Forward

edited by Blake Crouch

Cover image

Publisher: Amazon Original Stories
Copyright: September 2019
ISBN: 1-5420-9206-X
ISBN: 1-5420-4363-8
ISBN: 1-5420-9357-0
ISBN: 1-5420-0434-9
ISBN: 1-5420-4363-8
ISBN: 1-5420-4425-1
Format: Kindle
Pages: 300

Buy at Powell's Books

This is another Amazon collection of short fiction, this time mostly at novelette length. (The longer ones might creep into novella.) As before, each one is available separately for purchase or Amazon Prime "borrowing," with separate ISBNs. The sidebar cover is for the first in the sequence. (At some point I need to update my page templates so that I can add multiple covers.)

N.K. Jemisin's "Emergency Skin" won the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novelette, so I wanted to read and review it, but it would be too short for a standalone review. I therefore decided to read the whole collection and review it as an anthology.

This was a mistake. Learn from my mistake.

The overall theme of the collection is technological advance, rapid change, and the ethical and social question of whether we should slow technology because of social risk. Some of the stories stick to that theme more closely than others. Jemisin's story mostly ignores it, which was probably the right decision.

"Ark" by Veronica Roth: A planet-killing asteroid has been on its inexorable way towards Earth for decades. Most of the planet has been evacuated. A small group has stayed behind, cataloging samples and filling two remaining ships with as much biodiversity as they can find with the intent to leave at the last minute. Against that backdrop, two of that team bond over orchids.

If you were going "wait, what?" about the successful evacuation of Earth, yeah, me too. No hint is offered as to how this was accomplished. Also, the entirety of humanity abandoned mutual hostility and national borders to cooperate in the face of the incoming disaster, which is, uh, bizarrely optimistic for an otherwise gloomy story.

I should be careful about how negative I am about this story because I am sure it will be someone's favorite. I can even write part of the positive review: an elegiac look at loss, choices, and the meaning of a life, a moving look at how people cope with despair. The writing is fine, the story structure works; it's not a bad story. I just found it monumentally depressing, and was not engrossed by the emotionally abused protagonist's unresolved father issues. I can imagine a story around the same facts and plot that I would have liked much better, but all of these people need therapy and better coping mechanisms.

I'm also not sure what this had to do with the theme, given that the incoming asteroid is random chance and has nothing to do with technological development. (4)

"Summer Frost" by Blake Crouch: The best part of this story is the introductory sequence before the reader knows what's going on, which is full of evocative descriptions. I'm about to spoil what is going on, so if you want to enjoy that untainted by the stupidity of the rest of the plot, skip the rest of this story review.

We're going to have a glut of stories about the weird and obsessive form of AI risk invented by the fevered imaginations of the "rationalist" community, aren't we. I don't know why I didn't predict that. It's going to be just as annoying as the glut of cyberpunk novels written by people who don't understand computers.

Crouch lost me as soon as the setup is revealed. Even if I believed that a game company would use a deep learning AI still in learning mode to run an NPC (I don't; see Microsoft's Tay for an obvious reason why not), or that such an NPC would spontaneously start testing the boundaries of the game world (this is not how deep learning works), Crouch asks the reader to believe that this AI started as a fully scripted NPC in the prologue with a fixed storyline. In other words, the foundation of the story is that this game company used an AI model capable of becoming a general intelligence for barely more than a cut scene.

This is not how anything works.

The rest of the story is yet another variation on a science fiction plot so old and threadbare that Isaac Asimov invented the Three Laws of Robotics to avoid telling more versions of it. Crouch's contribution is to dress it up in the terminology of the excessively online. (The middle of the story features a detailed discussion of Roko's basilisk; if you recognize that, you know what you're in for.) Asimov would not have had a lesbian protagonist, so points for progress I guess, but the AI becomes more interesting to the protagonist than her wife and kid because of course it does. There are a few twists and turns along the way, but the destination is the bog-standard hard-takeoff general intelligence scenario.

One more pet peeve: Authors, stop trying to illustrate the growth of your AI by having it move from broken to fluent English. English grammar is so much easier than self-awareness or the Turing test that we had programs that could critique your grammar decades before we had believable chatbots. It's going to get grammar right long before the content of the words makes any sense. Also, your AI doesn't sound dumber, your AI sounds like someone whose native language doesn't use pronouns and helper verbs the way that English does, and your decision to use that as a marker for intelligence is, uh, maybe something you should think about. (3)

"Emergency Skin" by N.K. Jemisin: The protagonist is a heavily-augmented cyborg from a colony of Earth's diaspora. The founders of that colony fled Earth when it became obvious to them that the planet was dying. They have survived in another star system, but they need a specific piece of technology from the dead remnants of Earth. The protagonist has been sent to retrieve it.

The twist is that this story is told in the second-person perspective by the protagonist's ride-along AI, created from a consensus model of the rulers of the colony. We never see directly what the protagonist is doing or thinking, only the AI reaction to it. This is exactly the sort of gimmick that works much better in short fiction than at novel length. Jemisin uses it to create tension between the reader and the narrator, and I thoroughly enjoyed the effect. (As shown in the Broken Earth trilogy, Jemisin is one of the few writers who can use second-person effectively.)

