Review: A Touch of Death by Rebecca Crunden

A Touch of Death by Rebecca Crunden

By Rogers Cadenhead: What began with 300 books is down to 7. The finalists in the first Self-Published Science Fiction Competition were announced this week.

If the rules had allowed just one more finalist, the eighth-ranked book was A Touch of Death, a tale of apocalypse, authoritarianism and class. Rebecca Crunden’s novel was one of three selected for the semifinals by File 770 and we’ve decided to make it our SPSFC Hidden Gem (trademark 2022 Hugh C — as in Catamaran – Howey, all rights reserved).

A Touch of Death begins with a royal proclamation that lets the reader know immediately what kind of world they’ve entered:

“Henceforth there is one religion, one language and one ruler as decided within the PROCLAMATION OF UNITY. The sacrifices for this peace being those which are the most insidious aspects of human nature: FREEDOM and HISTORY. These known forces of destruction and their encompassing evils are hereafter decreed ILLEGAL and REGRESSIVE. The KINGDOM will be ruled in adherence to these beliefs, and maintains that the most important aspects of society will, from this day forth, be CONFORMITY, CONTROL and CONTINUATION.”

With so many rights under attack in the real world by leaders obscuring their skullduggery in platitudes and propaganda, I can appreciate a fictional despot who says the quiet part out loud.

After a long-ago armageddon left many humans mutated, the civilization that arises is one in which most people live in suffering while the rich who’ve kept the king’s favor thrive in the capital. The protagonists Nate and Catherine are wealthy and well-connected but both will face the question, “Can I really live with myself if I accept the way things are?”

Nate answers quickly. We meet him as he’s being thrown into prison to face unspeakable treatment for protesting against the crown. The normal sentence for any political dissent is the gallows, but Nate’s parents pull strings.

Two years later, he’s out and circumstances put him on the run with Catherine, his brother’s betrothed and the daughter of the king’s hangman. A toxic malady afflicts them that gives the book its name.

Crunden writes well, immersing readers in the world and characters with natural ease. When you are sampling 30 self-published novels at a breakneck pace for SPSFC, you appreciate an author who leads you smoothly into the depths like a diver barely breaking the surface of the water.
 
As Catherine and Nate journey across their blighted world and deal with what has happened to them, it’s obvious where their mutual dislike seems to be headed. But one of them falls for the other too fast and the other fails to accept their completely unraveled life.

There’s appeal in how unappealing the two characters are to each other for most of this novel. Catherine mopes too much and Nate declares his love way before it’s reciprocated.

Before this sounds too romcom, the book is primarily driven by the mystery of their illness and the dangers they face in the lands far from their childhoods of comfort and conformity.

Crunden’s a skilled writer with one unusual tic I enjoyed — a penchant for really long lists: “Catherine joined Tove in the lounge to read up on whales, dolphins, fish, otters, seas, jellyfish, octopuses, squid, sea lions, eels, coral, and all the things that lurked beneath them. … The King owned all the land and regulated how much went to Cutta, the heart of his Kingdom, and how much was allowed to remain with the laymen, workers, gardeners, ranchers, herders, shepherds, sowers, and all the other low level hands who kept the Kingdom afloat.” No love for marlins, manatees, marketers and massage therapists?

The final third of the novel thrills and terrifies when the protagonists can’t run any more. The dread building page by page over the consequences of opposing the king turns out to be well-founded.

A Touch of Death satisfies as a standalone, but it’s also the start of the Outlands Pentalogy, so there’s like three, four or eight books to come I am guessing don’t @ me. When SPSFC ends, I’m eager to read more of this series.

But I wouldn’t be opposed to Nate and Kate seeing other people.

SPSFC art by Tithi LuadthongLogos designed by Scott (@book_invasion)

Seven Finalists Announced in Self-Published Science Fiction Competition

Seven books have reached the finals of the inaugural Self-Published Science Fiction Competition, created by Hugh Howey and Duncan Swan. Of the 300 titles originally entered in the contest, one of these will emerge the winner: 

  • Monster of the Dark by K T Belt
  • In the Orbit of Sirens by T.A. Bruno
  • Steel Guardian by Cameron Coral
  • Captain Wu, Starship Nameless #1 by Patrice Fitzgerald and Jack Lyster
  • Duckett & Dyer: Dicks For Hire by G.M. Nair
  • A Star Named Vega by Benjamin A. Roberts
  • Iron Truth by S.A. Tholin

In the last phase of judging ten teams of book bloggers – including Team File 770 – will score the finalists, two of which they’ve read already, and five more they’re being assigned for the first time. The deadline to complete judging is July 9. The contest winner will be announced July 15.

The SPSFC is modeled after Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. In Phase One, the ten teams read the first 20% of each of their 30 books and recommended the 10 that their team would read in full. Once each team read and scored their 10 books, the three titles from each team with the highest scores were declared semifinalists. In Phase Two, each team was assigned to read and score six of the semifinalists advanced by other teams. Then the team ratings of the semifinalists were consolidated. The seven books with the highest scores are now in the finals.

Hugh Howey, sponsor of the first annual Self-Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC), displayed the trophy that will be sent to the inaugural winner. He added there will be slightly different trophies every year, but they’ll all be in the same vein.

Review: Daros by Dave Dobson

By Mike Glyer: Dave Dobson’s space opera Daros advanced to the second round of the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition after gaining a high score from Team At Boundary’s Edge. What does Team File 770 say? As one the judges, I say I like it a lot, too.

On the way to the planet Daros with a cargo of trade goods, sixteen-year-old Brecca Vereen is briefed by her father about a mysterious artifact they’re smuggling to a contact below, one that will earn them a lot of credits. But that plan goes by the boards when they arrive and are fired on by mysterious alien invaders who are attacking the planet. Brecca rescues the illicit artifact and jettisons in a life pod to an uncertain fate below.

Brecca rapidly goes from being a child in danger to a prodigy in charge. It helps that she crosses paths with a hidden alien spaceship which houses an AI named Lyra.

Where Lyra comes from they have worked out a way of balancing an AI’s personal rights with the mission of assisting the beings who invented them. The AI has to be convinced that whatever the being asks them to do is more-or-less a good idea. And while they are deciding, they freely voice their opinions about the reasons offered. It’s a unique visioning of human and AI interactions, and leads to consistently entertaining dialog between Brecca and the AI.

There’s a third important character, Frim, part of the crew aboard the Zeelin flagship. The invading Zeelins are a race of intelligent aliens with one thing in common with Starship Troopers’ Bugs — as soon as they are hatched from eggs they are ready to fulfill whatever job they’re intended for, which might be a position in the crew of a military spaceship. Frim is a born spaceship navigator. But Frim may not be in that job too long, because the Zeelins are committed to giving evolution a helping hand by immediately executing and replacing any worker who’s to blame if things don’t go perfectly.

However, in further contrast to the Bugs, the Zeelins are not entirely a race of villains; some are secretly rebels against the rule of evolution-in-action. Frim becomes one of them.  

The book’s point of view alternates between Brecca and Frim, and they each encounter others who help or hinder their goals, which in Brecca’s case is to stay alive, find and rescue her father and other crewmates, and maybe even do something about the invasion with Lyra’s help. Frim also wants to survive, and do something to derail the Zeelin mission – but what? The author advances their stories with a continual stream of inventive developments that he extrapolates in an interesting way. That mysterious artifact plays a part, too.

This is a stand-alone novel and, as I have learned from reading other SPSFC entries, it really helps guarantee that all the major story elements a reader gets hooked into following will have a resolution by the end of the book when the author doesn’t suffer divided loyalties from knowing they are trying to launch a series. Dobson entertains his readers and ties up the important loose ends in this very successful coming-of-age story.

Self-Published SF Competition 2021: The Semifinalists Assigned to Team File 770

Two weeks ago the ten judging teams of the Self-Published SF Competition 2021 finished picking the 30 books that will advance to the semifinal round.

Next, each team will read the books advanced to the semis by two other teams and score them. Then, the field will be whittled down to seven finalists which every judge will score to produce the winner.

