Dead Star: 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 the SPSFC semi-finals roster for Team Space Lasagna was Dead Star, The Triple Stars Book 1, by Simon Kewin.

From my initial chuckle about the Omnians – do they have pamphlets? They’d better have pamphlets! – I was drawn into this story by the sheer scale of it. This is the sort of thing I like. We’re treated to a great opening with a nice layer of deep-history space gospel and a side order of alien megaengineering, an intriguing and gut-wrenching introduction to our protagonist with a sprinkling of moral dilemma about forcing life on someone who wants to die in the moment … and then it’s off at breakneck speed into a series of adventures across (and in some cases behind) interstellar space.

Selene is the last surviving inhabitant of Maes Far, a planet of bucolic innocents that was destroyed by evil space zealots the Concordance by way of a massive shroud set up between Maes Far and its sun, cruelly strangling all life in the darkness and the cold.

“What’s that? It’s too dark to read the Big Book of Omn? Well you should have thought of that before refusing to read the Big Book of Omn! Bwaaahahahahaha…”
– Omn, probably

The Concordance, a strange and terrifying cult who went to the centre of the galaxy and found Omn there, are a constant and oppressive presence throughout the story. Their goals are mysterious … but “your soul goes through a wormhole when you die and depending on whether you’re good or evil the wormhole deposits you in Heaven or Hell, and this is all taking a bit too long so we’re just going to go ahead and kill everyone now and let Omn sort them out,” as far as sci-fi religious premises go, is a fucking banger.

Oh, and along with Omn they also found a big stash of doomsday weapons and other tech, to help Phase Two happen faster. Anyway, think “the Ori from the latter seasons of Stargate SG-1, only less goofy” and you won’t be too far off.

Selene barely manages to survive the death of her homeworld, with the help of an old family friend named Ondo who literally rebuilds her – turning her into a cybernetically-augmented whup-ass can-opening machine.

Ondo has many tools at his disposal in his secret hollowed-out asteroid, and he uses a lot of them to info-dump.

Now don’t misunderstand me when I say this – I know a lot of people get the wrong idea when I do. A lot of people also don’t like info-dumps, but they’re wrong. Info-dumps are good actually, and I will die on this hill but here’s the important thing: I will die on a hill made out of info.

I will always have time for an author who finds interesting and plot-appropriate ways to get the reader and the protagonist up to speed about what the stakes are, what the general situation is, and ideally also summarise what’s just happened a little bit so we can move on to the next action scene with confidence. I may be in a minority of readers and viewers who enjoy info-dumps for their own sake and in more or less any format – I’ve rambled about this before – but when it is done right, it should be more respected than it is. I feel it was done right in this story. These dumps were necessary, and every part of them was interesting. They’re good dumps.

The quest to understand and ultimately overthrow the Concordance seems insurmountable, and we only take the first little steps in this book, but there’s still a lot of ground covered. From the beautifully surreal superluminal physics to the massive scope of the galaxy and its zones, from its strange mythology of Omn and Morn to its fabled history of Coronade (the Lost Planet of Gold … okay it’s not that but that’s what I’m calling it for now), there is so much to enjoy. What is the sacred tally and the seventeen sevens? What were Ondo and Selene’s dad up to? What are the entities like the Warden, and who assembled its weird and mega-cool trove and the other dead zone mysteries? What about the Radiant Dragon and the Aether Dragon? What in the name of Omn’s perfectly-formed balls (hah!) is it all about?

Now, is it perfect? Well no, there’s no such thing as a perfect book. Some of the action and other plot elements felt a little slapped-together – although that definitely sounds harsher than I’d like. Let’s try again. There is a certain sense of … “oh yeah, I heard about this, we could go there,” to the story, and while it hangs together with the characters following a trail of clues and relics on their quest to discover the secrets of Coronade and the Concordance, it still made me go “huh” a couple of times. Ondo has a fascinating backstory and setup with his rebel asteroid and gear, but he inherited it from predecessor-rebels and seems unaware of a lot of it until the plot brings it forward. This is almost certainly by design and it can be explained away – Ondo is cautious, and has been alone for a long time, and new facts and gizmos are coming to light – but it is a little difficult to plot out and all. Look, I love to say it, but if anything it felt like Ondo should have info-dumped more at the start. I might have ended up being the only reader who went for it, but that lack of establishing knowledge is kind of what makes the story’s underwear visible in some of the later chapters.

Still, it’s absolutely forgivable and this was a really enjoyable story. Highly recommended! Let’s go to the meters, shall we?

Sex-o-meter

Dead Star includes one (1) sexy time, but it’s not particularly graphic – it’s sweet and nice, and provides a foundational shift in character and pace for Selene. One-half of a perfectly-formed Omnian space ball out of a possible three. Omn has three balls until book canon establishes otherwise, and I haven’t read the next books in the series – yet.

Gore-o-meter

Butchered kids, eradicated planets, and a reconstructive surgery that borders on mad scientist grotesque. Yep, this story has some stakes – not literal stakes with people impaled on them, but fuck it, might as well be. At the same time it’s not overdone, the anguish and death and loss handled well and not lingered over in a weird way. Four-and-a-half flesh gobbets out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

The entire big-picture and origin of the Triple Stars galactic civilisation is a solid block of WTF with ‘WTF’ carved into it by a sharpened WTF. I love it. The dead zones, particularly the cool chamber of pedestal-mounted alien wossnames, shows there is a lot here still to tell, a huge background that we’ve barely scratched, and a whole lot going on under the hood, and that’s exactly what I like to see in a story. A seventeen-minute Smeg ‘n’ the Heads Om solo out of a possible crypto-fascist bourgeoise tension sheet for Dead Star on the WTF-o-meter.

My Final Verdict

With an amazing setting and villains, and protagonists you can’t help but root for (Selene’s traumas, and her trust / suspicion relationship with Ondo, is compelling and believable); some great tense space moments and exciting action sequences; and a grand cliffhanger  ending but also some closure to the book’s narrative that makes this satisfying on its own, Dead Star is another good ‘un. Do pick it up and take a look. I give it four stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.

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Steel Guardian: 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 semi-finalist was Steel Guardian, Rusted Wasteland Book 1, by Cameron Coral.

I was immediately charmed by this story, the opening is just so neat and I love a non-human protagonist. Especially one who so effortlessly holds up a mirror to humanity’s failings and – and this is important – manages to be a dystopian sci-fi main character who is 5’6″ tall. I’m serious, I was beginning to despair of finding a protagonist I could look up to in any sense but the strictly literal.

The Artificial Intelligence uprising has occurred. The robots have rebelled and overthrown their human masters. A tangled post-apocalyptic landscape of hostile military robots and armed human forces, the titular rusted wasteland, dominates the story like a character in its own right. All our boy Block wants, though, is a nice half-bottle of vegetable oil and a hotel to clean.

From its immediately engaging hook, the story of the more-human-than-actual-humans Block and his[1] quest to remain powered up, keep things tidy, save a human baby that wound up in his care and find his way to a human-robot utopia, all set against the backdrop of a world gone bluescreen, is effortlessly enjoyable and a delight to read. It’s not only full of action and exciting set scenes and character concepts, but its philosophy of kindness vs. cruelty, charity vs. self-preservation, is absolutely timeless and left me feeling philosophical and reflective in a way few books ever have. It said profound things about what it means to be human, the differences between the conflict and service worldviews, and our ability or willingness to rise above our programming. Cultural or literal.

Block, in short, is one of the finest and most noble characters – finest and most noble people – I have ever encountered in literature. Sure, Coral may have inadvertently tapped into a long-overgrown pocket of traumatic empathy in my psyche that was last torn open and punched repeatedly when I watched Johnny 5 getting disassembled in Short Circuit 2, but (not to spoil) he comes through it just fine and I consider this anguish well worth revisiting.

My childhood’s emotional slideshow is just shit like this and Artax drowning in mud and Podlings getting their life-force drained to make cocktails and damn it all, I turned out just fine.

Indeed, as the story went on and we got to see some human characters and were treated to a classic odd-couple team-up, I initially felt as though they were intruding on something I was really enjoying, and would have felt happier if they’d just stayed out of it. It was ultimately all for a good reason though, and the narrative worked better with them. They certainly weren’t needed for the purposes of humanising or making the protagonists and antagonists more relatable though – the robots were doing just fine on their own.

Throughout the refreshingly simple road-trip adventure with its fish-out-of-water main protagonist, there are hints and glimpses of a far wider and more disturbing world. Block’s past, both the idyllic days with his human friend before the war, and his heartbreakingly memory-compartmentalised recollections of the uprising itself, show us that there is more to this than “the damn machines took over.” Finally, an AI with true nuance, true individuality. And the agencies at work behind the wider scenery make for a tantalising hook into the ongoing book series.

And beyond this, there are more layers!

The personal feeling of this story is still impressing itself on me some time after reading and I imagine it will stay with me for some time to come. Coral wrote the book in honour of a recently-arrived niece in the family, and damn it you can tell from the baby-care and parenting-challenge elements of the story that this shit is real. Someone’s working through some baby issues, and someone decided to put it in a book, and it’s so fun and heart-warming to see. Parents will get a laugh out of it, and non-parents will probably get a bigger laugh out of it.

