The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack


Other Science Fiction

Other Science Fiction

I enjoy reading a wide range of science fiction novels and this page is a jumping off point to all of it. 

Aliens and Ice Cream by Michael James

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.

When by Victoria Laurie

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 novel.

Maelstrom by Peter Cawdron

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.

Andorra Pett and the Oort Cloud Café by Richard Dee

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.

Area 51 by Bob Mayer

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.

Bad Things by Jasper Tripp

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 Barnes

There’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.

The Barsoom 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 Moon Maze Game by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

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 Thomas

The 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.