Book Review: A Batch of Twenty
Reviewed by Joshua Ryan Bligh
AI, sentient manufactured people, and cookies are thrown into the batter in this strangely transfixing hard sci-fi story.
The year is unknown, sometime in the future. Ethelred is an artificial yet sentient organic automaton-like being called a Helper. After damaging his foot while saving another Helper from falling into some machinery, Ethelred has been sent to his place of origin, Amino Corp, for repair, or so he thinks.
The longer he is there, the more complicated matters become, beginning with learning that he and nineteen other Helpers (the titular batch of twenty) are there not for repairs but as part of a research initiative bent on proving Helpers are, in a qualifiable sense, human.
What follows is Chris Edwards’ A Batch of Twenty, a hard sci-fi novella that features a surprising amount of baking (though not in any way you might guess), in which Ethelred and his fellow Helpers begin to understand themselves and their place in the world as more than simply objects to be owned, following contracts in their fourteen brief years of life before fading into senescence and being euthanized.
Though sparse and brief, the novella contains just enough brush strokes of worldbuilding along with readily drawn comparisons to real-world issues such as our reliance on technology, corporate mega-companies, and the dehumanizing features of a competitive job market, all working together to keep a reader fixated from start to finish.
Sprinkled over it all is a confectioner’s sugar of surreal atmosphere and a series of events that, though increasingly opaque, move the story along with consistent pacing and a sense of intrigue. By the end of the story, you have a sense of being pulled out of a dream, the images slowly growing hazier and foggier as events rapidly unfold until the final sentence punctuates and you are back in the real world. Somewhat unsure of what just happened.
Edwards’ crisp, restrained prose lends itself splendidly to the narrative, shifting from one POV to another like a silent drone hovering first over one shoulder and then another. Giving you glimpses of each character’s thoughts and motives without every fully illuminating them. On one hand, this adds to the sense of mystery, of wondering what is going on and who is on whose side. However, it also has the effect of distancing one from the characters, fuzzing their outlines to a degree so that their personalities and motives feel like they could have been fleshed out further.
Despite this, I remained glued to the page from start to finish, basking in the well-crafted atmosphere of A Batch of Twenty, only wishing that I had more of it left to snack on by the time it was over. Edwards’ style is a perfect match for my tastes, providing worldbuilding without lore-dumping, crisp dialogue virtually unfettered with exposition, and a sci-fi setting of that perfect, uncanny shade of familiar that leaves you unsettled at how it seems only a few steps removed from today.
Genre: Science Fiction
Print Length: 213 pages
Thank you for reading Joshua Ryan Bligh’s book review of A Batch of Twenty by Chris Edwards! If you liked what you read, please spend some more time with us at the links below.