World Running Down

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Pub Date Feb 14 2023 | Archive Date Feb 14 2023

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A transgender salvager on the outskirts of a dystopian Utah gets the chance to earn the ultimate score and maybe even a dash of romance. But there's no such thing as a free lunch…

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.

File Under: Science Fiction [ Finding Your Way | Everybody Hurts | Body Bound | City Dreams ]
A transgender salvager on the outskirts of a dystopian Utah gets the chance to earn the ultimate score and maybe even a dash of romance. But there's no such thing as a free lunch…

Valentine Weis is...

Advance Praise

“Full of adventure, charm, and deeply human insights, the world in Hess’s World Running Down is an apocalypse you won’t want to leave.”

– Seth Fried, author of The Municipalists

“Full of adventure, charm, and deeply human insights, the world in Hess’s World Running Down is an apocalypse you won’t want to leave.”

– Seth Fried, author of The Municipalists

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ISBN 9781915202239
PRICE $17.99 (USD)

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Average rating from 51 members

Featured Reviews

This really feels like a case of writing the book that you want to read and reaping the rewards. It's more empathetic, more romantic, and more fun than the Mad Max, Blade Runner, dystopian stories that have come before it. The characters are likeable and feel fully realized. The pacing is quick. The sci-fi ideas are interesting, while never bogging down the adventure. I think my one complaint is that the climax is a bit scattered as it ties up each of its plot threads, but that doesn't ruin the adventure as a whole.

Frankly, I think there needs to be more books like this, about kindness and love, and I'm thankful I got to read it.

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I'm so happy this book exists, and I can't wait to start making people read it. I've thought about it a great deal since finishing it, and keep bringing it up to friends I know will love it as much as I did.

Loveable cast of characters, tons of representation that felt authentic, a compelling quest, and a vibrant setting.

It took a few pages for me to get into, bc the beginning exposition was a tad clunky. There were also a few moments where I was confused as a lot happened in a short period of time, and it almost felt like I'd skipped some pages? But once I went back and purposefully slowed down and reread, the confusion went away. Honestly pretty minor nitpicks, though, and I look forward to reading many more books by Al Hess.

(ARC provided by Angry Robot)

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For what sometimes seems like a very pessimistic take on a possible future, World Running Down is a heartwarming read. I adored the characters, and the way the android and AI characters' search for self-realisation mirrored the similar journeys of the human characters. Though I'm perhaps not best placed to comment, I thought the trans masculine representation here was brilliant - the depictions of Valentine's dysphoria felt accurate. Al Hess also isn't afraid to confront tougher aspects of this world, but there's a wonderful undercurrent of care and empathy throughout.
The plotting becomes a tad erratic towards the end, but overall this was a highly enjoyable book - it felt like a refreshingly new take which can sit alongside the canon of other semi-apocalyptic road-trip through the desert tales.

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When I read the plot I thought it should have been a sort of dystopia with hard characters and a androids/AI rebellion.
I was wrong: it’s a story set in a world that is not very different from the one we live in with a cast of sweet and intriguing characters.
It’s poignant, sweet, moving and gripping. It made me smile and cry, I rooted for Valentine and Oscric and hope in a HEA like I was reading a romantic novel.
Valentine is well rounded and lovely character: he’s fighting to read his goal but he’s never bitter or harsh. There’s a lot of sufferance, there’s moving representation of dysphoria but this character has no chip on his shoulder.
Oscric is the Stewart AI that was forced into an android body. A funny and complex character I loved since I met him.
The author is a very talented storyteller and deliver a cast of well-developed characters, a tightly knitted plot and a complex world building.
I would happy to meet again these characters, I will surely read other books by this author.

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World Running Down turned out to be my third climate-apocalypse dystopia in a row, after Junkyard War and Perilous Times. The world is going to hell in a handcart and it’s all humanity’s fault no matter how you look at it. But these three looks at the view from that handcart are quite different. And all, surprisingly, hopeful.

At first, Valentine Weis doesn’t seem to have much hope. Or, perhaps, hope’s all he’s got without any real way of making any of his hopes come close to realization. At least not until Osric drops into his life – just about literally – with an offer that Valentine probably should refuse.

Because anything that looks too good to be true generally is – especially with people who actually still have a conscience and at least an ounce of compassion for their fellow beings. However those beings present themselves and whatever they happen to be made of.

