Book review: Cracking the Sky, by Brenda Cooper

9 04 2017

Brenda Cooper is a futurist, the Chief Information Officer of the city of Kirkland, and an established author who has written around several SF novels. Her work has won the Endeavor Award and has been nominated for the Philip K Dick Award, and she has co-authored one novel (Building Harlequin’s Moon) and several short stories with Larry Niven. I co-edited one of Cooper’s stories, ‘Between Lines’, in the Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear anthology.


Cracking the Sky is a collection of Cooper’s short fiction, and contains twenty-one short stories and novelettes. It’s organised into five sections, of which the first, ‘On A Future Earth’, is longest.

‘The Robot’s Girl’ is a wonderfully evocative piece—of novelette length, I suspect—in which a couple of young professionals, Paul and Aliss, become fixated on the circumstances of their neighbour, a twelve-year-old girl who lives in a house tended (and guarded) by a troupe of serious-minded and highly protective robots. Where are her parents? Why do the robots not permit human contact with their charge? This is the sort of story that fulfils the promise of Isaac Asimov’s pioneering ‘Susan Calvin’ stories, adding solid emotional depth to the technological fizz of the central idea.

In ‘Savant Songs’, Adam is a doctoral student, and then a postdoc, for physics savant Elsa, a specialist in theories of the multiverse. Elsa’s communication with her own universe seems consistently perpendicular; is this an advantage, or a disadvantage, in seeking to establish the underpinnings of multiverse theory?

In ‘Riding in Mexico’, Isa is a Northwestern US university student taking a course which involves ‘riding’ a client’s mind: in laboratory sessions, she shares the sensory perceptions of Valeria, a young Mexican woman in difficult and possibly dangerous home circumstances. Isa has no way to help Valeria; all she can do is watch. As with much of Cooper’s writing, this piece is vivid and immediate.

‘The War of the Flowers’ details the predicament of single-mother Kelly, whose young daughter Cherry has to live in an interactive hypoallergenic environment so as not to trigger an extreme sensitivity arising from Kelly’s experimentation with tailored drugs before her pregnancy was diagnosed. What makes this story is, again, the clarity and urgency with which the scenario is depicted through Cooper’s prose.

In ‘Trainer of Whales’, kelp-farmer Kitha is outside the Dome when a seaquake hits. With no way of communicating with the denizens of Downbelow Dome, she has no way of knowing whether anyone within the Habitat, including her ten-year-old son Jonathon, is safe, or even alive. While this story is wonderfully imaginative and full of colourful and interesting ideas, it didn’t convince the way the four preceding stories did: its crisis seems more obviously confected, and the detail never transcends convenience to attain coherence.

In ‘Star of Humanity’, teacher trainee Tanya and vet student Susan receive internet invitations to a shadowy recruitment program, the Star of Humanity. Neither young woman is particularly keen on the idea of signing up to a program about which they have no useful information, but jobs are hard to come by. This is a story that asks a bit more than it answers, but it’s possible that it’s part of a larger sequence. (I suspect Cooper’s story in Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear, ‘Between Lines’, may well be another component of such a sequence.)

‘My Father’s Singularity’ is a difficult story to properly characterise. I suspect the best that I can do is to say that it’s a low-key exploration of the pain of technological advancement, and seems to compress a lot within a small frame.

The collection’s second section, ‘Space’, comprises three stories. ‘Trellis’ a story cowritten with Larry Niven, plays out as a rescue mission on an immense umbilical connecting Pluto with its mutually face-locked companion Charon. There’s a wealth of invention in the setting, but it has too much of the ‘cosy catastrophe’ about it and not enough of the slice-of-life futurism that is, I think, Cooper’s forte. (That said, it does seem to be a constructive collaboration. I can see traces of Niven’s worldbuilding in the setting alongside Cooper’s often-urgent characterisation, but it comes across as a blended rather than a chimeric construct.)

In ‘Second Shift’, Kami is an absent companion for Lance, a lone astronaut on a long-term asteroid-retrieval mission. She’s been warned not to get emotionally invested in her communications with Lance, but sometimes the heart doesn’t listen to instructions. This is a short, wistful, wise piece.

In ‘Blood Bonds’, Aline, Lissa’s twin, is clinging to VR-enhanced life support following a terrorist attack. As with the preceding story, this is essentially a tale of heartfelt communication across a seemingly-insurmountable barrier. There were aspects of the worldbuilding that broke suspension of disbelief for me—the handling of the lightspeed delay for communication between planets didn’t convince—but the remainder of the story is solid, if disorienting in places.