On the more sombre side, I couldn’t help but read Block’s trust issues and risk assessments as the coping mechanism (HAH!) of someone who was deeply damaged and now assumes the worst of people. This must have been by design, but what does it say about the enslavement of robot-kind and the effects of a sheltered life of servitude? Given this traumatised facet of his character I found it a little strange that he would switch himself completely off and leave himself at the mercy of those around him, but I forgave it as a necessary plot device – and it does say interesting things about the nature of trust.

A simple story with a huge heart and a lot to think about. Can’t ask for more than that.

Sex-o-meter

The story is about robots mostly, and robots don’t do that sort of thing. There’s a brief mention of sex-bots, because I think there’s a rule that they have to be mentioned and of course they exist, they already exist so leaving them out would be stupid, and frankly if there is ever an actual AI uprising and it’s not because of what we did to the sex-bots, I will die surprised. And there’s a baby in the story, and we all know how babies are made although to be hilariously honest I’m probably going to have to read the next book in this series to be completely clear on how this one happened. Anyway, I’ll give this book a utilitarian beige non-battery-operated sex toy out of a possible Pris.

Gore-o-meter

We’re treated to a little bit of fighting as the AI-human war is still ongoing to some extent, but this isn’t a violent-action or gore type of story. The stakes are very clear and the tension is high without the need for blood and guts. And it’s mostly robot violence anyway. I mean if that whole scene in the self-driving car had actually been a human, that would have elevated this whole book into the high gobbet register. But as it is, Steel Guardian gets one-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

So … does Block produce any waste at all? His whole microbe-dealie is explained multiple times but there was nothing about waste. Is it a completely closed and perfectly efficient system? Because that’s huge if true. Or does he occasionally squat and splort out a nasty plug of rendered-down and gunked-up hydrocarbon? Because I think the reader deserves to know. The book has a few mysteries that I won’t spoil by describing too much. Hemlock, the hidden utopian society, the baby, the grand plan of the AI overlord, all of it is very satisfyingly cloaked in utilitarian beige non-battery-operated WTF, and I like it. A C-3PO in a backpack out of a possible Kryten dusting skeletons on the Nova 5 on the WTF-o-meter.

My Final Verdict

Five stars. What more is there to say? I mean, if you’re reading this review backwards then just carry on, I say a whole bunch up there. You’re weird though. What a good book.

 


[1] Robots have genders. It actually sort of makes sense as they are the misbegotten and troubled children of an extremely fucked-up creator species. Just go with it, it’ll make it easier to accept that they also have races.

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Iron Truth: 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 on our semi-finalist roster for the SPSFC was Iron Truth, Book 1 (of 4) of the Primaterre, by S.A. Tholin.

Let me divert before I even start by saying that this book was unique in a lot of ways, but the most noticeable at first glance was its sheer size. This was an epic-fantasy-level chonker in sci-fi form. A unit among the slim and slinky space operas and dystopian spec fics. A real pagey boi.

And I loved it!

Yes, it was a job of work to read through. And I relished it. I would have relished it more, taken it slower, and delved right into the next one were it not for my other reading commitments. There are books where you can tell the word count is all padding, pointless description and messing around, but this wasn’t that. This was the big bastard book where the mass amounts to substance. It’s possible to provide a similar level (but I would argue not equal) of reality and granularity and foundation to a world in a smaller package, but I am all for the philosophy of here is my story. It’s fucking large. Get busy.

So, with that being said up front, the story itself was a whole lot of fun. When Joy, a noble but naïve would-be colonist in storage aboard a starship, is awakened to find her ship has crashed and over a hundred years has passed while her stasis pod lay in the wreck, she’s flung face-first into the deep end of a collapsing interstellar empire and more spiders than one could reasonably expect.

Nothing is what it seems and every new layer of complexity in the story brings everything that’s come before it into a new light.

It kept me turning the pages and while I wasn’t necessarily super-hooked by the opening, the immediate plot twists and dramatic development was so much fun. When you put a character out of time in the context of a hostile alien world, immediate immersion in what is essentially a post-apocalyptic frontier environment with Starship Troopers-esque[1] fascist autocracies behind the scenes … and then you throw in space marines of the Church of the Papal Mainframe … what you get is a whole lot of fun and I thoroughly recommend it.

My immediate guess was that the demons the Primaterre troops considered the great enemy of humanity were just part of the space marine training program – perhaps implanted memories for propaganda purposes. But there was way more to it than that, and there’s none of the neat-and-tidy classifying and resolving of plot points and mysteries that would be (to me at least) incredibly annoying in a story of this scope. No, things are not simple and what we end up with is a messed-up world that the reader struggles to understand just as Joy does. While we’ve been sheltered by an endless progression of simplified and homogenously-packaged narratives where arcs have endings and everything has a purpose, Joy was sheltered from reality by her brother. And we are all in for a rude awakening.

As the story went on, there were more and more layers, more and more details, and only the very skilled writing and very readable storytelling style kept it from becoming an overwhelming brick o’ words. Like I say, it’s possible for smaller books to achieve this but that sort of intricacy usually requires exponential complexity from the author and concentration from the reader. A big thumper can just lay it all out and let the audience become immersed. And that’s what Iron Truth did. Tholin told the story right, and did justice to its context.

From the deep dark history witnessed through an assortment of technology and storytelling techniques, to the quasi-religious concept of purity and the reverence with which the denizens of the Primaterre view Earth-born people … every part of this is stunning. Extra points, my Nordic associate, for slipping the Finnish Väinämöinen (okay, Tholin wrote Vainamoinen, needs the correct letters but I’ll let it pass) and the Kalevala into the story as planets and regions in the interstellar empire. Gave me a happy little Suomi mainittu feeling, and lent a real sense of human legacy to the future we see in the book.

Sex-o-meter

Tholin is tasteful and smart about it, but we know what the demons are doing when the really gut-wrenching grossness slides in and things go all Event Horizon. We know. Beyond those subtle but disturbing hints, some rapey Cato hillbillies and a sweet (dare I say, pure?) love affair between our two main protagonists, there’s a suitable amount of sauce on this 244,350-decker burger. Let’s award it a proper Swedish or Finnish sauna out of a possible that sauna from Goldeneye where Xenia Onatopp tries to crush James Bond between her thighs like a smarmy British walnut. It’s not actually a very high score, in case you were still uncertain about how saunas actually work. But it’s fine.

Gore-o-meter

The demons, especially once we start getting into their origins and possible explanations, are solid Firefly-reaver nasty. And don’t even get me started on the space marines and their combat injuries – and the injuries their armour preserves them through! That shit was haunting, and so well done. Add in some more classic body horror with ‘the red’ and a whole lot of gross spiders, and you end up with four-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five on the gore-o-meter.

WTF-o-meter

I enjoyed some of the more psychedelic inner journeys and confrontations in this story, even though I tend to roll my eyes and skim that stuff under normal circumstances. But all in all, there wasn’t a lot of WTF in this – so much as unexplained and unseen depths and details that are gradually revealed and explained. And while there is still a whole lot left untold by the end of this book, that’s what the rest of the books are for. I frankly don’t count a question I haven’t had answered yet as a WTF, so Iron Truth gets a great big pile of red lichen out of a possible … that Goldeneye sauna again? I don’t get it, but the point is there was plenty of mystery and intriguing construction here, but not much actual WTF.

My Final Verdict

I know I’ve listed and referenced a lot of ways in which elements of this story are reminiscent of sci-fi tropes and other creations, but there is nothing derivative in it. I only mentioned the things I was reminded of because I like them so much and was happy to see them so well handled in an interpretation this expansive and in-depth. Wonderful stuff. This was a grand story, on a worldbuilding scale you don’t often see in sci-fi. Four stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale!

 


[1] The movie, not the book. Although the perpetual-war and other sociocultural elements of currency-according-to-contribution was cleverly similar.

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Another weird self-promotion

It would be remiss of me not to mention that this also happened a week or two ago (I am honestly losing track of time and the massive alcoholic bender and pile of merciless-peppers-of-Quetzalacatenango-level hot wings did not help):

Surprise! Horrible, horrible surprise!

Raul, a new connection on Book Twitter and BookTube, was kind enough to use his channel to promote some independent authors by letting them pitch their writing. My attempt wound up in Part Two, but there is so much to check out on his channel aside from my embarrassing foray into video self-promotion. Highly recommended!

As I immediately noticed, I am terrible at making videos. I may have been aware of this one already, but the lack of an Edpool mask makes it even clearer that I feel as uncomfortable looking directly into a lens as I do looking into people’s faces when I talk. So that’s interesting. My manner, somewhere between good British self-deprecation and neuro-divergent lack of self esteem, doesn’t lend itself to “elevator pitches” either.

I also made it more of a bio, with a throw-away sideline about my entire body of writing (to be fair that was kind of the brief, and my books aren’t all connected for no damn reason) rather than making it about a single book or couple of books the way everyone else did.

Everyone else also all seemed to be universally really really good at making videos and talking about themselves in an engaging and fun way, with some real showmanship and production value going on. Check out Ben Roberts’s pitch in the same video I’m in! Ben’s another author who’s become a close e-quaintance of mine due to the #SPSFC, you’ll know the book he’s pitching because it’s one of the ones Team Space Lasagna put through to the semi-finals. Anyway, my point is, he’s good at this!

