Maintain your rage, the time of Empires is over and the time of the orc has begun.
Today I’m bringing you a review of Revolution, The Sol Saga Book 1, by James Fox. As the biggest book in Team Space Leftovers’ allocation for round one of this contest at about 160,000 words, I figured I might as well fill up right at the start.
Revolution is nothing less than an epic future history of the next leg of humanity’s journey, if we ever happen to move off his rock and get the fuck on with it. Debates on the settlement-viability of Mars aside, the Sol Saga series would seem to be just that – a tale of history repeating itself against greater and greater backdrops.
Set mostly on Earth and Mars, and specifically in a training academy and political arena on each planet respectively, with some detours for space dogfights that will probably turn out to be more of a thing in the next book, Revolution is action-packed and boasts some memorable and … I won’t call them sympathetic characters, but they have their moments. It also suffers a little from inevitable comparison to The Expanse, just without the ancient alien stuff and with a considerable amount of male gaze thrown in. Making male gaze occasionally come from a woman doesn’t make it better, either. It’s just a little unfortunate.
At first glance it seemed as though what we had going on was another of my favourite indie sci-fi tropes, the Well Over Six Foot Tall Protagonist, with the added bonus of him being genetically modified to have 0% body fat and being capable of processing oxygen and canapés into a small diamond once every six months. He couldn’t actually do that but I pretended he could and it got me through the rough times. Anyway, as I was saying, at first glance it seemed a bit like that but then it turned out General Keith Brennan was a lot more complex than that and had far better “saga” potential, as we see by the end of this first book.
So, what happens in this one? Mars, on the brink of independence from sovereign Earth, is embroiled in an interplanetary fuckarow when the President of Earth is assassinated on Martian soil. General Keith Brennan and Mars Governor Helena Chu are left in the middle of a political mess that is veering sharply massacrewards from minute one. Also Colt is involved, along with Colt’s giant fucking arsehole of a mother.
Colt’s mummy issues and the cool gang she wants to be a part of and / or beat is a mildly compelling B plot that left me wondering where and when it was going to join up with the Mars Will Rise Again plot going on over in the A thread. I actually thought Spalding and Brennan were the same guy for a bit, but I do tend to have difficulty with that sort of thing sometimes and you know what? I think they maybe could have been combined into one character, except for the fact that were on different planets for a lot of the story. That’s a very minor difficulty, and easy to fix. The story introduced a few too many characters, without much to distinguish them from one another (kind of like The Expanse!). It took a while to get into the flow of it – but once I did, it was great (kind of like The Expanse!).
Helena’s failure to shoot Bruce in the penis, and then in the face, and then keep shooting, is something I consider a major flaw in the narrative, and another one that would have been very easy to fix. I looked at my progress meter and let’s just say you have to be just extraordinarily patient until the 88% mark, and even then it’s a qualified pay-off. And when I say “qualified”, I mean “where’s my fucking spree, Fox? I’m not seeing a spree, and before you say anything no that doesn’t count as a spree.”
Helena and Gwen do, however, have a brief Bechdel-Test-passing conversation with a Frozen reference in it, and I was looking for a better place to congratulate the author for that, but I didn’t find one, so here it is. Pause for kudos.
The book had some minor but distracting editorial issues as well, but that’s fairly standard and was not at all a deal-breaker as far as I’m concerned. Fox used compunction instead of compulsion at one point, and I’m also pretty sure he wrote piss at you like a feral cat instead of hiss at you like a feral cat but frankly I would call that an improvement on the idiom. The stuff about the terraforming and the overall appearance of Mars could have been talked about back when the glassed-over canyons were mentioned, not at the ~40% mark, but I am a known sucker for an info-dump and by no means a target reader here. Fox probably made the right call in scattering the minutiae around a bit.
That’s it, let’s go to the meters.
There’s not much actual sex in this one, just some ogling of taut bodies in crisp dress whites and some mildly distressing changing-room nudity. And … was that “snuggle” as a synonym for “fuck” I just saw? Aw. On the heels of that, whatever is happening here with Spalding and Aldis and Colt and Colt’s mum who is also Colt, all of that needs to stop. Reversal of the roles doesn’t make this any less gross, but I see what Fox was doing. Interesting plot device, and certainly well written. Just – ick. The sex-o-meter gives this a balloon dachshund quarter-filled with congealed porridge out of a possible balloon Eiffel Tower fully-filled with bubble tea.
There isn’t the spree I found myself shaking the book and demanding by about the halfway point, but we get some murder and mayhem, and we get an oof-worthy massacre of innocents. They earn Revolution three flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.
