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Review

“Free Guy”

I’m honestly not sure what I was expecting from this movie. Something akin to Ready Player One, I suppose, if a bit less hitting-you-over-the-head with the pop culture references. And, sure, in places it has some of that—the big fight towards the end definitely does that, but it also leans in with the reactions. (An excellent use of Chris Evans!)

In general, while watching the movie, I enjoyed it. There’s some fun playing with tropes, and I really do like the concept—Mogworld gone mainstream!1 And I can set aside the bits of “that’s not actually how technology works” as being something of a Plumber Problem.2 Really? This Silicon Valley tech company has all their servers in a ground-floor room of their main office? Yes, definitely, for sure, that’s an efficient way to use horrifyingly-expensive San Francisco real estate. And all the players in Europe definitely love the super-laggy gameplay experience that creates.

But, again, that’s stuff that I, as a big ol’ tech nerd, notice, and the average viewer probably doesn’t know about. It moved the plot forward, and it wasn’t egregious, so why not; I’ve already suspended my disbelief about the core plot elements, so why not this too?

Where it fell down for me, though, was the end. Spoilers ahead!

Because, all told, the end seems to wrap up very nicely. The twist on the whole “the guy gets the girl” trope was nice, and answered a question I’d had floating around for a while, which I enjoyed. But if you think about it at all, there’s just… no exploration of the consequences of anything. Somebody invented general AI and… nobody cares? We’re just leaving them in a video game, and the positive change in their lives is that instead of a torture chamber it’s a People Zoo?

Oh, and let’s look at ‘torture chamber,’ too—because that’s what the video game they were living in was. A nightmare world where everyone is constantly in danger, generally dying every day and being reset the next morning, and for who knows how long, they were all being gaslit into thinking that was Fine and Normal. It may have been an accident, but the creators of this game up and created a slave race for their entertainment. That’s the kind of thing that the UN generally likes to do a bit of investigation of.

And, speaking of investigations, there’s no investigation of Antwan? The world seems to have, at least somewhat, accepted the concept that Guy, if none of the other NPCs, is a fully-sentient AI. Antwan just… gets away with trying to kill him? Sure, his stock price tanks, and he looks like an idiot on the news, but generally attempting murder in front of dozens of witnesses has slightly more of an impact on your lifestyle. Never mind the fact that he didn’t just attempt murder, he followed it up by attempting genocide against the aforementioned slave race.

Beyond all that, there’s the fact that this entire new population of artificial intelligences were born in that kind of a crucible. Trying to create an AI that doesn’t accidentally wipe us out is difficult enough; in this world, we created an army of them and they spent their childhoods as our torture-slaves. Given the rate at which they’re learning… well, Guy’s little “leveling up faster than anyone thought possible” montage sure looks more terrifying when you remember that they have no reason to like us and they know we’re a threat to their survival. If they make a sequel to this movie, it’s going to be about getting Guy a virtual girlfriend, because Hollywood is predictable like that. Joke’s on them, though, because we already have the sequel: Terminator.

  1. This is an Amazon affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I prefer Bookshop affiliate links to Amazon when possible, but in this case, the book wasn’t available there, so it’ll have to do.
  2. A phrase coined, I believe, by John Siracusa. A plumber watching a movie will notice “that’s now how plumbing works!” a lot more readily than anyone else.
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Review

“Please Don’t Tell My Parents I Work for a Supervillain”

Richard Roberts

I consistently forget how much I like Richard Roberts’ books. They’re a really excellent take on the superhero genre, embracing the ridiculousness of the whole thing while at the same time doing an excellent job of exploring some of the implications of living in a world that regularly has said ridiculous things happening. And, even better, doing things that would only work in the written form—there’s a truly delightful bit with a character named Retcon that I can’t imagine working in any format except first-person-written. A bit of their introduction, roughly paraphrased:

“You’re wasting your time, Retcon never comes to Chinatown.”

“Normally I don’t, but once I’d read that letter, I’d been here all day.”

And, beyond that little bit of messing with tenses to establish their power, you get the only-in-writing aspect: every time they speak, we get the “this is the first time I’ve seen this person, let me describe” them happening over again, and they’re described completely differently each time. (You may not the ‘they/them’ pronouns—the book doesn’t use those, but does switch between ‘he/him’ and ‘she/her’ a couple times.)