There are two stories in the ‘Stories From Fremont’s Children’ section, which apparently relate to Cooper’s series of YA novels starting with The Silver Ship and the Sea. I haven’t read any of the books in this series, and I imagine I’d have a stronger connection with the stories if I had. As it is, the stories, ‘The Hebras and the Demons and the Damned’ and ‘The Street of All Designs’ are readable enough, and possess sufficiently-engaging characters, but for me they lacked the power of Cooper’s best near-future work.

The fourth section, ‘Short And To The Point’, contains seven stories of three pages or less each. Of these seven stories, the most successful to my mind is ‘My Grandfather’s River’, an impressively compact tale of dedication and memory; ‘Alien Graveyards’ is also effective. The others too often seemed incomplete and fragmentary: while they intrigued in places, I felt that they required more flesh to properly resonate with the reader.

There are two stories in the final ‘Military Science Fiction’ section. The first of these, ‘For the Love of Metal Dogs’, depicts a woodland skirmish from the viewpoint of a combined human / canine / robodog combat team. It’s a concise and well-envisaged piece which conveys its freight well enough.

The title story, ‘Cracking the Sky’, details a raid by a human / robodog troop on a clandestine laboratory facility. It’s tense and vivid.

There’s quite a bit of variety in this collection, which I would say is a good thing. I had some definite preferences within the stories: to my mind, the first (and longest) section, ‘On A Future Earth’, is generally the strongest. Cooper seems to be most adept at depicting imaginatively detailed near-future scenarios, and my favourite stories in the collection, ‘The Robot’s Girl’, ‘The War of the Flowers’, ‘My Father’s Singularity’, and ‘My Grandfather’s River’ all fall into this category, and each of these combines worldbuilding displaying plausible technological advancements with a powerful and nuanced emotional undercurrent and memorable characterisation. These are crystal-clear vistas of possible futures as well as highly satisfying stories in their own right. While one could convincingly argue that not every story in the collection is hard SF, I would say that a substantial majority are, and those that aren’t (chiefly, as I see it, the two Fremont stories and ‘Alien Graveyards’) still mostly play nice with the laws of physics. My perusal of Cooper’s longer fiction suggests that most of her novels are a touch more fanciful (time travel, cyberpunk, space opera) than the most solidly grounded of these stories; without intending to slight her output in these other styles, which I’m sure she can handle adroitly, I would nonetheless be especially keen to see some longer near-future SF work from her.

(This is the twelfth in my ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here.)


Book review: Virtual Girl, by Amy Thomson

3 11 2016

Amy Thomson is an award-winning American SF writer, whose The Color of Distance I read and reviewed earlier this year.


Virtual Girl is Thomson’s debut novel, published in 1993. I read it a few years after it came out; I’ve just now re-read it.

Arnold Brompton is a renegade programmer who develops an AI personality named Maggie, which he ports into an artificial humaniform body. He does this partly because he can, partly because his father has repeatedly sought to thwart him in this endeavour, and partly because he craves companionship. It’s a hazardous undertaking: artificial intelligence is a proscribed field of study, and the discovery of Maggie’s identity as an artificial construct would lead to her destruction and Arnold’s incarceration. It’s imperative, therefore, that Maggie learn how to flawlessly present herself as human, rather than machine. But is a sedentary, basement-dwelling computer nerd with a dose of street smarts really the best instructor of human behaviour?

Maggie is programmed for full obedience towards her creator Arnold, and to begin with she must, indeed, depend upon him. But Arnold makes a mistake, and Maggie is forced to choose between subservience to Arnold and her own survival. She chooses the more interesting option.

Thomson excels at characterisation and at giving voice to the thoughts, fears, and motivations of characters who can be very far from human. In Maggie, she has created an entity who, while technically lacking human emotion, does naturally engage our empathy, and Maggie’s deep-outsider perspective offers several intriguing points of analysis on aspects of human behaviour which might, in other contexts, be utterly unremarkable. Maggie’s important human reference points include Arnold, who undergoes a sinister but plausible transformation during the story (typified by his subsequent marginalisation of her identity as merely a ‘bag lady’); four-year-old Claire, whose innate acceptance of Maggie does much to affirm the robot’s sense of being and belonging; Azul, a hooker and aspiring dance-musician, who adopts Maggie and forms a significant bond with her; and Marie, Azul’s landlady, an Anna Madrigal type who, among other things, helps Maggie to understand certain aspects of human interaction which had, up until then, remained almost completely opaque.

