Earthweeds: A Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


This week also brought me into the strange world of Earthweeds, first book of the Sons of Neptune series, by Rod Little.

This book was a lot, so let’s get started.

We begin our adventure up in a forested mountain national parky type area, where brothers Sam and Shane are enjoying a hiking / camping vacation to escape their woes for a time. Things go awry when they find a man who has committed suicide by gunshot sitting dead against a tree. He’s left a suicide note in his other hand that really got me intrigued, even if the couple of lines of Sam’s and Shane’s dialogue immediately following said note over-explained it all and kind of spoiled the effect. Less is more, people!

Anyway. Sam, who is six feet one inch tall and has been ever since he was a kid in high school when it was weird but isn’t so weird now he’s a college freshman, and his older brother Shane who is five feet eleven and more athletic, are distressed by the discovery of the dead body and return to town – and that’s where everything starts to go really crazy.

I admit, at the outset I got a bit of a Supernatural vibe from the two brothers, but that was only because one of them was named Sam and was quite tall (6’1″, as stressed a couple of times in the opening chapters) and his older brother is less tall but a bit of a tough guy who says “awesome” and calls his car “sweetheart” and doesn’t let Sammy drive it and their parents are dead. But these moderately amusing similarities took a back seat, if you will, to the fact that Sam can also summon electricity from his hands.

Why do we learn that Sam is a prematurely 6’1″ freakazoid before we find out about the lightning hands? One of life’s mysteries. And speaking of one of life’s mysteries, Sam and Shane are about to get all the rest of life’s mysteries thrown in their faces, one and two at a time, some of them wrapped in enigmas and some of them just damp and balls-out naked, so strap the fuck in.

The result is a highly entertaining, action-packed, twist-and-turn-filled adventure of a truly boggling scope and intensity. I may make light, but I was genuinely entertained and who can really ask for more than that? There were legitimately creepy moments (like the suicide and the things in the basement) and interesting premonitions (a narrator telling us what’s to come) and a whole lot of craziness (too much to do parenthetical justice to) folded into an apocalyptic monster thriller that keeps the beats coming.

We have a horde of flesh-eating lizards. We have monster spiders. We have a band of heavily-armed doomsday preppers and some creepy scientist-types. We have a guy who communicates with animals. We have electric powers. We have flying saucers from Neptune (this might constitute a spoiler but come on, look at the name of the series and try to keep your eye on the ball here). We have a lot. And this is just the beginning!

A few things didn’t add up, but they were mostly little things. The way a … certain event … occurred “over a millennium ago” and yet predated the dino-killer asteroid is one of those things that’s technically true but still sounds odd. It took them way too long to realise putting on Tina’s perfume was a good solution to the scent issue they were facing, rendering them “invisible” to the lizards. And once they did figure it out, it stopped being a plot point shortly afterwards. There was comedy gold to be dredged out of that … but I get it. There was too much else going on, no time to stop to pick up loose nuggets. I also didn’t get why words like Earth and Neptune were part of the lexicon when their etymology … gah, never mind. There’s a few little nits to pick but they’re not a big deal. What’s the odd nit when we have so much going on?

Sex-o-meter

There’s a lot of lingering and insistent description of the … three? … female characters, two of whom need to be rescued from a doom prepper rape cage at the start, but there’s no actual rape and not really any sex. It’s all about the action, not the action, you know? It’s kind of charming in its own way. One perfectly normal attractive step-sibling who just does normal stuff out of a possible set of attractive step-sibling triplets who get themselves trapped in implausible sexually vulnerable positions all the time because the plot demands it.

Gore-o-meter

Y’know, for a violent apocalyptic horror action story with killer lizards, there’s surprisingly little gore. A bunch of people and a whole fuck-ton of lizards get killed in an assortment of ways, some of them reasonably bloody, but we can’t get the gore-o-meter to go above two-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five no matter how hard we whack it.

WTF-o-meter

Overall this book was an amazing, dizzying festival of WTFery. What a trip. At every point Little had a chance to say “this is it, this is what the story’s about, let’s continue,” Little instead said “fuck it, that happened, now something even more balls-to-the-wall crazy is going to happen.” I don’t know if the WTF-o-meter could handle the rest of the books in this series. As it is, it’s giving Earthweeds a Percy Jackson out of a possible Samuel L Jackson. I think … I think you broke it. Yep, it’s broken. Well that’s not going to be cheap.

My Final Verdict

The words Earthians from the Earthian Empire moved to Earthus should be absolutely stupid … but I really like it. And I don’t know why. I’m sitting here covered in smoking pieces of WTF-o-meter, and I don’t know why. What a wild ride. Lot of fun. Four stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.

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Isoldesse: A Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


Up next was Isoldesse, of the Aevo Compendium series book 1, by Kimberly Grymes.

Banna idir dufiur et gohdeo … hey, I think I know this one. Something about there being a frog in my bidet, isn’t it?

I kid. I really enjoyed the uncompromising, deep-end plunge that Isoldesse pushes on the reader right from page one. It made me feel like one of the characters, confused and lost and overwhelmed. And at least we get a glossary! Yeah, there was a little world-by-world glossary of terms at the start of the book, so we have a little more information than the protagonists, but it is just enough to keep our heads above water. And, like I mentioned, the quasi-incantations of the sci-fi space magic were delightfully fantastical and reminded me of John Carter of Mars.

Yes, this story opens hard, with a lot of study material by way of an intro, and overall the narrative read like a science-fantasy in the John Carter or even Flash Gordon style. High fantasy with planets instead of ye olde realms, and while these may all add up to a problem for some readers, I liked it.

