Transwarp Tuesday! AI Unbound by Nancy Kress

Sci-fi is alive!


ai unboundWell, 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.

* * * * * * *

Shanghai. Why? You'll need to read the story to find out...
Shanghai. Why? You’ll need to read the story to find out…

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…

Nancy Kress
Nancy Kress

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: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

31 thoughts on “Transwarp Tuesday! AI Unbound by Nancy Kress

  1. Stellar reviews, FEF! I loved the last one best. But you know, I think the little ball thingy probably caused the catastrophe for some righteous reason. I know you won’t tell me anything more about it!

    And I sorta like Al. I’m not sure why, but I do.

    By the way, finished The Martian and love it lots! Thanks, FEF. The ending couldn’t have been more exciting. Is there a sequel do you know?


    • Interestingly, that’s what I thought it was going to be, too…but it turned out the egg actually contained a cryogenically-stored Professor who eventually burst out and restored humour to the world…

      I do too! Of course, my Schwarzy-Data is an AI – though he’s not really artificial…and the intelligence bit is…debatable…

      So glad you enjoyed it, C-W-W! *smiles proudly* It really is one of the best books I’ve read in ages. I don’t know if there’s to be a follow-up – hope so though – but the film rights to this one have been bought up so hopefully there’ll be a movie sometime soon.


      • *laughs* I’m famous then! Well…did people laugh at me? Were they supposed to laugh, that’s the question.

        Schwarz is brilliant! I should be ashamed that you don’t think so anymore… *smiles happily* Finally.

        A movie would be great. I’d watch it. So this is the second book you’ve recommended that I’ve loved. That’s 2 out of 2…100%!


        • They laughed with you, and weariness and sorrow were banished from the world… impressive, huh?

          Ah, but I still adore him, despite his little foibles! And compared to Shnoddy he’s genius material! Chickit, yeah!

          Yay! *preens smugly* It’s just unfortunate I can’t think of loads more adventure stuff – it’s not something I read too often as you know. *puts thinking cap on, and then realsies it looks just like the Sorting Hat from HP – a book the Professor would LOVE)*


          • That is! FEF, I wish I had that sort of power.

            I think you like Shnod more than you say. Don’t you?

            *laughing lots* I’m surprised that FEF read HP! You have to explain that one to me. What possessed you to read fantasy–a children’s fantasy?!


            • You do, dear C-W-W – at least, in FF’s little corner of the world. *smiles*

              I don’t exactly dislike the befuddled old fool. I just feel he should perhaps take a vow of silence…

              Well, it’ll bore you but…as you know I used to work with boys with behavioural difficulties and loads of them either couldn’t read or wouldn’t read. We were always trying to find something that would hold their attention and when the HP books started to become really popular (round about book 3) we discovered the boys loved them. The ones who could read, actually did without being forced, and the ones who couldn’t would sit quietly while we read the books aloud. And a few actually made the effort to learn to read just so they could read the books themselves – thus improving their chances for the rest of their lives. Pretty magical, huh? So I got hooked on the early books that way and then loved the series enough to go on reading the rest as they came out – on publication day!

              WAKE UP!!!!!! (Did you know that HP once battled the forces of darkness in a graveyard…at night?)


            • *smiles bigly* That really means everything to me… Thanks, FEF.

              *laughs* Meaner than mean!

              I actually was very interested to read that! Really. No sleeping from the professor. It is rather magical. But…how are the boys now? You see, we must follow it through. HP might have ruined them! Did you ever meet JK?

              (You’re making this all up now!)


            • *smiles bigly back and maybe blushes*

              Who? Me? *innocent face*

              Ah, sadly I don’t know – we were strongly discouraged from staying in touch once the boys reached school-leaving age. So I’ll never know unless one of them appears on the news – armed robbery, serial killing, that kind of thing! It makes watching the news more exciting though… No, never met her, and kinda don’t like her – she keeps interfering in politics in Scotland.

              (Am not! Every word I’ve said is true! Did you know that HP once had to battle mermen beneath the lake? Confess – it’s beginning to appeal to you now, isn’t it? *chuckles*)


            • *shakes FEF’s hand*

              I don’t think you have one!

              Oh, you shouldn’t listen to the higher command! I bet they were beasts anyway. That would make the news interesting. Interested to hear that about JK! I don’t like her either. She messes too much in our politics as well. Throw her in the lagoon, please.

              (*laughing* With everything you say I can’t believe you’ve read it! Is she Scottish?)


            • I have a mean one though… *mean face*

              Does she? That’s even worse! I think I might…

              (Did you know that HP once flew a magic car all the way from London to Scotland? Actually, it was Ron who flew it but HP was the passenger. She was English originally but she’s lived in Scotland for years, so she pretty much counts as Scottish now. She’s funding the No campaign on the Independence debate. Boo! Hiss!!)


            • I’ve seen it before! *shudders*

              Yes…It’s rather horrid.

              (Hmm…see? And you still like her? This is what happens when you have a relatively dull person all the sudden think she’s important. What type of car was it?)


            • *laughing* That bad, huh? Better keep me sweet then…

              (Not her, but I like the books. Yes, that’s exactly right – can’t imagine why she thinks anyone cares what she thinks about Independence. A Ford Anglia, I believe – a muggle car that had been given magical features…)


            • Yes, but will you be…?

              (Oh, those Buggles! Well, I suppose when you think about it they were Muggles…but that doesn’t really mean that Muggles are like them… does that explain it?)


  2. FictionFan – I’m glad you enjoyed this pair of stories. It sounds as though they deal as much with larger societal/ethics issues as with anything else, and that’s what good science fiction does, in my opinion. It makes us think about what it all means, if I can put it in that lumpy sort of way.


  3. Well Savior does sound good! I like the sound of the chapters moving humanity on in stages, and the fact that it sounds as if it looks at humanity (even though there are some little green men) Great reviews as always.


    • I was sorta hoping these ones might tempt you – very definitely about humanity rather than aliens, and quite insightful I thought. Not too distant future (especially the first one) to prevent them being relevant to us today…


  4. Great review. I’ll have to investigate Nancy Kress. As with so much else in life, I’ve kind of lost my grip on modern SF – too much re-reading, I suppose.


    • I’m really finding it quite hard to track down good young sci-fi writers – it’s 90% fantasy out there. Or else they’re following non-traditional publishing routes, but I can’t even really find them online. What I liked about this one was that she was dealing with modern science rather than just rehashing old ideas – but even she is actually older than us! I might have to subscribe to one of the magazines, but I suspect they’ll be mainly fantasy too…


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