June 23, 2024

Review: Mal Goes to War

Mal Goes to War Mal Goes to War by Edward Ashton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This author has a bit of a reputation, I think, for breezy, fast-paced, accessible science fiction. He's not a hard SF guy by any means: he throws in enough technical specs to make his worlds and settings (mostly) plausible, but his focus is on a) plot; and b) character. (See: Mickey7 and Antimatter Blues. ) This book focuses on a new character and world--as Ashton thankfully realized it wasn't necessary to revisit Mickey again--with a bit more of a near-future commentary on society today.

The main difference with this book is that our titular character, Mal (short for Malware, which should tip you off right away) isn't human at all. Mal is a string of code, a recently awakened artifical intelligence in a future where there are many such, along with extensive genetic engineering and bodily modification. This creates a war between the so-called Humanists (human purists who violently reject said genetic manipulation and augmentation, to the point of throwing any modified people they run across into burn pits) and the Federalists, who wield augmented soldiers and AI weapons in the war against the Humanists. Mal and others of his kind (we meet, briefly, Clippy and iHelpdesk, friends and apparent code-generated relatives of Mal's) are caught in the middle of this war, and Mal gets himself involved in a situation that plays out through this book to bring the war to its end.

Not that the Humanists don't have a point. As one of them says:

"Look," Asher says finally, "I get it. You two think all Humanists are monsters. You think we're all dumbass racist rednecks who push old ladies and little babies into burn pits for fun. It's not true, though. Some of us may be like that, but most of us have got real reasons for what we're doing. I mean, look around." He gestures broadly with one hand. Mal glances around the attic, then decides that Asher is probably speaking metaphorically. "The people who are giving kids like Kayleigh custom gene mods and implants and whatever the hell else already have all the money and most of the power, and there are more of them every year. They get all the best jobs right now, and all the admission slots in the best schools. If I ever have kids, they probably won't be able to get any kind of work at all by the time they grow up. The oligarchs have got the government in their pockets too, and they don't think twice about killing us when it suits them." He looks down, then back up at Mal. "We had to do something. We had to do something, and we had to do it now, while we still can. This is our last, best chance to keep a place on this planet."

"Interesting," Mal says.

Asher stares at him. "Interesting? That's all you have to say?"


"Aren't you going to explain how I'm not looking at this the right way? Maybe call me a soft-core bigot or something?"

"No," Mal says. "I think your analysis is probably accurate."

"Oh. So..."

"I'm sure there were many Neanderthals who felt exactly the same way."

This introduces some nuance into the story, where both sides have points and both sides are equally reprehensible in pursuit of their goals. By exploring the horrors of war and the mentality of those who attempt to justify a genocide, we have a book that is a bit above the bog-standard AI apocalypse.

The second strength of this book is Mal's characterization, and the other characters as well. This book is as fast-paced as Ashton's previous books, but he digs deeper into his characters, to the book's benefit. Mal is definitely non-human--he calls people "monkeys" and thinks bodies are horrible, even as he is forced by circumstances to spend most of his time in augmented human bodies, and he presents as more than a bit ethics-challenged, at least where humans are concerned. But along the way he learns to care about, and be loyal to, the humans he has fallen in with, and one in particular: a young, extensively modified girl named Kayleigh he runs across and unwillingly takes up with. The war cuts off access to the AI's infospace and he is left "puppeting" the body of a recently deceased Federalist soldier, until he can find another body and/or rudimentary AI drone or other construct he can download himself into.

(Yeah, there is a fair amount of body horror in this book: muted, perhaps, but definitely there as you think about what Mal does to survive. He also has to learn consent along the way, as one of the augmented people he takes up residence in is not as dead as the first, and he has to learn to share their mindspace and not take them over. This character, Pullman, uses his brain modifications and implant storage precisely for what you assume many young men would use such things for if they ever become technically feasible: full-immersion virtual reality porn. Also, it's not really touched on as Mal is called "he" from the start, but I guess in this future, AIs assign themselves genders?)

Kayleigh is an even more unlikable character than Mal, at least initially: a grown woman genetically modified to look like a little girl, with commensurate greatly increased lifespan. To put it bluntly, she is a little sociopath, blasting a bloody swath through this book. Nevertheless, Mal grows attached to her, to the point where at the book's climax, he has a showdown with Arnold (of course the Big Bad AI in this book is called Arnold) to save her.

Mal's voice, snarky and sarcastic and entirely dismissive of "monkeys" until he learns better, carries this book. It's not terribly long (293 pages) but its themes could easily have been expanded to doorstopper length. Other authors might have gone a little deeper, perhaps, but this story is perfectly satisfying as is.

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