That being said, I did very nearly hurl my Kindle across the room early on – and I only didn’t because it was a pretty expensive little doodad. See, each world being studied for the Aevo Compendium (which I consistently failed to imagine as anything but Megadodo Publications, one of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor, and their renowned guide for hitchhikers) is divided into four regions and a researching agent – well, look:

Spiaire – (spy-ir) A Sendarian who lives a double life on an alien world during an Aevo Compendium trial. There are four total Spiaires assigned to four different regions of whatever world is undergoing observation. A Spiaire’s job is to befriend the subjects without revealing their true identity and prepare the subjects for extraction to Priomh.

Okay, so the “four different regions” of Earth were Florida, California, the Midwest, and “north” – and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t talking about beyond-the-US north. I decided this was a hilarious surreal joke of some sort, and laughed rather than angry-purchasing a paperback just so I could throw it into the Gulf of Finland. Well played! But seriously, the rest of the planet exists, y’all.

Anyway, from this rocky but endearing start, I found myself rapidly overtaken by events and was left with a persistent feeling that I was reading a young adult drama like Beverly Hills 90210 but with some characters randomly swapped out for alien researchers and others swapped out maybe for some opposing alien group that’s hunting the researchers, and one of the humans is bonded with an alien ghost in a crystal and also the aliens seemed to have alien parents / handlers? I was quickly lost, but like Darci and Gemma and Meegan and Kenna (I’m afraid their names and descriptions made them all a teensy bit interchangeable to me) I was dragged along from one scene to the next and ultimately it was rather enjoyable even though it gave me a mild arrhythmia.

Through it all, I was able to focus on a couple of things. First, the Beast was an utterly disgusting character and the only implausible thing about him was that he was somehow employed by the Aevo Compendium people. There’s more to his story but frankly the fact that he wasn’t shot in the face and buried out back somewhere to enrich Priomh’s biosphere before the book even began was a real danger to my suspension of disbelief. Also, not to spoil things, but towards the very end of the book we find out that he sports a man-bun (it is mentioned briefly around the halfway point but it’s easy to miss) and I’m going to be honest, the reader deserves to know this a lot sooner. Like, a lot sooner. I’m just saying.

Other highlights included drunk Ally calling Xander a poopy-head, the Beast and his sudden but inevitable betrayal, and the moment I found out basically an entire alien species (or at least the females thereof) were redheads. That’s almost certainly someone’s idea of fun, but it’s not great when you’re trying to tell characters apart and hair colour seems to be the main characteristic mentioned each time.

Anyway, it was great. Let’s see what the meters have to say about it all.

Sex-o-meter

A chaste and thoroughly decent outing, Isoldesse had a few traces of leery nastiness and one genteel curtain-drop to cover a hypothetical hour-long human-on-alien boinkfest. I’ll give it an “isn’t that technically bestiality?” out of a possible “oh boy, that’s definitely bestiality, get that sheep out of here and why do you have a man-bun you’re just the worst” on the ol’ sex-o-meter.

Gore-o-meter

One-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five for this one. There wasn’t much gore or violence, although the story didn’t want for action. Nicely balanced.

WTF-o-meter

Like I said, this story had some excellent surreality and a colourful Flash Gordon aesthetic and John Carter system of high-tech space magic. The absolute relentless speed at which life comes at Julianna and Prue and Rian and Sabine (and Nick and Matthew and Liam and Ben…) adds a whole new level of enjoyment to this highly imaginative roller-coaster of a story.

My Final Verdict

Well now look, I just said “highly imaginative roller-coaster of a story,” so I can hardly do better than that here, can I? Isoldesse is Grymes’s debut novel and may she write many more! It was never boring, it showed a butt-ton of creative prowess and introduced us to a very complex series of worlds. Three stars! Thanks for a fun read.

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Children of Vale: A Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


The next book on my #SPSFC list was Children of Vale, by D. A. Anderson.

Reading this book was like having sex right down in the back corner of a Sean Connery video library. Yes, it’s fucking close to Zardoz. But that’s a good thing! No wait, hear me out. Come baaack…

Look, it really was just nailed into my head the moment our protagonist, Tyana, is born in a Matrixian artificial womb field and then spat out of a giant Goddess-head into a compellingly agendered future world where advanced and enlightened people (living in a city with another big giant carved head motif) are struggling with their own stagnation and the incursions of “barbarians” outside. It just immediately struck me as a kind of homage, and that’s actually part of why I liked it all so much.

The story itself is fascinating, as we follow Tyana’s point of view literally from before birth and learn – as she does – about the strange world she lives in.

Tyana’s culture is divided into castes, from the lowly worker-class Artificers to the holy order of the Vestals. Each person is assigned a caste on a genetic level, and it is expressed in the colour of her hair. Tyana is a rare dual-class  anomaly – and unlike various other combinations that have popped out in the past, she is a blend of two castes that has never before occurred.

What follows is an exploration of the concepts of acceptance, respect, tradition, tribalism and one’s place in a world that abhors the not-readily-categorisable. And really a very interesting one. Each caste among the androgynous, female-pronoun-adopting higher race is given strengths and weaknesses – blessings and burdens, gifts and sins – but it swiftly becomes clear that not all burdens are equal. And not all sins are necessarily evil. And that some practices have been set in place entirely as a means of controlling a potentially dangerous population.

This was a philosophy that … definitely resonated with me.


“Our burden is to work. If we don’t, our muse – our madness, as she puts it – will take over. The work is meant to stave that off, to keep us busy and distracted.”


