Galaxy’s Edge – Galactic Outlaws – A Science Fiction Book Review

Back in January I reviewed Legionnaire, the first volume in the Galaxy’s Edge series by Jason Anspach & Nick Cole.  That story was a straight up mil-sf story set in a future where the human race has spread into the galaxy and formed a “Republic” of worlds.  At the point in this Universe’s history that Legionnaire takes place, the Republic is beginning to devolve into an empire, ruled over by an elite that controls the rich central systems, with an underclass occupying the rest of the galaxy and the edge of the galaxy as an outlaw haven where even the powerful Legion can do little but skirmish with the rebels and pirates that abound out there.  By the end of that story it’s apparent that all the skill and valor of the remnant of faithful soldiers is being frittered away for political points by the bureaucrats that call the shots and wield the Legion as a bludgeon against the innocent inhabitants of the poorer sectors of the Republic.  As I said back in January, it is an engaging military tale.

So, what have Anspach and Cole done for an encore?  It appears that Legionnaire merely set the stage for the main event.  This is going to be a space opera of epic proportions.  And it’s easy to see what they intend to do is follow the space opera play book but dial it up to eleven.  And in doing so they are following in a long tradition.  Most recently, George Lucas mined that vein for all it would pay with his Star Wars franchise.  His rebels revolting against a republic that has turned into an evil empire is the latest iteration of a story that goes back to the actual Roman Empire and the tales of Brutus and Spartacus and Masada.

And when I say they’ve dialed it up to eleven I’m not kidding.  The text is full of little blatant references to dialog and images reflecting some scene from Star Wars or Firefly.  It was kind of fun finding them.  And whole characters are parodied.  There is a princess with the rebels named Leenah.  There is a plucky scoundrel in a freighter who rescues the princess.  There is a bot that guards a young damsel in distress.  The bot speaks with some combination of the diction of C3P0 and the Operative from Serenity.  You can literally hear the toff British accent.  And then to make sure you don’t miss any ingredients they are sometimes doubled.  So, there are two scoundrels with freighters helping damsels in distress.  There are two damsels in distress.  There are two bounty hunters.

And there’s even a cantina.  There are mob warlords with bounties on the plucky scoundrels.  There is something like a dark lord whose name is Goth Sullus.  So far there are no Jedi Knights but some of the characters seem to live forever so something’s going on there.

Suffice it to say that a lot of stuff is going on.  And by the end of the book you can see that this is just the beginning of the story.

And now, what do I think of all this?  Well, I have a theory about space opera.  I believe that space opera has the potential to be very good or very bad.  It entirely depends on the imaginative powers and writing skills of the author.  Take an E. E. Doc Smith or an Edgar Rice Burroughs and you get the Lensman stories or Barsoom, fun and excitement.  Take the likes of George Lucas and you end up with Jar Jar Binks or the latest Disney feminist trope with a light saber.

The good news is this is fun space opera.  None of the damsels in distress rescue the hero.  No one mentions race or gender studies terminology and the good guys aren’t ashamed of being good.  I’m pretty sure the authors have included the homages to Star Wars imagery to sort of point out that the story doesn’t have to be bad just because of the space opera tropes.  It just requires the story and characters to be interesting, likable and fun.  And in this case they are.  So if you like your space opera right up front without too much artistic restraint then I’d recommend Galactic Outlaws.

10APR2018 – Quote of the Day

Sometime soon I’ll have to write a book review of Zorba the Greek.  I have a love/hate relationship with the book but every few years I have to reread it.  I think I read it not because the book is flawless (far from it) but because Zorba represents the essential component of the male soul, force of will.

Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis

Chapter 19

…    ‘Let’s get back to our subject! What about Zeus?’

‘Ah! the poor chap!’ sighed Zorba. ‘I’m the only one to know what he suffered. He

loved women, of course, but not the way you think, you pen-pushers! Not at all! He

was sorry for them! He understood what they all suffered and he sacrificed himself for

their sakes! When, in some god-forsaken country hole, he saw an old maid wasting

away with desire and regret, or a pretty young wife – or even if she wasn’t at all pretty,

even if she was a monster – and her husband away and she couldn’t get to sleep, he

used to cross himself, this good fellow, changed his clothes, take on whatever shape

the woman had in mind and go to her room.

‘He never bothered about women who just wanted petting. No! Often enough even he

was dead-beat: you can understand that. How could anybody satisfy all those she-

goats? Ah! Zeus! the poor old goat, More than once he couldn’t be bothered, he didn’t

feel too good. Have you never seen a billy after he’s covered several she-goats? He

slobbers at the mouth, his eyes are all misty and rheumy, he coughs a bit and can

hardly stand on his feet. Well, poor old Zeus must have been in that sad state quite

often.

‘At dawn he’d come home, saying: “Ah! my God! whenever shall I be able to have a

good night’s rest? I’m dropping!” And he’d keep wiping the saliva from his mouth.

‘But suddenly he’d hear a sigh: down there on earth some woman had thrown off her

bedclothes, gone out onto the balcony, almost stark naked, and was sighing enough

to turn the sails of a mill! And my old Zeus would be quite over-come.

“Oh, hell! I’ll have to go down again!” he’d groan.

“There’s a woman bemoaning  her lot! I’ll have to go and console her!”

‘And it went on like that to such an extent that the women emptied him completely. He

couldn’t move his back, he started vomiting, became paralysed and died. That’s when

his heir, Christ, arrived. He saw the wretched state the old man was in: “Beware of

women!” he cried.’

 

 

09APR2018 – Quote of the Day

When I was grade school kid every English teacher made you read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.”  But unlike most of the stuff given to us that story spoke to me.  And after a lifetime of doing stupid things it’s all the more resonant.

 

Following at the man’s heels was a big native dog. It was a wolf dog, gray-coated and not noticeably different from its brother, the wild wolf. The animal was worried by the great cold. It knew that this was no time for traveling. Its own feeling was closer to the truth than the man’s judgment. In reality, it was not merely colder than 50 below zero; it was colder than 60 below, than 70 below. It was 75 below zero. Because the freezing point is 32 above zero, it meant that there were 107 degrees of frost.The dog did not know anything about temperatures. Possibly in its brain there was no understanding of a condition of very cold, such as was in the man’s brain. But the animal sensed the danger. Its fear made it question eagerly every movement of the man as if expecting him to go into camp or to seek shelter somewhere and build a fire. The dog had learned about fire, and it wanted fire. Otherwise, it would dig itself into the snow and find shelter from the cold air.

 

Lord Valentine’s Castle by Robert Silverberg – A Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Review

A while back TomD gave me an SF&F book recommendation. He said that Silverberg’s Majipoor series was a combination of science fiction and fantasy.  At the time I couldn’t think of anything I’d read that fell into that category.  Well, my brain is old so I’ll plead that because after thinking about it awhile I remembered that Zelazny’s Lord of Light had aspects that fit both mythology and science fiction.  So I sent away to Bezos’s megamonopoly and received the three volumes in the series.  And of course it was interesting to see that on the cover of the first book (Lord Valentine’s Castle) that Zelazny had provided a positive blurb.  He said it was a picaresque tale.  And as it turned out, he was exactly right.  I’ll cut to the chase with the verdict.  I liked the story.  Now you’ll get the ponderous literary review.

