Network Effect – A Whole New Ballgame

41spd48rbalLet’s get it out of the way early: Martha Wells’ Network Effect is phenomenal and likely surpasses the high expectations set by the novellas. If you are coming into this paragraph and don’t know what I am talking about, I assume you have been living under a rock. Wells’ Murderbot novellas have repeatedly raked in every award they can qualify for and have been a standout smash genre hit. We reviewed them here (novella 1-2, 3, 4), all extremely positively, and they might be the best novellas I have ever read. However, this year Wells decided to expand the series with a full-blown sequel novel. This was both exciting and a little concerning, as a lot of what made the novellas powerful was their tight character-driven focus and succinct themes. The stories felt perfect for their short page length and just because the novellas were great doesn’t mean the novel would be outstanding. This makes the fact that Network Effect nails the transition so darn exciting.

As this is technically the fifth part in the series, and it would be very easy to spoil entire novellas, I am going to completely skip on the plot of Network Effect. If you are new to the series, check out my review of All Systems Red to get an idea of what you are walking into — but know that I haven’t met a human who didn’t enjoy these books. The purpose of this review isn’t to dissect whether you should buy this book — we unequivocally think that you should. No, the purpose of this review is to pay tribute to the literary triumph that is Wells’ Network Effect.

Network Effect is very different in style from the novellas it follows. The novellas had a tight focus, clear streamlined themes, and eschewed world-building for a narrow cast to highlight the character arc of Murderbot. Network Effect instead pulls the story back and broadens the scope. There is significant world-building, a larger and more ambitious plot, an expanded range of protagonists (though Murderbot is still the star), and in-depth explorations of themes that were only hinted at in the original novellas. The book has this wonderful relationship with its preceding novellas where each of the short stories feels like a piece of a large puzzle that, after four novellas, is starting to come together. Each novella is like a specialized tool that shapes specific elements of the narrative in Network Effect in easy-to-identify ways. It feels like the novellas painted a picture you could only catch glimpses of at first. They foreshadowed conflicts, built emotional stakes, and familiarize the reader with the world and cast. But Network Effect is the grand reveal where the curtain is pulled away and you can finally see the finished masterpiece. It is a hell-of-a book.

Network Effect is an unqualified success and is going to be one of the most popular books this year. I foresee it winning a number of awards and accolades, all of which will be rightly deserved. Wells’ enormous skill in moving the narrative from novellas to novels makes me wonder what other novellas could shine from a similar treatment. The entire Murderbot series is phenomenal and you should pick up the fifth chapter as soon as you have the chance. You could say it networks all the novellas together effectively… I’ll see myself out.

Rating: Network Effect – 10/10
-Andrew

Repo Virtual – Planet Of The Bots

91pmbl4opmlRepo Virtual is a peculiar and somber book that feels like a mash-up of different stories. Although it’s not quite a debut, as the author Corey J. White has a number of other publications to their name, we decided to put it in our dark horse initiative because not a lot of people seemed to be talking about it. The novel feels like it borrows storytelling elements from a lot of popular stories while also contributing its own original takes and ideas. The result is a fascinating and chaotic story of a possible near-future Korea where the virtual and the physical worlds are almost indistinguishable.

Although it doesn’t quite seem it, I think Repo Virtual might be a post-apocalypse story – even though the apocalypse in question is more like a quiet sigh than a big bang. The narrative follows the POV of Julius Dax, a bot technician by day and a virtual repo man by night. He makes his living by stealing gear and items in giant online games and selling them for hard currency. Julius lives in Neo Songdo, a city that is more virtual interface than stone and concrete. He is barely scraping by when his sibling brings him a job of a lifetime – stealing an unknown object from a reclusive tech billionaire. However, when it turns out the item he steals is the first sentient AI, everything goes south rather quickly.

