Reading the BSFA Awards: 1975 “Orbitsville” by Bob Shaw

The British Science Fiction Awards often highlight books that don’t even make it onto awards lists dominated by American authors. I’ve been reading and reviewing winners and nominees, looking for hidden gems I might not have found otherwise.

Orbitsville by Bob Shaw

I was caught off guard by Orbitsville at several points throughout the novel. I didn’t read a description of it going in, so I had no idea what to expect. My description of the plot will have spoilers in it, of course.

Vance Garamond witnesses an accidental death but believes he may be blamed for it. He rushes to collect his wife and child and flee from the potential vengeance that might be wrought against him. It’s a fantastic setup that I thought would feature Garamond fleeing across space until some kind of epic confrontation. And, to some extent, I wasn’t technically wrong about those being aspects of the plot, but my expectations for how all of it would happen were completely blown up. Shaw weaves an endlessly entertaining yarn. Garamond eventually stumbles upon a Dyson Sphere, and realizes the humanity-defining moment this is fairly quickly. Many questions about the Sphere remain, however, and he contacts those he was fleeing to tell them about the spectacular find. His discovery leads to instant fame, making him basically immune to the vengeance he feared–probably. As humans start to make their way to the sphere and spread across it, more events lead to surprising consequences and discoveries throughout the book.

Shaw also has numerous fantastic lines that stuck with me after reading the novel. At one point, humans find some aliens within the Dyson Sphere. The chapter ends with some hopeful lines about first contact and the lives they may build. Then the next chapter starts “Rumours of massacre came within a month.” It was a gut-punch of a line that was set up so perfectly by the end of the previous chapter. These moments are scattered across the novel and done fantastically well.

If I have any complaint about Orbitsville it’s that it kind of just… ends. Yes, there are some great moments towards the end, but it reads like there ought to have been a bigger and better ending point. I realize two more novels follow this one, but I still think the ending could have been done better.

Orbitsville is a phenomenal read for any fans of space opera and adventure. It’s the kind of book that makes lists worth reading for me, and it has catapulted itself into my vintage favorites. I highly recommend it.

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“Gates of Mars” by Kathleen McFall and Clark Hays: An SPSFC Semifinalist Review

The inaugural Self-Published Science Fiction Contest is over, but I am reading and reviewing every single semifinalist! Follow along to see what I think of the judges choices for the top 30 out of 300 books!

Gates of Mars by McFall + Hays

Crucial Larson has been summoned to the elitist utopia on Mars to solve a missing persons case. The missing person is his sister, and her capture somehow evaded the all-seeing, all-knowing-ish AI known as Halo. Halo starts interrogating Crucial after he also manages to get off the grid for a little bit on Mars, desperate to know what happened to defeat its monitoring systems. That’s where the story begins in this hard-hitting mystery.

The plot hook is fantastic. I was all in on the story of Gates of Mars from the get-go. Of course, a hook isn’t all that makes a good story, so the question that lingered in my mind was whether it would be able to maintain my interest throughout its 350-ish page length. McFall and Hays add wrinkles throughout the book to keep it going. Many of these are highly successful–such as the lingering thread about what happened with some giraffes on Mars (truly!). Others sometimes read as a bit deus ex machina. The most egregious of these were some of the ways Halo’s detection was avoided, which started to make it feel as if it were the simplest thing rather than an insanely stunning achievement.

When the plot trajectory changes around the 55-65% mark, there are some bigger highs and lows. I found some of it a bit long–possibly in need of editing down. However, at that point my investment in the characters was strong enough to sustain me even in the parts I thought might drag a bit. The conclusion was satisfying, bringing the story to a conclusion that felt like a natural end point despite clearly being ready for the rest of a series.

Gates of Mars is a great noir-sci-fi combination that I would highly recommend to fans of that genre mashup. I found it nearly un-put-down-able at times. The narrative voice, characters, and worldbuilding are quite strong.

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I received a copy of the book for review.


The Self-Published Science Fiction Contest (SPSFC) Hub– Check out all of my posts related to the SPSFC here!

