Review: World Running Down

Hello, dear geeks! I’m … attempting to be back! Finding my feet again has taken a while, for various reasons, and I might still be finding them but that’s OK, schedules were never really a thing around here anyway.

But! Today marks the first post of 2023, and it’s an ARC review of World Running Down by Al Hess, forthcoming from Angry Robot. Let’s talk about it.

Valentine Weis is a salvager in the future wastelands of Utah. Wrestling with body dysphoria, he dreams of earning enough money to afford citizenship in Salt Lake City – a utopia where the testosterone and surgery he needs to transition is free, the food is plentiful, and folk are much less likely to be shot full of arrows by salt pirates. But earning that kind of money is a pipe dream, until he meets the exceptionally handsome Osric.

Once a powerful AI in Salt Lake City, Osric has been forced into an android body against his will and sent into the wasteland to offer Valentine a job on behalf of his new employer – an escort service seeking to retrieve their stolen androids. The reward is a visa into the city, and a chance at the life Valentine’s always dreamed of. But as they attempt to recover the “merchandise”, they encounter a problem: the android ladies are becoming self-aware, and have no interest in returning to their old lives.

The prize is tempting, but carrying out the job would go against everything Valentine stands for, and would threaten the fragile found family that’s kept him alive so far. He’ll need to decide whether to risk his own dream in order to give the AI a chance to live theirs.

Science Fiction | Angry Robot | ARC | Release date: 14 February 2023

Generally speaking, anything that involves post-apocalypse themes has to work pretty hard to interest me. That, or catch me on a really good day when I’m in the mood for this type of story. This one caught me on a good day, and it made that day a little brighter. Mostly because I wasn’t expecting something that seemed post-apocalyptic to be ultimately hopeful and feel-good, instead of grim and full of the worst of humanity.

… Which, to an extent, this also is. But it works for me because it’s in balance with that hopeful goodness. Some of these characters I wanted to yell at. But some of them I wanted to wrap in blankets and protect – which brings me to Valentine and Osric.

I love it when I get to start a new reading adventure with a couple I can ship wholeheartedly. (Which makes the fact that this appears to be a standalone book only a little bit disappointing.) But THIS PAIR YOU GUYS. At first glance, they could not be more different, or at least come from more different worlds. But then we get to see just how much they really have in common – and yes, the romantic tropes show themselves along the way.

Heads up, by the way. If you’re not here for romance in your science fiction, this book is probably not going to be as enjoyable for you as it was for me. However, if you are here for it, then join me as I swoon, because this book has the goods.

This isn’t going to be any sort of in-depth review full of thinky thoughts, by the way. I’m not here for that today. I only occasionally am but that’s beside the point. LET ME RAMBLE ABOUT CINNAMON ROLLS SURVIVING THE APOCALYPSE. (I want more cinnamon rolls surviving the apocalypse. If anyone knows where I might find more of them, please let me know.)

But what about the sci-fi, you may ask? What about that post-apocalyptic world? Well. I suppose if I must criticise anything here, it could be that. The touch is notably light on the the worldbuilding, which also might be a deal-breaker for anyone who’s more seriously into this particular subgenre of SF than I am. It’s more of a setting than a mood, if that makes sense. There are some interesting ideas put forth here, particularly regarding AIs and sentience, and while these might seem like typically weighty issues, here they’re handled with the same light touch as the worldbuilding. But in its defence, this is a book very much about its characters, and it can be hard to give characters their due if they have no personality and/or don’t interact with others because they’re too busy being philosophical. Or, if you believe that old go-to of post-apocalyptic fiction, ruling their little corner of the burned-out world with a bloody iron fist.

Which, thankfully, these AIs don’t do. Instead, they do bureaucracy. It’s the people who cause the chaos, because who else is going to? But it’s the people who also do the bonding, and the having of personal hopes and dreams, because really there is no good reason for those not to survive the apocalypse. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t.

So to summarise this rambling ramble of a review (sorry not sorry), this was really an ideal choice to kick off my new year, and I hope to continue in this vein – or similar ones. If you like some post-apocalypse but find yourself wishing not everyone in them was hard-bitten or intensely murdery, check this one out. You might just like it.

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