Friday, May 14, 2010

Sublimation Angels

Novella by Jason Sanford

The opening of this novella feels awkward and overwrought.
Across the vacuum black, countless Aurals shifted the star field into a mnemonic ROY G. BIV of circles and exclamations.
But after the couple pages, the next 30 or so are a vast improvement. Like some other stories, the opening set me up to pick it apart. I wasn't quite making a list of problems but I was close. So it should say something that by the end, I was loving it and completely caught up in the world. 3.5 out of 5.

The setting is inspired by Fritz Leiber's A Pail of Air (text online here) although we are in a maybe post-singularity existence, ruled by AIs who can control our minds. In what may be an effort to save/help humanity or may be just random meddling, a species of even more powerful energy beings (Aurals) have set up an area of space where they will destroy any high technology. As a precondition to communicate, they require the human/AI civilization to put settlers on a planet with a frozen atmosphere with little technology. An AI is sent along inside a human body built for her.

This is the root of my other main problem of the story: the police state Big Mom presides over seems unsustainable in the long run (600 years). The execution or covered-up murder of anyone who questions the obviously untrue or says the wrong thing at the wrong time certainly happens, but in a small population living under such harsh conditions that they melt air to survive and can only grow a very few crops around a giant compost tank, it just seems like these sort of policies could quickly lead to extinction. Especially since a lot of the lower job are already very dangerous and many people seem to die unmurdered at a fairly young age. They had better be slightly more fertile than rabbits in a society like this. But on top of that, the overly cruel head guard who is willing to torture people to death for basically looking at him funny (admittedly, he is the eventual cause for revolt) and the willingness the guards have at the beginning to murder a couple of 10 year olds for asking an obvious question, whose answer has absolutely no downside for the administration, and hell, even the presence of three armed guards ready to kill children in a threat-free (at least any threat their weapons could do anything against) coming-of-age ceremony, all of this just seems profoundly stupid cruelty-for-the-sake-of-cruelty. Especially considering a revelation about halfway through the story, I would think she'd want to keep people a little less miserable.

So besides that, and the willingness to ignore or threaten to kill the chosen one (our protagonist's brother) who would presumably be the one chance to fulfill the whole damn mission, I do think a point is being made about the tendency toward totalitarianism and unfair/unnecessary cruelty or something. But it almost feels silly it is so over-the-top. If this is how the AIs behave, I really do feel sorry for humanity. Still, after a while, the characterization and writing are good enough that you become completely caught up in the world and can ignore all this and just hate the bad guys.

These flaws are perhaps overemphasized in this review, as the pdf I have is 32 full size pages long, and my problems with the story gradually fade away. I was loving this for at least the last half, maybe even the last two thirds. I quite liked this story. The classic rebellion from authority theme, the change in our protagonists by the end of the novella, and the fact that after being manipulated by everyone for his whole life, he is finally able to see through things and do some manipulating of his own. And the setting is absolutely brilliant. As I said, based on A Pail of Air, but I might even like this one better, as a setting. Both the background dealings of the AIs and the Aurals and stratified society in a harsh fallout-shelter-like environment really struck me as fun, interesting, and original, even if heavily inspired by pre-existing fiction.

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