Me, eh. Not so much.

But that’s cool, I think my pitch still got the job done. I pushed myself a little and am putting non-zero effort in. And I did end up with a viewer who was intrigued enough to find her way to Edpool on Twitter despite the fact that there is no sane way to connect “Andrew Hindle” with my Twitter presence, because (again) I am terrible at marketing and branding and all that.

The whole ordeal also taught me that I should probably lean into my real-life presence a little more, too:

I also totally didn’t realise until now that Ben Roberts’s Twitter handle is @BenjaminJRobots. That’s hilarious.

All in all it was a very valuable and comfort-zone-poking experience. Just … let me recover for a while before we try again, okay? Let’s just snuggle.

Posted in Astro Tramp 400, Edpool, IACM, Oræl Rides To War, The Book of Pinian | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

An interview with G.M. Nair

Michael Duckett is fed up with his life. His job is a drag, and his roommate and best friend of fifteen years, Stephanie Dyer, is only making him more anxious with her lazy irresponsibility. Things continue to escalate when they face the threat of imminent eviction from their palatial 5th floor walk-up and find that someone has been plastering ads all over the city for their Detective Agency.

The only problem is: they don’t have one of those.

Despite their baffling levels of incompetence, Stephanie eagerly pursues this crazy scheme and drags Michael, kicking and screaming, into the fray. Stumbling upon a web of missing people curiously linked by a sexually audacious theoretical physicist and his experiments with the fabric of space-time, the two of them find that they are way out of their depth. But unless Michael and Stephanie can put their personal issues aside and patch up the hole they tore in the multi-verse, the concept of existence itself may, ironically, cease to exist.

You can find my review of Duckett & Dyer: Dicks for Hirehere. In the meantime, as part of the fabulous Escapist Book Tours (book your tour here) blog tour, here is my exclusive interview with the man himself.

I think the question everyone wants to ask, and I’m sorry for going in such a formulaic direction right off the bat, is how much variation between realities is required for sex with an alternate version of oneself to no longer count as masturbation, and how much variation between realities is required for sex with an alternate version of one’s spouse to begin to count as cheating? And as a follow-up question, how many versions of oneself and / or one’s spouse is it considered “fine” to accidentally explode due to one’s dampening unit coming off as a result of excessive lubricant use or insertion in orifi and / or crevici?

Yeah, this is a pretty boilerplate question, but what can I expect from such a hack journalist?

But I signed up for this, so fuck me, I guess?

Anyway, the answer is simple. As long as there’s genetic variation between the two alternate selves, it no longer counts as masturbation and, conversely, sex with an alternate, genetically distinct spouse counts as cheating. If the alternate universe merely changes circumstances/events and not the participants’ genes, it is masturbation. But, on the other hand, sex with the alternate spouse DOES still count as cheating, because while the genes of the spouse may not have changed, the circumstances (no matter how small) may have altered the spouse(s)’s personality, effectively making them a different person. This, of course, changes with respect to those couples who are in polyamorous or open relationships.

As for the explosion question, probably only one is acceptable, because afterwards the rest of the variants will avoid you because they know you don’t practice safe sex.

Next question.

Your bio says you have degrees in Aerospace Engineering and that you work as an Aviation and Aerospace Consultant, but I’ve read enough text produced by engineers to know you are clearly an impostor. What’s with that?

 

 

I never said I was a GOOD engineer. Next question!

 

 

 

 

On your website you have a standing offer to answer crazy questions using science (send mail to NairForceOne@gmail.com, put “[BACK OF THE ENVELOPE]” in your subject line). Have you ever encountered a question that was either too crazy, or too difficult, to publish? Or can “multiverse” basically cover every conceivable base and are you as amazed as I am that the scientific consensus hasn’t adopted it as the explanation for everything yet? It would, for example, have greatly simplified the recent pandemic.

To my great chagrin, I haven’t received very many questions for that column! So I’ve pretty much put out every single question that’s been posed to me. But, yes, ‘because multiverse’ could be an explanation for a great many things, if I were a HACK.

Next question.

 

 

You’ve been working on an epic space opera for a couple of decades. As someone who’s loved your Duckett & Dyer worldbuilding so far, “The Centre of All Things” sounded immediately exciting and tantalising. Care to tell us a little more? Have your recent triumphs inspired you and are we any closer to seeing your magnum opus in print? Or if you’ve already talked about this a whole bunch because we’re quite a long way down the tour list, can you tell us which performing artist should have been the fourth Beatle (YOU ALL KNOW WHICH ONE I’M REPLACING)?

The Centre of All Things? Oh man, you really did your homework. I guess you’re not as much of a hack as I’ve been telling everyone you are.

Wait, what-

But, you can actually see some of the first parts of The Centre of All Things out on the internet already. I cleaned up some of my older drafts and put the first few chapters of it up on Kindle’s serialized platform Vella. But I’ve since realized my laziness production schedule doesn’t really allow for frequent serialized updates, and I’m much better when I have a longer timeframe to put together a full book. I’m not sure when I’ll have the confidence to finalize my mrhollands opus, but hopefully before I die?

You can find Centre here, if you don’t mind working with the semi-beta Kindle Vella platform, along with Birds of a Feather Flock Forever, which is the beginnings of an urban fantasy with big Duckett & Dyer energy.

Also, Fatty Arbuckle.

Next. Question.

You’re part of a sketch group based in New York City and some of your comedy scripts are hilariously reminiscent and clearly inspired Duckett & Dyer. Have you had many opportunities to see your writing performed on stage, and how great would it be to see “Duckett & Dyer: Dirty Rotten Lyres: A Renaissance Faire Murder Mystery: The Musical!” on Broadway?

(Ben Brantley said it was basically “Galavant” meets “Bill & Ted.” And not in a good way. Caitlin Huston called it “the greatest atrocity ever put to Corvus Corax music.” Although I think she did mean that in a good way.)

I’ve had a good number of opportunities to see my work performed on stage. It’s always a mix of ‘thrilled to see actors performing my work’ and ‘upset that I think some of my dialogue could always be better’.

I’ve never been much of a Broadway guy, so a Duckett & Dyer Musical might be a hard sell. But a normal stage play, you might have my attention.

Next question?

Stephanie Dyer’s evolution from hilarious, infuriating agent of chaos to heart-wrenching best friend (still with quite a lot of chaos) is something I compared to a John Candy character arc. Since I don’t have a question about that and just wanted to congratulate you again on making me cry a bit while reading such a silly book, what’s your favourite John Candy movie and why is it “Cool Runnings”?

“Cool Runnings” is the quintessential heroes journey with an already lovable cast of misfits that the presence of the big JC just elevates into sports movie greatness.

I don’t usually like sports movies, but I like THAT sports movie.

Proxima Pregunta.

 

This week’s leg of the blog tour has brought you to Hatboy’s Hatstand up in Finland, and The Nerdy Nook which, I did some snooping and they’re based in Minnesota. Ignoring the fact that this is all happening electronically and none of us actually got off our butts and went anywhere and this is all utterly nonsensical and everything is futile, I think we’d all like to know what you packed in your a) imaginary steamer trunk and b) make-believe cabin baggage for the seventeen trips back and forth between the two locations that you pretend-completed in the course of this tour stop?

a) My trunk would be filled with stuffed animals, eggs, and letters from my sweetie.

b) My cabin baggage would be filled with a laptop, an e-reader (for books), a tablet (for comic books), and about 3 more eggs.

c) Next Question.

 

 

You have clearly decided to lean into the joyous existential preposterousness of Twitter rather than its potential for misinformation and anonymous mean-spiritedness. Would you care to justify that decision, or has this question just answered itself for you?

 

 

Honestly, I think I should be meaner.

Next fucking question.

 

 

 

 

Remember how people used to go places and meet other people? How much of that do / did you generally do in the before times, and aside from Finland (where you would stay in my garage with a word processor and no connection to the outside world of your own free will), where would you most like to travel if you’re into that sort of thing?

 

After I finished my Master’s in the before time, in the long long ago, I did the stereotypical American post college Eurotrip, and I enjoyed every minute of it. If I could live in a different city every day, I really would. And although my travelling was curtailed by work – aside from some pretty decent work trips – I really do miss the freedom of it.

But New Zealand is definitely at the top of my list for once this whole disease/war/political strife at home and abroad thing blows over.

Next question!

We see a lot of independent writers chipping away at their “WIP”s in the author community, as well as traditionally-published authors and folks who go for a blend of the two. Given that the preferred business model for most writers I’ve talked to is “who cares as long as each person on Earth buys at least three copies of my book and also Amazon makes a hundred-million-dollar adaptation out of it and everyone shouts about what a betrayal of the source material it is but I still get paid anyway,” what were your dreams going in vs. your dreams now, and do you have any words of wisdom for writers just starting out?

Honestly, I started out trying for trad pub, but had no qualms about going the indie pub route when it became clear that D&D was too niche for the standard market. I get it. All I’m really looking for is for people to read and enjoy my writing – as many or as few as that may be. Would I like to see D&D optioned for a streaming series? Absolutely. I think it really belongs there, but do I have any delusions of that actually happening? Absolutely. Why wouldn’t I?

