I’m putting all my reviews of this collection in one post. Blake Crouch commissioned a bunch of his writer friends to bring him stories about some aspect of near-future technology, and how that might affect life on earth. These are what they gave him (along with Crouch’s own story).
“Ark,” by Veronica Roth – 3.5 STARS
This is miles above the last book I read from Roth in quality. It seems she’s learned how to be subtle, which is good!
This first story in the Forward collection is pretty short. Taking place against a backdrop where an enormous asteroid is set to annihilate all life on Earth, and humans have known for twenty years and prepared an exit strategy, our main character is one of the few remaining humans left on Earth, who stayed behind to continue cataloging and collecting samples for humanity’s journey to their new home, and to preserve as much of Earth as they can.
Samantha is a melancholy character, and it wasn’t super fun to be in her head. This isn’t adventure sci-fi, it’s quiet and introspective. The ending was more hopeful than the beginning made it seem like, which is what saved it for me. But mostly I’m dinging this a star because it seemed very hand-wavy in terms of the actual science (hand-waving science is Roth’s favorite thing, if reading Allegiant was anything to go by; no I’m not still bitter). Also, I just wasn’t in the mood (am rarely in the mood) for the kind of story it was wanting to tell.
Summer Frost by Blake Crouch – 4 STARS
I should know by now not to trust Blake Crouch to write anything that I can handle emotionally.
This was at once terrifying and kind of predictable. Taken on its own, it’s a story of a woman who accidentally creates the first true artificial intelligence, and the accidental consequences of that creation. Taken on its own, it’s a scary story about creating something you can’t control, and it’s very effective. I read through it very fast, and was freaked out pretty much the whole time. I couldn’t figure out how Riley was so unable to see how creepy her creation was, and how bad things were going to go. Maybe she just hasn’t read enough science fiction.
But really, it wasn’t very surprising. What kind of AI story doesn’t end with the SPOILERS AI murdering its creators and taking control? And the more power that AI has, the worse things will be when it happens END SPOILERS .The specifics of the story make up for that predictability, mostly. I really disliked Riley by the end, and was pretty much rooting for the AI, even as what they were doing was scaring the shit out of me.
A pretty good read.
“Emergency Skin,” by N.K. Jemisin – 5 STARS
This is the first thing I’ve five-starred in 2020. I really only have one complaint with it.
The basic premise of this story is that a man from the future has to return to the climate-collapsed Earth, which his ancestors fled from a long time ago. He’s there to collect samples that will mean the survival of humanity.
Once again, Jemisin plays around with second person POV to great effect (I’ve never seen an author use it as successfully as she does). Here, it’s an artificial intelligence and knowledge program that is embedded in the mind of the man, and it’s there to help him navigate his solo journey to and from Tellus (what they call Earth). The narrative consists of the AI responding to things the man experiences, as it attempts put things in context and guide him. But when the man gets to Tellus, what they find is not what he or the AI was expecting.
By the end, it’s clear that Jemisin is SPOILERS using the AI as a metaphor for the way that damaging ideas about humanity can be socialized into a person, the “voice of the enemy in your head” END SPOILERS.
This was the most hopeful of the stories in this collection, and so it is my favorite. And also it is so smart! And Jemisin is just really good at packing a lot of attitude and specifics into so short a story. She’s definitely getting more skilled at deploying her craft as she goes. This was also darkly funny in parts, which I very much enjoyed. The way she contrasts the expectations of the AI and the man with the attitude of SPOILERS the perfectly normal and happy Earth-dwellers was especially amusing. Their pity for him gave me life. Also, I found it hilarious how focused the AI was on the importance of the penis, right from page one where they make sure to mention the man’s hypothetical future penis will be long and beautiful END SPOILERS.
My only complaint is that I think this story deserved longer than thirty-three pages. I wanted to see more from the narrator’s growth, learn more about Earth society. SPOILERS Jemisin points a very rosy picture of Earth’s future, where we learn that caring for each other is the basis for a peaceful Earth, but I think that humans will always be humans, so it would be nice to some shades of grey on this “perfect” future Earth. Could have been interesting to see how future Earth would deal with the shit-stirrers END SPOILERS. It was so interesting a concept, I just wanted more from it!
[4.5 stars, rounding up]
“The Last Conversation,” by Paul Tremblay – 2 STARS
“You” wake up in a mysterious room, unable to see, with only a doctor’s voice to help you regain your mental and physical health. “You” quickly begin to suspect you are being lied to and things aren’t what they seem.
This one was frustrating. I personally am not a fan of storylines that draw out the tension the way this one does, especially when you know a twist is coming. You know from page one that a story that starts the way this one does is not going to be straight forward. I found it agonizing, and not in a fun way, to wait for that ending. And waiting for that twist felt like all this story was made of. Since “waiting for the twist” didn’t work for me as a literary technique, the story as a whole really didn’t work for me, either. I just kept wanting to cave and seek out spoilers so as to be put out of my misery.
This is the only one of these stories to be intentionally creepy. I’m not a fan of the intentionally creepy. Creepy as a side dish, yes. The main course, no thank you, please. I do not appreciate being emotionally bored and terrified at the same time. It’s the same reason I don’t like slasher movies. I do not find them interesting. I find them dull emotionally, and I do not like being scared. So that’s a problem. Also a problem is the second person POV here, meant to insert “you” into the narrative, and it just grated on me. I get what he was going for, but I didn’t like it, and I don’t think it was necessary.
All in all, a miss for me.
“You Have Arrived at Your Destination,” by Amor Towles – 4.5 STARS
Objectively, this is probably the most well-written story in this collection, even if it’s not my personal favorite. I haven’t read anything by Amor Towles before because none of his books sounded interesting to me, but this was great, so I might change my mind about him going forward. We’ll see.
The story takes place in the course of one afternoon going into the evening. Sam and his wife Annie are well-off due to sound business choices on Sam’s part, and they have been trying to have a baby, but are now going to try IVF. Sam was referred to Vitek by a colleague, and he understands it to be *the* top-shelf fertility center (“You get what you pay for,” says the colleague, who said the same thing about Sam’s Tesla). But Vitek isn’t just a fertility center, and you don’t just select your baby’s gender or screen for genetic diseases, you can select a trajectory for your baby, their personality and the future arc of their lives.
The revelations here about what Vitek does aren’t the real story, though, that’s all to do with Sam. Towles keeps it very character focused, even as the science and the scenarios get wackier as you go. Wacky probably isn’t the best word. Out there, maybe, on the fringe of what should be possible.
Towles really does a great job showing you what you need to know to understand Sam’s crisis here, and why he makes the choices he does, without holding your hand. I bet he’s very good in his normal genre (and lit-fic is a genre, don’t kid). This story makes me wish he would play around in the speculative fiction sandbox instead.
“Randomize,” by Andy Weir – 3.5 STARS
A bit clumsy in execution, story and character-wise, but I can’t resist a good heist. I also love the way that Weir always uses science so directly to fuel his plots (plots are his strengths). There are a couple of twists and turns in here, as any good heist story should have.
The idea here is great: How would quantum computing, the ability to generate true random numbers (and predict those numbers), affect Vegas and the gambling industry?
The science, for the most part, is very cool, but there were a couple of times it descended into incomprehensibility. Hilariously, Weir seems to have realized this, so he has a character in here who is a complete dummy at quantum physics, and whose companion tells him basically, don’t think about quantum physics, it is distressing.
This would make a good episode of some sci-fi anthology TV show.