Review: “The Algorithms of Value” by Robert Reed (Clarkesworld #112)


(Here’s a link to the story – read it for yourself!)

Robert Reed is a veteran of SFF fiction: during his career, he’s published 11 novels, 200 short works (10 of those have been published on Clarkesworld) and he’s been nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards. With those kinds of credits, you know that when you read one of his stories you’re gonna be in for a treat.

However, “The Algorithms of Value” is deceptively simple at first glance – especially to someone who knows the genre he’s working in: the story takes place in a hypercapitalist, dystopian future that SF readers will be familiar with; the structure of the story, moving between the present and the past, is seen very often in SFF writing; and, of course, the ending that makes you wonder whether you’ve read the entire thing wrong. Tried and true tropes of the genre.

The charm of this story is in the subtle details.

That said, I do have some problems with it – minor ones. To me (as someone who has an aching and passionate love for worldbuilding and setting), the worldbuilding is frustratingly vague and/or absent. And when it is there, it is clumsily delivered. The scene-breaks, where the story shifts away from focus on the dynamic between Parchment and the boy, Ink (which is a clumsy little metaphor, but I’m sure that was intentional), and towards Parchment’s past, opened with paragraphs of exposition that seemed to have been dropped there for no good reason. In my critic’s eye, I could easily see these being cut without there being any negative impact on the plot. And while I loved the multi-faceted relationship between Parchment and her husband, especially the dark mystery that surrounds him, some of their interactions felt unauthentic. I wouldn’t suggest cutting these, because of their importance to the plot, but they might benefit from one more revisit by the author.

All positives from now; the ‘rooms’ were a lovely new take on the traditional SF trope of mega-technology and mega-wealth not providing happiness to people. They also set the story up well for the refreshing, rebellious, and ‘pure’ character of Ink, who in the end saves Parchment from her materialist prison and gives her what she always wanted: adventure.

When read this way, the ending is mercifully simple. But when considered alongside the mystery surrounding her husband, it leaves room for wild interpretation. I began to wonder whether the flashing between past and present wasn’t really between present and future. The husband is never named, and is referred to as both alive and dead in various senses of the words between flashbacks. There is room to assume that the boy, Ink, who offers her adventure at the end of the story actually is the hard-headed husband who made her unhappy for most of her life.

In some ways, I think the story would be better if it focused solely on the interaction between Parchment and Ink and had the husband exist only in Parchment’s memories, rather than on the page. But the flitting between the two settings opens the story up to so much more uncertainty and speculation – which, ultimately, is the reason we read these sorts of stories, isn’t it?

Don’t hesitate to leave a comment – I love a good literature debate šŸ˜‰

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