As Tyana learns more about her world and the shaky foundations on which it is built, her surroundings and her dreams become steadily more disturbing. There’s enough metaphor and symbolism in it to make the most coked-up, mushroom-addled Zardoz analyst throw away his red mankini, put some pants on and take a good long look at himself in the mirror. Presumably for the first time since he put on the mankini. But I digress. And I don’t know why. Stop me next time, I have regrets.

Tyana’s dream of a bleached and homogenised humanity, drained and safe, is unsettling to read. The action and events taking place in the narrative ultimately fail to live up to the imagery occurring on the higher plane of Vale’s and Thea’s ideological battleground … but isn’t that so often the way, with dreams?

This story combines fascinating sci-fi visuals and worlds with a delightful surreal aesthetic, and a compelling series of moral and sociological questions that really stayed with me after reading. It drew me in, and it kept me turning the pages as Anderson revealed the world a little bit at a time, in all its complex and often disturbing glory. Its solid sci-fi world and plot will appeal to some, while its out-there premise and artistry will appeal to others. It was all rather seamless and well-structured as far as I’m concerned, only a couple of little things really jumping off the page and yanking my moustache.

I loved the way the Artificers were introduced and discussed, the almost literal morlocks in this weird hypnopunk future, and the way they studied and synthesised the hallowed goddess-goo to the ultimate conclusion (which I won’t spoil, but it was very cool). Creativity and industry live on, even among a perfect theocratic utopia someone needs to keep the plumbing operational, and woe betide the theocrats when those poor grubby fucks finally look up from their labour and go “hang on.”

There was a throw-away reference to a “warp-capable” ship right at the very end, when the rest of the discussion of space travel had been either kept interestingly vague, or else seemed to use different terminology altogether. This abrupt bounce to (forgivable in its ubiquity) Star Trek lingo was jarring, but since it was basically the end of the story by that point it was easy enough to let it slide. Still, odd. But honestly, that was it.

Sex-o-meter

We’re confronted with a swift and furtive bit of androgynous self-touchy – oh, the wicked burdens of those pallid, slender Vestal hands! – but this is a pretty cerebral and asexual affair. And that’s fine. The sex-o-meter is detecting trace elements of whatever was going on in Zardoz, but not enough for me to give Children of Vale more than one-tenth of a whatever was going on in Zardoz out of a possible whatever was going on in Zardoz.

Gore-o-meter

There’s plenty of Warrior-caste violence and fight scenes, some pitched battles, the strange gryphons and the brutality with which the Artificers are treated, but all in all it’s fairly bloodless. Unless you count the ichor and the assorted black and white fluids of the Vale and Thea dreamscapes. And I don’t. And neither does the gore-o-meter. So there. One flesh-gobbet out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

Downright psychedelic, this one. Really cool, almost pure high-grade WTF from cover to cover. Children of Vale gets a great big bowl of slimy black ichor dribbling out of the face-holes of a tormented Vestal godpuppet out of a possible … I don’t even know what this thing is trying to show me. The same thing only a slightly larger bowl? Yeah. Yeah, that’s what it is.

My Final Verdict

I thoroughly enjoyed this story, a really artistic piece of work that left me feeling thoughtful and slightly detached for some time afterwards. Four stars for Children of Vale.

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Well, this sure ain’t great (Wheel of Time)

So we already have news of a main character being recast for season 2 of the show. Mat, no less.

Aside from the big “describe what’s happening in this series, wrong answers only” energy of the article’s description of the books (“The Wheel of Time, which was renewed for Season 2 in May ahead of its series premiere, is set in a sprawling, epic world where magic exists and only certain women are allowed to access it”, really?), this story doesn’t fill me with confidence. And I was by no means full of confidence, for all that the trailer gave me a big boost of optimism.

So, what this means is, they already need to replace a crucial character because of whatever-the-fuck reason, and from season 2 onwards we all need to get used to Mat being a whole different guy. And we know this already two months before the show even starts.

I remember when Daario was recast in Game of Thrones, but it wasn’t a big deal because nobody knew who he was meant to be anyway. Apparently the Mountain was recast a couple of times, and I didn’t notice that myself. But this is going to hit different.

I find myself hoping they work it into the story. Maybe Mat can vanish into the redstone ter’angreal at the end of the series, in Rhuidean, and emerge in a new body or something? And everyone, on-screen and on-couch, can be confused about it at the same time.

I don’t know. I want to just wave this off, and I am still trying not to get too enthusiastic about this, but it’s not easy with a second-generation megafan in the house. Oh well, Wump was kind of underwhelmed by the original casting anyway, so at least she’ll be happy. Maybe.

That’s it. That’s the news.

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Du (a review)

This was half a movie so I’m only going to give it half a review.

We headed out to the cinema again last night to catch Denis Villeneuve’s new Dune remake on the big screen.

Now, I’m one of those people who was fine with the ’80s Lynch / Smithee production (I was very happy to hear the orchestral rock riff in the background of at least one scene in this new movie, it feels right), and while I like Herbert’s book I don’t worship it, and I also liked his son’s books so I’m no kind of purist. I’m fairly easy to please. I believe I’ve explained enough times the level on which I enjoy movies. It’s equal parts impossibly shallow and insanely setting-oriented.

So when I say there was enough world in this to make me incredibly happy it got made, but there wasn’t enough story in it to be anything but frustrating beyond my spoiled-rotten ability to bear it, you might have an inkling of what I’m babbling about.