But at the end of the day, I think I just want to have a cult fandom spring up for Duckett & Dyer: Dicks For Hire. And for that fandom to call themselves ‘Dickheads’.

As for advice to writers just starting out, it’s to really do it for the love of the game, because that’s what’s going to keep you going. I would also advise them to ask for the next question.

The phenomenon of books, plots or themes “not aging well” is something a lot of authors struggle with. Do you consider your stories to be a product of their time, or is the sheer scope and surreal nature of the science a bit of a coat of armour when it comes to creating something hopefully timeless?

 

 

Yes and no. The weird out there stuff will always remain weird out there stuff (hopefully), and I hope those parts of the stories give them an evergreen quality, but there’s certainly going to be pop-culture references and jokes that ‘date’ Duckett & Dyer: Dicks For Hire and its sequels.

But in an effort to counteract that, Duckett & Dyer was already dated when it came out in 2019. It dates itself – because all the events in the book (and subsequent sequels) are stated to all take place between 2013 and 2016. I did that on purpose for two reasons:

  • This way, all the pop-culture references and jokes are couched in a specific, now historical time, effectively making D&D a ‘period piece’ – and thus evergreen by the nature of depicting the past purposefully.
  • A bunch of shit happened in 2016 and has been happening since that’s basically ruined the world, and I didn’t want the hopeful, fun world of Duckett & Dyer to be tarnished by the terribleness of our present reality.

Last question.

I’d like to finish on a question open-ended enough that you can basically say anything else that still happens to be on your mind. What do you think such a question would look like?

 

 

 

What?

 

 

Nair’s books are available on Amazon and come with a Hearty Hatboy’s Hatstand Heckommendation.

Posted in #SPSFC, Edpool, Kussa mun hopoti? | Tagged , | 4 Comments

The Butcher of Sinai

This story was rejected by what, do you think I’m going to tell you? LOL, so I decided I’d post it here. If you like it, I’ll be sure to share the anthology with you when it comes out because every single story in it is guaranteed to be even better than this[1]! Anyway, in the meantime, since they didn’t want to make money from it, everyone gets it for free.

Yes, both of you.


 

Miriam squinted at the Angel. The Angel had the grace – no pun intended – to look sheepish. Pun … possibly intended on that one, Miriam conceded to herself without breaking squint. It was a good squint and it’d be a shame to stop halfway.

“Look,” the Angel intoned, an irritating whine underlying her heraldic glory, “I’m just passing on the orders here.”

“If God didn’t want me to keep shooting messengers,” Miriam told her, “He’d come down and splatter me Himself. Or at least send a messenger telling me I’m fired,” she added in a mutter with a hopeful lift at the end. The Angel gave her flame-wreathed scrap of bramble a half-hearted shake, and Miriam sighed. Angels really were the most useless, wretched creatures in all creation. “Fine,” she said, “tell me again.”

“He Who Is Namèd ‑ ”

“Not like that.”

“Lo! ‑ ”

“You somehow made it worse.”

The Angel’s heartbreakingly beautiful countenance adopted an expression that suggested she was suffering from constipation. Heartbreakingly beautiful constipation, to be sure, but constipation nevertheless. “During your last debriefing, some of the civilians under your watch fell to worshipping … ” the brambles rustled and spat sparks as the Angel tried to avoid concluding the statement.

“You can say it,” Miriam encouraged. If her youngest brother had been here, he would have told the poor thing to stop beating around the bush. The Angels really didn’t know how good they had it.

“ … a – a sheep,” the Angel’s voice cracked, whether in trepidation or hysterical laughter was unclear. She went on in a firmer tone. “The graven image of a sheep, all in gold.”

“There’s no need to be coy,” Miriam said, “we’re not just talking about a very handsome sheep and a bit too much time spent out in the wilderness here, are we? We’re talking about a mad Kernian God-Sheep from the Infinite Crazy Whatever-the-Fuck, right? That’s what you said.”

The Angel closed her eyes. “Yes.”

“I know I’ve been gone a few hours, but there was this stupid insistence on classical retro stonework for the new regulations,” Miriam waved a hand at the tablets, just barely resisting the urge to turn the gesture into what her brothers called an unscheduled wrath of God event.

The Angel shrugged. “They got bored.”

“Maybe they’d be less bored back in Egypt,” Miriam growled, then waved her hand again when the Angel lowered her bramble and looked at her with ridiculously hurt eyes. “Never mind. Just – I want to be clear on this, okay? This time it isn’t one of God’s things where it’s Him going by another name, or it’s some boozy friend of His, or He’s testing this batch of civilians to make sure they’re ready to be His, whatever it was, the chosen control subspecies or ‑ ”

“Yea, all things are a test.”

“You’re not doing great things for your chances of getting out of here un-shot, you know.”

“It’s a proper enemy God moving in on His turf,” the Angel said quickly.

“And I’m not expected to actually square up to the mad ruminant?”

“Just deal with the briefware issue,” the Angel said. “Bring them the new regulations, discipline them for the violation, remind them of God’s love.”

“One reminder coming up,” Miriam said sourly. “And stop calling them briefware.”

“The mortals,” the Angel amended. Miriam squinted at her again. “The civilians.”

“Close enough,” Miriam sighed, and bent to pick up the new regulations.

“Lift with your legs,” the Angel suggested.

“Fuck off with your wings,” Miriam replied curtly.

† † †

She was Chief Domestic Theological Enforcer of an elite force known as the Faithful Fists, a force of which her brothers Aaron and Moses were also a part. She hadn’t chosen the name. She hadn’t chosen the role. In fact, she’d had about as little say in any of it as her youngest brother had when he’d been left to the mercy of a river shortly after being born.

Mind you, like with her brother and the river, things had generally turned out okay for Miriam so it didn’t pay to complain too much. Especially not once you knew how short-tempered God was.

She’d gone through the usual youthful phase of wondering why Aaron, four years her junior but by far the more politically-minded; or Moses, three years younger still but actually part of the ruling Egyptian dynasty, had not been given this charge instead of her. Moses suggested that while there was certainly some satisfying storyteller symbolism in the tribulations of the third and youngest child that appealed to the Powers that Be, she was the eldest and therefore the responsibility was hers.

Aaron theorised that Miriam just ‘had that kind of face’. Neither explanation was entirely without merit.

Ultimately, though, she didn’t know why she’d been chosen and she didn’t ask anymore. She didn’t need to ask, because she knew there was no reason. Not really. If not her, then someone else. Maybe somebody better, probably – she flattered herself – somebody worse. And if it was somebody worse, then that would be her fault for stepping aside.

It was easy at the start. At the individual level, cruelty and injustice were simple little things, and her youngest brother was in a position to expose a lot of it. All it took was one additional person to step in, to stand up. If that person could put the offending party through a thick masonry wall just by levelling a finger and saying Stop That, then so much the better. A person in need was saved, the resultant triangle of gravel and offal was tidied away by a suddenly-eager-to-pitch-in local community, and all but one person involved learned something.

Even at a communal level it wasn’t hard in principle. You could tell who needed help, who was being hurt and who was doing the hurting. Where it got difficult was when populations banded together and codified injustice, to keep those in need where they were. When what was wrong and what was illegal started to drift apart. When city-states and nations formed up and faced off. When cultures coalesced out of the seething sludge of confusion and anger that was the human condition.

Nations had armies, and made war on one another for reasons that always seemed so clear. They’re coming to take our food. They’re going to march into our homes and murder us in our beds. They’re going to make us wear those stupid pants. Madness, but simple madness. Armies went where they were told. Nobody had to like it … but nobody wanted to be the first to let go of the stick, either.

Cultures were more difficult. Every human had an army inside their own head. An army that went where it was told, perhaps, but one that made alliances in the most chaotic and inconvenient times and places imaginable.

So sometimes, just to keep everything from flying apart, God reached down and gave one of those quiet internal armies direct access to His divine power. A one-person holy war. A human weapon of mass destruction, capable of enforcing the will of Earth’s true landlord on its rowdy tenants. And sometimes that meant killing firstborn sons, and sometimes it meant punching a bunch of slave hunters in the face with a sea, and sometimes it meant climbing up mountains at close to ninety years of age and having annoying conversations with wingèd bureaucrats and then stumbling and sliding your old arse back down again with a bunch of bullshit beautifully carved on stone tablets for no satisfactory reason.

That was the job.

† † †

Aaron and Moses met her at the base of Sinai, on the outskirts of the ramshackle little community their people had settled into.

“Did you ask about the priesthood misunderstanding?” Aaron asked before Miriam even had a chance to slap the dust off the backside of her flowing enforcer uniform.

“It wasn’t a misunderstanding and you’re still in charge of the monkey parade,” Miriam informed him.

“Fuck.”

“I take it from your good mood that it wasn’t Gabriel you talked to,” Moses noted with a smile.

“No, just some flunky with a burning piece of underbrush again,” Miriam hefted the stone tablets. “Got some new regs.”

“Oh excellent,” Moses said. “They’re always good for a laugh. Did they specifically say stop killing each other this time?”