And that? That’s delightful. A character whose power is that they’re constantly being retconned? Just, chef’s kiss, beautiful, I love it.

As I said, I really like Roberts’ writing. It’s fun, and light, without being vapid. This book is nominally eighth in the series, but it’s eighth in the same way that, say, a new Marvel movie is the hundredth Marvel movie: sure, if you’ve seen the others, you get a bit more background on people, but it’s not required to understand what’s going on. So, if you haven’t read any of the others, this is a pretty solid jumping-in point. Give it a go.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“On Basilisk Station”

David Weber

I really, really enjoyed this one. One of the things I tend to struggle with, or at least gloss over, in military fiction is that I truly have no idea how the ranks work. I know a general is above a private, an admiral outranks an ensign, but any of the finer details, and I’m totally lost. This book did a fairly good job of addressing that—while there was certainly some of the usual “meh, I figure I’ve got this close enough” going on in my head, there were a few distinct moments where the narrative paused to explain the context.

That sort of pause occurred a few other times, notable examples being a several-page explainer of the structure of the government of one of the major powers in the book, and another several-page history lesson on the various faster-than-light drive technologies in use. And in both cases I found myself thinking that, while it’s a violation of the show-don’t-tell principle, it was also a much clearer way to explain than any “show” could’ve been. Plus, the addition of the actual history of when they were invented and what the interim periods were like added a nice bit of color to everything.

This was quite a good read, and I finished it much more quickly than I was expecting to; at some point, I may have to come back and read more of this series. And, of course, if you like military science fiction at all, I think you’ll enjoy this. Give it a read.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“Meet Me in the Future”

Kameron Hurley

What’s with me and depressing short story collections lately? This is not my vibe.

There’s some interesting things in here, and occasionally a bit of “there’s hope if we work together,” but the general feeling of all the stories is “the world is terrible and any good things that happen only happen because we fight to our last breath for them.” Which, I must reiterate, is not my vibe! The real world has enough bad stuff going on that I don’t want my fiction reading to reiterate that. I’m here for escapism, thank you.

And, to double down on that for the current age, a word cloud of this book would prominently feature the word “plague.” Sure, biotech can build some cool things, but wow can it ever build some horrifying weapons!

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Review

“Iron Truth”

S.A. Tholin

Ebooks are fun, because unlike a paper book, you don’t have that physical sense of how far through the book you are. With a paperback, the first page feels very different from the second-to-last—the weight is distributed differently, it’s thicker or thinner in the hand. Not so for an ebook. I tend to leave the “percent complete” display on to try to get that back, but it fades into the background pretty quickly.

I became very aware of that… less than halfway through the book. Because, by the way the story was going, I thought I was nearly at the end. But no, that wasn’t the peak, just a local maximum, and then it was off again, with more to uncover.

Pretty early on, I was having a bit of a struggle, trying to decide if I was going to keep reading. (I did, and I’m glad of it!) As part of that, I skimmed a few reviews, and from that I remember a mention that “the book has a lot of sci-fi tropes.” That stuck in my mind a bit, because after all, nothing is original, it’s all just remixes. If you’re wondering, this book is a touch of Passengers, a great deal more Pandorum, a little bit of Halo, a splash of Doom, and a surprising little bit of Killjoys. And that’s not a bad thing; it’s fun to pick apart the pieces that made something, and try to figure out which piece you’re going to find next.

That’s what made this book so interesting, and why, despite the fact that it’s not at all a short book, I powered through it in just a couple days. I didn’t want to put it down—I had theory after theory of what was going on, why the planet it’s taking place on is like that, and wanted to know which was correct. Is this going the way of The Satan Pit, or is it a political intrigue whose cover-up is falling apart? Are the high-tech, vaguely church-y guys the good guys, or are the eco-terrorist-inspired people actually in the right? Or is it the—well, okay, no, it’s pretty easy to discount the cannibals as “the good guys,” but then, maybe nobody is the good guy. (That aspect of the story really shines as the book switches between two narrators—one, a true believer in one of those causes, the other, an outsider to everything, just as confused as the reader.)

For as creepy as the book was, I didn’t wind up jumping at shadows nearly as much as I was expecting. Because, sure, it’s a science-fiction horror thing, but it’s also a military piece and, more than all of that, a big ol’ mystery. And if I’m trying to solve a mystery, well, no time to be scared of the monsters in the dark—in mystery solving mode, I default to being Velma, and a jump scare just gets a “you stop that!”

