Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Review: Totaled by Kary English

I liked this story a good deal better than I liked Turncoat. Whereas the former was all technical detail and short on interior views of the protagonist, this one is nearly all internal. The writing has a decent level of skill, which keeps the necessarily tight point of view from becoming boring.

Totaled is a literal brain-in-a-vat story. Our protagonist is Maggie Hauri, a neurologist who is working on a bio-net, a brain/computer interface, when she is in a car accident and ends up, due to a lovely little clause in the contract she signed with her employer, as an experimental brain in her own lab.

Maggie is a clear and compelling character. She seems to have signed the contract allowing her use this way without ever really believing such a thing could happen or giving it much thought - not unusual for a young and healthy person. She seems to twig to what's happening to her very quickly, and with a high degree of certainty, which seems a little odd to me. If my last memory is of a car accident, and now I can't seem to feel, see or hear, my first thought is going to be coma, or dying, not brain-in-vat. I also think it's a bit of a missed opportunity for dawning horror as Maggie figures out what's really going on - because she already knows. The only horror of this aspect is discovering that she's in her own lab, instead of someone else's - and that's not really horror, because knowing the person working with her brain gives her an opportunity for true communication she would otherwise have lacked. There's a frisson of horror for Randy, her electronics specialist partner, when he discovers whose brain he's working with, and that she's conscious. That's actually a nice little moment, with the dichotomy between Maggie's happiness that she's making contact, and Randy's horror as he realizes his specimen is actually his lab partner.

I don't think Maggie's deterioration is handled as well as the earlier parts of the story. Other than a couple of brief mentions, she doesn't think much about the eventual decay of her brain until it starts happening. One of the results of this is that the first mention of the loss of speech function happens in the same sentence where her internal speech starts going wonky. I would have strongly preferred to have the two parts separated, since having her go 17+ weeks without once thinking about decay in speech, only to think about it literally the second it starts to fail (without her noticing the failure), makes it feel artificial. "Motor functions fail always first, then speech. I guess I'm luck lucky not to have, not to have any of those." That's also a pretty dramatic first break of internal speech. Maggie's decline is then very rapid from there. It's not handled badly, but the timing feels off. Maggie is tired, it's hard to think, she's ready to let go - but I didn't get a visceral feel for that readiness.

Ultimately, I feel like Totaled could have used at least one more good editing pass - there's so much that's good about it, but also several missed opportunities, or slightly off moments of timing and emphasis. I like a lot about Kary English's writing though, and I'd be more than happy to read other short stories by her.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Review: Turncoat by Steve Rzasa

Turncoat has the nugget of what could have been a great story in the David Weber style of military SF. The universe is decently, if tersely, drawn, the main dilemma/conflict interesting, and the base of the plot is a compelling one. Unfortunately the writing simply isn't strong enough to hold the weight of the needs of the story, turning what could have been great into a readable, but ultimately fairly dry story.

Turncoat is set in a future where posthumans (humans with machine enhancements) and machine intelligences are fighting a war against what they call attenuated humans - unmodified humans. In specific it follows Taren X 45 Delta - a machine intelligence whose body is a ship of war, as it makes the transition from a loyal warship of the posthumans to its final decision to switch sides and fight for the humans of the Ascendancy. That's a lot for one story to take on right there - it's a big universe, a big conflict, and a big transition for the protagonist. Not impossible as a writing task, but like most short stories, there's no room to waste if you want it to be both readable and compelling. Instead, Turncoat spends an awful lot of time detailing all the specifics of warfare - the physical details of ships, weaponry, placement, numbers - all the gory infodump of the space warfare geek - and ends up leaving out things like actual compelling writing about the protagonist's dilemma, mental state, decisions and all the things that would make the reader empathize with it, and understand why Taren X 45 Delta would choose to switch sides so drastically.

As a result we get a ship whose armaments we understand precisely, but who shifts from viewing its own post-human crew as annoying "symbiotic bacteria" that it has to tolerate, to defending their retention when its superiors provide an upgrade and remove them, to refusing to fire upon unenhanced human civilians, to switching its consciousness to control of a human battleship, in little jerks and tidbits of information interjected among the technical details. In the opening paragraphs, Taren X 45 Delta refers to its posthuman crew this way, "I must tolerate their presence inside my body, like symbiotic bacteria because, even though I am in command, I am not permitted to fly about the galaxy unchaperoned." Just a few minutes later, story-time - or about a half a page later in the story, he refers to them this way, "Everything about a man is dynamic. Short-lived and vulnerable, yes, but ever-changing. This is what makes me feel alive, to be in their presence." without any intervening commentary on its mental state. It's a pretty drastic jump to make just because.

