Other Science Fiction
Marvelous Con and Tax Cons
Alfred Favero is back with his most unique problem yet—his girlfriend, Nancy, has been murdered and he has to stop it from happening. Yes, that’s right! It’s already happened but that isn’t going to stop Alfred from saving the day. There are, however, a few problems such as him having only the vaguest of ideas why Nancy was killed in the first place. This might be Ford’s best mystery yet and it retains all the mad fun of the first two books. Alfred continues to bring to the table his extraordinary intelligence coupled with his basic inability to understand people. It makes for a unique and often lovable hero as he steps way outside his comfort zone to save the life of the woman he loves.
You don’t have to have read the previous books in this series to enjoy this novel, but I think you will enjoy it more if you have. I strongly recommend starting with T-Rexes and Tax Law. But be forewarned! I predict that you won’t want to stop with just one book.
Andorra Pett on Mars by Richard Dee
Andorra Pett is still her own worst enemy. She’s just so dang nice that not only does she have a very hard time thinking badly of anyone, she has an even harder time saying no to someone who asks for her help—even when that person is her ex-boyfriend who cheated on her with her best friend. Now that friend (Maisie) has committed suicide on Mars and Trevor (the ex) doesn’t believe she would kill herself. He wants Andorra to return to Mars with him and figure out what really happened to Maisie. Of course, we know from the beginning that Trevor is not being straight with Andorra. The question is what is really going on?
Like in the first book, there is a solid mystery at the core of this story and Dee plays fair with the clues as Andorra works her way closer and closer to the truth. Yet it’s zany Andorra and her sidekick, Cy, that makes the story work. She doesn’t have the large crazy supporting cast of the first novel, but she brings the same Andorra charm to uncovering who killed her former best friend. There are touching moments mixed in around the exciting ones. If you enjoyed the first book, you’ll certainly like this one too.
Dead Moon by Peter Cline
I’ve started a lot of reviews with the words, “I like zombie novels.” That’s true, but what’s even more true is that I like books with very creative takes on the zombie theme and Peter Cline’s Dead Moon is about as creative as it comes.
In the future, the moon has become a massive cemetery with something like 16 million bodies interned there. A space elevator makes transportation to the moon really cheap and the notion that bodies buried on the moon don’t decompose appeals to a lot of rich people. So several cemeteries have sprouted on the moon and a new profession—caretaker—has developed to take care of the deceased.
On top of that, the moon is a tourist attraction with classes of rich students going to the moon instead of Disney World on elaborate field trips. Not to mention business ventures, etc. So there are lots of potential victims for the coming zombie horde.
Matters begin in a pretty straightforward fashion. A meteor strike results in the undead beginning to rise and—very realistically I thought—no one believes it’s happening. Official reaction is extremely slow and further complicated by the fact that one of the first presumed victims of the zombies is the spoiled son of the company CEO.
Then things get really interesting. These zombies are not just mindless brain-seeking corpses. They have a disturbingly high level of cunning. They might even be smart.
I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises in the novel, so I’ll just say that the reader (with slightly more information than the characters) understands that there is more going on than the dead rising. Just what that is, however, is not immediately clear—even though Cline gives plenty of clues that I kicked myself for missing earlier in the book. This is a brilliantly plotted novel that also appears to be very well researched. I’m not an expert on the moon or conditions there, but the description of what a person goes through when exposed to the cold vacuum of space was riveting and totally believable. Even if the rest of the book had been terrible (and let’s be clear, it’s awesomely good) that one scene and it’s follow up chapter would have been worth reading the entire novel for.
Every time you think we’re approaching the natural end of the book, Cline shakes things up and ramps the tension even higher. I’m proud to say I figured out a big chunk of how our heroes were going to deal with the final monstrous problem, but I’m not sure how much credit that should give me because I didn’t figure out that that particular problem was going to need to be solved until Cline hit me over the head with it.
I’d like to wrap up by noting that novels can be made or broken based on the skills of their narrators. Fortunately, Ray Porter has the kind of voice and cadence that could make the wandering dead stop and listen to him. He does a phenomenal job and it just makes a great book all the better.
If you’re looking for zombies in a new and interesting environment, you should listen to Dead Moon.
The Harem at the End of the Galaxy by Kyle Kenze
I expected this book to be ridiculous when I ordered it and portions clearly were, but hidden beneath the mountains of sex was a decent (not sure that “decent” is the appropriate word to use for any part of this novel) science fiction plot with the fate of humanity at stake. That being said, any potential reader should be aware that plot or no plot, this book is primarily an excuse to write a large number of very graphic sex scenes.
So the plot: Clayton, our hero, is pulled from the present day through time to a colony of humans living on the far side of the galaxy to repopulate the species through the use of his uncorrupted DNA as preserved in his manly fluids. (Translation, he’s yanked into the future to have sex with a lot of beautiful women.) But he doesn’t stay in the future very long as he is yanked back and forth through time. At first it looked like this book was going to be built around him being yanked out of compromising situations (unsatisfied) only to be dropped into awkward settings in his own time. But fortunately, author, Kyle Kenze, had a better plot in mind.
I don’t want to give away that plot, but I will go so far as to point out that it has to do with finding a way to influence the past through time travel when the time traveler has so many limitations that it makes the task look impossible. The time travel conundrum is decently thought out. (Not sure that it’s perfect, but it’s more than good enough for the subgenre.) I certainly didn’t see the solution Kenze’s heroes come up with, but found it satisfying enough that I’d say the novel was far better than I expected when I requested it.
I received this book free from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.
UFOs and Unpaid Taxes by Rachel Ford
If you enjoyed the first book in this series, you’re going to love this one. The new and improved, but still endearingly flawed, Alfred Favero, has set his sights on another tax cheat—a UFO-themed shop and museum called Landing Site Earth. They peddle trinkets to gullible Americans who believe that aliens regularly visit the planet and Alfred is certain they are underreporting their income to Uncle Sam. Unfortunately for Alfred, that is not the only thing they are underreporting as our favorite taxman discovers when he catches the owner of the shop with a genuine alien. Discovering this fact causes Alfred to run headlong into a black operation within the US government and forces him to take stock of himself and decide if he wants to be the kind of man who turns his back on an alien in trouble or the kind who puts it all on the line to rescue an intelligent being from the clutches of his government.
While all of this is happening, Alfred remains clueless regarding most human interactions and as a result he has accidentally pushed Nancy into the arms of Josh, the ex-marine from the first novel who desperately wants to be Nancy’s boyfriend. Josh is self-confident, physically fit, and comfortable with women—all things that Alfred is not. His situation is not helped by Alfred’s need to go on the run with Lee, the remarkably likeable alien. This is both the most enjoyable part of the novel and the one with most obvious weaknesses. Alfred spends a lot of money while he seeks to keep Lee out of government hands, but there is no mention of how he pays for everything. In today’s society, most of us do not have a lot of cash on hand and I would have appreciated it if the author could have make some passing explanation as to why Alfred has endless supplies of cash. After all, using his debit or credit card would have brought the government down on him in a moment. Still, it’s a small complaint—especially when compared to the delight of watching Lee discover America and hilariously give Alfred advise on how to win the heart of Nancy.
Narrator John Carter Aimone stepped up his game in this novel. The long pauses between sentences are much diminished and the tendency to be overly dramatic toned down a bit. He also has created a truly wonderful voice for the alien, Lee, catching all of the creatures wonder and pleasure at everything around him.
In summation, this is an utterly delightful book which leaves me eagerly looking forward to the next novel in the series.
I received this book for free from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.
T-Rexes and Tax Law by Rachel Ford
The hero of this novel, Alfred, could easily have served as its primary villain. He’s not evil, just obsessively interested in enforcing every rule in the work place and the United States. In many ways, this is a perfect disposition for a Senior Analyst at the IRS, but when you add to the equation that Alfred is completely oblivious to how his need for orderliness negatively impacts those around him, he should have been the least sympathetic of heroes. It’s a testament to Rachel Ford’s skill as an author that I had the opposite reaction. I almost immediately connected with Alfred and I vigorously rooted for him as he struggled with both complex social interactions and the even more difficult problem that drives the plot of the story. And what a problem it is…
Alfred and his reluctant investigative partner, Nancy, are investigating a suspected billionaire tax cheat when they stumble upon dinosaurs in one of his abandoned corporate facilities and Alfred accidentally gets the two of them transported 67 million years into the past where they discover the missing billionaire and a few dozen of his employees trapped in the Cretaceous Period. This is where the book really gets interesting. There are several intertwined mysteries here all stemming from the question: how did the billionaire get trapped in the past? I was very pleased that I worked out most of the answers on my own and was even more pleased with the parts Ford had to fill in for me.
In any book involving time travel, the author has to deal with the problems of paradox and the circular possibilities that time travel brings to the table. I felt completely satisfied with Ford’s handling of these problems which she adroitly used to add quite a bit of tension to the novel.
The best part of the story was Alfred’s growth as a person. Being isolated under stressful circumstances with Nancy forces him to truly listen to another person for the first time in his life and he is shocked by her perception of him. This led to a moving and wholly believable evolution in his character. He doesn’t stop being a rules obsessed know-it-all, but he does learn a little about self-sacrifice and friendship which makes him increasingly endearing as the novel unfolds.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and am looking forward to listening to the sequel.
I received this book free from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.
The Dispatcher by John Scalzi
Science fiction is at its best when it makes you think and John Scalzi’s, The Dispatcher, will make your brain work overtime. In the future, the bodies of people who are murdered disappear from the crime scene and reappear—fully alive—in their homes. This outstanding novella explores the implications of this bizarre new fact of life.
One of those implications is the development of a new profession. Dispatchers are government licensed person whose job it is to kill individuals just before they would die a “natural” death so that they have a second shot at living. So dispatchers are now required by insurance companies to be present in many surgeries in case things go wrong. If the patient dies on the operating table they are dead, but if the dispatcher kills them a few moments earlier they disappear and wake up at home with their body in a state before the surgery began. Similarly, in a car accident. If a dispatcher happens to be nearby you can instantly recover without your injuries.
These are examples of benign legitimate efforts to take advantage of this new reality, but Scalzi also digs into the dark side—the many ways in which criminals and other people can take advantage of the new situation. Much of this is very troubling, but totally credible given the new rules of reality.
The story is built around the disappearance of a dispatcher. It’s a tight little mystery that gives the excuse to seamlessly explore this side of the new reality. I totally enjoyed this book.
The Singularity Trap by Dennis E. Taylor
This is a remarkable novel with a strange twist on first contact. The aliens arrived well before humanity existed, prepared a “gift” (the Singularity Trap of the title), and left again. The story picks up with the human mining crew who are going to discover the aliens’ parting present.
