Review: “Dreaming Metal,” Melissa Scott

Pros: Powerful story with excellent worldbuilding
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Melissa Scott’s Dreaming Metal is a powerful story of emergent artificial intelligence. It takes place on the planet Persephone, where there are a lot of lines drawn between populations. There’s a strong layering of social strata that affects politics, jobs, and pretty much everything else. Some time in the past, a construct named Manfred became the face of a political movement for machine rights–until it turned out he didn’t actually meet the criteria for an AI, and he killed several people. Now the backlash fuels the Realpeace movement, which claims to be about human rights, but is virulently anti-machine rights. And it seems that someone in Realpeace isn’t afraid to get violent. Reverdy Jian is an FTL pilot who Manfred tried to kill. Her latest construct seems a little bit off reminding her of Manfred, so she sells it on the gray market. Celinde Fortune is a conjurer, using constructs and karakuri (robots, essentially) to create fascinating illusions on stage as entertainment. She needs a new construct, and ends up purchasing Jian’s construct and bridging it with another, less powerful one. The new construct insists on being named, and she names it Celeste, after her dead twin. Fanning Jones is a deaf musician and Fortune’s cousin, and his music attracts the attention of Realpeace–not in a good way. When Celeste asks to try making music with some of Fanning’s equipment, he and Fortune start to realize that they might just have the first real AI on their hands. But how can they keep her safe from Realpeace?

I absolutely love this novel. The characters are highly original and interesting, from the three main point-of-view characters to the members of Fanning’s band, the workers at Fortune’s theater, and the members of Jian’s piloting team. There are low-key same-sex relationships, nicely presented as completely normal, which I love. The various caste and political troubles can of course be used to reflect on some of the issues of today–and in the case of AI rights, a topic which we’re presumably going to have to address eventually!

The worldbuilding is vivid and fascinating. I love the atmosphere of the Empire, the theater-like place where Fortune and Fanning both perform. I also enjoyed the descriptions of Fanning’s music–the emotions of it were conveyed so well that it didn’t matter that I have no knowledge of music. I could still get the point. I found the details of Fortune’s illusions to be fascinating as well. Scott clearly has real talent for description. By the time the plot really picks up I felt comfortable in the environment of the world, which can sometimes be a little dicey when you get tossed head-first into the worldbuilding.

This is a powerful and beautiful story, with delightful characters, exploring a fascinating subject. I look forward to reading more by Melissa Scott.

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