Adrienne Martini Reviews Red Noise by John P. Murphy and The Preserve by Ariel S. Winter

Red Noise, John P. Murphy (Angry Robot 978-0-85766-847-9, $14.99, 448pp, tp) July 2020. Cover by Kieryn Tyler.

It’s easy to find the Western that lurks beneath the surface of Red Noise, the novel-length debut of Nebula Award finalist John P. Murphy. A drifter wanders into a nearly deserted town and finds two sides in a long-term stand-off. Only in this version, the town is a converted asteroid named Station 35 and the drifter is known only as the Miner. If you need a name for the Miner, you can call her Jane. Or Mickey Mouse. Your choice.

Jane really just wants to be out working her claim. All that has brought her back to something civilization-adjacent is a need to resupply her ship. When the dock master and his crew cheat Jane out of a fair price for her ore, she decides to take matters into her own hands. Our Jane has a secret, you see, and her hidden talents revolve around kicking arse. Rather than take a direct approach, Jane decides to destabilize the nervous equilibrium that exists on Station 35. Violence ensues.

As long as Murphy keeps the plot centered on Jane, Red Noise clips right along, especially when her plans are met with resistance by the people who actually live there. Murphy has also done a great job with the characters whom we get to know through their interactions with the Miner, like Takata, a restaurateur, and Herrara, a knowledgable drunk. When Murphy switches points of view to other characters, however, the story’s narrative energy diffuses. Red Noise re­mains enjoyable enough even at these low ebbs, mind, but reader and author just seem to be killing time until the Miner drifts back into the scene.

The Preserve, Ariel S. Winter (Atria/Emily Bestler Books 978-1476797885, $17, 256pp, tp) November 2020.

Ariel S. Winter’s previous two books were mys­teries. With The Preserve, he’s dipping his toe into Locus‘s coverage area, with marginal success. While The Preserve might satisfy those who love a good police procedural, it leaves science fiction fans wanting.

It opens in Liberty SC, on the human preserve that was newly carved out of robot country. Chief Laughton has been called to the scene of the Pre­serve’s first murder. Soon enough, he’s entangled in a mess of literal killer apps, hackers, and drug runners. His former partner, Kir, a robot, is pulled into the mess and the two fall into familiar rou­tines to solve the crime.

That plot is solid. All of the stuff around it, though, isn’t. Apparently there was some kind of pandemic that wiped out most of humanity, which is why there are robots? And the robots have taken over all of the government? And there’s a rift between the robots and the humans that’s so wide that the humans are terrified the “metals” will squash them?

Winter doesn’t take the time to explain why any of that would be, which is a problem because without that information, the world Laughton lives in doesn’t make any sense at all. The stakes that he’s setting up don’t create much suspense because they seem random. This isn’t much of a spoiler but, warning, I guess: the dead guy seems to be involved in dealing a memory stick-based bit of code that acts like a drug on robots. But we have no idea how it works or why it’s a big deal, so it’s hard to care. Ditto the pressure that Laughton’s supervisors put on him to save the Preserve. All of these holes might be easy to glide over if you don’t usually read speculative fiction, mind. They are incredibly frustrating, however, if you do.

Adrienne Martini has been reading or writing about science fiction for decades and has had two non-fiction, non-genre books published by Simon and Schuster. She lives in Upstate New York with one husband, two kids, and one corgi. She also runs a lot.

This review and more like it in the February 2021 issue of Locus.

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