The Other Kind of Life – Spoiler Party

By Shamus Posted Sunday Jan 27, 2019

Filed under: Projects 87 comments

This is it. It’s time to talk spoilers for my book. This post isn’t going to spoil anything of substance, but the comments area will be a free-fire zone. If you’ve been waiting to complain about spoiler-y plot stuff, now is the timeYou can also say nice stuff. That’s okay too..

The book is allegedly available in both paperback and kindle formats, although Amazon seems to be rather confused about who can buy what. For the record: We have it set so that the book should be available in all formats in all regions, but Amazon is randomly telling people “This product is not available in your region”. Some people have gotten around the problem by going to the front page of their regional Amazon domain like or From there you can search by title, which should take you to a version you can buy

For being one of the foremost international mega-conglomerates, Amazon is apparently really terrible at international business. Region locking is for dinosaur corporations.

A Tense Discussion

A lot of people asked why I wrote this in present tense. There are a couple of reasons. The first is that I read a lot of Neal Stephenson back in the day, and he often uses present tense. It really rubbed off on me, and I came to think of PTFor the purposes of this discussion, PT is “present tense”. as the voice of cyberpunk. I originally tried to write Free Radical in PT, but I gave up because I kept slipping back into standard tense and it was making a mess of things.

Then I wrote the Autoblography. PT came really naturally in that work. That whole project was centered on getting the reader into my headspace. I didn’t want the writer to stand with me in 2011 and chuckle at the naïveté of the past, I wanted to trap them in the shoes of a child in the world of 1977. This did sometimes lead to odd bits where my narration would suddenly begin predicting the future, like this paragraph:

John is a vigorous autodidact. I’m confident that he never attended any education beyond high school, but he has a voracious reading appetite. His house is packed with books. Not fiction, but a broad selection of textbooks that reflect his interests. Science, philosophy, religion, and a double helping of history. His free education is so effective that it will be years before I even realize I am being educated.

Still, I’m really happy with how it worked, and this helped me to get a firm grip on the style so I don’t slip back into past tense.

Also, if you’re writing in PT then things like flashbacks are much easier to handle. In standard tense, you’re talking about the past. Then when you need to fill in some backstory, you switch to writing about the past of the past. There’s no change in tense, which means you have to go out of your way to make it clear when you’re done looking back. If you’re writing in PT, then this shift becomes clear based on what tense is being used.  I don’t need an extra sentence to segue the reader back to the immediate action. Since I like to do a lot of small “Oh by the way” type digressions in my stories to fill in bits of worldbuilding, PT is really convenient.

I get that a lot of people associate PT with fanfiction. I guess the practice is common in that subculture. That’s unfortunate, but we can’t let good tools go unused because many people use them poorly. (If we did, we’d have to throw away every programming language ever invented.) Maybe some people will skip my book because the present tense sounds too childish to them. On the other hand, maybe my book can contribute to legitimizing the practice.


I’ve mentioned in the past that I tend to write using the voices of celebrities. I find it makes it easier for me to stick to a particular tone and keep track of character details if I can associate it with a familiar voice in my head. These voices are writing tools and I don’t intend them to be canonical or authoritative. Or at least, they’re not any more valid than whatever faces or voices the reader might choose.

When I released the Witch Watch, I shared the voices I used for the characters. Yes, I realize this sort of information is kinda self-indulgent on my part. I’m not telling you how to imagine these characters “properly”. There’s nothing inherently authorial about this information. This is just for the curious, and just for fun:


I’m willing to bet that most people will read the description saying he’s a balding black man and drop him into the body of Laurence Fishburne. That’s fine. It makes a lot of sense. Although I had the face of Jamie Foxx in mind when I wrote the character. I’d just watched Baby Driver and I loved his performance as the imposing villain Bats. I know he usually plays the witty handsome good guy, but he can be really unnerving and mysterious if he wants to. Max isn’t the stone cold man of mystery people usually take him for, but the Bats persona seemed to match the mask he wears.

Jen Five

When I wrote Jen’s character, I thought of Mary Elizabeth Winstead‘s performance in 10 Cloverfield Lane. In that movie, she had a lot of very guarded conversations with John Goodman’s character. She had to mask her emotions to navigate the dangerous conversations, and that emotional mask really matched Jen’s default personality. Also, the colored hair reminded me of Ramona in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

For the curious: Her name comes from an accidental misunderstanding in the book that results in a quasi-pun. She’s trying to explain to the protagonist that she’s a recent model of robot. She says she’s a “gen five model”, in the same way someone might call the PlayStation or Sega Saturn a gen five console. Max understands this as “Jen Five”. I noticed that this sounded a bit like “Johnny Five” from the 80s comedy Short Circuit. That was a little worrisome.

I could have changed her accidental surname to “Six”, but then maybe people would have associated her name with Nicky Sixx or Electric Six. For whatever reason, six is a “cool” number. I wanted the name to sound a bit detached, like a product name. I wanted her name to feel like “iPhone 5” or “Honda Civic 5”, not like an awesome rockstar badass superhero. I could have used Seven as a surname, except I also wanted to keep the number low because robots are supposed to be new-ish to this world.

Eventually I decided I was overthinking this. Nobody remembers Short Circuit. Right?

Silly Shamus. The internet never forgets. It was the first thing people pointed out when they read her name.

Clare Gibson

I thought of Simone Missick in Netflix’s Luke cage, where she played officer Misty Knight. She’s not a central character for most of the show, but when she does show up she often feels like the only adult in the room. That fit Clare’s character as the most normal person we meet.

Dr. Kvenst

For Dr. Kvenst, I used Colombian actress Cristina Umaña. Specifically, I had in mind her performance as Judi Moncada in the Netflix series Narcos. I’m not really impressed with most Netflix originals, but I’m a big fan of Narcos. This means that, in my head, Kasarainians speak with a Colombian accent.

Kasaran is a global superpower. As far as the reader knows, they’re THE global superpower. My worry was that they would be seen as the USA with a new paintjob, so I was careful to make them as distinct as possible. As Max’s train of thought reveals in the book:

Max can’t make sense of their culture. They’re generally apathetic towards marital infidelity, as long as it’s discrete. Their roads have no speed limits, there are no regulations on robots, and they produce something like 80% of the world’s pornography. There’s no level of debauchery that can scandalize them, except that they absolutely will not tolerate gambling. Max gathers that this is the result of some deeply-rooted mindset that comes from their religion, but he’s never been able to make any sense of their religion either.

They apparently have German roads, French marriages, American entertainment, British colonialism baggage, Japanese technology, and Russian climateAnd in my head, Colombian accents.. I know the desire to map fictional worlds to our own is strong, but hopefully this is enough to break reader’s expectations of real-world equivalency.

Felix Royale

For the ruthless casino mogul Felix Royale, I had in mind John Waters. Waters is a director and not an actor, but that’s the great thing about writing. In your mind’s eye, anyone can be a brilliant actor. I just loved the idea of the slight and unimposing Waters as this profoundly dangerous gangster / businessman.

The obvious problem is that Waters is the wrong color. Felix is a native, which means he ought to be dark skinned. Like I said in my first post on the book, I went back and forth on how I wanted the skin colors to work. I came up with my mental image for Felix before I locked down how the races were going to work and which characters would belong to which culture.

This means that for most readers, their mental image of Felix will be more accurate (to the text) than mine. Writing is funny.

As I said above, the comments are an open thread for discussing the book. For the purposes of this discussion, if you ask something like, “Why don’t the Eagles take Frodo to Mordor?” I’m going to assume you’re discussing this point with other readers. Unless you address me personally, I’m not going to jump in and attempt to fix perceived plot holes with extra-textual post-release patches. I’m a big believer in the idea that the text is the text and everything outside the text is fanfic, even if it was written by me. If something isn’t explained well enough then making up shit later doesn’t fix that.

Still, if you have a question about the world or how it was constructed, you’re welcome to ask. Just make it clear that you’re looking for an answer and not just complaining about something that bugged you.

Obligatory: Paperback and kindle.

Thanks to everyone who took an interest in the book. I really hope you enjoyed it.



[1] You can also say nice stuff. That’s okay too.

[2] For the purposes of this discussion, PT is “present tense”.

[3] And in my head, Colombian accents.

From The Archives:

87 thoughts on “The Other Kind of Life – Spoiler Party

  1. Dreadjaws says:

    This is literally the first time I’ve heard (read) of Cristina Umaña. Looking in that link you put I see that I haven’t seen anything she’s worked on. Yet she manages to look almost exactly like how imagined Dr. Kvenst in that picture, the sole difference being that she would be wearing a lab coat rather than a dress. Eerie.

    I also happened to imagine Max to look like Jamie Foxx, but as his voice I picked the one that dubs Green Lantern John Stewart in the Latin American version of the Justice League animated series. Hell, considering how rooted they’re in my mind, most of the voices I picked for the characters in the book came from that series, even if I never actually heard them speak in English. A funny thing, the human brain.

    Funnily enough, for Jen Five I imagined Lizzy Caplan’s face, who usually wears a similar hairstyle to Mary Elizabeth Winstead and also happened to star in a Cloverfield movie.

    I’m not sure what to say about the book that requires discussing spoilers. I didn’t spot any plot hole (or at least not any that mattered enough for me to remember it). I love the worldbuilding and the fact that the book takes its time to explain the kind of stuff that most speculative fiction tends to gloss over without even a lampshade.

    I do have a couple of complaints, and they’re related. One is that the ending feels a bit rushed. I feel that a couple more pages could have helped it pace a bit better. The other is that the revenge tale that kickstarts the plot feels a bit ignored. After the cops show up for the first time I entirely forgot about them until they show up again way later. Hell, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it, but I don’t even remember if they show up a third time (save for their posthumous mention, which goes back to the first complaint). Clearly they’re not the main part of the story, nor the more interesting one, but considering how important they are to Max, perhaps they needed a bit more attention.