Here are the six books Team File 770 will be scoring in phase two –

The books Team File 770 will be reading came from these teams:

Team At Boundary’s Edge

DarosDave Dobson
DestroyerBrian G. Turner
Mazarin BluesAl Hess

Team 7 / Fantasy Book Critic

Iron TruthS.A. Tholin
Steel GuardianCameron Coral
ARVektCraig Lea Gordon

If you’re curious, Alex Horman has a nice explanation of the mathematical process that will translate team scores into finalists and the winner over At Boundary’s Edge.

Meanwhile, Duncan Swan has put together a set of colorful graphs filled with trivia about the semifinalists. (Click for larger images.)

Self-Published SF Competition 2021 — All 30 Semifinalists

Ten teams of judges have picked these titles to advance to the semifinals of the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition. Congratulations to the authors!

Team Tar Val on

Dusk Mountain BluesDeston J. Munden
Gates of MarsKathleen McFall and Mark Hays
The Last ShadowJ.D. Robinson

Team Fantasy Faction

Captain WuPatrice Fitzgerald and Jack Lyster
Monster of the DarkK.T. Belt
What Branches GrowT.S. Beier

Team At Boundary’s Edge

DarosDave Dobson
DestroyerBrian G. Turner
Mazarin BluesAl Hess

Team Red Stars

Dog CountryMalcom F. Cross
Of Cinder and BoneKyoko M
Age of OrderJulian North

Team Book Invasion

ConvergenceMichael Patrick Hicks
Life on Planet EarthAndy Gorman
Broken AscensionDave Walsh

Team FanFi Addict

In Orbit of SirensT.A. Bruno
Dead StarSimon Kewin
Zero Day ThreatRuth Olson

Team 7 / Fantasy Book Critic

Iron TruthS.A. Tholin
Steel GuardianCameron Coral
ARVektCraig Lea Gordon

Team File 770

Lost SolaceKarl Drinkwater
A Touch of DeathRebecca Crunden
The Hammond ConjectureM.B. Reed

Team Meteor

All the Whys of Delilah’s DemiseNeve Maslakovic
ResistanceMikhaeyla Kopievsky
Shadows of MarsI.O. Adler

Team Space Lasagna

A Star Named VegaBen Roberts
Duckett and Dyer: Dicks for HireG.M. Nair
The Dinosaur FourGeoff Jones

SPSFC art by Tithi LuadthongLogos designed by Scott (@book_invasion)

Team File 770’s Semifinalists for the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition

Team File 770 has picked three books to advance to the semifinals of the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition.

The competition, created by Hugh Howey and Duncan Swan, is modeled after Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off.

Three hundred entries were divided between ten teams of book bloggers – including Team File 770. The first step was for team members to read the opening 20% of each of their 30 books and recommend 10 for the team to read in full. The 10 books that collectively got the most “yes” votes advanced to the second stage where they were read and scored.  

The three books that Team File 770’s judges Cora Buhlert, Rogers Cadenhead and Mike Glyer rated the highest are:

  • Lost Solace by Karl Drinkwater 
  • A Touch of Death by Rebecca Crunden
  • The Hammond Conjecture by Martin Reed

Congratulations to the authors!

Once all the teams have picked their semifinalists, the judging will begin on the top 30 surviving books.


SPSFC art by Tithi LuadthongLogos designed by Scott (@book_invasion)

Pixel Scroll 1/16/22 I Hereby Dub The Current Dominant Genre (Whatever It May Be) Punky McPunkcore

(1) WOLVERTON FAMILY GOFUNDME. Following the death of Dave Wolverton, Dave’s family and friends are raising money on GoFundMe for his funeral and the family’s expenses. Here’s the link: “Please Help the Family of Dave Wolverton-Farland”.

David Doering also reports, “Spencer [Wolverton] called me to say his dad’s service will be this coming Friday, January 21, at 11 a.m. MST in St. George, Utah. There will be a link posted broadcasting the event for those who cannot attend.” 

(2) URSA MAJOR. Nominations for the Ursa Major Awards are open and will continue until February 12.

To nominate online, all people must first enroll. Go here to ENROLL FOR ONLINE NOMINATIONS or to LOGIN if you have already enrolled.

You may choose up to five nominees for each category:

Nominations may be made for the following categories:

Best Anthropomorphic Motion Picture
Best Anthropomorphic Dramatic Short Work
Best Anthropomorphic Dramatic Series
Best Anthropomorphic Novel
Best Anthropomorphic Short Fiction
Best Anthropomorphic Other Literary Work
Best Anthropomorphic Non-Fiction Work
Best Anthropomorphic Graphic Story
Best Anthropomorphic Comic Strip
Best Anthropomorphic Magazine
Best Anthropomorphic Published Illustration
Best Anthropomorphic Game
Best Anthropomorphic Website
Best Anthropomorphic Costume (Fursuit)

(3) REH AWARDS. Nominations for the 2022 Robert E. Howard Awards are open and will continue through January 31. You do not have to currently be a member of the Robert E. Howard Foundation to send in nominees at this stage of the process. However, the Final ballot will only be sent out to current Robert E. Howard Foundation members (members who have paid dues for the year 2022). That ballot will be released on February 15. See the link for the complete guidelines.

(4) HOWARD’S HOME ON THE RANGE. For more Robert E. Howard related content, The Cromcast has put a whole bunch of videos of the 2021 Howard Days in Cross Plains, Texas, on their YouTube channel here.

(5) CAUCUS RACE. On the third day, they squeed again: Simon McNeil picks up the baton with “Notes on Squeecore”.

…Now here I want to pause on one of the points the Rite Gud podcast were clear on here that, within their Squeecore definition it was not sufficient that a work be discursive so much as that a work must insist that its discursive element be seen and I think this is where Redshirts becomes a valuable point of discussion. Absolutely nobody is suggesting that the idea of disposable, red-shirted, extras on Star Trek was somehow unexplored prior to 2012. However Redshirts did a lot to foreground this through its fourth-wall-breaking conclusion. Now me? I like a fourth-wall break when it’s well executed and I think it was well executed in Redshirts. This essay should not be seen as an attempt to bury John Scalzi. But regardless of where we stand on matters of taste regarding the literary device or where we stand on the quality of execution of the device in this case, it still holds that this execution, in this story, served to underline the discursive elements of Redshirts such that it insisted the audience engage with them. It wasn’t sufficient to construct a funhouse mirror reflection of the Gothic as Peake did in his Gormenghast books, nor to interrogate the cultural assumptions of a genre as Pratchett did with classic British fantasy in his early Discworld novels – both of these were deconstructive works but neither, especially not Peake, felt much need to insist that the audience acknowledge that a deconstruction was in progress. But Scalzi had his characters literally escape from their work of fiction to plead for consideration from their own fictive creators. This is not a subtle work of deconstruction….

(6) SPSFC INSIDER. Alex Hormann of Boundary’s Edge shares what it’s like to be a Self-Published Science Fiction Competition judge so far: “SPSFC At Boundary’s Edge: Personal Thoughts”.

Thought #2: The 20% Rule

Generally speaking, I don’t DNF books. Even if I’m not enjoying a book, I push through to the end in the hopes of salvaging something from my investment. With the SPSFC, we had to read the opening 20% and decide if we should continue. This was a very different experience for me, and I’m still not sure if it was helpful. On the one hand, you can get a pretty good idea of what a book will be like from that sample. But on the other, you’re essentially reading an introduction with none of the payoff. There were some books that I knew within the first couple of pages that I wasn’t going to enjoy, almost always for stylistic or formatting reasons. Others proved to be strong enough in the opening chapters that they progressed further, only to lose my interest further on. I can’t help but wonder if those books I voted not to continue became something wonderful later on. And there was a book that made it through with a very strong start that completely lost me with its final chapters. This was also the stage of the competition where a book needed a majority vote to progress further. With only three judges, only two Yes votes were required, meaning we ended up with eleven books meeting the criteria. I don’t think letting an extra book slip through the cuts phase did any real harm to our allocation, but it did mean a little extra work in the next phase. Of the eleven that made it through, I had voted to continue with seven of them, and had voted for two more that ultimately failed to make the cut.

(7) ANSWER KEY. Here are Rich Horton’s “Answers to BIPOC SF/Fantasy Quiz” from Strange at Ecbatan.

1. Ava DuVernay, the acclaimed director of Selma, became the first Black woman to direct a live action feature with over a $100,000,000 budget with which 2018 film, an adaptation of a beloved Newbery Award winner?