I won't spoil the revelation, but it's barbed and biting and vicious and I loved it. Jemisin does deliver the point with a sledgehammer, so be aware of that if you want subtlety in your short fiction, but I prefer the bluntness. (This is part of why I usually don't get along with literary short stories.) The reader of course can't change the direction of the story, but the second-person perspective still provides a hit of vicarious satisfaction. I can see why this won the Hugo; it's worth seeking out. (8)

"You Have Arrived at Your Destination" by Amor Towles: Sam and his wife are having a child, and they've decided to provide him with an early boost in life. Vitek is a fertility lab, but more than that, it can do some gene tweaking and adjustment to push a child more towards one personality or another. Sam and his wife have spent hours filling out profiles, and his wife spent hours weeding possible choices down to three. Now, Sam has come to Vitek to pick from the remaining options.

Speaking of literary short stories, Towles is the non-SFF writer of this bunch, and it's immediately obvious. The story requires the SFnal premise, but after that this is a character piece. Vitek is an elite, expensive company with a condescending and overly-reductive attitude towards humanity, which is entirely intentional on the author's part. This is the sort of story that gets resolved in an unexpected conversation in a roadside bar, and where most of the conflict happens inside the protagonist's head.

I was initially going to complain that Towles does the standard literary thing of leaving off the denouement on the grounds that the reader can figure it out, but when I did a bit of re-reading for this review, I found more of the bones than I had noticed the first time. There's enough subtlety that I had to think for a bit and re-read a passage, but not too much. It's also the most thoughtful treatment of the theme of the collection, the only one that I thought truly wrestled with the weird interactions between technological capability and human foresight. Next to "Emergency Skin," this was the best story of the collection. (7)

"The Last Conversation" by Paul Tremblay: A man wakes up in a dark room, in considerable pain, not remembering anything about his life. His only contact with the world at first is a voice: a woman who is helping him recover his strength and his memory. The numbers that head the chapters have significant gaps, representing days left out of the story, as he pieces together what has happened alongside the reader.

Tremblay is the horror writer of the collection, so predictably this is the story whose craft I can admire without really liking it. In this case, the horror comes mostly from the pacing of revelation, created by the choice of point of view. (This would be a much different story from the perspective of the woman.) It's well-done, but it has the tendency I've noticed in other horror stories of being a tightly closed system. I see where the connection to the theme is, but it's entirely in the setting, not in the shape of the story.

Not my thing, but I can see why it might be someone else's. (5)

"Randomize" by Andy Weir: Gah, this was so bad.

First, and somewhat expectedly, it's a clunky throwback to a 1950s-style hard SF puzzle story. The writing is atrocious: wooden, awkward, cliched, and full of gratuitous infodumping. The characterization is almost entirely through broad stereotypes; the lone exception is the female character, who at least adds an interesting twist despite being forced to act like an idiot because of the plot. It's a very old-school type of single-twist story, but the ending is completely implausible and falls apart if you breathe on it too hard.

Weir is something of a throwback to an earlier era of scientific puzzle stories, though, so maybe one is inclined to give him a break on the writing quality. (I am not; one of the ways in which science fiction has improved is that you can get good scientific puzzles and good writing these days.) But the science is also so bad that I was literally facepalming while reading it.

The premise of this story is that quantum computers are commercially available. That will cause a serious problem for Las Vegas casinos, because the generator for keno numbers is vulnerable to quantum algorithms. The solution proposed by the IT person for the casino? A quantum random number generator. (The words "fight quantum with quantum" appear literally in the text if you're wondering how bad the writing is.)

You could convince me that an ancient keno system is using a pseudorandom number generator that might be vulnerable to some quantum algorithm and doesn't get reseeded often enough. Fine. And yes, quantum computers can be used to generate high-quality sources of random numbers. But this solution to the problem makes no sense whatsoever. It's like swatting a house fly with a nuclear weapon.

Weir says explicitly in the story that all the keno system needs is an external source of high-quality random numbers. The next step is to go to Amazon and buy a hardware random number generator. If you want to splurge, it might cost you $250. Problem solved. Yes, hardware random number generators have various limitations that may cause you problems if you need millions of bits or you need them very quickly, but not for something as dead-simple and with such low entropy requirements as keno numbers! You need a trivial number of bits for each round; even the slowest and most conservative hardware random number generator would be fine. Hell, measure the noise levels on the casino floor. Point a camera at a lava lamp. Or just buy one of the physical ball machines they use for the lottery. This problem is heavily researched, by casinos in particular, and is not significantly changed by the availability of quantum computers, at least for applications such as keno where the generator can be reseeded before each generation.

You could maybe argue that this is an excuse for the IT guy to get his hands on a quantum computer, which fits the stereotypes, but that still breaks the story for reasons that would be spoilers. As soon as any other casino thought about this, they'd laugh in the face of the characters.

I don't want to make too much of this, since anyone can write one bad story, but this story was dire at every level. I still owe Weir a proper chance at novel length, but I can't say this added to my enthusiasm. (2)

Rating: 4 out of 10

Reviewed: 2023-01-17

Last modified and spun 2023-01-18