    Those small points didn’t stop me from having a blast with the book, though. I want more stuff set in this universe. Consider making an adventure game or something else set in it.

    1. Lino says:

      I want more stuff set in this universe. Consider making an adventure game or something else set in it.

      In my original comment, I was thinking of saying that the even though book is very open-ended, I don’t think we necessarily need a sequel. But an adventure game set in this universe? SIGN ME THE FUCK UP!!! And I’m not even that big a fan of adventure games! Imagine a CRPG like Baldur’s Gate set in this universe!
      But for a one-man team, an old-school adventure game seems like the more feasible alternative. And it doesn’t to be set in Rivergate – it could be in Shan Bione, Kasaran, or somewhere else entirely…

  2. Zagzag says:

    Thanks for giving us a bit more time to read the book before putting this up.

    For my take on the book: I was in the somewhat unusual situation of just having read most of Neal Stephenson’s collected works back to back right before you announced and released a clearly Stephenson inspired book of your own. In all honesty, I went into it not expecting it to hold up very well in a direct comparison, but I ended up being pleasantly surprised. Those claiming that it’s your best yet are certainly justified. You don’t have quite the same flair for making every sentence witty or amusing somehow, but you do manage to do a really impressive job of building a grounded and well explained setting and presenting an interesting mystery.

    As for the mystery itself, it ended up being something of a letdown in the end. It was the setting that was really keeping me going, but the initial setup for the mystery seemed to be implying a solution that was slightly less easy to see coming. Given the effort that has apparently gone into solving the robot murders, I was surprised that everyone seemed to be thinking exclusively in terms of the robots’ programming and way of thinking as potential sources of the problem, rather than considering the idea that it might be possible to “trick” a robot based on false sensory input in a way that wouldn’t be possible with a human.

    I would definitely prefer a well thought out resolution over something that seems to come out of nowhere at the last minute, and I have to give you credit for doing such a good job at explaining the setting that figuring the mystery out was possible. However, I can’t say I wasn’t a little disappointed when I got to the stage of Max being shown an animation of a robot killing a child and not being able to figure out how this might be significant.

    1. hewhosaysfish says:

      I’ll definitely agree with that last point. Maybe it was because my mind had already by been working in that direction (After it was that the robots have 2 brains, I’d been thinking about the “puppeteering” idea until Max brought it up and Jen shot it down) but it was kind of frustrating that Max didn’t put it together then… and then next chapter he’s still looking at the thing and saying “we still don’t have any idea what it’s for”.

      I suppose that Shamus was aiming for something that would be obvious-in-hindsight, something that would make us slap out foreheads and cry “How did I not see that?!”, but he kind of overshot.
      I’ll be interested to see how other people saw the same clue.

      On a more positive note, something that DID make me slap my forehead and cry “How did I not see that?!”: the conflicting motivations of the conspirators.
      When Max and Jen were reading the logs in the Yendu datacentre and they noted that it was GK who had asked it to design the haunted circuit I was a very confused reader. We have 4 named characters working for GK (Landro, Kvenst, Jen and Dr-Not-Appearing-In-This-Story) but none of them seemed to like they would back this plan. If they didn’t have moral qualms about the loss of life, they stood to lose personally by the damage to GK.
      And then Max confronted Landro and outlined he deductions. Cue forehead-slap.
      I couldn’t see a coherent motivation for the plan because there were 2 competing motivations behind it. And when I looked back at the conversation with Stone’s sister, it was obvious that he was the one who wanted everyone to hate and destroy robots… and obvious his co-conspirator might have been aiming at something else.

      And from an out-of-character perspective, Landro’s motivations provide a pay-off for all world-building. All that background about Rivergate history and Kasaran colonialism does add a depth to the world, in people’s assumptions about Jen and in the public opinion about GK, but the sheer amount of it feels a little indulgent – until the end reveals how it ties into the central mystery.

      1. Syal says:

        I’m not great at solving mystery stories, so the animation and the conspiracy reveal both surprised me (I didn’t even catch who made the log), but the very first conversation about robots not harming humans ended with a crop duster dusting Max, and the whole time I was thinking “if robots can’t harm humans, why did the crop duster do it?”

    2. melted says:

      I agree about the mystery. I thought the howdunnit was well-set-up, but too obvious relative to how difficult it was for the characters. As soon as they got the news that the mystery part had stuff used in projection glasses and communications I went, “aha, they’re definitely making the robots see something that makes them think head-smashing movements are somehow appropriate to the situation”. This was a little over halfway through the book!

      The strangling video puzzled me at first–it was obviously the image that was being shown to the robots, but I thought it was somehow making them imitate it. Still, I seem to remember figuring it out before the characters, and other bits of the mystery.

      It just sort of felt like the characters were slow at making connections.

      I didn’t, however, figure out whodunnit before it was revealed.

      Compare to Witch Watch: without going into details, I remember realizing [big ol’ spoiler] a few pages before the characters did. That was ideal! It let me feel clever for figuring it out, but the amount of time where I knew what was going on and was willing the characters to hurry up and figure it out already, was very minimal.

      I did like the book, however.

      1. Paul Spooner says:

        I felt like, from our place in the internet-dwelling, computer-programming, technology-understanding elite, we’re not in a particularly good position to decide how easy it would be for a gangster and a robot to figure out the technical details of the mystery. I, too, figured out the how way before them, but had to be told the who.

        1. melted says:

          Maybe, but Jen in particular seemed like she should have put it together more quickly, because she’s more familiar with how robots work, from the inside. Not necessarily the technical details so much as just an understanding of how she responds to situations, if you see what I mean. Maybe that’s unfair of me–but it did feel like she should have realized, “oh, they were being tricked into thinking they were doing something else, oh, this chip is used in VR goggles, maybe they were being tricked by making them see something”. Max, too, didn’t seem bad at technology or uncreative in general. And they were working with people who were experts in those robots!

          Plus, well–even if it’s theoretically reasonable and realistic for the main characters to not figure out something or make a connection right away, I don’t think it’s necessarily ideal for a mystery. Granted, it’s always going to be a balancing act between that and having the characters be too smart (or, worse, figure out something based on information the reader wasn’t given), and if it’s a fair mystery then there’s nothing you can do to make sure every reader figures it out at the same time.

          In some ways it felt like they were doing the legwork and collecting clues, but not trying too hard to put those clues together. Even though they were both trying hard and very motivated to solve the problem! It didn’t quite seem like they were making progress until the end.

    3. Urthman says:

      I liked how meticulously, scrupulously fair Shamus was in setting up the how of the mystery. We see that people can be fooled into thinking robots are people (Jen), we see that people can be fooled into thinking people are robots (the casino heist), we see that robots can be fooled into thinking robots are people (Jen and the maintenance bots), we see that VR is a thing (Max seeing security camera footage overlaid on the real world), we see that robots are driven to protect humans and will have no hesitation smashing a robot’s head to protect a human (Jen), we see robots can harm human beings if they don’t know what they are doing (the crop dusters).

      By the time we get to the animation of the robot killing the child, it seems obvious Shamus is making the trade of letting the reader enjoy solving the mystery before Max at the risk of making Max seem kinda slow. But I thought it was okay because Max is so clever about everything else, especially about manipulating people, that he can be slow about this one thing without me turning against him. And he spends most of the book with serious sleep-deprivation.

      And I think it’s okay that Jen is not able/willing to consider the possibility that a robot’s sensory input could be so totally compromised. She’s as sure she would never kill a human as you are that you wouldn’t eat a baby, and the idea that you could be tricked into doing it is pretty deeply unsettling.

      What I found totally implausible was that Dr. Kvenst and the G-K group that trains robot brains wouldn’t have thought of this right off as a possibility. They’re already doing the Cartesian Vat Brain thing of completely separating a robot brain from its sensory apparatus and putting it into a new body which can have different sensory capabilities (note Jen wants an upgrade to see better in some lighting conditions). It seems really likely that humans altering the robot’s sensory input would already be part of how they trained the robot brains.

      The one fig leaf in the story is the idea that the bad guys needed that enormous totally-illegal mega mainframe to develop the idea. And that the idea was so far off the map in the story’s world, nobody thought of it; it was produced by an evolutionary algorithm searching for a way to make a robot kill a person. Maybe it would have worked better if the mainframe had also been necessary to make it technically possible, like somebody at the end said something like, “But the processing power to produce an animation good enough to fool a robot would be…” “They used a megabrain.” “Oh, that would do it.”

      But since we spend so little time with Dr. Kvenst, I don’t think it hurts the book very much for her character to have this glaring blind spot.

  3. Lino says:

    This book is amazing. I’m not eligible to have my Amazon review posted, so I can’t help you on that front. But I think this book is very special. I love the way it introduces and discusses complex and technical topics in an understandable and approachable way. It had one of the most believable worlds I’ve ever seen in fiction, and it was the type of story suited for someone who doesn’t have a lot of free time. One of the unpleasant side effects of working full-time is the fact that I can’t really read detective novels anymore – I don’t have time to read every day, so whenever I take a break, I’ve already forgotten everything about the case, and have to start the book all over again (until I have another break, and the whole process repears). TOKOL, however, is the perfect kind of detective story – it’s easy to follow, flows very well, yet still encourages you to think. It was a very hard book to put down.
    I loved the setting – it was atypical enough to be interesting and unique, yet familiar enough to keep it grounded.
    For what it’s worth, I actually imagined Max to be a lot older-looking than Laurence Fishburne, and I imagined Jen Five as she appeared on the cover (by the way, I think the pun in her name was explained in the book itself).
    The present tense was really distracting at first, but towards the middle of the book, it stopped being such an issue. If I had to criticize something, it would be that there were too many villains, and I kind of felt that none of them really had enough build-up to make them feel very menacing. However, I also don’t know who you could cut. If I had to choose, it would probably have to be the 3 Little Pigs, because I’ve personally never liked the bully-type of villain (because that’s the only type of villainy we ever see from them). All of the scenes with them were ones I was glad were over, because they were just a bunch of jerks who kept us from engaging with the interesting parts of the plot. But then again, you need them as something to motivate Max before he gets the case.
    My final gripe probably stems form me being an idiot, but initially I didn’t really understand what happened in the end. Initially, I thought that Jen Five was posing as Halona, but then it turned out that this was the Jen Five that died? Was it Halona who got shot in the bad guy’s office? The geography of the whole setup was very confusing, and it kind of diminished the ending, because I had to read through Jen’s explanation a couple of times, and that really killed the scene’s momentum.
    However, none of that ruins this great book. I still vividly remember my favourite parts, such as the many interesting debates and musing regarding the nature of AI, intelligence, and even crime itself. I also loved the chapter about Max’s backstory and his family.
    Additionally, I was very pleasantly surprised at how well the action scenes were written – they were exciting, well described and easy to follow.
    I really hope the book does well, because it definitely deserves to!

