The Computer Is Your Friend is an attempt to introduce the setting of the PARANOIA Role Playing Game to people who may not, or may even be, familiar with it: Alpha Complex. The setting has evolved from its earlier roots and this collection of short stories does its best to guide readers to a new understanding of the world. To that end, the collection works.
The collection has 5 short stories in it, along with previews of three of the PARANOIA novels now available from Ultraviolet Books.
"Rule Zero" - A quick introduction to the setting. Probably a little bit much for a newcomer to the series. The sense of confusion, however, leads the reader to sympathize with the protagonist, a newcomer to the Troubleshooters. Absurdity abounds, but not much outright humor, save from a running joke concerning a "stoner" character. It's a good self-contained story. 3 out of 5.
"Market Research" - A much more tightly executed story. Has a very good sense of dread that easily spills from the page. The story provides a nice look at what non-Troubleshooters lives might be like in Alpha Complex: full of the same dread. 3.5 out of 5.
"Hay Fever" - An interesting setup concerning an "efficiency expert" who does his job with gusto, even when that job turns into planning a more effective trap for himself. Provides more details about life in Alpha Complex. Echoes of Pratchett, especially the secret societies from Guards, Guards. In fact, it's very much a riff on that idea. Soon enough, however, the situation in the story gets odd. And much more interesting. A nice lead in to the Y1 series. I might have to find the further books in the series. 4 out of 5.
"Action Request" - This story is told in a non-traditional manner, but I think it works very well. It's easy enough to picture in your mind what is happening during the course of the storyline. The fact that it's told to the reader through a one-sided email conversation is a nice conceit. The slightly surprising, semi-dark ending was a nice way to wrap the story up and gave it that PARANOIA touch. 3.5 out of 5.
"Data Exhaust" - This story actually had an interesting core idea that reminded me of some classic paranoid sci-fi like 1984 or stories by Philip K Dick. Quite fitting actually. It's a self-contained story that leads, somewhat, into another PARANOIA novel. It does finally introduce a base concept from the PARANOIA game into the stories, one I had been missing from the previous entries in the Anthology. Enjoyable. 3.5 out of 5.
All in all, the short stories in the anthology are a good read for those new to the series and world of Friend Computer, as well as to those who have long suffered (at least, their characters have suffered) at the hands of their fellow Troubleshooters.
There are some issues that I had with the collection, though. It might jump too quickly into the setting for first time readers of the setting. I wonder if the first story would have been better received by me if it had not been the first one read. It helps to have some familiarity with the setting in advance. Though I am familiar with Alpha Complex, I couldn't help but wonder if a newcomer would feel a little out of place. However, maybe that was the point; it is Alpha Complex after all.
What I did like about this collection was that it wasn't just about the Troubleshooters. It was also about the random denizens of Alpha Complex and what goes on in their daily lives. I liked the feeling that it's not just a setting for run-and-laser fights between its inhabitants. Those do happen, yes, but I was glad to see that the stories did not just stick with that. The stories went behind the doors of Alpha Complex and into the discordant lives of those trying to just survive day to day. Also, it has to be stated: The book is funny, though not in the belly laugh manner. I did find myself chuckling darkly to myself a number of times, anticipating the fates of a number of the people I met in this anthology.
If you're a fan of humor and satire from authors such as Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, a fan of the absurd nature of bureaucracy combined with dark threats such as from the Laundry Files novels from Charles Stross, or a fan of paranoid sci-fi such as from Philip K Dick, you should find something in this collection that appeals to you.
Note: An electronic copy of the anthology was provided for free from the publisher. I am glad that I did read it, however, as it has rekindled an interest in Alpha Complex. It has also created an interest in the further novels that Ultraviolet Books will be putting out. A well done effort, in my opinion.