music really comes through here. It’s a wonderful story.

My Vote
1. Wind Will Rove
2. Extracurricular Activities
3. A Series of Steaks
4. The Secret Life of Bots
5. Children of Thorns, Children of Water
6. Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time


Our Previous Coverage
Novel 
Novella
Short Story


POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.

Thursday Morning Superhero

We are officially less than a month out from San Diego Comic Con! The normal Thursday Morning Superhero will deviate from its standard format to provide some coverage of SDCC and what I hope to accomplish. My son is joining me this year and I am very excited to write about attending in what will be a different experience for me this year.

Sneak Peek: Exclusives
There are two exclusives that have been announced that I want to briefly highlight. My son recently started watching, and is hooked, on Rugrats. It is easily one of his favorite shows and this limited XXRAY Reptar vinyl from FYE blew his mind. The detail is stunning, but it is a bit out of his budget.


As one of the resident Funko collectors here at Nerds, I need to quickly note my first must have item that will be mine if I am fortunate enough to make it to the booth.  I am a huge Wes Anderson fan and cannot wait to attempt to scoop up this adorable two-pack.



Notable Comics:
While my weekly recap of my pull list will be enjoying a short vacation, I want to make sure to highlight some books that you should probably check out. The four books that I am reading this week include a pair of books from Jeff Lemire (Hit Girl #5 and Gideon Falls #4).  Gideon Falls is one of the best surprises in 2018 and it was nice to see Hit Girl, which I haven't been wild about, given the Lemire treatment.  This week also included a stunning Ether: Copper Golems #2 from Matt Kindt and Daredevil #604 by Charles Soule.  Returning to the world of Ether has been extremely entertaining and Soule's run on Daredevil is absolutely divine.  

POSTED BY MIKE N. aka Victor Domashev -- comic guy, proudly raising nerdy kids, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Westworld Wednesday: Some People's Children


Welcome back to Westworld Wednesday, a series of essays/ramblings about the themes & philosophies of Westworld. NOTE: while we deal more with themes here, rather than plot, the emphasis is not on what happened this week; HOWEVER, if you are reading this and wish to avoid spoilers, you should be current on the show (Seriously, there are spoilers in this).


Happier times! ...ish

No family is perfect. Hopefully makes you feel better about your family, because these people take the normal, everyday idiosyncrasies that make Thanksgiving slightly awkward and dials it up to 11.

There has been a theory making the rounds since William didn't murder Lawrence and his family (this time) that this is a sign of good in him. While he is definitely a complex character, Vanishing Point put any thoughts of that to rest, along with his wife and daughter. It's that wife, the un-subtly named Juliet, and their daughter Emily, that I want to talk about.

Juliet, though never seen in the flesh in Season One, appears in a photo that drives much of the plot. We see the bookend to Vanishing Point, the beginnings of William's detachment from the real world, and from Juliet, before he even marries her. The start of the darkness within him, reflected in the change in his headwear in Season One. In Season Two, we do see glimpses of good, but that's really all they are - a small amount of light shining through the cracks.

But if Westworld is all about living out fantasy without consequence, if the Hosts are really just unfeeling robots, are his actions that bad? That's the question at the heart of the character; he visits violence and evil on things put there for that express purpose, so are they really evil?

But let's step back here, because Vanishing Point does something that a lot of fiction does, that is a sort of played-out evil. The dead wife/mother/child of our straight, white, male protagonist (SWMP), her death serving as his motivation and reason he is generally surly, with lots of demons in his tortured soul. Granted, there's a reason this gets used a lot- seeing/having your family murdered/dead of cancer/whatever would definitely mess me up, and I am already grouchy most of the time. But seriously, fiction is full of dead families in the service of backstory.

Juilet is dead, more or less from the get-go (although time is pretty subjective in the show), and the reveal of her death comes before we actually know it was her, just that he had the run-of-the-mill Dead Wife Backstory (DWB). Eventually, we find that it is the very same woman from the photo, the one William fell in love with, then subsequently out of love with in favor of Delores, yet married after his transformation in order to get deeper into the Delos Corporation. Still a DWB, but at least it has some depth to it.

I wonder if it was by design, or if they retconned it in Season Two (Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan never invite me to their parties), but it's given added depth by the exploration of what lead to her suicide, alongside the reappearance (for William) of his daughter. This is the part of the DWB where some new damsel in distress needs the SWMP to emerge from his gloom and save her, after which they live happily ever after, or something.