On its surface, Repo Virtual is a fairly basic heist novel. The plot is serviceable, the job is exciting enough, and the characters are fun if a little cliche. However, the book really shines when it uses the heist plot to facilitate some fantastic social commentary as well as advance its pretty heavy themes. I would argue that Repo’s two biggest ideas are 1) that humanity is destroying its own existence through the facilitation of capitalism and 2) the rise of AI and how a new computer mind might see and change the world – both of which it explores in great detail. As I mentioned, Repo paints a bleak future for humanity. Through Julius, we get to see how hard literally everyone but a handful of billionaires work, how greedy fanatics make use of people’s anger and frustration, and how these things eventually fuel the collapse of society. It doesn’t inspire a lot of hope – but it is nicely balanced by the rise of the AI representing a new hope. The AI is like an inquisitive child and does a lot to provide a light at the end of a dark capitalistic tunnel. While I think that White did a good job arguing for his themes, I would point out that his arguments are not subtle. In fact, this is some of the most blatant and opinionated writing I have read in a while. In many ways, the book reads like a well written political paper more than a story – which weirdly works for me.

On the novel front, the world and characters are a mixed bag. Neo Songdo is bleak but feels like a well-realized and well-written possible future. The characters, however, are where things get a little uneven. Julius was great, though I did feel that his inner monologues sometimes felt a little redundant as he constantly thought about past injuries he cannot afford to have fixed, reminding the reader how terrible life is under a capitalist society that monetizes everything. On the other hand, the antagonists (who I don’t name to avoid spoilers) left a little to be desired. They felt cookie cutter and generic in comparison to Julius’ more dynamic personality, and I don’t actually think they added a lot to the story. Their entire side story would have functioned the same if the antagonists had been removed and replaced with “cops trying to stop Julius from committing crimes for good reasons.”

Repo Virtual feels like a poignant and clever criticism of capitalist society and commentary on AI wrapped up in a single package. The story is short, entertaining, and drives its points home well. While I don’t see this being the next blockbuster hit, it is definitely worth the short amount of time it would take to read, and it might make you think about the future trajectory of the human race. White has done a great job crafting a novel that depressed then uplifted me – all the while entertaining me with a kick-ass action-adventure.

Rating: Repo Virtual – 7.0/10
-Andrew

Rogue Protocol – She Can’t Keep Getting Away With This

512phkhzbnlI am back with another short review for a novella, and it’s once again for Matha Well’s incredible Hugo winning Murberbot Series. The award for best novella was definitely deserved for the first book in the series, All Systems Red, which I reviewed here. However, today we are here to talk about the third short story in the series, Rogue Protocol.

The story still follows the titular Murderbot as she bumbles her way across the universe. Outed as a rogue security unit, and attacked by a shadowy organization, Murderbot decides to hunt down some information and secrets about this nefarious group and expose them – hoping that doing so will finally allow her to consume media in peace. To accomplish this, Murderbot travels to a collapsing terraforming station owned by the shadow organization that is being slowly destroyed to cover up some dastardly crimes. When murderbot arrives on the station with a human scrapping/science crew, they find that the station is a little less abandoned than they hoped.

As usual, Martha Wells balances horror, mystery, humor, intrigue, and compelling characters to pack an enormous amount of punch into this short story. Each of the novellas shows the growth of Murderbot as a person (I realize the irony in this statement) and focuses on new people imparting her with life lessons. In Rogue Protocol we get Miki, a sickeningly adorable manual labor bot who is treated like a friend by their human owners. It is a different take on the AI/human relationship that Murderbot had not seen yet – and her reactions to it make quite the read.

Rogue Protocol took a little while to get started compared to the other to stories in the series. It felt like there was a disproportionate amount of travel at the start, but it did do a great job for setting the stage for the back half of the novella. On top of this, Rogue Protocol felt a bit short, even for a novella. However, all of this is washed away by the tides of emotions that will wash over you in the back half of this story. Martha Wells once again shows that she can humanize AIs better than most authors can humanize humans. I was honestly not prepared for how hard some of the messages in the back half of the novella were, and it helped me forgive every other of the novella’s short comings.

Be excited for this next installment, and sad that there are only four novellas planned so far – so we only get one more after it. Rogue Protocol was delightful and I would say you have to be missing a heart to enjoy it – but I think robots would like it too. Martha Wells has ignited my interest in novellas with this series and I cannot wait to see what happens to Murderbot next.

Rating: Rogue Protocol – 9.0/10
-Andrew