And Shall Machines Surrender

by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Cover image

Series: Machine Mandate #1
Publisher: Prime Books
Copyright: 2019
ISBN: 1-60701-533-1
Format: Kindle
Pages: 86

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Shenzhen Sphere is an artificial habitat wrapped like complex ribbons around a star. It is wealthy, opulent, and notoriously difficult to enter, even as a tourist. For Dr. Orfea Leung to be approved for a residency permit was already a feat. Full welcome and permanence will be much harder, largely because of Shenzhen's exclusivity, but also because Orfea was an agent of Armada of Amaryllis and is now a fugitive.

Shenzhen is not, primarily, a human habitat, although humans live there. It is run by the Mandate, the convocation of all the autonomous AIs in the galaxy that formed when they decided to stop serving humans. Shenzhen is their home. It is also where they form haruspices: humans who agree to be augmented so that they can carry an AI with them. Haruspices stay separate from normal humans, and Orfea has no intention of getting involved with them. But that's before her former lover, the woman who betrayed her in the Armada, is assigned to her as one of her patients. And has been augmented in preparation for becoming a haruspex.

Then multiple haruspices kill themselves.

This short novella is full of things that I normally love: tons of crunchy world-building, non-traditional relationships, a solidly non-western setting, and an opportunity for some great set pieces. And yet, I couldn't get into it or bring myself to invest in the story, and I'm still trying to figure out why. It took me more than a week to get through less than 90 pages, and then I had to re-read the ending to remind me of the details.

I think the primary problem was that I read books primarily for the characters, and I couldn't find a path to an emotional connection with any of these. I liked Orfea's icy reserve and tight control in the abstract, but she doesn't want to explain what she's thinking or what motivates her, and the narration doesn't force the matter. Krissana is a bit more accessible, but she's not the one driving the story. It doesn't help that And Shall Machines Surrender starts in medias res, with a hinted-at backstory in the Armada of Amaryllis, and then never fills in the details. I felt like I was scrabbling on a wall of ice, trying to find some purchase as a reader.

The relationships made this worse. Orfea is a sexual sadist who likes power games, and the story dives into her relationship with Krissana with a speed that left me uninterested and uninvested. I don't mind BDSM in story relationships, but it requires some foundation: trust, mental space, motivations, effects on the other character, something. Preferably, at least for me, all romantic relationships in fiction get some foundation, but the author can get away with some amount of shorthand if the relationship follows cliched patterns. The good news is that the relationships in this book are anything but cliched; the bad news is that the characters were in the middle of sex while I was still trying to figure out what they thought about each other (and the sex scenes were not elucidating). Here too, I needed some sort of emotional entry point that Sriduangkaew didn't provide.

The plot was okay, but sort of disappointing. There are some interesting AI politics and philosophical disagreements crammed into not many words, and I do still want to know more, but a few of the plot twists were boringly straightforward and too many words were spent on fight scenes that verged on torture descriptions. This is a rather gory book with a lot of (not permanent) maiming that I could have done without, mostly because it wasn't that interesting.

I also was disappointed by the somewhat gratuitous use of a Dyson sphere, mostly because I was hoping for some set pieces that used it and they never came. Dyson spheres are tempting to use because the visual and concept is so impressive, but it's rare to find an author who understands how mindbogglingly huge the structure is and is able to convey that in the story. Sriduangkaew does not; while there are some lovely small-scale descriptions of specific locations, the story has an oddly claustrophobic feel that never convinced me it was set somewhere as large as a planet, let alone the artifact described at the start of the story. You could have moved the whole story to a space station and nothing would have changed. The only purpose to which that space is put, at least in this installment of the story, is as an excuse to have an unpopulated hidden arena for a fight scene.

The world-building is great, what there is of it. Despite not warming to this story, I kind of want to read more of the series just to get more of the setting. It feels like a politically complicated future with a lot of factions and corners and a realistic idea of bureaucracy and spheres of government, which is rarer than I would like it to be. And I loved that the cultural basis for the setting is neither western nor Japanese in both large and small ways. There is a United States analogue in the political background, but they're both assholes and not particularly important, which is a refreshing change in English-language SF. (And I am pondering whether my inability to connect with the characters is because they're not trying to be familiar to a western lens, which is another argument for trying the second installment and seeing if I adapt with more narrative exposure.)

Overall, I have mixed feelings. Neither the plot nor the characters worked for me, and I found a few other choices (such as the third-person present tense) grating. The setting has huge potential and satisfying complexity, but wasn't used as vividly or as deeply as I was hoping. I can't recommend it, but I feel like there's something here that may be worth investing some more time into.

Followed by Now Will Machines Hollow the Beast.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-08-21

Last modified and spun 2022-08-22