So how can it be both a fantasy and science fiction? The story takes place on a planet called Majipoor.  It was a world colonized by humans via space travel more than ten thousand years before the story unfolds.  So there’s the science fiction.  And the humans seemed to have also brought along a number of sentient species to live on Majipoor from other planets.  These various species and the humans interact as good neighbors, for the most part, in a civilization of twenty to thirty billion souls that comfortably fits on the giant world of Majipoor.  Now here comes the fantasy.  This world is ruled by four beings designated, the Coronal, the Pontifex, The Lady of the Isle of Sleep and the King of Dreams.  The first two of these individuals performed much as the Augustus and Caesar of the later Roman Empire did, being a senior and junior king appointed to rule a gigantic state.  But the second two, the Lady and the King intervened in Majipoor by sending dreams to the inhabitants.  It is this dream life that lends a fantasy element to the story.  And just to lend a fantasy aspect to the surroundings most of the technology is more or less of a pre-industrial vintage.  But there are exceptions.  Beasts of burden pull the carts and wagons of the inhabitants but the wagons are actually placed on anti-gravity modules.  So, whatever power provides anti-gravity doesn’t also produce forward locomotion.  Very odd.

So this is the background. The narrative follows a very engaging fellow named Valentine who ends up on a journey to discover his past and his destiny.  He meets many interesting and amusing characters and even learns an interesting skill, juggling.  It sounds odd and doesn’t seem to have anything to do with either science fiction or fantasy but it makes for an interesting and entertaining read.  And that is the definition of a picaresque story.

Silverberg has invested a substantial amount of effort building up the background and scenery of Majipoor. He has given us the canvas.  There are several other volumes in the series and I like it enough to continue on to the next volume.  But I want to clarify a couple of things.  This isn’t the Lord of the Rings.  There is no solemn morality play underlying Majipoor.  It is a sunny world where the good guy gets the girl and the crown and juggling and wine are their own reward.  Read it for the inventiveness and the story.  No profundity impinged on my reading but it was fun.  Recommended for folks who like their fiction fun.

The Promethean – A Science Fiction Book Review

I previously read Owen Stanley’s novel “The Missionaries.”  That was a satire about primitive people running up against the insanity of United Nations social engineering.  Because I enjoyed his writing I figured I’d give “The Promethean” a whirl.  This book takes place in the same world as “The Missionaries” but since the subject involves humanoid robots and human-level artificial intelligence I’ve slightly stretched the definition by including it in science fiction.  But it also could be called a social satire or a social comedy.

The title is an echo of the full title of Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus.”  In our case Dr. Frankenstein is represented by Harry Hockenheimer, a depressed American billionaire approaching forty and feeling like a failure.  The mundane source of his vast wealth left him scientifically unfulfilled.  He desired to create a scientific marvel and what he decides on is a robot so advanced in mind and body that it can fool all even the most intelligent audience.

The story proceeds from his plan to secretly build his man in England to the adventures of his creation, Frank Meadows interacting with modern British society in its various facets, from a small town pub, to appearing on a day time reality television show, to a University faculty dinner, and finally to an invitation at 10 Downing Street.

Along the way we meet several interesting characters who represent various facets of society and various philosophical bents including the scourge of our age, the Social Justice Warriors.  But from my point of view, the most interesting character is a Scotsman academic, Dr. Habakkuk McWrath, Reader in Extreme Celtic Studies.  His pugnacious and colorful speech inspires Frank to assert his humanity even in the face of the Three Laws of Robotics.

And the book concludes at its absurd climax.  And what is the lesson of this social satire?  I really don’t know.  Perhaps it is just that humanity has reached a point where a rational appraisal of modern life can no longer find a reason to continue.  The absurdity of what we do and why we do it has finally reached a point where scrapping the whole enterprise and starting over is the best way forward.  But that is just my guess.  Let’s just say it is a tale questioning the definition of intelligent life.  It’s a moderate length story, about 170 pages and moves right along.  I liked it but I will caution that it is a mild tale and cannot be mistaken for an adventure story.  More of a droll cautionary tale of the world we now inhabit.

 

A Murder of Manatees by Larry Correia – A Science Fiction Book Review

As noted earlier, Larry Correia has published a second installment of his Tom Stranger stories (A Murder of Manatees: The Further Adventures of Tom Stranger, Interdimensional Insurance Agent[Audiobook] By: Larry Correia, Adam Baldwin, Audible Studios Sold By: Audible).

