World Running Down by Al Hess

Valentine Weis is a salvager in the future wastelands of Utah. Wrestling with body dysphoria, he dreams of earning enough money to afford citizenship in Salt Lake City – a utopia where the testosterone and surgery he needs to transition is free, the food is plentiful, and folk are much less likely to be shot full of arrows by salt pirates. 

But earning that kind of money is a pipe dream, until he meets the exceptionally handsome Osric.

Once a powerful AI in Salt Lake City, Osric has been forced into an android body against his will and sent into the wasteland to offer Valentine a job on behalf of his new employer – an escort service seeking to retrieve their stolen androids. The reward is a visa into the city, and a chance at the life Valentine’s always dreamed of. But as they attempt to recover the “merchandise”, they encounter a problem: the android ladies are becoming self-aware, and have no interest in returning to their old lives.

The prize is tempting, but carrying out the job would go against everything Valentine stands for, and would threaten the fragile found family that’s kept him alive so far. He’ll need to decide whether to risk his own dream in order to give the AI a chance to live theirs.

PUBLISHER: Angry Robot
YEAR: 2023
LENGTH: 335 pages 
AGE: Adult

Queer Rep Summary: Lesbian/Sapphic Secondary Character(s), Gay/Achillean Main Character(s), Bi/Pan Secondary Character(s), Genderqueer/Nonbinary Minor Character(s), Trans Main Character(s), Ace/Aro Minor Character(s).

*I received a free review copy in exchange for an honest review of this book. 

It is wonderful and refreshing to read a story centering on autonomy and personhood which is deeply interested in erring on the side of expanding those definitions. WORLD RUNNING DOWN is about a trans man with body dysphoria, and an AI with android dysphoria. Valentine is a salvager, working with a partner (Ace) to try and do enough jobs to have the money for citizenship in Salt Lake City, where he can medically transition at last. Osric is an AI who was placed in an android body against his will, sent by his new employer to give Valentine and Ace a job: track down some stolen merchandise. The problems begin in earnest when it turns out the "merchandise" are android sex workers. Just as Osric is starting to get used to having a body, and maybe not mind so much that people assume he's non-sentient like the rest of the androids... it starts to look like maybe that's not an accurate way to describe them either. It's becoming increasingly obvious that the some (or perhaps all) of the androids are sentient, and they don't want to go back to being used and abused. 

I appreciate how it's acknowledge specifically that the humans are fine with non-corporeal AI, and corporeal non-sentient androids, but they've tried to dodge the issue of "is a sentient android worthy of basic rights of personhood" by trying very hard to insist that there's no way the programming would let them have independent thought. They've basically avoided the issue rather than dealing with what it would mean if that ever happened. It turns out that the time is now, with Ace and Valentine having to decide whether it makes a difference that the objects they were sent to retrieve have their own ideas about what happens next. 

The romance between Osric and Valentine is great, it's intimate without getting explicit. I especially appreciate this dynamic as both characters have complicated feelings about their own bodies, and avoiding specifics about parts seems to be a good storytelling decision here. 

Things I love, in no particular order: Valentine in his new clothes; Osric figuring out his body; how Ace's transphobia is handled; the AI Stewards; the pirates.

If you like this you may like:

  • THESE FRAGILE GRACES, THIS FUGITIVE HEART by Izzy Wasserstein (trans, community)
  • FRONTIER by Grace Curtis (post-apocalyptic)
  • THE ARCHIVE UNDYING by Emma Mieko Candon (AI, personhood)

Moderate CW for sexual content, dysphoria, misgendering, sexism, transphobia, abandonment, trafficking, blood, violence, injury detail, slavery, death.

Minor CW for deadnaming, cannibalism, physical abuse, animal death.

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