Vigilance – About What I Expected

51jlcyt6qilSo, Robert Jackson Bennett has a new novella out – its called Vigilance. The lovely people at Tor.com know I think Bennett is some sort of literary Midas, so they kindly sent me an ARC copy of the story in exchange for an honest review. Now, while it is definitely true that I think Bennett is one of the best fantasy authors out there, it could be argued Vigilance is a slight departure from his usual work, and is much more of a post-apocalyptic political piece. However, everything I have read from Bennett thus far has been a fantastic fantasy novel with a hidden brilliant political manifesto inside. In the same vein, Vigilance feels less like a change in style for Bennett and more like he trimmed the fat from a full novel and put the core driving values of the story on display.

Vigilance is a 200-page novella on gun violence and a commentary on the direction that America is headed, with its mentality and legislature surrounding firearms. The book gives a glimpse into a decrepit America a few decades in the future. With growth crippled by us vs. them national policy, and an increase in weapon sales via fear mongering, America has become a reoccurring news cycle of gun violence and tragedy. Faced with the realization that gun violence was only going up, a media and marketing studio essentially made a reality show out of mass shootings under the pretext of “hey, you have to experience mass murder one way or another, you might as well have a shot at making money off of it.” The show debuts to grand success and is dubbed Vigilance, for the idea that everyone in America must always be vigilant.

The plot follows McDean, a managing director of Vigilance, as he strives to maximize the viewership of the show through algorithms and marketing techniques. The chapters slowly break down the methods that he used to incorporate such a horrific show into the daily life of Americans, and the path of events that led to the USA willing to embrace it. We also follow a second character in the general populous; a bartender and gives a glimpse into what the daily life in the US is like. The result is a truly depressing tale that made me feel like walking out my front door protesting guns and the rhetoric behind them.

Vigilance is a stunningly well-argued piece on an imagined future for the current US political path. Full disclosure, I abhor gun violence and I was worried that my biases might make it hard to objectively review this story. However, having finished I find it the most compelling argument I can think of for the anti-gun side of the argument. This is not an unbiased thought piece, and if you find yourself on the pro-gun side of these issues, I do not think you will like it. For me personally, Bennett uses his smart prose, excellent pacing, and copious narrative skills to put into words feelings and ideas I, and I will bet many others, have wanted to express, but lack the ability to do. Vigilance, like everything Bennett writes, is an excellent piece that I think everyone should read.

Rating: Vigilance – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Advertisements

The Ballad Of Black Tom – Not Going To Dance Around This One

51y55ipp1jl._sx311_bo1204203200_I’m certainly not a prolific reviewer – you can take a look at the history of the blog and see that without too much difficulty. At the same time, since joining The Quill to Live I’ve reviewed a decent amount of horror stories. I’ve come to some conclusions on what attributes great (or just my favorite) horror tales share. These are certainly not commandments written in stone from on high, but when I truly enjoy a spooky story it tends to share the following traits.

Great horror stories are short. I’m not saying something needs to be five pages long to be scary, but the longer you spend on a subject the more it tends to move out of “horror” and into being just “scary”. I find the sweet spot is right in the novella length, somewhere between 70 to 150 pages, long enough to unfurl the entirety of itself but short enough to leave you uncertain what it was that you just experienced. I find in the longer stories you tend to be left with a few scary moments, rather than a truly horrifying experience.

There are no “Good Guys” in great horror stories. The very existence of a Good Guy in a horror story means that it’s a scary story, not a horror story. Any kind of tale can be scary, all it requires is a distinct kind of tension and discomfort. To be truly horrifying a story needs to be bleak, hopeless even. In a great horror story, the characters who survive to the end haven’t won, they’ve merely prolonged their role in the tale.

You can’t “win” a great horror story. Regardless of the outcome, whether the big bad ostensibly won or lost, everything is worse at the end of a horror story. Sometimes there is no right answer, and the best in horror makes sure there isn’t a happy resolution.