Answer: A Wrinkle in Time

(8) SEE GERMANY’S BIGGEST SFF LIBRARY. [Item by Cora Buhlert.] German SFF writer Maja Ilisch reports about a visit to the Phantastische Bibliothek in Wetzlar, Germany’s biggest SFF specialty library. The post is in German, but there are photos: “Allein unter Büchern”.

(9) BILL WRIGHT (1937-2022). Australian fan Bill Wright died January 16. Bill was a founding member of both ANZAPA and the Nova Mob. He served as awards administrator for the Australian Science Fiction Foundation. He was secretary for the first Aussiecon in 1975 and helped organize the Bring Bruce Bayside Fan Fund in 2004. Bill was a Life Member of the Melbourne Science Fiction Club. One of his fanzines with an international following was Interstellar Ramjet Scoop.

In 2013 at the age of 76 he was voted the Down Under Fan Fund delegate. Bill was honored with the A. Bertram Chandler Award in 2017.

(And I was always in Bill’s debt for introducing me to Foster’s Lager when he and Robin Johnson were at L.A.Con I to promote the first Australian Worldcon bid.)

(10) MEDIA BIRTHDAY.

1995 [Item by Cat Eldridge.]  “Coffee – the finest organic suspension ever devised. It’s got me through the worst of the last three years. I beat the Borg with it.” — Captain Kathryn Janeway, Star Trek: Voyager’s “Hunters”. 

On this evening twenty-seven years ago on UPN, Star Trek: Voyager premiered. The fourth spinoff from the original series after the animated series, the Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, it featured the first female commander in the form of Captain Kathryn Janeway, played by Kate Mulgrew. 

It was created by Rick Berman, Michael Piller, and Jeri Taylor. Berman served as head executive producer, assisted by a series of executive proucers — Piller, Taylor, Brannon Braga and Kenneth Biller. Of those, Braga is still the most active with work on The Orville.

It ran for seven seasons  and one seventy-two episodes. Four episodes, “Caretaker”, “Dark Frontier”, “Flesh and Blood” and “Endgame” originally aired as ninety minute episodes. 

Of the series, and not at all surprisingly, Voyager gets the highest Bechdel test rating. Oh, and that quote I start this piece with in 2015, was tweeted by astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti International Space Station when they were having a coffee delivery. She was wearing a Trek uniform when she did so.

(12) TODAY’S BIRTHDAYS.

[Compiled by Cat Eldridge.]

  • Born January 16, 1887 John Hamilton. He’s no doubt remembered best for his role as Perry White in the Fifties Adventures of Superman series. He also was in the Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe serial as Professor Gordon, and I see he played G.F. Hillman in the Forties Captain America serial film. (Died 1958.)
  • Born January 16, 1903 Harold A. Davis. Notable as another writer of the Doc Savage novels under the pseudonym Kenneth Robeson. He was the first ghostwriter to fill in for Lester Dent on Doc Savage.  Davis would create the character of Ham’s pet ape Chemistry in Dust of Death.  (Died 1955.)
  • Born January 16, 1905 Festus Pragnell. Ok he’s here not because he had all that a distinguished a career as a writer or illustrator, but because of the charming story one fan left us of his encounter with him which you can read here. Festus himself wrote but three novels (The Green Man of KilsonaThe Green Man of Graypec and The Terror from Timorkal), plus he wrote a series of stories about Don Hargreaves’ adventures on Mars. Be prepared to pay dearly if you want to read him as he’s not made it into the digital age and exists mostly only in the original Amazing Stories only. (Died 1977.)
  • Born January 16, 1943 Michael Atwell. He appeared in Doctor Who twice, first in a Second Doctor story, “The Ice Warriors”, and later in the in the Sixth Doctor story, “Attack of the Cybermen “. He also voiced Goblin in the Labyrinth film, and had a recurring role in Dinotopia. (Died 2006.)
  • Born January 16, 1948 John Carpenter, 74. My favorite films by him? Big Trouble in Little China and Escape from New York.  His films include the Halloween franchise, The ThingStarman (simply wonderful), The Philadelphia ExperimentGhosts of Mars and many other films. What do you consider him to done that you like, or don’t like for that matter? I’m not fond of Escape from L.A. as I keep comparing to the stellar popcorn film that the previous Escape film is.
  • Born January 16, 1970 Garth Ennis, 52. Comic writer who’s no doubt best known for  Preacher which he did with illustrator Steve Dillon, and his stellar nine-year run on the Punisher franchise. I’m very fond of his work on Judge Dredd which is extensive, and his time spent scripting Etrigan the Demon For DC back in the mid Nineties. What by him should I be reading?
  • Born January 16, 1974 Kate Moss, 48. Yes, she’s done SF. To be precise Black Adder which we discussed a bit earlier. She played Maid Marian in “Blackadder Back & Forth” in which as IMDB puts it “At a New Millennium Eve party, Blackadder and Baldrick test their new time machine and ping pong through history encountering famous characters and changing events rather alarmingly.” You can watch it here.
  • Born January 16, 1976 Eva Habermann, 36. She is best known for playing the role of Zev Bellringer on Lexx. She was succeeded in her role by Xenia Seeberg. Ok I’ll confess that I’ve never seen the series which I know exists in both R and not so R versions. Who here has seen it in either form? She was also Ens. Johanna Pressler in Star Command, a pilot that wasn’t to be a series that was written by Melinda Snodgrass. And she had a role in the Code Name: Eternity series as Dr. Rosalind Steiner.

(13) COMICS SECTION.

(14) I FOUGHT THE LAW AND THE LAW WON. “Video game preservation is complicated, both legally and technically” – the Washington Post tells about the challenges.

…A 2018 report by the Association of Research Libraries found that archivists are “frustrated and deeply concerned” regarding copyright policies related to software, and they charge the current legal environment of “imperiling the future of digital memory.” The obstacles archivists face range from legal restrictions around intellectual property to the technological challenges of obtaining or re-creating versions of the various consoles, computers and servers required to play various titles published over the years. Not only must the games be preserved, they also need to be playable, a quandary akin to needing a record player to listen to a rare vinyl album.

However, the legal hurdle to their research — chiefly, risking infringing on the copyrights of multibillion-dollar companies — remains the biggest for preservationists seeking access to games for academic research….

(15) SUPERNATURAL SUPERHIGHWAY. Paul Weimer shares his take about “Tim Powers’ Alternate Routes at A Green Man Review.

…Writing abouit supernatural doings in Southern California is nothing new for Powers, but this novel felt and reads distinctly different than his previous novels set in Southern California and wrapping around supernatural doings, but not always to its benefit. A Tim Powers novel for me is one with magic beneath the surface of our ordinary world that a few people can access. This often ties into a Secret History of events that we think we know, but we really don’t know the full story until Powers comes along. Characters with hidden motivations that make sense only in the denouement.. Lush use of setting and place. Tricks with time, character and perspective. Tim Powers work isn’t as byzantine as, say, Gene Wolfe, but paying attention and reading closely are absolute musts to figure out what is going on.

Alternate Routes has some of these but not as many as one might expect from a Tim Powers novel. For lack of a better phrase, Alternate Routes reads in a much more straightforward fashion, plot wise, than the typical Powers novel….

(16) WHAM! Meanwhile, back at Nerds of a Feather, Paul Weimer brings us up to speed about the second book in a series: “Microreview [book]: Chaos Vector by Megan O’Keefe”.

…Velocity Weapon tells a twisty story where Sanda is lied to and tricked by an AI on an enemy warship, and Biran desperately seeks political power for, primarily, finding out what has happened to his sister. The novel was particularly potent for a “Wham! moment” where Sanda’s understanding of what was happening to her, and why, turned out to be far far different than she knew.

Now, with a solar system seething with potential conflict, Sanda free of her captivity, and Biran in a position of power within the Keepers, Chaos Vector continues the story of these two siblings as revelations and conflicts from the first novel start to manifest…as well as new mysteries, and yes, new wham moments!

(17) VOX PLONKS HIS MAGIC TWANGER. Brian Z. asks, “Is it official puppy news when Scott Adams calls VD his mascot?” Oh, no – he’s going to sing!

(18) OUT-OF-BODY EXPERIENCE. I’m not a big game-player, so I’m glad to have Joe DelFranco tell me what made It Takes Two a prize-winning game: “Microreview [Video Game]: It Takes Two by Hazelight Studios”.  

