Category Archives: Science Fiction

New Orville, New Trek, Three Books, and a Broken Washer

Last week was an especially eventful one as far as weeks in the life of an old retired guy go. This was mainly because of new TV shows that I found interesting enough to expend a few of my remaining hours watching.

Most of my TV-viewing hours were spent on the eight new episodes of Stranger Things 4 (on Netflix). Like the previous seasons, it’s basically about a bunch of kids saving the world from monsters from a parallel dimension. What I like most about this show is the kids playing D&D, which I can relate to, having played for several years when I was younger and began playing again a couple years ago – but that is beside the point, for now. I found out later that the Dio vest being worn by the kid who plays the DM in this season once belonged to Ronnie James Dio himself, which is also cool because I’ve always been fond of Dio’s music.

I also watched episode 5 of Star Trek Strange New Worlds (on Paramount+). This episode explored identity and empathy and seeing other people’s points of view. It also had a few funny bits. I continue to be impressed by this show especially because of how unimpressed I’ve been with most of the other new Trek Paramount has produced. Although I’ve been something of a Trekker since the original series first aired, I truly hated Discovery. The crew of that ship just did not seem like Starfleet to me. And why did they turn Klingons into orcs? With Strange New Worlds, it’s beginning to look like Paramount is finally getting Trek right.

And then there was the long awaited new episode of The Orville. I’ve enjoyed this show from the beginning, too. It’s always seemed like a homage to the original Star Trek, and Season 3 continues that. It opens shortly after the first Kaylon offensive has been repulsed. This first episode explores guilt, forgiveness, and dealing with trauma as crew members sort out how they feel about Isaac, who, as a Kaylon, bears some responsibility for a great many deaths, but who is also one of the reasons the Kaylon did not succeed. It’s a good start to the new season.

I also read a few books, two fiction and one nonfiction. The two fiction books were uncommonly enjoyable, the nonfiction one, not so much.

Last Stand of Dead Men by Derek Landy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Within the magical community, there are those who believe that magic users should rule the world because they are “better” than ordinary, non-magical people. Others believe that magic-users should remain separate and largely apart from regular human affairs. The polarization between these two camps erupts into a magical civil war in the 8th book in this highly entertaining series. The characters remain interesting, the plot is intriguing, and the pacing (as always) keeps you turning pages. This is very well written.

Mickey7 by Edward Ashton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Colonizing planets is a dangerous business, but colony ships never seem to have trouble attracting highly qualified crew… at least not for most positions. Some of these people might be called brave, some foolish, and some are arguably insane, but only the truly desperate apply for the position of Expendable. Mickey is pretty desperate. Staying on the planet of his birth would mean daily torture until he pays off a substantial gambling debt. This seems to him like a fate worse than dying, even worse than the possibility of dying repeatedly, which is an Expendable’s job. So, he applies for a berth on an outgoing colony ship. Expendable is the only slot open, and he’s the only applicant.

This is a fun science fiction story with a likeable protagonist. It has lots of sciency stuff, not unlike The Martian and other books by Andy Weir, and it also ponders the philosophical question of what makes you you. If you die, and a clone is made and loaded with your memories and personality, is it now you? Even if you feel like yourself, how do others see you? Are you really a person in their eyes?

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The basic premise of this book, that some jobs are pretty much pointless and that the world wouldn’t skip a beat if they disappeared, is incontestable. But I think the author goes too far on too little evidence. He presents plenty of anecdotal quotes from people who believe their own jobs fall into the bullshit category, but no real assessment of whether or not these job holders are right. Not knowing what the benefit of your work might be doesn’t necessarily mean there is none.

If you’re interested, you can see my full review of this one either on Goodreads on on The Avery Slom Philosophical Laboratory web sites.

Last, and possibly least, there’s the ongoing issue I’m having with Whirlpool and a washing machine that broke down before it was a year old. Today is the 60th day I’ve been without a working washer, but someone is supposed to come next Friday (10 June) to try yet again to fix it. So, to add to the ongoing bullet list….

  • DAY 54 – (May 30th) I send another email to Whirlpool (whirlpool_customerexperience@whirlpool.com) with cc to Joseph Carrita, Customer Relations Manager (joseph_j_carrita@whirlpool.com) asking how many repair attempts are required, what the cost of repair must be, and how long they believe it is acceptable to make a customer wait before they deem one of their appliances “non-repairable.”
  • DAY 56 (June 1) I receive a DM Tweet from Whirlpool asking for my specific address and phone number. I provide them.
  • DAY 57 (June 2nd) Whirlpool’s Twitter people call and leave me on hold while they call the service provider. Eventually, they say the service people are still waiting on two parts but will call as soon as they arrive. I ask again why Whirlpool would spend $2,000 in parts and make a customer wait two months rather than replace an $800 machine. The poor unfortunate customer liaison lady refuses to address cost at all and simply repeats that Whirlpool only repairs things under warranty. It does not replace them.
  • DAY 58 (June 3rd) The service company calls to let me know that all the parts have been processed in, but the next available appointment to repair my washer is seven days away because of the need to dedicate an otherwise empty truck to all the parts needed, one of which is quite large, to ensure it is not damaged in transit. (This adds transportability and packaging to the list of Whirlpool’s logistic design flaws.) I am told this will be a three-hour job.

I sure hope they manage to fix it, this time.



Until the Last of Me

Until the Last of Me by Sylvain Neuvel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I like to succinctly summarize the main plot of a story for these short reviews, but this one is a bit tough. Anyway, for what it’s worth….
There are two hereditary lines of alien beings of the same species living on Earth. Each is represented by only one “family.” They’ve been here for about 3,000 years. One is male and wants to bring the aliens to Earth, and the other is female and wants to prevent that in order to save humans. (I think it’s actually about human nature and gender and such, but I don’t want to presume or analyze. That can take all the fun out of a story.) Some chapters are from the male perspective, and focus on dark and destructive instincts. They think the female line has some kind of transmitter that will call the rest of their alien species to come here and invade the planet, and they really want to get their hands on it. The female line stresses protection and progress. The female goal is to “take them to the stars,” meaning that they are subtly attempting to get humans to understand and venture out into the wider universe. How this might prevent an alien invasion wasn’t clear to me, and I had other questions, but all in all, I really like this book. Mainly this is because of the underlying hope in human potential that resonates with it but also because of all the embedded history of science type stories it includes. Actually, I think my favorite chapter was the nonfiction “Further Reading” bit at the end. If you’re a fan of stories about human progress and the history of science, you may really like this series.



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New Book Release – Troubled Space

Troubled Space ~ The Interstellar Adventures of an Unknown Indie Writer

After a prolonged delay to allow editors and agents to properly ignore the manuscript, the first ebook and paperback editions of this lighthearted space opera will be released on Friday, 15 May, 2020.

TS ebook cover 2020aTed Lester writes stories no one reads. Agents reject him. Editors ignore him. Frustrated, he self-publishes, hoping the world will find value in his books. Then, early one morning, as he is yet again attempting to compose prose that might attract the attention of…well, anyone, something remarkable happens. He gets an unexpected visit from an agent, but not one he has ever queried. This agent is from outer space, and it tells Ted that one of his books has become popular throughout the galaxy, and that he, as the author, can have everything he ever wanted: fame, fortune, and above all, fans. All Ted has to do is agree to go on an interstellar book tour.

Unfortunately, not all his galactic readers are admirers. Some want to kill him.