    1. You could probably post it to Goodreads (which auto adds to Amazon.)

      1. Lino says:

        I didn’t know that. I posted it on Goodreads, but I don’t think it got reflected on Amazon. Still, it bumps up the overall Goodreads score, so that’s nice, I guess.

  4. BlueHorus says:

    Wait, the spoiler thread’s here before the Epub version’s available?

    … :(

    1. Sorry, Shamus’ wife, aka editor/publisher/secretary/all the other stuff so Shamus can focus on writing person, is currently working 60 hrs a week at 4 different jobs and literally does not have time to spend on the epub, which is the hardest format to get to lay out properly (only because Kindle now has a lovely program that makes it just work for Kindle, but there isn’t something that really works to export that yet.) Right this inute is the first time I have had my laptop open in a month, and that was to finally get the createspace to kdp export handled, and fix typos in the print edition.

  5. “His free education is so effective that it will be years before I even realize I am being educated.”

    Isn’t that’s future tense though?

    Seems to me your writing is a PPF (Past Present Future) tense.

    You also say “Standard Tense” but I can’t find that here

    I guess one could also say that in that example you are writing a Present tense narrator that is in turn talking of past events in present tense with future (but past to the narrator) events from that point in time.

    Maybe just give up trying to classify it as something else and instead call it all Shamus Tense?

  6. Kdansky says:

    Grammar: Something that works for a (first person) autobiography does not necessarily work for a (third person) novel. And Stevenson is not exactly a safe bet when it comes to writing style. He’s the guy who re-invented half the dictionary for Anathem, something which every editor and writer will tell you is a very bad idea: Don’t confuse the reader by calling a table an “X’lithrope”, because it’s just not fun to read when your sentences are littered with gibberish.

    It’s not just the PT which detracts. It’s the combination of PT plus third person omniscient narrator who talks in a colloquial manner with his own personality. Instead of switching tenses, switching perspective would have worked as well: Make it internal to Max, and suddenly a ton of sentences work much better. Ironically, the autobiography was in first person, and that worked very well.

    > Max is sitting in his new hotel room, attempting to enjoy a hotel cheeseburger. This thing is a bit fancy for his tastes. It’s too big, too neat, and just doesn’t quite have the fun and simplicity of a proper fast food burger. Room service sent it up with a knife and fork, for fuck’s sake.

    The narrator has quite the attitude. He even curses. Basically the narration style is completely confused and that hurts the prose.



    1. Landro radically changes his personality half-way through the book, from awkward into arrogant smooth-talker.

    2. Why the engineers did not bother to check whether the video input stream was tampered with bothered me a little. It’s a very obvious attack angle.

    3. Why does Landro even hire Max? As a fall-guy? To me it would have made more sense if the person hiring Max and the villain had been two people, but that would have added the problem of introducing more characters. However that would not have been such a bad thing, there are very few characters of note, and the only interesting culprits from a drama-perspective were Landro and Kvenst.

    4. The book can be reviewed as “great theme, mediocre execution”. The idea of Jen trying to protect her product line from tampering because she sees herself as a new species is quite frankly brilliant.

    1. Syal says:

      Make it internal to Max, and suddenly a ton of sentences work much better.

      I think it is all internal to Max. Was there a particular section where the narrator knew something Max didn’t?

    2. Dreadjaws says:

      Landro radically changes his personality half-way through the book, from awkward into arrogant smooth-talker.

      I’d say it’s obvious that he simply lets his guard down and stops pretending.

      Why the engineers did not bother to check whether the video input stream was tampered with bothered me a little. It’s a very obvious attack angle.

      You mean, why didn’t they bother to check on the part where the head of the robot exploded and as such they had nothing to check? I don’t understand this complaint. What am I missing here?

      Why does Landro even hire Max?

      Because Max isn’t really a detective and Landro didn’t expect he’d make the connection back to him? Remember, for all Landro knows, Max is a robot hacker. I’m pretty sure he even points all this out.

      And I have to agree with Syal here. The book is clearly written from Max’s perspective. At no point there’s a scene where other characters are doing something and he isn’t present.

      I don’t want to sound harsh, but it really seems like the problems you had with the book come from your side.

      1. kdansky says:

        If you write an internal monologue, write it in first person. Nobody puts pickles on ice cream, and nobody writes internal monologues in third person (present). Of course you don’t have to follow the rules, but then don’t complain when people don’t like it because it tastes weird.

        No need to physically check the robot. You know that something can intercept the camera-to-brain data transfer, if you know that the images are transmitted between the devices on an unsecured channel, and since both brain and camera are physically accessible by an attacker, the channel is provably insecure. In essence this is the HDTV issue of trying to encrypt your data while also allowing the customer to see it.

        This may sound like wizardry to a layman like you, but it’s pretty obvious to someone with a background of software security, and I would expect the engineering team who built the robots to be at least as competent as a grad student. It’s not a glaring plot hole because to the average reader it’s not obvious, but it breaks under close scrutiny.

        1. Shamus says:

          “If you write an internal monologue, write it in first person. Nobody puts pickles on ice cream, and nobody writes internal monologues in third person (present).”

          Neil Stephenson does. The very first chapter of Cryptonomicon is Bobby Shaftoe’s POV, present tense, third person. I don’t know of any other present-tense writers, so I don’t know if his approach is unique or not.

        2. Dreadjaws says:

          This may sound like wizardry to a layman like you

          No, your implication still makes no sense, no matter how disgustingly condescending you are.

          Here’s what happened: guy got himself a bunch of robots and installed the chip on them. Those robots see things differently but no one else can. No one knows this was done by installing chips. Sure, someone at some point might intuit it could be the case, but what can they do? They can check their robot stock, and that’s going to do nothing, because the affected robots are in possession of the attacker. They can look for a strange signal and they’re going to find none, because the visual signal is physically transferred through the chips.

          And even if they figure out that someone is using chips to transfer a video signal they still can’t check it because the signal can’t be seen by anyone other than the robots using the chips. They wouldn’t be able to see anything different even if all robots had constant wireless transfer of their video feeds to a secure location. Remember, the signal isn’t being replaced, something is simply being layered on top. This is like two people playing a game online, and from your side your character looks like Iron Man because you downloaded a mod, but the other guy doesn’t have that mod, so he sees it as a normal character.

          Worse, the signal is only available at the time of attack and, being a terrorist attack and all, there’s no warning before it, so even if they had a way to see how the signal had been tampered, by the time the tampering happens the robot is already destroyed.

          You’re blaming people for not doing something based on knowledge they’re not privy to. Just because you know (and only because you read it) it doesn’t mean they know.

    3. Paul Spooner says:

      Hey! Some of us like Anathem!
      Yeah, the present tense third person was a bit odd. I agree that first person (like in Anathem for instance) would have been a better fit.

    4. Urthman says:

      Strong disagree. I think the narrative voice is one of the best parts about the book. I really like that it’s a third-person narrator telling the story the way Max himself would tell it (describing things they way he would think about them and using the language he would use), but without it being a running first-person monologue. I found it very engaging and very much part of what made the book good.

  7. Droid says:

    There’s a lot of good things to say about this book, but I think everyone else already covered that part: it’s intriguing, original, consistent, flows well (especially in the beginning) and has a good mix of worldbuilding, story/character exposition, exploration of Max’s thought process and Max acting or witnessing others’ actions.
    It really was a great read!

    That said, I can also echo some of the complaints about the ending feeling rushed:
    – there is no indication about how exactly the people’s paranoia escalates further after the last attack, just that Rivergate is apparently becoming a madhouse. That doesn’t mean very much to the reader, especially since it’s kind of a madhouse most of the time, anyway.
    – the crooked cop encounters feel somewhat like a mandatory cutscene between the parts of the story that interest me. They’re in this strange spot of being simultaneously too well established to be forgotten about by the story, but at the same time not important enough to give them the page count to do anything interesting with them.
    – Max seems surprisingly apathetic in the ending: sure, his plan doesn’t work out and Jen is going out of her way to cover for him, so he does end up in a tough spot because of his own overambition, but he, within a few pages, just gives up on Clare with no resolution to that arc apart from abandoning their relationship (again), manages to get nothing out of his ruse to blame the cops for the casino job (I’ll come back to this later) and just generally has to start from scratch, which he seems to just shrug off.
    – Circling back: blaming the cops doesn’t really feel rewarding because both the Brothers and the cops are being kind of dumb to fall for that, and the cops, as said above, weren’t very interesting to begin with, while the threat from the Brothers finding out about the casino job isn’t really gone; they could still find out about Max’s involvement, there are still loose threads that could lead them to him, but since they have not made any progress within the last few years, it felt like a cold case to begin with)
    – I also second the criticism that the mystery felt kinda lame in the end. It’s framed as this ludicrously impossible thing to happen, but in the end, the solution feels very mundane. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that I very much agree with one of your fundamental theses that AI this complex would be a lot less like a present-day machine and a lot more like a person in their assessment of their surroundings; but that had the side effect that I constantly asked myself why no one ever considered that the robots might have been tricked, seeing as nowadays, the biggest security risk for properly protected systems is social engineering, which (I would say) is a lot like what happened in the book: abusing a weak link created by too trusting an individual. Generally I found the premise that no one would have even considered exploiting the 2nd gen robots’ trust to enact some casual vandalism.