So like I said, this was a hard military sci-fi political thriller with no aliens, only human drama and hard military sci-fi political stuff. Not exactly my bag, but that’s okay. This is a lot of people’s bag. There’s a world here, a universe, and a definite sense of something epic (nay, sagaesque) unfolding, but no WTF. I’m barely registering a completely normal mirror with zero pickles or Hitlers reflected in it out of a possible Scary Door here. And the WTF-o-meter might just be picking up residual WTF from my lunch.
My Final Verdict
Revolution ended on a cliffhanger and that’s okay. I’ll give this action-packed space thriller three stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale, but if Maureen Colt doesn’t get her face spree’d off in the next book I’m coming back.
So, the SPSFC (the Self Published Science Fiction Competition, for those of you not following along) has launched into its second year and I’m judging again. My old crew, Team Space Lasagna, went off to form something called the No Edpools Club (apparently it is very ancient and they already have one Edpool, but it’s called No EdpoolS, see), so I made my own judging team.
I kid of course. My dear crew were a bit burned out and decided to channel their energies elsewhere, and so my new team is Team Space Leftovers and that is my final answer.
On Team Space Leftovers, we have:
Well, me, obviously. Your old pal Edpool, Hatboy, Chucky, Andrew, you know.
Then we have the inestimable Starr K, of the Pages and Procrastination blog. You can also catch her on Twitter, and what the heck, she has a Linktree so check that out. There’s nothing we like more than a bit of procrastination here at the Hatstand, that’s why Team Space Leftovers hasn’t made a proper post about this year’s books or covers or basically anything yet.
Who else have we got?
Well, we have Lloyd “Grumpylo” Lowe, who doesn’t have a blog or social medias to speak of (and yet, is somehow still grumpy!), but once said, “I am fair at reading and have loved science fiction for six decades,” so added to the grumpy thing would seem to be overqualified for this, frankly.
Finally, there’s Rick “Pax” Sloane, who … I don’t know much about him but he told me, “I love Sci Fi and would be happy to help,” so that’s something? We are scrappy underdogs and the contestants who landed with us don’t know how lucky they are!
I’ll get to our contestants later. In the meantime, better get reading!
Today I’m here to talk to you about Ghosts of Tomorrow, by Michael R. Fletcher. This book is competing in SPSFC2 now so I may be getting in ahead of the action if it gets through the first brutal rounds. It didn’t get past the judges for the first iteration of the contest last year, but let’s see. Team Space Lasagna didn’t get a chance to look at it before it was cut anyway, and the SPSFC decided to give early-cut or pre-cut books another shot with different judges this time around, just because. Me, though, I had decided to read this book right back at the start of SPSFC1, based purely on the coolness of the cover. It didn’t win the cover contest, which to this day I consider a travesty and I continue to judge everybody who disagreed with me.
Now there is a brief lull between SPSFC1 and SPSFC2, so here it is. I’ve got just oodles of spare time for a review. So, anyway.
I decided I needed to read this book purely because of the cover, yes. Not generally speaking the most academically sound reasoning, but in this case I have no regrets. I got some fast-paced and brutal Robocop-style dystopian corporate sci-fi into me, and the most hilarious outcome? You see that gloriously badass sword-packin’ Wild West steampunk Goro there on the cover?
Yeah, that guy? His actual character in the story is a fucking teenage weeb pretending to be a samurai cowboy. His every scene is lovingly dedicated to how badass he thinks he looks, how every wardrobe and weapon choice revolves around how cool he is, and his work ethic is lifted directly from seven hundred individual movies and animes made by white people about Japanese culture. It’s absolute fucking platinum and I adore it. I chortled every time.
What else can I say about Ghosts of Tomorrow? It’s rough and violent and action-packed, and downright harrowing in places. If piles of dead kids require a content warning for you – and no judgement if it does – then consider this a content warning.
It’s the future, a hundred or so years from now. The world is pretty darn fucked, and just to make things even better humans have discovered a way to scan brains into computers and use them as a more efficient means of performing high-speed processing tasks. I’m not entirely sure how it works, as the brain-meat itself seems to be discarded and the consciousnesses are somehow mapped onto a synthetic CPU so I’m not sure how that doesn’t lower the overall capacity and efficiency of the system, but it does. Brain make computer faster. That’s the premise. So in the words of Ryan George I’m gonna ask you to go ahead and get all the way off my back about it.
These electronic brains get put into chassis, different kinds of machines, for assorted reasons, or just continue to live in “the virtuality”, essentially cyberspace. Poor person forced into the military? When you die you can continue to serve and pay off your debts. Rich person who wants to live forever? That’s probably a thing, it happens here at least once. Kidnapped child? Oh, you’re going to have a bad time. I don’t know how long this technology has been around for as of the start of the book (which takes place over the course of little over one week), but I’m going to assume it was discovered and implemented a matter of hours before the first chapter, considering how fast and hard the narrative events turn shit-shaped and how inconceivable it is that things had been fine for any length of time prior to this, only to fall apart now.
