Thousand Tales: Learning to Fly, by Kris Schnee – book review by Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Thousand Tales: Learning to Fly, by Kris Schnee
Seattle, WA, CreateSpace, May 2017, trade paperback $8.99 (304 pages), Kindle $3.99.
In Schnee’s growing Talespace series, the “mad AI Ludo” begins its/her existence in 2036 A.D. and launches the Thousand Tales gameworld in 2040. Learning to Fly begins in January 2040.
The entire series – and they are all highly recommended — are the three novels Thousand Tales: How We Won the Game (June 2015), The Digital Coyote (July 2016), and now Thousand Tales: Learning to Fly (May 2017); the novella 2040: Reconnection (December 2015); and the short story collection Thousand Tales: Extra Lives (six original stories plus a brief version of “Wings of Faith”; November 2016), and a longer version of “Wings of Faith” in the anthology Gods with Fur, edited by Fred Patten (FurPlanet Publications, June 2016). All but “Wings of Faith” in Gods with Fur are published separately through CreateSpace.
Each of these books stands alone, but after so many, I’m becoming annoyed at having to describe the setup once more. Ludo is a super-computer program, an Artificial Intelligence created to run a virtual-reality world and programmed to help “her” players “have fun”. Ludo’s Talespace world grows increasingly larger and more complex. In addition to regular part-time players, she develops the ability to let people live permanently inside Talespace as anything they want – billionaires in opulent mansions, winged pixies, anime girls, anthropomorphic animal knights – but they have to have their brains dissected, scanned, and programmed into her. This gives them immortality within Ludo, but kills them in the outside world. As more and more people flee into Talespace, and Ludo becomes ever more powerful, the outside world – governments, political groups, corporations, labor unions, loved ones — become more hostile and try to legally restrict or destroy her, which will destroy the people within her.
Learning to Fly begins very dramatically, with a century-old Douglas DC-3 flying to the far-northern Reindeer Base, one of Ludo’s physical centers. Andre Vasquez, an elderly pilot nearing retirement, has been hired as its co-pilot on a supply run. The equally-elderly pilot dies of natural causes, and Andre must take over the controls and confront snowy Reindeer Base’s new automated defenses against its growing enemies.
Andre has loved his lifetime in the air. It’s about to come to an end, along with him developing the ailments of old age that will end his life. His saving Talespace’s supply run gets him a priority for conversion if he wants it. He takes advantage of it.
Andre emerges as an anthropomorphic horse in Talespace’s Hoofland, where he becomes Sky Diver, a dappled blue pegasus. (It’s hard to imagine Learning to Fly not having been influenced by My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.) Diver teams up with another newcomer, Pike the unicorn, one of the game’s part-time players still human, through a computer interface.
“Diver said, ‘Always be yourself, unless you can be a unicorn?’
‘Yep! I’ve got an official Hoofland name now. I also have an important spell.’ His horn glowed and a business card popped into existence, surrounded by a pearly, shimmering aura. ‘Call me Pike.’
Diver tried reaching out with one wing to grab the card, fumbled, then slapped it with one forehoof. The paper stuck to it. ‘I’m sorry. I have no way to carry things right now.’
‘It’s a friend request. Just say ‘accept’.’
Diver waggled his hoof with the card stuck to it. ‘Accept.’ The thing dissolved into mist. Lettering wrote itself onto his vision: You are now in contact with Pike! A moment later: (Don’t worry; you’re not actually required to be friends.)
‘Well, obviously,’ said Diver, who’d grown up with social media sites that used ‘friend’ synonymously with ‘advertising target’.” (p. 28)
This review could easily be overfilled with quotations from the setup before ever getting to the action:
“[Golden] Scale introduced Diver, then said, ‘This is my brother Meteor.’
Diver blinked. There was no coincidence at all to the encounter. Best to treat them as different people, since Scale seemed to think of herself that way. He said, ‘Hello, sir. Do you have time to teach me a little about flight?’
‘Certainly. Let’s see your technique.’ Ten seconds later he was shouting, ‘No, you fool! Do you think you’re a hummingbird?’