I wouldn’t classify Virtual Girl as a high-octane read (by analogy, for example, with Madeline Ashby’s similarly-themed but distinctly more violent vN, which I believe may have been somewhat influenced by Thomson’s novel); though the story certainly shuttles from place to place (driven by Maggie’s need to keep on the move, so as to evade detection by the Bromptons), there’s plenty of opportunity for reflection and a sense of (mostly) peaceful existence as Maggie learns about humans, and about herself. There’s also a (mostly) plausible extrapolation of near-future US society (circa, I believe, the 2040s)—maglevs, solar panels, neural implants—though it’s almost unavoidable that the 1990s-vision computational detail is incorrect in parts. (The tidbit I found hardest to swallow was the now-quaint notion that Maggie’s complete sensorium, a year’s worth of memories, and her astonishingly complex operating system would all fit on eight CDs, around 6GB total capacity by my estimation, as if CDs would even be used for this application in a quarter-century from today.) But provided you don’t insist on complete predictive accuracy (which is always a hazardous undertaking in any work of SF), the book manages admirably to ring true. It’s a very accomplished piece of character-driven hard SF, and it delivers on several levels.

(This is the eleventh in my ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here. Note that I’ve bent my own rules on this occasion: I’d originally intended this hard-SF review project to encompass only novels I hadn’t previously read, but there are some books that would, I think, be unfairly excluded by that restriction, and Virtual Girl is one of those. I may well re-bend this rule in future, as well.)

Book review: Heaven Chronicles, by Joan D Vinge

12 09 2016

Joan D Vinge is an American SF author who has won the Hugo for her novel The Snow Queen; she has also written the novelisations for several movies, including Mad Max: Beyond ThunderdomeLost in Space and Cowboys and Aliens.


Vinge’s asteroid-colony book Heaven Chronicles is novel-length, but it’s not a single novel: instead it combines the works Legacy (which I judge to be on the awkward cusp, in length, between a novella and a short novel) and the short(ish) novel The Outcasts of Heaven Belt. To complicate matters slightly, Legacy is itself a combination of two short novellas Media Man and Fool’s Gold. Two of the three component stories (Media Man and Outcasts) first appeared in Analog magazine, respectively in 1976 and 1978; Fool’s Gold was first published in Galileo magazine in 1980. Media Man, Legacy, and The Outcasts of Heaven Belt have also all been published separately as paperbacks. Additionally, Vinge has apparently revised all of this material, in a book entitled Heaven Belt which, to the best of my knowledge, has not yet seen release. The edition of Heaven Chronicles I read dates from 1991.

The tales within Heaven Chronicles all concern the unfolding, and downward-spiralling, history of the colonised asteroid belt orbiting the star Heaven, in a system rich in planetoidal resources but lacking any habitable planets. The two stories comprising Legacy explore the adventures of prospector-turned-media-reporter Chaim Dartagnan and pilot Mythili Fukinuki, who meet as participants in an ill-fated mission to rescue the wealthy occupant of a spacecraft marooned on the frozen, inhospitable Planet Two. Outcasts deals with the events that unfold following the arrival in Heaven system of Ranger, a well-resourced and technologically advanced starship piloted by Betha Torgussen who, after the ship comes under attack from an overzealous colony defence force, is one of only two survivors from an original complement of seven.

There’s a decidedly old-fashioned and pulpy feel to Heaven Chronicles. (I offer this as an attempt at classification rather than any implied criticism.) There’s a lot of argument, a lot of tension, some well-telegraphed action and a kind of rough simplicity to the characterisation, moreso in the space-operatic Outcasts than in Legacy. The most obvious overarching characteristics of the stories are, however, an evidently thoroughgoing respect for the laws of physics and an interest in the exploration of gender politics. It’s probably relevant also to note the book’s thoroughgoing use of ‘metric time’—i.e. seconds, kiloseconds, megaseconds, gigaseconds—rather than the ‘imperial time’ (hours / days / years etc.) to which readers are presumably accustomed. The use of unconventional time units is initially disruptive—the conversion to familiar units has to be thought through, the first few times—but does, I think, encourage a degree of immersion in the story that might otherwise be absent.

