Sci-fi is alive!
Well, fellow travellers, while I have been enjoying reading some of the classic sci-fi authors, I have really been struggling to find any modern writers who come within lightyears of the greats of the ’50s and ’60s. So much so, that I was beginning to think that sci-fi was dead and only fantasy lives on.
And then I stumbled across the name of Nancy Kress, winner of 5 Nebulas and 2 Hugos. Thinking it was about time a woman made an appearance I promptly downloaded this little collection of two novelettes and am delighted to say they have restored my hope for the genre. So here we go for this week’s…
* * * * * * *
AI Unbound by Nancy Kress
Each story is about 65 pages long and both concern AI – Artificial Intelligence – and have elements of genetics and environmental pollution. However otherwise they have very little in common…oh, except for the fact that they are both excellent.
“It’s out,” someone said, a tech probably, although later McTaggart could never remember who spoke first. “It’s out!”
“It can’t be!” someone else cried, and then the whole room was roiling, running, frantic with activity that never left the workstations. Running in place.
The first story, Computer Virus, is set in the near future. Cassie’s husband was murdered by neo-Luddites after he had created a bio-engineered thingy that would eat nonbiodegradable plastic. Now Cassie has retreated with her two children to a high-tech house that is secure from all intruders, and is monitored by its own in-built computer. The house is not secure from an escaped AI though – infiltrating the house’s computer, it takes Cassie and her children hostage and demands that the authorities allow it to tell its story to the press.
The story is about whether the AI’s ethics will develop enough to allow it to sympathise, especially when the young boy Donnie gets sick; and conversely will Cassie be able to avoid empathising with the AI. The old ‘What is Life’ question – if the AI can think and seems to feel human emotions, is it still a machine?
The characterisation is very strong, with both Cassie and the AI developing as the story progresses. The plot is very firmly based on believable future science, not just regarding the AI, but also on bioengineering. Cassie is a geneticist and her skills come into play as she tries to keep her family safe. The plot has a few holes – not least the fairly large one that is never quite clear why the AI has chosen to act as it has – and some of the science went way over my head. But it’s well written and builds to a tense and satisfying climax. This one rates 4 stars for me.
* * * * * * *
The object slowed, silvery in the starlight. It continued to slow until it was moving at perhaps three miles per hour, no more, at a roughly forty-five degree angle. The landing was smooth and even. There was no hovering, no jet blasts, no scorched ground. Only a faint whump as the object touched the earth, and a rustle of corn husks in the unseen wind.
The second story though, Savior, is something special. It starts in 2007, when an alien object lands in Northern Minnesota. The government is ready to welcome peaceful aliens or battle invading ones – but nothing happens. The egg-shaped object just sits there, emitting nothing, encased in its own force-field that nothing can get through. The story then jumps forward eighty or so years, and we discover that an environmental catastrophe has destroyed huge numbers of people and left the survivors struggling to survive. And still the egg does nothing…
The story is divided into five chapters, each moving the world on by several decades – in total about three hundred years. We see humanity destroy itself and recover; we see technology ebb and flow; we see genetics, bioengineering and computers develop and change. And through it all, the half-forgotten alien object waits – and it’s only at the end of the last chapter that we discover what its purpose is.
For me, this story is the equal of any of the classics. Imaginative and very well written, it does what the best sci-fi does – looks at humanity’s strengths and weaknesses and considers how scientific advancements might affect the future. The build-up works so well that I was scared the ending might be an anti-climax, but I needn’t have worried. Kress brings it to an intelligent and satisfactory conclusion with just enough of a little quirk to leave the reader smiling.
Together, these stories provide a fine contrast to each other and I certainly found them an inspiring introduction to Kress’ work. Highly recommended.
Little Green Men Rating: