Review: Forward, edited by Blake Crouch

Russ Allbery eagle at
Tue Jan 17 19:30:48 PST 2023

edited by Blake Crouch

Publisher: Amazon Original Stories
Copyright: September 2019
ISBN:      1-5420-9206-X
ISBN:      1-5420-4363-8
ISBN:      1-5420-9357-0
ISBN:      1-5420-0434-9
ISBN:      1-5420-4363-8
ISBN:      1-5420-4425-1
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     300

This is another Amazon collection of short fiction, this time mostly at
novelette length. (The longer ones might creep into novella.) As
before, each one is available separately for purchase or Amazon Prime
"borrowing," with separate ISBNs. The sidebar cover is for the first in
the sequence. (At some point I need to update my page templates so that
I can add multiple covers.)

N.K. Jemisin's "Emergency Skin" won the 2020 Hugo Award for Best
Novelette, so I wanted to read and review it, but it would be too short
for a standalone review. I therefore decided to read the whole
collection and review it as an anthology.

This was a mistake. Learn from my mistake.

The overall theme of the collection is technological advance, rapid
change, and the ethical and social question of whether we should slow
technology because of social risk. Some of the stories stick to that
theme more closely than others. Jemisin's story mostly ignores it,
which was probably the right decision.

"Ark" by Veronica Roth: A planet-killing asteroid has been on its
inexorable way towards Earth for decades. Most of the planet has been
evacuated. A small group has stayed behind, cataloging samples and
filling two remaining ships with as much biodiversity as they can find
with the intent to leave at the last minute. Against that backdrop, two
of that team bond over orchids.

If you were going "wait, what?" about the successful evacuation of
Earth, yeah, me too. No hint is offered as to how this was
accomplished. Also, the entirety of humanity abandoned mutual hostility
and national borders to cooperate in the face of the incoming disaster,
which is, uh, bizarrely optimistic for an otherwise gloomy story.

I should be careful about how negative I am about this story because I
am sure it will be someone's favorite. I can even write part of the
positive review: an elegiac look at loss, choices, and the meaning of a
life, a moving look at how people cope with despair. The writing is
fine, the story structure works; it's not a bad story. I just found it
monumentally depressing, and was not engrossed by the emotionally
abused protagonist's unresolved father issues. I can imagine a story
around the same facts and plot that I would have liked much better, but
all of these people need therapy and better coping mechanisms.

I'm also not sure what this had to do with the theme, given that the
incoming asteroid is random chance and has nothing to do with
technological development. (4)

"Summer Frost" by Blake Crouch: The best part of this story is the
introductory sequence before the reader knows what's going on, which is
full of evocative descriptions. I'm about to spoil what is going on, so
if you want to enjoy that untainted by the stupidity of the rest of the
plot, skip the rest of this story review.

We're going to have a glut of stories about the weird and obsessive
form of AI risk invented by the fevered imaginations of the
"rationalist" community, aren't we. I don't know why I didn't predict
that. It's going to be just as annoying as the glut of cyberpunk novels
written by people who don't understand computers.

Crouch lost me as soon as the setup is revealed. Even if I believed
that a game company would use a deep learning AI still in learning mode
to run an NPC (I don't; see Microsoft's Tay for an obvious reason why
not), or that such an NPC would spontaneously start testing the
boundaries of the game world (this is not how deep learning works),
Crouch asks the reader to believe that this AI started as a fully
scripted NPC in the prologue with a fixed storyline. In other words,
the foundation of the story is that this game company used an AI model
capable of becoming a general intelligence for barely more than a cut

This is not how anything works.

The rest of the story is yet another variation on a science fiction
plot so old and threadbare that Isaac Asimov invented the Three Laws of
Robotics to avoid telling more versions of it. Crouch's contribution is
to dress it up in the terminology of the excessively online. (The
middle of the story features a detailed discussion of Roko's basilisk;
if you recognize that, you know what you're in for.) Asimov would not
have had a lesbian protagonist, so points for progress I guess, but the
AI becomes more interesting to the protagonist than her wife and kid
because of course it does. There are a few twists and turns along the
way, but the destination is the bog-standard hard-takeoff general
intelligence scenario.

One more pet peeve: Authors, stop trying to illustrate the growth of
your AI by having it move from broken to fluent English. English
grammar is so much easier than self-awareness or the Turing test that
we had programs that could critique your grammar decades before we had
believable chatbots. It's going to get grammar right long before the
content of the words makes any sense. Also, your AI doesn't sound
dumber, your AI sounds like someone whose native language doesn't use
pronouns and helper verbs the way that English does, and your decision
to use that as a marker for intelligence is, uh, maybe something you
should think about. (3)

"Emergency Skin" by N.K. Jemisin: The protagonist is a
heavily-augmented cyborg from a colony of Earth's diaspora. The
founders of that colony fled Earth when it became obvious to them that
the planet was dying. They have survived in another star system, but
they need a specific piece of technology from the dead remnants of
Earth. The protagonist has been sent to retrieve it.

The twist is that this story is told in the second-person perspective
by the protagonist's ride-along AI, created from a consensus model of
the rulers of the colony. We never see directly what the protagonist is
doing or thinking, only the AI reaction to it. This is exactly the sort
of gimmick that works much better in short fiction than at novel
length. Jemisin uses it to create tension between the reader and the
narrator, and I thoroughly enjoyed the effect. (As shown in the Broken
Earth trilogy, Jemisin is one of the few writers who can use
second-person effectively.)

I won't spoil the revelation, but it's barbed and biting and vicious
and I loved it. Jemisin does deliver the point with a sledgehammer, so
be aware of that if you want subtlety in your short fiction, but I
prefer the bluntness. (This is part of why I usually don't get along
with literary short stories.) The reader of course can't change the
direction of the story, but the second-person perspective still
provides a hit of vicarious satisfaction. I can see why this won the
Hugo; it's worth seeking out. (8)

"You Have Arrived at Your Destination" by Amor Towles: Sam and his wife
are having a child, and they've decided to provide him with an early
boost in life. Vitek is a fertility lab, but more than that, it can do
some gene tweaking and adjustment to push a child more towards one
personality or another. Sam and his wife have spent hours filling out
profiles, and his wife spent hours weeding possible choices down to
three. Now, Sam has come to Vitek to pick from the remaining options.

Speaking of literary short stories, Towles is the non-SFF writer of
this bunch, and it's immediately obvious. The story requires the SFnal
premise, but after that this is a character piece. Vitek is an elite,
expensive company with a condescending and overly-reductive attitude
towards humanity, which is entirely intentional on the author's part.
This is the sort of story that gets resolved in an unexpected
conversation in a roadside bar, and where most of the conflict happens
inside the protagonist's head.

I was initially going to complain that Towles does the standard
literary thing of leaving off the denouement on the grounds that the
reader can figure it out, but when I did a bit of re-reading for this
review, I found more of the bones than I had noticed the first time.
There's enough subtlety that I had to think for a bit and re-read a
passage, but not too much. It's also the most thoughtful treatment of
the theme of the collection, the only one that I thought truly wrestled
with the weird interactions between technological capability and human
foresight. Next to "Emergency Skin," this was the best story of the
collection. (7)

"The Last Conversation" by Paul Tremblay: A man wakes up in a dark
room, in considerable pain, not remembering anything about his life.
His only contact with the world at first is a voice: a woman who is
helping him recover his strength and his memory. The numbers that head
the chapters have significant gaps, representing days left out of the
story, as he pieces together what has happened alongside the reader.

Tremblay is the horror writer of the collection, so predictably this is
the story whose craft I can admire without really liking it. In this
case, the horror comes mostly from the pacing of revelation, created by
the choice of point of view. (This would be a much different story from
the perspective of the woman.) It's well-done, but it has the tendency
I've noticed in other horror stories of being a tightly closed system.
I see where the connection to the theme is, but it's entirely in the
setting, not in the shape of the story.

Not my thing, but I can see why it might be someone else's. (5)

"Randomize" by Andy Weir: Gah, this was so bad.

First, and somewhat expectedly, it's a clunky throwback to a
1950s-style hard SF puzzle story. The writing is atrocious: wooden,
awkward, cliched, and full of gratuitous infodumping. The
characterization is almost entirely through broad stereotypes; the lone
exception is the female character, who at least adds an interesting
twist despite being forced to act like an idiot because of the plot.
It's a very old-school type of single-twist story, but the ending is
completely implausible and falls apart if you breathe on it too hard.

Weir is something of a throwback to an earlier era of scientific puzzle
stories, though, so maybe one is inclined to give him a break on the
writing quality. (I am not; one of the ways in which science fiction
has improved is that you can get good scientific puzzles and good
writing these days.) But the science is also so bad that I was
literally facepalming while reading it.

The premise of this story is that quantum computers are commercially
available. That will cause a serious problem for Las Vegas casinos,
because the generator for keno numbers is vulnerable to quantum
algorithms. The solution proposed by the IT person for the casino? A
quantum random number generator. (The words "fight quantum with
quantum" appear literally in the text if you're wondering how bad the
writing is.)

You could convince me that an ancient keno system is using a
pseudorandom number generator that might be vulnerable to some quantum
algorithm and doesn't get reseeded often enough. Fine. And yes, quantum
computers can be used to generate high-quality sources of random
numbers. But this solution to the problem makes no sense whatsoever.
It's like swatting a house fly with a nuclear weapon.

Weir says explicitly in the story that all the keno system needs is an
external source of high-quality random numbers. The next step is to go
to Amazon and buy a hardware random number generator. If you want to
splurge, it might cost you $250. Problem solved. Yes, hardware random
number generators have various limitations that may cause you problems
if you need millions of bits or you need them very quickly, but not for
something as dead-simple and with such low entropy requirements as keno
numbers! You need a trivial number of bits for each round; even the
slowest and most conservative hardware random number generator would be
fine. Hell, measure the noise levels on the casino floor. Point a
camera at a lava lamp. Or just buy one of the physical ball machines
they use for the lottery. This problem is heavily researched, by
casinos in particular, and is not significantly changed by the
availability of quantum computers, at least for applications such as
keno where the generator can be reseeded before each generation.

You could maybe argue that this is an excuse for the IT guy to get his
hands on a quantum computer, which fits the stereotypes, but that still
breaks the story for reasons that would be spoilers. As soon as any
other casino thought about this, they'd laugh in the face of the

I don't want to make too much of this, since anyone can write one bad
story, but this story was dire at every level. I still owe Weir a
proper chance at novel length, but I can't say this added to my
enthusiasm. (2)

Rating: 4 out of 10

Reviewed: 2023-01-17


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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