Here’s a picture of Stilgar and some other people standing still while wearing stillsuits. I don’t know. Half a review, remember?
Fun Dune fact #1: Paul Atreides [editor’s note: I am reminded by my nerdy friend Veronica that it was in fact Paul’s son, Leto II] later takes a massive dose of spice and turns into a human / sandworm hybrid and becomes God-Emperor of the Imperium. We are unlikely to see this on the big screen but I’ve been wrong before and oh boy do I hope I’m wrong this time.

Yes, this was a work of absolute art. It’s faithful to the book although it’s been a while since I re-read the books so I’m willing to bow to more fervent readers on this one. It was visually amazing and fun to watch. And we just about get to the part where Paul and Jessica escape Harkonnen cutthroats and get to the Fremen sietch for the first time before the fucking movie just fucking stops. And I don’t care if that’s a spoiler, you need to fucking know this is only half a movie and the other half might not even get made.

Although it probably will. I know I’m doing my part to pay for it, and I’ll definitely go and see it if and when it ever appears. I don’t know why this is a caption instead of a paragraph but maybe it will make sense when the review is actually completed? Either way, you probably read this in Drax’s voice so that’s something.
Fun Dune fact #2: Even Frank Herbert mispronounces “Harkonnen”, which I guess means I (and the ’80s movie from which I believe I got the pronunciation in the first place) are wrong but that doesn’t stop me from fucking hating the way they pronounce it in this movie.

So by all means, support this movie. Ambitious work like this should be rewarded, and it is absolutely beautiful. And I may be able to pick out a proper story arc on a second viewing, I don’t know. Mrs. Hatboy seemed satisfied that the journey of Paul Atreides had a clear path and ended at an important crossroads, so I will concede to her wisdom. And I know I’m exhibiting spoiled-audience crappiness here and demanding instant gratification. But … look, as long as they make the second part of the movie, it’ll be fine.

I’d still have preferred to watch five-and-a-half hours of complete story rather than the almost-three-hours of stunningly gorgeous prologue that we got. But I am definitely going to be in a minority with that take.

Speaking of stunningly gorgeous … fun Dune fact #3: Paul was supposed to be a girl so (s)he could marry Sting (I mean Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen). But Jessica loved Leto so much she gave him a son instead. I suspect Sting would have shrugged and made the best of it.

This movie is a beautiful piece of art that deserves to be encouraged. I’m perfectly happy throwing money and support at it. But part of what annoys me about this whole thing is, when Luc Besson made Valerian, he knew his movie had to be a proper narrative with a beginning, middle and end, and so he was forced to make a butchered mess of a much bigger story for the sake of getting it out there. And it failed, and we can only hope that failure didn’t completely and finally poison that particular creative branch.

But how amazing could he have made it, if he’d gone this way with it and just created a lovely, incomplete tapestry and gone “here it is, if it makes enough money maybe I’ll finish it”? Imagine that in a French accent. There you go.

This isn’t Villeneuve’s fault. I give him a lot of credit for the ballsy approach. But it’s a symptom of the corporate, capitalist stranglehold that is destroying art.

I loved what they did with Max von Sydow, by the way. For real, Liet-Kynes was always a favourite minor character of mine and this was a cool interpretation of the role, well acted.

This movie is not this generation’s Lord of the Rings. Or if it is, it’s the animated movie that was made the year I was born: half a movie, with an unceremonious cut-off and an intended sequel that never quite ended up happening. Here’s to hoping Villeneuve’s Dune doesn’t suffer the same fate.

One thing I can say for sure though, the perfo

[to be continued (…?)]

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The Dinosaur Four: A Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


Next up on Team Space Lasagna’s plate is The Dinosaur Four, by Geoff Jones.

For some hilarious reason this book was misattributed as “time travel dinosaur erotica” among the SPSFC reviewers and as such we have all been looking forward to reading it. As it happens, we were right to be anticipating it – but not because it was a titillating carnal romp through the Cretaceous era. I mean, what would that even be like? Maybe Jones can take up his pen and get to work on that, because apparently reviewers be horny.

But no. What we got was goddamn brilliant and make no mistake, I was far happier that the leprous hadrosaurs didn’t fuck anyone.

What am I talking about and why am I still making it weird?

The Dinosaur Four opens in the Daily Edition Café where Lisa, the owner, is soliloquising about taxes and liquor licenses and the absurdity of being allowed to sell alcohol before you can drink it. The barista, Beth, flirts briefly with a delivery man named William and makes reference to his large package. Please keep in mind, at this point I still thought I was reading erotica so I had a really solid idea of where this was heading. The only question in my mind was whether William was a Chuck-Tinglian T-Rex delivery man with abs for days, or Beth was going to turn out to be a saucy Madame Vastra type. Or both, to the lyrical but total detriment of the protagonist’s ass.

Anyway, that didn’t happen.

The café, along with a fun little crowd of positively Stephen-King-worthy employees and customers, is abruptly transported to the distant past where they all get absolutely fucking bodied by dinosaurs (not in that way) for a couple of hundred pages.

It’s fucking glorious.

I was, as I said, immediately reminded of Stephen King – specifically The Mist, The Langoliers, and other neatly contained dramas. My initial thought was that maybe King would make more compelling or grimy characters more instantly identifiable and distinctive (Tim remained something of a nonentity for a while but – and this is the great bit – I’m pretty sure he was meant to), but there’s no shame in being out-grimy-charactered by Stephen King. However, as I read on, I realised that Jones had actually just gone a more slow-burn and subtle road with his protagonists. They may not have been as gross, but they were all just as distinctive and – if anything – more relatable, making everything that much more horrific.