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!


The Great Honor Harrington Read-Along: “On Basilisk Station” by David Weber

The Great Honor Harrington Read Along is a read along led by me with critical analysis and SPOILER FILLED looks at the Honor Harrington series and related works by David Weber and collaborators. I’ve read the whole main series and the overwhelming majority of the offshoots, but some of these will still be first time reads. However, spoilers will be abundant throughout these posts, including for much later books in the series.

On Basilisk Station by David Weber

We’re back to where it all began. On Basilisk Station is our introduction to Honor Harrington, as well as a number of other major players in the series and our first glimpses at what will turn out to be a much wider conflict. I’ve read this book four or five times now, and I keep finding things I enjoy in it. This time, I was intentionally paying much more attention to the side names that pop up, and was surprised by how many Weber packs into this first book in the series. It’s clear he was at least thinking of the long game from the outset.

What makes this book most impressive to me, though, is how well it balances a razor-sharp focus on an escalating conflict centered around Basilisk with hints of broader conflict and political action happening around it. That’s one of the biggest draws to the series, of course. At times, the back and forth between action “on the ground” (read: largely in space) and people sitting around board rooms talking about making action happen can get uneven. Here, though, we see Weber at a focused, exciting pace that still throws enough reveals out there to whet appetites for broader discussion.

Horrible Hemphill shows up right away- she’s of course the subject of an extremely pivotal character scene for Honor much later in the series when Honor and Hamish Alexander fight over how seriously to take Hemphill’s new takes on weapons’ systems and more. Here, she acts a bit as a stooge, including for the delightful final scene in which Harrington is asked enthusiastically to provide (presumably positive) feedback on the weapon systems from the Fearless. Whether Weber intended to make Hemphill a point of recurring interest or not, it was a smart move to include someone here to shake things up. The added wrinkle of Fearless having armament that doesn’t make sense increases the tension and also makes the final battle more satisfying.

Our first look at Honor feels very fresh still. It’s just a well written, classic sci-fi scene. We quickly get a look into McKeon’s head as well, as we discover he knows he’s bitter but can’t quite break out of it. This little insight into his thought process makes it all the more satisfying to watch him finally break out, largely urged on by Honor’s gentle handling of the situation throughout the book. We also run int Pavel Young for the first time, and here he’s eager to immediately abandon the station. He has little agency in the noel; mostly acting as villain from afar.

Another major plot point is having Honor show up for the first time on Hamish Alexander’s radar. Obviously this will become a much more important relationship later in the series, but it’s fun to see him running around using back alley means to protect Honor’s work actually making Basilisk station into a competent command. Yet another major player introduced here is Denver Summervale, and I can’t believe I missed this the last few times I read it. Here, he’s a throwaway character, making it all the more surprising how important he becomes later. I wonder if Weber was thinking along those lines already or whether it just came to him to reuse this character. Klaus Hauptman rounds out the series of major players introduced. Having McKeon be the one to stare him down is a great twist from Weber, which both makes McKeon more relatable and Honor more interesting for restraining herself–barely.

It seems notable how Nimitz is largely a non-entity throughout this book. He does very little other than act as a kind of smart shoulder ornamentation for Honor. In fact, I was pretty shocked by how very little he does given how totally we fall in love with him later in the series. We have a cat named after Nimitz, ourselves.

Some early history of Manticore is provided, largely as background for why Hauptman is such a tool. However, even this comes into play in some of the offshoot series. I haven’t read the ones about the rise of Manticore, so I’m excited on this read-through to take that aside, finally.

Let’s be real: I don’t know of anyone who writes ship-to-ship sci-fi battles better than Weber. They’re always exciting, always full of tension, and always fun to read even on subsequent reads. I never find myself skimming these, and the battle between Fearless and Sirius is a thrilling read. Each hit is visceral, and I don’t really care about what physics may or may not have been violated here. There’s a feel of impact of the events, tension ratcheting up as each side exchanges salvos. It’s so well done. Jumping back and forth between captains and crew increases the excitement and engagement as we see casualties pouring in while others frantically try to keep the ship running while others are making life or death decisions about the whole ship. It’s pretty amazing to me how well this battle scene holds up after the later ones when we have huge fleets blowing each other up. This, probably the tiniest scale action in the whole series between ships, is still a great read.