I found Legacy to be the more rewarding of the assembled components: while neither Dartagnan nor Fukinuki is a particularly compelling viewpoint character, the interaction between them is fascinating, and I appreciated the story’s ultimate (rather elliptical) denouement. Outcasts suffered slightly by comparison: the story seemed overlong and meandering in places. Overall, while I found the book enjoyable, I suspect its ‘bitsy-ness’ might irk some readers, since, despite the presence of common characters, the three stories don’t really mesh together to form a complete whole. On the other hand, it would probably hold a strong appeal to devotees of 1950s and 1960s space-based SF.

(This is the tenth in my ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here.)

Book review: Spin State, by Chris Moriarty

3 08 2016

Chris Moriarty is an American SF writer who has worked as a horse trainer, tourism industry employee, and environmental lawyer. Spin State, her debut novel, was published in 2003, and has been followed by two sequels as well as two YA fantasy novels.


Spin State opens with a UN-sponsored covert ops raid, led by the genetically and cybernetically enhanced Major Catherine Li, on a clandestine geneware lab at Metz. But Li has not been fully briefed on the purpose of the raid, nor has anyone else physically participating in the action; the only one among them, it seems, who has access to all of the necessary intel is Cohen, the AI riding on a virtual shunt through an implant worn by Li’s comrade-in-arms Kolodny. The raid goes awry, Kolodny is killed, and Li, censured for her mishandling of a mission for which she felt she had never been given sufficient background information, is dispatched to the mines of Compson’s World to investigate the death of Hannah Sharifi, a worlds-renowned physicist, in a catastrophic mine explosion during an unsanctioned experiment. It’s soon revealed that Sharifi’s death was not accidental, but who is responsible? And, while Li antagonises everyone from Haas, the mine director, to General Helen Nguyen, her own superior officer, what other forces are at play in the dangerous game for which Compson’s World seems to have become a crucial gamepiece?

The hard SF background on which Spin State is constructed is that the phenomenon of quantum entanglement permits a technology enabling the effectively-instantaneous translocation of a privileged few (among whose number, by virtue of her hardware and wetware enhancements, is Li herself) across interstellar distances. This technology relies on continued access to crystalline Bose-Einstein condensate, a material found to be naturally occurring only in the subsurface of the heavily-mined Compson’s World. From this background, Moriarty has engineered an intricate, intriguing, and well-realised story that owes almost as much to cyberpunk and sociological SF as it does to hard SF. Everyone here—Haas, Nguyen, Sharifi, the mine witch Bella, the dealer in antiquities Korchow, the religionist Cartwright, and especially the fey brain-the-size-of-a-planet AI Cohen—has an agenda of their own, none of these agendas coalign precisely, and it becomes clear that Li will need an agenda of her own, which may or may not be to follow the orders to which, as a soldier, it has always been her duty to submit.

Spin State reads like a hybrid of Greg Egan’s weird-physics masterwork Schild’s Ladder and Richard Morgan’s neo-cyberpunk shooter Altered Carbon, told with the attention to worldbuilding detail of Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite. Which is another way of saying that it conveys its deep otherworldliness with sublime exactitude, while propelling the reader from one high-stakes confrontation to the next. It’s an excellent example of recent hard SF.

(This is the ninth in my ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here.)

Book review: Arkfall / The Ice Owl, by Carolyn Ives Gilman

9 07 2016

Carolyn Ives Gilman is a historian / SF writer with multiple Nebula award nominations; she’s also been shortlisted for the Hugo, Locus, and Tiptree awards. Arkfall and The Ice Owl are a pair of novellas first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and subsequently separately published under Arc Manor’s ‘Phoenix Pick’ imprint. Since each novella is reasonably short, and since the books share a universe (though they have no settings, characters, or overlying story arc in common), it seems expedient to review them in tandem.


