, edited by Blake Crouch
||Amazon Original Stories
This is another Amazon collection of short fiction, this time mostly at
novelette length. (The longer ones might creep into novella.) As before,
each one is available separately for purchase or Amazon Prime "borrowing,"
with separate ISBNs. The sidebar cover is for the first in the sequence.
(At some point I need to update my page templates so that I can add
N.K. Jemisin's "Emergency Skin" won the 2020 Hugo Award for Best
Novelette, so I wanted to read and review it, but it would be too short
for a standalone review. I therefore decided to read the whole collection
and review it as an anthology.
This was a mistake. Learn from my mistake.
The overall theme of the collection is technological advance, rapid
change, and the ethical and social question of whether we should slow
technology because of social risk. Some of the stories stick to that
theme more closely than others. Jemisin's story mostly ignores it, which
was probably the right decision.
"Ark" by Veronica Roth: A planet-killing asteroid has been on
its inexorable way towards Earth for decades. Most of the planet has been
evacuated. A small group has stayed behind, cataloging samples and
filling two remaining ships with as much biodiversity as they can find
with the intent to leave at the last minute. Against that backdrop, two
of that team bond over orchids.
If you were going "wait, what?" about the successful evacuation of Earth,
yeah, me too. No hint is offered as to how this was accomplished. Also,
the entirety of humanity abandoned mutual hostility and national borders
to cooperate in the face of the incoming disaster, which is, uh, bizarrely
optimistic for an otherwise gloomy story.
I should be careful about how negative I am about this story because I am
sure it will be someone's favorite. I can even write part of the positive
review: an elegiac look at loss, choices, and the meaning of a life, a
moving look at how people cope with despair. The writing is fine, the
story structure works; it's not a bad story. I just found it monumentally
depressing, and was not engrossed by the emotionally abused protagonist's
unresolved father issues. I can imagine a story around the same facts and
plot that I would have liked much better, but all of these people need
therapy and better coping mechanisms.
I'm also not sure what this had to do with the theme, given that the
incoming asteroid is random chance and has nothing to do with
technological development. (4)
"Summer Frost" by Blake Crouch: The best part of this story is
the introductory sequence before the reader knows what's going on, which
is full of evocative descriptions. I'm about to spoil what is going on,
so if you want to enjoy that untainted by the stupidity of the rest of the
plot, skip the rest of this story review.
We're going to have a glut of stories about the weird and obsessive form
of AI risk invented by the fevered imaginations of the "rationalist"
community, aren't we. I don't know why I didn't predict that. It's going
to be just as annoying as the glut of cyberpunk novels written by people
who don't understand computers.
Crouch lost me as soon as the setup is revealed. Even if I believed that
a game company would use a deep learning AI still in learning mode
to run an NPC (I don't; see
for an obvious reason why not), or that such an NPC
would spontaneously start testing the boundaries of the game world (this
is not how deep learning works), Crouch asks the reader to believe that
this AI started as a fully scripted
NPC in the prologue with a
fixed storyline. In other words, the foundation of the story is that this
game company used an AI model capable of becoming a general intelligence
for barely more than a cut scene.
This is not how anything works.
The rest of the story is yet another variation on a science fiction plot
so old and threadbare that Isaac Asimov invented the Three Laws of
Robotics to avoid telling more versions of it. Crouch's contribution is
to dress it up in the terminology of the excessively online. (The middle
of the story features a detailed discussion of
if you recognize that, you know what you're in for.) Asimov would not
have had a lesbian protagonist, so points for progress I guess, but the AI
becomes more interesting to the protagonist than her wife and kid because
of course it does. There are a few twists and turns along the way, but
the destination is the bog-standard hard-takeoff general intelligence
One more pet peeve: Authors, stop trying to illustrate the growth of your
AI by having it move from broken to fluent English. English grammar is so
much easier than self-awareness or the Turing test that we had programs
that could critique your
grammar decades before we had believable
chatbots. It's going to get grammar right long before the content of the
words makes any sense. Also, your AI doesn't sound dumber, your AI sounds
like someone whose native language doesn't use pronouns and helper verbs
the way that English does, and your decision to use that as a marker for
intelligence is, uh, maybe something you should think about. (3)
"Emergency Skin" by N.K. Jemisin: The protagonist is a
heavily-augmented cyborg from a colony of Earth's diaspora. The founders
of that colony fled Earth when it became obvious to them that the planet
was dying. They have survived in another star system, but they need a
specific piece of technology from the dead remnants of Earth. The
protagonist has been sent to retrieve it.
The twist is that this story is told in the second-person perspective by
the protagonist's ride-along AI, created from a consensus model of the
rulers of the colony. We never see directly what the protagonist is doing
or thinking, only the AI reaction to it. This is exactly the sort of
gimmick that works much better in short fiction than at novel length.
Jemisin uses it to create tension between the reader and the narrator, and
I thoroughly enjoyed the effect. (As shown in the
Broken Earth trilogy
, Jemisin is one of the few
writers who can use second-person effectively.)