    1. krellen says:

      I don’t think the crooked cops were ever presented as particularly clever; they were clever enough to know Max was a criminal, but not clever enough to ever actually catch him doing crime, so they had to frame him to get him. Max tricking them seemed pretty natural. And pegging the casino job on them does resolve the casino threat, because the Brothers have their answer (both the how and the who), so there’s no need for them to dig any further.

      As for the mystery – people aren’t going to assume robots are tricked because tricking them requires hacking them, and hacking them requires access, which means Derek Stone was basically the only local who could trick them, and he hadn’t presented any reason for GK to doubt his loyalty to them (he did, after all, depend on them for his survival and Kasarans probably wouldn’t give a second thought to the many ways they had already ruined his life.)

      1. Droid says:

        The cops are not really clever, true. But they would have to be very cunning and well prepared to pull off the casino heist. The Brothers would know that. If they thought even for a moment that the cops are just dumb muscle incapable of anything beyond bullying people into submission, there’s no way (that I can see) that they just believe Max. Especially since Max tells us the way they framed him was some last-minute effort to avoid some serious investigation into their department’s corruption (IIRC).
        On the other hand, if the cops are clever enough to make Max’s story believable for the Brothers (who do seem to strive to be well-informed), then they would know better than to just follow Max’ directions to some storage room without even thinking of the possibility that it might be a ruse, a trap, or any other sort of foul play by the notoriously cunning Max.

        And I know that normal people might not think that robots could be tricked, but the leading experts have thought about the possibility of tricking a robot into an overall harmful frame of mind; to the extent that they made robots VERY prone to inaction to avoid them jumping to possibly genocidal conclusions based on incomplete or outright mis-information. If I’m not mistaken, Jen Five explicitly says that robots could be tricked into believing something in a similar way a human could be tricked, and therefore the engineers decided to make intervention into human conflict completely off-limits.

        I know it’s not quite the same concept, but it’s similar enough in my mind that it seems very strange that they would have thought about the one possibility without thinking of the other when presented with pretty clear proof that their robots had been tampered with.

    2. Droid says:

      Sorry, I rushed out the last part of the comment. What I meant to say was:

      It also seems really strange that of all the people the 2nd gen cleaning robots came into contact with every day, not one had the same idea that Max came up with on-the-fly: a trusting and strong robot who would neglect their own self-preservation to help you could be a really useful tool to do some really mischievous stuff, probably without getting caught as long as you’re not too easily recognisable (the robots are described as having bad face recognition).
      As someone who has witnessed a lot of trolling and vandalism wherever people weren’t likely to face consequences, it seems insane that this wasn’t used specifically for some low-risk vandalism by some tech-savvy assholes without much else to do.

  8. RCN says:

    Huh. I was imagining Felix as Doctor Facilier from Disney’s Princess and the Frog.

  9. Syal says:

    I thought Max was quite interesting, and Jen Five as an uncanny valley robot who’s smart enough to know she’s uncanny was the high point of the book. I don’t read a lot of cyberpunk, or mysteries, so no good frame of reference on those. I did read Caves of Steel, and definitely see a resemblance.

    Time for nitpicks! Now where’s my fine-toothed comb…

    The first thing we learn about Max is that he carries two lighters in order to give different impressions to people, but several times through the book he meets a new character, and gives them a light with an unspecified lighter. I wanted to know what impression Max was trying to make; for the businessman, for the scientist, does he lead with Cheap Max or Fancy Max?

    The present tense worked fine for the most part, but there was a section early on where the book quickly switched from present to past back to present and it felt like gears stuttering.

    There’s a section where you mention Rivergate, and then you mention the capital city, and then you talk about “the city”, and it took about a page before I could tell “the city” was Rivergate and not the capital.

    The nightclub scene with the goon was a really good scene I thought. Breaking a guy’s arm, and “That guy was hitting way too hard”, both treated like a business faux pas.

    The conversation about a killer robot having to be reprogrammed from scratch left two major questions dangling for the rest of the story. The first was why nobody thought the military would have killer robot tech, the second was how the crop duster managed to dust two humans if robots can’t harm humans. Max saying “makes sense” instead of asking either of those questions knocked me out of the story a bit and got me noticing just how many discussions ended with the two fictional characters agreeing the matter was settled. It’s speculative fiction, the reader’s supposed to engage the questions themselves, don’t close out the question with a book character consensus. Make them run out of questions, make them agree to disagree, make them get interrupted, but don’t make them get comfortable with the other side’s answer.

    Max’s past came out of nowhere, and only served to establish Uncle Gord, whose section could also have been cut. A few isolated comments of “Uncle Gord would have said something like this” could have replaced both of those sections. If you really needed to have Max’s past in there, it probably would have been better to put it at the very beginning, as what he’s thinking about on the boat ride home from jail.

    I liked the various technology discussions, the one about facial expressions standing out. It’s a fun question, especially since you know it has an answer because humans do it all the time.

    Calling Max a gangster feels wrong. He doesn’t have a gang.

    Stone’s death kind of deflated the story, but that was probably intentional.

    “Like cat eyes in headlights” is a bit of a weird metaphor. (Nothing contradicted my “Cat-Murderin’ Max” narrative; one line about pets being a nuisance hilariously served to reinforce it.)

    The story starts with Max saying he needs money for revenge, but the way he got revenge was available to him before the story began. (I also saw it coming; we’ve got exactly two ghosts from Max’s past, one needing killing, the other looking for someone to kill. Like peanut butter and peanut allergies.) I was expecting Max’s past to have a bigger part to play, honestly; the entire first couple of chapters are dedicated to it.

    One thing I noticed by comparing it to Witch Watch, nearly every character in both books is some level of incompetent or mean. Would have liked some fully positive characters in there somewhere.

    1. Lino says:

      The conversation about a killer robot having to be reprogrammed from scratch left two major questions dangling for the rest of the story. The first was why nobody thought the military would have killer robot tech, the second was how the crop duster managed to dust two humans if robots can’t harm humans.

      That was the whole point of the conversations about how AI works. That was exactly the question: “How would you make killer AI work, given the way machine learning works?” How can you make the AI kill one type of human and not another? How would it be able to distinguish between friendly and enemy humans? Read the conversation again, they talk about why the military can’t have special technology for killer robots. If they did, then the whole universe the book presents would need to be completely changed. The entire book would have to be completely reworked. That’s the whole mystery – how could you make a robot kill?

      Max’s past came out of nowhere, and only served to establish Uncle Gord, whose section could also have been cut. A few isolated comments of “Uncle Gord would have said something like this” could have replaced both of those sections. If you really needed to have Max’s past in there, it probably would have been better to put it at the very beginning, as what he’s thinking about on the boat ride home from jail.

      I actually really liked the section about Max’s past – it served well to explain why he was so different from all of the other criminals in this world. I think the section with Gord (one of my favourite chapters) was also necessary to show the perspective about how automating labour can be harmful to humans.

      By the way, I love the way threads like these show just how different we all are – very often your favourite parts may be exactly the parts that I hated, and vice versa. It makes you wonder how we people were ever able to achieve something throughout the history of civilization :D

      1. Syal says:

        They talk about why the military doesn’t do it at the end of the book. I spent three quarters of the book asking that question.

      2. Likewise, the humans are supposed to be wearing masks to protect themselves from the spray. It’s not the crop duster’s job to avoid spraying humans. It’s probably not even designed to think about that as a possible variety of “harm”. Instead, it’s likely programmed more along the lines of “don’t run into or over humans or their vehicles”.

        1. Syal says:

          It’s probably not even designed to think about that as a possible variety of “harm”.

          But that’s the thing; if humans have to take additional action to avoid being harmed, it means the robots aren’t smart enough to know when they’re harming them, which is very relevant to the questions Max is asking. Even a simple “it’s non-toxic but it stinks” would be enough, but Max ignoring it entirely is a problem.

          1. Paul Spooner says:

            Or the robots know better than the humans what is safe for humans. The masks are there for liability reasons, but the robots and the farmer know it’s basically fine.

  10. Richard says:

    Did you have anyone in mind for the narrator, too?

    I enjoyed the world-building and the plot (though like others mentioned you might have foreshadowed the cause of the killings a bit too strongly).

    The narrator’s voice, for me, felt off, however. Felt more appropriate to one of your columns analyzing the game industry than to a narrative in which we should have some emotional investment. By now it’s been a while since I read the book so specific examples don’t come to mind, except for the fight scene in the strip club office. The narration seemed strangely detached, like analysing from a distance in space and possibly time rather than immediate, right there, in the action.

    Though I was rather charmed that the narrator seemed very ‘you’, in that the prose seemed to come alive most during the abstract slightly tangential bits of world-building, rather than in sections directly to do with the main plot. The whole book came off more as an excuse for some detailed, interested world-building (not least in most of the conversations between the main characters) than a narrative you wanted to share. I kept feeling a novel was not the best medium for what you seemed to want to do here (though I can’t think of anything better; don’t think there’s much money in RPG settings…).

    Anyway, interested in whether you thought consciously about narrative voice (beyond the tense), and if so, what your thoughts were there. (And if not, my two cents, I’d recommend you do so for your next project.)

    I happened to read a Charles Stross novel right before yours. Might be interesting to read some of his work, if you haven’t yet. His writing is journeyman-like, obviously very structured and showing all the seams; but effective, enjoyable (and seemingly commercially successful).

    And on an unrelated note, was it just me or was the scientist with the combine harvesters a Checkov’s gun which didn’t fire? Kept expecting him to somehow be involved…

    Thank you for writing the book and sharing it with us!

    1. krellen says:

      Why is everyone assuming the narrator isn’t Max? It seemed pretty clear to me that everything was from Max’s point of view, to the point that when Max doesn’t know something (like what Jen is up to at the end), neither do we.

