Engines of oblivion

Review by C.J. Bunce

In Architects of Memory, first-time sci-fi writer Karen Osborne created a corporate sci-fi story, similar to Alien’s Weyland-Yutani, where corporations compete for weapons and power.  In this futuristic realm, humans have been de-humanized to almost unrecognizable, something like in Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon.  In a world so vile, why fight to survive?  Is living enough when there’s nothing to live for, and if there is something worth living for, then what is it?  Osborne doesn’t answer that question in either the original book or its sequel, Engines of Oblivion, the second and last book in her “Memory War” duology.  Fans of the first book will be interested in this next novel, as it revisits the world of human bombs and a bleak dystopia, only this time moving from lead protagonist Ash to Natalie, as Natalie is manipulated into returning to find those she left behind after stumbling into a major military success for her board of directors.  Strong women on the brink of hopelessness struggle to understand their roles, their relationships, and a world bogged down in Avatar-esque designs in this wind-up to the Memory War story.

As in the first novel, it’s Osborne’s futuristic ideas that are the appeal.  But readers will need to read Architects of Memory to understand this world–oftentimes a second volume will provide enough backstory to allow readers a jumping-on point, but that’s not the case here.  Again Osborne combines and splices into her story lots of bits of tropes from the spectrum of science fiction, military sci-fi, the Alien franchise, political sci-fi, TV, and film.  This novel seems closer to the Earth-emigrant universe of Firefly than the first, but there is much less familiar to our world than in that series, less humor, and less chemistry among characters.  As with the first book, Engines of Oblivion features a predominately all women cast of characters, and the moral questions are more of those dilemmas of the world of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s GameUnfortunately readers won’t find much new here.  The key challenge is creating satisfaction for a reader in a hero’s survival–in whatever sci-fi form that may be–in a world so bleak and devoid of hope.

Again we follow four key characters, all pawns operating at the behest of distant boards of directors and a world not of their choosing.  Lost or unattained romance, a lingering longing for something that can’t be defined or found seems to pull Natalie forward, a woman of unlimited abilities and ideas.  She’s driven, but her motivation seems only survival for survival’s sake, and it’s difficult to care about her journey, especially her dismissive stance to other characters, the one-note, major character named Sharma in particular.  The flaw in the construction of the character of Natalie is her incredible, super-human, omniscient knowledge of events prior to and outside the narrative that means she can, and does, solve every new problem thrown at her, even if there is a new problem on every page, never giving the readers the opportunity to help Natalie along the way.  A third of the way through the book it is obvious Natalie is never facing any real stakes–she’s designed to have all the answers.

Architects of Memory was Osborne’s first foray into sci-fi and it was a good start, but unfortunately the same writing issues return in Engines of Oblivion Many of these problems are rudimentary for a traditionally published novel and could have been alleviated with finer editing.  Simple editing tasks of removing repeated and over-used words would have saved much page count and tightened the action and suspense.  Osborne shows too much without explaining, referencing technology she leaves the reader to sort out, with some sections just over-stuffed with technobabble that seems to carry forward no real stakes for the story and easily could be trimmed away.  As with the first book, Osborne’s writing continues a strange fixation with the mouth.  There’s more phlegm gulps per page than anything I’ve ever read before, even more than her last novel, along with more dry throats, holding back vomit in their throats, etc.  Personal physical movements, especially gross biological functions, don’t need to accompany every line of dialogue.

Engines of Oblivion doesn’t deliver on the promise of the first novel in the duology, but anyone who was a fan of the first novel will no doubt want to read this next chapter, and may find it to their liking.  Engines of Oblivion is available now here at Amazon.