 

Digital editions are now available for preorder for only 99¢:
Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1019006
Amazon (U.S.) Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B087X6PS16/

How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse

How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse (The Thorne Chronicles, #1)How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse by K. Eason
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A bunch of fairies bestow magical gifts upon a baby princess—in a sci-fi universe with aliens and space stations. Sixteen years later, Rory, the androgynously named aforesaid princess, has grown into a spunky girl, trained in both physical self defense and arithmancy (what other universes might call ‘magic’), and she is not at all pleased when she is called upon to marry a foreign prince as a way to end an interstellar war. She’s all for stopping the war, of course, but the prince was something of dud the one time she had met him. That was when they were both young children; it was the same day a suicide assassin blew up their respective fathers.

It’s difficult to mix humor, fantasy, science fiction, and cultural commentary into a seamless story (I know this first hand), but this book does. The plot makes sense. So do the characters. The protagonist is likeable and relatable. The antagonist is fairly loathsome. It’s not exactly funny, but it is fun. I loved it and hereby endow it with five subjective stars.

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The City in the Middle of the Night

The City in the Middle of the NightThe City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

January is a tidally locked planet, habitable only along a strip of land running north and south, with frigid cold and perpetual darkness on one side, and endless light and searing heat on the other. Sophie, the protagonist of this story, is a student in one of two major cities in this zone. She makes a life-changing (and story-starting) decision when she takes the blame for a theft committed by a friend. The punishment for someone of her disfavored ethnicity is death, and she is hurled into the freezing dark and certain doom. Except it’s not. Certain, that is, due to the intervention of native monsters who may not be quite as monstrous as people believe.

The chapters in which Sophie provides the point of view are narrated in first person, present tense. The others are in third person, past tense. This felt awkward to me, but not jarring. It was the depressing setting, the oppressive culture, and the essentially unlikable characters that prevented me from actually enjoying the time I spent reading this. Dark stories can still be compelling, but this one was not. I never became emotionally invested in the place, the people, their politics, or even in the aliens, although the latter were interestingly, well alien. The ending, well, can’t give that away, but I can say that I found it less than satisfying.

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Brane Child will be released on 21 December 2014

TBraneChildDigital10-14his is a story of humanity venturing into the unknown, as it has always done. One step leads to another, but not all are as sturdy as one might hope. Sometimes you just have to put your foot forward and hope for the best.

The Brane Skip Device, which may allow a spaceship to skip between layers of reality, bypass normal space, and avoid the universal speed limit—the speed of light—is unproven. The theory behind it is poorly understood. Lisa Chang, mission commander for its first crewed test, doesn’t trust it. It seems like magic to her, and she doesn’t believe in magic—not even after the ship skips to a fantasy version of Earth, complete with dragons, orcs, and wizards. This, ultimately, is her greatest advantage.

The release date for Brane Child is 21 December 2014 at the astoundingly low price of just 99¢ for digital editions.

The prices of all of my other books in eBook formats are also just 99¢ from now through December. (Due to the cost of production, prices for paper formats are not discounted and remain significantly higher.)

Brane Child is available for preorder here:
Amazon (US) Link: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00PIPTRIS
Amazon (UK) Link: www.amazon.co.uk/Brane-Child-Science-Fiction-Counter-Fantasy-ebook/dp/B00PIPTRIS/
Smashwords Link: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/492149

Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iTunes Books, and other online retailers should also be accepting preorders soon. The trade paperback edition of the book is not available for preorder but will be released on or about the same time.

~*~

Questions and Answers about this book:

How does this book relate to your previous books?
In the immortal words of Monty Python, it’s ‘something completely different’. Well, Okay, maybe not completely different. I am still the author and it falls firmly in the same ‘counter-fantasy’ subgenre of science fiction that my other books do, but the setting and characters are new and (I think) original. It is positive science fiction—upbeat, hopeful, and sometimes even a bit funny. There is also a smidgeon of cultural satire. My goal for this book was to combine science, history, philosophy, fantasy, games, and humor into a satisfying story about stories.

A story about stories?
Yes, in part. It is about how readers shape stories as much as writers do. The writer sketches the characters and settings, but the reader completes them. No two readers experience exactly the same story. Brane Child is about how beliefs and expectations shape perspective. It touches on human achievement, quantum physics (specifically M-theory), and the idea that reality is much more complex than it seems. The physics (and metaphysics) are warped a bit (Okay, more than a bit) to fit this particular story, but I believe there is a thought or two in here that some people will find intriguing. I also think it’s a fun story.

~*~

And now for a short video..

Counter-Fantasy Novels for 99¢

Prices for digital editions of all my novels have been lowered for the holidays. These books provide a lighthearted and quirky mix of science fiction and fantasy. I coined the term ‘counter-fantasy’ to describe them because, although they take place in in a fantasy-like setting, there is always a speculative scientific basis behind them. If you haven’t yet read my books, I hope you will take this opportunity to give them a try.

(Amazon links for Kindle are provided by clicking on the book covers, but digital editions are also available from iTunes, Kobo, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, and other fine eBook retailers.)

DogTaleseBook11-13aAn Android Dog’s Tale: MO-126 is a dog, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. He is a construct and an employee of the Galactic Organic Development Corporation, which searches the galaxy for primitive sentient species to save from extinction and then creates colonies of them on Corporation agricultural planets where they can live happily and safely. The transplanted species survives, and its members produce some of the most expensive and sought-after food in the galaxy, which the Corporation profitably sells to developed worlds with this guarantee:
Caringly grown, cultivated and harvested by simple sentient life forms.
No artificial ingredients, pesticides, herbicides, or mechanized equipment used in processing.
Guaranteed 100% organic.

Of course, keeping the primitives primitive enough to ensure the Corporation’s promise of natural purity can be a challenge, especially when they’re like those it found twenty thousand years ago huddling in caves and scraping a meager and precarious existence on a pale blue planet in the Milky Way’s Orion–Cygnus spiral arm. The humans keep trying to change things.

An Android Dog’s Tale is the 15,000-year episodic story of one canine mobile observer android who must make choices about what he wants to accomplish in his artificial life. Does he accept the wisdom of his makers or does he dare to question?

TWT EBookCover12(comp)The Warden Threat: Prince Donald, the idealistic third son of the king of Westgrove, believes he may be the only one able to protect his country from an invasion spearheaded by an ancient and massive magical stone warrior known as the Warden of Mystic Defiance. Donald, unfortunately, is woefully unprepared. His only real understanding of such things comes from his reading of adventure stories. When he finds an ancient scroll he believes may allow him to take control of the mysterious Warden, he eagerly takes on the task. He dreams of saving the kingdom and becoming a hero like those in his epic adventure stories. To his dismay, his quest turns out to be nothing like he imagined. He finds the stories in his library seriously understate the complexities and hardships involved. He also soon realizes that the real world can be much more confusing than fictional ones, and the hero is not necessarily predestined to save the day.

TWWEBookCover14(comp)The Warden War continues the quest begun by Prince Donald in The Warden Threat. His father, King Leonard of Westgrove, has been told that the neighboring kingdom of Gotrox has discovered a magical means to animate a mysterious and gigantic ancient stone warrior, the Warden of Mystic Defiance, which it plans to use it to spearhead an invasion of his country. Donald is convinced this is a hoax carefully crafted by his father’s chief adviser to bring about a war to gain control of Gotroxian resources. Donald is determined to thwart him. It will not be easy. Chief Adviser Horace Barter has resources, connections, influence, and the almost unquestioned trust of the king. Donald, sadly, has none of these. What the young prince does have is a nominal position with the diplomatic team being sent to Gotrox and the companionship of a few rather unique friends including a pair of 15,000-year-old androids, one of which is a dog — or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

DF Cover13-10

Defying Fate, the Kindle edition that combines The Warden Threat and The Warden War in one easy download is available exclusively from Amazon for $1.50.

