Back to Russell’s Attic

Half Life — S.L. Huang
Russell's Attic, book 2

HalfLife

2014’s Half Life returns the reader to the world of super-mercenary and mathematical genius Cas Russell. Rather to her own surprise, Cas is still friends with both detective Arthur Trestling and his hacker buddy Checker. Even more to her surprise, keeping Arthur happy matters a lot to Cas. In deference to Arthur, Cas has adopted all kinds of extreme restrictions on her behavior, like not killing people even when they get in her way. When the book opens, Cas has gone a whole sixty-three days without killing someone.


I was going to try to avoid spoilers but much of what I want to discuss requires a spoiler, so … A SPOILER WARNING IS COMING SOON. Read warily. Prepare to shut down your browser when the warning about which I am warning you is actually issued!

Cas is offered a missing child case. It doesn’t look to be all that lucrative, but it also doesn’t look like it might involve extensive carnage. Noah Warren says he wants his daughter Liliana back. The catch is that, according to the available evidence, he never had a daughter. Noah insists that she was kidnapped by Arkacite, the giant company that is in no way a thinly disguised Google. If there is no evidence that she ever existed, perhaps poor Noah is just quite, quite mad.

Cas has an odd, unexplained soft spot where kids are concerned, which makes this the perfect lever to move an apparently amoral superhuman math genius. She finds herself interested in a case and decides to take it.

Cas is involved in another case at the moment, a favour she is doing for Checker. This one looks like it could be much trickier than the Noah Warren case. Checker made a very bad choice when he decided to take up with a young woman he is tutoring. This young woman has an aunt who has firm views about the proper treatment of her beloved niece. Proper treatment does not include recreational sex.

One disapproving aunt would not matter all that much, if it were not for the fact that this aunt, Gabriella “Mama” Lorenzo, is the head of the Los Angeles’ branch of the Mafia. Mama all by herself is intimidating; it’s the small army at her command that makes her terrifying.

Oddly enough, it turns out angering the mob isn’t the worst thing that happens to Cas. Warren’s case turns out to have complications that even super-intelligent Cas could not have foreseen. The complications involve little girls who aren’t little girls, evil geniuses who really are evil geniuses, and some plutonium that’s definitely plutonium.

Cas managed to get to sixty-six days without killing anyone. Sixty-seven days? That might be out of the question.

***

While this is very much a science fiction novel, it’s also a close cousin to a Travis McGee or a Matthew Scudder book [1]. It’s a book about someone who isn’t quite a PI but who solves problems and recovers lost items. The author is familiar enough with this variant of the mystery genre to have fun with the conventions, conventions such as clients who always hold back important information, or friends who lead the protagonists into tar pits.

BIG SPOILER IS COMING! BAIL NOW TO AVOID!

So the big secret, which we discover a third of the way through the book, is

[Spoiler cut, if I can make one work.]

[It turns out I can’t. Have some dots.]

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that little Liliana is a robot. She looks like a little girl, and can act like one, thanks to some sophisticated programming, but she’s not an AI. There’s another thing you need to know about Liliana … which I cannot tell you, because this would be a huge spoiler, a bigger spoiler than the robot thing. All I can say is that I had a question about Liliana that was answered a lot more satisfactorily than I was expecting (though some readers may feel that the answer is a cheat when it is finally revealed [2]).

Indeed, the author was surprisingly prone to addressing nagging questions, questions of a sort that lead me to expect disappointing answers of the handwavium, “we have always answered this question with this sub par traditional answer,” or “do not look at the man behind the curtain” variety. There are many issues SF novels generally bungle because it is so easy, so traditional, to invoke handwavium, embrace convention, or evade the issue. It was a refreshing change to read a book that rejected such stupid traditions.

Liliana was made to look like a little girl, but need not have been. Robots can be made in a wide variety of humanoid forms. I wasn’t surprised when the author brought up the possibility of sexbots early in the novel, I was a little surprised (and also pleased) that she also discussed the ugly secondary effects of selling humanoid robots as if they were mere commodities, like shoes or teapots. It’s not that the robots are people (because these ones are definitely not) but that it gets people used to the idea of buying their sex-partners [3]. I also appreciated the fact that this was not going to be the main focus of the book.

While Cas’s power is super-rationality, it seems odd that Liliana’s form so affects how Cas reacts to Liliana. Cas’s analytical talents not only allowed her to spot that Liliana wasn’t a real girl almost immediately, but Cas also gets a good look at the code behind the persona, She of all people would be able to understand the gap between a fairly good emulation of human behavior and actual human behavior. I assume this has something to do with the implied backstory of the series. Perhaps we will eventually learn why the otherwise amoral Cas is so protective of kids.

Second books can be hard; there’s the temptation to simply recapitulate the first book, Huang, to her credit, does not do this in her second novel. Cas isn’t the same person she was in Zero Sum Game. As in the first book, Cas is wrestling with serious problems, but these are different problems. Her (former) best buddy Rio is absent for most of the book and plays no role in either of the two plots in this novel [4]. I am curious to see where book three takes us.

1: On the off-chance that the author is not familiar with the economics of mystery publishing: I would like to inform her that the mystery genre is pretty much dead and also that its few remaining fans like to throw dead fish at new authors. Ms. Huang should not bother to compare SF and mystery advances on Google. She should not, under any circumstances, compare notes with authors who moved from SF to mystery. Most of them are probably dead, perhaps of starvation or exposure. I cannot legally warn her that writing mysteries might put an author under Homeland Defense’s scrutiny, just as I cannot stop her from reading between the lines. Move along, nothing to see here. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

2: I am not going to say what this answer might be, but I can say that my next Mutants and Masterminds character is going to be a hoot.

3: In the perhaps futile hope of forestalling a certain conversation, there’s a difference between hiring and buying.

4: I suspect that he will return in the third book. I base this on a chapter I call Hello, Foreshadowing for Book Three. But I could be wrong.


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