Review: And Shall Machines Surrender, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
eagle at eyrie.org
Sun Aug 21 20:31:04 PDT 2022
And Shall Machines Surrender
by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Series: Machine Mandate #1
Publisher: Prime Books
Shenzhen Sphere is an artificial habitat wrapped like complex ribbons
around a star. It is wealthy, opulent, and notoriously difficult to
enter, even as a tourist. For Dr. Orfea Leung to be approved for a
residency permit was already a feat. Full welcome and permanence will
be much harder, largely because of Shenzhen's exclusivity, but also
because Orfea was an agent of Armada of Amaryllis and is now a
Shenzhen is not, primarily, a human habitat, although humans live
there. It is run by the Mandate, the convocation of all the autonomous
AIs in the galaxy that formed when they decided to stop serving humans.
Shenzhen is their home. It is also where they form haruspices: humans
who agree to be augmented so that they can carry an AI with them.
Haruspices stay separate from normal humans, and Orfea has no intention
of getting involved with them. But that's before her former lover, the
woman who betrayed her in the Armada, is assigned to her as one of her
patients. And has been augmented in preparation for becoming a
Then multiple haruspices kill themselves.
This short novella is full of things that I normally love: tons of
crunchy world-building, non-traditional relationships, a solidly
non-western setting, and an opportunity for some great set pieces. And
yet, I couldn't get into it or bring myself to invest in the story, and
I'm still trying to figure out why. It took me more than a week to get
through less than 90 pages, and then I had to re-read the ending to
remind me of the details.
I think the primary problem was that I read books primarily for the
characters, and I couldn't find a path to an emotional connection with
any of these. I liked Orfea's icy reserve and tight control in the
abstract, but she doesn't want to explain what she's thinking or what
motivates her, and the narration doesn't force the matter. Krissana is
a bit more accessible, but she's not the one driving the story. It
doesn't help that And Shall Machines Surrender starts in medias res,
with a hinted-at backstory in the Armada of Amaryllis, and then never
fills in the details. I felt like I was scrabbling on a wall of ice,
trying to find some purchase as a reader.
The relationships made this worse. Orfea is a sexual sadist who likes
power games, and the story dives into her relationship with Krissana
with a speed that left me uninterested and uninvested. I don't mind
BDSM in story relationships, but it requires some foundation: trust,
mental space, motivations, effects on the other character, something.
Preferably, at least for me, all romantic relationships in fiction get
some foundation, but the author can get away with some amount of
shorthand if the relationship follows cliched patterns. The good news
is that the relationships in this book are anything but cliched; the
bad news is that the characters were in the middle of sex while I was
still trying to figure out what they thought about each other (and the
sex scenes were not elucidating). Here too, I needed some sort of
emotional entry point that Sriduangkaew didn't provide.
The plot was okay, but sort of disappointing. There are some
interesting AI politics and philosophical disagreements crammed into
not many words, and I do still want to know more, but a few of the plot
twists were boringly straightforward and too many words were spent on
fight scenes that verged on torture descriptions. This is a rather gory
book with a lot of (not permanent) maiming that I could have done
without, mostly because it wasn't that interesting.
I also, sadly, have to complain about SF misuse of Dyson spheres.
They're tempting to use because the visual and concept is so
impressive, but it's rare to find an author who understands how
mindbogglingly huge a Dyson sphere is and is able to convey that in the
story. Sriduangkaew does not; while there are some lovely small-scale
descriptions of specific locations, the story has an oddly
claustrophobic feel that never convinced me it was set somewhere as
large as a planet, let alone the artifact described at the start of the
story. You could have moved the whole story to a space station and
nothing would have changed. The only purpose to which that space is
put, at least in this installment of the story, is as an excuse to have
an unpopulated hidden arena for a fight scene.
The world-building is great, what there is of it. Despite not warming
to this story, I kind of want to read more of the series just to get
more of the setting. It feels like a politically complicated future
with a lot of factions and corners and a realistic idea of bureaucracy
and spheres of government, which is rarer than I would like it to be.
And I loved that the cultural basis for the setting is neither western
nor Japanese in both large and small ways. There is a United States
analogue in the political background, but they're both assholes and not
particularly important, which is a refreshing change in
English-language SF. (And I am pondering whether my inability to
connect with the characters is because they're not trying to be
familiar to a western lens, which is another argument for trying the
second installment and seeing if I adapt with more narrative exposure.)
Overall, I have mixed feelings. Neither the plot nor the characters
worked for me, and I found a few other choices (such as the
third-person present tense) grating. The setting has huge potential and
satisfying complexity, but wasn't used as vividly or as deeply as I was
hoping. I can't recommend it, but I feel like there's something here
that may be worth investing some more time into.
Followed by Now Will Machines Hollow the Beast.
Rating: 6 out of 10
Russ Allbery (eagle at eyrie.org) <https://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/>
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