Book Review: World Running Down by Al Hess

The writer within me was enraptured from the first line, and promptly pushed the reader into Valentine’s van for the ride. From the first instances of Valentine’s poignant voice to the last line, this story has its sweet and bitter. How could it not? In a dystopian world with a familiar concept, the rich live in cities, the poor survive in a wasteland, Hess takes the principle and makes it anew.

Valentine’s life is hard; he and his companion Ace take scrappy salvaging jobs so they can both one day afford visas to Salt Lake City. Ace wants that better world, but for Valentine as a trans man, it holds the treatments he needs to be his true self. The pair take Valentine’s van across the salt flats, dodging pirates and wildlife, doing whatever they can to see their dreams come true.

When Osric arrives into Valentine’s life, a struggling AI not used to the confines of an android body, Valentine’s big heart gets the better of him. He takes a shine to the fumbling Osric, and the pair start a banter that still gives me a warm glow.

Osric reveals that his owners have a job offer for Valentine and Ace, one that involves a taste of the city life in clothes, and all Valentine and Ace have to do is meet their mysterious benefactor. If they accept the job, and succeed, payment comes with an offer too good to be true; visas to Salt Lake City. The job? Rescue a few stolen androids, which sounds too easy, and too good to be true. Valentine finds himself saying yes, despite Ace’s misgivings, and wanting Osric to stay with him.

Because Osric is not supposed to be in this body. As a steward over Salt Lake, he once held a position of authority, managing the city as part of a network with other AIs. He thinks an infraction has him demoted to assisting a family capitalizing on the lack of self-awareness in their androids, running a female companionship company. Something darker has happened, and Osric wants nothing more than to return to the limitless network with his fellow stewards. But when the trio find the droids, they find themselves with a dilemma too; take the world they think they want, or do what’s right even though it will cost them their dreams?

In such a desolate setting, Hess manages to find hope and spin it through Valentine, even though Valentine himself doesn’t always believe in it. That who he is matters, that everyone’s identity, including that of an AI or android, is important. Right by his side, Osric holds none of the apathy and unkindness normally found in AI stories, but instead is enfolded an empathetic understanding. Careful, wonderful, wildly protective, his personal journey is deeply moving as he finds himself.

I found myself wishing I could meet the characters, if only to share in their joy and help them with their struggles. The love story so carefully crafted between Valentine and Osric was so fraught with underlying struggles on their own personal battlefields, at one point I feared I wasn’t going to get my happily ever after.

A part of me never wanted to put the book down, could have read it in one sitting, but as someone who’s autistic, I found myself connecting with the writing and being emotionally impacted in ways I didn’t expect. And it wasn’t just in Valentine, but the way Osric took care of him. This isn’t a key focus of the book, but I did find myself heavily impacted by it when I related to the way Valentine reacted to many of the most angst driven scenes. By Hess writing reactions I would have, that I don’t normally see in books.

If you love the idea of Blade Runner, but want something with more hope and a lot more joy, this is your book. If you want a softer dystopia that doesn’t leave the bitter bleakness behind, this is your book. If you want to see a place where you could belong, as who you truly are, this is your book.

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