Pendant e-book Cover 13-2Amy’s Pendant: Amy, the only child of a poor family living in the bustling city of Dolphin Point, is given an amazing and potentially dangerous pendant as a present for her fourteenth birthday. She does not know how amazing or how potentially dangerous it is. If she did, she would cherish it even more. She is that kind of girl.
Through her investigations of the mysterious pendant, she uncovers an ancient mystery—the remnants of a vast alien commercial enterprise buried beneath surface of the planet. Unfortunately, the central computer for the complex is aware of her intrusion and it cannot let her escape with knowledge of its existence.

ClockworkEbook13-3Disturbing Clockwork: On a small island called Bob off the southern shore of the great Kingdom of Westgrove, Benkin, a brilliant if somewhat quirky scientist, discovers something extraordinary — clockwork automatons that can obey commands. For Benkin, this is an amazing scientific discovery, one he wants to explore; one he believes may revolutionize mankind’s understanding of the world. For Snyde, a fugitive from the king’s justice, it is something he can use…

This humorous, exciting, and charming story sees the return of several characters from the three previous novels set in this world, plus a few endearing additions. If you were wondering what happened to the thoroughly evil Snyde, or if Trixie and Prince Donald ever got together, this book provides the answers.

Book Review – The Martian by Andy Weir

The MartianTitle: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
Genre: Science Fiction

Do you remember the 1964 movie Robinson Crusoe on Mars?

No?

Just as well. It was bad.

The Martian has a similar plot — a lone astronaut trying to survive on Mars and hoping for rescue. Unlike the aforesaid movie, this book isn’t bad. In fact, it’s quite good.

The protagonist (Mark Watney) is almost unbelievably clever, emotionally stable, and indefatigable. Of course most of the story is told through his journals, that is, from his personal perspective, and don’t we all tend to gloss over our own shortcomings? I did not see his portrayal as ‘too good to be true’ a flaw, although I must admit that his achievements did stretch credulity a bit.

There is a great deal of detail about how Watney uses and misuses the technology available to him. I’m not qualified to comment extensively on that or on the raw science behind it, but it all seemed plausible to my inexpert eyes.

Almost all of the other characters in the book are equally admirable. But then most are astronauts or scientists, which are noted for including some of the best examples of what humanity has to offer. These aren’t average people. They’re the cream of the crop, and they are portrayed as such. Most of them are the NASA people back on Earth. They come into the story in scenes that show us how they eventually realize that Watney is not dead (as they initially believed) and how they pull together to keep him that way.

What I like most about the book is that it shows humanity at its best, when people are being clever, inventive, selfless, and cooperating to achieve a worthwhile goal. There should be more stories like this.

Book Review – The Space Between by Scott J. Robinson

SpaceBetween

Title: The Space Between (Tribes of the Hakahei, Book #1)
Author: Scott J. Robinson
Genre: Science fantasy

This rousing and entertaining adventure begins at a renaissance fair and it ends in space. (Although as the first of a series, the ending remains inconclusive.) Ancient spaceships, snobby elves, a confused dwarf, weird aliens, and portals to strange and distant worlds are all rolled into a coherent story that’s just a bit more sci-fi than fantasy. It’s lighthearted and not overly ‘serious’ sci-fi. After all, in addition to elves, it makes a brief nod to Area 51 and Roswell. But it’s different. It’s fun. I like it.

The world building and pacing are excellent, the prose and dialogue are good, the characters aren’t too unbelievable, and the editing, well…. I noticed about a dozen typos in the Kindle edition that I read. There weren’t enough to detract from enjoying the story, and since this is a DIY published novel, I expect they’ll be corrected in later editions. Indie authors tend to be quite conscientious about such things.

I can recommend this one to all readers of light speculative fiction looking for something with a little meat to it. Of the new books I’ve read recently (both indie and traditionally published), I’d have to judge this one among the most enjoyable. There is a lot of potential here.

Full Disclosure: I received a free digital edition of this book during an open promotion on Amazon. I haven’t read the other books in the series, although I may at some point.

Book Review – Janis by Dain White

JanisbyDainWhiteTitle: Janis
Author: Dain White
Publisher:
Dain White
First Published:
2012
Genre:
Science Fiction – Space Opera

The characters first introduced in Archaea become more developed in this sequel. They are still quirky, a bit too cartoony, but they are fun. It has a clearer plot line than the first book, although the characters and setting largely compensated for the lack. I enjoyed both of these light space operas, of which we see far too few these days.

In this installment, Captain Dak Smith and the crew of his spaceship, Archaea, take on a mission to bring medical supplies to a group of rebels on a frozen planet, meeting challenges all along the way. Janis, the amazing AI of the spaceship, is the title character, but she serves as the central character of the story almost by default. My biggest issue with these two relatively short books is the multiple first-person point-of-view. The position of lead character is divided between the crew members of the Archaea. The “I” character alternates between scenes, and although it is normally clear which “I” is in the spotlight at any one time, I still found this disorienting. It also muddles the role of the protagonist because each of the first-person narrators is given about equal time. Oddly, the title character, Janis, has no scenes in the story written from her perspective.

The characters are likeable, the story hangs together well enough, and there is sufficient techno-babble for hard sci-fi geeks. The editing isn’t bad. I noticed only about half a dozen typos or obvious punctuation errors.

I can recommend this indie Kindle offering as a fun, short, sci-fi read—a solid 3.5 stars (rounded to 4).

 

More on the Difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy

SF-Fant2I wrote my original post on this subject in April 2012. At the time, I realized that some people were hazy on the distinction between these two genres of speculative fiction, but I had no idea it was controversial. I’m still not sure it is, but the question can certainly lead to some heated debate if you stray from the main subject far enough. This is what happened in a Goodreads SciFi and Fantasy Book Club member’s chat entitled, innocuously enough, Fantasy vs Science Fiction. Who knew such a question could be so divisive?

The Goodreads discussion began on December 8, 2012 with this innocent enough distinction:

  • Fantasy – magic and/or supernatural creatures and/or a made-up world
  • Science fiction – advanced technology (usually set in the future)

That was over ten months ago, and the thread briefly returned to sanity the past weekend after a few months abroad, although I fear it may reverse course yet again. The discussion continues. It is now the length of an epic novel. I’m not kidding. By copying and pasting one page to Word and having it count the number of words, and then multiplying that by the number of pages, I estimated there were over 126,000 words in the posts that are still showing. Depending on the font and page size, this could be as much as 500 pages in a novel, and it does not count the posts written by one of the more active participants, which he afterwards deleted (but I’m getting ahead of myself).

In general, the above definitions provide a fair generalization, and most people agreed on the basic distinction between the two genres. Participants in the discussion offered quotes and aphorisms both famous and obscure, such as:

  • “…science fiction, given its grounding in science, is possible; fantasy, which has no grounding in reality, is not.” ~ Isaac Asimov
  • “It’s been said that science fiction and fantasy are two different things: science fiction: the improbable made possible; fantasy: the impossible made probable…”  ~ Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone
  • “Succinctly: there’s discontinuity between our reality and fantasy; there’s continuity between our reality and science fiction.” ~ Robert J. Sawyer
  • “A true SF writer is allowed only one unexplained scientific ‘miracle’ per story. Beyond that, SF becomes Fantasy.” ~ A few people participating were familiar with this or something much like it, but no one was entirely sure where it originated.