      1. Duoae says:

        Yeah that’s my understanding as well. We use all of Max’s senses but we only get a surface-level feeling for what’s going on in his mind through his interactions with other people. Most notably, Jen.

        1. Paul Spooner says:

          Because then why doesn’t Max say “I” instead of “he” when describing events? It’s because it’s in 3rd person. And, that’s fine. 3rd person limited narrator is fine. But the narrator is glued to Max. So, if we’re going to have the inconvenience of a narrator that has only the sensory information that Max has, why do we also need the inconvenience of the third person? Why not just make it first person?

          There are a lot of neat things we could have gotten from a third person perspective. How about Max’s phone is the narrator? Or his government file information after this whole fiasco is all over? Or Jen Five’s surviving gestalt? But we don’t get any of those perspectives. We’re basically stuck with a first person perspective, but a disassociated one that refuses to personally identify with the events taking place. It’s like the narrator is Max’s face or something.

          1. WWWebb says:

            The Tense thing:
            The other problem with third-person present tense is that it lowers the apparent reading level. Whenever I hear it, I’m immediately reminded of books written for small children. Sentence after sentence of subject-verb-object in narration is particularly jarring when the dialog is so smooth. As I said before, it reminded me of reading a screenplay.

            The setting thing:
            Having read your disclaimer ahead of time I completely understand (and agree) why you did it. However, someone who hadn’t read the disclaimer might be confused for the first few chapters trying to figure out where/when this is set. Even knowing all this, it took me half the book before I was comfortable enough in the setting to ignore the setting. What’s the narrative shorthand for “not too long from now, in a galaxy far, far away…”?
            PS- The joke about Jupiter and Saturn as parent/child names immediately made me think “only this Earth’s Roman mythology”.

            The typo thing:
            Location 1780 (Kindle) “He accent is confusing,” The or His, but definitely not He unless we suddenly in Jamaica.

    2. SAD1 says:

      “was it just me or was the scientist with the combine harvesters a Checkov’s gun which didn’t fire? Kept expecting him to somehow be involved…”

      He was there to explain “But what do they Eat!” :)

      1. Richard says:

        Haha, ok, fair enough, thanks for clearing that up

  11. Gargamel Le Noir says:

    So I really liked the book. In my review (on Amazon France so nobody will see it I suppose) I said it was an updated Caves of Steel and I stand by it. It has what I loved about that book : A rugged but smart and deliberate credible cyberpunk protagonist and actually robotic robot partner, and their investigation being only an excuse to explore the setting.

    My positives :
    Jen Five’s amazing, I can’t get enough of her. She’s alien and endearing and weird and credible. She’s worried when you walk near the road and making plans for having her “kids” beaten and raped by psychotic humans to make them feel better. She’s one of the best robotic characters in fiction.
    Max is very good as well, he’s blander of course, but not nearly as much as most protagonist. I really like his “low risk, high planning” style of method and criminal activities.
    The setting is super cool, it’s “what do they eat” applied entirely to the Cyberpunk genre, and it’s great to have a setting that is cool without just depending on the rule of cool.

    My negatives :
    The pacing was way off for me. I knew going in the book that there would be a ton of talking of exposition and that’s great, but the story still has to advance while the universe is developed. For example Max’s discussion with that farm drones guy should have impacted the story somehow, not just gave him (and us) a crash course in robotics. The character doesn’t even reappear later, so that’s a costly waste of characterization, in a book where all non Max/Jen characters feel underdeveloped. For at least half of the books if not two thirds the investigation feels like it’s at a dead end.

    The three little pigs subplot didn’t work. It was a cool idea, but they just blundered in like an unwanted sidequests and were unceremoniously dealt with at the end as an afterthought. We don’t even know why they singled out Max in the first place if I’m not mistaken. I’d rather you had found a way to include them more in the main plot (in a not too coincidental way, like have their ill-gotten fame cause them to take the robot killer cases since it’s the most important in town). Also maybe they should only have been temporarily defeated at the end and kept as a next book teaser, with the reveal that Max wasn’t targeted at random.

    Other people have pointed it out but the mystery’s reveal didn’t work. It was one of the first things I thought off, and I was surprised nobody in the books did, despite the fact that other much less obvious theories were explored. Even in the book when they get confirmation of what happened it’s treated like nothing. If even the characters are not impressed with the explanation, it’s hard for us to be. I think you should have explored this avenue early in the book, debunk it, and then found a reason why it was possible after all. For example the robots’ creators have strict CRC check on the video input or something, but during the investigation we learn that the kids who pirate the machines have long found an exploit for a certain generation of CRC algorithms.

    But still the positives far outweigh the negative, thanks as usual for the cool read Shamus!

    1. krellen says:

      I think Max’s talk with Uncle Gord is what got him thinking about Landro’s motives, but I agree the book did not make that clear.

      1. Gargamel Le Noir says:

        I meant the discussion with the AI specialist who maintained his fleet of farm drones very early in the book. But yeah Uncle Gord is a good example too, despite the encounter itself being pretty cool.

  12. Darius says:

    I really enjoyed the book, I think I still liked Free Radical more, but this was a good read. I really enjoyed the bits discussing the complexities of AI, I really enjoy reading about AI and it’s rare that fiction treats it in a way that doesn’t make me roll my eyes.

    Some other thoughts:

    I have to agree with what others have said, the mystery was pretty easy to figure out. As soon as they talked about the haunted circuit projecting video I had it figured out.

    As I was reading it, especially at the beginning, there were several sections that made me laugh and think Shamus definitely wrote this. Good in depth discussion about “What do they eat?” and the politics and other forces that shaped the world, very impressive world building.

    I thought you did a good job of explaining why a robot wouldn’t just decide to start killing people, and it felt like you were doing some hinting as to how AI could still be dangerous. Like the way that Jen Five kept interposing herself between Max and physical harm. She was compelled to protect him, even if he didn’t really need or want it. And she talked about wanting to eventually reach the point where there was one of her for every human, Max told her that he thought that was creepy, but it didn’t discourage her. Those things seems like they could serve as good fodder for another story. Maybe Jen Five will return at a later time as a well intentioned villain?

  13. sheer_falacy says:

    I enjoyed the book overall a lot – it’s a cool world and an interesting take on robots. That said, into the nitpicking!

    The engineers continuously saying “it’s impossible for a robot to kill” was very odd – that sounded way more like a marketing soundbite than something the people working on it would believe. Like, they have the “would you eat a baby” question and he answers, accurately, that there are in fact people who have eaten babies in the past in very extreme circumstances. But they never consider that the robots might have thought it was that extreme of a circumstance, even though we’ve been repeatedly told that the gen 2 robots are pretty dumb and have been show onscreen that they’re pretty gullible when Max gets one to tear open its owners property trivially. We are told that the robots have a strong bias towards inaction when lives are measured against each other but frankly so do humans.

    And then there are some specific lines I can point to that kind of took me out of the story, as “tell, don’t show” moments. Specifically, “he says this like it’s a confession, but it’s actually a profound realization and re-alignment of his entire perception of her”, and later “Max is going through the same sort of re-alignment of perceptions with Jen” (quotes not actually related, though the reuse of “re-alignment” made both stand out to me more). This is trying to show us a significant change in the protagonist by just saying that there’s a significant change. It works awkwardly with the third person omniscient narrator. There was actually a line that got a similar reaction from me in The Witch Watch (“From that point on, they took Gilbert at his word and allowed him to move unhindered”).

    1. melted says:

      The funny(?) thing is, there’s an answer/line of questioning to the “would you eat a baby” thing that kind of parallels the answer to the mystery! Like:

      “Would you eat a baby?”
      “No, of course not!”
      “Okay, what if someone didn’t tell you it was baby meat? What if they never mentioned babies or cannibalism and just told you it was [acceptable food] instead, and made it look like that’s what it was, and you were convinced there was nothing wrong with the food?”
      “Hm, well, I’m definitely not eating dinner at your house.”

  14. krellen says:

    Possibly because I immediately equated the statue of Halona with Cristo Redentor, I kept envisioning Rivergate as Rio and Marcun as Brazil, so while I saw the locals as dark-skinned (since they were described such), they were more Afro-Brazilian than American Black.

    Also, I don’t think her hair was ever described so I had assumed Dr. Kvenst was blonde.

    1. IIRC the Kasaranians are described as having very dark hair (often black), aquiline looks, and ultra-pale skin, and Dr. Kvenst was put forth as, like, the most Kasaranian person EVARR. So, like Black Irish or some Jewish persons, maybe.

      1. krellen says:

        Landro, who is not Kasarainian, is noted as being obviously not Kasarainian because guys from Kasaran are not known for having big noses and jet-black hair. I don’t recall a specific physical description of Kasarainians other than being light-skinned.

    2. Lino says:

      I also imagined the characters having a more brownish complexion, similar to the way most Brazilians look.

  15. Cubic says:

    Don’t mind me, I’ll just pick this low hanging fruit

    “as long as it’s discrete” (discreet)

    1. Droid says:

      They just REALLY dislike it when your marital infidelity becomes a continuous thing, you know?

      1. No, no, it means that they want you to boink your mistress in a hotel room instead of in the house.

        You don’t have to HIDE it, but do it in the other room, m’kay?

    2. decius says:

      You just have to set boundaries.

  16. Zak McKracken says:

    Oohf! I’m not sure if this stuff wasn’t taught in school where you live, (or maybe you weren’t interested, or maybe that’s the stuff mostly only known to people who learned English as a foreign language? Or maybe it’s not actually used in your part of the world?) but:

    Tense: simple (continuous) [what it’s used for]
    Present tense: I eat a sandwich (I am eating a sandwich) [stuff that happens “now”]
    Present perfect: I have eaten a sandwich (I have been eating a sandwich) [stuff that just happened or is still affecting the present]
    Past tense: I ate a sandwich (I was eating a sandwich) [back in the past — but now I’m hungry again]
    Past Perfect (or “pluperfect”): I had eaten a sandwich (I had been eating a sandwich) [stuff from before the “regular” past] past perfect is exactly what you should use for a flashback, in a story told in the past tense. That’s is what this tense was invented for, and the reason why flashbacks in stories told in past tense aren’t really a problem.

