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.
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