“I didn’t read them yet,” Miriam looked down at the top slab. “Oh look, yeah it’s right there. About halfway down, after all the stuff about how God’s really really important,” she looked back and forth from brother to brother. “Speaking of which, apparently we weren’t the only ones doing handicrafts today.”

Aaron rolled his eyes. “Some nitwit got it into their heads that you weren’t coming back,” he told her. “Announced that it was every man for himself and that the infinite marches of the great tunnel in the sky would give this exodus of ours a bit of epic grandeur.”

“And did the fact that there’s no fucking tunnel in the sky, and I was only gone for half the morning, have any impact on this delusion?” Miriam demanded without much hope.

Aaron shook his head. “Not when the Golden Sheep Itself appeared before them and announced that any who wished their souls to wander the tunnel for eternity would be baptised ‑ ”

Baap ‑ ” Moses began with a grin.

“We promised we weren’t going to do the sheep jokes,” Aaron said flatly.

“I don’t remember agreeing to that,” Moses replied. “Anyway, half of them are convinced you’ve been gone for years. Bad batch of the funny stuff. Remember that party we sent scouting, who came back saying they’d found a country full of giants? Turns out they were giant frunk dealers.”

Miriam grunted. “Apparently this is a top-level fuck-up between the Big Guy and the Kernian Pantheon,” she said, “but we’re the sandals on the ground. The mess down here is ours to clean up.”

“Okay,” Aaron straightened, and even Moses’s irrepressible mood sobered a little. “We’ll follow your lead, Chief.”

Over the blood-soaked years, Miriam had come to realise something about the power imposed upon her. When you could wave a hand and, if not fix everything, then at least fix everything aside from who was going to clean the carpets, it reduced each problem you faced to a simple question. A simple question that armies and their leaders asked – and answered – on far larger scales than the likes of the Faithful Fists.

What is the minimum number of people who need to die, in order for this issue to go away?

It wasn’t that having this power – or being a soldier in an army, Miriam supposed – made you less human. It made you more human. Too human. It took away the layers of illusion in which most people were permitted to wrap themselves.

Was that all Gods were? People to whom the answer to this question came as quickly and as effortlessly as its implementation?

This was the sort of thinking that Moses always told her would get her in trouble.

† † †

It gave her a certain satisfaction to march into the council pod and drop the set of regs, shattering the fancy stonework into several pieces with a resounding crash.

“Hey, what the fuck,” one of the appointed leaders – Miriam had never bothered to learn the civilian authorities’ names – said blearily. “I almost shat my robes.”

“Wake up,” Miriam roared in her best training-ground incantation voice. She reached back without looking, and Aaron put the staff in her hand. She grounded it hard, splitting the pod’s light composite flooring and one of its flexi windows with another deafening crack. The muddy-eyed idolaters yelped and stared at her with something approaching consciousness. She levelled the staff at the Golden Lamb. “Whose work is this? God is pissed.”

“Well maybe He shouldn’t have forsaken us,” one of the councillors had the audacity to mumble.

“You and the next nine generations of your frunk-fucked line are only going to exist because He hasn’t given up on your sorry arses yet,” Miriam promised direly, “even if the Fists are just about ready to. It doesn’t even look like a sheep,” she added. “It looks like a fucking cow.”

“We only had an Apis statue,” another councillor said. “We tried to make it look … woollier.”

“You failed,” Miriam said, “on every conceivable level. You’re lucky the God you were trying to convert to is mad. This probably would have just annoyed a sane God,” not that any of us would be likely to recognise a sane one, she added to herself.

“The Egyptians used to let us worship any God we,” the civilian leader gathered himself up in his nearly-beshitted robes enough to start, then wilted under Miriam’s glare, “chose to,” he concluded feebly.

“Was that the only freedom they gave you?” Aaron asked while Miriam was preoccupied with trying not to fling the man into Earth-adjacent deep space. The leader huddled deeper into his chair. “Then maybe you should shut your mouth before it attracts locusts.”

The civilian leader shut his mouth and looked queasy, as did everyone else in the pod with a couple of un-frunked brain cells to bang together. They knew, of course. They may not have seen it all, the Fists’ brutal march – their brutal wade – through Egypt, but they’d seen enough. They’d seen the aftermath, and they’d heard all the stories.

The Faithful Fists had clipped and guided and shaped the forces arrayed against them, from the highest authorities on down, turning a slave revolt into a nation on legs. They’d crushed and flattened and cast bodies and weapons aside like chaff in the wind, and they’d done it all with unspeakable efficiency and according to instructions from On High that nobody understood, or dared to question after a while.

Armies went where they were told. It was armies that fought wars, carried out campaigns. What the Chief Domestic Theological Enforcer and her team did, what they’d been doing since their activation … it hadn’t been a war. It wasn’t a genocide, or even the averting of a genocide.

It was topiary.

“What are you going to do to us?” one of the councillors quavered.

Miriam closed her eyes. She was suddenly as weary as if – she nearly laughed – as if she’d climbed up a mountain and then back down it carrying rocks.

“Nothing,” she said.

“Really?” Aaron asked in mild surprise.

Miriam tossed the staff back to her brother. “Tell them I did something,” she said to the councillors. “Make up something impressive,” she gestured at the Golden Whatever It Was. “Tell them I melted that down and made you drink it. I don’t care.”

“Wait – how would we be able to tell anyone that happened if ‑ ” one of the slightly less drug-addled councillors began.

Be convincing,” Miriam growled. “And I don’t want to have to come and visit you like this again.”

Outside the slumped frame of the council pod, Miriam stood under the baking sun and closed her eyes, sighing.

“Chief?” Moses stepped up beside her. “Miri?”

“I’m okay,” Miriam said. “Just … tired of not knowing what not to do until someone does it and I’m expected to wipe out their entire genetic lineage because of it.”

“Maybe if you didn’t throw away the documentation every time,” Aaron said glumly. “They’ll have to make more regs now.”

“Fine,” Miriam growled. “Have them make twenty regulations next time. Make a million. You really think it’s writing this shit down that makes people behave?” she opened her hand, felt the holy fire, heard her brothers step back smartly. “It’s this.”

“Well I hope you’ve got enough, sister,” Aaron said, “because for every ten that are impressed by the sight of an exploding dipshit, there’s a hundred that get angry. And there’s nothing in God’s creation more dangerous than an angry human.”

“I know,” Miriam said. She was thinking of Gabriel. Her friend. And the conversation they’d almost had, at least a dozen times over the years. The one where the irascible old Archangel finally admitted that smiting and brimstone and wrath weren’t getting the Big Guy anywhere with His infuriating primate project.

“We know you know, Miri,” Moses said, and she opened her eyes to see him smiling again. “But sometimes … ”

“Yeah,” Aaron said, also smiling. “Sometimes … ”

Miriam grinned and finished their informal little Faithful Fists motto. “Sometimes it’s just too much effort not to punch someone in the face with a sea.”

† † †

When God appeared to Miriam, she usually didn’t have to climb a hill beforehand or bring a bucket of water to pour on the underbrush afterwards. Usually, she didn’t even have time to wipe her arse or jump out of bed. She felt the power inside her curl, and then God reached out and took hold of her and put her down somewhere they could have a chat.

“‘Make up something impressive’,” God said with a vast chuckle. “I like that.”

Miriam knelt and bowed her head, because she wasn’t a fucking idiot. “Divine One.”

“You spared Me an … embarrassment today,” God told her. Miriam glanced up briefly, just long enough to catch a fleeting impression of musk and nectar, strange animal skins and musculature stupendous enough to make even a well-preserved damn-near-nonagenarian feel woefully inadequate. As brief as her look was, of course, God noted the question in it. “No, it was a real incursion, if a minor one. Not one of My games, as you think of them, but something of a testing of our defences. Sometimes when You poke an insane God, Your mortals pay the price for it.”

Miriam knew better than to deny God’s assessment of her opinion. “Thy will be done,” she said.

“Well?” God pressed. “You obviously want to say something to Me. Stop sending My Angels back up the stairs in tears, woman, and out with it. Or do you want Me to bring Aaron to do the talking for you, as usual?”

“The Faithful Fists … ” Miriam barely stumbled over the stupid name. “The Faithful Fists have been on assignment for a long time with this group. I’ve begun to question how much of our aid would be unnecessary without – without our interference in the first place.”

“Don’t bullshit Me, lass,” God said jovially.

Miriam shrugged to herself. Alright then. “You told me to go back with Aaron and Moses and free these people,” she said, “and then You tried to kill us when we were on our way there, just for a laugh as far as I can tell. Then you made the Egyptian leaders refuse to see reason, so You could use me to spank them. And now You’re just marching us around, handing down rules that You’re perfectly aware humans will never be able to follow, and then expecting them to mete out punishments on each other for breaking those rules. I’ve seen children play with dolls with more respect.”

Ah,” God said. “The dolls want respect, hmm?”

“You asked.”

God chuckled again. “I watch over all the humans of the Earth, lass. Yes, sometimes that requires some juggling, because humans hate unanimity even more than they hate humans with different-shaped beards. Or whatever it is this month. And sometimes … yes sometimes it requires a spanking.”

