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Automatic Woman by Nathan L. Yocum

automatic woman

Automatic Woman by Nathan L. Yocum (Curiosity Quills Press, 2012) forces me to ask the ultimately paradoxical question. To what extent should a fantasy be realistic? Obviously if the action is set in Fairyland with an attack upon Titania by some vampires passing through on their way to an urban setting, there’s no need for anyone to speak in a particular way or for Elvish Magic Johnson to be able to hit more home runs after his retirement from basketball. Everything can be the product of an imagination allowed free rein. But suppose the fantasy is set in a real place and features historically verified individuals? Well this is where the paradox comes in. In theory, fantasy is the polar opposite of realism. It sets out to describe events which are or were impossible in our version of reality. A trope now establishing itself as routine introduces anachronistic technology to history. Set in Victorian England, we’re assailed by steampunk stories of clockwork and steam-powered robots and computers. Indeed, even with the assistance of modern technology, much of what we see described is impossible. Perhaps that’s actually the point of these stories: to introduce the impossible and so challenge our view of history. Perhaps Babbage could have succeeded in 1822 if the people in power had funded him. Sorry, Babbage did build his machine which was a state secret. It was later updated to become Colossus, used at Bletchley Park to win World War II. Except isn’t that science fiction? Ah it’s so difficult to get a precise grasp of this slippery question. Anyway, the point of all this is to decide whether a story claiming to be set in London in 1888 should be even remotely realistic.

In this book, we have a steampunk version of Pygmalion. You remember him, a sculptor who fell in love with a statue. Venus then granted the man’s wish and allowed the statue to come to life. They married and had a son — the perfect proof that she’d become a real woman. We should also note Hephaestus made automata to help out in his workshops, but he was semi-divine so that’s just fantasy. Back to the current book. A lonely scientist makes a troop of ballet dancers but he invests such creativity and love in the prima ballerina that she becomes something more than just gears and drive shafts. While this is not canonical Pygmalion because the machine does not become flesh, it does begin to exhibit symptoms of independent thought. It’s the AI gaining sentience trope borrowed from science fiction. In the cinema, it’s potentially the dance scene from Metropolis (1927) where the artificial Maria captivates the most important men of the city in their lust. In this work, the engineer was secretly supported by Charles Darwin who believed the creation of artificial intelligence was the first step towards achieving immortality. Needless to say, there’s an evil nemesis lurking in the background who will stop at nothing to obtain the secret of the “automatic woman” and it’s for our hero to run interference so that those working for Darwin can repair the “woman” and enable her to achieve her potential. Except, of course, the nemesis takes hostages and requires our hero to acquire the secrets of the “woman”. Ah how awkward it is to be caught in the middle. Perhaps that signals the need to meet Rasputin and Bram Stoker, and take a whistle-stop tour through the laws of King Hammurabi of Babylonia and a trip round Europe by train and dirigible.

Nathan L. Yocum the man not the machine

Nathan L. Yocum the man not the machine

The strength and weakness of this book is the open-ended approach to the plot. As a first-person narrative, we’re pitched into our hero describing how he came to be lying unconscious next to the body of the scientist who made the prima ballerina. Thereafter events just follow on. I could say it’s all great fun as if that’s a way of forgiving potential lapses. There are two fairly serious problems for me as a reader. The first is that what’s presented as a first-person narrative in British English is anything but. This is clearly a book written by an American. Is this a fatal problem? Not a bit. I find much of it amusing. Since almost all the readers for this book will be Americans, they will not appreciate how far from the mark the arrow falls. They will almost certainly find the language accessible to their modern sensibilities. The second problem is the almost total lack of realism in the descriptions of London and Oxford. Having just read a meticulously recreated Victorian London adventure by James P Blaylock, I’m only too aware of how threadbare this is. But, again, the point of books like this is not to produce historical accuracy. We’re here for the steampunk adventure with a few facts everyone will recognize as pegs on which to hang the plot. Never let a few facts stand in the way of a good story, these authors cry as they ride roughshod over the facts, hopefully remembering Mark Twain was a damn fine author.