All in all, this was a great read, and I highly recommend it if you love a good mystery, and a cool setting, like I do. Check it out.1

  1. This is an Amazon affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I prefer Bookshop affiliate links to Amazon when possible, but in this case, the book wasn’t available there, so it’ll have to do.
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Review

“Nucleation”

Kimberly Unger

For the most part, I like the tech that provides the setting for this book, but it’s got a couple things that are very clearly “it needs to work this way for the story to have the right amount of tension” and instead broke the illusion. “There isn’t enough bandwidth for us to talk to you while you’re remote controlling the robot”? You’re in the same room; bandwidth constraints don’t apply, because why would you be round-tripping that data through the remote thing?

That aside, though, this was quite a fun read. And hey, most of the tech makes a lot of sense—if you can make a little wormhole, you send through some little tech, and use that to build bigger stuff. The insistence on calling nanobots “eenies” instead of, y’know, nanobots, felt a bit odd, but kinda worked as a way to displace it from ‘near future’ to… ‘slightly more distant future.’ It is an inhabited colony that this is happening on, and not Earth, so some amount of linguistic drift makes sense.

And while I griped a bit about the tension overtaking the illusion, the book did a great job of maintaining that narrative tension throughout. There were a couple times in there where I really couldn’t put it down, because I had to know what was going to happen next. Or, one notable time, where I already knew what was going to happen next, and was desperately hoping I was wrong.

In short, this is a good read, not too long, and while there’s room for a sequel, it feels like it was written to be a stand-alone story.1 Give it a go.2

  1. The ending feels less “alright, see you next book!” and more “a movie ending a note that would let them create a spin-off show if they wanted.”
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“The Outside”

Ada Hoffmann

Two books in a row that get a lot of use out of the word ‘heresy,’ that’s a bit of an odd coincidence.

I also quite enjoyed this. Midway through I texted a friend of mine that I could very clearly see one of the influences of this book—Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence. I stand by that. It took a bit of hand-waving about the way AI works, but Hoffmann found a reasonable explanation for why AI would bother keeping humanity around. Frankly, it’s one of the good outcomes; sure, we’re basically cattle, but hey, at least we’re wagyu.

And that, right there, was what made the setting so fascinating. Humanity as the tame feedstock for the AIs, which went ahead and declared themselves Gods. (And, yes, they are referred to with the capital ‘G’ throughout.) They are the Gods, and they grant us useful technology like interstellar travel and clean energy, but we’re also kicked back to 1950s computer technology, because anything more modern gets too close to their turf. And that’s where the use of ‘heresy’ comes back into play.

It gets more interesting than that, but that’s also getting into spoiler territory, so I’ll stop there.

One other thing to note that I quite liked about the book was how well it fit in a diverse cast. The protagonist is neuroatypical, and her love interest is a woman—a fact which is, in fact, never remarked upon by anyone. To borrow a meme, this is the future liberals want.1

All in all, I found this to be quite a good read, and do recommend it. Check it out.2

  1. Another thing I’ll stand by. Seriously, go read Superintelligence – being feedstock, after our death, for the AIs is pretty close to the best-case scenario for humanity.
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“Ninefox Gambit”

Yoon Ha Lee

I post many book reviews here, but one thing that I tend not to mention, is that I don’t actually review every book I read. If I give up on the book—in disgust, in boredom, for whatever reason—I won’t review it. If I make it through the whole book, sit down to write my thoughts, and can’t come up with a single positive note, I won’t review it. (There’s already enough negativity in the world, I’m not going to add to it.)

As a natural result of that, there’s a solid amount of very generic science fiction that I don’t post reviews of. Stuff that’s… fine. Uninspiring, cliche, trite, but not offensively bad.

“Ninefox Gambit” stands out because it is none of those things. It is unabashedly strange, gloriously new. Disconcerting and disquieting. It actually took me quite a while to be certain that all the characters are human—and, later, to determine that they’re not just pan-human, but human human, and the different classifications are a matter of culture.