I can’t say much more without spoiling various plot points and revelations, so I won’t – except to say that Lisa could probably have remembered and mentioned certain things a bit sooner and more readily than she did, and to wonder whether I missed a part that explained how “invisibility cloak” became “time travel” – was the former just a cover and I just missed the discarding of said cover? Anyway, read the book and you’ll see what I mean.

The characters were really great. Don’t be discouraged by the take-off – once they’re airborne, they really soar. Patricia is a giant Karen, Callie and Hank are a complete goddamn train wreck, and Al … Jesus Christ, Al. But for me, perhaps my favourite part of the story was just when you start thinking things are going to settle down for the Act III coast, and one of the characters … how to put this? They give their little group a name and it’s not the name of the book and you realise things are about to get so much worse.

Very good. Very, very good.

Sex-o-meter

For all the sweet-to-gross spectrum of human interpersonal relations taking place in this story, the horniest thing in it was the triceratops. Am I right? *goes up for high five and is left hanging, and deservedly so*. Fuck it. I guess my point is there wasn’t really any sex in this. Two desperately sad and awkward mother-shamed Al-boners from accidentally-on-purpose side-boob contact while hugging out of a possible five. I would have awarded it one desperately sad and awkward mother-shamed Al-boner from accidentally-on-purpose side-boob contact while hugging, but I just remembered that the T-Rex does in fact eat a giant bag of ticks, so there’s that. And no, that wasn’t a typo.

Gore-o-meter

Amazing. No notes. Four and a half flesh-gobbets out of five. I’m still giving us a final half-gobbet to fill out if an absolute fucking bloodbath crosses my Kindle because recalibrating the gore-o-meter isn’t cheap and I’m doing these reviews for free, but something tells me we’re not going to get much more gory than this one.

WTF-o-meter

This is a time travel adventure with a solid dose of causality and timeline-crossing and all of that. It would be weird if it didn’t register on the WTF-o-meter. One thing I was really interested in at the start of the story was how gross and diseased the dinosaurs were, and for a while I wondered if that was a plot point that was going to end up being significant. But I think in the end it just turned out to be a gritty, realistic look at how fucking disgusting giant feathery lizards would actually be, with an emphasis on the stuff we tend to sanitise out of our dinosaur lore. Jones is clearly an enthusiast and he’s done his research. I give The Dinosaur Four an Al’s mother out of a possible Toomey’s father (and that’s not as minor a reading as you might think).

My Final Verdict

Glorious. Just fantastic. I have no more words. Okay I lied; five stars.

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The Elcy Protocol: A Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


This week for SPSFC I also reviewed The Elcy Protocol, by Bave Grozdanov.

This here book is a real chonker. I was thrown by the fact that I was working with a Kindle e-book, and it seemed to be taking forever to get anywhere. But that was just because the book had so many pages. Which was fine, because they were quality pages and I admire a thick juicy slab of bookmeat even if in this case it was conceptual meat on account of it being electronic. Plus, I was drawn in by the charming premise and fun characters, so I didn’t notice the (semi-illusory) drag until I was hooked. Great opening.

Yes, this story has an excellent premise and a really interesting protagonist, namely the erstwhile Elcy – formerly the rugged, almost literally loose cannon battleship Light Seeker, an old AI monster that retired from the seemingly perpetual war of Grozdanov’s narrative and was downloaded into an artificial biomech human body so she could look after the son of her former Captain. Some decades later, said child is now a grumpy old man and Elcy returns to active service – as a permanently skinny young adult human female this time – by way of cadet boot camp.

See what I mean about the opening and premise?

I was far more interested in seeing Elcy interact with her “fellow” humans than I was in reading about her previous incarnation as a battleship, and as the narrative skipped back and forth a little jarringly between past and present storylines, it got a bit annoying. Especially since the jumps back and forth felt designed to tantalise and frustrate (and look, for all I know they were, and that was well done). The date-stamp on each part was useful but difficult to keep track of in detail, and with the addition of straight-up segments of redacted memory, it became even more fragmented and strange.

However, all of this gradually (over an extended exploration-sequence; like I said, this was a hefty boi of a book) begins to fall into place and the secrets and restricted memories are unwrapped in a really interesting way. The ultimate point of the whole thing was almost an afterthought, though – almost a McGuffin but not even that big a deal – and I wonder if it’s going to be explored in further stories because it didn’t quite make an effective conclusion to this one.

Now, I’m one of those weird readers who don’t really care about that sort of thing, as long as the setting is good. And I’m not saying the plot arcs and endings weren’t there, or weren’t up to snuff. Another reader might be able to pick them out and appreciate them more. They just didn’t resonate with me in such a way as to justify the length of the journey. But the journey, for me, was really the point. I was interested enough in Elcy as a character, and in her interactions with humans, and in the backdrop of this weird Starship Troopers[1] forever-war version of humanity’s future, to such an extent that I didn’t really care about the narrative’s climax being arguably not-quite-explosive.

At one point Elcy reflects on humanity making contact with a third alien species (they already know two), and how the immediate result would be a third war front getting set into place. That was fascinating for what it said about that human civilisation, as well as the fact that – well, yeah, this is a battleship talking. Of course that would be her first move. And yet, Elcy herself doesn’t seem aggressive, despite her admittedly aggressive responses in a lot of situations.

The interstellar empire of humanity, even at the time when Elcy was a battleship, numbered “two quintillion people” and was at war with two separate alien civilisations. I was resigned, by halfway through the book, to never finding out what the Cassandrians or the Scuu actually were. Maybe that was the point. We may have been looking at the entire story through a keyhole, but it seemed like nobody made any effort, ever, to do anything but go to war with these alien races.