But wait a second. Don’t those definitions reflect a Western bias toward science (as one participant suggested)?

I don’t personally think so. Science may not be the only method of understanding the world we live in, but it works better than reading entrails, trying to see portents in the positions of stars, prophecies of various kinds, and all the other stuff people have used. This may seem like a cultural bias, but it’s just a recognition of what has worked reasonably well (so far) and what hasn’t. But that’s not really the point. Science fiction implies the use of science. That’s what makes it science fiction.

There seemed to be no violent disagreement over this, so why did the discussion go on?

Well, one of the problems soon becomes obvious when you try to apply the definitions to actual books. People brought up examples of stories they suspected might exist in a gray area between the two. There may be a reasonably clear academic difference between science fiction and fantasy, but it is often difficult to assign one label or the other to a specific story. This is because authors mix genres. One work of speculative fiction may include both science fiction and fantasy elements (along with romance, history, and other things). In cases like this, what genre best applies?

(The discussion did not unfold as linearly as the following account may suggest, but it remained civil… for the most part… at first.)

There was some discussion about what should be considered ‘science’ in science fiction. Some argued that FTL (faster than light) vehicles, time travel, antigravity, and other highly speculative technology should be considered fantasy because they are probably impossible. These, they claimed, were no more ‘scientific’ than hobbits, demons, or dragons. A related point was that since our understanding of reality is imperfect, we can’t know for sure what is possible.

Someone suggested the concept of a continuous line between science fiction and fantasy, that many speculative fiction stories fall somewhere between the two ends, and therefore could be placed in either genre. Others disagreed. They insisted that it is simple to make a clear call by being stringent about the exclusion of fantasy elements in science fiction. It seemed to bother no one to have a fantasy story include science-like elements, but some people argued that once an element of fantasy entered a science fiction story, that story should be considered fantasy, rather the way adding one red towel to a wash-load of white towels turns everything pink. Such stories could, however, possibly be labeled in a subgenre of fantasy such as ‘science-fantasy.’

There was some talk about the relationship of science fiction and fantasy to other genres, including romance, horror, comedy, and even history and religion. Once religion entered the discussion, all hell broke loose (figuratively speaking). One participant (the one who originally brought religion into the discussion and who later deleted all of his posts) said a plot hinging on divine miracles should not make a fictional story fantasy because many people believe in them. I think that was the point he was trying to make, anyway. It was never clear to most of us, but he did succeed in diverting the conversation onto religion for a long time and ended up repeatedly insulting a number of other people. Finally, a moderator intervened and he went away. That was a few days ago. The discussion became far more sedate after this, but he returned on Tuesday and things got lively for a while. The moderator intervened again early Wednesday morning. The poster deleted all his new posts and the moderator banned further references to religious texts from the discussion.

I think part of the problem, as someone in the forum pointed out, was that different people were using the same words but held different ideas about what they meant. That made sense to me, so I provided the following definitions from Wikipedia: (It’s not a definitive reference source, but it’s the first one that came up, and I felt that the definitions I found there would suffice.)

‘Science (from Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge”) is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.’

The same source defines fiction as ‘the form of any work that deals, in part or in whole, with information or events that are not real, but rather, imaginary and theoretical—that is, invented by the author.’

At the time, I did not feel it was necessary to define fantasy, but for the sake of thoroughness, I’ll do so now (again using Wikipedia). ‘Fantasy is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary plot element, theme, or setting. Many works within the genre take place in imaginary worlds where magic and magical creatures are common. Fantasy is generally distinguished from the genres of science fiction and horror by the expectation that it steers clear of scientific and macabre themes, respectively, though there is a great deal of overlap between the three, all of which are subgenres of speculative fiction.’

I did not participate in any way in writing these definitions, but I do consider them a fine place to begin. Judging from recent experience, I suspect some people may find them controversial. I’m beginning to wonder if there is anything, no matter how straightforward, that enjoys universal agreement. Be that as it may, a word means what people agree it means. These definitions seem common enough, and I think they provide a way to better define what can be considered science fiction and, by exclusion, what can be considered fantasy.

First of all, I want to stress that the two things we are differentiating are categories of fiction. They are made up. They aren’t real. Some confusion may have occurred in the Goodreads discussion because the word ‘fantasy’ is also used as an antonym of ‘reality,’ and so, by implication, science fiction should be more ‘real’ than fantasy. The question we were attempting to answer wasn’t about fantasy as opposed to reality, though, but fantasy as a genre of fiction. While it is true that science fiction must be grounded in science whereas fantasy can float free of any anchor to mundane reality, this does not imply that everything in science fiction must be possible or that everything in fantasy must be impossible. Both are fiction. They both tell stories about people and things that do not exist, things that may not even be able to exist. This is true for both genres. (Yes, I’m disagreeing with the late great Isaac Asimov on this. It’s not something I do lightly, but I have a reason.)

To define science fiction, it’s important to understand what science is and what it is not. Science is not a collection of known facts. It is a process for revealing facts about the cosmos, or at least for identifying things that can be regarded as true. The popularity of an idea or the number of believers it has is irrelevant. That’s not how science works.

The defining characteristic of science as opposed to other ways of trying to understand the natural universe is the concept of systematic observation and testing, the scientific method, and this, I think, can provide the key for a clear distinction between science fiction and fantasy.

If, within the context of a story, it is stated or implied that all the fantastic things described—spaceships, androids, warp drive, whatever—came about using the procedures of science, it can be science fiction. In the world of the story, these things are natural (as opposed to supernatural) and explicable to science. Science fiction requires an anchor in this world, but to insist that everything in science fiction should be possible, some even argue probable, is far too restrictive, I think.

Fantasy, on the other hand, can include anything—magic wands, dragons, mystical powers—anything, without any implication of how they came to be or how they relate to the world the reader calls home. In this sense, science fiction is more restrictive than fantasy.

But this allows things that are clearly impossible to enter science fiction. Surely that can’t be right, right?

Remember, this is fiction. Impossible things happen all the time in all genres of fiction, and we may not even notice. Take, for example, a car exploding after a crash. You’ve probably seen it a hundred times. But you’ve seen it in fiction. In the real world, a car might catch fire, but unless there’s a bomb (or explosive chemicals or the like) inside, it’s not going to explode. The probability of the events described in a speculative fiction story happening in the real world is irrelevant. The story doesn’t take place in the real world. But the rules of science must apply within the context of the fictional story for it to be considered science fiction because those rules are science. Without them, the scientific element of the story does not exist and it’s not science fiction.

But this leads to another point. Not all science fiction is created equal. If something in a science fiction story violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it’s almost certainly bad science, which means it’s probably bad science fiction, although not everyone is going to notice, just as they don’t notice that cars don’t explode on their own outside of stories. Sometimes a bit of scientific implausibility does not hurt. If an author wants to include dragons of the big, fire-breathing and flying variety in a book, and provides techno-babble to explain how this is possible, many readers will let it pass. An aeronautical engineer probably won’t, but that does not mean it’s not science fiction. It may even be a great story. But take the example of clockwork robots winding themselves (or one another for that matter). I’ve actually seen this in a couple stories. The fact that this is scientifically impossible does not, by itself, mean that the story is not science fiction, but it does suggest that it is not good science fiction. It goes from scientifically implausible, which I’m willing to let pass for the sake of an otherwise good story, to scientifically impossible, which I’m usually not, with one notable exception. If the science fiction story is intended to be funny or intentionally absurd, then I’m Okay with scientific impossibilities for the sake of humor. Scientifically impossible things in a humorous novel remind us that the story is just a story. It doesn’t take itself seriously and neither should the reader.

