Summer Frost is not treading entirely new ground, building up to a predictable outcome as it does…but it’s not the novelty of the tale that makes it worthy, it’s the quality of the storyteller. Blake Crouch is quite the storyteller. Riley makes for a captivating protagonist as she works to assist the world’s first truly emergent intelligence reach and further maximize its potential. It’s appropriate, in a sense, that the AI’s name is Max (short for Maxine, the NPC within a VR game, the AI unexpectedly grew from). It’s a sad tale of being too close to a problem to see that there’s a problem at all. In this case, the problem is that Riley has projected altogether too many human characteristics onto something that is far beyond human. Blinded by an affection that falls somewhere into a nebulous space of mother and child…or lover and object of obsession. We are helpless to do anything, hoping that we’re wrong, as the story races to the inevitable conclusion…but knowing, deep inside that there’s no other conclusion available. The narration from Rosa Salazar is as spectacular as most of the narration has been for the installments of the Forward Collection. She lulls us into a sense of near-complacency that allows us to feel almost as taken off-guard as Riley ultimately is.
Andy Weir’s Randomize is a fascinating exploration of the superficial topics regarding advancements in and increasing availability of quantum computing devices as well as the impact those things could have on a world not yet prepared for those things. More than that–and the saving grace of the story–it’s a layered story about predictability vs. unpredictability and human nature. That human element is the important thing to focus on. There’s a lot to unpack in this short story about the capacity to apply pattern recognition to things with seemingly no patterns. The science behind the technology in this story is lacking in several ways, but that’s often going to be the case in fiction. I’ve grown accustomed to overlooking those elements to enjoy the stories I read regularly. It does sort of invalidate the premise underpinning the whole narrative if you pick away at it too much. I rather like the final message I took away from the story, in that it wasn’t the highly advanced computational device that got the protagonists/antagonists what they wanted, but the computational abilities of a brilliant human mind. There’s a moral to this morally questionable tale, in that a great piece of advanced technology will never be half as useful without a similarly great mind behind the operation. Janina Gavankar’s narration is effective, especially in her portrayal of Sumi Singh.
You Have Arrived At Your Destination by Amor Towles is, in my opinion, the weakest of the installments in the Forward collection assembled by Blake Crouch. The story proposes an interesting premise regarding eugenics, the effects of combined nature and nurture on our offspring, evaluation of one’s life in retrospect, self-determination, and relationship dynamics. Sadly, that premise full of promise seems to peter out and go not too far at all. It could be the author’s intention to have tossed several potential red herrings into the narrative for the purpose of making the reader/listener assume they know where it might be going from this point or that, but ultimately it led to a fairly disappointing overall experience. I’m not otherwise familiar with the author, beyond having heard that they’re quite well-respected for other material they’ve written…so I might have a greater appreciation for what they were attempting if I had a better handle on the author’s style as a whole. We join our protagonist at a pivotal moment in his life, as he’s faced with one of the most important decisions of his life. He and his wife are considering an enhanced version of family planning, but it all appears to be too much for him. That’s it. That’s how one could sum up the story, and that’s precisely what I’m going to do. The narration of the audiobook by David Harbour is great. His voice works particularly well for the middle-aged protagonist and the slick, salesman pitching the offerings from his company. That narration alone is the thing that makes the audiobook worthwhile…but that’s about all it had going for it.
The Last Conversation is the third of the six short stories in the Forward Collection assembled by Blake Crouch I’ve listened to. It is also the first time I’ve experienced Paul Tremblay as a science fiction author, and the experience was an interesting one. I’m sure he’s written other stories or books that have crossed into the science fiction territory, or at least I’d be surprised if he hasn’t, but I’ve only been familiar with him as a horror author and occasionally as a dark fantasy author. This brief tale showcases his talent for wearing a variety of hats with efficacy. It’s a solid second-person narrative detailing the awakening of the protagonist in isolation to protect him from a global pandemic, while the only other person–seemingly still alive–coaxes them through restoring memories and physical capabilities. The story was ultimately predictable, but no less satisfying for the very predictability of it. It wasn’t about telling us a new tale so much as providing a platform for the discussion of morality, humanity, the devastating combination of solitude and grief, and the ethics involved in cloning. In that sense, Tremblay packs a big punch into a small number of words. He utilizes and capitalizes on the elements of science fiction that have always been used by authors, the capacity to frame thought experiments in a fictional narrative that makes the philosophical subject matter more palatable and digestible for the readers (and sometimes the author). The narration, performed by Steven Strait, is superb. Strait captures the stubborn resistance of the protagonist to being held captive–even if it is for his own good–as well as the sadness and pity that mingles with that oppositional nature as the truth of everything is revealed in the end.