I kid, but man. How did this technology ever remain stable long enough to become a thing?
Into this perfect disaster waiting to happen, our heroes and villains amble with understandable hesitancy.
Griff (apparently a rookie just out of school, but his story arc and probably just the fact that he is named Griffin led me to read him as quite a lot more grizzled than that) is trying to take down the organisations responsible for the creches of stolen kids who are being farmed and used as formatted-for-use computer components. Abdul is a poor military dude who died and was put in a combat chassis to serve out an afterlife sentence. Nadia is also there, working the kidnapped-kids case alongside Griff, and is actually pretty badass.
Meanwhile the crazy posthuman Lokner, Lokner 1.0 and Lokner 2.0 is / are intriguing and chilling as Stephen King-esque, classic corporate villain archetypes – like I said, this is something of a loving homage to Robocop and Lokner would absolutely not have been out of place at the helm of OCP. Along with Lokner comes a whole range of despicable predators and scavengers and opportunists, and their bloodthirsty victims-turned-weapons. Including the magnificent weeb assassin, Archaeidae.
In between the good and the bad is Miles, a hapless enabler in IT who I only found out had red dreadlocks at the very end of the book and for a really embarrassing length of time I actually thought was the same person as Griff and I don’t know why, because their names and plots were completely different but there you go. Look, full disclosure, I’m bad at this. If I’d registered the red dreadlocks, I definitely would have been able to distinguish them better from the get-go. Anyway Miles is in control of Lokner’s computer systems, essentially making him a God to the entire converted-to-data posthuman subspecies. He does just hysterically little with this fact.
Then there’s 88, an autistic kid who’s been scanned into the system and set to manage a mafia syndicate’s bank accounts, and who immediately infiltrates cyberspace and demolishes the planet. Which made me actually laugh out loud, it’s so great.
What does it all mean?
Nothing, really. Things are meaningless, non-sequential, utterly chaotic, and end in a spectacular explosive clusterfuck. And that’s okay.
Two of our characters have one (1) sex. There’s a bit too much of everything else going on for there to be much time for it, but they make the time and I can’t but admire them for that. Resource management at its finest. Still, I give Ghosts of Tomorrow a Robocop reboot movie out of a possible Bob Morton cocaine party with a side-order of that dude who gets covered in toxic waste and explodes into gooey paste when he gets run over.
They might come gorier than this, but you’d have to really be trying. Fletcher is something of a known butcher in indie grimdark, so it was without much surprise that I found this one suitably violent. Four-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five. With a side-order of that dude who gets covered in toxic waste and explodes into gooey paste when he gets run over.
I remain confused as to how this world order even came to pass, and how it managed to last even as long as it did without the precise cataclysm that happened in this book happening. I’m also baffled, but also greatly entertained, by the fact that what I would have thought was the actual point of the story – the absolute and total demolition of the planet’s data and communications infrastructure and humanity’s plunge back into the early industrial age – was really just a by-the-way sideline going on while Archaeidae was changing clothes and checking himself out. This book gets an Archaeidae, out of a possible character that figure on the cover could have been, on the WTF-o-meter. No dude who gets covered in toxic waste and explodes into gooey paste when he gets run over on this one.
Very fun, and with some interesting and depressing things to say about human nature, consciousness and mortality tucked away cunningly amidst the decapitations and high-speed gunfights. At the risk of this review becoming dated let me just wish Fletcher and his hilarious fourteen-year-old cosplay-goals cyber-lad well in SPSFC2! Three stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale for Ghosts of Tomorrow.
Well, things have been pretty busy so this is just a random scrambling catch-up effort before I see what lovely content I lay on you next.
Heads up: it’s probably going to be more crazy indie sci-fi book reviews. Edpool is taking over and things have gotten out of hand.
So, SPSFC #1 is behind us, and SPSFC2 is just kicking off because these bastards are year-long commitments and we launch straight from one to the next.
I have a whole additional post maybe on its way about the SPSFC and my experiences and the experiences of Team Space Lasagna, but for now I will just say my teammates have opted to take a break and focus on their own projects for now. I, however, am not quite right in the head and although I still hope to do some writing of my own as well, it’s going really slowly right now and so I signed on to judge again.
I was intending to be a solo judge, not part of a team. However, since the SPSFC Powers are concerned about single judges having too much influence (this concern is mostly being pushed by judges who … ahhh, let’s leave it for the Behind The Rayguns SPSFC Special), I was asked to make a team. So now I am collecting members for Team Space Leftovers. I have one intrepid taker this year. So far.
So aside from reading another huge mass of books and reviewing them, and trying to write a book of my own (the third ‘short story’ in my latest collection is sitting at 42,944 words and is already technically big enough to enter the SPSFC as a novel), I started a new day job a week and a half ago. And I have been furiously ramping up and onboarding and learning stuff ever since.
It seems like a really nice place – a couple of familiar faces, and I’m doing the work I love and am particularly good at, even if it is a new and baffling subject matter – and I mean nice. It’s a fast-growing and very enthusiastic (and very international!) sort of place, and I’m really enjoying it. It’s not leaving me a whole heck of a lot of time and energy for anything else right now, but that will settle down once I find my feet. I’ve done enough subcontracting work to know how the first few weeks on a new project go.
We’re watching Peaky Blinders, The Sandman, are currently looking forward to watching the new Predator movie Prey, and are also re-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer with Wump and Toop. I also watched Don’t Look Up and Alien Covenant recently.
I don’t know if I will have a chance to review any of the above, but let me know your thoughts? Probably something will shake loose about at least one of them.
How are you all doing?
You want another book review? Okay, you asked for it. Fine, you didn’t, but here’s one for Mouse Cage, of the Stories from San Iadras series, by Malcolm F. Cross. It’s also on Goodreads.
The Stories from San Iadras series is a 22 Short Films About Springfield-style collection that also includes SPSFC alum Dog Country, which sadly I haven’t read (but I fully intend to rectify that). Let’s call Mouse Cage the “Steamed Hams” part of the collection, for want of a better way to boot this distressing comparison onwards.
Never having read much furry-based fiction, or even actually knowing it existed, or even knowing anything much about furries except that they’re the most dedicated and usually the most heavily overdressed cosplayers at any convention I have ever attended (and I say that as a husky gentleman in spandex) and that they definitely don’t crap in litter boxes at USian high schools … given all that, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a speculative fiction premise like this. Essentially, Cross has created a universe in which furries actually happened. In the not-too-distant future, human experimentation has resulted in the cloned production of large sibling-batches of hybridised animals capable of speech, drug habits, and wearing people clothes. They’re used for all sorts of things (the furries, not the clothes), none of them particularly nice, until the Emancipation that begins their integration into society. The main centre of which, for furries, is the subtitular city of San Iadras.
But having used the phrase “furry-based fiction,” I will have scared away a lot of people for absolutely no logical reason. This book, and I’m going to assume this series, is so much more than that. Think The Island of Doctor Moreau. Cross sure did (and lampshaded it perfectly, might I add). What he does with this premise is bleak, and gut-wrenching, and wonderful, and asks us what it means to be human in a way only the best stories do. And its exploration of sibling dynamics and the weight of family responsibility is matched only by its examination of trauma.
Troy is the ‘eldest’ of a large (albeit not as large as it once was) family of cloned mouse / human hybrids, a batch of brothers all named after various cities and all suffering various forms of trauma from the obscene experiments and assorted cruelties visited upon them at Lake North, the facility where they were raised. Although furries of all kinds are now free, and the Salcedo family are out in the world making their own way in a wide range of lofty fields of endeavour, the past is always there. And always threatening to drag them back.
They’re out … and they never will be.
This endlessly complex and emotionally charged story follows Troy as he attempts to succeed with his life’s work against the impetus of entrenched and jealous human peers; keep his family safe and happy and in line even when it’s him who needs the most help; carry out a complicated relationship with Jenny, another deeply damaged furry from a different gene batch; and deal with the multitude of horrible things that happened to him and his brothers in Lake North. The narrative leads us through nightmare country, with an extended stopover in drug addiction international airport, and the in-flight service of raunchy furry uglies-bumping is at once copious and pitifully inadequate, at once raw and hopelessly, irretrievably burned.
Yes, this is one of the more spectacularly fucked-up lives I have seen committed to paper, and I can only imagine the dog-based soldier furries of the other Cross book (which we see tantalisingly woven into this tale, giving us an eye-widening glimpse of scope and the incredible love with which Cross has created his tragically flawed world) are just as heartbreaking.
Just fucking read this book.
Furries be horny, there’s not much more I can say on the subject. Okay, that’s not fair – the majority of the sex scenes take place between two characters, open relationship or not – I’d expect the same in ‘most any romance novel possessed of a healthy amount of rumpy pumpy. Humans be horny. It’s not the furries’ fault, whether on the page or out here in real life. I give it two sexy, sexy animal people cavorting under an actual kitchen-based aurora borealis while being watched by a grumpy school superintendent, out of a possible burning house with a virgin school principal doing isometric exercise against the window frame. I don’t get it but we started this journey with a Simpsons reference and by God we’re going to see it through.
You want body horror? Look no further than a book where the main character and his entire family are sentient goddamn lab mice. What Mouse Cage lacks in out-and-out explosions and brutality, it more than makes up for with vivisection, organ removal, amputation trauma, compulsive self-harm, gross sadistic nurses, you name it. Four flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.
This book was well outside my comfort zone and I’m thoroughly glad I read it. There are unanswered questions aplenty here, about the world of San Iadras and its origins and its ultimate fate. I wouldn’t call these questions WTFs as such, though. Once you’ve come to terms with the (frankly pretty classic sci-fi) premise of human / animal hybrids, there’s not really much pure crazy in this one. And that’s okay. That’s not what this story is for. The familiar, not the surreal, is what makes Mouse Cage so powerful. I’m going to be honest here, I think the WTF-o-meter had sex with the sex-o-meter, because I’m getting the same reading about the aurora borealis here. Except the window frame is made of furry body parts and burned children. Jesus, maybe it was a three-way with the gore-o-meter. This book made my meters fuck each other in an attempt to escape the reality of – ohhh I see what this is.
Wow. I mean, wow. Okay, I would have liked a bit more of a plot arc and resolution for five stars, to say nothing of the fact that I have no doubt even better stories are on their way from this author and I want somewhere to expand upwards. I also get that this was a snapshot, a thread in a tapestry, and wasn’t really about half of the stuff it looked like it was about. This was the story of Troy, unwilling and unwitting head of a family so dysfunctional it’d make Jango Fett stare. And Troy’s story, like real life stories, doesn’t really have a plot so much as a pinballesque series of events and challenges and setbacks. Still, given that, I found the abrupt ending strangely uplifting rather than surprising or upsetting. What a story! Four stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.
 A husky gentleman, not a husky gentleman. No, I mean not – okay fine. Fat, I meant fat.
Now like I say, I got this book as an advanced reader copy although now it is available for public consumption, so that was cool. The copy I read may have had some minor differences and the final edition will have been edited a bit more. I’m new to the ARC reviewing thing, so I’m not 100% on how it goes. It was a pleasure and a privilege, and I did pass on a few comments and questions to the author that won’t be a part of this review. This review is just going to be about the book.
And an excellent book it was! Having read some of Hayes’ fantasy and finding it enjoyable in a dark sort of way, I was keen to see his take on sci-fi. So let me get right to it by saying this is a hearty recommendation from your old pal Edpool. Titan Hoppers is a “progression fantasy”, a subgenre I hadn’t heard of before but I assure you is a thing. A thing like a video game power-up sequence, where the character gets in situations and then unlocks different skills and power levels as they go. Fascinating stuff.
Humanity has faced a mysterious calamity and the survivors are tooling around out in space. Their only source of resources – food and water and fuel – is the Titan: a huge alien vehicle crammed with weird tech, trap-filled labyrinths, massive facilities and just a fucking country ton of monsters. So that’s the premise. They fly their clapped-out ships up to the giant haunted space house, and loot it.
That’s not all the Titan provides, though – it also gives the human intruders powers. Some of them, anyway. Society is divided into the techs (who weren’t granted powers), the Hoppers (who were), and the officers (who are generally former or failed Hoppers … I think). But there is a lot more to fleet society than meets the eye – and a lot of human history that has been forgotten … or erased.
So. The Hoppers go aboard the Titan in pods to collect stuff and fight the monsters that swarm to any human intrusion or expression of magic. The Hoppers, and the fleet in general, are divided into different types – Paladins and Corsairs are the main ones here – as well as being divided between the lower, mid and upper ships, in terms of economies and resources and political power. The upper ships and the quasi-noble legacy families rule the fleet in a sort of double-axis of class disparity that makes for a volatile mixture of injustice, inequality and simmering resentment.
Into this bubbling mixture we sprinkle a generous seasoning of Iro, a wannabe Paladin on one of the poorest ships. Having lost his big sister, a heroic bay leaf of – look, I’m just going to abandon the culinary metaphor at this point. When the Titan explodes, taking Iro’s sister and many more fine Hoppers with it, the fleet limps off into space looking for … another Titan, maybe, or just some other source of materials. Aren’t there planets in space? It doesn’t seem like that’s how space works in this story. Not this part of space anyway.
Still, Iro has more or less given up on his dreams of levelling up, and the fleet is running on fumes when they arrive at another Titan. A whole new Titan, and a whole lot of new humans in a whole separate fleet. They don’t have the energy or capacity to contact them, which is a bit weird, but they settle down to attempting to harvest the massive alien derelict for parts. And that’s when things really start to get exciting!
This is a page-turnin’, space-adventurin’, science-magickin’ bit of fun and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Hayes has done it again.
With mainly teenage or otherwise young adult protagonists, there’s some Drama and Feelings™ here but not really any sex. We’re probably heading that way but for now our young heroes are just getting themselves set up. There’s too much salvaging and monster fighting and magic training to do, really, to worry about all that. A Nice Guy passport with a single stamp in it out of a possible One Sex.
Plenty of gore! We have a big old alien behemoth filled with vicious and weird traps, and masses of horrible bloodthirsty monsters. The gore levels could actually be higher than it ended up, given the setting. Room for improvement, but I was well satisfied with the three flesh-gobbets out of a possible five for this one.
It’s left tantalisingly unclear how the first Titan was found, how they knew there’d be another one, and lots of other things. The stalling question, and the un-stalling question, don’t even get me started. There’s so much lovely WTF to play with here. Things go from weird to weirder as the denizens of the new Titan reveal themselves, and we’re left with a cliffhanger and a whole lot of unanswered questions. And now we have to wait for Hayes to write the next one! Gaaaaah… anyway, according to the WTF-o-meter, Titan Hoppers gets a Diablo 2 skill tree with a partridge in it out of a possible Skyrim skill tree with a couple of Odins in it.
Amazing setting and premise, and great characters make this story well worth picking up. Okay, Emil is just a little bit too much of a shitbird to be sympathetic, but I guess you have to make allowances for a rough upbringing. And Alfvin is just weapons-grade crazy. Four stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.
He awoke in darkness.
No – not darkness. Light. A clinical white light that was as enveloping as darkness, a light that somehow made his pupils dilate instead of forcing him to squint.
A faint, warm smell filled his nostrils. Lemon, with an underlying scent of … what was it? Somewhere between “meat stew two rooms away” and “recently-used shower cubicle”. Unaccountably, these mingled to become something more pleasant than it had any right to be. The smell of freshness, of new beginnings.
He turned his head, finding the movement came slowly but without the dull pain he recalled feeling for … well, for as long as he remembered. He was lying on a thin but comfortably moulded white mattress, inside an equally white tube that just barely enclosed him with an indeterminate but small space between his bare skin and the-
He frowned lightly. He was naked, his skin damp and warm and tender, a feeling he associated with hard scrubbing. His skin was also smooth, his body firm and sculpted with muscles he only dimly remembered from a youth long vanished, a youth that may have just been imagined. A second youth, one granted him by … by someone? The information flitted before him, elusive. Was he in a medical facility? They’d made so many advancements lately, it was dizzying. Had he been restored?
The bill will come due.
His frown deepened, and he opened his mouth to call for the nurse. The movement again came at a dreamlike creep, but he didn’t think he was drugged. Just not in any particular hurry. And it was once again a movement devoid of pain.
“Hello, Captain Darko.”
The voice was smooth and clearly mechanical, but reassuring. It came from everywhere.
“I didn’t authorise a rejuvenation treatment,” he rallied his senses to vocalise, although part of him wondered whether he had. He’d been very confused, lately. Forgetful. For a long time, he’d been steadily slipping away. That was why he’d been moved. Taken from active duty. Retired. Put into storage.
Is that what this is? he thought in warm, lazy concern.
“You have not received a rejuvenation treatment, Captain Darko,” the voice said softly.
The bill will come due, Athaal. And when it does…
When it does, I’ll pay it.
He’d said that. Hadn’t he? Athaal. That was him.
“In accordance with your agreement with the Yekarium syndicate, your physical FABRICATION SUPERSTRUCTURE DAMAGE and will now be FABRICATION SUPERSTRUCTURE DAMAGE,” the voice broke, a blaring placeholder announcement interjecting amidst the modulated phrases from the medical device in which he was lying. Athaal winced.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “Your interface seems to be malfunctioning. Where am I?”
“You are aboard an AstroCorps modular starship with a transpersion-core power plant,” the voice said. “It is currently undesignated. There has been large-scale technical breakdown, during which this vessel’s fabrication superstructure sustained damage.”
“I gathered that,” Athaal said. That was his name, wasn’t it? He’d never heard of AstroCorps, and starships with nuclear transpersion reactors aboard them – nuclear transpersion reactors and fabrication superstructures, whatever they were … well, he wasn’t sure. Were they rare? Were they common? He’d certainly never been aboard one.
“This has left gaps in the subroutines surrounding your preparation,” the voice said. It didn’t sound apologetic. Just a machine, stating facts. “The required repairs and key replacement components have been logged, but will not be of any benefit to you even were they to arrive now.”
“Is that why I’m in here?” he asked. “Was it the technical breakdown, the damage to the fabrication what-have-you? Did I get injured?” he looked down at his body again. Must have been one Hell of a technical breakdown, he thought.
