Rosebud is a word that is unfathomably ingrained within my psyche, even as someone who has never seen Citizen Kane. I am both at once entranced by it, yet so utterly helpless to explain its allure. So, upon seeing a book with the title Rosebud, by Paul Cornell, I had to pick it up. I barely even read the synopsis before asking for an ARC, that’s just how deep that word runs. When I finally got to the novella, I experienced the same set of nebulous feelings. I both admire it for what it achieves and reaches for, while being put off for what it ultimately is.
Rosebud is the story of five AI personalities trapped on a spaceship the size of a pack of gum. They are all under the purview of the all-powerful Company, a purview defined by their 300 year long prison sentence. During their service, they encounter a spherical object in the outer reaches of the solar system and are subsequently tasked with its retrieval. Their ship has other plans and malfunctions, giving the digital crew a chance to push their boundaries a little. So they do the right and proper thing and survey the object themselves, hoping to bring back their findings to the Company for its benefit. Fortunately, or unfortunately, this black sphere also has its own designs, and may just reveal existential truths that neither the crew, nor the Company are prepared for.
I have a lot of mixed feelings about Rosebud. They were so mixed, I read the whole thing through twice, re-reading several of the chapters three or four times,in an effort to understand what was going on, and if I was missing something. The novella moves so fast, one has to slow down to take it all in. The dialogue is rapid fire and intermingles with the point of view character’s observations. Time is a nebulous concept for these tiny AI programs, so even the events are happening within fractions of a second. It’s mind boggling to take in on a single read, and luckily it’s short enough that a second or third read through would take less time than a three hundred page story.
I’ll start with the negative, as that was mostly my first experience. I did not care for the pop-culture references. I rarely find them engrossing. I was not a fan of the dialogue. I can see how someone might find it funny, but it was a bit tedious for me. Normally, a character like Bob, an angry balloon that consistently swears, would have me chuckling at his ineptitude, but something just peeved me about him. The descriptions of the digital physical space inhabited by the characters were off putting, and I found Cornell relied too heavily on the physical descriptions to demarcate individual characters and digital spaces that felt confining to the imagination. I imagine it’s particularly hard to realize five distinct characters within a span of one-hundred or so pages, but the shortcuts had me questioning who was doing what and when. It didn’t help that the main character, Haunt, was pretty bland on their own, sticking to the description of goth. The rapid pace of the story smashed against the characters, making the weirder events feel dreamlike and unnecessary – at least for Haunt. The other characters, namely Huge If True and Diana, felt the most coherent of the bunch, which was helpful in understanding the climax.
I also found the commentary of “humanity bad” overly general and tiresome, even though it was just a few flippant remarks. After my first reading, my final thoughts were along the lines of, “this is just a better, slightly woke version of the Bobiverse if it collided with 2001: A Space Odyssey.” And I’ll be honest, I can’t tell if I think that’s a good or bad thing. It just sort of is.
On re-reading the story though, I found Rosebud a little more interesting. I was able to pull back from a majority of the shenanigans and see the characters a little more for who they were. There were added layers to some of their interactions, especially when you consider their identities and how they were cultivated. Some of the AIs in this book were once people, and their service to The Company on this spaceship called Rosebud is their sentence. What stood out to me the most was the way Cornell differentiated those who were once human, against those who were always programs. It wasn’t nearly as strong as I would have liked, but the intent is tangible. Haunt still feels flaccid, in the way the other characters don’t, but they feel designed that way. As if they’re supposed to be cool and detached, but it’s not good. Huge If True is determined to reclaim his life, Bob is just meant to be an angry troll, Diana just wants to be herself and Quin, well Quin is a swarm.
Cornell places them in a situation that is just positively dark and delightful. The object they encounter has a passive defense system that operates in the realm of quantum mechanics that is as clever as it is jarring to the reader. Not only does it affect the characters, but Cornell realizes it within the narrative itself, creating a sense of confusion as events replay themselves depending on how the crew interacts with the object. This is all set up for searching for the meaning of identity in a world consumed by The Company, sprinkled with a history of blatant transphobia (this bit is in universe, not Cornell’s beliefs). Cornell attempts to deconstruct the notions of identity, especially in the vein of artificial vs natural identities. This itself is posited through short explorations of gender and sexuality, notions of which are explored through Diana, Huge, and Bob’s respective pasts. Cornell opts for a “what really is the difference?” ambiguous approach that feels appropriate and earned given the nature of the novella, and leaves the reader with a stunning and mortifying ending.
Personally, I wish Rosebud was a wee bit longer so the ideas could gestate within the story a little more. Like I said, it’s a fast read, giving one the opportunity to really dissect it with subsequent reads, but it only reveals so much. I wanted some of the critique, especially the bits aimed at The Company, to feel a little more pointed and built up within the context of the story. A lot of the book relies on passive knowledge and feelings by the reader, making it perfect for those who have that frame of reference, but a little shaky for those who aren’t in the mindset. I enjoyed it much more on my second go around after picking it apart, but still had trouble with it on the whole.
Rating: Rosebud 6.5/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.