The Game Awards Game of the Year winner, It Takes Two, asks two players to come together to repair an ailing marriage. In many relationships, poor communication causes the initial bond between partners to break down. Therein lies the crux of the conflict with It Takes Two. Cody and May, fed-up with their relationship, cause their daughter Rose much distress. Rose consults Dr. Hakim’s Book of Love to help bring them back together. With her tears, she binds her parent’s souls into two wooden dolls. Now it’s up to the players to help the protagonists get out of this mess and back to their bodies….

(19) PREDICTING PARENTHOOD. “Futurist Amy Webb has predictions on 5G, the metaverse, creating babies and a host of other bold topics” in the Washington Post.

S.Z.: Reading your book it feels like you have an almost philosophical belief that people should overhaul what they think about how humans are created. If synthetic biology can deliver on some of these promises — if it removes any age restriction on egg fertilization, say, or if embryos can be gestated outside a human body — what do these changes do to us as a society? Do they alter it fundamentally?

A.W.: The thing is we never stopped and asked how we got to this point. Until now a baby was a man and a woman and having the structures to be in place for that to happen. And now synthetic biology is giving us other options. Forty years into the future, I think it may be the case that there are many parents to one child, or that a 70-year-old and their 60-year old spouse decide to have a baby. Why would we close ourselves off to those possibilities?

(20) THERPEUTIC CREDENTIALS. [Item by Michael Toman.] Be sure to check out the link on the fur color of your cat and the supernatural! “Research Shows That Owning Cats Can, Indeed, Heal You” reports MSN.com. Hope that all in your household, including the unmasked four-pawed mammals, are staying Safe and Well.

1. Owning a cat can actually reduce your risk of having a heart attack.

According to an impressive 10-year study of more than 4,000 Americans, cat owners showed a 30 percent lower risk of death by heart attack than those who didn’t have a feline companion.

Participants had a lower heart rate, lower stress levels, and lower blood pressure.

Dr Adnan Qureshi, senior author of the study, said, “For years we have known that psychological stress and anxiety are related to cardiovascular events, particularly heart attacks.”

(21) FROM BACK IN THE DAY. “Oldest remains of modern humans are much older than thought, researchers say”Yahoo! outlines the discovery.

Some of the oldest remains of modern humans in the world are much older than scientists thought.

The remains, known as Omo I, were found in southwest Ethiopia in the late 1960s. The bone and skull fragments researchers discovered were some of the oldest known remains of Homo sapiens.

Initial research suggested they were nearly 200,000 years old, but new research shows the remains are at least 230,000 years old.  The peer-reviewed research was published in the journal Nature on Wednesday

(22) PROLIFERATING PRESIDENTS. [Item by Mike Kennedy.] Last night Saturday Night Live began with a cold open in which President Biden blamed the Omicron outbreak on people buying tickets to Spider-Man and we found out that we actually don’t live in the real universe but rather one started as a joke by having the Cubs win the World Series. You know, that last bit makes some sense.

[Thanks to JJ, Chris Barkley, John King Tarpinian, Andrew Porter, Cora Buhlert, Brian Z., Jeffrey Smith, Bill, David Doering, John A. Arkansawyer, Michael Toman, Cat Eldridge, Mike Kennedy, and Martin Morse Wooster for some of these stories. Title credit belongs to File 770 contributing editor of the day Cora Buhlert.]

Cora Buhlert: Self-Published Science Fiction Competition Round 1

[In the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition, created by Hugh Howey and Duncan Swan, ten teams of book bloggers – including Team File 770 – will soon finish winnowing through their share of the 300 entries to decide which ones should make it to the next stage. Team members are reading the first 20% of each of their 30 books, and recommending the 10 they think the team should read in full. The 10 books that collectively get the most “yes” votes advance to a second stage where they will be read in full by the team and scored.  Here, Cora Buhlert shares her notes about the books she picked to advance.]

By Cora Buhlert:

A Touch of Death by Rebecca Crunden
  • A Touch of Death by Rebecca Crunden

This one starts out strong with a graphically described prison whipping of a new prisoner, who later turns out to be the protagonist Nate. The prison scene, told from the POV of a guard, is well written, but then I have a soft spot for prison stories. Then the story jumps ahead in time with protagonists Nate (who’s now out of prison, even though he barely escaped execution) and Catherine escaping dystopia to the outlands. This part is not quite as good and Catherine is sadly afflicted by the Doctor Who companion tendency to sprain her ankle.

This feels like a typical dystopian YA novel, but it was promising and I wanted to read on.

Yes, please, give me more.

  • Alterlife by Matt Moss
Alterlife by Matt Moss

John is about to rob a bank to support his family, when he just happens to hear someone mentioning that they made five thousand dollars playing a virtual reality game called Alterlife – quell coincidence. Of course, both game and videogame system cost five hundred dollars each and John already didn’t have money. Never mind that the game is sold out. So John lies to his wife and talks his boss into giving him a loan to buy the bloody game and console. Then he holes up in a friend’s apartment and starts playing a faux medieval virtual RPG.

I found this one dull, to be honest. The first few chapters are just John and his crappy life. Only by the end does he actually enter the game and it’s still not very exciting. Also, I feel sorry for John’s wife who’s married to a lying loser. This one also has technical issues, jumping between first and third person POV and present and past tense.

No thanks, not for me.

Aurora Ascending by Dennis Ideue
  • Aurora Ascending by Dennis Ideue

Starts off with an infodump prologue, which is thankfully short. But even when the novel proper starts, it just goes on and on infodumping. It takes until chapter 2 until the shuttle with the Aetherian crown princess Ember even lands on Earth and then another chapter for her to descend the ramp and promptly get shot, before we witness the landing yet again through the eyes of a random spectator. It takes several more chapters until we finally learn that Ember’s own father wanted her killed.

The attempt to tell the story from different POVs (Ember’s bodyguard, Ember, a random spectator) in the first person is a nice idea, but it doesn’t work, because the narrators all sound the same. The attempt to build up a romance between Ember and her earthly body guard Commander Elliott Greyjoy (her Aetherian bodyguard has been shot after randomly changing his surname) fails completely, because there is no chemistry, just Ember recounting their interactions. When they finally have sex, it’s a handled in a single line. The next day, a new assassin gets lucky and Ember dies. And then the Aetherian Empire goes to war with Earth. The rest is infodumpy war stuff

I’m not the target audience for overly technical military SF and I found this one a chore to get through, to be honest. The only interesting thing is the budding relationship between Ember and Greyjoy and that’s glossed over and then she dies.

No thanks, not for me.

Condition Evolution by Kevin Sinclair
  • Condition Evolution by Kevin Sinclair

This one opens with protagonist Shaun at the doctor, because he’s obese and steadily gaining weight since he had an accident, which cost him his job as a roofer. The doctor sends him to an experimental therapy using another immersive VR game. All expenses are paid, but the therapy takes year. The game turns out to be yet another pseudo-medieval fantasy world. However, Shaun is still overweight and has little stamina and gets captured by lizardmen almost immediately. He becomes a mining slave.

Again, I’m not the target audience for this one, because I find LitRPG with its focus on stats irritating. Though this one is more interesting than Alterlife.

No thanks, not for me.

Cranax Outbreak by Candice Lim
  • The Cranax Outbreak by Candice Lim

The prologue is a boardroom scene of several scientists at a research lab discussing whether to release a virus in order to ensure continued funding for their research. Lots of talking heads and I also found this plot highly problematic in the light of the conspiracy theories surrounding covid (though the book was released in April 2020, early in the pandemic, so it might be a coincidence). Naming a villain Cash and the company she works for MAD is also pretty on the nose. Later, there is a character named Vaxine. Really.

Once the novel proper starts, we get a POV shift (third to first) and an infodump about the history of STEM-focussed Asia Nova, courtesy of narrator Roxy, who also has a bad case of imposter syndrome. The story picks up once Roxy finds her mentor Dr. Jane Hershey in a suspended animation tank and stumbles upon two professors stealing a deadly virus, while helpfully blabbing out the plot again. Roxy can’t help Hershey, but manages to copy her data. However, the bad guys are on to her, as is the mysterious Vaxine.