I was charmed by Elcy’s personality and behaviour. It read, to my completely inexperienced and non-clinical mind, like an examination of a neurodivergent personality forced to deal with normies. Her relationship with Sev was interesting but never really explored in a way I would have enjoyed seeing, as I was expecting Grozdanov to make some point about what a disastrous (or beneficial) guardian for a human child a battleship would be, and what it had done to Sev developmentally.

Overall the length of the book made it seem to drag when it didn’t (necessarily), but the only really noticeable part I felt was too long was the antagonist’s monologue at the end. Too many moving parts, built up over an admittedly impressive narrative, requiring too much explanation.

Fuck it, let’s go to the meters.

Sex-o-meter

No sex. Elcy is distilled down into the bio-synthetic body of a roughly teenage girl so as to provide a big sister figure to Sev, and then she just stays that way. The Elcy Protocol gets a C-3PO Human Cyborg Relations out of a possible Bender Bending Rodriguez. If you have a thing for barefoot girls in sci-fi, you might coax a C-3PO Human Cyborg Relations with a red forearm for no reason out of the sex-o-meter, but I don’t know why you’d bother abusing a delicate piece of scientific equipment for this.

Gore-o-meter

Not much gore either. There are space battles and a plentiful body-count, but not much in the way of up-close and personal. One flesh-gobbet out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

The Elcy Protocol scores well here, on account of the sheer Banksian fun of the AI spaceships and their different levels of interaction, as well as the funky surreal nature of the “third contact”, the cobalt symbols and the fractal what-have-yous. It was all very visually nice to read, and combined with the flashback structure and the concept of memory as military industrial complex property, it made for a decidedly strange story. The WTF-o-meter gives this book a pair of sandals lying on a table out of a possible Memory Restriction Imposed.

My Final Verdict

The nature of memory and reality, privacy and free will are all called into question in this story. The main plot, of exploration and revelation of an alien intelligence, is truly secondary to whatever was going on with Elcy and her place in society. Bittersweet ending, but for the twists and turns in this story there doesn’t seem any resolution, nothing that really presents itself as a climax or revelation. Three stars!

 


[1] The book, not the movie.

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The View From Infinity Beach: A Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


Our next SPSFC review is The View From Infinity Beach, by R. P. L. Johnson.

This story had a nicely gripping start, although I have to say the main reason I continued to angry-read the first few chapters was because of how obnoxious the young adults of Excalibur Station were. I just plain didn’t want Kade to be friends with any of them, but I’m coming to recognise this as a symptom of my own encroaching cantankerous-old-cuntness, rather than any flaw in the writing. On the contrary, the characters were well written and plotted.

Left to right: Nikki the popstar, John the resourceful nerd, Kade the only person who was brought up right, Lizzie the severely judgement impaired athlete-type, and Lawrence the rich braggart with a heart of gold (somewhere, occasionally; may be subject to backslides).
Look, I watched it with my kids, okay? And it’s not a 1:1 analogy, but … if you know, you know.

So, this interesting but annoying start was enough to get us to the main point of the story, which was that the asteroid belt mining company community were working on a hollow-asteroid habitat concept on an awe-inspiring scale, and the parasitic Earthbound “ruling class” were out to take it for themselves.

While the worldbuilding and sociopolitical setup (not to mention the strange asteroid at the focus of it all) is a little reminiscent of The Expanse, Johnson avoids too much of the unfortunately hard-to-avoid “Earther vs. Belter” similarities that come with the territory these days. I’d say that while it is very much its own thing, The View From Infinity Beach is also a sufficiently entertaining entry in the asteroid belt mining future sub-subgenre to appeal to people who enjoyed That Other Series That’s Everywhere.

Myself, I was already interested in this one because of the cover, and the nostalgia for Rendezvous With Rama that it kindled.

The action was nicely done, with some real menace and an excellent sense of what was at stake. Even if the main villain was somewhat overblown, one might also argue that it’s impossible to really overblow something like this. And it was very satisfying to read.

The interpersonal drama with the young characters was set up a little clumsily. Really, Lawrence shat me to tears (by the time he improved it was too late, I had already decided I was never going to like him) and the most annoying thing about him was that Lizzie seemed completely oblivious to it, and that kind of reflected poorly on the overall work. Not only did it come hazardously close to the “women always like jerks” involuntary-celibate mantra and cheap jock-at-school tropeyness (a tropeycal copypasta with incelery, if you will), but ultimately it didn’t have much bearing on the story or the characters so there was neither justification nor payoff. It was just antagonism for the sake of antagonism, when there was plenty of that coming from the actual antagonists. Not to mention the far more compelling relationship dynamic between John and the other kids.

But anyway, that was a minor thing.

I really enjoyed the built-in alteration to the laws of physics that came with the coriolis effect inside the space stations, and how it was written into the story’s action scenes. I don’t know enough about the actual laws of physics to say this is or is not how things would actually go in a spin-gravity habitat, but since I don’t know, I’m going to say it was fine and I liked it.

Aside from some occasional editorial issues (at one point a character was barraged with “a bullet of bullets”, which was actually quite amusing) and a bit of odd pacing and scene-changing (the first encounter at Kera and the ending of that sequence and the kids’ escape and return to Excalibur seemed to happen off-page, unless my Kindle flicked past it for some reason), the whole narrative was really nicely constructed and had an excellent, nicely relentless pace.