The slaughter of the Medusans hit me a bit odd this go-round. I’m not entirely sure how big the colonies and human settlement on Medusa is supposed to be. It seems, though, that a total and complete, wholesale devastation of literally thousands of Medusans may not have been the best solution. These are sentient beings, and they’re drugged into a murderous rage to serve the whims of various colonizing powers. It just hit me wrong, I guess. I wonder what other means could have been tried.

Near the end, we hear a bit about the “Big Lie” theory, which feels incredibly relevant today. Essentially, it’s the idea that a government or officials therein can say something so absurd people will believe it because they’ll just assume people will think they have proof, lest they get caught in an absurd lie. Unfortunately, many today are caught up in a number of big lies, whether it is conspiracy theories about election fraud or something else, this part of the book feels more not less relevant than it did when I read it the first time.

What are your thoughts on the book? What scenes struck you? Leave comments below!


The Great Honor Harrington Read Along– Follow along as I read through and review all the books and offshoots in this series!

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SPSFC Book Review: “Mazarin Blues” by Al Hess

The SPSFC started with 300 books and narrowed it down to 30 semi-finalists. I’ll be reviewing every semi-finalist, as well as several books from other group’s slush piles that looked interesting to me.

Mazarin Blues by Al Hess

In the future, U.S. citizens are required to have AI tech riding around in their heads in order to identify themselves, make purchases, and more. A subculture has developed around an art deco style. They wear colors, accessories, and push back against tech requirements. Reed, our protagonist, has a newly-updated (against his choice) AI that has named itself “Mazarin,” acknowledging Reed’s love of the color blue. Reed is a hep cat art deco guy who struggles to fit in at work. Mazarin encourages him to find dates, go out with friends, and embrace himself for who he is.

Let’s get this out of the way: Mazarin Blues is a relentlessly stylish, book. It’s a hep cat in between dust jackets. Hess has clearly thought about the idea of this art deco subculture quite a bit, and, for this reader at least (with little knowledge of art deco/etc.), the slang, style, and records that go with it were totally believable. The development of this subculture is the primary piece of worldbuilding in the book, and it absolutely shines all the way through. The world is absolutely believable, and the development of the subculture makes sense contextually. Even the aspects of the world that hint at the government control and conspiracy theories about rogue AIs are woven intricately together into a cohesive whole.

The story itself is a kind of slice-of-life narrative that follows Reed as he looks for love, Mazarin as the AI seeks to figure itself out, and a broader plot of how the Beta AIs are driving some owners to horrible acts or self-harm. Reed is a fantastic protagonist who makes mistakes, has flaws, and sometimes gets things figured out. Mazarin is an intriguing AI, and there are enough twists in the plot to keep the narrative moving.

This story, though, isn’t the kind to whip through in an afternoon. It’s one you want to sit down with a mixed drink and savor over the course of several evenings. You can feel the essence of the world and story as you read. Queer representation is found throughout the story, and they never feel like placeholders are checked boxes. They’re all people, living their lives within the world Hess has created.

Mazarin Blues is a stylish, character-driven science fiction story that delivers a wonderful experience. It’s got great vibes all the way through, and makes you relate to its main characters. Highly recommended.

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The Self-Published Science Fiction Contest (SPSFC) Hub– Check out all of my posts related to the SPSFC here!

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!


“The Genius Plague” by David Walton – math, cryptography, and thrilling adventures

One of my favorite sub-genres of science fiction is what I call “disaster” sci-fi (tell me if there’s a better name, please!), and I include things like cli-fi (climate based science fiction) and plagues of the future. Greg Bear is one who has written a lot in this area, and most of Michael Crichton’s novels fell into this general category as well. It tends to be a mashup of real science, math, and wild extrapolations. It’s a kind of offshoot of hard sci-fi that combines thrillers with science fiction.