I have to admit.  This is a guilty pleasure.  The stories, such as they are, border on the ridiculous.  The plot is just an excuse to allow Tom Stranger and his friends and enemies to interact in an adventure that resembles science fiction in the same way that the old 1960s Batman tv series resembles Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight movies.

But I don’t care.  It’s fun.  Correia fills his little two-hour audiobook with good natured jabs at himself, modern politics, culture and the conventions of pulp science fiction.  There’s never any doubt that Tom and his associates will provide quality, excellent customer service and that the bad guys will get their comeuppance.

And we can also be assured that Adam Baldwin will continue to find ways of voice portraying whatever ridiculous characters Larry invents, no matter whether it’s a bubble gum snapping android from the Jersey Shore or a hard-tweeting U.S. President on the battle field of the Mar-a-Lago golf course.  Having only previously known Adam Baldwin’s acting skills from Full Metal Jacket, Firefly and Chuck I wasn’t prepared for his wonderfully hammy touch to this kind of goofy material.  He absolutely makes the most of the story and its characters.

I just finished it today and I enjoyed every silly second of it.  Bravo Larry and bravo Adam.  I only wish there were more.  And what I really wish is that Hollywood would wake up and make the Monster Hunter saga into a movie series (either tv or big screen).  And I think Adam Baldwin would be a natural as Agent Franks.

But that’s a rant for another day.  Meanwhile if you like goofy tongue in cheek pulp sci-fi or you’re a fan of Larry Correia or Adam Baldwin then I highly recommend A Murder of Manatees.  You could think of plenty of worse ways to spend two hours.

Legionnaire (Galaxy’s Edge) (Volume 1) by Jason Anspach & Nick Cole – A Science Fiction Book Review

I read one of Nick Cole’s earlier books (CTRL ALT Revolt!) last year and liked it.  So, when I heard he was involved in a mil-sf series I figured I’d check it out.  It turns out it’s a dual authorship arrangement with Jason Anspach.  I ordered it (I like to read books on paper) and read it last week.

I like well-written mil-sf.  This is well-written.  The story chronicles an elite military unit involved in a supposedly routine diplomatic mission that devolves into a catastrophe.  It melds the feel of modern American military in the middle east (ala Black Hawk Down) with lineage going back to Rudyard Kipling’s India stories and translates it into a futuristic landscape of alien creatures, energy weapons and space cruisers.  But the technology is definitely beside the point.  The story is the camaraderie of men attempting to complete their mission and keep each other alive in an environment where bureaucratic amateur officers are just as dangerous as the enemy.

The protagonist (first person narrative for the most part) is an NCO in the “Legion.”  Through his eyes we see his comrades display various strengths and weaknesses and we observe the “regular army” that are combined with the legionnaires on this mission attempting to adapt to a combat role they are unprepared for.  And we observe non-combatants and the alien inhabitants of this planet at the “galaxy’s edge.”

If you like military science fiction you’ll probably like this book.  If you even just like war stories you might like this book.  It is volume one of a series but this book is sort of a stand-alone story.  The series chronicles the saga of the Galactic Republic through the eyes of the Legion as an elite force cleaning up the messes being perpetrated by an increasingly autocratic state over its subject worlds at the periphery of the galaxy.  Basically, it sounds like the Roman Republic devolving into the Roman Empire.  Or is it the American Republic?

As you can probably guess from my comparison with Black Hawk Down, it’s not a happily ever after kind of tale.  It’s a down beat story but if you like mil-sf then that’s probably no surprise.  If not be warned.

So, here’s my opinion.  This is a good stand-alone story.  The story develops and the action and the sub-plots unfold in natural way.  The characters are interesting and have enough development to allow you to cheer and boo the appropriate actors.  I can definitely recommend it.  For me the question is do I go forward with a longer series?  From what I understand the individual books are separated in time.  They document the history of this galactic civilization.  Implicitly this means none of the characters will carry over to the next book.  Can the authors generate enough new people to populate the series?  I think I’ll try the next book in the series and see how that works out.  I’ll report back on the next installment when I do.

