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The front cover for World Running Down by Al Hess. There is a red camper van in the front right hand side of the page. The landscape around them is a desert with mountains in the distance. There are two people sitting on the van's roof.

World Running Down

World Running Down by Al Hess from @angryrobotbooks #BookReview #Futuristic #Dystopia

World Running Down by Al Hess

Angry Robot Books, £9.99

Reviewed by Nadya Mercik

The front cover for World Running Down by Al Hess. There is a red camper van in the front right hand side of the page. The landscape around them is a desert with mountains in the distance. There are two people sitting on the van's roof.

World Running Down is a story both layered and simple. On the one hand, it is a road journey with a mission to accomplish. It shows you the perspective and worldview of a trans person fighting to be who he is. On the other, it is about being human, discarding narrowmindedness, eradicating violence and building a better world. Wrapped into a breathtaking adventure on the road, these topics do not sound like morale but are filled with hope.

Valentine Weis, together with his partner Ace are salvagers. In the futuristic, run-down America, where life is split between posh, secure cities like Salt Lake City and smaller poor communities, they travel around, procuring whatever customers need, be they an individual or a community. They deliver fuel cells and other necessities, but the next job that suddenly finds them looks nothing ordinary. Firstly, the proposition is delivered by an android, who claims to be a Steward – one of the fully sentient AIs who help humans regulate life in the city – illegally placed into a robot body. Secondly, the payment is deliciously lucrative – visas that will allow Val and Ace to live in the city. However, that’s it – no more details as to what the job is going to entail.

Val and Ace feel conflicted. They’ve been saving money for visas for a long time, and they still don’t have enough, and God knows when they will. At the same time, there is something fishy about the job too. Besides, where are the guarantees that they will get the visas? Still, they decide to at least give it a try and find out more.

While they travel to the city, the bond between Val and the android/Steward Osric grows into something bigger. Val helps Osric to understand life in a body and to overcome his loneliness. Though Osric is planning to return to the system as a Steward as soon as he can, he too grows really attached to Val. When they arrive in the mansion of Portia Thibodeaux, the time to go separate ways has come. Val and Ace decide to take the offer, as the job is to deliver some escort androids back to the owner. Osric has been promised some help with being reinstated as a Steward from his AI family.

But Portia’s grandchildren threaten to use Osric instead of the stolen androids to deliver escort services, and Val cannot let him be a sex worker. So, he comes up with a ruse to take Osric with them. And perhaps, it is for the best because since Portia last had androids, they had evolved. Should they even return the self-aware robots to Thibodeaux?

The story weaves smoothly, merging actions and adventure like fighting pirates, with deep introspection as to what it is to be different and how to adapt to the world without compromising on oneself. There are lots of tactile scenes, and Al Hess is wonderful in engaging your senses. The story makes you hungry, thirsty, and craving the world around you. It is amazing to cherish life in its minutiae.

At first glance, one may think that this is solely the story of a trans person, but there is so much more to it. It is not only Val who struggles against his wrong body. Osric too tries to fit into the Android shell and its limitations; moreover, he has to learn so many simple things from scratch. There is a good insight into how it makes a person feel. I felt like all of us can learn from that struggle – people who hate their bodies, people who have disabilities, and people who feel anxious. Al Hess feels the psychology of all his characters, be they gay, trans or straight, very well. Altogether it makes for a very empathetic story; when on seeing the difference, you are ready to accept it.

Some of the plot twists and developments may seem quite standard and simple, but thus they give us the platform to explore the depths and differences. Despite the harsh world Al Hess draws, he clearly strives for a utopian resolution. And after all, why not, since this is (as the author states) cosy science fiction, and it is there to bring you hope.

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