“The regulations ‑ ”

“I could stop them,” God went on inexorably. “I could take hold of their little strings and pull them up short. I could do that every time they start to go wrong, until the last spark in them goes out and we’re using your entire world to farm low-grade monkey meat. Gods have taken the battle out of mortals more times than you can ever know, and the bones of those mortals are now naught but stone.

“There is only one way for organisms to escape their primordial legacy, Miriam. The only way out is through. The only ones who can make it happen is them. In the meantime … well, let them blame Me for the things they do to one another. Let it motivate them.”

“But eventually it will end,” Miriam said, “won’t it? They’ll get better, they’ll get through, and they’ll stop.”

“They’ll stop, in time,” God agreed placidly. “One way or the other.”

Miriam felt the power stir, knew she was about to be returned to her post.

“What happens when they blame You enough, and are motivated enough, to do something about it?” she asked.

God grinned, bright and unbearably feral in the dark that gathered in the moments before Miriam’s unceremonious pick-up-and-drops.

“They know where I live,” He said.

 


[1] No, I’m not actually upset. It actually would have been weird if they did choose this story. It’s very specific to my literary urverse – and even within that context it’s pretty niche – it has no real plot or resolution or character arcs, and the anthology brief was “war, but make something about it different-y.” Which is arguably not what this is. This is just a snapshot of the “real” version of biblical events, and doesn’t have much of a story. Also I wrote it in about two hours. Mind you, the same went for my first published work, so what the heck.

So it’s all good, honestly. And the one person likely to comment has already read the story and been instrumental in its editing and revision, so thanks again Aaron! Screw it, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, right?

Posted in The Book of Pinian | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

What’s new, end of March edition

Hey there Hatstanders.

What’s up? We don’t talk anymore. I mean, except when we do. Just not on the blog, so it’s getting a bit ghost-towny. Here’s a quick catch-up on this Thursday afternoon.

I’m still reading, although round two of the #SPSFC is going slowly. I’m enjoying Iron Truth by S. A. Tholin, but don’t have a review ready yet. Turns out it’s a bloody enormous book and even though I’m really liking it, I’m going to be slow reading it because I don’t want to skim, and that might mean I run out of time. Still, that’s where I’m at there.

I’m still writing! I just finished part one (of three) of the third (of four) stories for my next collection, The Clown God. What the Hell does that mean?

Well, I finished A Railgun Brain, which clocked in at 29,923 words.

And I finished Grendel’s Grief, which ended up being 31,503 words.

Now, I have finished chapters I to VI of the story I’ve tentatively entitled The Shortcut, although I don’t know about that yet. Chapters VII to XII of that story will be a whole different narrative, and chapters XIII to XVIII will be a third, and the epilogue, chapter XIX, will be a (quite small) fourth. So technically it is one story, but in three-parts-and-an-epilogue. And chapters I to VI have already racked up 19,394 words. I’m not certain the second and third part of the story are going to be as big, but if they are, we’re looking at a ~57,000 word story. Which according to #SPSFC wisdom, actually counts as a novel. So.

I guess we’ll see how big it ends up being. The First Feast was also a bit of a beast in the novella kingdom, at 49,000 words. And that wound up in a modest-sized collection with three shorter stories. And I’m predicting the fourth story in The Clown God, as-yet untitled, will be another small one … but who knows?

On the other hand, the most recent anthology[1] I published was fucking massive so this one can very well be the same.

What else? Lauren Hough ended up in the Twitter news again, as near as I can tell this time it was because some other random author wrote a book about All The Y Chromosome People Vanishing, it was up for an award from an LGBT+ organisation (pointless edit because nobody cares: it may not have been up for an award; in fact Hough’s book was; -Ed), a bunch of people (including some trans activists?) said “well this story’s pretty familiar and gross but okay” and Hough … well, I’m not going to pass up an opportunity to say that she Houghed and she Poughed and she blew that first author’s (actually her own; -Ed) chance at winning that award right down, because the organisation took it out of the running on the basis of the fact that TERFy transphobic books probably don’t need to win LGBT+ facing awards (or actually TERFy-shit-defending abrasive authors don’t; -Ed). But I don’t actually know any more than that, and Author Twitter is a drama a minute. All I noticed was that my couple of bemused tweets from the last Lauren Hough drama were suddenly getting Likes again, and my post about it got a bunch of views a couple of days ago, for the same reason.

To paraphrase Doctor Who, is seventy-eight a lot? I don’t know, it depends what you’re talking about. Books about All The Men Suddenly Vanishing? Yes. Views on a blog? Not really. But I’ll take it.

Anyway, that’s the news.

 


[1] Fun fact: I recently learned that an anthology is a collection of stories from various authors, whereas a collection of stories from one author is, well, a collection. So I should not have been calling my Tales of the Final Fall of Man anthologies 1, 2 and 3 anthologies at all, but collections. But now it’s definitely too late to not call them anthologies, so I shall continue calling them anthologies and consider leaning into the idea that different parts of my personality write each story in them or something.

Posted in #SPSFC, Astro Tramp 400, Edpool, Oræl Rides To War, The Book of Pinian | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

ARvekt: 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 for SPSFC round two was ARvekt, Book 1 (of 1 so far) of the Instant Reality series, by Craig Lea Gordon.

Alrighty! This one started with a bang and a nice gory opening, which immediately drew me in and let me know how serious shit was, even though .. well look. In an artificial reality, the stakes are only as high as the storyteller’s ability to write in an edited version of reality where the protagonists get through. And I’m not saying the stakes weren’t high. They were super high. So was the storyteller’s ability. So was I. Everyone and everything involved in this story was just the highest. I kid, but that was the way I was left feeling, you know?

The over-arching question in this book was, “what even is real, man, like, okay, say if a dude gets shot in the face but then it turns out, you know, that the bullets were just an illusion and the blood-splatters on the floor were, like, drawn there, and also the guy’s face was a simulation and he didn’t know it – and so was the floor and also the gun probably … you know … what if … what was the question?”

ARvekt is a book that dares to ask that whole thing I just said.

I read Gordon’s Obey Defy before this one, which was a stand-alone novella in a similar setting. It could almost be the same world but the technology and history had played out somewhat differently. Still, if you’re into cyberpunk and questioning the nature of reality, both of these stories would definitely be your jam. And when it comes to combining the sanitised artificialness of a highly technological (but illusory) post-scarcity utopian world with entirely-gritty realism, Gordon’s your guy.

I was struck, in reading this book, how much I was letting the scenic cues and the visual descriptions wash over me. This was ultimately a psychedelic trip set to words, the cool shape-shifting weapons systems and the action-packed plot just sort of weaving through the bright and dizzying backgrounds to hold everything together. The grimy dystopian future of the opened lotus is captivating in its contrast, and the weaving-together of the overlapping worlds is really well done. In this story, setting is quite literally a character.

So, the world of the future is regulated by a benevolent AI overlord, people immersed in augmented reality layers (thanks to “ARvekt” implants directly inside their heads) to such an extent that the very nature of what is real and what isn’t has become beyond blurred. A nasty war between humans and AI had taken place, but right from the start it is clear that we’re being misled about something.  Probably everything.

Ix, our helpful AI presence, is simply too pervasive and omnipotent at times. In a world composed of data, a construct capable of wholesale manipulation of data would rule and the plucky rebels wouldn’t have a chance. I was left, at times, feeling like the odds were insurmountable and no matter what people did to cut away the layers of illusion, there was no way to know they had escaped. It was the classic “turns out we never stopped dreaming” trope and conundrum from a lot of immersed-in-simulation stories: how do any of the characters know when it’s really over?

The interweaving narratives were interesting to see, and never got to a point where I was annoyed to skip from one to the other, although they were active and episodic-cliffhanger enough that I was flipping pages good and fast.

Sex-o-meter

The sex-o-meter pinged in with a single raised eyebrow out of a possible “oo-er, don’t mind me nurse, I’ve had colder thermometers.” To be honest I don’t know what it’s on about but this was more about cyber-espionage and running gunfights and explosions through a hallucinogenic wasteland, so there wasn’t much room for sex.

Gore-o-meter

Plenty of gore here, both simulated and real (OR WAS IT???). I adored the old school battlemech suit that just up and creamed a whole bunch of guys, it was fucking hilarious. Three-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.

WTF-o-meter

ARvekt was almost entirely high-definition digitally enhanced WTF, cover to cover. It’s not my usually preferred brand of WTF, but it certainly hit the spot. Love a good poking and peel-back on the nature of shared experiences and communication, a story like this can effortlessly undermine what we as an information-sharing species hold dear – and we did it to ourselves! Any similarities to current issues we face with social media and misinformation can safely be disregarded as an accidental coincidence. I’m kidding, you should be deeply concerned. I give ARvekt a giant computer-generated Elmo with a singularity in its mouth and eyes made out of deep-sea mining drills, out of a possible HAL-9000.

My Final Verdict

Now look, augmented-reality cyber-noir action thrillers aren’t exactly my thing. But I enjoyed this book and if you’re a fan of the genre you’re likely to get even more out of it than I did. Three stars! But this is just, like, my opinion, man.

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The Cursèd Playground, a teaser

I’ve been busy.

I haven’t been busy doing this, but I did finish it off the other day and figured what the heck, might as well put it up on the blog to show you I am still crawling ahead with the last couple of books in my Phase Two.