Sex-o-meter

We didn’t really get any sex in the story, and that’s fine – it was essentially a young adult adventure so aside from a bit of teen hormone drama and male gazery, there wasn’t anything full-on. And that made sense. Let’s award this one gym sock that could be crusty for entirely innocent (but still kind of gross) reasons out of a possible entire American Pie movie franchise with extra Stiflers.

Gore-o-meter

There’s a few firefights, an honest-to-goodness Ripley fight in an industrial mover suit, a bit of mob violence and collateral murderings, but all in all this isn’t really a gory one. Two flesh-gobbets out of a possible five for The View From Infinity Beach.

WTF-o-meter

Not much WTF in this story either, like I say it was a nice take on the asteroid belt mining future concept and not one with a built-in WTF thread like some giants of the sub-subgenre. And it didn’t need one, since the solid science and human endeavour of it was the point, and more than made up for any lack. I’ll give this story a half-filled ammo clip of bullets out of a possible bullet of bullets on the WTF-o-meter.

My Final Verdict

This was a fun read, all its issues were relatively minor and were definitely forgivable in light of the excellent concepts and engaging action. There was a classic wartime feel to the Molly Moore “mascot” that I  really dug, and the ending of the story and its overall message was honestly uplifting. Pure human gold. I’m giving it a solid three stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.

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Mindguard: A Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


Next up we have Mindguard, by Andrei Cherascu.

I had fun reading this story, which was a very interesting and page-turning adventure with some compelling characters and fascinating sci-fi tech. Tamisa, highly-trained living-weapon soldier of the Interstellar Federation of Common Origin’s Enforcement Unit, was sufficiently reminiscent of a Legionary of Moros to tickle my nostalgia bone and enjoy reading about her struggles.

The story centres around a team of private security specialists – Bodyguards and Mindguards, for the physical and telepathic safety of the client – and their efforts to get a person carrying sensitive information through a gauntlet of hostile environments and a space-fascist-y government under the heel of a military wing long since gone rotten. Every side in the story has its own secrets and every motivation has its own complexities, and I was left wondering who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. Ultimately, I suppose the lesson was that things are never that simple. And I like that.

Our characters’ journey takes us through one of the most dangerous “deserts” in the human interstellar empire – I really enjoyed the concept of lawless or otherwise contested regions of space being deserts, by the way. Telepathy and teleportation / portal use are relatively commonplace. Also there’s a planet (or part of a planet) of space lepers, which is great. No notes.

A few things didn’t make sense to me as I was reading. The uploaded-consciousness thing was cool and all, but if it was a new discovery how was it much of a carrot for Sheldon? He could have (and probably should have) just refused to take the mission, and waited for the technology to become common. He’d waited this long, what’s a little longer? Go public with the knowledge and wait for his turn. Still, I suppose it was tightly controlled and exclusive and – well, we needed the plot to happen. I also wasn’t sure what was going on with Tamisa’s phobia of her own beauty. Was it a veiled method of talking about how attractive she was, or was it a clever way of showing her mental damage after growing up on rape planet? Why not both?

Getting busted for shaving her head was kind of stupid, and the lesson (learn to embrace your advantages, in this case do the va-va-voom trope and be all beautiful and stuff) was a bit on the nose. I think her arc from victim and escapee from rape planet to relationship-haver with Villo with occasional head-smashing outbursts was more than enough without adding that additional facet to it. But fine. It’s there. Incidentally, I was convinced as soon as Villo turned up that he was definitely going to betray Tamisa by the end and they would have a fight and be evenly matched and predictable and then she would win by being unpredictable. I’m still not sure if I’m relieved or disappointed by what happened. Why not both?

The action ticked along nicely and there were enough twists and turns for it to be compelling. The chapter introduction-texts either added rich background or tantalising snippets of what was coming up in the story without spoiling what was happening, and I liked that. Thomas Anderson’s showdown with the Millers around the mid-point was fun and tense, marking the point of the story at which I really started to get invested and leaving me uncertain what was about to happen, and who I wanted it to happen to. Why not b– oh.

I was a little put off by the fact that all the female characters were described in great detail while the male characters (aside from Maclaine ‘Mac’ Ross and his bigness and tight shirts) were barely described at all. A notable exception being Horatio, who – well I still don’t know what he looked like, but oh boy, his problems have got problems, don’t they? That fuckin’ guy, man. Nicely written.

The finale, tying together the action and intrigue and motivations of the main players, revealing a very satisfying mystery and even tying the leper planet back into it, is top-notch. Maybe a little over-extended, but definitely nice. I was left wanting to see what our heroes and anti-heroes did next, and that’s never a bad thing.

Sex-o-meter

Aside from gross rape planet (I joke, but the ugly events and culture on Tamisa’s former homeworld are really only alluded to in order to provide a backdrop, it’s not all that explicit) and incidents thereon, there’s a couple of sex scenes and a bit of skin-crawling nastiness from Horatio but none of it’s particularly graphic. I’ll give it a single sexual-performance-enhancing body-modification and two-thirds of a deep-seated emotional instability out of a possible … uh, Horatio.

Gore-o-meter

We get some excellent fights, killings, and police brutality. People’s heads are reduced to barely-recognisable lumps after their attackers lose track of how many times they’ve bashed them with whatever, which is something I always look for in a beat-down. Three-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

Like I was saying, the reader is treated to some excellent sci-fi concepts and a lot of good world-building in this book. But I wouldn’t say there was much in the way of WTF to contend with. The Opus Caine was something of a WTF, and there were some great psychic moments, but I was rather expecting more of that sort of thing, in a story that seemed like the telepathy version of a bodyguard adventure. Even so, it was fine. I’ll give Mindguard a diving sideways in slow-motion shouting “NOOOOO” out of a possible doing all that only in your mind.

