January 1st, 2016

Mini-Book Reviews

The Short Drop by Matthew Fitzsimons isn’t alternate history or even science fiction, but it’s pretty good. It’s a thriller about the daughter of a Senator who went missing ten years before the action takes place. Ten years later, the first clues about the daughter’s disappearance show up. That leads to a very well done mystery with lots of twists and turns and a character (the girl) who we never see, but who becomes very real and at least I cared a great deal about her. I wish I could bottle what the author did to make me care so much about that character and sprinkle some of it over the stuff I write, which definitely needs characters people care more about.

Terms of Use by Scott Allan Morrison is sort of on the edge of science fiction. A high level techie at a company that is kind of a fictionalized, file off the labels Facebook tries to solve a security breach, but gets in way over his head with murders, high-level politics, etc.

Mild spoilers ahead.

The book mentions in passing how the Obama campaign used Facebook to goose turnout, then takes that idea to the next level: Obama’s campaign could mainly only get out the potential voters who already supported him but might not normally go to the polls. The political gold mine would be influencing undecided voters. A big hunk of the plot revolves around an effort on the part of high-level officers of this Facebook-look-alike to influence undecided voters by use of artificial intelligence Socialbots, who infiltrate users’ friend groups, become trusted sources of news and opinions over a period of months, then try to sway their ‘friends’ as the election approaches.

There is a subplot in that the efforts are on behalf of a Republican businessman who the Chinese have major-league blackmail material on and who on the other hand stands to make a bundle if the US puts a major effort into rare earth mineral production, an area where the Chinese have developed a lucrative monopoly that lets them essentially dictate who can and can’t produce modern electronic technology.

The book is pretty well written, though the tech guy hero develops characteristics of an action hero in a way that stretches probability almost to the breaking point. It never steps entirely over into implausibility.

As to the plot: certainly Facebook and any company that takes its place will have tremendous power in elections. That’s already a given. Facebook has already done some very weird and (in my opinion) unethical experiments with changing user moods by filtering which messages they get in their feed. They make it very difficult for a user to control what gets emphasized on the user’s feed and are very secretive about what goes into getting on a user’s feed. That means that they could quite easily skew a swing voter’s feed liberal or conservative without even bothering with socialbots. Would they do that in favor of a Republican? Facebook, no. They lean liberal in a vague corporate nanny as long as it doesn’t cost the company much way, based on my limited knowledge of them. Something that took Facebook’s place like Facebook took over from MySpace? Quite possible.

The rare earth minerals subplot: Interesting issues there. China has controlled the vast majority of the market for several rare minerals that are vital in modern electronics, not because the minerals aren’t available elsewhere but because they have them in more concentrated form and are able to mine them with less concern for the environmental costs than anyone else. They’ve used that low cost production to bankrupt several companies who have tried to mine the mineral elsewhere. The list of products we couldn’t produce without those minerals is huge, including alternate energy stuff like windmill turbines. Bad idea to be as dependent on China as we are, but the dependence reaches far deeper than just rare earth minerals. Last I heard, most US antibiotic production was in China. If we ever get in a serious, cut off all trade tiff with them, we’re in a world of hurt.

Finding Charlie by Katie O’Rourke is another non-science fiction novel. I wouldn’t have even considered it except that it was up for the Kindle Scout program the same time Char was. It was accepted into the program, unlike Char and since I nominated it, I got an e-book copy free. This isn’t a book I would normally read. There is a mystery of sorts. A college-aged girl goes missing. There are no science fiction elements. It’s a pretty well-written book, with decent characters I care quite a bit about. The ending is not as strong as it could be. It tosses in a weak and unnecessary subplot that comes out of the blue toward the close of the book, then just kind of meanders to a close. That being said, I didn’t leave the book feeling dissatisfied. It’s not a bad book at al.