Mind in the Clouds, by Bruce Perrin [Review]

Bruce Perrin’s next installment of his Mind Sleuth series, Mind in the Clouds, asks the philosophical and psychological question: how much control should we let artificial intelligence have over important decisions — like on the battlefield? When the protagonist, Sam “Doc” Price, faces existential peril at the mercy of an IA-powered autonomous war drone, the answer becomes far less philosophical. Mr. Perrin’s clever plot and impeccable writing allow us to ponder the highbrow questions while being pulled along an entertaining journey of intrigue, peril, romance, and mystery.

The premise of the story is a real-life nightmare. An autonomous military drone, equipped with deadly missiles and guns, is being presented to a group of politicians in a life-fire demonstration. The aircraft, nicknamed “Jack,” is supposed to seek and destroy enemy targets. But what if Jack decided to attack the buildings and people on the test range who were supposedly running the show? How would you stop Jack, or escape with your life? The author sets up this perilous situation early on, then jumps back and forth between the events leading up to “The Day” on the Nevada test range and the actual events — minute by minute — of that exciting day. The technique keeps the climax of the story as an ever-present part of the narrative, and extends the tension throughout the book as Sam and his lone companion in the Operations building try to sort out what’s happening and how to stop it – or at least survive it. The backstory unfolds in bits and pieces, including Sam’s burgeoning romance with Nicole back in St. Louis. He hopes to be able to see her again, and we hope so, too.

Mr. Perrin is such a skilled writer that he is able to weave the pieces of this puzzle together without creating confusion, although the reader will be challenged in the first few chapters to pick up the threads quickly in order to fully grasp what’s happening. There is a mystery from the first chapter that Sam must make sense of by the end in order to piece together what is truly happening, and the reader comes along for the ride without really having an opportunity to solve the riddle before Sam. Still, the format is fresh and works in no small part due to the excellent writing. (It would be best if you can read this book straight through rather than picking it up and putting it down frequently in order to maintain the continuity.)

While the plot is original and interesting, it is not without a few hard-to-manage spots and a few leaps of faith. The main events are told first person through Sam’s eyes, and he is able to connect some dots that seem unrelated and reach some conclusions that defy logic. The climax of the story includes a rather comical set of circumstances, and the tension level is not as well maintained as I’d ideally like. There are some unresolved issues at the end as well as a rather hanging relationship point that makes you wonder what that subplot was doing there in the first place. Still, it’s an enjoyable and attention-keeping read and well worth spending time with a master craftsman like Bruce M. Perrin.

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