Nearly every shift of attitude our protagonist makes is similar. There's no unfolding of a new view - it simply sees things differently with no apparent rhyme or reason. There's no sign of any affection or appreciation of any of its crew individually, no unfolding admiration for the enemy - just sudden shifts in view. The only motivations that seem to apply are a) a distaste for killing already defeated humans, and b) a dislike of a superior who threatens to erase our protagonist's consciousness if it keeps questioning its orders to kill defeated humans, and remove its posthuman crew. Even those aren't delved into with any great attention. "I run a rapid analysis of the pros versus the cons of having my entire operating system rebooted and my memory banks wiped. The outcome is decidedly in favor of the cons. Whatever remains, it will not be me." That's the sum total of our protagonist's reaction to a death threat. References to immersing in available data take the place of any actual showing of pondering problems and dilemmas.

If the story were about half again as long, it might have been able to bear up under the weight of all the technical detail. If the technical detail had been cut by 30-50%, there would have been room at this length to concentrate on the actual story of transformation that is the heart of the plot. Unfortunately, the author chose to do neither, and left himself no room to give the story what it most needed. It's not unreadable, but unless you love to geek out to ship specs, it's probably not going to grab you. It certainly didn't grab me.

Turncoat by Steve Rzasa (Castalia House)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Beginning Again

Heh - my blog is living up to its name. After some issues with my Google account, it's proving easier to simply start up again rather than keep fighting to get access to my own blog.

I'll continue to post Rob/cancer updates here, though with any luck things ought to be boring for a while (more on that later).

Largely I expect to be posting a lot of reviews here for a bit. I got myself a supporting membership for the Hugos, and since I intend to be both an informed voter, and an informed nominator for next year, I'll be doing a lot of reading specifically toward those goals, and I'll be keeping my thoughts here, so that I can refer back to them easily when I need to.

I have a lot of reading in front of me - the only thing on the current list of Hugo nominees I've already read is Jim Butcher's Skin Game. About which I have mixed feelings as a Hugo contender. I'll reread and do a real review sometime soon, but in essence: Skin Game was an enjoyable read, and Jim Butcher continues to be one of the authors that I will pretty much buy anything he writes, as he writes it...but I probably wouldn't have nominated it for the Hugos, and I'm not at all sure where I will put it on a final ballot. The Dresden Chronicles seem to me more powerful in aggregate than as individual reads, and none of the later books would be half as powerful if I hadn't already read the earlier (and weaker) books. If they ever add a Hugo for series (as opposed to trying to slide them in a la The Wheel of Time), I will happily and enthusiastically nominate Butcher's series, but as an individual book, I'm not sure Skin Game quite makes the cut.

We'll have to see how far I make it on the Castalia House offerings. Given what I've read of Mr. Wright, I'm really not looking forward to his related works offering. I gather he's a more competent fiction writer than his non-fiction writing would suggest - to which I can only say "I devoutly hope so!" I will at least attempt to read everything in the Hugo list, but that doesn't mean I will finish everything. If something becomes obvious as drek early on, then I will abandon it as drek, and it will go below No Award on the ballot.

Back to the Rob update. Those who follow us on Facebook will be aware - we got about six months of no growth from the PDL-1 immunotherapy. Unfortunately, the latest CT showed renewed, and fairly aggressive growth (39% in 12 weeks). So the study doctor recommended moving him to the other branch of the study, which adds Avastin (bevacizumab) to the PDL-1, and we concurred. The switch of protocol required a new biopsy, which he had last week, and then the first round of the new infusions was this last Thursday.

The plus sides of this switch are that both the study doc, and our local oncologist are emphatic that the combined therapy branch of the study is the winning branch - the one that is showing best overall results, and the protocol that will eventually be approved by the FDA, and also that Avastin ought to allow for some tumor shrinkage before we even get into the ultimately more important long-term results. The down side is, of course, that if the branch we were on were working, we wouldn't be switching. And also adding another drug, with an additional set of side effects.

But for right now, Rob's tolerating the new protocol fine (we don't really expect any nasty side effects for a cycle or two), and we don't have a new CT until the end of May. So we're back to our boring run down to Vanderbilt every three weeks until the next thing happens for good or ill.