There’s a potentially interesting story in here, but it’s buried in infodumps and stilted dialogue. Besides, a pandemic novel is not what I want to read right now.

No thanks, not for me.

Don’t Speak by Vanessa Heath
  • Don’t Speak by Vanessa Heath

The novel opens with the narrator addressing the reader and promising a story/warning about the dystopian world of this novel. Then, we get a flashback to the narrator’s childhood plus yet another infodump about the history of this dystopian world where speaking and illegal writing is forbidden and punishable by death. However, the writing is much better and more atmospheric. I also like the use of different fonts to designate different “speakers”.

The dystopia doesn’t make a lot of sense and the plot – teenager gets in trouble with school bullies, until school bullies get in trouble with dystopian regime – is nothing to write home about, but this one is quite intriguing and well written.

Yes, please, give me more.

Dusk by Ashanti Luke
  • Dusk by Ashanti Luke

The novel opens with a prologue that plunges us right in medias res with someone named Dr. Cyrus Chamberlain assaulting a hangar full of enemy soldiers to get to a spaceship. It’s supposed to be action-packed, but unfortunately we’re not given any reason to care about Cyrus or his mission. The fight scenes are confusingly described, too, e.g. does the bullet pass through the air or through Cyrus’ ear?

Next we get an epigraph by poet Elaine Goodale Eastman and then we get a kid clamouring for a bedtime story and the kid’s Dad (probably Cyrus) telling a story about an abused unicorn.

Then we get Cyrus again, about to leave the overpopulated and polluted Earth for the newly discovered planet Asha, a mission that is supposed to save humanity. Cyrus says goodbye to his family and leaves. The novel now alternates between Cyrus and his son Darius talking and infodumping and the adventures of Cyrus en route to Asha, which involve such thrilling fare as a debate about religion.

I found this one dull, to be honest, and the action-packed prologue doesn’t make it any more exciting. Maybe there is an interesting story in here somewhere, but so far I’m not seeing it. The plot is a little reminiscent of “Far Centaurus” by A.E. Van Vogt, but “Far Centaurus” is much better (and shorter). And I don’t even like Van Vogt.

No thanks, not for me.

Fanatic’s Bane by Edmund de Wight
  • Fanatic’s Bane by Edmund de Wight

The novel opens in a place called Barbo Transfer Station, where an alien Narath is chased through the nighttime streets and finally assaulted and killed by a xenophobic street gang. All this is witnessed by a ninja monk named Brother Cassius, who does not interfere.

Next we get an infodump about the Interstellar Trade Commonwealth and its enforcers, the so-called Free Agents. Then we are introduced to Free Agent Emma Malbane and get a scene from Emma’s POV comparing herself to an unnamed receptionist which is very male gazey and a typical example of men writing women.

Emma is sent to Barbo Transfer Station to investigate the hate crime against aliens, because those might destabilise the Commonwealth and civilisation itself.

The opening is atmospheric, though Brother Cassius’ refusal to help the beleaguered alien makes him rather unlikeable, but maybe he’s supposed to be. The Emma Malbane sequences are very infodumpy, though. There may be an interesting story here, but it never comes together.

No thanks, not for me.

Godeena by Stjepan Varesevac Cobets
  • Godeena by Stjepan Varesevac Corbets

The novel opens with cybernetic soldier Henry Broncon and his squad on a mission on the planet Morad, where Earth is at war with the alien Ansker. Surprise, they are ambushed, and everybody dies except Henry.

Next the scene switches to a space prison imaginatively called Hades. Of course, no one has ever escaped alive. Henry comes to Hades to put together a Dirty Dozen/Suicide Squad team of criminals for a mission. One of them is a female cyber soldier, who murdered her lover after he tried to kill her while pregnant and managed to kill the foetus.

The ambush opening didn’t do much for me, because I had no reason to care about the characters and what happened to them. The space prison recruitment part is stronger, but then I have weakness for prison stories.

There are some writing weaknesses here like tense shifts and head hopping. Nonetheless, I wanted to read on.

Yes, please, give me more.

Gods of the Black Gate by Joseph Sale
  • Gods of the Black Gate by Joseph Sale

The novel starts with Craig Smiley, a disturbed serial killer who hears the voices of the seven true gods and his father, en route to the solar system’s worst prison on Mars (another space prison story).

Then the scene switches to police officer Caleb Rogers who arrested Smiley and is informed that Smiley has escaped. Caleb and his partner Tom are sent to Mars to recapture him.

We also get transcripts of Rogers’ interviews with Smiley as well as Smiley’s visions/dreams while in prison and his escape.

Nice science fiction noir. Recommended.

Yes, please, give me more.

  • Grandfather Anonymous by Anthony W. Eichenlaub
Grandfather Anonymous by Anthony W. Eichenlaub

Ajay Andersen is an elderly Indian-Norwegian-American living in Minnesota in a dystopian surveillance state in 2045. We first meet him dealing with a social officer, a social worker/police officer hybrid supposedly making wellness checks on elderly people, but in truth looking for illegal tech, which ex-hacker Ajay happens to own. Luckily, Ajay can hack into the police files.

The officer also mentions they are looking for a fugitive, a woman with two young daughters. This fugitive is Ajay’s estranged daughter Sashi. The girls are the granddaughters he didn’t know he had. Sashi soon shows up at Ajay’s doorstep, daughters Kylie and Isabelle in tow, and asks Ajay to watch them. When she doesn’t return, Ajay has to go on the run with the girls.

A Cyberpunk thriller with a protagonist in his 70s. Recommended.

Yes, please, give me more.

Harvested by Anthony O’Brien
  • Harvested by Anthony O’Brien

A man called Jon Stone witnesses the supposed suicide of his mentor Joseph Swartz. Only that it’s not suicide but murder, committed by people wearing shades. Surprise, everybody is living in the Matrix and Joseph was about to reveal this to the world.

Jon Stone delivers Joseph’s last paper, which asks if the world is real or just a holographic simulation. Soon, he is contacted by good and bad holograms, both of which turn out to be attractive women described in a male-gazey way. Brunette Tori is the good hologram, blonde Alyssa is the bad hologram. Tori extracts Jon from Alyssa’s clutches and the Matrix.

This one is too close to The Matrix for my taste. The descriptions of New York City are very evocative, but the descriptions of the two holographic women are very male-gazey. There’s a lot head-hopping, too.

No thanks, not for me.

Homecoming by R. D. Meyer
  • Homecoming by R.D. Meyer

The novel is told as a series of journal entries by a historian named Shallisto Kai, who then proceeds to infodump about the history of humanity after they had to flee Earth as well as share their CV. Shallisto Kai is an expert in Earth history and therefore accompanies a military fleet on an expedition to reconquer Earth after 6000 years to chronicle the events of the expedition.

The early parts of this novel are basically one big infodump. We get information about the history of humanity and their expulsion from Earth, a primer on the political system, the calendar system, a tour of the flagship, her bridge and her crew, how the SLS drive works and so on. The premise – humanity has been driven from Earth and they want it back – is potentially interesting, but the execution is dull.  

Also, the humans are not very likable in this novel. They are xenophobic, exterminated an alien race a thousand years ago (okay, they were genocidal, but still) and they attack a random fleet of the alien Traygar, simply because they need to pass through their territory to get to Earth. Maybe the point is that the humans are jerks, but so far I’m not seeing it.

Finally, as someone who took Latin in school, the name Novam Terra is grating, because the adjective is in the wrong case.

No thanks, not for me.

In My Memory Locked by Jim Nelson
  • In My Memory Locked by Jim Nelson

The novel opens with a security expert named C.F. Naroy arriving at a crime scene in San Francisco in the year 2038. His former mentor and associate Michael Aggaroy has been brutally murdered, shortly after he asked Naroy to meet him. The police want to know what Aggaroy wanted of Naroy. Naroy isn’t sure, but suspects it has something to do with the “Old Internet” (i.e. ours).

A bit later, Naroy visits the only remaining copy of the “Old Internet”, which is kept on Alcatraz Island whose caretakers want to hire him. Turns out someone has been deleting parts of the old internet and the caretakers want Naroy to retrieve the stolen/deleted data. They won’t even press charges, they just want their data back.

This one starts out strong with some atmospheric descriptions of the rainy San Francisco of the near future, but then stalls out with a lot of infodumping, once Naroy gets to Alcatraz.