In his very post-climate apocalypse world, Valentine lives his life on the outside looking in. Someone is offering him the opportunity to finally be on the inside. The question is whether the price is one that he’s willing to pay.

Salt Lake City is one of the few remaining, functional cities in the U.S. It’s a place where healthcare and transportation are free, where it seems as if everyone has enough to eat and a place to live. It’s a place where the rich get richer and the poor peek through the glass at all the things they can’t have without citizenship. Or sponsorship. Or both.

Valentine has none of the above. Instead his only possession is a barely functioning van, his only friend is more of a frenemy, he’s just barely breaking even on the delivery and salvage jobs he takes to keep body and soul together. And he’s trapped in a body he knows is wrong, deals with regular and depressing bouts of body dysmorphia and keeps falling further behind in his quest to save up enough money to get admitted to the place where he can get the medicines and the surgery he needs to make his external appearance reflect his inner self.

Osric, on the other hand, isn’t even human. He’s a Steward, an elite artificial intelligence who has been placed in a mere android body by nefarious person or persons unknown and sent out by even more nefarious persons to rope Valentine and his friend Ace into a job that must have one hell of a catch – because the fee for doing it is beyond Valentine’s biggest hopes and best dreams.

Which he just might manage to make come true. Not by giving in to what either those nefarious persons or his best frenemy/business partner Ace might say is the best thing – but by doing the actual, honest-to-goodness right thing. No matter how much it breaks his heart.

Escape Rating A: Before I even attempt to get into any more detail, first things first. And the first thing is that I loved World Running Down. A lot. Which kind of surprised me, not for itself, but because it was the third climate apocalypse dystopia book I read in a row, and as a subject that’s kind of a downer.

But the book itself isn’t a downer at all, which is really all down to Valentine. He just so earnestly wants to be a genuinely good person in spite of the world running down. Given a choice between the right thing and the easy thing Valentine chooses the right thing every single time – quite often to his own detriment.

He’s not unrealistic – at all – about just how FUBAR’d his world has become. He just doesn’t let that affect his own decision making process. He knows that things overall are heading towards an even hotter place than the climate, and he’s cognizant that he can’t fix much of that. But he’s committed to making things a little better as he can to those whose lives he actually touches.

Which is what gives the story both its hopefulness and its poignancy.

Valentine himself is caught in a “catch-22”. He’s trans, he needs both meds and surgery to complete his transition – which he very much desires to do. To be able to do that he needs to get residence in Salt Lake City, and for that he needs to pass a citizenship test. Which is just as big a hurdle because Valentine has ADHD or some variant of it which hasn’t even been diagnosed, making it difficult for him to study and retain certain kinds of information. Math gives a lot of people trouble. It gives Valentine a double dose of trouble, and he needs to get it to pass the test. Doing the original job would be a shortcut to his dreams – but absolutely does come at much too high a price.

But this isn’t just Valentine’s story, although we see much of it from his perspective. It’s also Osric’s story, and it’s the story of the job they are contracted for and the huge cloud wrapped around the silver lining of the payoff for doing it. Both parts of which result in discussion of artificial intelligences and the definition of what makes a being of artificial intelligence intelligent enough to be self-aware and eligible for citizenship.

And then the whole story works its way around to just how much heartache and heartbreak can be caused by trying to do what you think is best for someone you care for and how demeaning it is to make those decisions without their input.

There’s more. There’s just so much more. More than I should get into here, no matter how tempted I am. Which is very.

Between the climate apocalypse, the dystopian elements, the so, so sharp divide between the haves and the have nots, and both the political and the romantic issues that are raised by the questions of sentience and artificial intelligence, World Running Down touched on themes that brought to mind (my mind at least) a whole shelf of books that a reader might find equally appealing and/or interesting and very much vice versa.

So if you’ve ever read any of the following, you will probably also find World Running Down to be running right up your reading alley. And if you like World Running Down, these may also appeal; A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers, In the Lives of Puppets by TJ Klune, Automatic Reload by Ferrett Steinmetz and The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson.

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World Running Down was a lovely, quieter take on the future- one replete with AIs of various sentiency, and one with at least a bit of societal collapse. I have seen some reviews mention that it doesn't feel quite post-apocalyptic, and I feel like that is a great way to say it. Because it isn't necessarily the apocalypse- things aren't really at that level of degradation- but neither is it the bustling world we know today. There are cities, and technology, and forms of government, but they're few and far between, and the vast areas between them are kind of lawless hellscapes.