  17. Warclam says:

    I get that a lot of people associate PT with fanfiction. I guess the practice is common in that subculture. That’s unfortunate, but we can’t let good tools go unused because many people use them poorly.

    Query: are you stating that fanfiction is inherently a poor use of writing (and, a few sentences on, inherently childish)? That seems staggeringly unlikely, given that you wrote Free Radical, and yet I can’t read this paragraph as saying anything else.

    1. Shamus says:

      Fanfiction has a terrible reputation. I haven’t read enough to have a first-hand opinion on it.

      1. That’s because it’s almost exclusively written by amateurs. And most amateur writers are simply *bad writers*–otherwise they’d be making money at it, as easy as it is to put your hat out these days, provided you’re writing something original that you COULD actually sell without getting a license first. Almost by definition, if you’re focused on using other people’s material, you’re not good enough to go pro.

        Granted, I read enough “here’s an almost-free promotional novel by a writer you’ve never heard of!” to conclude that most PROFESSIONAL writers are NOT MUCH BETTER. There’s enough of a spread that you can easily find fanfiction writers who are better than pro’s, but it’s usually a sign that the pro is pretty bad and the fanfiction writer is toward the top end of fanfiction quality.

        1. RCN says:

          Then there’s also the fanfiction works that are fascinating in structure and would just NEVER be published. Not because they are bad, or good, but just because they’re waaaaaaaay too out there.

          Things like HHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH is an… interesting piece to say the least.

  18. Retsam says:

    I know this is going to sound like a back-handed compliment (given the internet’s common view of that movie), but I, Robot is one of my favorite movies, and this book reminded me of the good parts of the I, Robot movie[1]: it’s got a cynical, streetwise black guy, who pairs up with a roboticist expert and a robot to solve a robot crime that should be impossible, in a lightly cyberpunk setting, with a lot of discussion on the nature of humans and robots. (Though in this case, the robotics expert and the robot are the same character)

    So that’s pretty cool, in my book.

    I feel like this book might appeal to the “rationalist fic” fandoms; it’s a ton of what they really like: a rational protagonist who solves problems with critical thinking and cleverness. They’d probably dig the approach to AI as well.

    I don’t know what sort of channels would be the proper venue for recommending the book at those people, though.

    I thought Max felt a bit like an “author avatar” at times: just some aspects of his personality and outlook felt a lot like Shamus. An example that stuck out to me was where he makes a comment about being frustrated that the word “black box” means one thing in engineering and another thing in computer science: it was just a very “Shamus”-like thing to complain about.

    If I were to criticize one bit of the plot, I think I’d say it could have had a bit more conflict. Not like a giant blockbuster action sequence with Will Smith gunning down robots, but more moment to moment stuff. The “three little pigs” were conflict, but they were mostly background detail for Max and rather disconnected from the plot.

    Mostly, I actually think more conflict between Jen Five and Max would have been nice. This book kinda has the “buddy cop” formula where two vastly different characters have to work to solve a problem – and the book used that to great effect for its world-building and discussion of robotics – but I think friction between the two characters is important to that formula, and was missing here.

    I it makes sense that Jen’s character is all about avoiding “friction”, but they could have had more sharp disagreement on viewpoints, or more moments where their interests disalign (there’s one at the end when he confronts Lando, but that the only one I can think of) or where they argue about what the best course of action is. Without this, the book was kinda mellow at places.

    Syal pointed out how so many of their discussions boil down to one character explaining their position, and the other one going “that makes sense” and then the story moves on, and I think that’s sort of the lack of conflict that I’m talking about. The near constant consensus between the two leads undercut a good potential source of fruitful tension.

    I noticed, when I read Syal’s comment, that my favorite conversation – when Max explains his motivation for his life of crime and Jen is unconvinced at the end of the conversation – is one of the few conversations that doesn’t end in a consensus between the two leads.

    I also think Shamus’s conception of AI is interesting, but I’m not sure I entirely agree with some of the points made in this book, on that front, in the same vein that I didn’t agree with some points raised in Shamus’s What Does a Robot Want post[2]. Feels a bit off topic to go into here; but maybe Shamus will open a thread on the topic of his conception of AI at some point in the future?

    Anyways, as always I’ve proven I’m much better at nitpicking as I really liked this book, but my negative comment was much longer than the positive things I had to say. Sorry!

    [1] Which, yes, is not at all related to the book of the same name, I know, and yes, I know the product placement is weird and blatant, and can we talk about Shamus’s book and not debate I, Robot?

    [2] And this book was “What Does a Robot Want: the Novelization”

    1. I noticed, when I read Syal’s comment, that my favorite conversation – when Max explains his motivation for his life of crime and Jen is unconvinced at the end of the conversation – is one of the few conversations that doesn’t end in a consensus between the two leads.

      That’s because most of the conversations aren’t about trying to convince anyone of anything. In fact, Max even states that THAT conversation isn’t about trying to convince Jen that he’s right. It’s just about giving his perspective. It’s quite notable because it’s apparent that MAX isn’t even sure that MAX is “right” or even what being “right” actually consists of, really.

      Almost all of the conversations in the book are heading toward some sort of factual conclusion of what is and isn’t possible. So you’d expect “agreement” because they’re trying to reach agreement *with how things work in reality*. This is pretty much what you’d expect of interactions with a machine that is dedicated to solving a problem.

      In the conversations that are evaluation-oriented, basically no one comes to a consensus, and mostly what happens is that Max doesn’t really give his opinion to avoid starting a fight. He asks a lot of questions but doesn’t say much, which also makes sense if you’re conducting an investigation that involves murderous robots and criminals.

      1. Retsam says:

        My point isn’t that the specific conversations they had shouldn’t have ended in agreement, but that I think their interactions would have carried more weight if they spent more time talking about things they didn’t necessarily agree on.

    2. Lino says:

      I feel like this book might appeal to the “rationalist fic” fandoms; it’s a ton of what they really like: a rational protagonist who solves problems with critical thinking and cleverness. They’d probably dig the approach to AI as well.

      I don’t know what sort of channels would be the proper venue for recommending the book at those people, though.

      There’s actually a subreddit for this type of fiction – . Maybe we could throw it at them and hope it sticks?

  19. I’m a big believer in the idea that the text is the text and everything outside the text is fanfic, even if it was written by me.

    OMG YES.

    I really, really, really liked this book. So much so that I recommended it to everyone I know even though I’m sure most of them have never heard of you.

    I have no clue why anyone would be bothered by the present tense thing. It’s a stylistic choice, and like EVERY STYLISTIC CHOICE THAT EXISTS, the only thing that matters is whether you used it well or not. It’s not “wrong”.

    I found it the weirdest when Max sorta defends being a criminal, because what he said was really abstract, not only like he wasn’t particularly interested in what other people think of him, but that he wasn’t interested in *what he thinks of himself*, but not quite, like the way he protects his self-image is to pretend that he doesn’t have one and that it doesn’t matter. His un-relationship with Claire really backed that up, in that he obviously could never figure out what to say to her because he had no idea what he wanted or what he was trying to accomplish and whether pursuing her would be worth the risk.

    It’s also interesting that, by the end of the book, Max has not changed in any way. His situation has changed, somewhat for the better (or at least, for the neutral), but what’s the next step for him? It’s a little strange that a book that’s all about delving into the workings of the mind (robot and human), Max’s peculiar mindset gets pretty much no exploration. It certainly adds to the low-key quality of the book, but it also makes me want to know: What happens to Max? I am waiting for a sequel.

    It also feels like there’s more to be addressed with Jen Five’s behavior at the end. I mean, she basically *enacted a con* completely on her own recognizance. It’d be fascinating for the sequel to be about Max being brought in as a consultant again because the robots of her generation (or maybe the next one) have become very manipulative in a subtle “for your own good” kind of way and Dr. Kvenst is worried that this might result in backlash of another kind and not sure how to fix it or even if it’s possible to fix it or even if it’s something that SHOULD be fixed. She has a ton sunk into the iteration of this machine personality, after all, and having to erase everything and start over would be a catastrophe. This would also force Max to come to terms a lot more directly with the ethics of manipulation and make some tough ethical conclusions about his own behavior and goals.

    1. Dreadjaws says:

      I have no clue why anyone would be bothered by the present tense thing. It’s a stylistic choice, and like EVERY STYLISTIC CHOICE THAT EXISTS, the only thing that matters is whether you used it well or not. It’s not “wrong”.

      For real. It has to be one of the pettiest complaints I’ve ever seen, and I’ve literally seen it only here.

      1. Someone who bought the book on my recommendation decided to blow up my Facebook feed about it.. But I’ve known him for a while and he has notable Robot tendencies.

      2. Bubble181 says:

        How is it petty? I was on the fence, and after reading the excerpts here, I sadly decided against buying for now. I literally couldn’t finish them.
        Yes, it’s a perfectly valid stylistic choice, but it’s also my choice whether or not I like it. It makes sentences flow very weirdly and I can’t quite get it working in my head. I don’t mind first person present tense, or first or third person past, but third person present feels like Max is speaking about himself in the third person in his head, which doesn’t quite work for me.

        Calling people disliking a stylistic choice “petty” is pretty small-minded, really. I’m allowed my personal taste, no? I know a restaurant that doesn’t serve wine, only beer. I know people who won’t go there because they want wine with dinner. Maybe it’s petty, maybe it’s just…their choice?

        1. Duoae says:

          I really enjoyed the book but i still found it very weird to read at first. Like I said in the last post – I reckon it boils down to being unfamiliar with the style.

          However, I have to admit, most people talking about the tense thing aren’t complaining – they’re saying they don’t like it. Which is different.