So, what’s the bottom line? Well, two short proposed definitions:

  • Fantasy is a subgenre of speculative fiction that includes forces or entities for which no natural and testable explanation is implied within the context of the story.
  • Science fiction is a subgenre of speculative fiction that includes creatures or technologies of a speculative nature that are governed by natural laws based on those of the real world and which are scientifically explicable within the context of the story.

What I tried to do here is separate the two genres, making the application of science the key differentiating point while still allowing for highly speculative and varied worlds to be included in the realm of science fiction. I’m not sure if I’ve succeeded, but I am sure this won’t end the discussion.
 

Related Post: The Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy

 For Further Reading: The Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy? (by David Brin)

Book Review – Whim: In the Beginning by Andy Close

WhimAndyCloseTitle: Whim: In the Beginning
Author: http://www.andyclose.co.uk/
Publisher: Andy Close
First Published: 2013
Genre:
Science Fiction

What first struck me about this book is how excellent the prose is. The writing, for the most part, is very good. The next thing I noticed is that it needs another round of editing and revision. That’s not a knock on the book. As a first novel from a self-published author, this one stands out. Subsequent editions may correct the issues I noted when I read it (September 2013).

The novel takes the form of two stories, which seem to have little to do with one another until the end, and then the connection is more implied than explicit. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s different, which is good, and it paves the way for a sequel that may make the connection clear.

One thread of the story follows the building or a spaceship that is intended to take a sample of humanity from an environmentally depleted Earth to other stars to ensure the survival of the species. The ‘Chairman of the Board of the World Committees of the Ship’ is responsible for seeing the ship launched. He is a nasty, self-serving piece of work, but I was never entirely clear about his motivations other than that he wanted fame.

The other thread of the story follows a likeable lad by the name of Bruno. He lives in a fairly backward land with little by the way of technology, but there is a mysterious ‘barrier’ beyond which no one can go. He decides that life as a farmer (the main occupation of the place where he was born) or of a Trader (his father’s line of work) is not for him. His older sister left their village years ago, and he decides to follow in her figurative footsteps. He journeys to a town on the coast in search of a way around the Barrier and, ostensibly, to find his sister.

There were a couple typos (e.g. ‘see’ instead of ‘seen’), a few sentences with missing words, but most of the copy edit errors I saw were punctuation irregularities. There were also formatting issues. The text was double spaced and paragraphs were not indented.

A couple other things related to content caught my attention. One had to do with a game, which gets Bruno back on track on his mission to get around the Barrier. More said on this would be a spoiler, but until he is in town, I don’t believe this game is mentioned (unless I missed it). That makes its appearance just when he needs it a bit too serendipitous. I think there should have been a foreshadowing of this game earlier in the novel. The other thing that I thought did not seem right was when the Chairman mentions cubits to the ship’s chief engineer, and the engineer does not know what a cubit is. When the Chairman tells him that the AI for the ship looks like an Altar of Incense, however, he either knows what that is or doesn’t ask the obvious question, WTF is an Altar of Incense? I would expect that an engineer would be far more likely to recognize that a cubit is an archaic unit of measure than to be at all familiar with an Altar of Incense.

In any case, the prose alone is refreshingly good enough to make this an enjoyable read. As it stands now, I would give the novel 3.5 stars with greater potential with a bit of revision.

’Twas the Night before Towel Day

VogonsRcoming

’Twas the night before Towel Day. I gazed at the sky.
The Vogons were coming. I started to cry.
I knew why they’d come here ’cause I’d read the Guide.
I reached for my towel. There was nowhere to hide.

HHG-VogonFleetAs humanity huddled asleep in their beds,
Unaware of the doom hanging over their heads,
I ran out my door and then into my car.
Only one thing might stop this scourge from the stars.

Huge yellow ships hovered high in the air
In the way that bricks don’t. ‘This just isn’t fair!’
I raced through stop signs and lights that glowed red.
My goal was only two minutes ahead.

I got to my office block, went to the top,
And there on the roof, I came to a stop.
Above me the largest ship stood quietly poised
Demolition beams ready, and then, there was noise.

“People of Earth,” a growly voice said,VogonOffice
“In two minutes time, you will all be quite dead.
We’re making a bypass and you’re in the way
Is there anything first that you wish to say?”

Now everyone knows that Vogons are dim.
They’re tasteless and vulgar and really quite grim,
Officious and mean, bureaucratically driven,
But they do follow orders in triplicate given.

I waved my towel for all I was worth.
“Constructor Fleet Leader, I speak for the Earth.”
“So speak, little man. Grovel and plead,
But resistance is useless, I will not pay heed.”

“We do not resist,” I said in reply.
“Your orders say kill us. We’re eager to die.
But wasting of effort to us is abhorrent,
As it is to you, or so I should warrant.

HHG-Towels“We’ll spare you the effort of wiping us clean.
We’ll do it for you. You’ll see what I mean.
I am the leader of this bunch of jerks.
If I go, it all goes. That’s how it works.”

Now, to a Vogon, this just might make sense.
Authority rules them. They’re otherwise dense.
They think everything that exists needs a leader.
If the leader is gone, there’s nothing else either.

They’re brighter, I knew, than the beasties of Traal
But not much, I hoped. I could no longer stall.
I pulled forth my towel, and grandly I said,
“Now, I am gone!” It went over my head.

TowelHeadHolding my breath, I hoped they’d believe
Their mission accomplished and then promptly leave.
If they could not see me, they might think me gone.
If I was, then Earth was, though this might be wrong.

I dared not peek from under my towel
Hung over my head as a concealing cowl.
Forty-two seconds passed. I drew a breath,
Proving my fate was not instant death.

The Vogon Commander spoke not a word,
But the whine of ship engines was clearly heard.
Then I heard him complain as his ships disappeared,
“I suppose that makes sense, but it all seems quite weird.”

(Towel day is observed every year on May 25th to celebrate the life and work of Douglas Adams, and especially his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Fans around the world are encouraged to carry a towel with them on this day in his honor. The first Towel Day was held in 2001, two weeks after Adams’ death on May 11. )
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Book Review – 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

2312KSMTitle: 2312
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Orbit
First Published: 2012
Genre:
Science Fiction

The world building in this novel is good. It is highly detailed, imaginative, and futuristically strange.

The charters are also well constructed. These are not like people of today who just happen to be living in the future with a bunch of high-tech gizmos. They have different attitudes, beliefs, tastes, and concerns. Many are physically different in strange and interesting ways. They are not us. They are our descendants, about as different from us as we are from Homo erectus—in some ways, more so.

As science fiction, this book succeeds where many fail. It presents a fictional future that really seems futuristic. I can’t honestly say I enjoyed the book much, though.

The reason little to do with the futuristic setting, although I could not quite understand how any of the grand projects it mentions were being funded. But economics aside, it is the plot—or lack thereof that bothered me the most.

This 561 page tome shows us lovely and, I assume, scientifically reasonable views from various locations in space, sometimes in exhausting detail. It describes various interesting methods of terraforming and of creating habitable environments in space, but what it does mostly is document the existential wanderings of the main character, Swan Er Hong.

She (for lack of a better pronoun) is certainly an interesting character. We get to know her quite well, or as well as anyone can, but she’s not likeable. In fact, she should come with a warning label that says something like ‘Caution! Approach at Your Own Risk.’ Even in this strange world of the future, she’s a nut job, and her erratic behavior and self-absorbed musings become annoying in short order.