No thank, not for me.

Into Neon: A Cyberpunk Saga by Matthew A. Goodwin
  • Into Neon by Matthew A. Goodwin

Protagonist Moss works for ThutoCo as a bot controller and lives in a fully controlled company town. He’s in love with his childhood friend Issy, but doesn’t do anything about it. One day a woman named Ynna in full punk get-up knocks on his door. She works for a group that wants to expose ThutoCo‘s machinations and they want Moss’ help to do so. Ynna also gives Moss a data chip from his dead parents and hacks his implant. Then, she escapes as a security alert is triggered, but asks Moss to meet her in a bar in the megacity he has never visited.

This one may eventually become interesting, but it starts very slowly.

No thanks, not for me.

  • Lost Solace by Karl Drinkwater
Lost Solace by Karl Drinkwater

Opal has stolen an AI-controlled spaceship named Clarissa from the military to go on a quest for a lost spaceship. The novel opens with Opal waking from cryo-sleep, as Clarissa has arrived at their destination, a neutron star surrounded by a dust cloud. The lost spaceship Opal is searching – the passenger liner Solace, which disappeared 13 years ago – is hidden inside that dust cloud.

Spaceships get lost in hyperspace (here called “nullspace”) on occasion and suddenly reappear after decades or centuries. Often, these ships have been altered and there is something else on board. Something that can predict the future.

Since Opal can’t hail the drifting ship and her drones don’t work, because the ship has been altered, Opal puts on a cool armoured and armed spacesuit and boards the drifting lost ship.

I liked this one. The relationship between Opal and Clarissa is fun and the mystery of the lost ship is intriguing enough. Some nice worldbuilding hints as well.

Yes, please, give me more.

Mantivore Dreams by S. J. Higbee
  • Mantivore Dreams by S.J. Higbee  

The novel starts with Kyrillia, a teenager on a hot colony planet, at the Node, the planet’s internet equivalent, listening to music and discovering Bach. There also is Vrox, an alien familiar whom only Kyrillia can hear (and who also liked Bach). Kyrillia thinks he’s her imaginary friend, though he obviously isn’t .

The music session is cut shot when Kyrillia’s abusive mother arrives to beat her. We gradually learn that Kyrillia’s mother has always been abusive and hates her daughter for reasons unknown and that Kyrillia is also taking care of her disabled uncle, whom the mother also hates and resents. The uncle also abuses Kyrillia and her life is just shit. Kyrillia hopes to work at the Node like her mother someday, but her mother won’t let her. Even though Kyrillia is better at the job than her flake mother.

We also get some worldbuilding details. The colony is on a downswing. Most people can barely read and there was something called “the turbulence”.

One night, Kyrillia receives a holographic visit from a teenager named Kestor Brarian, who’s an apprentice Node keeper, who asks questions about the music site, which is apparently forbidden, and who tells her that Kyrillia’s mom is looking for an apprentice who’s not Kyrillia. There’s the usual teenage awkwardness between the sexes.

Kyrillia gets abused by her mother and uncle some more, the villagers drop cryptic hints that her mother has reasons for hating her and she has more clandestine conversations with Kestor. There’s also Seth, the kid of a disgraced family, who works as a day labourer and is Kyrillia’s friend.

This feels very YA-like with the abused protagonist, almost comically evil mother (who seems to be making a play for the Darth Vader Parenthood Award) and the two boys vying for her. Still, the story is entertaining enough and the worldbuilding is intriguing.

Yes, please, give me more.

No Easy Road by Greg Camp
  • No Easy Road by Greg Camp

Lieutenant Tom Cochrane is in the Centauri space navy and has constant issues with his aristocratic superiors, who are ordering him about and blaming him for the messes they caused. When Tom is ordered to fix substandard equipment his superior Commander Shelley had installed, the faulty equipment causes a shipwide failure and a fire, which gets the captain – who always supported Tom – killed. Tom gets blamed for this, which kills his Navy career.

The Tom segments are interspersed with segments featuring a man called Bertrand Lile, who appears to be some kind of spy or secret agent. He’s summoned to a meeting in a dingy hotel with an agent he recruited. Turns out the agent met someone at the hotel for sex, only for those someones to be murdered. Bertrand deduces that someone is on to his agent.

The Tom segments are pretty dull. Even the fire and explosion that kills the captain happened off-screen. The Bertrand segments are somewhat more exciting, but we get no information regarding who Bertrand is, what his mission is or why we should care. I guess I’m not the target audience for this one.

No thanks, not for me.

Numanity by Alexander Lucas
  • Numanity by Alexander Lucas  

The novel starts in medias res with two teenagers named Neeto and Ada, a cyborg, engaged in hacking operation to illegally watch a game called Alphaball in an abandoned sports bar, while exchanging banter. The scene is set in some kind of post-apocalyptic flooded world. They get caught and have to make a run for it. Neeto escapes, Ada doesn’t. We later see her getting interrogated.

The scene now shifts to the company behind Alphaball. The vice president is furious, because one of the cyborg players went off script, displayed too many abilities and ruined the game. He asks random talking heads for solutions and finally fires all but two of them.

The scene shifts again to Tiber Achilles, the Alphaball player who went off script and showed off too many abilities. His CEO mother is furious that he upset the delicated balance between the Darwin and Achilles companies.

There’s another scene featuring a biographer named Janajreh seeing Emin Lator, head of the Darwin company. Apparently, Emin had an affair with Rain Achilles, husband of the CEO of the rival company.

This one never really comes together and I have no reason to care about any of the characters. The endless talking head scenes with almost no dialogue attribution don’t help either. After twenty percent, I can’t even see what sort of story this is supposed to be.

No thanks, not for me.

Piercing The Celestial Ocean by Kip Koelsch
  • Piercing the Celestial Ocean by Kip Koelsch

The novel opens with a prologue where a spaceship named Endeavour (wasn’t the ship in No Easy Road also named that?) intercepts a cylindrical object coming out of a wormhole. The cylinder contains a humanoid woman in stasis.

Captain Ekels of the Endeavour is the usual washed out troublemaker captain that is standard for the military SF genre. He’s even done a stint in prison. Ekels hopes the discovery of the cylinder and its occupants will get him back in the good graces of the scientific community.

Ekels is ordered to put the crew of the Endeavour into stasis and wait until a fleet can arrive from Earth to build a research station to examine the capsule and its occupant. This will take fifteen years.

Once the Endeavour’s crew is in stasis, Ekels orders the ship AI to open the capsule and revive the occupant. We have no idea why he does this.

After the prologue, the story jumps to events on the other side of the wormhole 655 years earlier, where everybody and everything has apostrophe laden names and an astronomer named G’lea is about to observe the wormhole. This is a periodic event and is viewed as the coming of heavenly visitors by the clerics of this world. But G’lea knows it’s a natural phenomenon and wants to convince the clerics. This goes about as well as you can imagine.

The basic idea of two human/humanoid civilisations from opposite sides of a wormhole meeting each other is solid. However, the execution is lacking. The Ekels section is cliched and Ekels himself is neither likeable nor do his motivations make much sense. It’s also irritating that every single crewmember of the Endeavour seems to be male. The G’lea section is stronger, but the story just doesn’t gel.

No thanks, not for me.

Retrieval by Regina Clarke
  • Retrieval by Regina Clarke

Gillian runs a diner in the Mojave desert. One day, she’s late to open up and finds her new employee Gabriel missing. Shortly thereafter, Gillian and the patrons witness seven streaks of light in the sky and hear a loud boom. They assume that a nearby airbase is testing some kind of new weapons systems. Shortly thereafter, Gabriel reappears. Supposedly, he overslept. Gillian knows she should fire him, but doesn’t.

Gabriel promptly disappears again on a walk and generally acts strange, but Gillian is too busy to care, especially Gabriel reappears around lunchtime and is otherwise really good at his job.

Gillian’s ex, Birdy, drops by and wants to show her something he found in the desert. This something turns out to be a strange glowing disc. When pressed, the disc and a rusty trailer disappear.

The fire streaks was an alien crash and the disc is an alien artefact. The Roswell crash involved the same aliens. They are worried that the military might find their lost tech, so they try to retrieve it. This is the job of an alien commander called Malakai. His brother Inac is none other than Gabriel, Gillian’s new employee. For reasons best known to himself, Malakai is interested in Gillian and wants her retrieved along with the lost tech.

