SPSFC Book Review: “Age of Order” by Julian North

Age of Order by Julian North

Dystopias are all the rage. Age of Order might strike some as just another dystopia, but it has more going on behind the scenes than meets the eye. It starts of with Daniela Machado offered a shot to go to an elite school for the privileged and wealthy. There, she has to fight against classism and the genetic modifications of the “richies” even as she contends back home with the impact of a pseudo-police state. It’s a great setup that quickly turns into something that reads a bit like a school drama combined with dystopia.

Then… things kind of get out of hand, in both good and bad ways. At 20% in I was hugely enjoying it; at 40% it started to read like it wasn’t stopping. The extended school scenes and back-and-forth moves across the city read at times like an over-extended travelogue instead of a dystopic thriller. Then, twists and turns started to hit hot and heavy, and our main characters had some more interesting background revealed.

The novel begins to read like a roller coaster, with extremely high points of big twists and reveals punctuating an almost mundane otherwise story of going to school and dealing with bullying. The highs definitely outweigh the lows, however, and I found myself enjoying it all the way through. The character interactions are the strength of the novel, and I especially enjoyed how several major plots were intertwined almost behind the scenes before they got revealed to the reader. As that reader, I never felt cheated by having something come out of the woodworks. North certainly sets up the background to have even massive revelations about the characters feel believable. And there’s no way to avoid empathizing with these characters, who deal with struggles both in and out of their control.

Age of Order is a great read that I would highly recommend to fans of dystopias. It’s got so many great character moments and huge plot points that it overcomes its own problems with being a bit over-bloated. I’ll definitely be reading the next novels in this series.

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SDG.

SPSFC Book Review: “Extinction Reversed” by J.S. Morin

Extinction Reversed by J.S. Morin

What if humans went extinct, but the robots/AI that lived on missed us enough to bring us back? That’s the core question that drives the action of Extinction Reversed by J.S. Morin.

Eve14 is a new iteration of the attempt to resurrect humanity, and it appears she is a success. Kind of. She’s given specific inputs and raised in a lab setting, and this has a huge impact on how she interacts with the outside world. Morin delivers on this concept, making the marked difference between Eve14 and “robot” characters like Charlie7 especially stark. This raises questions of humanity, transhumanism, and what it means to be alive. Their interactions, along with several other characters, are interesting.

Unfortunately, I found some of the characters hard to navigate with the naming system. I don’t know why it bothered me so much, as I’ve been fine with naming systems similar to this in other books, but I had trouble keeping track of some of the side characters to the point where I would have to backtrack and reread sections to understand what was happening and to whom.

The main problem I had with the book is that it goes on for far too long without much happening. It reads like an extended action scene for much of the middle chunk of the book and only moves the plot forward more at the end. Charlie7 and Eve14 have quite the adventure, but I didn’t see enough happening with their development for me to get hugely into the story.

Extinction Reversed is a solid premise for a novel and it delivers on the action. Where it stumbles, though, is in dragging out the middle for too long. Readers who love AI/Robot fiction should check it out for the compelling look at themes of transhumanism.

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SDG.

My Top 5 Indie Speculative Fiction Books read in 2021

I read more than 500 books again in 2021, and I wanted to highlight some indie works of speculative fiction (sci-fi/fantasy). Hopefully, you’ll find some reads here you didn’t know about! Let me know your own thoughts in the comments!

Dog Country by Malcolm F. CrossDog Country is a military science fiction novel about geneforged dog-people who were created for war only to find there’s no war waiting for them in adulthood. The thought behind the book evokes other war adaptations while bringing up questions of PTSD, sexuality, and more. Time and again, there are problems with our major protagonist, Edane, attempting to adapt to the “real world” and away from war. Then, a crowdfunded war to oust a totalitarian regime gets underway and we get some solid military sci-fi action that feels believable and surprisingly intense at times. Edane struggles to find out how to express himself to his girlfriend, Janine, and takes comfort from the his two adoptive mothers. The inter-character relationships are of utmost importance in the book, and I found it impossible not to get deeply invested in Edane’s story and struggles.

Project Nemesis by Jeremy Robinson- I love Kaiju, and this novel delivers on the goods. Robinson has readers follow Jon Hudson, an investigator following lead after lead which leads him into absurd scenarios of crackpot theories and false Bigfoot trails. Ultimately, though, we get some serious Kaiju action that Robinson manages to make more thoughtful than you might think. Check out my full review of the book here.