In short, I absolutely loved this book. For all that I want to rave about the fascinating setting, the technological backdrop underpinning everything, I won’t, because a good part of the fun was in figuring out what, exactly, all of that was. Please, get a copy of the book, set aside some time to read, and lose yourself in this masterpiece.1

  1. This is an Amazon affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I prefer Bookshop affiliate links to Amazon when possible, but in this case, the book wasn’t available there, so it’ll have to do.
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Review

“Beyond the Rift”

Peter Watts

I had this book down as science fiction, and while that’s true, I don’t think that’s really the primary genre. It’s an anthology of horror sub-genres — there’s some body horror, a bit of existential dread, some psychological horror. Really runs the whole gamut! Frankly, if I’d realized it was going to be this creepy/bleak/depressing, I don’t know that I would’ve picked it up, but I’m glad I did. For all the gloom, it’s also captivating, and very well-written.

“The Island” was my favorite of the stories. Given the setting, it seems like something I’d love — more of that gigantic infrastructure, a road crew building a highway but for a civilization a couple of notches up the Kardashev scale from us. But for all that mind-boggling technology, I pictured it all as very dark; the aesthetic I imagined for the ship would fit just as well in a Diablo game as it does in this story. And the scary part of it is the sheer scale of time that passes, has passed, and will continue to pass.

“A Word for Heathens” was the most interesting concept, I think, although “The Things” is also a strong contender. I was a bit biased against the latter, as I haven’t seen the film it’s based on; if you have, you’ll probably like it more.

“Home” definitely wins the award for Most Horror; something about the body horror/creeping change over time really gets to me. Vaguely similar vibes to The Enigma of Amigara Fault. Or possibly that’s just my go-to for body horror? Cronenberg, you have been unseated.

“A Niche” hits on some of the same imagery, and thinking back, I believe they’re actually a shared universe. Which works… pretty well, overall. As does putting “Home” before “A Niche” — it predisposes you to think about that aspect of what’s creepy about it, and that’s really not where “A Niche” is going.

All in all, I absolutely loved this. My only regret is reading it at night because I suspect I’m going to have a rough time trying to get to sleep after this. Whoops.

So, if you want some gloomy (but surprisingly not doom-y) science fiction, give it a go.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“The Chiral Conspiracy”

L.L. Richmond

Starting off with an infodump is a bit aggressive, but as I was looking up the author’s name, I realized that this is a novella in part of a larger series, so it makes a bit more sense. Less of a Star Wars scroll, more of a “previously on…” vibe to it, with that context.

That said, I really like the setting here. Just enough hand waving to the science fiction that I don’t get too caught up in it, but also some great details — like, at one point, the fact that a space station doesn’t have the advantage of a natural magnetosphere becomes very important. I quite like stuff like that — because, if you’re gonna give me big things happening in space, I want some acknowledgement of the sort of infrastructure work that makes all that possible.

Beyond that, this is a nice… not quite detective story, though it’s inspired by those. ‘Military thriller’ would be the other key influence/genre. The existence of NCIS says that there’s a solid market for that crossover, and this delivered quite well. Give it a read.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“Annihilation Aria”

Michael R. Underwood

This was a very fun read. I’m skimming the acknowledgements as I start to write this, and the author says that the inspiration for Annihilation Aria was “what would it look like to try to write something that made me feel the way the Guardians of the Galaxy movie did?” In my opinion, Underwood achieved that—big galaxy, lots of different species each doing their own thing, and some truly epic scaled Big Bads. And, of course, a single human who stumbled into it all, trying to make his way through.

Where this is better than Guardians is that character: instead of Peter Quill’s constant posturing and hamming it up, Max is a scholar, a nerd, and… secure in his masculinity. He makes an excellent foil for Lahra, who’s something akin to a warrior princess from a lost tribe; where Quill would likely default to insecurity and trying to feign warrior prowess to match, Max is quite happy to let her shine, and be the expert in his own domain. The two of them have a very positive relationship, and it was genuinely delightful to read—seeing healthy interactions like that isn’t nearly as common as it should be, and I’m all in favor of good role models.

The actual plot is quite fun, as well. Somewhere between Indiana Jones and Stargate Atlantis, and the combination feels very cinematic. I’d love to see a movie adaptation of this, although the special effects budget would have to be on par with the latest Star Wars film.

All in all, this was a great read. I highly recommend it—check it out.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“A Fall in Autumn”

Michael G. Williams

One of the reviews I saw for this book called it something along the lines of “a private eye novel without all the toxic masculinity,” and that’s what sold me on reading it. What kept me reading, though, was the absolutely wonderful world building. It’s thousands of years in the future, and there are passing references to legends of space travel, and references to the collapse of our current civilization, lost knowledge of the ancients, all that. But the single line that most sold me on the whole thing was a passing reference to “Arthur Kennedy and the betrayal of Camelot”. Given a couple thousand years, even with written history, it absolutely makes sense that two legendary figures would get merged together.