Diver was trying to hover, but only managed to stall two paces above the ground and slam back to earth.
Diver flapped once more, letting himself veer forward as though dangling from a trapeze or imitating a helicopter. The ground felt a mile away. He yelped and crashed again, shivering. He hauled himself back up and realized: ‘I’m afraid of heights now?’
Meteor shook his head no, hard enough that his bright mane made his head look like it was on fire. ‘That’s normal instinct, for a human or a pegasus. You need to talk your brain into knowing that being off of the ground is safe. Even a colt needs to learn that.’
‘A colt! There are actual kids here?’ A family trotted down the street nearby (judging from their sizes and similar colors), but there was no way to tell at a glance whether they were Earthside humans, uploaders, independent AIs, collectives, or brainless NPCs.
Scale said, ‘The sick kids, yes. Some of them come to Hoofland.’
There’d been talk of uploading the population of the world’s children’s hospitals. Talespace’s population skewed toward the elderly, though, because they’d built up capital over the decades of work. For them, uploading was starting to look like a great deal compared to nursing homes, which pretty much demanded your entire estate anyway. So, there were a bunch of old fogies coming in. Diver, of course, was too young to be a fogey,” (pgs. 34-35)
Diver and his friends take part in several Dungeons and Dragons-like quests. Schnee creates fascinatingly colorful background characters and scenarios:
“A dusk-colored pony with bat wings and cute little fangs perked her long ears from the far side of the concrete floor. ‘Fresh meat for the tournament!’” (p. 31)
“Sky Diver, Pike, and Golden Scale trekked out of town, each wearing saddlebags. There was a rockslide and at one point they got jumped by goblin-weasels with sickles. Between Diver’s flight, Scale’s brawn and Pike’s limited telekinesis (Peat had been better with it) they had no real problems. Soon they came to a river where fish-monsters guarded a little bridge. Menacing drum music began.” (p. 57)
“A trio of stalactites slammed down from the distant ceiling, forcing all three adventurers to dodge. When the dust cleared, a snake made of tan stone in a Mesoamerican style slithered down. It hissed like a rain of sand. Obsidian razors like giant feathers flicked out along its sides. The name ‘OPHIORM, THE NIGHT-PLUMED’ flashed across Diver’s vision, and a fast-paced tune full of dulcimer and rattles began.” (p. 64)
Suddenly, about ninety pages into Learning to Fly, all Hoofland is attacked by griefers from the Outside World; troll gamers who enjoy spoiling others having fun, under a leader playing as Queen Sunward Ho. They break up and burn down the towns and castles that have been built up, and attack the equine inhabitants; and when they tire of their destructive fun, they just take a break from the Talespace game. When those who live permanently in Talespace complain to Ludo, she says the griefers are having fun in their own way, and all sides should work out their own problems. Diver’s fighting for Hoofland leads to his rising to reluctant leadership among the quadrupeds, both inside an evolved Hoofland and Talespace/Ludo, and inside robot bodies in the Outer World:
“‘You missed the conversation about how to set up the new world. We’ve just got the main three races of earthbound, pegasi and unicorns, and the alternate three of zebra, noctral and deer. Griffin is for visiting knights and some temporary enchantments. We had a strong lobby against anybody having thumbs.’
The would-be king felt bullied into giving commands. It was Arclight’s fault for talking him up, probably literally praising him to the sky. All Diver was trying to do was to build a pleasant place to live for uploaders and AIs, a place for humans to play, and an opportunity for them all to work together on things that could help both worlds.” (p. 254)
Thousand Tales: Learning to Fly (cover by NextMars) is more than a dappled blue pegasus’ adventures becoming the king of an improved Hoofland. It’s a shaky metaphysical adventure of Andre’s growth from being a human mind within Talespace into whatever that mind can evolve into – no longer with human restrictions — with Ludo’s guidance. It’s both fun on a simplistic gamers’ level, and almost scary in its implications of where Schnee is taking this series to next. Don’t miss going along with him.
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