The Amethyst Panda by Kay MacLeod– The second book in the Maiyamon series by Kay MacLeod is another fun monster-catching romp. What do I want from a monster-catching book? Battles that feel intense and a plot that keeps it going. The Maiyamon have their own weakness/resistance archetypes, along with evolutions and switching in battle. It’s like reading a Pokemon novel specifically with adults young and old in mind. I hugely enjoy the first two books, so I cannot wait for book 3! Check out my full review of the first book in the series here.

The Trellis by Jools Cantor– Here’s the elevator pitch: it’s a murder mystery in a future America in which the dangers of unfettered capitalism are on full display through the eyes of multiple characters. I love mysteries set in the future, but Cantor makes this one its own unique ballgame. One character POV is a detective using a somewhat out-of-date robot to help solve the murder. Another is an eager new-on-the-job mediator-type who provides glimpses into what society might be like if corporations were allowed free reign. It’s a fascinating read and has a powerful ending. I loved it.

The Seeds of Dissolution by William C. Tracy– A portal fantasy gets combined with first contact sci-fi and space opera in this soup of subgenres that Tracy deftly navigates to create a powerful experience. Following in the steps of a human character thrown into a society of allied aliens that appears on the brink of crumbling, readers get to experience a science fantasy adventure that is wonderful from the beginning to the end. The magic system is based upon the notion that the universe has music behind it that some people can sense and modify–but at a cost over time. The characters are compelling, diverse, and complex. The relationships build slowly in believable fashion. I savored this one over the course of about a week, and then immediately grabbed the next one.

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SDG.

SPSFC Book Review: “Zenith” by Arshad Ahsanuddin

Zenith: The Interscission Project- Book One by Arshad Ahsanuddin

When my group, Team Red Stars, was doing its initial sampling of this book, I was somewhat put off by having it so clearly sell itself as a space opera, when it didn’t read like that at all. It went on to my personal “no” stack, but ended up in our quarterfinalists. I’m glad it did, because it has some serious strengths, but it also has some weaknesses that keep it from being great in my opinion.

Zenith is set something like 100 years in the future. For all that, many of the scenes read as if they’re domestic scenes from the present day. Whether it’s characters casually moving sacks of groceries around, cooking dinner in the same fashion as we do now, or having beds on spaceships that don’t seem to have noticeable differences, I admit I felt a constant annoyance at the lack of many contrivances for technology. I get the idea of not innovating for the sake of innovation, but at some point I think that as a reader, I should have had some discernible moments where the book told me “yes, this is the future” with some startling tech. Instead, everything was mundane, as if the next century is going to go on in stasis, with the only real innovations happening in space travel.

Going along with that, the main plot wasn’t engaging. A spaceship is developed and a motley crew is assembled to send it on its maiden voyage. Behind the scenes, there’s much more to the technology. I was intrigued by finding out more about some of the plot developments, but not enough is revealed in this entry. It’s almost as though the author is holding back on the reveals, but doesn’t give the readers the insights they need to see where things may be going.

All of this may make it seem like I didn’t enjoy the book at all. That would be wrong, because despite the problems I listed, the core character interactions are pretty excellent. There is quite a bit of romance here, and much of it is queer romance. Going along with that, there are genuine moments of true character development for all the main characters, and even a surprisingly thought-provoking take on the differences between physical attraction and love. I wanted to see more of these characters, and if I were to continue the series, they would be the reason why.

Zenith is not at all a bad book. It’s just decidedly in the “not for me” category based on the problems I outlined above. That said, it has serious strength in the sense of great characters and some thoughtful moments. Fans of character-driven sci-fi with an interest on queer representation should definitely take a look.

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SDG.

SPSFC Book Review: “Eye of the Storm” by R.K. King

Eye of the Storm by R.K. King

Humanity exists in the eye of a truly massive superstorm in the aptly named Eye of the Storm by R.K. King. This one didn’t make it past my group’s first round of cuts in the Self-Published Science Fiction Contest, but I had hugely enjoyed the first sample I’d read, and decided to keep on going. I am glad I did, because what I discovered was a gripping look at a cool post-apocalyptic wasteland.

