book reviews by Althea

Review: Cyber World: Tales of Humanity’s Tomorrow

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Cyber World: Tales of Humanity’s Tomorrow
Cyber World: Tales of Humanity’s Tomorrow by Jason Heller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Like most anthologies, it’s a mixed bag. But though I liked some selections more than others, it does include two pieces I’ll probably nominate for Hugos, and one that I definitely would’ve if it were eligible (it’s a reprint.)

*** SERENADE – Isabel Yap
A young hacker is hired to decrypt a future-USB-drive for a client. The attempt to get the job done leads to a rather-sentimental musing on the deaths of loved ones and grief, contrasting the hacker’s expected loss, and the client’s past loss.

*** THE MIGHTY PHIN – Nisi Shawl
Prisoners en route to a distant destination are held in the matrix of a ship, overseen by the AI. But, far from Earth, not everything is going according to regulations, and things are getting strange. The story really does a great job evoking a situation filled with both great potential and great terror – but I wished there was a bit more to it. I wished that the characters were a bit more fully developed, and that the plot had more resolution: it just about finishes setting up the situation before ending abruptly.

*** REACTIONS – Mario Acevedo
Some things haven’t changed, in this future. Some things have: soldiers battle remotely, controlling drones, enabled by new drugs. But the government still takes advantage of its soldiers, callously uncaring about the side effects. Veterans are still shamefully neglected. This is a glimpse into one soldier’s life. The scenario is extremely well drawn, I thought the plot could’ve used a bit more work.

***** THE BEES OF KIRIBATI – Warren Hammond
Perhaps particularly because I recently read another story dealing with very similar themes that I didn’t think was successful; this one really worked for me.
A refugee from climate change has managed to land a job as a translator; not that it garners her much respect. She’s unprepared for the impact of her latest assignment, translating for a woman accused of murder who happens to be a fellow refugee.
An insightful look into the motivations behind acts of terrorism, without any shying away from its horrors and the fact that there are innocents caught in the crossfire.

Resentful, spoiled teenager goes to therapy, where she works out her resentment by ‘killing’ her mother in VR. But when she learns that her mother is firing Rosalie, her telepathically connected therapy aide, she freaks out, and matters come to a head.

Sad and touching. A severely disabled teen escapes her horrible ‘meatspace’ reality by entering VR, where she’s a talented hacker. Her friend and assistant in VR is a personality that she believes to be a true AI; and she hopes that he will figure out a way to ‘upload’ her mind to VR permanently, freeing her from her dying body. But the truth might not be so simple.
I liked this, but there weren’t enough clues to back up the ‘reveal.’ (view spoiler)

***** PANIC CITY – Madeline Ashby
Ashby takes two familiar tropes here, and mixes them together to create something quite new – and awful. First, we’ve got the idea of an underground bunker/city into which people have retreated in the face of disaster, and stayed so long that the technology is wearing down an people are no longer quite sure just what they’re hiding from. Then, there’s the idea of AI created by humanity, following its programming in order to maintain its directives – and following the letter of the law, not, perhaps, its spirit.
I didn’t expect anything happy- but it still got me like a smack in the face. Loved it!

It’s well known that sometimes the augment system that soldiers had implanted to receive battlefield directions malfunctions. Many vets talk about how, even though it’s been disabled, they still receive spurious orders, ads, or other ‘voices’ in their heads. Usually, they learn to disregard these, and live with it – as they have to live with other PTSD symptoms. Ali’s been under a lot of stress, watching his true love dying of a horrible ailment. When he starts hearing his ‘prompt’ going off in his head, telling him that she will live if only he follows directions, it’s a temptation he can’t refuse.
Beautifully written and cleverly structured, but the religious facet of this didn’t appeal to me.

I’ve read a few of Alyssa Wong’s short stories now, and I don’t think there’s been one that’s been a ‘miss’ yet! This one is another hit… and it’s about a hit. A young assassin is sent to kill her boss’ rival – a long shot in a vicious criminal underworld. She doesn’t expect to survive the night. The way things work out is unexpected – but makes a terrible kind of sense, once you think about it.