I won't spoil the revelation, but it's barbed and biting and vicious and I
loved it. Jemisin does deliver the point with a sledgehammer, so be aware
of that if you want subtlety in your short fiction, but I prefer the
bluntness. (This is part of why I usually don't get along with literary
short stories.) The reader of course can't change the direction of the
story, but the second-person perspective still provides a hit of vicarious
satisfaction. I can see why this won the Hugo; it's worth seeking out.
"You Have Arrived at Your Destination" by Amor Towles: Sam and
his wife are having a child, and they've decided to provide him with an
early boost in life. Vitek is a fertility lab, but more than that, it can
do some gene tweaking and adjustment to push a child more towards one
personality or another. Sam and his wife have spent hours filling out
profiles, and his wife spent hours weeding possible choices down to three.
Now, Sam has come to Vitek to pick from the remaining options.
Speaking of literary short stories, Towles is the non-SFF writer of this
bunch, and it's immediately obvious. The story requires the SFnal
premise, but after that this is a character piece. Vitek is an elite,
expensive company with a condescending and overly-reductive attitude
towards humanity, which is entirely intentional on the author's part.
This is the sort of story that gets resolved in an unexpected conversation
in a roadside bar, and where most of the conflict happens inside the
I was initially going to complain that Towles does the standard literary
thing of leaving off the denouement on the grounds that the reader can
figure it out, but when I did a bit of re-reading for this review, I found
more of the bones than I had noticed the first time. There's enough
subtlety that I had to think for a bit and re-read a passage, but not too
much. It's also the most thoughtful treatment of the theme of the
collection, the only one that I thought truly wrestled with the weird
interactions between technological capability and human foresight. Next
to "Emergency Skin," this was the best story of the collection. (7)
"The Last Conversation" by Paul Tremblay: A man wakes up in a
dark room, in considerable pain, not remembering anything about his life.
His only contact with the world at first is a voice: a woman who is
helping him recover his strength and his memory. The numbers that head
the chapters have significant gaps, representing days left out of the
story, as he pieces together what has happened alongside the reader.
Tremblay is the horror writer of the collection, so predictably this is
the story whose craft I can admire without really liking it. In this
case, the horror comes mostly from the pacing of revelation, created by
the choice of point of view. (This would be a much different story from
the perspective of the woman.) It's well-done, but it has the tendency
I've noticed in other horror stories of being a tightly closed system. I
see where the connection to the theme is, but it's entirely in the
setting, not in the shape of the story.
Not my thing, but I can see why it might be someone else's. (5)
"Randomize" by Andy Weir: Gah, this was so bad.
First, and somewhat expectedly, it's a clunky throwback to a 1950s-style
hard SF puzzle story. The writing is atrocious: wooden, awkward, cliched,
and full of gratuitous infodumping. The characterization is almost
entirely through broad stereotypes; the lone exception is the female
character, who at least adds an interesting twist despite being forced to
act like an idiot because of the plot. It's a very old-school type of
single-twist story, but the ending is completely implausible and falls
apart if you breathe on it too hard.
Weir is something of a throwback to an earlier era of scientific puzzle
stories, though, so maybe one is inclined to give him a break on the
writing quality. (I am not; one of the ways in which science fiction has
improved is that you can get good scientific puzzles and
writing these days.) But the science is also so bad that I was literally
facepalming while reading it.
The premise of this story is that quantum computers are commercially
available. That will cause a serious problem for Las Vegas casinos,
because the generator for keno
numbers is vulnerable to quantum algorithms. The solution proposed by the
IT person for the casino? A quantum random number generator. (The words
"fight quantum with quantum" appear literally in the text if you're
wondering how bad the writing is.)
You could convince me that an ancient keno system is using a pseudorandom
number generator that might be vulnerable to some quantum algorithm and
doesn't get reseeded often enough. Fine. And yes, quantum computers can
be used to generate high-quality sources of random numbers. But this
solution to the problem makes no sense whatsoever. It's like swatting a
house fly with a nuclear weapon.
Weir says explicitly in the story that all the keno system needs is an
external source of high-quality random numbers. The next step is to go to
Amazon and buy a hardware random number generator. If you want to
splurge, it might cost you $250. Problem solved. Yes, hardware random
number generators have various limitations that may cause you problems if
you need millions of bits or you need them very quickly, but not for
something as dead-simple and with such low entropy requirements as keno
numbers! You need a trivial number of bits for each round; even the
slowest and most conservative hardware random number generator would be
fine. Hell, measure the noise levels on the casino floor.
Point a camera at a lava
. Or just buy one of the physical ball machines they use for the
lottery. This problem is heavily
researched, by casinos in
particular, and is not significantly changed by the availability of
quantum computers, at least for applications such as keno where the
generator can be reseeded before each generation.
You could maybe argue that this is an excuse for the IT guy to get his
hands on a quantum computer, which fits the stereotypes, but that still
breaks the story for reasons that would be spoilers. As soon as any other
casino thought about this, they'd laugh in the face of the characters.
I don't want to make too much of this, since anyone can write one bad
story, but this story was dire at every level. I still owe Weir a proper
chance at novel length, but I can't say this added to my enthusiasm. (2)
Rating: 4 out of 10