The first impression one gets from the book is that it’s a kind of Mad Max world set in a storm. That’s… not wrong. It’s not all of the premise, though. There are various clans who live and move around in this storm, from the Pathfinders, known for mapping out the direction the storm will move, to the Dogs, who collect and cobble together machines like cars. As the storm moves across the land, these clans stay inside, sheltered within the Eye from the awfulness of a storm that seems to encompass the whole world. They fight each other for the meager resources they encounter and scavenge along the way, each clan looking out for its own, while still being force to barter and interact with the others to get some of the things they need.

The Eye of the storm must be quite large, based on the actions that take place therein, but it’s never really spelled out in the book. Aiden, a Pathfinder, eventually stumbles upon a young woman he calls Nemo, and together they venture into the heart of the storm itself, looking to see what might be out there in the world.

Our view of the world comes through the eyes of the characters. There’s very little side exposition here. Mostly, readers are just thrown into the action and ride along. It’s a great way to tell a story like this, and certainly keeps the plot moving. When the plot picks up as Nemo and Aiden venture forth with a small band and a Stormwalker, the pace is relentless in a very good way. I found myself churning through the pages throughout the night and didn’t stop until I got to the end.

There’s something to be said for science fiction that is mostly about the ride along the way. This novel is the kind of book one can sit back, enjoy the ride, and set down with a feeling of fulfillment and wonder. It’s just a good, fun read that doesn’t make you think very hard. That’s not to say there’s no development of characters or story. King moves the plot forward with the characters growing in somewhat predictable ways. The world itself is revealed in small chunks as readers follow the characters, ultimately getting some big moments that certainly set up what I hope are some great sequels to come. There is romance among the characters, and it was fairly predictable, though I was never upset by it. The one thing I would say as a detractor for the characters was how easily they shrugged off major losses. While some major scenes of mourning occur, it was almost like other characters didn’t give any emotional weight to the plot. It was a minor thing for my overall enjoyment, though.

Eye of the Storm is an intensely fun read that doesn’t let off the gas. It’s intense from end-to-end, and weaves an action-packed narrative about a post-apocalyptic world.

Score (a score out of 10 is required for the SPSFC Rules to help us determine which books are moving on): 8/10

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SDG.

SPSFC Book Review: “The Shepherd Protocol”

The Shepherd Protocol by Fowler Brown

The Shepherd Protocol was a read I was on the fence about when we went through our initial impressions. It ended up in a battle royale against two other books. At that point, I still felt on the fence, ready to push it into my top 10 if I didn’t find other books were to my liking. That didn’t end up being the case, but, happily, the novel ended up in our group’s quarterfinalists, giving me the chance to dive in even more deeply.

The Shepherd Protocol follows Melody Clay, an AI who inhabits a synethetic body. There is much anti-“synth” sentiment on Earth, and Clay ends up in Boston trying to figure out how to stop or prevent the Decay, a shutdown protocol that’s been killing synths. As she investigates, more players show up, whether it’s people hunting synths for parts, a near military state police force, or others in on the action. There’s a sense of mystery throughout, along with a kind of haunting doom for Clay.

What I hugely struggled with for this book was getting into it. Melody Clay and the other synths didn’t have that feeling of “otherness” that is almost necessary for books like this to work. Because of that, it reads more like a mystery set in the future, but even that future doesn’t have the world-building to back it up as feeling very… futuristic. The book ends up reading more like a mystery set in Boston with just a few modifications. There’s not much by way of developing the world, so readers are left with the main plot, and that, again, is unfulfilling.

The last 15% or so has some twists in it that make some of the earlier points feel like they finally have a payoff, but it reads a bit as too little, too late. At that point, it’s nice to see wider impact happening, but it would have been even better to have had those impactful moments earlier in the book, where they could help carry along a plot that otherwise feels lethargic at times.

The frustrating thing for me is that the book checks off so many of my boxes. One of my favorite subgenres of sci-fi is that of the sci-fi/mystery mashup. I also hugely enjoy robots and AIs. The Shepherd Protocol may just be one of those cases where it didn’t hit me the same as it does others. Check it out if you like any of those sub-genres I mentioned.

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SDG.