This is where the story moves into high gear and gets incredibly interesting. The alien gift begins to transform one of the mining crew members and threatens his ability to control his own mind and body. This naturally scares the authorities of his nation and heightens the tensions in a futuristic cold war. There are issues of strategic defense, human rights, and mob mentality to deal with. At the same time there is an extraordinary mystery to be uncovered—what are the aliens, what do they want, and why are messing with our hero’s body?
As we move toward the finale of the novel, our hero must carefully outthink just about every side in the book as he struggles to find a path through the complex future maze that leads to the survival of humanity. This is a thoroughly enjoyable, thought provoking, science fiction novel that took me in directions I never expected to go.
Rip Off (an SF anthology)
This is a collection of short stories written by members of the Science Fiction Writers of America and inspired by the first line of a classic book. It’s a great idea, but in practice didn’t work that well for me.
I should start by pointing out that I am a big fan of the short story format and often read collections. It’s rare that every story in a volume will appeal to me but usually I encounter that gem or two that makes the collection worthwhile and then another handful that were fun as far as they go. This collection pulled up a little weak for me by my usual standard. In fact, I only found three that really stood out in the collection.
The Big Whale by Alan Steele was by far the best in the book. It reimagines Moby Dick as a hardboiled detective story and incorporates the cast of the original novel in a highly entertaining story. I’ve read many others of Steele’s stories over the years and this ranks with the best of them. Mike Resnick and John Scalzi also both included creative and enjoyable stories.
Perhaps the best feature of this collection is the set of introductions by the authors to each of their stories in which they explain why they chose the book they used to launch their tales. I always enjoy insights into author’s inspiration and this volume gives you a lot of them.
On the surface, this is a rather straightforward novel about alien drones that blanket the earth killing anyone who steps outside of a structure like a house or an automobile. The death toll quickly mounts upwards of one billion as humanity hunkers down and tries to figure out what they will do when the food and water runs out in their homes. At the same time, this is a story about people and how they will respond to being shut up with each other after terrible tragedy. Their fears and their insecurities bring out the absolute worst in some while others find the courage to face their circumstances and help others. It’s this latter story, handled with subtle sophistication by the author, Michael James, that makes this novel so powerful.
James sets the stage by introducing a fairly large cast of people planning a neighborhood barbecue. As with any street in America, there are a lot of tensions underlying the relationships on this street. An alcoholic mother is abusing her teenaged daughter. An adulterous affair is on the verge of rocking two marriages. And the usual macho bs dominates the interactions of the male parents. None of these problems seem important when the sky opens up spawning thousands of drones that immediately begin firing lasers at anyone caught out in the open, but when the survivors find themselves trapped in small groups wondering how they will survive, these tensions will threaten their ultimate survival.
Focusing mostly on four locations—three houses and a tree fort with three kids inside—the novel examines how different personality types deal with what could well be the end of the world. The ones who have the most difficulty coping with their sudden helplessness are the most assertive and controlling of the neighbors. Strangely, it is the teenagers in the tree fort who are best able to think about the global problem of the drones and begin to figure out ways to work around them. They show intelligence and courage that their parents are sadly (but believably) lacking. And one of the best (i.e. most outrageous) lines in the whole book comes after the teenagers have made it possible for people to start linking up together again when one of the parents says, “Let the adults handle this.” The irony of it still makes me chuckle.
Aliens and Ice Cream is a brilliant mix of all-too-relatable horror and a well-thought-out science fiction setting. As with most good horror fiction, its success is built on believable characters dealing with appalling circumstances. Some rise up to the challenge while others give into their darker natures. It makes for very good reading and leaves me hoping there will be a sequel.
I don’t quite know what to think about this book. On the one hand, it is an undeniably enjoyable tale about a teenaged girl with the undesirable ability to see the date of when any person she meets will die. She can even see the death date in a photograph. As you might imagine, this is not a blessing. It causes her to be socially isolated in school and it has helped to send her mother into alcoholism when her father is killed on precisely the day Maddie predicted.
The characters are all well drawn and believable. To get drinking money, Maddie’s mother sells sessions with Maddie for people who want to know when they or people they care about are going to die. Unsurprisingly, some of these sessions go poorly as people respond negatively to the news. Maddie is suspected of murdering a young boy when he dies (kidnapped, tortured and murdered) as she predicted. (She only predicts the when, not the how.) And this is when the story takes a turn for the worse.
Despite having an obviously high IQ, Maddie behaves stupidly for most of the story. When the FBI questions her in the disappearance of the boy she tells them she sees death dates but makes no effort to prove to them what she can do. Proving her talent to customers must be a regular part of her life. Think it through. They bring the photograph of an already deceased person that Maddie couldn’t know and she tells them the day they died. Anyone with half a brain would know that the FBI (and just about anyone else) was not going to believe she had this “talent”. With the internet at their disposal they could have quickly come up with fifty or a hundred pictures that would have at least stopped them from automatically dismissing her claim. They could then (as they finally do half way through the story) have created a more controllable test using old family photographs and in doing so eliminated Maddie as a suspect. But she doesn’t make any effort to prove things to them until a third of the way through the novel. Similarly, she constantly holds back important information from her uncle (who is also her lawyer) and the FBI and the whole conclusion of the story depends on her doing something that I frankly don’t believe anyone is dumb enough to do.
Not all of her foolish moves are unbelievable. She is a teenager after all. And she and her best (and only) friend are almost obsessed with the idea of changing a person’s death date, which explains how he catches the FBI’s attention and gets accused of murder. The bullying in school that follows is well written and disturbing and it is in the resolution of that problem that the novel finally hits its stride and gets on firmer footing.
