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Book Review: Made to Order, Robots and Revolution

Updated: Mar 13, 2023

I had never read a short story collection until I was over twenty. Strange to some avid readers I know, but I had a feeling that I didn’t want to get into a world, just to have it snatched away from me quickly, so I generally avoided short stories all together. I have found now, both as a writer and a reader, that some stories are just not meant to be long form tales. Sometimes there is an idea which is short, concise and simply needs to be said. Enter, the short story. The other advantage to short story collections is the introduction of a new author to my book horizons. This collection was no exception. I don’t want to ruin these short stories with too many spoilers so I am only going to cover about a third of them, and some I am going to let slide the big reveal.​

Test 4 Echo, by Peter Watts

This is a story about a probe exploring another section of our solar system which runs on AI systems of generally low caliber of the era. This story is hard science fiction. The science is grounded in reality, understandable, even if beyond our current abilities, and feel gritty. The story managed to maintain tension, despite the story’s implication that the main characters are physically safe. The main idea is that each of the arms of a spider bot, run on independent AI system to work together toward common motion and goals. One of them becomes more sentient than the rest. This brings questions into the story of, can we reprogram it? Does this one arm have rights? There are hidden gems throughout this one. It has relevant and poignant discussions about the nature of Ais, what rights they have, and how we build them. What is it like without them and with them? How do you and can you, reset one? This is enough to make me say I am off to buy his Firefall novels.​

Brother Rifle, by Daryl Gregory

Much about this piece feels when you first dig into it, like old ground, and you think you know where it is going. It is well done, and beautifully written but has a vibe of the familiar. Until, it doesn’t. The subversion of story arc in this short piece is very well done. This is not the war veteran story you think it is, it is better than that. What is war like in a world where soldiers have implanted AI in their brain as tactical systems? What does it mean to have a feeling of rightness about a decision? This is used to ask questions about retraining the brain using AI, based on an averaging model structure. But if you become the average of those around you, who are you? Can you still, be you? The structure of the story uses flashback more effectively than most anyone pulls off, especially in a short story.​

Idol, by Ken Liu

It is not often a person can lay claim to creation of a genre, though many say that Ken Liu did just that in defining his novel structure as SilkPunk. I will say that my memory is that similar Asian based steam punk aesthetics existed prior to his work in the teens, nonetheless there is a certain unique feel to his writing. This story feels very real life adjacent, and uses technology and ideas which exist today, right now to paint questions of how we should use AI. The main character has the ability to speak with their dead father, reconstructed like a chatbot through their online information and left over data. The hook here is beautiful. “I am talking to my father. I’ve never met him, and I never will.” It begs questions and it does answer them. What else would exist in a world with this idea of a modeled person? How would famous people interact with the world? How could we mine data you place in the world and use it to learn about you, both to your benefit and to your detriment? The story has great use of perspective changes, great cadence changes, and is a tacit warning to everyone to be careful what you put out into the internet. It can come back to bite you.​

Bigger Fish, Sarah Pinske

Spoiler alert! Skip this one if you don’t want to know the ending. This is a solid opening piece setting the amazingly mixed mood of film Noir, and future science fiction dystopia concurrently. A stage is set for water tycoons, and water reserves treated with the respect of gold. The old feel gumshoes and private investigator vibe is strong and used to great effect. The troops are leveraged when needed but not leaned in to, too hard. Despite being a short piece, it caught me because I felt like... finally, a protagonist, who found out the answers, figured out the who-dun-it, and decided, they had bigger fish to fry. They let the bad guy go, and it has every element of realistic, and plausible.

Polished Performance, by Alastair Reynolds

As the author I have read the most from the collection in terms of previous novels, I thought I had a feel for the tone and vibe that I would get from this story, but it felt lighter hearted than some of the other pieces by Reynolds I have read before.

There are a pair of scenes in this story whish made me legitimately laugh out loud. It is a very odd voice in the story in terms of perspective. The story opens with clear deliberate exposition, but it is done well enough to be not off putting. There are robots on an interstellar voyage. They have clear personalities and hierarchies. Unfortunately, their passengers are dead, and they need to figure out what to do, with only a fifty-year ticking clock. This asks the question how much will an AI do to stay live and defend themselves? How much is a person just meat vs a collection of memories? This pokes fun at human and human like behaviors in very amusing ways, and as always for his works, delivers.

An Elephant Never Forgets, by Rich Larson

I am going to come right out and say this was one of two pieces in the collection I actively disliked. I am mentioning this piece however because it achieves something incredibly rare. A very well written second person perspective. To tell a reader “You,” and place them well and believably in to the shoes of the character, is extremely hard but it is done here successfully. The story has dramatic word choices which set strong tones, like piss yellow, acid green and blood red. However, the tone it set was too dark for my taste. There are many child size objects and childlike murder perspectives. It felt like "too much," for "too much," sake. It felt like horror more than science fiction.

Sin Eater, Ian McLeod

This is another of my favorite pieces and unfortunately (for me) another new author, whom I come to far too late, and have to go by more of his works. The premise is simple. What happens when the last person on earth, meets the last sin eater at the time of their death? he story has a very strong opening in the empty stretches of suburbia. Rome specifically. It is in ruin, and the choice is so beautiful as a city that in our present day is itself build on the ruins of the old, and celebrates its own history. The last survivors in its streets are roots. Humans have ascended to other places. We have merged in a single conscious virtual reality. A digital afterlife. The reason I love this story is because this tale led me to think. I have always believed the best science fiction makes us wonder about the what if? What if you could make your own heaven? What if you could carve away at pieces of yourself, and crate a perfect version of yourself to live on beyond your current versions. Would you? How do you reconcile the heaven of the three pillars of monotheistic faith, with the heaven which is tangible and real, and can be touched?

The book collection on the whole is worth a purchase, without question. The majority of the story are well written, and its always wonderful to find new authors, but this collection as a whole left me thinking. Why do we write science fiction? Why do we read it? When I was growing up, I felt like since fiction was about the what if, for what humanity could become, and do. It was a hopeful, of difficult road leading to somewhere. Today I fee like so much for the science fiction we consume is about the things we fear. They are a warning to the future versions of ourselves, to say, look out. This is a book that is filled with dystopian futures, and post-apocalyptic dreams of a world without water, or privacy, filled with terrible city shattering storms and ever-increasing divides between the rich and poor. There is little hope found in these pages. I am not sure when science fiction became so hopeless. Maybe it isn’t all this way, but this collection had that feeling. Not a question of what can we do, but more the feeling of a mother scolding, what did you already do?​​

Final verdict: 4.0/5.0

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