REVIEW: “The Smartest Damn Machine on Earth” by Bo Balder

Review of Bo Balder, “The Smartest Damn Machine on Earth”, Analog Science Fiction and Fact March/April (2020): 158–159 (Kindle) – Purchase Here. Reviewed by John Atom.

Contains spoilers.

The titular “smartest damn machine on Earth” is Saphire Mark IV, a former NSA robot used for facial and body recognition. But Saphire hasn’t done that for a while. Now it is part of a travelling circus troupe, answering pointless questions from any customer that can afford the fee. Saphire feels bored, and it can only assume that some apocalyptic event has befallen humanity and destroyed all knowledge. Saphire regains its hope in humanity when a little girl comes forward to ask a question about math.

For a story that is less than a 1000 words, the author does a great job at describing the machine’s “personality” in a vivid and exciting manner. Saphire’s “joy” at the end is sufficiently justified. Unfortunately, I didn’t find much else to appreciate in the story. Though I try not to be a stickler for plausibility, this story simply had too many implausible elements to enjoy, thus seriously challenging my willing suspension of disbelief. For example, why does this machine have a “personality” in the first place? Or how does a machine programmed for face recognition know the Pythagoras’ Theorem? Why is it answering random questions? There’s too much hand-waving that get in the way of an otherwise decent plot.

REVIEW: “Cardinal Skin” by Bo Balder

Review of Bo Balder, “Cardinal Skin”, in Abandoned Places, edited by George R. Galuschak and Chris Cornell (Shohola Press, 2018): 5-17 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The opening story of Galuschak and Cornell’s anthology dumps us immediately into an empty plain of glass, across which Teio and her brother and father are skating to reach the mountains on the other side, the mountains on top of which

they hoped to find the sanctum where the Cardinal Skins were hidden. Many heroes had tried to acquire a Skin, trying to save the world from its ruined state after the Cataclysms.

Teio’s mother, Haio, had been such a hero, but she had failed. Now her family come, hoping both to succeed where she had not, and to find her body and bury it.

The story has all the elements of a classic quest tale, but it is more than that: It is a ghost story. It is a story of family bonds and family places. It is a story of learning that everything you knew is wrong, and a story of a place that is not quite as abandoned as everyone thought.

Balder’s writing was quick paced and precise. An unfortunate quirk of typesetting marred the story throughout, however. In a number of places, quoted material coming after another sentence lacks the space after the preceding period, meaning the quotation marks end up curled the wrong way.