David Walton, with The Genius Plague, has rocketed onto my radar as a truly gifted writer in this sub-genre. Look, if you’re one to avoid SPOILERS, as I am, don’t read on from here AND DON’T READ THE BLURB ON THE BOOK and go read it ASAP. Read on if you want a fuller picture or to talk about the book with me–please do!

I’m a sucker for mushrooms. No, I don’t like to eat them, but yes, they are fascinating. Diverse, hugely innovative, ancient, and creepy. They beg for science fiction novelists to write about them, and they’ve been successful in those novels I’ve read about them–The Girl With all the Gifts, for example: yes please! Walton starts off with a bang- a mycologist (scientist who studies mushrooms) in the Amazon gets ambushed for no apparent reason along with a woman. They’re both infected with a fungal lung thing and she dies but he survives–just changed. As his brother, who goes to work for the NSA, starts to crack some codes (with Walton mixing a small amount of math and cryptography in just for fun), the menace of this fungal plague grows exponentially.

There are many moving parts in this book: whether it’s Neil’s employment at the NSA and the linguistics, cryptography, and mathematics thrown together for that, or Paul’s interaction with the mushrooms, or international politics, it all moves swiftly. Sometimes, it moves a bit too quickly, and a bit of hand-waving is involved, particularly in the move from beginnings of infection to a seeming world threat. But generally, Walton balances the pace with characterization and fascinating set pieces. Though I wasn’t terribly surprised by any of the twists and turns, I loved the ride so much I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I found this book un-put-down-able, as one of the blurbs on the front cover also called it. I basically opened it yesterday and only stopped while caring for my kids. It was an absolute blast of a novel, and one that had a satisfying conclusion.

Another reason I loved this book is that the characters are fully formed and have unique feels to them. Also (and this is a big spoiler for some character development towards the VERY end, so don’t read it if you don’t want it spoiled), I liked that Neil and Shaunessy didn’t end up together and decided to be friends-ish. It was a kind of affirmation of male-female friendship that I truly appreciated. Well done, Walton! [/end big spoilers]

The Genius Plague has earned a place on my personal top 100 sci-fi novels list. It does have a few flaws, but those are overshadowed by a truly great novel that kept me turning the pages compulsively all day. Go read it!


J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

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!


What _is_ this place?

Hello to anyone reading this. I’m J.W. Wartick and I’m already a fairly regular blogger over at my main site, Always Have a Reason. That site is itself about philosophy of religion as well as Christian apologetics, theology, and science. But I have way more interests than I could contain on just that blog.

I have a fascination for history, science, and the arts. I love reading sci-fi, fantasy, and history. Paleontology and archaeology fascinate me. I love playing role-playing games and driving franchises in Madden.

In short, I need an outlet for all these things–a place for me to just reflect on my interests that don’t seem to fall under the umbrella of my main site. There is too much going on in this head to keep it all in.

You, the reader, may find this diverting. I know how interesting it can be to explore the random thoughts of people. Hopefully this site will lead you to some new interests, or perhaps you’ll comment and help lead me off to learn about things about which I know little or nothing.

You, the reader, are therefore asked by me, the author, to leave your own reflections on the topics I present here. Or, if you desire, you can just post about other random interests of your own. When I put up a post on the Battle of Midway, you can respond by talking about Gettysburg. That is fine! Please do so!

Finally, readers are entitled to a bit of background about myself if we’re going to have engaging discussions. I’m a Christian theist who loves a good debate. I’m getting an M.A. in Christian Apologetics. Philosophy of religion is my primary interest, but as you read on here you’ll find I have interests all over the place. I’m a devoted Christian who believes that the evidence for Christian theism is quite strong (if you want to read on that, you should check out my main site). You’ll note, then, that theism–indeed, Christian theism–permeates my posts, even when I’m talking about things unrelated to it. I’ll not apologize for that. We all let our worldviews into every aspect of our lives. I hope as you read here you’ll find some questions to ask and, maybe even some answers.