Greg Bear’s Hardfought – A Science Fiction Book Review

Hat tip to Tom (one of our most active site denizens) for recommending this story.  I knew of Greg Bear but when he was most popular my reading habit was curtailed due to SYFMS (struggling young family man syndrome).  After reading Hardfought I’m looking forward to reading some more of Mr. Bear’s stuff.

Hardfought has a pretty complex structure and several important plot elements are intentionally obscured.  This makes the beginning of the story confusing.  But hang in there.  It builds to a good effect.  Because of the structure of the story I can’t go into much detail of the plot without spoiling it.  Suffice it to say that this is a very interesting take on human-alien war.  I liked the way Bear uses the details of stellar evolution (lack of heavier elements in first generation star populations) to define the contrast between the human and alien characteristics.  The human characters appear strange to the reader.  Their environment and social structures are very unusual and so it takes a little bit of plot revelation to start to put their behaviors into context.  The alien protagonist’s behavior and motivation are intentionally inhuman but his interactions with his own species and with humans highlights several traits that make him useful to the resolution of the story.

The story is a meditation on the consequences of total war or war to extermination.  I think it is asking whether survival at any cost actually is surviving.  If what is left of you at the end is unrecognizable did you actually survive?  And I don’t think Bear is answering the question.  He is just illustrating the end of the trajectory.  It is obvious to the reader what has been lost but everyone gets to decide if the price is too high.

A very interesting read.  I’ll have to look through Bear’s other stuff and see what else I should try.  Thanks again Tom.

Whispers from The Abyss – An Anthology of H. P. Lovecraft Inspired Short Stories –  Edited by Kat Rocha – A Horror Book Review – Part 2

Whispers from The Abyss – Part 1

Taking up where I left off, I’ll discuss some of the longer works in the anthology.  I arbitrarily divided the works as those eight or more pages long and those shorter.  First up, “Secrets in Storage” by Tim Pratt and Greg Van Eekhout.  It’s a straightforward tale of a man who looks in a mysterious box.  The set-up is up to the minute Americana.  A man spends his whole nest egg on the contents of a storage locker.  He goes with a hunch and of course exhibits more guts than brains when he reacts to an impossible scenario by literally climbing into the paradox.  I like the ending.  It reminds me of the ending of Heinlein’s “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag.  Only instead of no mirrors, no boxes or pools.  It’s a refreshing change of pace.

Next is “The Substance in the Sound” by W. B. Stickel.”  This is also a simple tale but well told and the details of the characters and the harbor environment is interesting.  The tie-in to the mythos is not the conventional one and allows some added surprise.  As a New England resident it’s always interesting when the stories return to Lovecraft’s old stomping grounds.

My favorite long story is The Jar of Aten-Hor. By Kat Rocha.  It is a story linking back to the Egyptian religious customs surrounding death.  The description of the funerary artifact around which the story revolves is very vividly described. As with some of Lovecraft’s best imagery it calls out for a visual representation.  But the description is detailed enough to bring it to the mind’s eye.  The protagonist at each turn is provided an avenue of escape and each time she believes that she is deciding her own fate but by the end of the story it is evident that she was the one being manipulated.  Although Egypt wasn’t the most frequent focus of Lovecraft’s mythic sources he did borrow from it for some of his Old Ones names.  I remember reading a description of the pyramids that Lovecraft wrote for some event of Harry Houdini’s.  It was entitled “Under the Pyramids.”  It was one of the better things Lovecraft ever wrote.  It’s nice to see a story that links Lovecraft back to a rich source of highly relevant mythic material.  The inexplicable changing images on the jar provide the link to show the change going on in the protagonist.  Her fascination with the jar grows past a professional interest until finally it becomes an obsession.  The story is well crafted and full of interesting details.  If only Lovecraft himself had been as careful with his writing.  Then I wouldn’t have to make so much fun of him.

In my final post I’ll sum up my thoughts on Whispers from the Abyss and I’ll even throw in some more abuse of Lovecraft at no extra charge.