I appreciate the skill of a writer who can create a fictional character that can evoke an emotion in a reader, but I don’t think annoyance is the emotion one should probably be shooting for. That’s really the only one I personally felt for Swan, and her romance with a man (again, gender designation is only an approximation) she describes as looking like a toad is, at best, hard to imagine. I could believe that someone might find her interesting, maybe even fascinating, but I couldn’t understand how anyone could consider a long-term romantic relationship with her. It would take a special kind of masochist to do that, and toad-man wasn’t presented as such.

There was an effort at a plot stemming from a power play on Venus and even a bit of mystery about almost sentient androids, but it felt like these were tacked on almost as an afterthought in order to justify the lengthy account of Swan’s dysfunctional emotional journey.

Despite the excellent description of a believable future that this book provides, it’s not an enjoyable story. I can’t recommend it.

Book Review – Star Soldiers by Andre Norton

StarSoldiersTitle: Star Soldiers
Author: Andre Norton
Publisher: Baen
First Published:
Baen Edition – 2001
Genre:
Science Fiction/Fantasy (Space Opera)

I read several Andre Norton books when I was a kid. She wrote well over a hundred, mostly pulp space operas that were just what kids in the ‘space age’ wanted. Her tales of human space exploration, discovering other worlds, and meeting with strange aliens were simple but inspirational. We expected such tales to become a reality in the Twenty-First Century. Alas, things did not turn out so.

This Baen edition contains two of her earlier works: Star Guard (1955) and Star Rangers (1953).

Star Guard follows a platoon of “Archs,” human soldiers who serve as mercenaries in low-tech conflicts. They are hired to serve in a “police action” on a distant planet, which turns out to be much different than they expected, and they uncover secrets about humanity’s relationship with other galactic species and about human expansion to other worlds.

In Star Rangers (AKA The Last Planet), the multi-planet human empire is declining. Earth (Terra) is just a legend, its location forgotten. One of the last remaining Stellar Patrol ships crash lands on an unknown planet, and the survivors discover other castaways and the remnants of a lost civilization.

Although both stories were written over half a century ago, they stand up well. Some of the ‘high tech’ might seem antiquated to us now, but the characters remain believable and their adventures are still captivating (although serendipitous events do stretch one’s ability to suspend disbelief at times). With just a little rewriting, these would equal or surpass most of the popular science fiction adventure stories being published today.

What I tend to like about Norton’s books is that they often focus more on discovery than conflict, and they provide hopeful endings. These two stories do. Yes, things are bad, but there is hope for the future, and people can go on to do great things.

This is how many of us felt about the real world when these were written. The threat of nuclear annihilation hung over us, pollution clouded the skies of major cities, and there were fears of overpopulation and exhausting natural resources, but somehow we expected we’d overcome these challenges and go to the stars. Maybe we still will.

This free Baen edition for Kindle has some pretty sloppy editing, though. Both books have formatting issues and I noticed about half a dozen typos. There are so many well-written and well-edited free and low cost eBooks from indie authors, I find myself appalled when a traditional publisher cannot produce something with equally high quality.

Still, the stories are good, and I would recommend this compilation for all space opera fans. If you want to read more of Andre Norton’s books, several are available free from Project Gutenberg.

Book Review – The Ultimate Inferior Beings by Mark Roman

Title: The Ultimate Inferior Beings
Author: Mark Roman
Publisher: Cogwheel Press, Copyright 2012
Genre: Science Fiction

The cover is reminiscent of Monty Python. The characters remind me of those created by Douglas Adams. And the plot, well, for the sake of comparison, I’d put it someplace in the vicinity of Doctor Who and Red Dwarf. The story is not as clearly satirical as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and it’s sillier than Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, but comparisons can be made, and some other reviewers have made them. This book is in the same category with all of these, but it’s different. Yes. It’s funny. Actually, of the seventy or so books I’ve read this year, I found this to be one of the most enjoyable.

Why, you might ask. I know I asked this. It may be the quirky characters. There is no antagonist as such, and the protagonist, jixX (no, that’s not a typo), is not much of hero. He’s a landscape architect drafted to pilot a starship, seemingly for no logical reason. You might think this would be considered a black mark on the novel, but it didn’t bother me much. It was supposed to be absurd, and it was. The selection of the crew to accompany him also made no sense. There is the carpenter who has never worked on real wood, the beautiful and mysterious gynecologist, the ostensible scientist trying to prove the existence of God through hidden linguistic clues and who (for reasons unknown) seems to have a German accent, and the professional stowaway who is not technically part of the crew. We suspect that someone had some reason for these crew selections, but none is ever revealed. Perhaps it is as completely random as it appears and it is our presumption that such things should make sense that is misleading us. There is also a ship’s computer with questionable wit.

Then there are the little, green aliens who have a peculiar fondness for bricks. They didn’t make much sense, either, but they’re fun.

The story ends about three fourths of the way in. After that, there is an epilog, and a glossary, and some appendices, and an index. They’re fun, too.

I found this book refreshingly different. Many of the books I’ve read recently seemed formulaic, as if the writers all read the same books on how to write books. They followed the same rules for building their characters and settings and for structuring their plots. If Mark Roman read any of these ‘how to write a novel’ books, he wisely ignored them.

I highly recommend this odd little book to readers who like humorous science fiction, aren’t intimidated by a bit of mind-bending absurdity, and who are looking for something completely different.

Book Review – The War of the Worlds: Aftermath by Tony Wright

Title: The War of the Worlds: Aftermath
Author: Tony Wright
Publisher: Wild Wolf, Copyright: 2010
Genre: Science Fiction

This is written as a sequel to H.G. Wells’ classic story of Martian invasion and has the same first person protagonist. The narrative of this book states that Wells wrote the original War of the Worlds, but that the protagonist himself (who here is called John Smith) penned this sequel. It’s a clever way to explain the stylistic differences.

In this story, we are told that the Martians, which we thought all succumbed to earthly bacteria in the original novel, did not. Some survived, and they are still trying to conquer Earth.

The story includes characters, settings, and story elements from Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds and his short story The Crystal Egg, both originally published in 1897. It also presents minor characters from fact and fiction including Winston Churchill, Sherlock Holmes, and H.G. Wells. The prose, for the most part, is reminiscent of Wells’ original and of other books from that time.

Having recently reread some of Wells’ work, the differences between this and the original stood out to me. The Martians present the most obvious one. In Wells’ original story, they are technologically impressive, but physically unsuited for Earth’s stronger gravity. Their machines do all the fighting because they cannot. In this sequel, they are strong and quick, and they engage in hand-to-hand combat with humans. They are more like modern movie aliens than the inscrutable and very, well, alien creatures Wells portrayed.

The main character also varies. In the original, he is educated, thoughtful, well off, and largely a victim and beneficiary of circumstance. In this book, he seems less thoughtful, more aggressive, and his jingoism is more in evidence. In the original book, I found the character likeable, in this one, not so much.

‘Action’ is much more pronounced than in the original novel, and violence is more graphically depicted. Wells tended to relate such things more by implication, lending a certain air of refinement to his work. I tend to think of this as almost a characteristic of reserved British culture of the time, at least for gentlemen. This difference made the sequel feel more like a contemporary action adventure steampunk novel, unfortunately.

The cover art is very good, but the editing is not. I noticed several typos and places where the prose could use a bit of polish, especially regarding choice of words so as not to sound repetitive.

