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.
World Running Down is the new novel from Al Hess, and the first one that has got traditionally published. It constitutes a marvelous story about the importance of identity and accepting the rest as they self-identify, and not impose the prejudices we have over them, told in a dystopian setting, mixing a trending theme as AIs are nowadays.
Valentine Weiss is a salvager in the post-apocalyptic lands of Utah, fighting with his body dysphoria; all of his dreams can be summed up in getting the residency in Salt Lake City, so he could get the treatments he needs for transitioning for free. A dream that seems almost impossible until he meets Osric, an old AI that has been put into a body against his will, offering work on behalf of her employer that could get Valentine enough money to achieve his dream.
But what should have been an easy job, recovering some stolen androids, become an authentical moral dilemma for Valentine once he discovers those androids are developing a conscience.
Should he put his happiness over those androids' existence? It doesn't seem fair, especially for somebody who has struggled with his all the time. Add into the mix how the relationship between Osric and him is developing.
Al Hess's writing is also excellent, showing the strength of his craft. For a highly emotional story, it's certainly remarkable how Hess is able to transmit it fully to the reader, even if the setting is so different from what you can be experiencing. Taking such a difficult theme, evolving it into a compelling story, and transmitting such an important message is not an easy task, but Al has certainly fulfilled it amazingly.
While I'm not a fan in general of romance elements in novels, I have to admit that I liked how it was integrated subtly into the story, feeling really natural (at this point, I'm almost thinking that my problem is not with romance). Probably it also helped the pacing, as it was perfect to slow down the story when it became too fast or too complex.
World Running Down is an excellent novel, and a perfect traditional debut for Al Hess. I strongly recommend it to anybody who likes sci-fi with a dystopian element in it; and probably, if you liked Blade Runner 2049, I think you should like this novel, as the vibes are really similar. Personally, I became a fan of Al Hess with this novel, and can't wait what more he can do!
Al Hess is author of World Running Down and the self-published Hep Cats of Boise series. Semi-finalist in the SPSFC with Mazarin Blues.
When not hunched before a computer screen, Al can be found at his art desk. He does portraits in both pencil and oil paint, and loves drawing fellow authors' characters nearly as much as his own. He writes cozy and uplifting stories with queer, trans, and neurodiverse representation.
Al is represented by agent Ren Balcombe at Janklow & Nesbit