Once Maddie undertakes to prove to the FBI she has her ability to see death dates, the novel improves considerably. The action moves more quickly and her talent proves useful to the investigation. But again, something happens that it is difficult to justify—even though it is very exciting when it happens. Maddie discovers the ability to influence death dates. This is difficult to justify. She hasn’t been seeing the date people die of natural causes. She’s been seeing the date they die no matter what the cause—cancer, murder, automobile accident. So how does she suddenly gain the ability to change the course of fate? Again, it’s exciting, but it left me looking for an explanation from the author that was not forthcoming.
Overall, I’m glad I read the book. I enjoyed it. But I think that with
just a little restructuring of the plot it could have been a far superior
I almost didn’t get this book and that would have been a terrible misfortune for me. On the surface, Maelstrom struck me as a run-of-the-mill story of beings and creatures passing between parallel earths, but it proved to be much better than that.
The novel is broken into three parts. The first is told from the POV of Elizabeth Cali, an American doctor working in rural China. Security guards at her medical center have a violent conflict with a tribesman from the nearby desert. The tribesman has brought in a sick elderly man and for reasons that aren’t immediately apparent, the guards are fighting with the younger tribesman who performs feats of amazing strength and basically wins the battle. The doctor calms him down, gets security to back off, and starts to help the sick man who is dying of heart problems. She realizes that both tribesmen have deformities. Neither can speak, their skulls are elongated, and more. She gets x-rays and realizes that both are Neandertals. Excited that she thinks she has discovered a possible Neandertal tribe that has survived into the present day, she investigates further and learns that the situation is much more bizarre than that. The Neandertal have been passing from their world into ours for centuries and there is frightening evidence that more worlds are colliding with ours, opening up passes between them in a manner that will eventually destroy our planet.
The second portion of the story follows a NYC cop, named Mark, and a jogger in Central Park who are caught in the next collision of planets and transported to a world where Homo Sapiens does not appear to have risen and prehistoric lions, saber tooth tigers, and more roam what on our planet is NYC. This is both the best section of the novel and the one that requires the greatest suspension of disbelief—it seems highly improbable that for the first time a portal will open in a major city just as Dr. Cali was discovering that the portals exist. That small problem aside, I was extremely impressed by how the author, Peter Cawdron, handled this dislocation and the terrible problem of trying to help a woman trapped in the rubble of NYC buildings that collapsed when they were pulled onto this new planet. This is a painfully powerful section that had me on the edge of my seat.
The third section follows many of the people introduced earlier in the novel as they move through the portal (called a maelstrom) in China to try and figure out how to save our planet. This seemed hopeless to me when they started, but again, Cawdron has brilliantly thought through the situation that caused the maelstrom and I was totally satisfied with his conclusion. This is among the very best of parallel universe stories that I’ve ever had the pleasure to read and the three narrators in the audio book do a magnificent job of bringing the text to life. I’m very glad I bought the story and I’ll be looking up other books by Peter Cawdron.
This is a fun little mystery set out in the rings of Saturn. Andi Pett and her friend Cy have left Earth for the outer reaches of the solar system because a love affair went bad for Andi. Even though they have absolutely no experience in running a restaurant, they decide to open a café and go into competition with the man who unofficially runs the station. Almost immediately, they discover that the former owner of their new establishment didn’t simply pick up and leave as everyone believes. His very dead body is found frozen in the freezer. Andi and Cy are convinced by their new friends not to report the crime on the theory that they will be blamed even though they just arrived on the station that day and the dead man has been missing a long time. Then things get really crazy!
There are moments in this story, such as the one that I just described,
when as a reader you have to do more than suspend a little disbelief. For
example, everyone thinks the dead man left the station, but apparently no one
thought to check the shuttle records to see if that was true. And no one
searched his place (and the freezer he was lying in) even though, as it turns
out, the dead man had kept a black book with explicit details of his many
liaisons that everyone thinks he was blackmailing people with. For some reason,
the many days or weeks the restaurant was empty before Andi arrived were not
good times to search it—although everyone wants to once the café opens. Yet,
strangely, these weaknesses in the plot do not in any way detract from the
overall enjoyment of the story. This is a people-centric tale in which you
follow Andi trying to figure out who the murderer is by learning about all the
people he interacted with. There are a lot of great characters in this book and
the clues are honest and decipherable. If you like a cozy mystery, you’ll be glad
you read Andorra Pett and the Oort Cloud Café.
This novel is an alien-contact conspiracy theorist’s dream. Area 51 is the famous / infamous theorized location of a secret government repository of alien artifacts and possibly dead bodies. It’s the center of a conspiracy theory in which the U.S. government is orchestrating a massive cover up designed to hide the existence of these alien artifacts and intelligent extraterrestrial life from both foreign governments and its own people. In Area 51, Bob Mayer spins a tale in which he connects the dots behind Area 51 and a great many of the mysteries that populate the alien contact shows that dominate late night cable television.
At the heart of the novel’s mystery is a secretive government compound where alien spacecraft—whose technology is not yet understood—are being test piloted. The president is concerned that the personnel in charge of the project are concealing information from him, so through his science advisor he arranges to have a special forces solider inserted into Area 51 security as a presidential spy. Almost immediately everything starts going wrong.
Ancient Egypt, Easter Island, legends of lost Atlantis, secret Nazi
investigations, Antarctica, Thule…all point to the conclusion that aliens once
visited our planet and unless humans are very careful the secret machinations
of the investigators at Area 51 might just bring them back again.