The story is engaging enough that I would recommend it to those who enjoyed the original War of the Worlds novel. It is interesting to see what one writer who is obviously a big Wells fan imagines could have happened next.

Book Review – Moral Flux by Stephen Sackleigh

Title: Moral Flux
Author: Stephen Sackleigh
Publisher: Stephen Sackleigh, Copyright 2012
Genre: Science Fiction

An android piloting a small, science exploration ship is rerouted by his owners to find out why one of their nearby outposts on one of Jupiter’s small moons has not checked in recently. When he arrives, he finds the outpost has been intentionally destroyed, and one of the workers is fleeing for her life. The inexplicable inhumanity this exhibits forces him to make a choice. Should he stay out of it, or should he act to protect someone in danger of being harmed? If he does act, it may require that he harm other people, which his programming prohibits.

Moral Flux is a space opera with spaceships and androids. It is also an adventure, in which the good guys take on an evil and powerful corporate enemy to right wrongs in classic Robin Hood fashion. The character development is good, the setting is well described, and the future tech and culture are believable, although neither is terribly futuristic. It’s good science fiction with a touch of moral philosophy, which, through an almost human android, explores questions of human ethics and free choice.

Those are the good points I saw. As for negatives, there are a few of those as well. This story could and probably should have been expanded into a longer book. I found some of the story elements a bit disjointed and occasionally too serendipitous. Our android hero arrives just in time to save the damsel in distress, for example, even though the outpost must have been attacked much earlier. At one point, the narrative jumps to the abduction of a conman from a passenger ship. There is no foreshadowing of this event. We don’t see our heroes plan for it or even discuss it beforehand. All of a sudden, this is happening, but we don’t find out why until after. Then there is the conman’s almost instant agreement to join them. It all seemed to be rushing the story to conclusion, which it should not. This story overall is quite good, and I would have stuck around to read those bits that were left out. I also thought the prose could use some polish in places and another round with a proofreader. There were not a lot of typos, but there were a few.

I liked this story more than many I’ve read recently, and I recommend it for science fiction fans, especially those who enjoyed Asimov’s robot books.

Book Review – Haze by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

This is an oddly constructed novel with two different stories running in alternating chapters separated in time by about five years. Keir Roget, an agent of the Federation Security Agency is the main character in both.

The earlier story has Agent Roget investigating a ‘Saint’ (Mormon) terrorist cell. His cover story during this is as an energy monitor, ostensibly responsible for ensuring people are not wasting energy. In the course of his investigation, the terrorists infect him with some memories of a long dead senator from Utah, a former part of the United States, a political entity absorbed by the Federation a thousand years ago. The senator was popular at the time, but he seems otherwise unexceptional. Why the cult chose his memories for their attempt to ‘convert’ Roget is unclear, as are their long-term goals or even their beliefs.

This is also true of the Federation, which seems to have come about after a long period of Chinese economic hegemony. At times, the Federation seems benign and patient, concerned mainly about maintaining order, and at other times, it seems oppressive and even paranoid.

The second story follows Agent Roget as he is inserted onto a mysterious planet protected by high-tech shielding. It is populated by ‘Thomists,’ a group of philosophical skeptics that splintered from Earth about two thousand years ago, although there is some suggestion of non-linear time hanky-panky going on. Roget is supposed to assess the threat these people pose and report back.

He discovers an unashamedly elitist society even more obsessed with energy efficiency than the Federation, and which has some odd societal practices regarding politics, commerce, production, and the like. None of these are well explained or, quite frankly, seem to make much sense, but in daily life the place is pleasant enough. This may be because they are ideologically and culturally less diverse than Earth and so are subject to less social strife. Their advanced technology helps, too.

One discontinuity that did strike me, however, was that in this technologically advanced society, many people seem to hold menial service jobs. I would think that a society that could develop underground trains that travel three times the speed of sound or teleport ships into low orbit could develop artificial intelligence systems to handle baggage or wait tables.

I believe this book is supposed to be a cautionary tale about energy overuse, national arrogance, and possibly a few other things, but it doesn’t quite pull it off. The political and philosophical dichotomies are poorly presented. There is no clear cause and effect established between decisions, actions, and eventual results. Ignoring the possible thematic element for the moment, the story itself is not especially interesting and the characters are lackluster.

Although I’ve enjoyed many of Modesitt’s other novels, I cannot honestly recommend this particular book.

Book Review – Doctor Who: Borrowed Time by Naomi A. Alderman

This is a story of investment banking, the white-collar rat race, fraud, debt, the subjectivity of value, and the dangers of compound interest… sort of. It’s not about money or stocks, though. It’s about time — using it, managing it, borrowing it, trading it, and paying it back — with interest, compounded hourly.

An alien time trader has come to Earth and is loaning harried bank employees the time they feel they need to conduct research, prepare reports, do presentations, and everything else necessary to climb the corporate ladder while still having some time for themselves and their families. The snag is that the time must be paid back, and under the fine print terms of the contact, some people find themselves owing more than a lifetime. The 11th Doctor, Amy, and Rory must expose the dangers of borrowing on the future because if they don’t, humanity may not have one.

This novel has a serious and timely underlying theme, although the story itself is not to be taken seriously. I seriously love books like this. There are far too few of them. When Doctor Who is done well, though, it can provoke thought about a serious idea and still be fun. This story does that well enough. I won’t say it’s not without some flaws. I thought the characterizations were just a bit off. The Doctor was perhaps a bit too eccentric and Rory a bit too goofy, and the bank employees, well, they were unbelievably oblivious to the strange things going on around them.  But, all in all, I enjoyed this book. It’s a quick and easy read and a great way to spend an evening or two between Doctor Who episodes. I recommend it to all Doctor Who fans and other lovers of positive science fiction.

Book Review – Admiral Who? by Luke Skywachter

The Montagne family is the default scapegoat for both Parliamentarians and Royalists, so when young Jason Montagne finds himself suddenly put in charge of the Sector Defense Forces ship Lucky Clover after the Imperials abandon the sector, he expects he’ll be quickly deposed. The fact that he is in no way qualified to be a fleet admiral only supports this fear.

This humorous space opera is a Galaxy Quest style Star Trek exaggeration. Admiral Montagne is even more reckless and lucky than Captain Kirk, and there is a curmudgeonly Chief Engineer who can outdo Scotty when it comes to starship engineering miracles. There are sexy female aliens, gruesome monster aliens, and humans both devious and trustworthy.

This book is a fast-paced romp from one complication for young Admiral Montagne and the crew of the Lucky Clover to another. These challenges are met by good luck, fortuitous misunderstanding, or serendipitous discovery. It’s actually quite fun.

On the other hand, there are flaws. The political situation with the Montagne family is revealed slowly and is never entirely clear, which makes the attitudes of the Admiral’s opponents and his paranoia seem forced for the sake of the plot. The Lucky Clover battleship seems to grow larger as the story progresses. Items such as functional weapons and armor seem to be found just when they are needed, although it was implied that such things did not exist, and they are incorporated unbelievably fast, even for an engineering miracle-worker. This, of course, is par for pulp sci-fi and happened often in Star Trek, so it is acceptable for a parody such as this.

The biggest problem with the book is the lack of editing. It reads like a good first draft of a novel with all the misspellings, typos, repetitions, misplaced or missing words, bits of rough prose, and format errors still there. It’s an enjoyable story with fun characters, but it needs a good amount of work before it’s ready for publication.

