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Rosebud (SF) - Paul Cornell ***

Paul Cornell is probably now best known as the author of excellent urban fantasies such as London Falling, but he is well grounded in writing science fiction and in this novella demonstrates the impressive range of his imagination. I need to say up front that Rosebud is a really interesting piece of writing, and the reason I've only given it three stars is that I am not sure that it works.

Rosebud is a tiny spacecraft, less than a millimetre across, crewed by five AI entities that we first meet in a range of forms from a goth to a sweary balloon to a creature constructed only of hands. These entities are already in an uncertain relationship with the distant Earth – now, more concerns are thrown their way by the arrival of what appears to be another tiny spaceship, perhaps of alien origin.

Over the years, very few SF books have successfully tackled truly alien protagonists. Here we have the alien but (to some extent) anthropomorphic AI entities plus that initially inscrutable new arrival. In tackling a topic like this, Cornell has really tried something extraordinary, which must be lauded. Sadly, though, for me the experiment didn’t work. Perhaps the reason that we don’t usually get truly alien protagonists is that they are difficult to identify with. I couldn’t engage with the AI characters – in fact I nearly gave up reading half way though. I’m glad I persevered, but for me the process of working through this novella was more an intellectual reward than true enjoyment.

It probably doesn’t help that, presumably as part of underlining that alien feel, we are thrown in at the deep end at the start, and in the interaction with the new micro-ship, it’s quite difficult to follow what is happening. Another potential issue is the use of the easily misunderstood physics concept of time crystals, which are nowhere near as impressive as they sound, as a MacGuffin. I don’t require totally solid science in SF – it’s the ‘fiction’ part that’s key, but this is a topic where the science itself is extremely obscure, so it piles on extra potential for a lack of engagement. (It was also somewhat eyebrow raising that somehow the AI’s were able to assume nano-scale human bodies – biological organisms simply can’t physically scale to that degree – but that’s more the traditionally acceptable face of unlikely science in science fiction.)

I don’t want to put anyone off trying Rosebud. It’s daring and original. But it wasn’t for me.

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Review by Brian Clegg - See all of Brian's online articles or subscribe to a weekly digest for free here

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