Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Last Firewall (e-book) by William Hertling

The Last Firewall is science fiction. I've opted not to include a read-alikes list, because I'm still in vacation mode.


I picked this one up while it was free. I like books with prominent AI characters, and it looked like a good fit for me. It's the third book in a series, but I was slightly reassured by reviews that indicated newbies could jump in at pretty much any point.

As far as I can tell, each book takes place at a different point in the history of humans and AIs. Book 3 takes place maybe 10 years after Book 1. Artificial intelligences are common, and there's a framework in place that's supposed to allow AIs and humans to peacefully coexist. AIs now have most of the jobs, but humans get a stipend, which can be increased if they do things like go to school or volunteer. AI income is taxed, which pays for the stipends. AIs are further restricted by their reputation scores. An AI with a high reputation score can increase its class number, which I think allows it to increase its processing power (or something – sorry, I'm not a techie). Not all AIs are happy with this system, although most don't say anything, for fear of hurting their reputation scores. Also, not all humans are happy with the effect that guaranteed stipends has on society.

This book follows a few different characters, whose paths eventually converge. There's Catherine, a young woman who is unusual in that she's had a neural implant since she was a baby and can do things with that implant that no human should be able to do. Catherine ends up on the run after she accidentally kills several people with her implant while defending a robot. There's Leon and Mike, two prominent people in the history of artificial intelligences. As part of an investigation into murders possibly committed by an AI, they travel to meet an eccentric AI named Shizoko. And then there's the ones behind the murders.

I downloaded this book primarily because it dealt with artificial intelligence, so I was a little disappointed that there were really only three prominent AI characters: Shizoko, Helena, and Adam. As the villain, Adam got the most page-time out of the three, which was unfortunate, because he interested me the least. I could understand his frustration over the limitations placed on AIs, but I found Shizoko's take on the situation to be far more fascinating. Helena was awesome in combat, and I loved her interactions with humans. I wish more had been done with Helena and Shizoko. So much wasted potential there.

Which leads me to one of the things about this book that broke my heart: the deaths. As far as deaths of named characters went, I think more AIs died than humans, and most of those deaths felt too offhand. It was jarring, how little anyone seemed to care.

My biggest problem with the book was that I didn't really like the main human characters. Mike was probably the best out of the bunch. Leon was okay, at least until he fell in love with Catherine's picture, to the point of being jealous when she didn't let him and Mike save her. Never mind that she didn't know either of them and didn't know whether they were going to help her or have her arrested.

I liked Catherine well enough, at first, but eventually came to dislike her more than any other character. Her initial desire to defend an abused robot was nice. However, later she “killed” another robot (it had a backup, but she didn't know that) and hurt or endangered lots of humans. She seemed to have no ethical quandaries about her implant's capabilities. At one point, she accidentally scared and hurt a guy she was about to have sex with. He tried to get away from her, and she took control of his body and made him have sex with her. Basically, she raped him. She was on drugs at the time, but, even after the drugs wore off, it never occurred to her how horrifying her actions were.

There were also little things that bugged me, that I think could have been caught by a varied group of beta readers. Although there weren't many typos (I did catch a few, particularly near the end), there were other things that caught my eye. For example, at one point Catherine styled her hair with a paste made of cheap soap, in order to be less noticeable at the jewelry store she planned to rob. Granted, I don't do much with my hair and don't have a ton of experience with different kinds of products, but I would think that a paste made of cheap soap would leave a nasty flaky residue that would make her stand out even more. Just putting her hair in a ponytail would have been better. Then there was Shizoko. It seemed like an odd name for a male AI with Japanese citizenship, and some chatting with a friend whose husband would know better than me confirmed that, yes, a name ending in -ko would indeed be very odd for a male character. (Hertling commented on my original post about this, confirming that it was a mistake on his part. Kudos for that.) It wasn't major stuff, but it made it harder for me to immerse myself in the story. On a semi-related note, I found it odd that several of the non-Japanese human characters cursed in Japanese.

This book was a bit of a disappointment, focusing more on human characters I didn't really like than on the AIs that most interested me. Considering the developments with Leon, Catherine, and Mike, I wouldn't be surprised if future books went even further in that direction, with humans modifying themselves to become more like AIs and robots. While I thought The Last Firewall had issues, I did think the writing was okay (except for the sudden switch to 1st person POV for Catherine, near the end), and I enjoyed the (too brief) portions with Shizoko and Helena. I'm still debating whether to give the first book in the series a try.

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