#BookReview: Better Living Through Algorithms by Naomi Kritzer

#BookReview: Better Living Through Algorithms by Naomi Kritzer“Better Living Through Algorithms” by Naomi Kritzer in Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 200, May 2023) by Naomi Kritzer
Narrator: Kate Baker
Format: ebook, podcast
Source: podcast, supplied by publisher via Hugo Packet
Formats available: ebook, magazine, podcast
Genres: hopepunk, science fiction, short stories
Series: Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 200
Pages: 13
Length: 36 minutes
Published by Clarkesworld Magazine on May, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo

Clarkesworld Magazine, May 2023 issue (#200) contains:
- Original fiction by Naomi Kritzer ("Better Living Through Algorithms"), Harry Turtledove ("Through the Roof of the World"), Suzanne Palmer ("To Sail Beyond the Botnet"), Rich Larson ("LOL, Said the Scorpion"), Parker Ragland ("Sensation and Sensibility"), Megan Chee ("The Giants Among Us"), An Hao ("Action at a Distance"), and Jordan Chase-Young ("The Fall").
- Non-fiction includes an article by Carrie Sessarego, interviews with Premee Mohamed and Megan O'Keefe, and an editorial by Neil Clarke.

My Review:

This story was simply adorable – if both realistic and a bit sad. And sad because it was realistic and realistic because sad. With just the right tinge of hope to lift it up at the end.

It’s also surprisingly SFnal for a situation that sits in the uncanny valley where what used to be SF has become the real. It feels like it’s part of the lab-based SF tradition but there’s no actual lab. Or we’re all the lab. Or a bit of both.

Let me explain – or at least try.

Better Living Through Algorithms is set either in the RIGHT NOW or at a point in time so close that it might as well be now. It doesn’t need any aliens or space ships and there’s no computer virus running amuck.

What there is is an app. Just like now. But the app isn’t exactly like any of the usual suspects – although it’s perfectly capable of seeming like any or all of them.

Abelique combines elements of a productivity app, and a time management app, and a health monitoring app, wraps the whole thing up in a self-reflective little bow and ties it off with a bit of mystery.

When Linnea first hears about Abelique from her early-adopter friends, it sounds like a cult and she’s NOT INTERESTED. When her boss pushes her to try it – at work – he makes it sound like a productivity app. He also makes it sound like she’d better just do it.

So she does – to the point of doing the long and somewhat intrusive setup on work time – because if her boss is making references to her last and next evaluations as he’s “encouraging” her, it is. But Linnea gets hooked on Abelique the minute that it tells her it will help her lie to her boss. Because that’s clearly not the hallmark of a productivity app. At all.

And she’s in.

Through Linnea’s adoption of Abelique we see the whole life cycle of a viral app, as well as more than a bit of the nitty-gritty about how that sausage gets made. Abelique structures her day and her time – but in really good ways. It encourages her to connect with both new people and old dreams. It keeps her from becoming a drone of a worker bee.

All of which happen because she lets it invade her privacy – all for her own good. Which it actually is. At least until the inevitable end of the life-cycle comes and she stops using Abelique, gives up all of those good habits and goes back to her old routine.

But something remains, not of Abelique but of the person she leaned into while she used it. And that gives the story a much-needed little uplift at the otherwise sad but expected ending.

Escape Rating B+: I really did love this – not because the AI behind Abelique knows better than we do – but because it knows exactly what we know and just don’t pay attention to. None of the things that Abelique asks – and it’s always an ask and not a demand – are news.

People are happier when they have fewer small decisions to make. People are happier when they get outside more. People are more productive when they get enough sleep. People do feel better when they have space for a bit of creativity in their lives. Etc., etc., etc.

Abelique just puts all of those things that are already known into a package that seems cool and goes viral – for a little while. Because viral apps are only viral for a little while. It can’t last because of other predictable bits of human behavior – but it is lovely while it does.

In the end, this is a bit of hopepunk, in that some of what Linnea learns while she’s participating in Abelique remains – and not just for her – even after the app’s inevitable ending.

This was a story that I enjoyed while I was listening to it, but it wasn’t terribly deep and left me more than a bit sad at the end. As much as I liked it while I was listening, it doesn’t overtake How to Raise a Kraken in Your Bathtub on my Hugo ballot.

