Book Review: Half Life by S.L. Huang

coverHalf Life is S.L. Huang’s follow up to the brilliant Zero Sum Game, second in a series she calls “Russell’s Attic” for reasons I’m still not completely clear about.

Zero Sum Game was brilliant. Half Life is “merely” excellent. Call it perhaps a half-step down from its predecessor, but that half-step is because, I think, she aimed higher and didn’t quite hit the mark she was aiming for. And I’m not even sure I can explain what I mean clearly, so keep in mind that I could be wrong.

Cas Russell, our protagonist whose superpower is that she sees the world as math, is back about a year after the previous story. She’s a little bit more human, since she’s maintaining several actual friendships begun in the first book, but it makes her (quite amusingly) grumpy at times throughout the story.

This time around, she takes on two cases. And a half. Sort of.

First, a man hires her to find and return his five-year-old daughter, whom he claims was kidnapped by Arkacite, a big evil internet corporation that his dead ex-wife used to work for. But he’s maddeningly vague about details, and when Cas gets some background from her information guru, Checker, things get very suspicious — there’s no record of any daughter. No birth certificate, no vaccination records, nothing at all. She appears not even to exist, until Cas, in her preliminary investigation, comes across someone who actually saw the girl once, exactly as described.

That confirmation pushes Cas to take the case, along with some other information she comes across, because Cas has problems with corporations, or anybody really, doing experiments on little girls. (Woman after my own heart, there.)

Secondly, Checker drops a problem in her lap. The Los Angeles Mafia is after him. He was a tutor to the niece of the Mafia’s head woman, and made the mistake of sleeping with her. Which turns out to be a bigger problem than Checker seems to realize, since the head woman wants not only to kill him, but destroy his business and business partner as well, as a lesson. And she’s not open to negotiation on the subject.

Cas, being the calm, rational, and thoughtful person she is, tells the Mafia lady they have to kill Cas first, because if anything happens to Checker or her other friends while she lives, she’s going to do extreme damage to their organization.

So, for a big chunk of the story, our protagonist is going around Los Angeles with a contract out on her head. This makes for some excellent comedy.

And here’s were I hit a reviewer’s conundrum. I hate, bloody hate, spoilers. But some of what I love about this novel is (at least, arguably) spoiler-y. The true nature of what Cas is dealing with doesn’t get revealed till a solid third of the way through the book. On the other hand, it’s also in the book’s blurb. And the major premise on which the story hangs.

So I’m going to give that away, but I’m also going to (somewhat vaguely) talk about stuff later in the book, both for why I liked it and for why some aspects of it didn’t work as smoothly for me as I would have wished.

This counts as your SPOILER WARNING. I’m not going to give everything away, but I can’t avoid giving at least some of the good stuff away, because of what I want to discuss. Ye have been warned.

When Cas breaks into Arkacite and gets to the underground lab where the little girl, Liliana, is being kept, Cas’s first reaction is to draw back in revulsion and ask “What are you?”

Turns out, Liliana is an android. A really good android, good enough, both in construction and programming, to fool people who don’t have Cas’s mathematical perception. She was the dead ex-wife’s project at Arkacite. Oh, and the dead ex-wife isn’t dead.

And, as the story goes on, more androids turn up. Huang doesn’t go into details of how they were made so lifelike, but what they are not is something you’d find in a contemporary movie, all CGI and subtlety. What a few scenes actually brought to my mind — and quite to my liking — was bad 1970s TV science fiction. You know, the shows that used the “android” conceit stolen from Westworld and Futureworld, did it much worse, so you’d have an episode of, say, The Bionic Woman with androids walking around with their “faces” removed so you could see the mechanical stuff running underneath, thanks to some really cheesy prop work.

Do I even need to say that I loved this conceit? I was grinning like a madman every time it turned up.

And I’m pretty sure it was purposeful, because there are other bits of the story that are even more knowingly bonkers, and clearly intentional nods to the sorts of older thriller stories that I love and, one must presume, Huang also loves.

Things like a plot to infiltrate humanity with secret androids, and the plot being revealed at hourly press conferences (by another android, in fact).

Things like a nefarious Japanese zaibatsu (not called that, but it clearly is) interfering in the US culture for nefarious purposes.

Things like a plot to force a supervolcano to erupt, and use that threat to blackmail… somebody.

Things like the climax taking place in a super-villain’s no-kidding underground headquarters built into a volcano resting a major fault line.