*** STAUNCH – Paul Graham Raven
Aims for the slick, pop-culture hipness of Stephenson’s ‘Snow Crash’ et al., but doesn’t quite hit the mark. The leader of a group of cyberpunky rebels has gathered her group of misfits together by telling them tales of her past as some kind of heroic roller derby queen-slash-medical professional (?), but when she needs to take her crew on a dangerous mission across the borders of a future, divided England, so that a colleague can save a life, the truth comes out…
I actually really liked the bit that fuels the tale: the issue of software license expiry, obsolete programs, and what might happen if copyrights are applied to technologies that people’s lives depend on – but I thought the plot could’ve been stronger.

** OTHER PEOPLE’S THOUGHTS – Chinelo Onwualu
A telepath meets an attractive individual; they fall into a romantic relationship, open up to one another, and have some mind-blowing sex. Nice for them, but not the stuff of thrilling fiction.

** WYSIOMG – Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
The style this is written in is (intentionally) reminiscent of reading a blog post written by a really stupid (possibly brain-damaged) person on the Internet. The story repeatedly refers to various items that went viral on the Internet as well, like this one:…. The overall effect was very unappealing to me; and I didn’t really see what it was trying to get at, if anything.

Overly sentimental and message-y for me. A politician backtracks on her unethical goal to back a bill having to do with the treatment of defective AI robots in order to pursue a more effective, moral plan. But still, the skeleton in her closet (the reader knows from the beginning) is her treatment of her own daughter.

** A SONG TRANSMUTED – Sarah Pinsker
A near-future musician has the idea of using electronic implants to make her own body into an instrument. He skeevy roommate tries to rip her off, but that just spurs her to be more innovative. I didn’t find the idea a groundbreaking as I felt like the author wanted me to – as a matter of fact, I felt like it almost undercut the story’s other message, about how in-person collaboration is superior to long-distance/internet partnerships.

* IT’S ONLY WORDS – Keith Ferrell
One might expect a cyber-themed anthology to contain cautionary tales of the danger of technology. This isn’t that. It’s a straight-up paean to “doing things the old-fashioned way.” However, it fails to make a convincing case as to WHY being a Luddite is better. The character’s main reason is that he’s doing it for his dying mother, because that’s what she would’ve wanted. That’s no kind of logical justification at all. In order to bolster the argument, the author makes the “modern” classmates and teachers of the protagonist cruel bullies – but they feel like propped-up strawmen. I wouldn’t have been impossible to convince – I like stories that empathize with outsiders – but this one failed.

***** SMALL OFFERINGS – Paolo Bacigalupi
Can’t say I *liked* this story. It’s disgusting, horrific, and truly terrible. It’s also powerful and all-too-likely prophetic. It warns of the heart-wrenching lengths that mothers of the future may have to go to, to bear a child into an increasingly polluted and poisoned world.

** DARKOUT – E. Lily Yu
A new take on ‘Brave New World”s surveillance state. Here, the cameras are mandatory – but they’re also “egalitarian.” Anyone can observe anyone else. The viewing trends follow those that we see on the Internet and webcams today: cute animals, sex, celebrities, scandal… Our window into this future comes via a pathetic guy obsessed with his ex-girlfriend and his bigoted bro, as they watch the ball game…
The premise sets us up to expect something dramatic to happen when the cameras go out (the “darkout”) but then, nothing does.

** VISIBLE DAMAGE – Stephen Graham Jones
No objections to this one; it just didn’t really capture me. A hacker dreams of discovering an emergent AI.

This one joins the “Last Man on Earth” genre. While working on an ecological project in Africa, far-flung reforestation plantings take a man on a circuit far from his family. When he can’t get any cell reception to call his wife, the first reaction is, naturally annoyance. But as time goes on and nothing seems to be functioning, worry sets in – then panic. The setup and characterization was very strong, but the conclusion wasn’t as powerful, for me.

** HOW NOTHING HAPPENS – Darin Bradley
Experimental metafiction starting from the idea that all times are actually contemporaneous. Eh, I’ve seen more interesting extrapolations from the idea.

Many thanks to Hex and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

View all my reviews


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