My Final Verdict

Three stars for Mindguard on the Goodreads / Amazon scale. Not much more to say, this was an enjoyable read with some great characters. Also Horatio was there.

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Primordial Threat: A Review

This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.


Next one on our list for this week was Primordial Threat, by by M. A. Rothman.

Only after reading this book, I found that Rothman has some impressive connections and endorsements from well-known traditional authors, and that this book is a hundreds-of-reviews-bearing bestseller in its own right. Rothman is, but for a foolish trip-up of fate and a critical blunder of the traditional publishing machine, a traditional bestselling author slumming it with the lowly self-pubs.

But none of that really matters. He’s done everything right in this book, and he deserves the acclaim he’s gotten. Before discovering any of these things about him I had already read, and thoroughly enjoyed, his story. And so all I can do is sing its praises. I just don’t carry a tune particularly well so bear with me.

This exciting and engaging tale of global impending Armageddon (it really did have a Deep Impact on me and I’d read it 2012 times … okay sorry, but what you have to remember about those movies is, they were fucking great and this would be at least as good and Emmerich should absolutely make it after he’s finished with Moonfall) is backed up with some storybook but otherwise intriguingly solid science, or at least science-fiction, which is why we’re here after all. We are introduced to our main characters and they’re all highly distinctive and readable in their own ways.

The main protagonists of the story are a primordial black hole that’s about to destroy the solar system, a bunch of apocalyptic doomers who want it to happen (of course), and Greg. Fucking Greg, I swear to God. Look, not to spoil it but someone should have shot Greg in the face the first time he made a cunt of himself. Shot him right in the face, and replaced him with a packet of macaroni wearing a hat. Then the worst character would have been the black hole.

This book definitely feels like a product of its time. The breakdown of (admittedly stupid and ignorant) people’s trust in science, and the pandemic of the early 2020s has convinced me that this story, ultimately, would not have worked. It’s fiction, in its purest and most optimistic form (in fact, it sounds very like the book written by John Cusack’s character in 2012, which adds a layer of fun to it). Nobody would believe the scientists – or enough people wouldn’t – and the politicians would not stop being self-serving, and the operation would tank, and we would all die. And that’s good. We deserve to. Rothman had better get busy writing more books because this wasn’t enough to convince me of the general worthwhile-ness of humanity.

We are treated to some very satisfying scenes as the end-of-the-world scenario plays out. We see actual leadership and selflessness, to a degree that bordered on the political porn of Designated Survivor. None of this would actually happen but it’s so fun to pretend it would. This book is about Earth being threatened by a rogue black hole and the most unbelievable thing about it is the number of people who aren’t giant pieces of shit. That’s where we’re at right now, folks.

I did have to ask, why wasn’t the same tech being used (quite aside from the fact that it was all hidden and under wraps) to send out evacuation colonies or just exploration teams in every damn direction? Seems like, yes, we had a quite literal “all the eggs in one basket (and also the entire farm and every chicken capable of laying eggs that has ever and will ever exist)” situation going on, and only a very fixed amount of specific resources (ie. graphene), but a lot of parallel projects could have happened. That would probably have added unnecessary threads to the plot, but maybe we could have done it instead of the cop thread? I mean, the cop thread was fine but it didn’t super tie into the rest of the story. Meh. Oh well.

The series of events surrounding “Frank”, and their emergency fallback power supply, was all a little bit out-there but damn it, I liked it. It allowed a bit of high-stakes tension with the Brotherhood and still gave us the Great Big Sci-Fi we love to see. Yes, this was all really enjoyable and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. While it could be tweaked, it was really fine. I look forward to the movie.

Sex-o-meter

Some babies are born, which (I’m no scientist but) to me suggests that there might have been some people having The Sex. But seriously, there’s not really time for sex in this story. The world’s about to end, people! Fuck later. Jesus Christ. I’ll give this book a Bambi out of a possible Thumper on the ol’ sex-o-meter.

Gore-o-meter

A whole bunch of deaths, some angry mob action, a guy loses a couple of fingers and the fabric of space-time gets torn a new arsehole, but ultimately this isn’t a gory one. One flesh-gobbet out of a possible five for Primordial Threat.

WTF-o-meter

There’s classic WTF of a big golden-age sci-fi quality in this book. No wonder Niven and Benford and Anderson like this, it’s the sort of stuff they write – and it’s at least as good, in my opinion. Maybe even better. Megaengineering, and huge cosmic stakes. These aren’t so much true WTFs, but it makes for a fantastical and escapist read that was really enjoyable. There’s inspiring WTFery of the “could space really do this to us?” variety (the answer is yes, yes it could, without even looking up from its metaphorical sudoku), and exciting WTFery of the “could human science really achieve this?” variety (the answer is … ehh … no, not really, but it’s fucking neat), and horrifying WTFery of the “are people really like this?” variety (I think we all know the answer to this one). I’ll give it a Ringworld and a Rama out of a possible Bowl of Heaven.

My Final Verdict

An interesting and imaginative story with a very cathartic ending for those readers (I would like to think it’s most of us, at this point) who are frustrated with evangelical doomsday cultists and their apparent desire to just fucking kill everyone. My initial instinct was to give Primordial Threat four and a half stars. I want to elevate that to five purely because of the simple and beautiful relationship between Dave and Bella. After finding out more about the story’s background and advantages, my next instinct was to deduct again, but that’s completely unfair of me. My unbiased and open-eyed take on this story was five stars, and five stars is what it gets. Excellent job and a really good read.

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