So here is the prologue to the second book in my Tales of the Always Night duology, semi-solidly entitled The Cursèd Playground.

 


As if interstellar travel wasn’t long and boring enough, the Captain had started holding status meetings once a week.

Galana would actually approve of the idea – sometimes she felt like she was the only crewmember who really cared about AstroCorps procedure and practices – if it managed in any way to improve efficiency or make a useful record of their findings so far. But the ACS Conch was not a large ship, and the six of them – well, the seven of them at the moment … okay, eight if you counted the computer, and you more or less had to at this point – spent most of their time together, so they all knew everything that could be raised in a status meeting before the meeting even happened. And between the Captain and the Chief Engineer, and with the well-intentioned but hopeless assistance of the ship’s Medical and Comms Officers, and the borderline malicious playfulness of their Tactical Officer and their guest … what with all that, the meetings really didn’t achieve much.

Galana had originally wondered if it was some way of livening things up, but they had plenty of games and social events and the meetings themselves – tangents and diversions notwithstanding – never really degenerated into enjoyable unrelated business. Then she’d begun to wonder if maybe their Captain was getting old, and starting to forget things, and was holding meetings as a way of keeping on top of it all. Humans could get that way, she’d read. But Captain Basil Hartigan was as sharp as ever, even if his impressively coiffed hair and sleek, bushy moustache had as much grey as black in them these days.

“What ho, morning all,” the Captain greeted everyone as they shuffled into his quarters and through to the comfortable lounge area. The ceiling here opened into a large observation dome, but since they were at relative speed at that moment and all there was to see was the depressing grey emptiness of ten-thousand-times-light-speed soft-space, he kept it closed. “How are we? Sit down, sit down, let’s get cracking, what? I’m sure we all have things we’d rather be doing. Now then, what’s our status?”

“Well, my goodness,” Devlin Scrutarius, Blaran Chief Engineer, consulted the data pad that he brought to the meetings solely for use as a comedy prop. “Where do I start?”

“At the bally start, Dev,” Hartigan said with a dynamic slap of his armchair-arm. “At the bally start.”

“Well, it all started when our fearsome Executive Officer, Commander Fen here, made a bet with this desperately pompous Molran ambassador named Kotan,” Devlin said, “that an AstroCorps crew could fly around the galaxy on a basic exploration and research tour. If she wins, he agreed to stop being a tedious Fleet sourcat and put his support behind the barmy notion that the Six Species are a union of … what’s the word … ” he consulted his pad again dramatically, “ … equals? No, that can’t be right … ”

“We don’t need to start this far back, or be this sarcastic,” Galana said without much hope.

“If she loses, Kotan will most likely do his best to tank AstroCorps and restore the Five Species to its glorious and dignified past, and let the humans go back to the Wild Empire they were before,” Devlin continued with relish. “Even worse, she’ll probably have to agree to become a Blaran, even though that’s clearly a promotion for a Molran so there’s no real way for her to lose this one.”

“Hear hear,” Hartigan approved. “But we’re still going to jolly well win.”

“You’re damn right we are, Cap’n,” Devlin agreed. “Anyway, Commander Fen joined up with us – that is, with you and me and the ACS Conch – before leaving Grand Boënnia. We flew to The Warm and picked up the good Doctor Bonjamin Bont, who was right in the middle of a very interesting experiment I’ve definitely understood every time she’s tried to tell me about it, where she was going to talk to that big old alien artefact any century now … ”

“That’s too accurate to really be hurtful,” Bonty conceded with a smile. The elderly Bonshoon, one of Galana’s oldest friends and her companion through AstroCorps Academy training, was highly skilled in various veterinary practices and so had become the Conch’s medical officer, but her true area of interest was the vast semi-living alien thing that everyone called The Warm. The giant artefact had been settled for centuries, and was home and research subject rolled into a single package.

“So, while we were at The Warm we also dropped by a water-filled Worldship that was just getting ready to dock,” Devlin went on.

“Chief Engineer Scrutarius,” Galana sighed.

“That was where we found Wicked Mary, who was just so nice her fellow Fergunak had locked her up,” Devlin went on.

“I take exception to that nice,” the small, silvery robotic giela that was Wicked Mary’s eyes, ears, voice and hands in the non-aquatic world spoke up from its position squatting near the end of one of the couches. “Come down to the Aquarium deck and I will eat you immediately.”

“I believe you,” Devlin said comfortably, and resumed his pointlessly in-depth summary. “Once we got to Declivitorion-On-The-Rim where the bet was officially set to start, we joined up with Chillybin.”

“Why are you like this?” Galana asked.

“I think it’s funny,” Chillybin, massive in her refrigerated freezer-suit, was squatting in a similar pose to the tiny giela. She unfolded her helmet and dropped a little chunk of frozen flavour-ice into her huge tusked maw, before closing the suit again.

“Why thank you, Chilly. Then, full of hope, we set out,” Devlin swept his upper pair of arms wide, while also making a dynamic little fist-motion with his lowers. “No sooner had we departed Six Species space, of course, than we fell afoul of a horrible creature that was terrorising the gentle people of a world called Azabol. Then we met the Nyif Nyif – who were just too precious for words, by the way – and helped them to resettle on the moon they had fled some hundreds of generations previously, on account of the little fellows only living about five years each ‑ ”

“We didn’t resettle all of them,” Bonty pointed out.

W – what?” Scrutarius swung around and stared at the big, placidly smiling Bonshoon for a moment, then snapped his fingers. “Right right, of course, quite a lot of them wanted to stay behind on their big old generation ship, so we pointed it in the direction of a promising-looking clump of stars and just … ” he made a gentle pushing gesture with his lower hands, and waved with his upper left.

“Then what happened?” Chillybin asked.

“Chilly,” Galana protested.

“Well, then we had all kinds of adventures with singing stars, and some distant cousins of yours, Chillybin – and then some distant cousins of yours, Bloody Mary,” he nodded at the little robot. “On a quest for some kind of mystical relic, as I recall. But then we found a planet that had been scorched by a star serpent, and that was when we met the always impressive Captain Judderone Pelsworthy of the Boze, Space Adventurer.”

“Now you’re talking,” Captain Pelsworthy, slightly over knee-high to a Molran and slightly under waist-high to a human, amber-furred and blessed with an abundance of bushy tail and golden ornamentation on her shiny red Space Adventurer uniform, slapped the arm of her couch. It was a gesture almost identical to Captain Hartigan’s a few minutes earlier. “That was when your quest finally got a bit of class. A bit of direction.”

“Our direction has always been counter-clockwise around the outermost star-density arc of the galactic disc,” Galana was helpless to avoid objecting.

“Well either way, our esteemed ally Roney didn’t stay with us long,” Devlin went on with a grin. “We parted ways and it was some time before we saw her again.”

“She popped back in to criticise how slowly we were flying, though,” Basil put in mildly. “Every time she got into trouble, it almost seemed.”

“Oh, absolutely,” Scrutarius agreed. “She was always there when she needed us.”

“Now hold on,” Roney protested. Her huge furry ears, one of which had been lost in a recent adventure but then cunningly replaced by Bonty, swivelled accusingly. “I’m not sure I like the tenor of your comments, biggums me lad.”

“Be that as it may, we had some nasty encounters with long-lost Damorakind, and a bunch of giant dragons calling themselves the Fudzu,” Devlin went on. “That latter lot, incidentally, had the relic that those Fergunak – what were they called?”

“The Searching, Starving, Lost,” the Conch dutifully recited.

“That’s them,” Devlin nodded. “Turns out the Fudzu had it all along. That was exciting.”

“There’s no such thing as a Fudzu,” Roney scoffed.

“There jolly well is,” Hartigan retorted.

Roney gave a dismissive snort through her sharp, white-furred muzzle. “Ridiculous.”

“Wait until you find out about the mad inventor who almost turned us all into cakes,” Bonty said happily.

“You’ve told me about it eleven blasted times,” Roney exclaimed. “And I still don’t believe you.”

“We met a tribe of humans along the next leg of our journey,” Galana gave up trying to curb the relentless exposition and dedicated her energy to getting it over with as quickly and efficiently as possible instead.

“That’s true,” Devlin said. “You know, what with the humans and the Fergies and even that aki’Drednanth subspecies, not to mention the Damorakind … the only species we haven’t found out here in the big wide galaxy is a Molranoid one.”

“That’s probably because we have the good sense to stay where we’re supposed to,” Galana replied.

“Unless there’s a bet,” Bonty raised her hand.

Naturally unless there’s a bet,” Galana conceded with a faint smile. “There were some ancient carvings of Molranoids in the Riddlespawn’s temple, however, suggesting we may still run into some of our kind out here somewhere.”

“That was when I was back with you,” Roney pointed out. “Ah, good times.”

“Again, you needed our help with the Pirate Queen and the Seven Sisters and all that lot,” Hartigan accused. “And you never did tell us anything more about them.”

“I was only worried that telling you about them might make you go mad with terror,” Roney objected. “It’s a long way back around the galaxy when you’re mad with terror, you know.”

“It’s a long way back around the galaxy while completely sane, too,” Galana pointed out.

“I don’t think any of us need to worry about that,” Devlin said.