SPSFC Round 1, Battle Royale Part 5

Skybound by Lou Iovino

I was intrigued by the hard sci-fi premise of this novel. What would happen if the Earth stopped spinning? Iovino dives into some of the science questions this brings up, and provides answers to some of the big ones, like what happens to the moon (in this book, whatever stopped the Earth’s spin kept the moon in a kind of stasis as well), or satellites, or why didn’t everyone just fly off into space? Scatter in some great character pieces, and the book was set up for success. I had a ton of questions as I got to the 3/4 mark of the novel. I was especially interested in the strange alien (?) object that seemed to be the source of all the problems. [There are spoilers for the ending after these brackets. I’ll close out spoilers with more brackets.] But then, they just solve the problem. An astronaut from the ISS worked throughout most of the novel to get information back to Earth, and they can’t read it, but that doesn’t matter because nukes. I re-read the last 20% or so of the novel twice because I was so surprised by how so many threads were left dangling and some of the biggest investments in characters were just dead ends. They literally just shoot a bunch of nukes at the object and it disappears after a couple hits. Flash forward 5 years and some people are bittersweet about the events. That’s it! There’s no explanation of what the object was, why it did what it did, nothing! I am left wondering if it is supposed to be some broader point about the pointlessness of various things, like how we could invest a ton of time and effort into a project only to have it all be for nothing. But really, it just feels incredibly unsatisfying after a super strong first part of the novel. [/Spoilers.] Because of this, Skybound is, disappointingly, a “no.” There’s just not the satisfaction of an ending I was looking for. I would read another novel by the author, though.

World of Difference by WJ Donovan

I don’t really know what to make of this book, now that I’ve finished. It’s got a kind of sardonic narration style that makes it difficult to tell if some of the worst comments are satire critiquing awful things or whether the narrator is just… awful. One example is a character who goes on about how incarceration rates (even in the future, apparently) are skewed in America towards imprisoning people of color, which seems like a potential critique of mass incarceration. But then that same character jokingly (?) says mass incarceration is good because it was a way to help explore the Solar System through forced labor. Moments like this abound. The plot is at times buried to the point it feels one needs an excavator to figure out what’s happening. Is it a slice of life novel, showing what’s happening across the lives of several characters? Or is it something more? By the end I was still asking myself this question. It’s got the seeds of interest here, but not enough for me to bump it to a “yes,” especially with my concerns over some of the problematic content.

Age of Order by Julian North

We’ve got another school-based dystopia here! I gotta confess, I love this concept. Combine Harry Potter with a dystopia and you’ve got the classroom drama of teens or kids and the potential for much bigger consequences.

Round 1 Status

As my group pushed to find the last 10 books our group selected, I had to cut my reading of Age of Order short (about 43% in), but I could tell that it stood out from the crowd enough this round to move on. I’ll be interested to see if my group decides to pick it as one of the group choices, as I know there were some mixed opinions on it. World of Difference is an intriguing story with maybe just a bit too little cohesion and too many things going on for a satisfying answer to any of the many basic character questions it raised in my head. Skybound is a fantastic read that just… kind of fizzles out. With Age of Order, we’ve rounded out my personal top 10 from my team’s books for the SPSFC! I can’t wait to see what my group’s official choices are, but I said I’d promise reviews for all my own selections, and you’ll have them even if they don’t make the group’s list! Let me know in the comments what you think!

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SDG.

SPSFC Round 1, Battle Royale Part 4

There were 5 slots left on my “yes” list for the Self-Published Science Fiction Contest but 15 books in the running. That means I need to eliminate 2 out of every 3 books. To do so, I decided to commit to fully reading these 15 books (or, minimally, reading until I decide it’s not for me) and pitting them against each other for the final 5 slots. I had to re-think my reading to do this, because I enthusiastically put too many books on the “yes” stack to start off. So, for the sake of seeding, each former “yes” goes up against two “maybe” books (except for one post where two higher seeds will face off).

Memories of the Khassos by Leah Flaherty

The first 10-20% of this novel had me intrigued by a world-hopping adventure that seemed to blend some elements of hard sci-fi, dystopia, and, frankly, whimsy. As I read the rest of the novel, though, it didn’t ever get over the hump. That is, the premise of the world never seemed fully to be cashed in. There are supposedly numerous civilizations on the line here, but we don’t get enough of a view of any of them as a reader to become invested in their setting. Are they civilizations worth saving? One, hinted at early on, seems to be something of a police-state. But that’s it–we just get hints. The characters feel the same way. While a few of the main characters get fleshed out over time, most of the others seem to be just their as props, barely carrying along the plot. There’s not enough flavor to this world, and that’s a shame, because I think the potential for a wonderful read is there. I thought Flaherty’s prose was a strong point. The Memories of Khassos was initially intriguing, but ultimately it’s getting the cut.

