“The Fourth Exam” by Dorothy Yarros
Reviewed by Louis West
Yin-Yang, order versus revolution. I enjoyed this speculative fiction tale of conflict, as embodied in the story of two men, Li and Shen. Li is an imperial official in this fictional Chinese empire, while Shen is a student taking his fourth, and final exam to enter into the elite order of civil servants in command of the empire’s communications systems. Li’s hunt to understand a mysterious increase in imperial message traffic between the provinces and the capital city is a worthy detective story by itself. In contrast, Shen’s fears about the lethal consequences of failing his exam, play a strong counter-point beat to his struggles to get through the exam and, eventually learn, that he has been duped into becoming an involuntary revolutionary.
The cautionary message of this story is valid for empires, nations, militaries and global businesses alike: Those that win the communications/information war, are the ones who come out on top. Still, the ending for me was a bit too ambiguous. War, capitulation or a grinding stalemate are the options. I needed to see something more definitive explaining that choice.
Louis West critiques for Critters.org plus Spacecrafts. He also does volunteer work for the Massachusetts-based ReaderCon. His education and work experience was in biophysics and medical genetics before migrating to international finance. Yet he retains a strong interest in astronomy and sub-atomic physics. He enjoys hard SF, urban fantasy, supernatural and fantasy, and writes in a bio-punk style, focusing on the personal and social impacts of new technologies.