Only Emily is no damsel in distress, but rather, her quest is to get her father to face some manner of justice for what he truly is. There is no redemption arc here, no breaking William from his shell. Just him answering the question of if what he did in fantasy mattered in reality, as he grasp on reality is either severed or ignored.

So if you are going to off a family in the service of story, make it really matter to the story.

It would be really nice if I could end it there, and say Westworld nails it and breaks the mold of so many pieces of entertainment that slaughter women and kids for backstory, but we spent a really big part of Season One with Arnold/Bernard's family having been killed offscreen. Maeve both experiences her daughter dying, dying alongside her (at the hands of William), AND has her daughter being actually alive. Lawrence ultimately awakens and tries to kill William because William killed his family (at least once).

Maybe in the ever-increasing body count of Westworld it doesn't matter; it's not even ineffective. At least it all serves to pain the picture of the Man in Black as evil and twisted, rather than a brooding anti-hero.

So next time you're annoyed with your family, just be glad they weren't killed off in the service of your backstory.

-DESR

I

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Born to the Blade: Episodes 5 & 6

Today we return to my look at Michael R. Underwood's consistently excellent serial Born to the Blade. Following my brief thoughts on Episodes 3 & 4 (see here), we continue on with episodes 5 and 6, written by Malka Older and and Marie Brennan, respectively.




Episode 5: Trade Deal

Secrets are revealed that perhaps shouldn't be revealed. Now that Kris Denn was victorious in the Gauntlet and earned Rumika a seat on the Warder's Council, he immediately fulfills his promise to Ojo of Quloo and confirms the titular trade deal of aerstone (a relatively rare and expensive ore that allows all of these island nations to float in the sky + build airships) and help out the otherwise sinking island nation. Being relatively inexperienced and trying to make friends and influence people, he lets slip during a night of drinking that Rumika perfected a method to manufacture aerstone rather than just strip mining their island like everyone else does. Whoops.

Whoops, indeed.

Malka Older balances the intensely action packed fourth episode with a quieter episode, if equally explosive in term of revelations. I really like how Older gets across the inexperience and naivete of Kris more here than in any of the previous four episodes. He's great with a blade (though still has more to learn in that arena, too), but his diplomatic experience is sorely lacking and it shows. That's the heart of what "Trade Deal" gets across. Kris may be a primary character of this narrative, but he made a really stupid mistake and this may be one of a pivotal event in the Born to the Blade narrative.


Episode 6: Spiraling

It's not that I want to say the episode titles are a bit on the nose, but if I'm being honest, they're a bit on the nose. After the successful trade deal between Rumika and Quloo in the last episode (and Kris's lack of circumspection), the fleet delivering aerstone to Quloo is destroyed. Distrust and rumors begin to infect and infest the warders of Twaa-fei. Events are not out of control yet, but they're getting there. Things seem to be spiraling out of control. Like I said, on the nose.

Thing is, that spiraling is exactly what is happening here. Marie Brennan is very effective at communicating the growing distrust between the nations represented by the warders at Twaa-fei. Things are tense and growing increasingly moreso. That tension is palpable. We're at the midpoint of Born to the Blade, so it's quite clear that things have to get much worse before they get better, assuming they do get better. That's not guaranteed and even before I see how this season shakes out I know that I don't want this to end. I want a second and maybe even a third season. It's good not-television.



POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan. 

Microreview [book]: A Study in Honor by Claire O'Dell

A Study in Honor is a white-hot reimagining of the Holmes and Watson story in a dark
twenty minutes into the future United States of America.