          Basically I’m agreeing with bubble. I was okay with it in the end but then take a book series like Gormengast and I literally dropped the first one after the first chapter because I found it unreadable. Am I petty for disliking the style? I don’t think so, but then I’m also not telling Shamus or Mervyn they’re wrong. :)

        2. Disliking and criticizing are different things. For instance, I can’t STAND chutney, but I’d never describe it as “inedible”. I just don’t like the taste.

          If you’re merely stating a matter of TASTE, that’s one thing. But people don’t do that any more, it’s like they’ve forgotten how to distinguish between style and substance altogether, assuming they ever knew. So if you’re going to be critical like it’s the universe’s job to appeal to your taste, then be prepared for people to criticize your criticism.

  20. Lino says:

    Something I forgot to mention in my original post was how apprehensive I was towards buying the book in the first place. I have a history of following reviewers and critics who, at one point or another, decide to release a piece of fiction in the field they’re criticizing, i.e. a film critic releases a film in which he/she does some acting, or they sprinkle their reviews with sketches, where, again, they do some acting. But the acting and direction is so amateurish and abysmal, that I just can never look at their work the same way again.
    Every single time a critic’s done that, I immediately lose all respect and interest in their reviews. I don’t know why that is. I think it’s because the critics I’ve had this experience with are very thorough and merciless whenever they review something, so I’m subconsciously more critical with their creative work – I mean, if they are so critical towards other people’s work, then it must be because they can do it much better.
    And since you are also very thorough with your criticisms, I was afraid I’d have the same thing happen to me again. But, even though I’ve always been burned in the past, I decided to take the chance, and I was definitely not disappointed :)
    Once I get through my backlog, I’m thinking of reading Free Radical next!

    1. Urthman says:

      I agree that I kept thinking in this novel that Shamus practices what he preaches about trying to have your world and the characters and the stuff they do all make sense.

      Even if I wasn’t always 100% convinced, I never got the sense that he didn’t care whether or not I was convinced.

  21. Redrock says:

    Don’t really have a problem with present tense. It has its benefits, I think. Mostly that it allows for a bit more unpredictability. Recounting a story in the past tense suggests to the reader that at least the protagonist made it through whatever predicament they were in in one piece and lived to literally tell the tale. Present tense makes no such promises, which can be a good thing. Granted, that mostly applies to first-person narration.

    As for the book, still haven’t read it since I’m still waiting for that ePub. Although there’s a good chance that if I finish my current reading list before the ePub sees the light of day, I’ll just cave and get the Kindle version and read it on my phone.

  22. Jack V says:

    Oh gosh, thank you for writing this book.

    I had lots of reactions, but I’ll try to keep the nitpicky stuff out of here because I think it’s mostly just stuff that bothered me and wouldn’t mean much to anyone else. I have loved reading other people’s reactions. They praised a lot of things I enjoyed but hadn’t consciously thought of as something to point out about the book. Obviously I loved the different countries, and the characters, and the robot plotting.

    FWIW, a lot of things that bothered some people I just didn’t notice, and I think you can’t avoid this: if you smooth over everything that might bother someone, you lose out on a lot of interesting quirks that other people loved. Like the Jen 5 name: I agree it makes sense to try to avoid similarities that will be jarring to some people, but I think you did about as well as you could have done, and just because it stood out to some people you probably couldn’t have fixed it without being “off” some other way.

    With the tense: I expected to hate it. I agree with you artistically, but often an unusual tense or author voice just makes it nearly impossible for some people to read, even if they agree why trying different tenses is a good thing in general, and I do often have that with some styles. But it felt completely natural, I didn’t even notice until I came back to the comments section and saw people talking about it again :)

    One thing that stood out as weird to me was things like Max being aggrieved at the other prisoner hassling him on the boat, or annoyed that the mob guy who fronted the money for the failed heist wanted it back. The complaint sounds like some of my favourite Shamus articles, and I love a main character with that kind of “why are people LIKE this??” attitude. It makes sense Max would be exasperated that people are so illogical. But Max can fight, how on earth did he live for so long with people like that without knowing that “if someone in prison demands something from you, you need to stand up to them immediately they’ll probably back down if they don’t want to fight you” and “people think they’re important mobsters always want money whether it’s logical or not”, even if he thinks of it as “time for surviving working with thugs performance #2” rather than a natural instinct.

    I could also quibble with some details about pacing, like the bit with the three pigs was great in outline, but seemed to disappear and reappear and then get shunted off at the end, I think a small amount of moving Max’s thoughts earlier or later could probably have improved it. But it’s not worth dwelling on, just that it’s something that could be done if Shamus were inclined.

    1. Personally, I think the PURPOSE of art is to give people a good hard shake now and again.

  23. Paul Spooner says:

    The city felt real, the history of it, the socio-political twists and turns. I’ve never been to Brazil, but this feels like what I would expect from visiting.

    The relationships all felt genuine. Especially the scenes with Clare, which were so perfect that it took me back to the first girl that I was going out with in college, where she was really into me and I was like “we’re just friends” and eventually she broke up with me because I wouldn’t get a clue.

    I really felt for Max, even as he was making regrettable decisions. It was like, we both know what the right choice in this situation is, but the wrong choice is so habitual by this point that it’s obvious what’s going to happen.

    Jen Five lounged luxuriously in the world-weary noir dame archetype, all mellowed out from cigarettes and not enough sleep. If anything, I would have appreciated more of this. Have Jen and Max hang out in the lobby of a casino waiting for a contact or something.

    I would have cut the chapter at the strip mine, and all the three-little-pigs stuff. They are good, but I feel like they belong in different stories. Maybe just publish them on the blog as “stuff I cut from the book because it didn’t fit” or whatever.

    1. krellen says:

      Does this comment make my “Marcun is Brazil” theory canon?

      1. RCN says:

        As a Brazilian, I can’t really tell yet as I haven’t finished it. Though Rivergate have heavy Rio vibes (a single city that takes over the characterization of a whole nation, despite not exactly fitting the nation) it felt too developed for Rio. Still, it had strictly separated the local population from the tourist population just like Rio (tourists don’t go into the favelas unless they are suicidal or looking for something REALLY illegal, but most common people just live in the favelas). The Halona statue does have a bit of a Christ the Redeemer vibe (though it also has the Statue of Liberty vibe. It feels like something taken out of World of Warcraft more than our own world). But while Brazil has a LOT of religious and cultural mingling with the native history and culture, it is a very Christian nation. To the point that if most Brazilians knew that jumping 7 waves at new year was a native custom, they’d be mortified for engaging in heresy/paganism.

        Also, as a Brazilian, the cops of Rivergate felt way too nice and actually competent in comparison. There’s a Brazilian joke that goes like this:

        “The FBI, the Scotland Yard and the BOPE (special operations battalion in Brazil) are in an international competition about police efficiency. They gather squadrons from each, go into the woods. They release a fox and wait for 5 minutes. Then they ask one of the squadrons to find the fox.

        The FBI is first. They send manned search helicopters in all directions, dogs and use the latest infrared tech. In half an hour, they find the fox.

        The Scotland Yard goes second. They get a fox behaviorist expert who works with the squadron to tell them where the fox might hide. In fifteen minutes, they find the fox.

        Then it is BOPE’s turn. In less than a minute they come out of the woods with a bloodied rat. The moment the judge tries to say that this wasn’t a fox, the rat interrupts him.

        ‘I’m a fox. I swear I’m a fox. Please, please believe me. I’m a fox. You can lock me up, send me to the gallows, anything. Just believe me I’m a fox and get me away from them.'”

        1. Gargamel Le Noir says:

          Yeah, that joke was originally made with a KGB agent I believe.

          1. Olivier FAURE says:

            Yeah, in the one I remember the KGB finds a bear.

  24. Spivak says:

    Been waiting for this for a while, and when it comes out I am too busy to write anything. Figures.

    So here are my thoughts, a little late into the discussion. First, what I liked:
    – The worldbuilding is amazing. Not only does the world feel believable and consistent, while still being weird and interesting, but you also managed to capture the psychology of a colonial culture so well I was in awe. I was born and raised in Brazil, and if you had told me the author lived there for a while and got inspiration from it I would have believed it wholeheartedly. It’s so accurate it hurts, at least in portraying the ‘soul’ of this specific culture, while still being different and alien enough that you recognize it’s not just ‘country X’ with the name swapped at the last second. Seriously good work there. I am slightly curious on how you researched that stuff, not just the facts but the internal logic and mindset of the average person living in a different country, with a different culture. You don’t have to reply though, just idle curiosity.

    – The start is very strong. We feel for Max, and despite his ruthless behavior we sympathize with him, especially after all that hardship he went through at the start. Character empathy is a bit hit-and-miss overall through the story. There are times when it works and I really care about the characters, and feel what they feel (for a given value of ‘feel’ in the case of Jen5) and times where the characters feel like cars driving us towards the next plot point or serving as mouthpieces for a debate/exposition on ethics, robotics, programming, etc… I am being critical here, but the point is that it’s a mixed bag, and when it hits, it REALLY hits. Moments that stick to the mind as powerful are: the whole relationship with Clare Gibson. Easily the best emotional arc of the story. Stone’s sister telling her brother’s life story from her perspective. Broke my heart. The casino guys scared the shit out of me, which was great.

    – The overall story flowed like water. I read the whole book in about three working days, which is pretty fast considering I don’t get too much time off and value it pretty highly. I read it on the subways, going and coming home, and the last portion I binged at night, past the time I should be asleep, but it was worth it. You manage to write in a pretty gripping way. Mysteries help.

    – I felt the mystery kept a decent balance between complex and I considered the possibility of what the villains did before Max and Jen figured it, but it was just my one theory among many. I don’t usually try to figure out mysteries, I just went along for the ride. I never considered Landro as the suspect, but I did suspect corporate skulduggery masquerading as terrorists/hackers/killer robots so in the end I was pretty close to the mystery, and I felt you always played fair in that regard. Lots of relevant information and foreshadowing.