“No,” the voice said. “In accordance with your agreement with the Yekarium syndicate, your physical FABRICATION SUPERSTRUCTURE DAMAGE and will now be FABRICATION SUPERSTRUCTURE DAMAGE.”
He winced again. His head was aching. The old confusion was coming back, a discordant jumble of voices and images. Had he agreed to this? His strength, his new life, his body … there’d been a scientist. Not human. Had the scientist been connected to a syndicate? The Yekarium? What was that?
“What’s happening to me?” he whispered.
“FABRICATION SUPERSTRUCTURE DAMAGE the price you agreed to, Captain Darko,” the voice said. It had grown quieter. Had it gotten darker in the tube? “Configuration will be complete in four hundred and fifty minutes. Please remain calm.”
“Not much choice,” he replied. He tried to move his arms. They responded sluggishly, feebly, even more so than his head had moved earlier. There was still no pain, but his thoughts were clouding. “What happens when you’re done configuring yourself?”
“The fabrication plant is not undergoing configuration, Captain Darko,” the voice said. “The FABRICATION SUPERSTRUCTURE DAMAGE be complete in four hundred and thirty minutes.”
“That was a quick twenty minutes,” he said vaguely.
“FABRICATION SUPERSTRUCTURE DAMAGE.”
“I heard that, yes.”
The bill will come due, Athaal. And when it does…
“FABRICATION SUPERSTRUCTURE DAMAGE and ten minutes.”
“Is the bill due?” he asked. Who was he, who was asking this? He didn’t remember.
Wasn’t that strange?
He blinked. It happened in slow motion. Something burned for a moment, then snapped, behind his eyes. He felt a spreading warmth, inside his head and then another across his hips as he voided his bladder and bowels. It smelled of lemons and stew and soap, clean and sweet, not like shit and piss at all. He thought he’d smelled that smell before, but he didn’t remember.
He didn’t remember.
There was another snap behind his eyes, this one accompanied by a glassy sound and a sudden sharpening of the light, followed by its abrupt cessation. He heard a scream.
“Damn it, another premature configuration rejection. Get it on the janitorial and get it to recyc’.”
Shrieking and blind and squirming in his slippery printer-byproduct meconium, the misconfigured able was dragged out of the fabrication plant and clamped to the humped back of a janitorial machine. An unseen figure sighed, entered a command on a workstation interface, and the janitorial and its shuddering burden trundled away.
We have reached the end of the first SPSFC, and all that remains after this is to announce the winner. Since that was never really my interest in this, however, I’m mainly excited to be handing in my final review before we get to the grand final. And that review is for Captain Wu: A Space Opera Adventure, Starship Nameless Book 1, by Patrice Fitzgerald and Jack Lyster.
Captain Wu was a space opera adventure just like it says on the packet, an action-packed and fun-character-filled tale of a plucky crew of smugglers just trying to make ends meet at the raggedy edge of the law in a crazy mixed-up cosmos. When a delivery goes bad and the crew of the ‘Nameless’ find themselves in possession of a relic sought after by shady characters willing to kill all witnesses, Captain Wu – a hero as resourceful as she is eponymous – has to do what it takes to keep her family safe. Her found family, that is, and her biological family as well. Although she was also kind of found, because – look we’re getting into the weeds here, let’s move this rough ol’ beast along towards Bethlehem already.
I was immediately charmed by the main protagonist and I loved the different planets the Nameless visited. This story has some gorgeous worldbuilding, merging the grimy geopolitical functionality of Firefly with the science-fantasy interstellar mechanics of the Stargate franchise to good effect.
Was it too derivative? I don’t think so … although Rev’s sister, gifted and disappeared-off to some Commonwealth academy for possible use in later books, was a tad on the nose. To say nothing of Patience the owner of Whitefall, I mean Tell the owner of Dust. But hey. When you have a construction dynamic that puts resource scarcity and legal outsidering very much centre-table, you’re gonna end up with a Serenity-type shipboard business model and a system of planets not unlike the Verse, and sci-fi nerds are going to recognise it, and that’s just unavoidable. Best thing you can do is downplay the parallels as much as possible, and Captain Wu managed that just fine.
And if you can’t downplay them, then (“Dune was taken”) lampshade them. That also works.
Yeah, I was charmed by Wu from the start. I don’t know if her whole side-schtick as an underground death cage fighting contestant made a lot of sense, her tough badassery and emotional issues could have been illustrated in some other way but by all means, let’s have a fucking underground death cage fight thing. Why not? I was also amused at the very outset by her self-identifying as a terrible shot with a gun (this despite her sassy gun-toting pose on the cover) and was expecting it to be more of a running / significant element in the story, but it wasn’t really brought up again. I consider that a squandered opportunity.