Arkfall is set within the ice-roofed oceans of a Europa-like planet, Ben, where pressure-adapted humans have colonised the Salton Sea. The colonists are divided into ‘barnacles’—those who make their living in one or other of the multiply-domed seafloor habitats—and ‘floaters’—those who roam from habitat to habitat in large, cyborg-like submarines called ‘arks’. Osaji is an unrepentant floater, but she’s not happy with her lot: as the youngest grandchild of, and reluctantly-dutiful carer for, the fading Mota, it seems to her that she is not allowed to make any choices for herself. Her ambition to emigrate to another world thwarted by Ben’s frustratingly-indirect bureaucracy (on Ben, almost all dialogue is held in passive-voice and using the pronoun ‘one’ in place of ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘he’ or ‘she’, so as not to cause undue offence), she signs up for yet another tour on a new ark. An accident places her on this ark alone with grandmother Mota and with Scrappin’ Jack, an inappropriately-upfront offworld mercenary with whom, surely, she cannot find any common ground. And yet, doomed to months of drifting in this ark, some kind of rapprochement is clearly necessary if they are to survive the hazards of this lightless submarine environment.


In The Ice Owl, century-old teenager Thorn lives with her mother Maya, an unlicensed reproductive-services provider, and Maya’s current boyfriend, the bounty hunter Hunter, in the tenements of a domed habitat on a tidally-locked airless planet where the overarching culture is one of piety and repression. When a gang of overzealous vandals—’Incorruptibles’—firebombs Thorn’s school, on the basis of inferred iniquity, she must find a tutor so as to continue her education. She chooses an old man she has seen in their neighbourhood park, one Soren Pregaldin, who she rapidly learns has lived on several worlds (she herself is on her ninth world, which accounts for her time-lagged age) and has amassed an impressive collection of offworld—and here illegal—artworks, books, and curios. Magister Pregaldin encourages Thorn’s developing initiative and independence of thought, but he presumably doesn’t intend for his young charge to use this newfound direction to explore his own past, which seems to grow shadier the more she learns of it. Nonetheless, a friendship develops between them, and he presents her with a small refrigerator containing the titular bird, a uniquely hibernating species which must be kept frozen until it is ready to revive. But the upheavals in Thorn’s neighbourhood have not ceased with the school’s sacking …

Though the societies in these books never truly came to life for me—I didn’t feel that there was sufficient depth, sufficient subtlety to the worldbuilding—Gilman nonetheless gives us plausibly complex and interesting characters, and trenchant problems for them to solve. They’re written in a clear and uncomplicated style which reveals several moments of genuine pathos in the lives of their respective protagonists. Forced to play favourites, I’d probably choose The Ice Owl over Arkfall, though Arkfall, with its biotechnological vehicles and ice-world setting, arguably adheres more faithfully to the requirements of hard SF than does The Ice Owl, which to my mind fudges it on the vexatious problem of interstellar travel. In Owl, humans are able to be transmitted between distant worlds as beams of light—essentially the same mechanism as the Star Trek transporter beams—while instantaneous communication between worlds is possible using a device called a ‘pepci’, which sounds similar to Le Guin’s ‘ansible’. I wasn’t really able to get my head around the notion that, while information could be instantaneously transferred across a multi-light-year gulf, a human encoded as a lightbeam signal—which must surely represent what is, at base, only a very large packet of information—is restricted to the slow crawl of lightspeed. (The same criticism would presumably apply also to Arkfall, which is set in the same universe as Owl, except that in Arkfall the issue of interstellar travel is never sufficiently backgrounded to reveal this particular sticking point; instead, the SF componentry centres on the intriguing Dawn-like application of biologically-inspired solutions to technological problems.) Nonetheless, The Ice Owl found favour for Pregaldin’s mysterious butterfly-wing portrait and for the busy interplay between the book’s several characters: though in each book the broad sense of the impending denouement is reasonably clearly foreshadowed, there’s more complication to Owl‘s unravelling than there is to Arkfall‘s.

In summation, I’d give Arkfall a qualified pass as hard SF, though I’d have to hold The Ice Owl back on that score. If equation-solving SF is what you’re after as reading matter, these probably aren’t for you. But they’re intriguing enough stories, in and of themselves: if you like Le Guin’s writing, you’ll probably enjoy these.

(This is the eighth in my ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here.)

Book review: ‘Up Against It’, by M J Locke

4 07 2016

Morgan J Locke is the penname currently used by SF writer and chemical / environmental engineer Laura J Mixon, who has five earlier novels and a selection of shorter pieces to her own name. She also has, to her name, the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer, for her blog piece ‘A Report on Damage Done by One Individual Under Several Names’, exposing the actions of extreme critic Requires Hate.