But reading it did leave me with a habit that I don’t plan on letting go of. I listened to this story from the Clarkesworld podcast reading. They read all the stories they publish in the magazine – as does Uncanny Magazine. I’ll definitely be looking for more of those podcasts, not just for the Hugo nominations, but for whenever I’m searching for excellent stories to listen to, even though there isn’t an app to tell me to.

Grade A #BookReview: The Year Without Sunshine by Naomi Kritzer

Grade A #BookReview: The Year Without Sunshine by Naomi Kritzer“The Year Without Sunshine” by Naomi Kritzer in Uncanny Magazine Issue 55, November-December 2023 by Naomi Kritzer
Format: ebook
Source: supplied by publisher via Hugo Packet
Formats available: magazine, ebook
Genres: climate fiction, hopepunk, science fiction
Series: Uncanny Magazine Issue 55
Pages: 35
Published by Uncanny Magazine on November 7, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon

The November/December 2023 issue of Hugo Award-winning Uncanny Magazine.

Featuring new fiction by Naomi Kritzer, Jeffrey Ford, Kel Coleman, Cecil Castellucci, Marissa Lingen, Chelsea Sutton, and Ana Hurtado. Essays by John Scalzi, Amanda-Rae Prescott, Paul Cornell, and Lee Mandelo, poetry by Carlie St. George, Tehnuka, Lora Gray, and Angela Liu, interviews with Jeffrey Ford and Marissa lIngen by Caroline M. Yoachim, a cover by Paul Lewin, and an editorial by Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas.

Uncanny Magazine is a bimonthly science fiction and fantasy magazine first published in November 2014. Edited by 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2022, 2023 Hugo award winners for best semiprozine, and 2018 Hugo award winners for Best Editor, Short Form, Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, and Monte Lin, each issue of Uncanny includes new stories, poetry, articles, and interviews.

My Review:

I’m just realizing that I need a spreadsheet for my project to read and review this year’s Hugo nominees – if possible before the voting deadline on July 20. Today’s entry in the continuing saga is Naomi Kritzer’s “The Year Without Sunshine”, my third nominee in the Best Novelette Category.

A novelette is between 7,500 and 17,500 words, and this particular novelette did an excellent job of making every single one of those words count.

The story takes its climate change/post-pandemic scenario and doesn’t get into the SF aspects because it doesn’t need to. Instead, it takes that pretty grim setup and tells a bright, sparkling, hopepunk story about a community that bands together so they ALL get through a year when there literally is no sunshine because the sky is choked with ash.

What made the setup even more fascinating is that that has actually happened before – for reals – in 1816, after the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815 triggered an agricultural disaster in all of northern Europe.

In this story, we don’t exactly get details of what caused the problem, but we don’t need them. Those details are not the point.

The point is the people. This one tiny community pulls together – and does it effectively – because one community member is suffering from COPD and will only live as long as her oxygen concentrator has power. But power failures are a daily occurrence, their generator runs on propane, and propane deliveries – along with a lot of other services that people have come to expect – have stopped.

So it begins with ideas to keep Susan alive. But that need is a catalyst for everything that happens until there’s blue sky again – and that story of hope and perseverance and taking care of your neighbors – and being taken care of in return – is simply lovely.

Escape Rating A: This is a story about the way that we wish things were, when a group of people relies on the better angels of their nature instead of the demons of self-interest.

What made this story work so well for this reader – is just how grounded it is in the real as well as the really hopeful. While this particular disaster scenario hasn’t happened, there are plenty of precedents for both the “year without sunshine” and for communities pulling together in times of crisis.

So it all feels, not just plausible but true in that way that fiction is the lie that tells the truth, because the story doesn’t gloss over the fact that some would-be communities take more selfish paths and that there are occasions when the community as a whole will have to defend what they’ve built. But it just adds to the hopeful tone of the story and I finished it with a smile on my face both for what it said AND how well it said it.

If you are curious about other takes on this year’s Hugo nominees, I am far from the only person doing this. There’s an opinionated and informative thread on reddit that has sometimes been even more fascinating than the actual stories. Although not in this particular case as it seems like their readers as well as this one were generally fascinated with this particular story and had little if anything negative to say. “The Year Without Sunshine” is a delight, and my voting in this category just got a LOT harder.