I can’t help but notice anachronisms — it’s in my blood — so when Arthur Conan Doyle appears on the scene, takes out a syringe and pumps our hero full of penicillin, I tend to think, “Hmmm. This book is set in 1888 and the antibiotic was not discovered until 1928. What a pleasing coincidence of 8s.” There’s also some interesting discussion on evolution that certainly would not have been rehearsed in Victorian times. None of these things need concern us. Automatic Woman has its moments and rides quickly to an ending that would permit further adventures. There are fights, exchanges of gunfire and explosions. As far as it goes, it’s good of its type.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Bone Wires by Michael Shean

July 10, 2012 6 comments

Daniel Gray is the archetypically ambitious company man, his eyes focused on the bottom line, hoping to ensure his promotion by bringing in his quota of results. Brutus Carter, a veteran senior officer, is less engaged in the corporate side of the business, but that doesn’t mean he’s uninterested in his job in Homicide Solutions. Yes, it’s an intriguing idea, isn’t it? That a future society will privatise law enforcement and turn it into a business. At a stroke, this moves us away from a service ethic to protect the public and into an interstitial role located somewhere between insurance and the form of protection racket originally favoured by the criminal gangs. It’s somewhat ironic I should be reading Bone Wires by Michael Shean (Curiosity Quills Press, 2012) now because it’s predicted that private companies will be running parts of the British policing service within the decade. Just as the corporations have been moving into the provision of prison services both here and in America‚ just imagine the view you would have of your job if it depends on maximising the number of people in jail. Now consider the possibility that the same company running jails gets to investigate crime. That means we can have a production line of people brought before the courts in the hope they will be sent to the corporate jails. I’m sure outsourcing is a wonderful idea in some quarters, but applying it to critical public services seems a little dangerous. That’s why one side of Michael Shean’s vision is labelled the Pacification Division — keeping the “ordinary” population pacified can be good business.

Well, as is required in stories like this, our pair of homicide detective pull one of the more exciting deaths. A senior police administrator has been left in a back alley with his spine surgically removed. He’s carrying a wad of cash protected by a bomb to disable the unwary which suggests he was into something illegal. Put the two together and this could be the high-profile case to give young Daniel his promotion. Except when management find out their man had been selling information to the wrong people, they want the investigation kept very low profile — not quite what Daniel wanted to hear. He also surprises himself by being annoyed at the suggestion he would not want to track down the killer(s). Perhaps he might actually become a detective rather than just an employee protecting the value of his stock options. Curiously, when there’s a second killing with the spine removed, Daniel only gets a small budget to investigate. It’s like his bosses don’t want him to solve it. Fortunately, even with only a few hours available, he begins to find interesting pieces of information so that, when the third body shows up, he can see a link between the two new victims. With a search warrant in his hand, he breaks down the nominated door and finds butchery on a scale he had never considered. So, more by accident than good judgement, he gets his promotion. This should be immensely satisfying, but something doesn’t feel quite right. Worse, he’s begun a relationship with one of the witnesses from the first murder case. This is against company rules and, when Vice discover it, a blackmail situation emerges to push him in directions he might not want to go.

Michael Shean ready to try a new method of shaving

So what do we make of all this? Bone Wires is a rather cunningly constructed book. It looks as if it’s going to be science fiction with horror overtones but, when you step back, you can see the horror is more window dressing than anything. It’s just a sop to the Cerberus instincts of those readers who like a little blood and gore with their police procedurals. The real point of the story is the politics and economics of the corporation running the policing service. Because of his rather public success in exposing a serial killer, Daniel becomes a poster boy for the company, showing how Homicide Solutions really can boost the profit margins. So if his investigations were to take the wrong direction and show the company in a bad light, the stock price would fall and the corporation would find a way to cut him loose. This conflict of interest takes centre stage as Daniel has to decide whether his new-found interest in being a detective is real.

If this plot is to be credible, the detective must be given a problem to solve that, like an onion, takes him through different layers towards the central core and questions of possible commercial significance. The thing about raw onions is that, as you begin to cut into the outer layers, gaseous acids are released which produce irritation of the eyes and tears. This is a disincentive to further cutting. As I’ve mentioned, the initial presentation is of a murder with the body mutilated by the removal of the spine. When more bodies are found with their spines removed, the temptation is to assume the solution of the new murders also solves the first crime. Indeed, the corporation declares all related murders solved, closes the files and promotes the “successful” detective. But suppose the first death is actually part of a rather different scenario. When Daniel comes under pressure because of the blackmail and looks beyond the surface reality, how should he react if reopening the first murder file could mean he loses his job?