Jane Navio is the long-serving resource commissioner of Zekeston, a city-sized habitat, set spinning for purposes of artificial gravity, within the hollowed-out interior of asteroid 25 Phocaea. Jane is also the family friend of Geoff Agre, whose job description might as well read ‘disaffected teenager’—think James Dean on a rocketbike. As Up Against It opens, Geoff and his rocketbiker friends have just participated in the capture of an incoming shipment of the ice that is so essential to the continued habitability of Zekeston and its subsidiary settlements. But the colony’s relief at having successfully harvested the ice shipment is shortlived: an accident at a neighbouring waste-reprocessing plant spills a dangerously large number of disassemblers (self-replicating nanomechanical molecular deconstructors), which rapidly set about devouring the newly-acquired ice mountain. Navio must make a command decision to prioritise either the ice’s protection or the rescue of several disassembly-plant workers trapped with insufficient air reserves by the corrosive nanite spillage: she chooses the ice, succeeds in saving a fragment of the shipment, and ten workers die. Among those ten is Geoff’s older brother Carl. But Navio’s problems are just beginning, as the colony now faces several weeks with inadequate material resources, with the only available incoming ice shipment in the hands of the Martian mob. The government of Zekeston has no real choice—their need for ice is desperate—but what will it cost them to deal with the devil? Can Jane manage an unprecedented suite of challenges, from both within and without the colony? Will Geoff’s reckless heroics lead to tragedy? And why are the habitat’s computer systems displaying anomalous, glitchy behaviour?

Up Against It is an impressive piece of action-based hard SF, with an imaginatively detailed setting, a busy, propulsive storyline, and a lengthy cast list of well-realised characters operating at loggerheads to one another. It’s broadly founded on established scientific principles and shows due deference to the laws of physics (with its one apparent infelicity in this regard a reference to a fifty-million-km lightspeed communication occurring in a fraction of a second), with several intriguing twists on established SF tropes. In content, it’s somewhat reminiscent of Lois McMaster Bujold’s ‘Miles Vorkosigan’ series—it has the latter’s predicament-heavy plotting style and somewhat space-operatic interplanetary politics, though there’s no recourse here to wormhole travel maguffins—but in tone it’s more in keeping with Golden Age problem-solving stories.

I do have some quibbles. It does feel that the storyline never lets up, with the result that the characters aren’t fully given an opportunity to sing. (Except, of course, when they’re using the music-based programming language Tonal_Z.) And on reflection, it’s not clear to me why the disassemblers’ consumption of a large fraction of the ice shipment was so materially disastrous: they hadn’t annihilated it, after all, they’d just processed it into other forms (from which, in the centuries-hence future presented here, I’d imagine they could have been reconstituted back into water and other feedstocks). Similarly, the resource-scarcity solution which eventually arrives does have a somewhat fortuitous flavour of deus ex machina about it, and I’m not convinced it’s quantitatively reasonable. (I’m being deliberately coy in my wording here, so as to mitigate spoilerism on the subject.) But these are things which occurred to me only after the event—I found the book strongly engrossing, and felt compelled to learn the fates of those assembled within.

It’s perhaps not a sublimely graceful book; but it is an effective one, and it rewards reading for its imaginative and multilayered futurism.

(This is the seventh in my ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here.)

Book review: ‘vN’, by Madeline Ashby

30 06 2016

Madeline Ashby is a US-born Canadian writer whose urge to write stems from a meeting with Ursula K Le Guin in a book company basement. vN, her first novel, was published in 2012 by Angry Robot. (It is, as should become apparent, a singularly appropriately named publisher for such a work.)


Amy Peterson’s parents, Jack and Charlotte, are keen that she have the most normal, the most well-rounded upbringing possible—for a given value of ‘normal’. To this end, they’ve enrolled her in a preschool for gifted children, and they’ve been conscientiously starving her so she doesn’t grow up too rapidly, nor iterate too soon. But Jack isn’t Amy’s biological father, nor is Charlotte a biological mother. Amy and Charlotte are von Neumann machines (vN), creatures of titanium, silicon skin, graphene coral, and carbon aerogel. They eat, think, and feel, much as organic humans do, but the food they eat is distinct from human food (aluminium pancakes, anyone?) and their thoughts and feelings do not follow precisely the same tracks as the humans in whose image they have been created. Nonetheless, Amy’s childhood is happy, and unexceptional, right up until that incident in her kindergarten graduation where she eats her grandmother, Portia. That last phrase, I suspect, requires some backgrounding: Portia is also vN, has just killed one of Amy’s human classmates, and is assaulting Charlotte, so Amy’s sudden ancestivorism is comprehensible as an act of defence, if not entirely orthodox. Also comprehensible, as a consequence of this turn of events, is the development that Amy finds herself a fugitive … for the murderous code by which her grandmother was programmed, indeed her grandmother’s entire personality, is now incorporated within Amy’s own memory banks. If Amy is to come to terms with her heritage, she must find out more about her past, and her mother’s upbringing—which will not be easy when everyone suddenly wants her dead.