This is well written and the chapters from Gillian’s POV are very evocative. I also liked the descriptions of the desert. The Malakai chapters are less interesting so far. Nonetheless, I’m intrigued enough to want more.

Yes, please, give me more.

Shakedowners by Justin Woolley
  • Shakedowners by Justin Woolley

Captain Iridius B. Franklin is an inept commander, who is given equally idiotic assignments. He’s captain of the freighter Diesel Coast (named for a 21st century ecological disaster), which is delivering artificially intelligent toy dogs to a disaster stricken space colony at the opening of the novel.

Franklin also has a reputation for breaking starships. Things tend to go wrong around him, a phenomenon that is dubbed Franklinisms.

When the Diesel Coast reaches its destination, no one is answering their hails. They investigate and find no life signs, so they enter the mining colony and find the crew reduced to pink goo and all logs and data erased. Franklin is attacked by a swarm of insectoid nano-machines. He and his away team barely escape with their lives.

However, despite all precautions, some of the nano-machines manage to get aboard and take over one of the artificially intelligent robot dogs…

This is a fun work of humorous science fiction, reminiscent of the TV show The Orville and Joe Zieja’s books.

Yes, please, give me more.

Sidnye by Scott Fitzgerald Gray
  • Sidnye: Queen of the Universe by Scott Fitzgerald Gray

Sidnye is a teenaged orphan at a boarding school in Saskatchewan, Canada. She is messy and has recurring dreams about shooting stars. She’s friends with Emmet, who’s into astronomy. Her favourite teacher is McCune, who’s also her legal guardian.

I do like the descriptions of the Canadian winter, but the novel itself is not for me, I’m afraid. I’m no longer the target audience for YA-ish boarding school stories and there’s little in the early chapters that makes this story feel different from umpteen similar ones.

No thank you, not for me.

  • Sped-Bot by Billy DeCarlo
Sped-Bot: DroidMesh Trilogy Book 1 by Billy DeCarlo

The novel opens with fifteen-year-old Isaac, his father Harley and Isaac’s android (or gynoid) companion Carrie watching a soccer match on Novae Terrae (another case of using the wrong Latin case endings), a breakaway Earth colony. Isaac’s foster brother Liam is one of the players and wins the match for his team. This is not a good thing, because competition is discouraged on this world. Isaac apparently has some kind of intellectual disability (maybe somewhere on the autism spectrum), which is supposed to have been eradicated on this brave new world.

Isaac has problem with classmate Ralph Sampson who keeps humiliating him. However, Ralph’s father is Harley’s boss and a big deal in this brave new world. As we learn from one of Isaac’s lessons, Novae Terrae has a strict meritocratic caste system, disallows competition and violence, has abolished money and religion and dampened down the sex drive. Androids are omnipresent, but have no rights.

There may well be an interesting story here eventually, but the beginning never really progresses beyond Isaac’s bullying woes. And as I said above, I’m no longer the target audience for school stories.

No thank you, not for me.

The Dark Realm by Anthea Sharp
  • The Dark Realm by Anthea Sharp

Jennet Carter’s father is a game developer for the most immersive VR game system ever. Mr. Carter takes the prototype home and Jennet sneaks into his office to give it a try and play the new game Feyland. Unfortunately, the queen of the dark fae who rules the land has detected Jennet’s arrival and orders her captured.

After arriving in the game, Jennet meets a brownie and fights the Black Knight, who is one of the Dark Queen’s goons. Lucky for Jennet, the game glitches and throws her back into the real world, where her father has just come home, accompanied by his friend Thomas Rimer (!). Thomas gives Jennet a book about fairy tales, whose illustrations match the game.

The Dark Queen, annoyed that the Black Knight has failed to capture Jennet, sends the Wild Hunt after her, but they fail, too. Meanwhile, Jennet is dealing with the typical teen school woes. During her holidays, she keeps returning to Feyland and does quests. When Jennet’s father announces that they’re moving to a small town, she is heartbroken.

This is certainly well written, but I’m not the target audience for either LitRPG or YA school drama. Nonetheless, I was intrigued enough that I wanted to read on.

Yes please, give me more.

The Hammond Conjecture by M. B. Reed
  • The Hammond Conjecture by M.B. Reed

The novel starts with a preface by the author, claiming that what we are about to read is a biography of one Hugh Hammond, based on his papers and requested by his daughter Eve. Clever framing device, which Reed also uses to urge us to sign up for their newsletter.

The novel proper opens with Hugh Hammond coming to in a hospital in World’s End, London, in 1982 with amnesia. No one will answer his questions and he believes he died and is in purgatory and this body is not his own.  The doctors of course think he’s crazy, but let him write a diary and prescribe a drug that will jolt his memories. This diary is what the novel is constructed from.

The first memory to return is of Hammond returning home from an assignment in 1971. We quickly realise that this is an alternate world, since there are airships landing at the Croydon aerodrome (long gone in our world). WWII ended with a peace treaty signed between the British Empire and Germany in 1941. The British Empire never died and neither did the Third Reich. Germany got to the moon, George V is still king and the 1968 riots were a lot more violent than in our world. In order to apply for Civil Service jobs, you have to prove Anglo-Saxon heritage.

We get another flashback to 1969 and Hammond arriving back in England after a lot of time spent in South Africa and India with the military. He joins the Secret Intelligence Service.

In hospital, Hammond befriends a nurse and chances to see a news program on TV. He realises that he has landed in an alternate world.

For once the blurb comparing this novel to early Michael Moorcock is correct, because it does remind me of the Jerry Cornelius stories. Philip K. Dick would also be a good comparison. This one is definitely intriguing.

Yes please, give me more.

The Prometheus Effect by David Fleming
  • The Prometheus Effect by David Fleming

The novel opens in the fall of 1945. Nineteen-year-old genius Jack is on the verge of developing fusion power and he is being questioned by the US President about a paper he has written, outlining challenges that humanity will face and the way to solve them. He is promptly recruited to head the secret organisation the City, which will be located in the Nevada desert.

The novel skips ahead to 2039 and a four-year-old boy named Mykl. Mykl appears to be a sort of genius, too. His single Mom works in Vegas and is murdered one night. Mykl ends up in a children’s home.

The scene shifts again to 2040 and CIA agent Sebastian Falstano aboard a submarine. Falstano is supposed to investigate extraterrestrial technology. The submarine crew is not pleased about this. Falstano is taken to a secret location, where he is met by an attractive blonde woman and taken to examine a billion year old alien artefact found on the moon. Then the woman shoots and drugs him.

The scene shifts to Jessica who is taking an entrance exam to join the military. Jessica is waist-deep in student loans and laments about the quality of education. Jessica wants to develop Cold Fusion, while the professors want her to study non-western cultures. The author can’t help getting on his soap box here. Eventually, Jessica joins the military and winds up at the City, only to be fire almost immediately for allegedly falsifying data. However, it’s just a test to figure out if Jessica is moral enough to join the City.

Jessica and Sebastian meet while chained to the seats of a bus. Sebastian wants to go public with the classified information. Jessica is horrified.

Once again, there’s probably an interesting story in here somewhere, but it never comes together. The fact that the author can’t resist getting on his soap box to hold forth about the value of higher education doesn’t help either.

No thanks, not for me.

The StarMaster’s Son by Gibson Morales
  • The StarMaster’s Son by Gibson Morales

The prologue begins with the StarMaster, ruler of the universe, about to “die” (his body is artificial, but his memory has been corrupted) after ruling for fifty years.

The scene shifts to a young man called Felik, who is debating the apparent demise of the StarMaster on a next generation social network. Felik suffers from a neural virus. He also happens to be the StarMaster’s clone son, one of many. His brother StarKeeper Oberon is the favoured successor, but another brother Megas is also in the running. Felik doesn’t care, he hopes to become Chief Philosopher. Meanwhile, he lives in a savanna projection, where he has sex and fights. By day, he works as an ambassador to technologically less developed species. One of these, the wraiths, capture him.

The scene shifts to Kai, an inquisitor (a.k.a. bounty hunter) who can project her consciousness into different artificial bodies. Kai and her ship Euphrates are attacked. The ship is destroyed and Kai has to flee aboard an escape pod. She comes to again thirty-nine years later and learns that she has been infected by a neural virus.