To start, we meet Valentine. I loved that the author provided illustrations of the characters, because I was able to picture them so well! I found Valentine to give me Jasper Jordan vibes, probably from his goggles, but either way it endeared me to him immediately. He's trans, and in a world with very limited resources, getting the medication and surgical procedures he so desperately needs are outside his current financial grasp. That is heartbreaking, full stop. And obviously relevant in our current society, which is even more infuriating because we don't have any global collapses to blame for our ignorance. I digress, but I felt for Valentine from the start. He travels in his van with his bestie Ace, who... honestly sometimes she was more of a frenemy than an actual friend, but their complicated relationship was kind of refreshing to see. Sometimes, we need to see examples of unhealthy relationships (as long as they're portrayed as such, which this does) just as much as great ones. They're traveling around working as couriers basically, trying to earn enough money to become citizens of Salt Lake City.

Osric is an AI. A sentient AI, who used to be part of a collective group of fellow sentient AIs, who now finds himself in this random body he never asked to be in. When Osric and Valentine end up on a mission together, they find they have a lot more in common than meets the eye. I loved the parallels the author created between Valentine's and Osric's body dysphoria. Both simply don't feel comfortable in their current skin, and neither chose the bodies they are in, and obviously this made them even closer, as they were able to relate to each other in such a significant way.

There are a lot of other aspects I enjoyed about this book, too! Things like: Quasi-Apocalyptic Road Trips™, desert pirate clans, other AIs who are being treated like possessions and we hope will eventually not be, complicated relationships, incredibly atmospheric desolate desert settings, thought provoking questions of morality, and lots of humorous and adorable moments along the way. If you like any of the aforementioned, you should probably give this book a go!

Bottom Line: World Running Down was thoughtful and entertaining, with characters I cared about and a story that provides plenty of commentary on current social issues.

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“Osric drew in a labored breath. “I’m – I’m not supposed to be in this body.”
Valentine tugged Osric’s shirt closed. “Me neither, hon.”
–Al Hess. World Running Down

Here’s a post-apocalypse tale set in the desert outside Salt Lake City that channels Mad Max and The Wizard of Oz, well, sort of. Valentine is a scavenger in the wasteland who dreams of getting a visa to Salt Lake City where he can get free health care, and, more importantly, the gender change he longs for. Ace, his partner, just wants to get out of the scavenger business and live somewhere other than a beat-up van that smells like socks while avoiding salt pirates’ arrows on every run. The two show up in an outlying gated city only to find an android from Salt Lake City waiting for them with a job and before you can say yellow brick road, the trio is on their way to recover stolen sex-worker androids in what should be an easy haul.

Though Valentine’s trans dreams are front and center, this isn’t just a book about LGBTQ angst. Osiris was an important steward AI in Salt Lake City before crossing someone who got him stuffed into an android body and sent off into the desert. The sex androids are all intelligence-limited, except maybe they’re not as dumb as they seem, and maybe they don’t want to go back, while Ace is a gal capable of making the hard calls to get what she wants. It all adds up to a great romp in the desert with well-realized characters. Highly Recommended.

(From my Amazing Stories column: <a href="">Science Fiction To Look For – February 2023</a>)

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I LOVED this book. It felt very made for me personally? Queer stories, queer joy despite the burden of inaccessible healthcare, a thoughtful AI system that is also adorable, great characters-- basically I've been gushing about this since I was only about 15% in, and already ordered a physical copy from my fav local bookstore. I think in less thoughtful hands the allegory between trans (human) body dysmorphia and an AI shoved into an android body would be too literal and too on the nose but it felt right here-- probably because of the banter between Valentine and Osric, and even when the two of them fought and compared notes on how a similar situation affected them both it wasn't too much at all. It felt right.

As much as I love (Osric) the main characters, definite shout out to the Machine-Women as well, later stage shining stars of the story who kept and held my interest. As much as I'm a sucker for cute robots (/robot-adjacent entities) even beyond that I would read a spinoff of them! And I wanted to know more about the Network and how life was like inside it as a real time thing.

World Running Down is a quick read because it always keeps going and never lingers too much in one place or story beat. There's so much I loved throughout the story as a whole and I'm really happy Angry Robot approved my NetGalley request for the ARC on this one.

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