Extinction Reversed by J. S. Morin

I hugely enjoyed J.S. Morin’s Black Ocean series, which is like “Firefly” with magic (and it does work and feel about that way). So, when I first sampled this book, I was surprised it wasn’t an immediate yes. I threw it on the “maybe” stack and figured I’d give it a deeper go later. I’m glad I did, because while I haven’t had the chance to fully read the book, once I got past the confusion with names and places that was piled into the front portion of the book, the plot truly takes off. It becomes an interesting look at how AI and robotic life might examine itself and try to find a place in the world. It also picks up more of the humor and personable characters that I expected from familiarity with some of Morin’s (huge) corpus. I have been enjoying it hugely ever since, and it has moved up the pile.

Things They Buried by Amanda K. King and Michael R. Swanson

I have such mixed feelings here, because Things They Buried is quite the strong work, as well. It’s all about world-building here. There are several different alien(ish) factions here battling for control in a cityscape that is as depressing as it is hope-filled. The characters are fighting against an evil threat that is stealing and harming children. There are dark themes and awful violence here, but its for a purpose and never feels, so far as I can tell, exploitative or pointless. The book is also relentlessly dense, forcing an intense focus as you’re reading it. This is a science fantasy not to be missed by fans of the subgenre, and certainly more so if you enjoy the darker side of storytelling while still having hope even in the midst of atrocity.

Round 1 Status

Battle Royale Round 4 may have been the most difficult of them all. These books each have many merits, and they each bring entirely different things to the table. Memories of the Khassos didn’t quite live up to a promising start, but stands as an interesting enough, if disjointed, story. Things They Buried vs. Extinction Reversed is a tough battle, and I ultimately decided that Extinction Reversed is my choice, though it was very, very close. I’ll be interested to see what my fellow reviewers think of these books. Let me know your own thoughts in the comments!

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SDG.

The Self-Published Science Fiction Contest: Announcing Team Red Stars First Round Cuts

Part of being a judge for the SPSFC is having to cut books, unfortunately. My team, Team Red Stars, had a batch of 31 books which we had to narrow down to 10 books we’d all commit to fully reading so that we can give them scores that will then determine our top 3 candidates to move on to the total group of judges as semifinalists. What a mouthful! To do that, we sampled at least 10-20% of all the books and then voted ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ on them. The books with the most ‘yes’ votes moved on. We decided we’d give feedback on all the books that didn’t make it, too. So here’s my batch of announced cuts, with my feedback as well as some from other group members. Check out the links for my team’s other posts on cuts!

The Echo Effect by John McGuire

Aaron Anders wakes up in a different life, apparently able to sense that other lives had come before and that the life he had awakened in the middle of was not really his. It’s an interesting start to a time-bouncing story that soon enmeshes Anders in trying to figure out what’s happening. Some twists and turns later, the plot broadens even more. The Echo Effect ultimately didn’t make our top 10, while some in the group were intrigued by its setting, others thought it didn’t have enough that felt fresh to continue. Fans of mysteries about time paradoxes would be well-served to give this a go.

Eye of the Storm by R.K. King

I was hugely into this book based on my sampling of it. The Mad Max post-apocalyptic feel was right up my alley, and the book started with a bang and put me right in the action. I actually ended up reading the entirety of this book and greatly enjoyed it. I even bought the second one to have ready. So why was it cut? While the group was pretty unanimous in finding the setting intriguing, the characters’ sometimes simplistic interactions failed to grab the attention of some, and one pointed out how easily the characters moved on from serious emotional losses. If the elevator pitch of: ‘Mad Max but with a couple twists’ sounds interesting at all to you, I’d recommend giving this one a try.

Memories of the Khassos by Leah Flaherty

I was hugely intrigued by Flaherty’s setup for her world, with some questions of a police state mixed with world-bouncing adventure. As I read more, I started to wonder if the central plot would find direction. I also got kind of confused about the sense of time and place I was supposed to be following along. Other group members were interested at the beginning, but didn’t find the characters or setting gripping enough to unseat other books. Ultimately, this one fell victim to being in that enigmatic “maybe” zone and didn’t have enough at the beginning for us to push it up into the quarterfinalists. Readers looking for a thoughtful read that promises a big impact on the world from a group of characters can try this out.