This one tries to cram way too much information and too many side stories into one novel and the result never really comes together.

No thanks, not for me.

  • The Voyage of the White Cloud by M. Darusha Wehm
The Voyage of the White Cloud by M. Darusha Wehm

The White Cloud is a generation ship and the novel consists of individual stories about the people living and dying aboard this ship.

The first one up is Susanne, a teacher. Susanne is religious and her experiences at a service are intermingled with her memories of struggling to become a teacher and falling for a boy who turns out to be gay. Susanne finds answers to all her questions in her religion

Next up are Janey, another teacher, and Tamar who are getting drunk and talk about aliens. The White Cloud has never encountered aliens, but Tamar believes they are writing messages in the stars. Tamar has proof and shows it to Janey. She wants Janey to tell the story of humanity and the White Cloud and encode it in the stars.

Then we get Lauren Ibarra, who has just turned sixty-seven years old and is dreading the party.

I love the idea of this one, but unfortunately, I don’t love the execution. The slice of life stories feel very inconsequential. Maybe it all comes together later, but not so far.

No thanks, not for me.

Where Weavers Daire by R. K. Bentley
  • Where Weavers Daire by R.K. Bentley

Melinda Scott is eighteen and works as a salvage specialist as part of a family crew. One day, during what’s supposed to be a test mission, she comes across a giant derelict spaceship of the Daires. She finds a spellbook and mysterious suit and realises that the ship belongs to a necromancer. Unfortunately, that necromancer or weaver, Spence MacGregor is still in his suit and regaining consciousness. He goes after Melinda, as she tries to escape and grabs hold of her. Her Mother Jainey and a relative named Tommy gives chase, but have to break off, when Tommy’s anti-magic weapons fail due to tampering.

Melinda makes her way aboard the ship again and finally meets Spence, who is struggling to bring his ship, which has been hacked, back under control. The hacker is one Wallace Stukari, an enemy of Spence’s. He tries to blow up the ship, but Spence and Melinda escape in an escape pod and land on the planet Stuk’s Hollow.

Jainey’s and Tommy’s ship is boarded by supposed tax collectors, who turn out to be Stukari agents. Tommy is working for them and Melinda was used as bait to draw out Spence, only everything went wrong. Wallace Stukari also appears and demands to know where Melinda and Spence are. He and Tommy land on Stuk’s Hollow to go after them.

This one is a tad confusing, explaining too little rather than too much. But the characters are likeable and I wouldn’t mind reading more about them.

Yes please, give me more.


SPSFC art by Tithi LuadthongLogos designed by Scott (@book_invasion)

Review: The Hammond Conjecture

The Hammond Conjecture by M. B. Reed

By Mike Glyer: Hugh Hammond thinks he has been swapped to another timeline. Or else he’s insane. He’s trying to figure it out.

Martin Reed’s alternate history tale The Hammond Conjecture finds Hugh regaining consciousness in an isolation ward of catatonic patients, one of many awakened by British doctors using levodopa, following the example of Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings. Unlike the encephalitics who have endured decades of stupor and inertia, he’s only been in treatment a few weeks. Why is he in a London psychiatric hospital? In 1982? Why is the first thing he remembers an airship voyage from South Africa in 1969? How did he get in this condition?

Hugh’s therapy, besides drugs and hypnosis, is to type out all his recollections. And things are beginning to come back to him. What he recalls of his past – missions as part of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) in the early Seventies — alternate with scenes in the present with his therapist and other patients, two story tracks that promise to converge when they finally reach the event horizon.

Meanwhile, Hugh wonders if his first glimpses of the present world are true, or only staged for him to see, as part of some psychological experiment? Like the television news of a woman Prime Minister hosting a visit by an American President he remembers from the movies — how improbable! Where are the uniformed officials of the Third Reich who were running the Europe he knew?

Hugh’s memoir of his work with the SIS reveals he is just as lecherous, though not as cowardly, as George MacDonald Fraser’s Harry Flashman, who Reed calls an inspiration for the character. Another reviewer said it: Hugh thinks with every organ but his brain. On the other hand, one of the reasons Hugh is braver and more impulsively heroic than Flashman is that in every tight situation he asks himself — What Would James Bond Do? Because not only are the novels of Ian Fleming admitted influences on the author – his hero Hugh has read the books and seen the movies! And when SIS bureaucratic intrigue is at its most treacherous, we find he also is familiar with the books of John le Carré – whose George Smiley is dismissed as far too wimpy to be a role model.

The book is entertaining on so many levels. There’s the alternate history puzzle. Why did the Nazis win in one of these universes, and what changes did that cause to the map and daily life? In that universe, what familiar sights and sounds of British pop culture in the Sixties have persisted, slightly rearranged? The Beatles and Mick Jagger are still front page news in the world he remembers; Monty Python still makes people laugh.

Then there’s the espionage story – operations, interservice rivalry, a constant flow of tradecraft (even the tactically placed hair to tell if someplace has been disturbed.)

And the science fiction story. What event triggered the separation of these two timelines? Why was Hitler’s Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess upon landing in England immediately imprisoned in the current timeline, but hailed as a peacemaking emissary in the remembered one? Or is this altered history not the cause, merely a symptom of a split precipitated at the quantum level? Science and myth both come into play as characters trying to understand this mystery notice the strange resonances between scientific and religious explanations of the cosmos.

Recognizing all the references is great fun, whether they explain the universe or tease the reader’s private memories. Hugh’s home has an elephant leg umbrella stand – did you ever read the Sladek story about the elephant with a wooden leg? At the hospital, Hugh types his memoir on a computer using WordStar – waves of nostalgia for me, possibly huh-wha? for you. Those are just two of the things I noticed. (Readers who worry about missing any of the hidden history can consult author Reed’s website with footnotes, which explains quite a bit.)

While the trivia is seductive, to make this a successful story it is essential that some answers come out before it ends. We want to know, does Hugh survive his missions with the Special Intelligence Service? How did he wind up in the Eighties? Did his love life work out? Are we given satisfactory answers to any of these questions? At least I can promise at no point does Hugh wake up and discover it was all a dream. But he worries that he might!    

[The Hammond Conjecture by M.B. Reed is an entry in the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition.]

Review: Lost Solace by Karl Drinkwater

Lost Solace by Karl Drinkwater

By Mike Glyer: Opal steals an experimental AI-controlled spaceship from the military to begin Lost Solace by Karl Drinkwater because she’s seeking something that’s been taken away from her. She hopes to find it on a Lost Ship, one of the spaceships that vanish with all hands, then reappear, strangely altered, derelict, and rumored to be full of horrors. And Opal knows where she expects to find one.

In the vicinity of a neutron star Opal locates a seemingly deserted spaceship – and from the moment she boards an endless variety of tech and lifeforms are trying to kill her. Her companion AI, named Clarissa, helps keep track of the threats – though their relationship is complicated by the fact that Opal isn’t telling Clarissa everything, beginning with the fact that she’s been stolen.

What does Opal hope to find? What happened to this Lost Ship? The way Drinkwater builds this story discovery-by-discovery, with all kinds of dangers thrown in, marries what I liked about Rendezvous with Rama to the array of lethal threats presented in the novels of Rusch’s Diving Universe. And the story moves at an even more dynamic and compelling pace than either of them.

An orphan who has been pushed into a military career, Opal may be a highly effective fighter but she hates taking orders or being under any kind of discipline, and has only endured it with her goal in mind. Eventually we learn what that goal is. Meanwhile, she fights her way through endless deadly situations aboard this mystery ship, protected by her armored spacesuit and its suite of ingenious weaponry. Writers have been improving on Heinlein’s Mobile Infantry gear for more than six decades, and Drinkwater brings a richly inventive imagination to the table, giving Opal the weapons of a marine, a suit of armor tailored for vacuum, visual displays worthy of a fighter plane (or maybe a video game), and the support of artificial intelligence.

One of the best and most difficult accomplishments, as the author unfolds this fast-moving action adventure, is that the two main characters – Opal and Clarissa – grow in identity and friendship. Their mutual loyalty makes the reader care about their survival. And the way the experience transforms them provides a satisfying sense of closure to this novel, while still leaving the way open for the follow-up.

[Lost Solace by Karl Drinkwater is an entry in the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition.]