Like I said, all kinds of details in the story are utterly bonkers, all in ways I truly love.

And once again, Huang’s prose, her chapter construction, her use of suspense and humor, are all totally professional, easily as good as anything being put out by major publishers, and better than most of it. For mainstream snobs who sniff that “real” books can only come from approved “major publishers”, she’s yet another example of an indie author whose work should be putting many Big Five-published authors to shame.

Now, that said, I alluded above to the story not being quite as good as the first book, which is putting it a bit too strongly, perhaps, but let me try to get at what I mean.

First, and most vaguely, Huang uses Cas’s initial reaction to Liliana to bring up an interesting thematic issue — if something passes the Turing Test, but you know it’s not real, does its reality or lack of reality matter? Cas is grossed out by the androids, a reaction that is dramatized nicely, and never once is the phrase “uncanny valley” mentioned. You don’t get talked at about it, you just see it, from her point of view.

But as the story goes on, it is made definitively and unambigiously clear that the androids do not, and cannot have self-awareness. Their programming is mimicry, and cannot become more than that.

And between the surrender of the “what is self-awareness” thematic question, and the lack of exploration of the rich thematic vein that leaves behind, exploring the human ability to emotionally attach to inanimate objects (just imagine a three year old and his favorite stuffed animal), I was left feeling unsatisfied at the rather large number of things Huang could have explored but chose not to, in favor of her (admittedly entertaining and fun) confluence of insane thriller plots.

It feels like there was something in this thematic material that spoke to Huang, that she wanted to deal with, and then, for some reason, couldn’t. Personal reasons? Lack of room in the story after all the other chainsaws she gave herself to juggle? Just not ready for it yet? There’s no way to know. But the fact that the climax includes an action that plays directly into some of this thematic material, feeling almost like an answer to a question that was deliberately not asked, it’s pretty clear that there was more here, potentially, than actually gets dealt with.

Again, this does not at all make the book bad. It’s just a missed opportunity, a potential that went unfulfilled for this reader, and with everything else working so smoothly and satisfyingly, it rather stood out.

A second bit of the story that went unexplained for no purpose I could determine was the client’s wife’s “death”. Cas is told by her client that his wife died of cancer. She relays that information to another character, who had no idea the wife died, and feels horrible for missing the funeral. Then it turns out the wife is very much alive, didn’t fake her death or anything. After that, the matter is dropped from the story. If it was meant to tell us something about her client, which I suspect it was, it doesn’t come through. He’s not manipulative or mendacious, in some ways he’s quite pitiable. I surmise that his belief that his ex-wife died of cancer was meant to show his increasingly fragile hold on reality, and his desperation for life to make sense, or something like that. But it doesn’t really work, it just comes off as a plot quirk for no apparent reason. In fact, as the book goes on, the client basically gets moved offstage and his wife steps up to fill his position in the story. So I’m really not sure what Huang intended here, and it sort of sticks out, again, because everything else is so solid.

Thirdly, her left-wing Social Justice Warrior views intrude into the story for a short space in the middle of the book, in a way I found off-putting. I applauded the way she worked her views into the first book, Zero Sum Game, because they bore directly on the story and she dealt fairly, exploring negative consequences of her avowed beliefs. All of that was to the good. In Half-Life, it comes a bit out of nowhere and feels gratuitous. The “android infiltration” press conferences lead to demagoguing and cultural hysteria, which is dramatized in a trope-ish way, but that didn’t bother me, but all the demagoguing was from right-wing social conservatives who hate gay marriage. And this socially liberal reader was jerked right out of the story during this chapter or two, thinking “Really!? That’s the best you could do?” It just feels lazy, which, again, stands out in a book where so much attention was given to all kinds of details. But, again, it’s not a big part of the book, a few chapters or so at most, and really just part of the background to the main story.

My last quibble is simply that the various plots didn’t seem to mesh together as smoothly as they could. Certainly, Huang put them together for clear reasons, but once you get to them, they seem a bit obvious and convenient, and it doesn’t come off as perfectly coherent to me.

But again, this is largely quibbling, in the face of a second novel with greater ambition than the spectacular first, even if it doesn’t quite achieve everything it sets out to do. It was enormous fun, mostly satisfying, and has me looking forward to diving into the newly-available third book in the series, Root of Unity.

You can download and read Half Life by SL Huang for free from Unglue.It under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike 4.0 License.

You can also buy it for a very reasonable price from Amazon. I promise you won’t regret the purchase.