Whispers from The Abyss – An Anthology of H. P. Lovecraft Inspired Short Stories –  Edited by Kat Rocha – A Horror Book Review – Part 1

 

Anyone with a comprehensive knowledge of this blog knows that I have a love/hate relationship with the works of H. P. Lovecraft.

Why No Love for the Craft of Howard Phillips? – Part 1- The Whisperer in the Darkness

Space Opera (High and Low)

On the one hand, some of his stories are, in my opinion, terribly written.  The action and narration are painful to read and sometimes seem like parody.  On the other hand, some of the images he presents possess the potency of an archetypal nightmare.  I feel that he had an extremely powerful imagination but for whatever reason lacked or neglected to use the writing techniques needed for good story-telling.  For this reason, I continue to circle around Lovecraft’s works.  Aggravated by the reality but fascinated by the potential.

So, I just finished the stories in this anthology.  I read them over the course of yesterday and today.  That’s twenty-eight stories inspired by the writings of Lovecraft.  By any protocol currently in place that is dangerously north of the recommended median safe dosage.  And what I found is consistent with both what I know about Lovecraft and what I know about anthologies.  Let’s look at the categories.

Case 1:  Assume you are a rabid Lovecraft fanatic.  Then by definition you’ll love this anthology.  It’s chock full of Lovecraftian bug juice.  You’re not gonna find a stronger dose of the real thing.  But even you, the grand master of the Lovecraft Day Parade will enjoy certain stories more than others.  Stands to reason.  Because even though the stories have the main attraction it’s there in different dosages and also it is flavored with the other ingredients.  Suppose you are a rabid right wing Lovecraftian and you hit upon a story that includes some feminist story elements or sentiments.  Then that would decrease your enjoyment.  Or suppose you’re a Cthulhu Mythos purist and a story contains some element that you see as heretical, say humor or some science that disagrees with your vision of the saga.  This also would be a negative.

Case 2:  You’re a Lovecraft agnostic.  You don’t hate or love him.  Then each story is taken on its merits.  And so, even more powerfully than in Case 1 your own spectrum of preferences come into play and by definition you will have a much lower average score for each story since it won’t start out on the Lovecraftian plateau.

Case 3:  You despise Lovecraft.  Well, in that case you’d have to be reading this collection out of some kind of masochistic impulse.  Because even if the story characteristics agreed with your other requirements for good fiction, the Lovecraftian elements would be a constant irritant.  Chances are a much smaller subset would be acceptable.  These would be stories that have all the other personal qualifications going for them to offset the anti-Lovecraft bias.

As previously stated, I fall into the second category.  The story will work or not based on how well the elements resonate with my tastes.  And since I’m an old geezer brought up in the paleolithic era I respond well to regressive, patriarchal, hetero-cis-normative, Europhilic, western pro-American themes extremely well.  All other influences lower the enjoyment quotient to some degree.  By definition, anything written after 1957 is going to suffer from a certain deviation from this baseline point of view.  End of truth in advertising disclaimer.

So let’s get started.  The story that best represents the nightmare quality that I think is the most powerful part of the Lovecraft experience is also one of the shortest pieces in the anthology.  I’ve always thought that parents’ emotional bond to their children is the strongest point of attack for horror writers.  In his story “When We Change,” Mason Ian Bundschuh identifies what can be truly horrific about humans being forced into a meat grinder.  Forcing people to make unthinkable choices is the very essence of tragedy and horror.

Interestingly, another of my favorites is a parody, a Lovecraftian farce.  James Brogden’s “The Decorative Water Feature of Nameless Dread” was very good.  It falls into the British tradition of Wodehouse, Fawlty Towers, The Office and anything else that juxtaposes the English desire for propriety and normalcy against the actual absurdity of real life. I definitely was smiling during my read of this story.  It aligns very nicely with my own sense of humor.

In the next installment of this article I’ll give my ideas on some of the larger stories.