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Absolute-Last-Minute Gift Ideas

December 23, 2019

If you or someone you love is (im)patiently waiting for the next in a genre series by, say, George R. R. Martin, David Weber, Jim Butcher, or even me, the cure for that is to broaden the range of authors you read until there’s always a new book coming out. I have some suggestions that won’t bankrupt you.

 

The Rien’s Rebellion series, by C.Z. Edwards, is sort of the good twin of A Song of Ice and Fire. It’s a fantasy set in another world where magic is a thing, swords are the primary weapons, there is a kingdom with a permanent existential threat on the border—a human nation, but one that never stops attacking (we find out why in a later book of the series), and the succession is in dispute. It has these things in common with Martin’s series, but everything else is completely different. The system of magic and the limits on it are thoroughly fleshed out, there are other institutions of government besides the monarchy that are being contested—and most of all, the people trying to overthrow the usurper are trying to do so without causing too much damage to the kingdom. There’s still that permanent existential threat on the border to worry about, after all.

 

I should mention that I haven’t finished this series yet. I’ve discovered that it makes a difference what you read when you’re trying to write, and reading this sort of high fantasy gives me too many ideas for stories other than the one I’m trying to work on. I should also mention that three major viewpoint characters either suffer or have suffered some form of sexual assault, which I guess is another thing it has in common with A Song of Ice and Fire.

 

***

 

Elliott Downing’s works are few and small, and not in any kind of series, but they are jewels. His first novel, The Keys to the Kingdom (which has the misfortune of sharing a title with a much-more-widely-known YA series by Garth Nix), about a man who finds what might be a way of altering his own past, would be the best thing ever written by a lot of authors—but his second novel, Some Distant Sunrise, is even better. I can’t think of anything to add to the five-star review I already did of it.

 

His new novel, Airplane Mode, is the sort of novel that really is best appreciated if you know nothing whatever about the premise. Unfortunately, the cat’s out of the bag—it involves AI and AI risk.

 

In addition to the high expectations I have for any book by Downing, I have absolutely ridiculous, unrealistic expectations for any work of science fiction that involves AI, especially AI risk. To my way of thinking, an AI’s mind should resemble a human mind the way a motorcycle resembles a horse—which is to say, not very much at all except in some of the services it can provide. I appreciate that imagining such a thing is asking sf writers to stretch themselves, but some of them don’t even try. I’ve read one book by a best-selling author which featured an AI that was offended by Internet pornography. Yes. An AI, a being comprised of pure software, capable of such a biological, System 1 reaction as disgust*. At porn, which from an AI’s point of view would be just another assortment of pixels. As for AI risk, a lot of people much smarter than me are giving serious thought to the question of how to build and program an AI that—no matter how intelligent or powerful it becomes—won’t incapacitate or destroy the human race, either intentionally or as a byproduct of pursuing other goals. To go from reading their words to watching Ex Machina, a movie whose moral seems to be “don’t beat up or sexually assault robots” is grit-your-teeth annoying. Do better, people.

 

Would it surprise you to learn that Downing has done better? Would it surprise you to learn that he has fulfilled my expectations, not only for his own work but for how AIs ought to be depicted in science fiction? Would it surprise you to learn he’s managed to create a compassionate look at a walking-wounded soul without slowing down the thriller-worthy pace of the plot?

 

Read this book.

 

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I also recommend Patrick Hodges’ Wielders of Arantha series (think of it as Star Wars meets Avatar: The Last Airbender) and everything by Kenton Kilgore. Also, if you’re a fan of Harry Turtledove, Robert Conroy or S.M. Stirling and feel like you’re ready to move to the next level with alternate history, try Tom Anderson’s Look to the West series or Walking through Dreams by Jared Kavanagh.

 

Anyway, Merry Christmas and associated holidays.

 

 

 

* At this point you’re probably thinking of that scene in The Matrix — the one where Agent Smith says “I hate this place” and talks about how sickened he is by the smell of humans and how unclean it makes him feel. I interpreted that scene to mean that Agent Smith had spent too much time in the Matrix, wearing a human form and interacting with humans, and had started to think and feel like one in very basic ways.

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