The Jagged Edge by AJ Frazer

A climate terrorist meets with a major media mogul and things spiral from there in this cli-fi thriller from AJ Frazer. At 20% in, I was torn on continuing this one or not. Ultimately, I gave it a shot, continuing on to read the whole thing. It ended up winning my first battle royale for a contested spot in my top 10. The reason is because once readers get past a truly fabulously written scene between two characters, they’ll likely want to push on and read the whole thing as well. Frazer has written a fascinating story that had some twists that truly caught me off guard. The problem is, as several group members pointed out, it takes too long to take off. There’s a super macho scene at the beginning with mountain climbing and James Bond-style no-strings-attached sex that was offputting to most of us, and looking back, that first 5-10% of the book seems basically superfluous to the plot. I ended up thinking the book was pretty great, but have to admit that I agree with the critique that it just doesn’t move quickly enough out of the gate for a thriller. I’ll have a full review of this one coming, so look forward to that. Readers looking for a thriller that will truly make them sit back and think about our world–and who are willing to push through a slow start–should go read this book now.

Detonation by Erik Otto

Otto has set up a world that is intriguing, with hints of a dystopic, post-apocalyptic humanity that is struggling to survive. Our group was frustrated by how much effort it took to work through the early parts of the book, as characters seemed to bounce in and out of focus with little to ground us in the world in the meantime. By the 15-20% mark I hit, I had a kind of Clifford Simak feeling (a classic sci-fi author I enjoy) of a pastoral catastrophe, but that wasn’t ultimately enough for me to knock off other books from my personal top 10. As a group, we were left from our sampling mostly feeling confused about the direction of the plot and characters. I do think this is one I’ll circle back around and give another chance, though, because I was interested enough to give it a deeper look.

Skybound by Lou Iovino

I’ll admit it–I have super mixed feelings about this one. I was sold on it from the start. Across Earth, we get various perspectives on what happens when the planet suddenly just stops spinning. More and more hard sci-fi is piled on as explanations are offered for why certain things did or did not happen, and we follow several different plotlines as characters try to figure out what happened and why a mysterious, huge object in the sky may have caused it to occur. I ended up reading the whole novel in a whirlwind evening as I was totally engrossed. I can’t really say much without spoiling the end, but I will say that’s why I’m very torn here. The book just ties everything up so quickly and easily, while also seeming to totally cast off some plotlines without giving resolution, that I was devastated. I went from the feeling of “this is amazing” to “that’s it?” fairly quickly. I’d definitely check out another sci-fi novel from Iovino, and honestly I’d almost hope it would be a sequel to flesh out and explain the abrupt ending to this one. Readers who are fans of hard sci-fi and heart-poundingly quick plot movements would be well-served to check this one out.

First Round Status

As a group, we’ve determined our final 10 books. I have several posts in the docket to show how I came to my personal top 10, as well. 8 of my personal top 10 made our quarterfinalists, which is pretty exciting for me. So what’s next? More book reviews and discussions. I’ll have full reviews of a few of these cuts coming, and then there will be more posts as I release full reviews of our quarterfinalists as we determine our top 3 books to send on to the semifinalist round for all groups to read. Let me know your thoughts on these–and other–books in the comments!

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Links

The Self-Published Science Fiction Contest (SPSFC) Hub– my hub post with links to all of my other posts related to the SPSFC.

SPSFC First Round Cuts from Team Red Stars– Over at Red Stars Reviews, a fellow team member outlines another set of cuts for the SPSFC! Like me, he’s got several selections he enjoyed but which were ultimately cut.

First SPSFC Cuts for Team Red Stars– William Tracy shares his set of cuts, noting positives and negatives for each.

First SPSFC cuts for Team Red Stars– Susy shares her take on a batch of cuts, noting some which she saw as interesting.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

SPSFC Round 1, Battle Royale Part 2

There were 5 slots left on my “yes” list for the Self-Published Science Fiction Contest but 15 books in the running. That means I need to eliminate 2 out of every 3 books. To do so, I decided to commit to fully reading these 15 books (or, minimally, reading until I decide it’s not for me) and pitting them against each other for the final 5 slots. I had to re-think my reading to do this, because I enthusiastically put too many books on the “yes” stack to start off. So, for the sake of seeding, each former “yes” goes up against two “maybe” books (except for one post where two higher seeds will face off).