I really enjoy things like this; I like science fiction where a lot of different things have happened, with one Big Deal technological change that gives us all sorts of implications to explore. If I had to track it down in this one, I’d say there were two things: CRISPR allowing for genetic modification, and a nuclear war that was small enough not to cause nuclear winter, but large enough to EMP everything digital to oblivion.

All in all, this was an excellent read, and I highly recommend it. Check it out.1

  1. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“Two Suns at Sunset”

Gene Doucette

I really, truly, had no idea what I was in for with this book. And I absolutely loved it — devoured the whole thing in an evening, and promptly added the sequel to my wish list. I desperately want to know where the whole series is going, because it’s a wonderful mystery.

The setting feels near-feature, and has some things that are very clearly influenced by what’s going on in current events.1 Except for the whole “this isn’t Earth” thing, which combines with some of the linguistics and a few mentions of a distant-past Collapse, to have me think that it’s actually far-future, and we’re looking at a colony that’s building itself back up towards interstellar travel after a galactic-scale human civilization… well, collapsed. Which means that the founding mythology, and some of the hand-wavey end of the world prophecy stuff going on could, in fact, be leading up to some large-scale science fiction things. Hey, look at that, we’ve looped back around to “I desperately want to know where the whole series is going,” how about that.

Sitting on top of this wonderfully rich setting, though, is a very fun police procedural/murder mystery thing, and that is also a delight. A murdered monk, a cynical cop, his new upbeat rookie partner, it’s a hodgepodge of well-worn tropes and new twists, and it works so very, very well.

If any of this sounds interesting, please read the book — I greatly enjoyed it, and hope you will as well.2

  1. There’s a two-page interjection explaining a cryptocurrency that’s Definitely Not Bitcoin. To my knowledge, it’s fairly accurate, and highlights one of the key potential failings of the technology, while leaving out the primary failing of it. That said, this world apparently has nuclear power pretty figured out, which mitigates the energy concerns, so, I’ll allow it.
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.
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Review

“When You Had Power”

Susan Kaye Quinn

The author bills this book as ‘hopepunk,’ but the term I’m more familiar with is ‘solarpunk.’ Either works, though — the vibe is that of a hopeful future, where we make our way through the energy transition and wind up not, y’know, climate changing ourselves into extinction. Which is a future I sincerely hope we wind up in, because I like not being extinct!

To put it shortly, I adore the setting of this book. It’s near-future, with technology that all feels very believable for a near future, and a very fitting backdrop of the global energy transition. And I’m always here for a found-family story — Tamora Pierce really established that archetype for me with the Circle of Magic, so I can’t help but love it.

The only failing of this book is that it isn’t finished. We see the B plot through, but the A plot is left entirely hanging, and having just skimmed over the descriptions of the other books in the series, it looks like that thread won’t get tied up until the fourth book, which is due for release nearly a year from now. I want to know what the bad guys are up to! I’m not nearly patient enough for this.

If you, like me, are impatient, wait until September 2022, then read all four books at once. If you’d like to get started now, go check it out.1

  1. This is an Amazon affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I prefer Bookshop affiliate links to Amazon when possible, but in this case, the book wasn’t available there, so it’ll have to do.
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Review

“The Hammer Falls”

Travis Heermann

I’m of mixed feelings about this book. It’s a fun setting — a little post-apocalyptic in places, but mostly it’s that ‘megacorporation rule’ that feels closer to cyberpunk than any other genre. And while I hate that as a possible future, I do think that this book handled it better than I could’ve expected, so that’s a positive.

But then the negatives: the protagonist is only occasionally likable, and the way women are treated feels almost like someone set out to deliberately flunk the Bechdel Test. Arguably, that’s on purpose, as it’s in keeping with the way said occasionally likable protagonist would think, and it’s told from his perspective, but it still grates somewhat.

In the end, though, I made it to the end of the book, which is the main test I have.1 If you’re interested, you can learn more about the book here. 2

  1. Somewhere, I have a graveyard of books I started and didn’t finish; I’m stubborn, but I won’t force my way through a book if it’s just not enjoyable. Life’s too short for that.
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.