An awful lot of whinging for what was ostensibly a review of The Ballad of Black Tom, the novella by Victor LaValle, right? With a lead-in like that there are only two potential opinions I can have on the book. One: I loved it, and this is all an elaborate way to review the book without actually saying anything about it. Two: I hated it, and this is all an elaborate way to lead into me tearing this book to shreds with visceral glee.

It will put LaValle’s mind at rest, in the vanishingly small chances that he’s a member of our loyal readership, that Black Tom firmly falls into the first category. I absolutely loved the story and wish I could talk about a number of things that I’m unable to without ruining some of my favorite aspects of the narrative. I shouldn’t need to, but will regardless, say that Black Tom is perfectly pithy and short, the characters are complex and flawed, and the story ended in a compelling and chilling fashion. I won’t say anything else here, as I don’t want to influence you going into the book. It really is a frightening story in the style of the old weird authors, and manages to twist the telling of the story in a way that I think makes it all the more interesting and adds a sense of realism to the otherworldly horror that makes up the majority of the narrative.

If you don’t enjoy frightening short stories and the mention of Cthulhu is enough to make you put a book down, this book won’t change your mind and I don’t think you should pick it up. If you enjoy stories that leave you paralyzed by doubt, discomfort, and distress on their conclusion, I think you’ll find this one to be right up your alley.

Rating: The Ballad of Black Tom – 9.0/10
-Will

Exit Strategy – A Temporary End To A Story That Shouldn’t Stop

91itaaw8fvlI feel a bit weird having devoted three whole posts to a series of novella (first two can be found here and here), but Martha Wells is worth it. The Murderbot Diaries, of which All Systems Red just (deservedly) won the Hugo for best novella, comes to a close this year with Wells’ final installment, Exit Strategy. However, for those of us understandably obsessed with the four novella series – there has recently been an announcement that Wells will be continuing the series in a full length book. This is good news for two reasons: 1) I want more Murderbot, 2) the novella format was starting to wear a little thin.

Exit Strategy is another great addition to the four-part series, but I would hazard to say that it is the weakest of the group. All the things you love about the series, its great characters and exciting world, are still there – but the book didn’t quite blow my mind as much as its predecessors. The beauty in the Murderbot novellas is Wells’ ability to tell a tight, exciting, and poignant story – with the emotional impact of a full length novel – while cramming it into a byte sized piece. Exit Strategy feels like it falls short in this regard because it is left with the impossible task of wrapping up the greater storyline, while also telling its own story. Exit Strategy manages to do both these things, but at the cost of pacing and space. The first third of the short story feels like it’s just set up, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for action and character development. This is the first of the four shorts that I felt would have been better as a full novel, so I am excited that Wells is transitioning the series to that space.

Otherwise, Exit Strategy is still fantastic. Murderbot is still hilarious and relatable, and there is some serious cathartic release when they finally put the hurt on the antagonists that have been making Murderbot’s existence terrible for three previous books. The humor in particular is probably the best in the series and had me laughing aloud at multiple points. There unfortunately isn’t a new AI foil for Murderbot, unlike in Artificial Condition and Rogue Protocol (again, probably due to a lack of space). This is a shame, because Art and Miki were incredible and really helped bring Murderbot’s character development into the forefront of the story. Then again, since this is technically the end of the series I get why additional character development wasn’t a focus. Plus, Murderbot is pretty fantastic as they are now and I don’t know what direction they could go in to be a better person/robot.

In conclusion, Exit Strategy is still pretty phenomenal despite not quite reaching the heights of its predecessors. I still wonder why I have written about 5 pages of detailed review when a simple “seriously, go read this” would have done just as well. I can’t think of a better, or safer recommendation than The Murderbot Diaries – it is a story you can’t help but love. Be sure to grab Exit Strategy the moment it comes out, and then join me in endless speculation as we wait for the full length novel.