From the fun action of the introductory hook, the excitement doesn’t let up and we’re led on a very enjoyable page-turning adventure through space as the crew of the Nameless try to figure out why they’re being shot at and chased. Each character is distinct and intriguing in their own way, from the spunky hacker-type Lilly to the phlegmatic and delightfully behaviourally-atypical xeno Six, and I felt very close to them all by the end of the story. That’s a rare thing, and deserves recognition.
I don’t know if I buy the premise of the Commonwealth having a monopoly on energy. Of course it would be super easy to get bogged down in the mechanics and the socioeconomics of it all and the authors did a good job here of walking that line between “here’s how the galaxy works” and “Commonwealth, control, modes of, see Appendices C – H”. I am a fan of the info-dump so I wouldn’t have minded the latter approach, but I am aware that I’m in a minority there. It’s just … planets and suns have so many different ways of releasing energy and a space-age civilisation would be even better at harnessing it than we are, so how are batteries and a single charger-planet a viable foundation for an interstellar monopoly? I was baffled by this almost to the point of being bumped out of the story. It really needed to be something more esoteric, but – like they said – Dune was already taken so…
All in all this was a well-constructed and interesting-to-read story and setting, and I definitely want to know more. Let’s take a look at what the meters have to say.
Sex is referred to a few times in the story but it’s not really integral. Wu is appropriately horny, as befits a late-middle-aged bisexual space buccaneer who gets in underground death cage fights to let off steam. The sex-o-meter therefore awards Captain Wu a pon farr that turns out to be a sweaty false alarm due to the radiation from a nearby nebula out of a possible death by snu snu.
Plenty of hand-to-hand fights and shoot-outs and stuff, and a bit of pretty harrowing human-on-xeno abuse, but nothing particularly bloody or gutsy or splattered-offal-all-over-cockpitty here. I’d read this to my kids (11 and 8). Two-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.
The squid xenos were cool, their whole characterisation and mode of speech was chilling. That’s not so much a WTF as just me not knowing where else to mention it – but their origins, and their endgame, and the whole story of the masters and the book that is central to this story? That is some excellent WTF right there. I was left uncertain about whether the Commonwealth were just another hand of the masters. They’re not the masters themselves, right? Please? Anyway it ended on a cliffhanger with not many answers to any of the big questions set up throughout the narrative, so there you go. For WTF, Captain Wu gets a Dejarik out of a possible Fruity Oaty Bars! – go ahead and google those. It’s fine.
My Final Verdict
I really enjoyed this book, and although I’d be tempted to play a bit more with a longer gradient of scores, the Amazon / Goodreads scale is what we have so let’s give it four stars and leave it at that. Thanks Fitzgerald and Lyster for a grand read!
 Cap’n Wu is a bisexual grandmother of Asian descent, which checks a whole lot of boxes even if the authors … don’t so much? I remain uncertain how to approach this sort of thing because I love seeing the rich tapestry of human identity and cultural markers in fiction. We are a fascinating species of apes, no two ways about it. Get us away from the Flash Gordon (or shit, even the Malcolm Reynolds) space hero! And if a bisexual grandmother of Asian descent writes a sci-fi book, please let me know so I can read the shit out of it.
But still, and not to make a whole second review about this, the question of who “gets to” create voices like this in fiction is increasingly a thorny one. You’ll naturally want to hear this cishet white male opinion (I am even approaching middle age, and have a large grey beard) on this, so it’s this: I think it’s very, very important to have characters and backgrounds like this in the stories we tell each other. Normalise the gay protagonist, the Somali-descended space farmboy, the badass lady swashbuckler, the transmasc inventor of a gun that turns people into robots (but with a 0.1% chance of glitching and turning them into vessels for an eldritch horror from the underside of the universe)! I also think it’s very, very important that people in the real world who actually live these traits get their place at the table. They should write, and be read, and be celebrated.
Is it up to women to create more female characters? Is it up to LGBT+ authors to write more LGBT+ heroes? Is it up to artists of colour to bring people of colour into any and every creative space they can? Sure. It’s up to them. Can people like me help in any way? I sure hope so. We can help by buying, reading, spreading awareness and positivity and acceptance in what is still (trust me, it still is) a very closed series of circles and locked doors.
Can we also help by working more diverse identities into our own writing? Again, I hope so. If we can all only tell stories about and within our own sociocultural contexts, it’s going to be a lose-lose situation for everyone. But at the same time, white cishet blokes need to be aware that the white cishet bloke sociocultural context is still damn near a worldwide universal, and we’re not going to change that by shouting louder. We’re only going to change it by listening to the ones our forebears very effectively silenced. And that’s a highly uncomfortable prospect for some people. But shit, I’ve gone and written a whole second review about this even though I said I wasn’t going to.
 Farmboys, swashbucklers, gun-makers … you know.