Dr. Watson is a disabled veteran from the war. With a substandard artificial arm, Dr. Watson wants
to try and return to medicine in Washington D.C, but that would require getting an artificial arm that
works. In the meantime, Watson is living a hand to mouth existence, trying to find a job,
find a place to live, and find a new path after the traumas of war. But Dr. Watson has some challenges in that regard. For you see, Dr. Watson is an
queer African American woman, Dr. Janet Watson. Dr. Watson’s discharge with a clunky
artificial arm is from a second American civil war, the heartland of the nation in the
hands of secessionists. For Janet, the war may be over, but it is far from over for the country.
And finally, a mutual acquaintance leads Janet to meet her new future roommate...the
African American Dr. Sara Holmes. And so a friendship is begun, just in time for
them to tackle a mystery regarding veterans of the civil war. And so we are introduced to the central character and the near-future world of Claire O’Dell’s
A Study in Honor. Sherlock Holmes stories not written by Doyle himself are nothing new. In fact, such works
have been around for over a century. J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, wrote a Sherlock Holmes
pastiche “The Late Sherlock Holmes”, in 1893, a scant two years after Doyle’s first stories came
to print. The number of authors who have tried their hands at Sherlock Holmes stories is in the
hundreds. SFF writers are no stranger to writing Holmes stories, either, ranging from Neil
Gaiman to Michael Chabon to, recently, Aliette de Bodard. What does Claire O’Dell bring to a Holmes and Watson story, then? By putting it in a near
future US, a US which is riven by Civil War and social tensions, and by making both Holmes
and Watson African American women, the author brings a new and fresh perspective to the
mystery solving duo’s relationship, existence, and milieu to work in. Rather than being in a
rarefied pinnacle of social class and status as is common in most Holmes stories, this
Dr. Janet Watson is far more working class in her social mobility, outlook, and in her
day to day problems. Living on the edge as she does, the mystery of Holmes’s own wealth
and relative status gives Watson and Holmes a fractally complex relationship as Watson tries
to come to terms with her roommate’s nature. The Watson-Holmes relationship in any
Sherlock Holmes adaptation is rife with potential because of just how out of the box Holmes is.
Making her a African American woman like Watson diminishes the distance between them,
but her success, wealth, social status, and the mystery of her background distances her further.
Their relationship, in addition to the tight first person deep dive on Watson herself, is the strongest
part of the novel, and the real reason, I think, to read the novel. It would not be a Sherlock Holmes story without a mystery, and without Holmes and Watson
going off and trying to solve the mystery. Even in an age of computers and instant information
and databases, Holmes’ powers of deduction, and Watson’s determination, are still necessary
to unravel the central problem. Computers provide O’Dell’s Holmes with more information, but
it still takes Holmes’ powers to put the information together in the classic Holmesian manner and
come up with her deductions. The mystery at hand does tie into the ongoing Civil War, and into Watson’s own experiences
at the end of the Civil War itself. The mystery, while a fair one, though, is a pale shadow of the
other charms of the novel. I was enchanted and entranced by Janet’s story, and her
relationship with Holmes, and how all that unfolds, much more than the mystery the two
of them stumble into. This is a novel I read for character, much more than plot or even setting,
although the near future the author posits, from technology to social change and historical
change, is very well done. Based on the strength of her two characters and this world, I hope that there will be a sequel,
because I surely would enjoy reading much more about this Watson and this Holmes in this darkly
imagined near future world.



The Math

Baseline Assessment 7/10

Bonuses : +1 for an amazingly strong central character, whose plight and story come across vividly
on the page. +1 for Watson and Holmes’ relationship, which blazes across the page

Penalties : -1 the central plot and mystery may in itself be a bit short and is overshadowed
by the characterization and the strong character beats.

Nerd Coefficient : 8/10 "Well worth your time and attention”

***

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Microreview [book]: Myth of the Maker by Bruce R. Cordell

Not Strange Enough


Carter Morrison and some of his friends are VR researchers and game developers. With quantum computing, they discover a limitless source of power with one hang-up; it's actually a dark network connecting universes and it's inhabited by terrible things that consume universes. In a panic, Morrison injects the world of their defunct MMORPG into the network to create a buffer between the monsters and Earth. But Morrison wakes up in a prepared storage unit and has to piece together what happened to his friends and why he isn't still in the Land of the Curse.

Myth of the Maker is fine. It's sort of unremarkable, even if the world is strange. That's a terrible pun, as this is "A Novel of The Strange", which is a table top roleplaying game. This is a tie-in novel, and it expands on that game's setting, but it's unlikely to draw in new fans. I've read the source game materials and then read the novel, and the novel puts some life into the game world, but it doesn't rise above the low bar that is acceptable tie-in media. It also doesn't make me clamor for more of these novels. While it touches on some of the more interesting aspects of the game setting (that is the countless universes, translation of one conscious into another's body as travel between them, and the concept of "alien" visitors from other universes walking among us), it's so focused on one non-Earth universe (the world of Ardyn, a standard fantasy setting) that it largely neglects what could make The Strange an interesting game.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 if you were lost reading about the game setting, this novel explains a lot

Penalties: -1 ... but it keeps referencing the six rules of Ardyn and never tells what those rules are, which is extremely frustrating!

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10 (still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore)

***

POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014

Reference: Cordell, Bruce R. Myth of the Maker [Angry Robot, 2017]