If you buy this novel be prepared to fasten your seatbelt because you’re in for a wild ride. Aliens have come to the small town of Slagstone, Montana and it’s up to the small-town sheriff, his cheerleading coach girlfriend, and a family of crazy survivalists to save the whole world from alien conquest. There frankly isn’t a lot to this plot that you haven’t seen a dozen times before, but Tripp puts it together with lovable characters and a heck of a lot of action. It’s loads of fun from start to finish and I’m very glad I read it.
I wanted to give this novel five stars for the sheer pleasure of the experience but the truth is there are a couple of flaws in the book that make me hold it down to four. The first is that the way the aliens propagate never really makes sense to me. I don’t want to say more because it would spoil a surprise toward the end of the book, but it seemed to me that the rules for making more aliens that were setup early on are broken near the end and that doesn’t sit well with me.
My second problem was much more serious. There are a lot of encounters with the big bad guy across the room while our heroes are shooting up the aliens. They identify him. They watch him do bad things. They exchange meaningful glances. But nobody ever takes a shot at him and that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Since he’s needed for the end of the story, I wouldn’t have minded him ducking out of the way, or one of the other aliens taking the hit for him, but it’s hard to understand why nobody tired to send a bullet his way in multiple scenes.
I think these problems are serious, but they only slightly tarnish a
really fun story. So if you’re looking for a lot of hearty action in the alien
invasion subgenre, you’ll be glad you read Bad Things.
Stardance by Spider Robinson
I’ve always wanted to read this Hugo and Nebula award winning novella. It does something unusual in science fiction and that is it focuses on dance to a degree that I have never come across before and then it finds a way to make that art form critical to the storyline. It’s easy to see why this caught attention when it was first written. It’s emotionally powerful as we watch a woman pursue her dream without regard to her health or safe and it’s easy to image it won’t come to a good end.
However, I think I would have liked the book better if it had stopped
with the original novella rather than extending the story into a novel. It wasn’t
that the story became bad after the novella, but I felt it diluted the power of
that first tale. It also gave us a little too much time with a narrator whose
greatest gift seems to have been his ability to fight with authority figures.
Dream Park by Larry Niven and Steven BarnesThere’s a lot to like about this novel. On the one hand it’s built around a very interesting murder mystery in which the authors play fair and give you all the pieces you need to solve the crime. (I didn’t solve it, but I was left feeling like I could have done so.) On the other hand, it’s the story of a role-playing game played live-action with incredibly sophisticated technology—a clear forerunner to many modern novels built around virtual-reality-based games. It’s also a form of coming-of-age story in which the main character, Griffon, the head of Dream Park security has to go undercover in the gaming experience to catch a murderer and learns to love and respect the games that are the heart of Dream Park’s business. This is an intricately plotted novel in which the role-playing adventure is built upon the most interesting mythology. It’s wonderfully creative and sure to hold your interest.
Project by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes
The sequel to Dream Park is packed with more of what I loved in the first book. The novel opens with a crime. Someone has snuck a real rifle into one of the games and the poor gamer who wields the weapon unintentionally commits murder. Eight years later, Dream Park is hosting an international conference trying to raise money for the Barsoom Project, an ambitious plan to build a high-tech elevator capable of lifting cargo to and from orbit at a fractional cost. To make certain all the conference participants are in a properly happy mood, Dream Park has been opened to their families so the families can play while the financial arrangements are worked out. But there are tons of problems. The financiers represent every country on earth and many are affiliated with terrorist groups. It’s a security nightmare for our hero, Alex Griffon.
One of those relatives is playing in one of the roleplaying games
including her internet friend, Michelle, who just so happens to be the
emotionally traumatized woman whose weapon killed a man in Dream Park eight
years ago. Michelle’s presence attracts the wrong kind of attention and
suddenly Dream Park security sees an opportunity to finish solving the crime
from eight years earlier. So while the players are up against an extremely
challenging mystery that once again appears to weld modern tech into magical
mythologies, Griffon is pitting his mind and his team against a clever modern
terrorist. This one is exciting from beginning to end.
The California Voodoo Game by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes
The California Voodoo Game didn’t quite live up to the standard set by the first two books in this series. The outside the game mystery was quite intriguing, but the “game” storyline, for the first time in the series, never quite captured my interest.
The California Voodoo Game is the title of the latest roleplaying epic being sponsored by Dream Park. Five teams compete in a completely new location to solve the game. A couple of the players have appeared in earlier stories as had most of the Dream Park staff who play a role in the story. Just before the game starts, Alex Griffon’s girlfriend, and second in charge of the game security, is murdered. The reader sees this happen and knows who the villain is, but we don’t understand what the bad guy is after. While Alex’s staff pursues the murderer from outside, Alex once again goes into the game to see if he can draw him out.
All of that is great. Trying to navigate through the myriad blinds the murderer has constructed to uncover what he is really after was a solid storyline. Unfortunately, it happens within a game mystery which just didn’t measure up to the first two Dream Park stories. And since much of the action happened in the game, the book often seemed to plod along for me.
The novel is still worth reading if you liked the first two books in the
series, it’s just not quite as good as the first two were.
The Dream Park series ends on an awesome note with The Moon Maze Game. I loved the first book and thoroughly enjoyed The Barsoom Project but thought the series took a wrong turn with The California Voodoo Game. With the Moon Maze Game, Niven and Barnes recaptured the magic, and ironically did it by breaking the formula that governed the first three books.