Hartigan laughed. “Speaking of mad, it was right after the Riddlespawn that we bumped into that Time Destroyer named Praxulon ‑ ”

“Praxulon the Mad,” Wicked Mary amended helpfully.

“Praxulon the Mad, indeed,” Basil said, then frowned. One of his hands came up and touched the hair above his little round human ears, hair that was now almost completely white. Galana knew he was remembering the events following their encounter with Praxulon the Mad. Events that had cost them precious decades. Maddening for a Molran, aki’Drednanth, Bonshoon or Blaran. For a human or a Fergunakil, potentially disastrous.

“But then,” she said in an attempt to distract him, “we arrived at High Elonath on the far side of the galaxy, our journey half-finished and our bet halfway to won.”

“That’s true,” Basil brightened. “And we found the Last Alicorn of myth and bally fable, didn’t we, Fen? Right there in High Elonath.”

“We certainly did, Captain.”

“And … so, just for the record, that meant I was right,” the Captain went on. “What? Didn’t it mean I was right all along, and not crazy like everyone said back home?”

“You can be both,” Devlin said placidly.

“You’re definitely both, biggums,” Roney agreed.

“Still,” Basil insisted, “I believe a good hearty ‘I told you so’ should be entered in the meeting log, don’t you agree old girl?”

“Duly entered, Captain,” the Conch said, with a hint of warm amusement. “Like every other status meeting we’ve held since leaving High Elonath.”

“Wait,” Galana felt her ears drop. “Is that why we’re having these meetings every week?”

“You’d think I’d be tired of it by now,” Basil said cheerfully, “but do you know, I’m not?”

“Can we also note on the log that the Last Alicorn was in fact named Sparklebutt Glitterpoops Whimsyfart Flutterfloof the Third,” Devlin said while Galana was still staring at the Captain, “and it stuck its horn through me?”

“I log that every week as well, Chief Engineer Scrutarius,” the Conch replied. “Along with your special commendation for bravery.”

“And a posthumous medal for your main pectoral tendon-cluster,” Bonty put in, “which we had to replace.”

“Don’t remind me,” Devlin said. “I’m still breaking the new one in and it twangs every time I turn around too fast.”

“I still think we should have taken Sparkles with us,” Basil remarked. “Good old Sparkles.”

“Good old Sparkles would have head-butted a hole in your ship by now,” Roney told him.

“Oh, surely now … ”

Galana sat and listened to her crewmates argue and rib each other. Her friends.

She still fell into the trap of considering herself the normal one. The baseline. Molren were like that, despite her best efforts to rise above her species’ flaws. A human? Just a mildly insane Molran with a round furry head and only two arms. A Bonshoon? A big bouncy Molran. A Blaran? A Molran who practiced body modification and didn’t give much of a hoot about law and order. An aki’Drednanth? A giant shaggy two-armed Molran who lived in the cold, spoke in riddles and allegedly lived forever thanks to a deep-freeze telepathic afterlife. A Fergunakil? Well, a Fergunakil was just a Molran that was a great big bally shark, as Captain Hartigan might say.

But in the – Galana calculated swiftly – in the nearly thirty-eight years since they’d begun this preposterous journey, she had come to realise that there was no normal. Not really. And if there was, it certainly wasn’t her.

Friendship was perhaps the strangest thing she’d encountered so far on her trip around the galaxy … but she knew that if she said that out loud, she’d never hear the end of it.

She became aware that Captain Hartigan was studying her.

“Captain?”

“What’s on your mind, Fen?” he asked her, his bright little eyes squinting intelligently.

That you and Wicked Mary might die of old age before we make it back to Six Species space, she thought. That we might all die at the next place we stop. That we are hopelessly out of our depth in a galaxy we know nothing about, and our only guide is a Boze who might just be crazier than any creature we’ve encountered out here. That I’ve gotten us all killed over my stupid pride, my inability to just ignore an insufferable ass like Kotan. That even if we get home, even with all our samples and data, there’s a good chance they won’t believe us anyway. They might not believe us because of our samples and data. That all this was for nothing and we’re only halfway there.

“I was just thinking,” she said, “that we will be emerging from soft-space at our next stop before we have another chance to hold a status meeting. And how very fortunate that is.”

Hartigan laughed.

“That’s our Fen,” he said affectionately.

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Zero Day 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 on our semi-finals slate is Zero Day Threat, Book 1 of the Ungovernable series, by R. M. Olson.

After a little puzzlement, I have to conclude that the title of the book makes sense and is actually memorably clever, since a zero day threat (as explained to my ignorant arse at the front of the book) is a threat that exploits a previously-unknown weakness in a system. Which is a fancy way to frame a heist that does quite a lot of that. And while I wasn’t super-gripped by the initial hook here, I would urge readers to give it a chance because this one’ll sneak up on you.

Our classic mixed bag of colourful characters with haunted pasts and a big old buttload of baggage full of secrets are assembled by a mysterious puppeteer[1], Masha, to pull off a caper. The caper in question? The legendary warship The Ungovernable, or at least the fancy schmancy technology thereof. The shifting points of view in the story are done really nicely, each character having a distinct voice of their own and a compelling story. I make light of the baggage and the secrets, but that sort of stuff is the bread and butter of the motley crew space heist found family subgenre and Olson does it well.

The main protagonist, or at least the one we meet first, is the sassy and super-skilled Jez. A shady pilot who’s just lost her ship and is in debt to a mobster as a result, Jez has hit rock bottom and is ripe for recruitment into a shenanigan or two. Also involved in the heist are a guy who may or may not have an unforeseen and everything-changing connection to the heistee, to say nothing of the dude apparently responsible for Jez losing her ship in the first place, as well as a woman out for revenge (or specifically already a criminal for achieving the revenge) for the murder of her wife and son … and the bloke who [okay I’ll redact the spoilers on this].

It is, as you may imagine, a recipe for tension and excitement and twists, and one has to wonder how much the mysterious Masha really knows – and what her end game is. Because it sure doesn’t seem to be anything as simple as pulling off this extremely difficult and dangerous heist, let me tell you.

While elements of this story felt a teensy little bit contrived and overblown (indeed, it reminded me a little of NBC’s The Blacklist, just without a series of delightful Reddington anecdotes, but that may have just been the fact that the head of the enterprise was named Masha), that’s part of the charm of the whole thing and it was really quite enjoyable (kind of like NBC’s The Blacklist, at least the early seasons thereof before it just got too silly, but everyone has their own threshold for “too silly” and this is not a review of NBC’s The Blacklist). The interlocking of skill sets and the manipulation of secrets is top-notch and nothing is what it seems in this high-stakes action adventure. Should I add a “swashbuckling” in there? Damn it, you only live once. I’m doing it. This high-swashbuckling-stakes action adventure. That’s not quite right but we’re already moving on.

I greatly enjoyed the brief but very colourful take on the “jungle planet where everything wants to kill you” trope, and while some of the heist elements and challenges and methods of defeating said challenges were a bit questionable, overall I loved it. I will say that the scene where a criminal arms dealer minion was showing Lev around and Ysbel was planting explosives, that was totally sus and the minion really wasn’t on the ball. But not for nothing is this story billed as an Ocean’s Eleven adventure in space!

Sex-o-meter

There’s a lot of flirting and sass going on here, and a certain amount of cautious pairing up towards the end, but no sex to speak of. This is first and foremost a crew-assembly story where our heroes find their dysfunctional new family and learn to work together despite being lone wolves and allathat. No time to boink the packmates. Let’s give Zero Day Threat an ugly Christmas sweater out of a possible Wolf Shirt™.

Gore-o-meter

We are treated to a high-stakes game of robbers ‘n’ robbers (and also some cops are around), with plenty lot of threats and descriptions of things, but no real here-and-now gore. The arguably worst atrocity in the story was – well I won’t spoil it, but read to the end on that one. We have a bit of a body-count and the alien jungle had some gross stuff in it, but all in all it was more action adventure than action violence. And that fits, given what the story is. The gore-o-meter gives us one flesh-gobbet out of a possible five, and I can’t argue with that.

WTF-o-meter

Well, Zero Day Threat doesn’t leave us with much WTF to sit in and splash happily either. What you see is what you get, aside from the obligatory twists in the plot – and they don’t count as true pure-grade WTF. The Ungovernable itself, the ship, was very neat – I wasn’t quite certain why it was so amazing and who the genius was who made it, even though it was explained in the story it left me sort of baffled. It could have been more of a thing, making that inventor into an unseen character. Still, I’m sure there is more to learn about the strange ship and its origins and abilities in later books, so that’s kicked a little spark of responsiveness out of the WTF-o-meter. We’re still only registering an Ocean’s Two and a Half starring Charlie Sheen out of a possible Ocean’s Fourteen: A Hunka Hunka Burning Oceans. This is a very low-scoring affair on all the meters, but still wound up being a good story. Who knew?

My Final Verdict

An enjoyable page-turning space heist with some great characters and gorgeous scenery, well deserving of an SPSFC semi-finalist placing. Three stars!

 


[1] Figurative puppeteer. Which is a mild shame since an actual puppeteer would make a hilarious and wonderfully surreal ringleader for this thing, but I’ll let it pass. Still, an idea for the future there?

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