The Shepherd Protocol by Fowler Brown

I love stories about robots, AIs, and “sleeves.” I especially love mechs, but there aren’t enough mech stories. Anyway, The Shepherd Protocol is about robots who live in a world in which Asimov’s Laws aren’t a thing. Synths–the robot stand ins–are starting to die/go idle due to the Decay and our protagonist is right in the middle of trying to figure out why things are happening. What follows is a mystery that weaves around a vaguely cyberpunk cityscape. More revelations hit at satisfying intervals. The main characters, whether synths or not, feel realistic and human. But it’s this very humanity of the robots that makes the book seem less intriguing for me. There’s no sense of “other” with the synths here, and it’s never entirely certain if that’s part of the reason why. There is occasional exploration of how humans might treat the synth “other,” but the discussion never delves deeply and the ground is well-trod when it comes to science fiction. The Shepherd Protocol is a fine story, but one that reads as if most of its punch is taken away by having been done before, if differently.

Refraction by Wick Welker

There are three storylines here, each taking place about 80-100 years apart between circa 1980 and circa 2150. The first of these follows a scientist, Timothy Straus, as he works on a groundbreaking discovery. The second, set in the middle time period, follows Caleb (aka “Cal”) as he learns some of the darker secrets behind his cloistered dream life. The third is centered around Custos, a sentient robot who has become the President of Mars. While these stories initially seem unconnected apart from the link of the first two characters hearing voices, they eventually become entangled within each other in deeply connected ways. What’s remarkable about this is that at no point did the entanglement of these narratives seem contrived or forced. Welker does a simply phenomenal job of weaving a cohesive narrative across three timelines while keeping readers on the edge of their seat the whole time. Each society and time period felt fleshed out and full of side characters who mattered. The science-y aspects were detailed enough to survive the suspension of disbelief, and the big reveals, when they started to hit, were fun even if occasionally predictable. The book is almost 450 pages but I sat down on my day off and marathoned through the last third or so of it over a morning (cat on my lap, the best way to read!) because I couldn’t get enough of it. This is a true compelling science fiction yarn, folks.

This Blue Ball by Wayne V. Miller

When I sampled this kaleidoscopic novel by Miller, I was struck by the conspiratorial tone and the way the story was told. I put it on the “maybe” list and was intrigued enough to circle back to it. Now that I’ve finished the novel, I am… confused. “Straightforward” is not a word I’d use for the beginning, but compared to where the story goes, the early parts are pretty simple. You’ve got the story told through a found manuscript that tells of a strange light burned into a computer display that might signify something other or out there in existence. It’s conspiratorial in tone, with a kind of “they [government/illuminati/something] don’t want you to know that we [storyteller(s)] know that they’re [aliens… maybe?] out there.”

And then it just kinda… gets weird. Like the plot doesn’t actually go anywhere. It turns into a series of vignettes with no apparent connection. Like there’s a whole lengthy scene of a Minister Brown introducing a number of people to a group of people and how they represent aspects of an idealized [Thomas] Jeffersonian government but then there’s someone else who talks about the way that the same ideals have led to massive inequities regarding arrests, imprisonment, representation, and more and then Minister Brown is just kinda like “Well that guy’s kinda angry but I don’t necessarily disagree” and then the scene is over. Yes that was a run on sentence but I had to get it all out there. I don’t… get it. I genuinely don’t know where the early plot even went. And then the ending shifts back to the conspiratorial tone talking to the reader and talks about a cacophony and sensation and none of that makes sense either. And interspersed with all of this is a weird obsession with prostitution and masturbation but it gets called “onanism” in reference to the Biblical Onan and I’m not sure where that’s from or why the obsession is even there.

The book doesn’t make sense. At all. And honestly? I’m kind of annoyed by that. Early on, I was sold on the conspiratorial weirdness but then it just keeps spiraling and seems to turn into a rambling commentary on like, life, man, as if you’re reading dialogue from “The Big Lebowski” overlaid with some debates about political philosophy and race. I’m left thinking, “What?”

Battle Royale Round 1 Result

Refraction is moving on to the yes pile! I’ll have a full review of it coming when my group moves on with this round. It’s got a pretty firm standing among my favorites, now that I’ve finished it. I recommend it pretty highly to my readers here. This is exactly the reason it’s worth diving into indie titles, because you find gems like this book that you’d never have known about otherwise.

All Links to Amazon are Affiliates

Links

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.