These novels all revolve around a live-action role playing game which utilizes holograms and robotics to produce fantasy adventures. The efforts by the players to win the game is always a central part of the plot, but there is also always a crime that occurs outside the game that somehow involves the players in the games. Our heroes are always trying to solve the crime without interrupting the game which is a major cinematic event with tens of millions dollars depending on it being completed. The Moon Maze Game has all of that plus some excellent subplots involving problems between members of the cast, but what makes this stand out as the best book in the series was that Niven and Barnes broke their formula midway through, upping the tension dramatically and making this a thrilling rollercoaster of a ride.
The plot was especially appealing to me because it revolves around H.G. Wells’ novel, The First Men in the Moon. The numerous ways that Wells’ work is woven into this story is an utter delight for the science fiction fan. You don’t have to be familiar with Wells to enjoy the book, but it certainly adds to the fun if you are.
There was only one significant mistake in the plot that I picked up upon. The crime involves people on earth believing that one of the players in the game taking place on the moon has been kidnapped—even though the kidnappers don’t always have control over their victim. Communications between the game area and the rest of the world have supposedly been severed. Yet, we find out at the end of the story that the game cameras were transmitting everything that happened. This means that everyone on earth knew the kidnapping had at least partially failed. It also means that the authorities on the moon trying to figure out what to do should have had more information than they did (because they were still able to contact earth). To make matters worse, the error wasn’t necessary to advance the plot. Still, it’s easy to overlook this one thing and enjoy a great novel.
Broken Time by Maggy ThomasThe best science fiction makes you think. It doesn't force you to do so, it tantalizes and teases your brain into working overtime, making connections within the plot of the book and thinking about the nature of things outside of it. I've read quite a lot of science fiction over the years but nothing quite like Broken Time by Maggy Thomas (pen name of Emily Davenport). On the surface it is the story about a bright young woman in the ultimate welfare state universe. There just aren't a lot of jobs out there except for the very best and brightest of people, and smart as Siggy is, she's just not quite in that category. So she takes a job on a planet far from home as a janitor in an asylum for the criminally insane. There she becomes the pawn of the asylum's director as he uses Siggy to try and draw out some of his notorious inmates, ultimately with disastrous results.
If that was all that Broken Time was about, it would have been a thoroughly enjoyable novel. But it's also about an alien race called the Speedies because they appear to experience time at a different rate than humans do. It's also about a bizarre cosmic anomaly in the area of Siggy's homeworld which has somehow taken a Speedy invasion fleet out of sync with the rest of the universe so that it is still traveling on the warpath more than a century after hostilities were terminated, still struggling to pop back into normal space and obliterate her planet. It's also about a brave young man who disappears in a "time pocket" when Siggy is a child and only she can remember him. And it's about the struggle to communicate with people and cultures that are different from yours. And, well, I could go on for several more paragraphs trying to explain what this book is about. Suffice it to say, that it's still intriguing me several weeks after I finished it, and if I didn't have so much else on my plate right now I'd be reading it again.
Seven Tales in Amber by Roger Zelazny
I am huge fan of Roger Zelazny, but this collection of short stories greatly disappointed me. The only one I truly liked was Prologue to Trumps of Doom. Most of the others felt like sections of the series that were properly edited out or efforts on Zelazny’s part to lay the groundwork for a new Amber series. I would have loved to read a third Amber series, but I found this collection of short stories to be a disappointing tease.
Sphere by Michael Crichton
Warning: There are significant spoilers in this review.
This could have been a truly great science fiction novel. The protagonist, Norman, is a psychologist who thinks he’s been brought to a crash site by the FAA to help survivors only to learn that he is actually being involved in possible first contact situation. Early in Norman’s career, he accepted a top secret government grant to explore first contact scenarios. He hadn’t taken the idea seriously when he wrote the report, but now he is suddenly face-to-face with the probability that alien’s exist and have come to earth.
To complicate things, the alien spacecraft they have discovered is 1000 feet under the surface of the Pacific Ocean in the middle of nowhere. As a result, the contact team—four civilians with military support—will be operating under even more tension than a first contact would normally impose. Crichton builds the tension excellently through each section of the novel until the team finally gets to the space craft they’ve come to explore. In addition to the external issues, there are growing personal conflicts within team and trust issues with the military who are clearly not fully sharing their knowledge with the civilians. Finally, a storm moves in on the surface that forces the navy to retreat from the area totally isolating those beneath the surface.
Things really start jumping when the team discovers that the space craft appears to have been built in the future by the United States, but also contains an apparently alien artifact—the sphere of the title of the novel. One of the civilians, mathematician Harry, succeeds in entering the sphere, but can’t remember what he found there. Then strange things start happening. Sea life—at first benign—starts to appear outside the underwater habitat—squid, shrimp, jellyfish. And then the first of the crew dies horribly.
While everyone is reeling from this loss, the crew is contacted by video monitor with a code that appears to come from an alien intelligence. When they break the code, they find a childlike curious entity that gets angry when they want to stop talking to converse among themselves. Shortly thereafter, a giant squid attacks the habitat and more members of the crew die. Tension among the survivors keeps ramping higher. The habitat is fragile and is becoming unusable after multiple squid attacks.
When only three of the civilians remain alive, Norman figures out that all of the unusual events (alien contact, squids, etc.) occurred after Harry entered the sphere. He hypothesizes that the sphere gave Harry the ability to manifest material objects—basically anything he can think of. Norman further theorizes that Harry’s subconscious has caused the attacks by the squid and the contact with the alien. Harry is a danger to them. So he shares this theory with Beth (last remaining civilian scientist besides Norman and Harry) and they attack Harry, drug him and decide to keep him unconscious until they are rescued.