If you like humorous space opera (e.g. Robert Asprin, Harry Harrison, Grant Naylor) and if you can pick this up for 99¢ or, even better, during a free promotion as I did, do so. The story is enjoyable as it is. It promises to be a very good book after some minor revision and a few rounds of editing.

Book Review – Once Upon a Time Ferret by Stephen D Palmer

The universe is melting and the Time Ferret, AKA Riffic, is called on to fix it. It seems only fair. After all, he caused the problem. First, the warlike Urknods abduct him to prevent their own destruction. He escapes them. Then his boss, the Fisherman, assigns him the task. Riffic himself would rather direct mindless, but very popular, good vs. evil movies. He is not given the option.

There is a good deal of Hitchhiker’s Guide influence in this book and several Star Trek references. The Urknods are very much a comic space villain. They’re ugly, powerful, crude, and thoroughly repugnant. They remind me of the Vogons from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, although less bureaucratic and more mindlessly aggressive. They are fun bad guys. The Time Ferret is a peculiar but likeable hero. He’s not really the main character throughout the book, though.

About 25% of the way in, it becomes clear this is a Young Adult novel. Robbie (boy), Molly (girl), Doug (boy), and Dave (dog) become the central characters. I was never sure of their actual ages, but the human members of this band are somewhere between the ages of 10 and 13, I think. They stumble upon Riffic in a field in England and become entangled in his efforts to avoid the Urknods and save the universe.

I won’t reveal the plot details because that would be a spoiler, but the story twists and turns in a wild and fun adventure with Robbie serving as the story’s protagonist from this point.

The story concludes satisfactorily, but there are a few loose threads and unanswered questions at the end. Interesting minor characters appear briefly and never return. Do Robbie’s parents resolve their issues? Does his dad switch to a more normal job? Who and what is the Fisherman? What, for that matter, is the Time Ferret? The Fisherman’s successor, perhaps, but is that why he was created?

Once Upon a Time Ferret by Stephen D Palmer is a great YA comic science fiction story and good deal of fun in a mostly silly kind of way. I recommend it, especially for fans of humorous Sci-Fi.

Felix and the Frontier – by Chester Burton Brown

I found this book refreshingly different and very enjoyable. It is a short tale that follows the explorations of Felix, a galactic traveler who is not a robot. He is extremely curious, intensely appreciative of the wonders of the universe, kindly but detached. He is an explorer, a scout for the Solar Neighborhood, a Zorannic man, and while he may be non-biological, he is most certainly not a robot. I saw his personality as that of the quintessential scientist. He is a very charming fellow.

There is a surprising amount crammed into this little novel. It’s like a space faring Gulliver’s Travels. Felix roams the galaxy, hopping from one planet to another using his ‘gatehouse,’ which seems more like a TARDIS than a spaceship. His mission is to scout, to discover new life and new civilizations, and to assess the potential of the places he explores for colonies for the Solar Neighborhood. But just when it seems that this is all the story is, a plot happens. The Solar Neighborhood is not the only civilization looking to colonize the galaxy. And the others may not be going about it as nicely as they are.

So how is this book different? Well, it’s written in third person present tense, which is common for a synopsis but not for a novel. The prose and vocabulary are precise, the punctuation is stylistically correct, and the voice is unique. Let me give an example.

This is when he is eaten. It is sudden, vicious, and bewildering. Felix has the vaguest impression of being rent asunder and then is cast into the rudest kind of soundless, sightless, darkness…

See? Well, maybe not, so I’ll just say I liked how it was done.

What else did I especially like? I mentioned the main character already. He is quite enjoyable. The style and prose, yeah, got that. I haven’t mentioned the tech yet. It’s interesting. The gatehouse isn’t a spaceship, although Felix can build one if needed for short planetary hops. The gatehouse swaps bits of space-time to get him where he needs to go. How it does this, we don’t know, but it makes sense. The robotic ants are quite cool. These are little constructor robots, not a new idea but a very logical one. They, too, make sense.

So, what didn’t I like? Nothing, really. The story seems not to have a real plot at first, other than following Felix explore the universe. I was okay with that, although some might see this as a slow start. When more of a plot did develop, it started and then ended rather abruptly, and the story concludes with something of a cliffhanger. I admit this is mildly annoying when the sequel is not immediately available.

Overall, though, I found this an exceptional book, different from most. I highly recommend it.

Book Review – Oom by DJ Webber

This is a rather charming Young Adult tale with a ten-year-old protagonist and an alien.

Joe Hills lives on a farm in Australia. There is a drought. The sheep are dying, and his family does not have the money needed to do anything about it. They are literally a day away from losing the farm when they get help from a very strange visitor. Enter Oom, an alien whose people consider this particular chunk of land something close to sacred for reasons not entirely clear to them or to us (until the end), but it has to do with ‘Ascension.’ Oom helps Joe’s family find water and save the farm. He befriends Joe and helps him understand more about himself and the universe.

One thing I especially liked about this book is that it doesn’t treat kids that might read it as ‘children,’ that is, incapable of thinking. There is a bit of philosophy, value lessons, a little science, and a lot of encouragement to consider big questions about life, the universe, and everything.

There are flaws, though. The prose is a bit choppy, amateurish in places (at least to my American ear), especially in the beginning, and it gets off to a slow start. There are numerous punctuation errors, especially the frequent omission of commas after introductory clauses, to set off participle phrases, and between independent clauses joined by a conjunction. (I’m basing this point on the Chicago Manual of Style, which is, of course, the American standard for fiction. I’m not familiar with the style guide that would apply in Australia.) There were also several formatting problems with the Kindle edition. These are hardly critical problems and do not detract from enjoyment of the story.

As a YA book, I liked this overall. It’s a good story with interesting and likeable characters. It could use a little bit of rework and editing, though.

Book Review – Prometheus’ Fire by Michael Mitchell

Prometheus’ Fire is an engaging story of alien contact. Mallach, a humanoid born on Earth of alien parents, is a member of a scientific team assessing humanity’s readiness for entry into the Consortium of Worlds’ economic sphere. He admires humanity for its inventiveness and initiative, he considers himself an American (because he was born there), and he wants to accelerate human entry into the galactic league.

To qualify for contact, a species must demonstrate at least one of two achievements, power generation from nuclear fusion or mass neutralization, which is essentially dimension-skipping, anti-gravity technology. He plans to give them information that will allow them to develop both, which is a serious violation of Consortium law.

This is a simple, straightforward, and enjoyable story that falls into the pulp Sci-Fi subgenre. There isn’t much here by way of deep thoughts, political or cultural satire, or serious exploration of humanity or speculation about its future. It’s just a good story. The aliens have space faring technology and a greater distaste for violence, but other than that, they are much like modern humans in Western society. We see little of their culture, and what we do see looks a lot like contemporary America.

I found several things to like about this book. The characters are engaging, the protagonist is likeable, the antagonist is believable (if a bit one-dimensional), and it is different from much of the Sci-Fi you see on bookstore shelves these days. It’s not an ‘action-packed’ shock fest. There are no zombies or vampires, and there is no graphic sex or gratuitous violence. These are the kinds of attention-grabbing things sometimes strung together in a book in place of a good story. Prometheus’ Fire has good story.

The greatest flaw I see in the book is one of style. The author tends to tell the readers what has happened rather than showing them what is happening. The first ten percent or so of the book is largely backstory, making for a slow start.

As the first novel from a new author, this is better than most I have seen. I got my copy during a free Kindle promotion, but if you like good pulp Sci-Fi suitable for all ages, it is well worth the current 99¢ asking price.

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