Valentine Weis is a salvager in the future wastelands of Utah. Wrestling with body dysphoria, he dreams of earning enough money to afford citizenship in Salt Lake City – a utopia where the testosterone and surgery he needs to transition is free, the food is plentiful, and folk are much less likely to be shot full of arrows by salt pirates. But earning that kind of money is a pipe dream, until he meets the exceptionally handsome Osric.
Once a powerful AI in Salt Lake City, Osric has been forced into an android body against his will and sent into the wasteland to offer Valentine a job on behalf of his new employer – an escort service seeking to retrieve their stolen androids. The reward is a visa into the city, and a chance at the life Valentine’s always dreamed of. But as they attempt to recover the “merchandise”, they encounter a problem: the android ladies are becoming self-aware, and have no interest in returning to their old lives.
The prize is tempting, but carrying out the job would go against everything Valentine stands for, and would threaten the fragile found family that’s kept him alive so far. He’ll need to decide whether to risk his own dream in order to give the AI a chance to live theirs.
Disclaimer: I received a ARC from the publisher in exchange for a fair review.
It’s rare that a book checks nearly every box for me, but World Running Down did just that! To accurately describe how much I enjoyed this book and what it meant to me to read it, I think I need to delve a little into my background. I’ve lived the entirety of my life in Southern Appalachia, mostly in small towns with a few thousand residents. On top of this, I’ve lived with agoraphobia and undiagnosed Autism for most of my life. I’ve never met a transgender person in real life, nor have I ever met another Autistic adult. Books like World Running Down are why I love reading so much! Reading builds empathy; It allows you to step into the shoes of another person with altogether different struggles, fears, anxieties, hopes and dreams. Before reading this book, I really struggled with understanding the concept of gender dysphoria. While I have always supported a person’s right to explore and understand themselves, I just couldn’t understand how someone could feel anything other than what they “are”. But, for whatever reason, Hess’ portrayal of an AI who has been forced into a body juxtaposed with a trans man who is also uncomfortable in his skin just unlocked that part of my brain. I know, I know, it’s more complex than that, but this was a first big step toward me understanding and being able to better empathize with a whole group of beautiful people and I just think that’s wonderful.
Osric drew in a labored breath. “I’m– I’m not supposed to be in this body.”
Valentine tugged Osric’s shirt closed. “Me neither, hon.”
As some of you may know, I’ve been on my own journey of self-rediscovery over the past few years, which all started after being formally diagnosed with Autism in 2021. I’ve often felt like a stranger in a strange world, unable to fit in, unable to cope with my current reality and at a loss as to how to “fix” it. I instantly connected to both Val and Osric because they both, for differing reasons, feel this way. Honestly, I could go on and on about how well realized the characters in World Running Down are. World Running Down tackles some complex topics, such as gender identity, bodily autonomy, AI and sentience, class disparities, and many more, but it never does so in a heavy handed way. Instead, Hess puts the focus directly on the characters and shows how each of these things affects them. Their feelings and experiences with transphobia, sexism, their deepest desires and fears, they’re all laid out on the table, the characters stripped bare and vulnerable, asking for your acceptance. And, it works beautifully. I also have to mention how unbelievably cute Val and Oscric’s relationship is and watching it develop (and falter) was wonderful.
I also need to talk about how cool a post-apocalyptic Salt Lake City is! While I don’t think it’s the focus of the book, there’s some great worldbuilding on display in World Running Down! Between the AI Stewards who help run SLC, the salt pirates living in the wastes outside the city, a cool jazz-influenced world, and androids on the cusp of sentience, World Running Down has a lot of really cool ideas that create an interesting world to explore. If there’s one thing that I disliked about the book is that there wasn’t more of it! There were a few threads that never got tied up and a few things introduced that seemingly got forgotten or discarded that I would have liked to learn more about.
The suit couldn’t give him a sharper jawline or take away the softness of his eyes. It didn’t change anything that was underneath. But he’d been emulsified and poured into a man-shaped mold. He was staring into a mirror, and Valentine was finally staring back.
World Running Down is a post-apocalyptic meet cute that doesn’t shy away from asking the big questions. The characters are expertly written and it’s, dare I say, impossible not to empathize with their struggles and cheer on their victories. What I think I love best about it though is the pervading sense of hope throughout; World Running Down is about good people doing their best to survive in a world that’s just trying to get by and doing so by acting with love and compassion. That’s powerful.