This appears to be the end of the book except that there is roughly 20% of the pages left. Manifestations continue to happen and Beth (who has been acting increasingly paranoid throughout the novel) tries to convince Norman that he also entered the sphere and that he needs to let her drug him so that he is not a danger to anyone. When he refuses, she grows enraged and tries to kill him, leading Norman to find evidence that Beth also entered the sphere. In self defense, Norman enters the sphere himself and now all three individuals have the power to manifest anything they can imagine.
This is where a superb novel breaks down. Beth has placed explosives all around the habitat to protect herself. She is actually suicidal (without consciously recognizing it) and Norman is worried that she subconsciously wants to die and further wants to kill everyone with her. Norman accidentally triggers a twenty-minute timer on the explosives but never seems to realize that he has the power not just to turn the timer off with his mind but to get rid of the explosives all together, just as Beth has the power to blow up the habitat without any explosives at all. There is also a major effort to get everyone into a minisub because of the explosives and the damaged habitat, but again, the habitat can be fixed with a stray thought.
At the end of the novel, the three survivors decide that knowledge of the sphere is too dangerous and that they will all decide to forget the sphere ever existed and lose their powers to manifest. They also decide on a new story about an underwater disaster at a plane crash site that killed all the dead crewmembers. They enact this and everyone in the world now believes the new story—proof that the whole explosives confrontation was ridiculous.
It’s really unfortunate that Crichton didn’t think through his
manifestation power. This is a good book, but this ending weakness seriously mars
the overall quality of the novel. The last sentence, however, goes a long way
to redeeming the entire storyline.
The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton
A secret U.S. military program is sending satellites into space in hopes of finding microscopic alien life that they can turn into a biological weapon. Unfortunately, they find something—and then the satellite crashes, triggering a crisis.
This novel opens with a lot of suspense but bogs down in the middle as
the team of scientists do their thing. Most of the novel is about the
investigation into what the alien life is and how to stop it. Unfortunately, a
lot of that investigation is rather dry, but the end of the book picks up again
for a very tense ending.
Invasion at Bald Eagle by Kris Ashton
This promising tale of alien invasion in a sparsely populated Colorado town in the 1960s has a lot going for it despite taking a swerve toward the parody, Sex Zombies, in the first third of the story. Bald Eagle is a tiny little place with one hotel, a two-man sheriff’s department, a weekly newspaper, a nuclear plant and a hippie commune. Life is pretty tame in Bald Eagle despite the fact that the hippies enjoy protesting nuclear power and the manager of the facility freaks out every time they arrive with their signs. Bert, the sheriff, is pretty laid back and sensible about his job, at least until he discovers that his daughter, Sharna, who is supposed to be in Denver has actually joined the commune and its free love lifestyle.
While the sheriff tries to figure out how to stick all the hippies in jail without forever alienating Sharna, strange things begin happening at the commune. A silver egg plummets from the sky into the lettuce patch and “stings” the hippie who picks it up. The next day he begins to act stranger than usual as does the woman he sleeps with a short while later. This is where the Sex Zombies parallel comes in as the “strangeness” spreads like a venereal disease in the free love community (and later in the larger area of Bald Eagle).
I don’t want to give too much away, but things really start to heat up when Derek, the leader of the commune, gets undeniable evidence that his fellow hippies aren’t just sick, but have something sinisterly wrong with them. He runs for it, eventually encountering the sheriff who locks him up and is uninterested in stories revolving around strange eggs from the sky and the changes they have wrought on a hippie commune. Yet within a couple of days, the sheriff can’t pretend that the problems growing in his town (a large number of disappearing persons and more of the silver eggs) are all originating from hippies taking bad drugs and he is forced to deputize Derek, plus the head of the local nuclear plant and a journalist in an attempt to save his community. The federal government also gets involved but they seem more intent on quarantining the town and wiping all the infected out than in helping people.
This is where this novel goes from being merely entertaining to gripping. These unlikely defenders of humanity have to come up with a plan to save Bald Eagle—both its handful of uninfected residents and those who have already been contaminated by the eggs. Their plan is a little hokey but frankly, with the pressure they are under, it’s totally believable they would try it. One of the strengths of the story is how Ashton deals with this effort and the extraordinary pressure on these men as they try to save everyone—especially the handful of very young kids who seem to be immune to the contagion. People you come to like die painfully and frankly I quickly reached the point where I couldn’t figure out how anyone was going to survive the crisis.
If you enjoy a good mystery turned horror-thriller, you’ll like Invasion of Bald Eagle. I know I did.
Valley of Despair by Chris L. Adams
It takes one short chapter of this novella to convince you you’re in for a thrill ride. German WWI pilot Erik von Mendelsohn has crashed in the jungle and is trying to survive a group of apes that have taken the wrong kind of interest in him. Desperate to escape, he reaches the edge of the jungle near a high cliff face and the apes who are in hot pursuit…refuse to follow him past the tree line. It’s a simple idea very subtly conveyed in the story, but it set all the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. These totally aggressive and fearsome animals won’t follow our hero as he attempts to climb the cliff face to get away from them. It’s difficult not to ask yourself—what are the apes afraid of? What the heck is Erik getting himself into? And the tension just keep ratcheting higher from this point forward.
Erik is a well thought out character—he’s smart, a bit impulsive, and a little too curious for his own good. The supporting cast is equally interesting. I don’t want to give away the plot, but the people Erik finds and gets into trouble with are equally brave and capable—and the problem they have to confront is better thought out than a lot of “lost world” adventure-style stories I’ve encountered. In short if you want a fast-paced well-developed adventure story with great characters, you should give Valley of Despair a try.