Rating:
Exit Strategy – 8.0/10
The Murderbot Diaries – 9.0/10
-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

The Murderbot Diaries – Never Stop Murdering

32758901We are wrapping up the pile of short book reviews, and have saved the best for last: The Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells. I had heard of Martha before this for her larger fantasy series, The Cloud Roads, and her Star Wars novels, but had not ever gotten around to checking her out (which is unfortunately true for several authors on my mountain of to-be-read books). However, after reading her short novels All Systems Red, and the sequel Artificial Condition, I will likely be bumping her books up the pile significantly.

In my opinion, the perfect novella has the following things: memorable and lovable characters, a fast plot with a narrow scope, and a clear theme/idea with excellent execution. I am actually less forgiving with a short book than a long one because I feel that when you have less space to work with, you need to maximize the impact of each page more than when you are writing an 800 page epic. And when using these criteria, there was one clear winner of the novellas I have recently read – The Murderbot Diaries. The series follows the titular Murderbot, a security robot who has hacked her governing module. This module suppresses her free will and would normally place her under human control, but after hacking it she controls her own destiny. Wells has written a science fiction setting in the far future where humanity is a galaxy spanning empire where cheap and greedy corporations are still in charge. As mentioned, Murderbot is a security robot who is loaned out to researchers who need protection in the field. Thanks to a mysterious incident, Murderbot finds her… its?… governing module disabled. However, in direct opposition to rogue AIs in most sci-fi novels, Murderbot decides to simply keep doing her job of her own volition, instead of trying to murder all humans. The first book All Systems Red, follows Murderbot doing her regular job of protecting researchers while also showing how she constantly has to hide the fact that she is rogue. She of course does not keep her free will hidden for very long, and finds herself in complicated situations she must navigate her way out of. The second book, Artificial Condition, is about Murderbot fleeing the events of the first novella and trying to discover the origins of the event that gave her free will.

murderbot2I say her because I get the distinct feeling that she is written to be female, but that might just be because I have a massive crush on her. Going back to my three pillars of a good novella, Murderbot is both extremely memorable and utterly lovable. There is something wonderfully charming about a powerful rogue AI just wanting to do her job and watch a lot of TV (which is her #1 favorite thing to do) just like anyone else. The first novella has Murderbot mostly interacting with humans (all of which will endear themselves to you), but the second has her spending some time with other AIs to amazing comedic and poignant effect. The characters in this series are wonderful, and you will find yourself caring deeply about their fates after a few pages – one of the hallmarks of a great novella. On top of this, The Murderbot Diaries nails my second and third pillars perfectly. The plot is simple, book one – find out who is trying to murder Murderbot clients and don’t reveal she is a rogue, book two – find out why she went rogue and don’t get caught. However, just because the plot is simple does not mean it is bad. The pacing and flow of the books are amazing, and I found myself unable to put them down from start to finish. I was heavily invested in the mysteries of both novellas and it resulted in me burning through them in a few hours. Finally, I like novellas to have a clear theme with great delivery. In this case I have already spoken about the series theme, a rogue AI defying typical sci-fi tropes, and the execution is flawless. The idea of an AI who just wants to do her job and watch media makes Murderbot seem incredibly human, while Wells’ descriptions of Murderbot’s emotional responses to basically everything simultaneously make her feel inhuman. These two emotions warred within me throughout both books and resulted in Murderbot coming off as an utterly unique character that I cannot wait to read more about.

I have no criticisms of this series other than I wish the books were longer and that there were more of them. Martha Wells achieves in 200 pages what most books struggle to grasp in 500. Murderbot is relatable, alien, adorable, badass, and wonderful all at the same time, and I cannot imagine a person who wouldn’t like her. If you have not checked out All Systems Red yet you are making a mistake, and be sure to grab Artificial Condition when it comes out in May (thank you Tor.com for sending me an advanced copy).

Rating: All Systems Red – 8.5/10
Rating: Artificial Condition – 9.0/10

-Andrew