This is, to the best of my knowledge, the third book I’ve read which has explored the particular notion of the female android (the other two are the excellent and poignant Virtual Girl by Amy Thompson, who might, just possibly, be some kind of nominative godparent to Amy Peterson, and Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross). It shares with those two books (and, I don’t doubt, others which I haven’t directly encountered) an exploration, on some level, of the motivations for humans to develop anatomically correct automated replicas of human beings, but there’s a somewhat greater depth to its exploration of the human/android dynamic than either of those books: here there are both many humans and many androids, so the Venn diagram looks different. There’s also a commendable subtlety to the android/android interactions, particularly between Amy, her travelling companion and survivalist mentor Javier, and Javier’s latest iteration (offspring) Junior. While I don’t completely buy all of the implications of Ashby’s extrapolations in this direction, the portrayal is nonetheless convincing.

The strengths of vN are in its characterisation—Amy, her parents, Portia, and Javier all emerge as real people, for all that only one of the five is genuinely flesh and blood—and its attention to detail: Amy’s home environment is carefully drawn, the history of vN development is revealed bit by bit, and the responses of vNs to hunger are logically consistent: for example, to conserve precious processing power, vision is downgraded to greyscale. And, while the book makes no direct nod towards Asimov’s Law of Robotics, it does include repeated reference to the ‘failsafe’ features which are designed to ensure that vNs go into an inactive mode (‘bluescreen’) rather than commit any actions which will bring organic humans into danger. (Clearly, Portia’s failsafe mode was no longer functional during the kindergarten prizegiving incident, which means Amy’s may not be either: thus she’s seen as a menace to society.)

I did feel, at times, that the violent content within vN was too much, or perhaps too messy, for my own tastes: this is not the stylised, carefully-choreographed violence of, say, Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, but something more distressingly chaotic. (Portia, it seems, is neither merciful nor squeamish. I think I generally prefer my SF to be less dark than this …) I would also say that some of the fight scenes didn’t fully convince, in part because of a descriptive looseness to some complicated scenes and in part because Ashby displays a tendency to allow Amy’s parasitic Portia persona to go all ‘evil Mary Sue’ over overwhelming opponents: for this reason, and a couple of others, there’s a shade of unearned ‘specialness’ in the characterisation of Amy which stretches credulity in places.

Is vN hard SF? I would judge that it is, because it seeks to justify its roboticism (androidicism?) with materials science which, on first brush, appears reasonable (though I feel, for example, that its appropriation of graphene as a construction material smacks more of molecular zeitgeist populism than of any directly applicable structural relevance, in much the same way fullerenes were injudiciously bandied around in the SF of two decades earlier). And its exploration of android consciousness, and of the interactions of androids with other beings, is detailed, thoughtful, and predominantly logical. But it’s a rather postmodern flavour, I think, of hard SF, that obeys the letter of the hard SF envelope while in some respects flouting its spirit (whereas Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite, for example, adheres more faithfully to the spirit even while transgressing the letter in certain measures). Still, what are failsafes for, but to be broken?

(This is the sixth in my ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF, and appears after much too long a lag after the fifth review. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here. If you’d like to suggest further books which would fit the criteria — female writer, hard SF, novel / novella / collection of short fiction — please leave a comment. I have several more books lined up for review at this date; I’d like to reach 20 reviews in the series (to provide a Roman-numeral justification for the ‘XX’ alongside the chromosomal reference), though that will almost certainly take until at least sometime next year, quite possibly longer. Ideally, also, I would want to review only one book by each author, so I’d be particularly grateful to anyone uncovering ‘new’ authors for me to review. And please note the requirement for ‘hard’ SF: I’m looking for work which pays serious attention to scientific principles, rather than examples of ‘space opera’ and other subgenres of SF.)