The Cosmos of Despair by Chris L. Adams
In this fast-paced sequel to Adams’ brilliant Valley of Despair, Erik and the hundreds of people he’s rescued from the alien invaders of the last book discover that while they’ve been trapped in the valley the aliens took over the rest of the planet. Worse than that, because of some weird time issues that were central to the last story, hundreds of years have passed separating our hero completely from the world of his birth. Erik and company are immediately enslaved by the aliens (technically they are re-enslaved, but the aliens don’t know this at first). A few select humans who pass a test conducted by some sort of high tech scanning device are given tasks to do for the aliens (Erik is trained to be a navigator) but the rest are destined to become food or fuel for the spaceships. It’s a horrible situation with no realistic chance of escape, but Erik has faced long odds before and immediately begins searching for the path to freedom for himself and those who are depending on him.
I don’t want to give away any of the many surprises this book contains, but I do think it is worth stressing that there were a lot of plot twists I didn’t anticipate. There are also some excellent moral dilemmas such as deciding if it is better to live as a slave or die trying to set others free. If you enjoyed the first story you will definitely want to read this sequel.
Days of Future Past I: Past Tense by John Van Stry
This is a fun, fast-paced novel, with a couple of good personalities driving it. Paul Young is a lieutenant in the Air Force about to be drummed out of flight school for reasons he personal reasons that have nothing to do with his skill at flying. Major Riggs is the man who’s helping Paul’s enemies get rid of him. Then a “goddess” intervenes kidnapping both people. She tells Major Riggs he’s been chosen to save the Navajo because he’s half Navajo; she has no use for Young but he’s in the jet with Riggs and so he gets pulled into the future too. They are quickly found by the Navajo where Riggs tells them that Young is a slave he is giving to the tribe. Young and Riggs didn’t get along well before this betrayal and their relationship quickly plummets even further.
Riggs makes the perfect jerk in this story. At every single opportunity he outdoes his last dastardly deed. Young’s a pretty good hero who fairly quickly finds out that one of the gods thinks the others made a big mistake counting on Riggs and he wants to use Young as a backup to save the world. The difference between the two men could not be more clear and this makes them great antagonists for each other.
After Young escapes the Navajo, we start to get a much better understanding of this postapocalyptic future. It includes magic, dragons, fantasy races and a sort of Mad Max style human society. The government of the one non-tribal organized community we really get a good look at is very cleverly constructed and helps to drive home that the America we know is long gone. The fight scenes are well done and I liked the supporting cast. I think Young’s two girlfriends are especially well developed, even if I think they got interested in him a little too easily. Overall, characterization is a major strength of the story.
If Van Stry happens to be reading this review, I have a request. Could we have a map please? I found the terrain very difficult to visualize. Young leaves Navajo territory going east but somehow ends up on the west coast by the end of the story after traveling quite a bit and going around a new inland sea. I’m quite sure Van Stry has a clear understanding of the geography but I had a lot of trouble following it. A map would totally resolve this problem.
Star Child by Leonard Petracci
There are enough books and movies featuring superpowered teenagers in a dystopian world where the government wants to control their powers and exterminate anyone who doesn’t tow the government’s line to form a little subgenre of its own. Star Child is the first of this style of books that I have read.
Star Child (or SC as his friends call him) was illegally born in space and hidden by his mother. Super powers come from locations you are born in so he has a unique power that is reminiscent of a miniature black hole. The first portion of the book involves SC being very stupid and getting himself into trouble. Things pick up when he gets stuffed into a reform school and we fall into the “Harry Potter” model of students taking classes to perfect their abilities. But there’s a problem here—the school is run by a woman who is warping the students minds and turning them into her loyal slaves for a hidden nefarious purpose. As SC and his friends begin to figure out the evil plan and try to counter it, my interest grew.
Unfortunately, the adults in this novel tend to be very dumb. For example, a parent with a power that allows him to detect and track other powers, is trying to get his daughter to come home against the headmaster’s wishes. His daughter has suffered a 180 degree turn around in her personality. She is inventing accusations of molestation against her father. The schoolmaster is using her powers on the girl in front of him the parent he doesn’t seem to understand what is happening. That is just dumb.
Even though Star Child was a fairly weak book, there is the potential for it to become a better series, but to make that happen, at least some of the adults are going to have to be given brains so that the only halfway smart persons in the book aren’t the teenaged heroes.
Orion’s Dawn by Robert C. James
Orion’s Dawn is an engaging story right from the opening chapter. A commanding officer makes a decision which gets his best friend killed and he can’t come to grips with the guilt this inspires in him. When he gets a chance to find out what really happened to his friend, he jumps on it and damns the consequences. Across the galaxy a group of miners make a discovery that can change humanity’s understanding of the universe setting two more plot lines in motion. The mystery is interesting, but the greatest strength of the story is its characters. They’re credible and empathetic—especially the military commander who gets orders to…well, that would be a little too much of a spoiler. It was the best shock in the story.
On the negative side, Orion’s Dawn is not a complete novella. It’s the first third of a novel and it ends abruptly without any sort of resolution. This was greatly frustrating to me. I was thoroughly enjoying the book and would have happily kept reading, but I don’t like this new trend to tease the reader with a few chapters and then make them go get another book. Maybe I’m old school, but I think trilogies should be three complete (but linked) stories.
That being said, if you’re prepared to invest in the whole series up
front, I think you’ll enjoy Orion’s Dawn.