book reviews by Althea

Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft

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Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft
Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft by Elizabeth Bear
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This volume is an interesting conceit – Microsoft gave a number of the top SF authors a ‘behind-the-scenes’ tour of tech they’re working on, in return for stories. I was afraid the book in general would be more of an advertisement than it is – as a matter of fact, at least a couple of the stories are more cautionary than celebratory – but still, the majority did not feel genuinely inspired. The ‘big names’ drew me in, but with the exception of Ann Leckie’s story, the pieces here aren’t among these writers’ best work. Still, the book is free – so there’s no big commitment involved in checking it out!

*** Hello, Hello – Seanan McGuire
An advanced videophone interface with a built-in, adaptive translation feature helps the protagonist here stay in touch with her deaf sister. But when children start getting odd phone calls from a total stranger, a parent’s instinctive alarm bells start ringing.
Interesting ideas here related to how technology often turns out to have utility far beyond what was planned – but the story itself was just OK.

*** The Machine Starts – Greg Bear
Experimental quantum computing leads to unforeseen side effects among the team of physicists working on the project. More ‘cautionary’ than I expected from this volume.

*** Skin in the Game – Elizabeth Bear
Performance is always about sharing with the audience. But a pop star’s manager wants to take it a step further, when he pressures her to adopt the latest technology: a widget that will allow fans to share in the emotion of a live show. How far is too far?

*** Machine Learning – Nancy Kress
‘MAIP’ is an experimental piece of tutoring software that mimics AI – but the two researchers in charge of the project aren’t sure if it will ever reach that level of sophistication where it shows true adaptive learning. But it’s good enough that in addition to the test session where children use the software interactively, one of the researchers secretly begins to use it to assuage his own personal grief.

** Riding With the Duke – Jack McDevitt
Many people will undoubtedly be annoyed by this story’s unquestioning iteration of the “Those who can’t, teach” cliche. Walter Peacock gave up on completing his PhD in physics after realising he just wasn’t brilliant enough. Conveniently, at this point in the story, he meets a gorgeous woman who gets him hooked up with a job teaching high school physics. Unfortunately, public speaking has always been his Achilles heel. Luckily, said gorgeous woman is more interested in watching movies at home than any other ‘date’ activities. She has the new setup where you can ‘insert’ yourself as a character into the action. And she (for reasons the story does not bother to explain) has an agenda involving guiding Walter into stories that will boost his self-confidence and enable him to be successful at work.

*** A Cop’s Eye – Blue Delliquanti
Sweet, but containing Pollyanna-ish levels of naive optimism. A runaway hacker teen is sought by a policeman with the troubled girl’s best interests at heart. He’s assisted by his ‘partner’ – which is actually a Google Glass-style AI widget, capable of collating data from a multitude of sources, including surveillance cameras and databases, and coming up with results.
(Non story-related – Kindle did a great job of converting this graphic piece for an e-reader. Best I’ve seen yet.)

*** Looking for Gordo – Robert J. Sawyer
There’s a debate amongst those concerned with SETI whether or not we should send out communications toward any potential alien listeners. Might our transmissions actually attract violent aliens who could destroy our planet?
In this story, we’ve received a large transmission from an alien culture: the equivalent of our Wikipedia. In order to help us understand the material, we’ve analyzed the data and from it, created an avatar of an alien which interacts much as – we hope – an actual member of the species would. Will a conversation with this ‘virtual’ alien help us decide whether we should try to initiate contact?

** The Tell – David Brin
Didn’t really grab me. Too much of this ‘story’ felt like listening to someone going on a drunken monologue about what they do at work during a party. The narrator is a former Vegas performer with a ‘magic’ act, who’s now gotten into the business of predictive analytics. The story cuts repeatedly between: telling us what he used to do, and why he got out of it, telling us what he’s doing now (which involves some spycraft-type stuff), and him simply telling us ‘about’ stuff. In addition, there a bits that are supposed to be ‘excerpts’ on the topic. The plot feels both shoehorned in, and inconclusive.

***** Another Word for World – Ann Leckie
By far, the best piece in this collection. Leckie achieves the goal of the themed anthology by featuring a piece of new technology as an intrinsic and essential element to the story, discusses insightfully both the pros and cons of the ramifications of that technology – AND couches the discussion seamlessly within a tense, action-filled plot featuring two well-drawn, believable characters
Two ethnic groups, the Gidanta and the Raksamat, are approaching a state of war. Territorial tensions on a colonized planet have grown, with both sides claiming that the treaty that Ashiban Xidyla’s mother negotiated has been breached. Now, Ashiban was on the way to talks with the Sovereign of Iss, hoping to smooth over the dissension and maintain peace. However, their flyer was shot down – and now Ashiban, elderly and suffering from a concussion, and the Sovereign, who turns out to be an untried teenager – are the only survivors. Their only means of communication is through an automatic translation gadget, and it nearly immediately becomes clear that the gadget – equipped with the very software that made the famous treaty possible, a generation earlier – has some significant flaws.

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