REVIEW: World Running Down by Al Hess

World Running Down is the first traditionally published novel by Al Hess. I first read his self-published novel Mazarin Blues last year for the first Self-Published Science Fiction Competition, and loved it.

World Running DownValentine Weis and his partner Ace survive in the post-apocalyptic United States, driving an old ruined bus to various salvage jobs and bickering. They get offered a job that will give them visas, and therefore permission to live in Salt Lake City, Utah. Not only does this offer a drastic increase in security and living conditions, but Valentine, a trans man, will finally have the chance to get the surgery he needs.

Several androids belonging to a wealthy family vanished into the desert. Though artificial intelligence exists in the setting, it is not installed in androids, thus presuming that someone ran off with them. However, these androids are gaining some semblance of self-awareness and do not want to return. This forces Valentine and Ace to decide what they’re willing to do to get the visas to Salt Lake City.

Complicating the situation further is Osric, who is the other point of view character of the book. Osric is an artificial intelligence who had been exiled from the rest of the A.I. overseers who help manage Salt Lake City and input into an android’s body. Osric and Valentine soon start up a romance, which is the primary character arc of the book. It was a very adult relationship, not in the sense of explicitness (though there is one explicit scene) but in that when there were issues they just talked about them. There was no will-they-won’t-they, no artificial drama inserted. It was a very comfortable romance, with no doubt from the beginning that everything would end up all right.

World Running Down is an extremely mild post-apocalypse, far from the brutal, bleak common post- apocalypses. Even the title suggests it wasn’t one huge awful event but just a slow degradation. There are hints at the edges of the book about some of the strangeness seeping through the world that exist out in the desert, and the tensions of the city’s populace getting rid of their more problematic elements by sending them into the desert and forgetting about them.

That said by and large, even the other wasteland scavengers are just people trying to get by and keep their communities safe and intact. Community is a huge part of the book, and Valentine is explicit that he could stop salvaging and go to communities where he knows people and get by, but it would mean giving up on his surgery. Everyone has a place they belong, even in the post-apocalypse.

As a small, final note, the cover of World Running Down was done by Hess as well, as are the sketches of the two primary characters inside. I cannot think of another traditionally published book that had cover art by the author, but it’s great.

World Running Down avoids most of the more grimdark tropes of the post-apocalypse. Even the villains have no reason to believe the androids have gained self-awareness, as it is thus far in the setting unprecedented. But it makes a fine comfort read between darker books.

The plot of World Running Down is delivered like clockwork. It’s lean and fast and the character arcs tie in perfectly with the plot. Hess has a great grasp on character dynamics and building relatable relationships. World Running Down is out on Valentine’s Day 2023.

Read World Running Down by Al Hess

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Ryan is a mid-30s nerd, married, with two kids. Also two cats–Cathulhu and Necronomicat. He likes, in no particular order, tabletop gaming, board games, arguing over books, ancient history and religion, and puns. You can find him as unconundrum on reddit.