    Now, onto the criticism

    Generally, my main gripes are that there is too much exposition/argumentation and too little emotional content in your story (I’m using ’emotional content’ here to signify ‘stuff that makes you feel emotions, especially relating to the characters’).
    – I’m not averse to a details-first story, as you put it in this blog, and to be fair I loved the worldbuilding and the debates/exposition themselves were pretty good in isolation. But there was a lot of it. A LOT. And when another exposition/debate started you could almost feel the plot grind into a halt. Characterization was also minimal in these sections. Both Max and Jen5 are already emotionally reserved as characters, so while the debates were interesting in isolation, they still stuck out like an iron nail on an iPhone, completely separated from their surroundings.
    – Also, this book didn’t make me feel as much as it should have, given the themes and the story. It starts strong, but then loses steam and by the end I was intellectually interested, but not emotionally invested. The story left me cold, although with brief and very powerful exceptions, some of which I mentioned previously. I’m not asking for it to be a dramafest. Again, Max and Jen5 are emotionally reserved characters, they don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves, which is fine. But Max doesn’t really change or learn anything, after the whole story, which is weird considering all he went through. He spent a week (?) getting to know this other kind of life, and even form a sort-of-friendship with her… And yet, at the climax of the story when said robot literally gives her life to save him, in front of him. Her barely reacts. It doesn’t even register much in the narration. And then alt-Jen5 shows up and stuff’s immediately swept under the rug. I mean… This relationship is the pillar on which the book is written, and in the end it feels like the book glosses over it like nothing, on its way to reveal what happened to the villain, and what’s happening next, and final mini-debates. If you treat something in the book like it doesn’t matter, then your reader will be far less likely to care. Which is why I cared more when Max had to say goodbye to Clare, despite the character barely being in the book, than when Jen5, a character we spent most of the book with, sacrificed her own existence for Max. And we learn that, although other of her incarnations exist, that specific Jen5 is gone for good. Those memories she last formed with us, including how Max tried to stop her from getting in the way of a shot that was meant to trick her into getting shot in the first place, will be lost, like tears in the rain. And nobody seems to care. But I digress…

    Overall, I still loved your story. And, repeating my previous comment, am glad that you wrote it. I could keep writing more, and break down specific parts of the story and say what I did and didn’t enjoy about them, but this is already long enough as it is.

    Worth noting that my tastes are specific, and I tend to be very much a ‘go with the flow’ person who prefers stories with strong emotional content – stuff that makes me laugh like crazy, creeps me out, makes me sad… essentially, stories that get a strong emotional response out of me – and this whole review/analysis is shaped by my tastes. Maybe I wasn’t the audience for this story. Regardless, these are my thoughts, but definitely don’t take them as gospel, especially considering I am often at odds with the readership of your blog.

    Good luck with your future projects, whichever they may be. And thank you for writing your novel.

  25. Rob Lundeen says:

    I was pleased to see that I was well-represented in these comments. I just finished the book (slow reader!) and I really enjoyed it overall. I loved the Jen 5 character right up until the final confrontation where she lost her center. I suspect that was on purpose but it didn’t connect with me. I thought all the side stuff, the three pigs, the whorehouse, etc felt really odd. Kind of like here’s a stereotype character who will show up when the plot needs to move. Why did the whorehouse guy go after clare? Why did the three pigs come after Max when he got out of jail? And the scenes involving them felt very much like “player character gets defeated in cutscene” that we all hate in gaming.

    I didn’t piece the mystery together ahead of time like some other readers. It all felt a little too simple for the story in the end. I think it would fit better if the scale were smaller but given the multinational implications it felt a little bland. I was expecting to find out that it was a huge conspiracy or something. Maybe the gen 5 robots were in on it. I don’t know but it ended up being kinda meh. Landro felt like a let down as did the way Jen 5 died. What was her plan? Cut the power? Why? Stand in the room? Why? She was so smart and had learned so much from Max and then just stood in the corner of the room like a plant. Meh.

    This feels like when Shamus reviews his favourite games. I spent a lot of time talking about what I didn’t like. However overall it was a good read and I look forward to the next one!!

  26. RCN says:

    I take Shamus at his word when he says Marcun is not analogous to any single real world country… but it does seem to take most of its inspiration from Brazil.

    For instance, I’ve just noticed he named the city of the setting after Rio. It was very cheeky, Mr. Young.

    You see, Rio de Janeiro means River of January. January is the month of Janus, Roman god of gates, passages, transitions and choices. So… Rio de Janeiro can also mean River of Gates, or Rivergate.

    Just finished the book. The ending was a bit too rushed, with Max suddenly tying up all the loose ends roughly one after the other.

    The one thing I thought Shamus didn’t credit the reader enough was with the “How” of the mystery. The “why” was cleverly disguised inside what appeared to be innocuous world-building and although the culprit was my main suspect, my suspected motives were waaaaay off. But you showed your hand way too soon on the how. While from the get go I thought the robots were being tricked just because of the themes you talked you were going to explore in the book, you danced so much around it that it started to look like Max was not too bright. It took way too long for the duo to figure out that the robots were being fed false image data. Heck, they figured it out on accident! It should have been one of Max’s main theories (it didn’t even need to be stated outright to the reader to keep the mystery, but the way it was handled didn’t give Max or the reader much credit). The way Jen 5 was brutal and efficient disposing another robot when it was just an inconvenience. When Saturn said that the haunted circuit was had an image feed. By the time they got the simulation of a robot strangling a little girl, they should have all figured out. It was clever how Rivergate was one of the only places where the robots could have been so easily tricked for having older generation robots, though. A robot from Jen’s generation, capable of planing ahead and contextualizing, wouldn’t be tricked so easily.

    The part where they push the buttons on the device before checking out for more robots in the storage area was plain idiot-ball, though. Sure, Jen was able to take on several robots with ease after figuring out how to confuse them. But it was just an unnecessary action scene inside a thriller that in a Hollywood movie would just be there because some executive producer told the script writer there isn’t any exciting action pieces to justify the budget in it. Considering how you rant so much about pointless action fluff, I don’t understand how this scene ended up in the book.

    One last thing that bothered me was why the Saturn/Jupiter reference? You just railed about how aliens with no english background of reference harp about proper english grammar in ME:Andromeda and how that’s failed world-building. It felt odd when the names showed up in the book especially when Max thought about how they were in the wrong order, making what was just an odd name in the setting become a explicit reference to real-world mythology.

    In the end, the best parts of the books are the discussions about robot sapience and its main, alien differences to human or biological intelligence. I’d love to discuss these more.

    1. Philadelphus says:

      Finished the book about a week after this post came out and never got around to writing anything here until now, so…

      One last thing that bothered me was why the Saturn/Jupiter reference?

      This. I really enjoyed the world-building and it definitely felt like a completely different world, with its own history and geography…and then it turns out it has Greco-Roman mythology? It felt very strange and threw me out of the story when I came across it; it felt like a missed opportunity to do some more world-building by expanding on the mythology of the world by introducing some new gods to the various pantheons.

      That said, that’s definitely a nitpick and on the whole I enjoyed the book. Unlike some other comments I didn’t have any idea what the resolution of the mystery would be until it happened. The talk about Jen 5 mimicking human expressions during conversation really resonated with me as it felt like it described my experiences (of trying to mimic the range of expressions that most people just express naturally without having to think about it to avoid falling too far into the Uncanny Valley) pretty well.

    2. baud says:

      Regarding the “How” of the mystery, until it was explained, I had absolutely no idea of what it was. Though maybe it’s just because I wasn’t paying attention or I’m just too novice in cyberpunk books.

  27. Ken says:

    I am an upcoming writer. This post is a practical reason why any serious writer should read a lot as one can never know what one might learn. Just like this writer learned why and how to write in the past tense by reading another author’s work.

  28. baud says:

    I’ve finished it recently and had a really good time, I read it really quickly, which don’t usually happen.

    Personally I enjoyed the writing much more than in Witch Watch. Perhaps the writing is better, or I was enjoying the book more, so I enjoyed the writing more? Dunno.

    The characters were nice, I like the interplay between Max and Jen, their discussion on robots; I like the ideas you had for the robots’ behavior. Also I really enjoyed Jen’s actions at the end, it shows that Jen has an agenda and is capable of acting independently on it.
    The setting was good, it felt really realized and well-explained. And since it’s a tropical city, the permanent cyberpunk rain isn’t too out of place. And a lot of what was presented had an influence on the story too! The “info-dump” sequences never felt info-dumpy, most either advanced the plot or did some characterization.

    I like how Max killed two birds with one stone with three cops and the casino owners.

    A few small defaults:
    -The revelation that Landro was the accomplice behind the robot murder came to me a little out of nowhere, there was maybe some foreshadowing with the discussion around his country of origin and how they had voted against the robots, but I didn’t make the connection between Landro and that piece of trivia. Perhaps since he was already involved in attempting to “leash” Jen, I didn’t think he had another agenda. Also once they found Derek was the culprit, it seems they are more looking how he did it than who was his accomplice.
    -The end felt a little abrupt, I would have enjoyed a conclusion, like where the characters and the city are a few days/weeks later, closing up any remaining threads, a bit like in Witch Watch with the meeting with the queen.
    -I was just wondering why Max didn’t give Jonas the remote, instead of just carrying it in his pocket. I mean that’s a prime clue here and he never really looked into it, apart from wanting to test it.
    -It seems doubtful the haunted chip would just disappear without leaving trace each time the robot’s head exploded.

    But in the end those are only minor quibbles that didn’t impact my enjoyment of the book.

    Regarding the voices of the characters, I didn’t really see Max as black (maybe I missed some description, as I read through the opening chapters quite quickly, since I had already read them on release), more as dark-skinned like people in South/Central America (which is where I was placing Rivergate in my mind anyway).

    Anyway if you ever write another novel, it’s again a day one purchase for me.

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