Bones Wires is set in the same Wonderland universe as Michael Shean’s first book, Shadow of a Dead Star, but apart from a couple of details on body enhancements, there’s no positive link between them. This book is also somewhat unconventional in that he’s been publishing it as weekly serial on the Curiosity Quills site. So those of you who were alert could have read this as it was being written without having to buy it. I’m all for innovation and this is pleasingly proactive on the part of the publisher. Now that it’s finished and ready to buy as a single package. . . Well, this avoids everything connected to the jaw-dropping plot twist at the end of Shadow of a Dead Star. Presumably the weirdness of all that will be explained in what’s scheduled to be his third book titled Redeye. Thus, Bone Wires is a far better worked plot and, although it leaves the door obviously open for a sequel, it does tie everything up neatly. In more general terms, I was impressed by the different way of approaching two fairly well-established tropes. Michael Shean knows how to avoid the clichés. But the prose is less interesting this time around, possibly because it was written against the clock with slightly less time for reflection. Overall, this is enjoyable and worth reading as a police procedural and political thriller set in a future world where the economics of corporate life produce interestingly different social outcomes.

For a review of the other books by Michael Shean, see Shadow of a Dead Star and its direct sequel Redeye.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Shadow of a Dead Star by Michael Shean

February 11, 2012 2 comments

So this guy comes into the pub and, before you can say, “I’ll have another pint of [insert name of favourite ale],” he’s gathered a small crowd and starts to tell one of those interminable jokes. You know the kind of thing. It’s long, structured with intermediate amusing mini-climaxes which always get a smile and reinforce the listeners’ enthusiasm as they wait for the anticipated punchline, and all in the best possible taste. Too often, jokes rapidly head south and only emerge after a long period in a bedroom or wherever the protagonists are protagging each other. The guy holding forth is vaguely familiar and, as a regular barfly, you’ve been caught up in circle around him. From the out, you’re hooked. Like this story is hot even though not pornographic — a rarity indeed. You’re hanging on every word. And when it comes to the punchline, he wrecks it. He should have said, “. . .and he thought it was a disaster!” but what he actually said was, “. . .and he thought! It was a disaster.” I should have explained. I like to deconstruct jokes so I can savour the finer points of the humour. Shame really. He had us all in the palm of his hand to the very end. We all thought this was going to be the best joke in the universe. Guess the joke was on us for listening so long except I’ve added it to my repertoire. With the right punctuation and my storytelling ability, I’ll always get the laugh instead the groan.

Michael Shean with a superimposed brass flower falling from his shell-like ear

Shadow of a Dead Star by Michael Shean (Curiosity Quills Press, 2012) is a first novel falling into the always potentially pleasing SF/mystery subgenre. By this I mean the author moves us forward in time and then has a law enforcement officer or investigator of the age, show us round the new place as he/she/it tries to decide whodunnit. In this case, sixty years has produced a slightly dystopian Seattle in a world with some improvements in technology. Body enhancements are quite common and include the usual jacking ports to allow the wetware direct interface with the hardware and wifi access to those with the right onboard equipment. Genetic manipulation has moved forward to produce a range of treatments in the pharmaceutical industry (both prescription and street) including a real way of extending life span. This starts us off nicely as our unmodified agent, Thomas Walken, is tasked with intercepting an incoming flight alleged to be carrying three Princess Dolls. This is a particularly dark and pleasing idea — the bodies of dead girls animated and sold to paedophiles. The operation looks to be routine but, on their way to headquarters for examination, a group hijacks two of the Dolls (the third is irreparably damaged). Surprisingly, these trigger-happy bandits turn up dead a few hours later. When Walken goes to talk to an informer who may actually be the importer, the nark and his enhanced bodyguards are also found dead. In other words, the trail rapidly goes cold with two Dolls missing. Then the autopsy suggests the hijackers may have been killed by the Dolls. That would certainly be an unexpected development.

So, however you want to look at this, we’re pitched into a great story with an unenhanced cop chasing down the enhanced importers of sex toys for sale at inflated prices to the perverted. Except it gets better. About a third of a way through, our fearless defender of justice is framed and has to go on the run — so there’s almost certainly corruption in the police department. Enter a hacker with a helping hand and an accommodating interface for dongles of all types. Now we have a tag team to pursue the bad buys and deprive the perverts of their toys. All this against the clock because, sooner or later, the police force will catch up with our duo as they rapidly climb to the top of the most wanted list.

Now, as is always the way when you write reviews, you reach the boundary with spoiler territory and have to decide whether to cross over the line. In this case, I’m going to stay on the “right” side. Why? Because Shadow of a Dead Star is a terrific read which everyone who enjoys science fiction merged with a noirish mystery should try. The fact my first paragraph tells you I think the reveal is deeply annoying should not put you off. This is only one jaded old man’s opinion. You may think the ending a dramatic coup to cap a book which, in all other respects, is right on the money. I leave it to you to decide.

For a review of the other books in the Wonderland universe, see the direct sequel to this book Redeye and Bone Wires.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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