Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Book Review: Armor

book cover for ArmorThe planet is called Banshee. The air is unbreathable, the water is poisonous. It is home to the most implacable enemies that humanity, in all its interstellar expansion, has ever encountered.

Body armor has been devised for the commando forces that are to be dropped on Banshee—the culmination of ten thousand years of the armorers’ craft. A trooper in this armor is a one-man, atomic powered battle fortress. But he will have to fight a nearly endless horde of berserk, hard-shelled monsters—the fighting arm of a species which uses biological technology to design perfect, mindless war minions.

Felix is a scout in A-team Two. Highly competent, he is the sole survivor of mission after mission. Yet he is a man consumed by fear and hatred. And he is protected, not only by his custom-fitted body armor, but by an odd being which seems to live within him, a cold killing machine he calls “The Engine.”

This is Felix’s story—a story of the horror, the courage, and the aftermath of combat, and the story, too, of how strength of spirit can be the greatest armor of all.


The story starts out with what you'd expect after reading the book blurb (Goodreads or paperback): a non-stop brutal assault. Felix is but one soldier of thousands dumped on Banshee, the alien homeworld, to fight the enemy on their turf. While not stated outright, they're treated as disposable heroes. Lessons are never learned. Tactics never change. Mistakes are repeated, sending the casualty count higher and higher. Published in 1984, I wonder if the hangover from Vietnam factored into Steakley's writing.

Felix's battles are epic, but there's no glory here. The "ants"—giant, mass-produced, mindless biological killing machines—relentlessly attack Felix and his fellow soldiers. Swarm after swarm come at them, and eventually, everyone dies. Except Felix. Steakley writes up Felix's battles in gory detail, which wears on the reader, but that's his point. He wants you to connect with Felix, who is physically and psychologically drained from all the killing, watching his comrades die, and being ordered to repeat the process over and over and over. It's madness, and it threatens to take Felix down with it. He's too afraid to live, but too angry to die.

But in the second part of the book, we shift from Felix to Jack Crow, interstellar celebrity rogue. He violently escapes from prison to a starship on a landing pad, only to be caught up with a group of mutineers. He's coerced into working with them in a scam to secure more fuel from a Fleet Scientific Colony. Jack is to use his celebrity status to his advantage to get the mutineers past the planet's defenses. Jack uses his reputation and charisma to gain audience and then presents a Trojan Horse of sorts to the project's chief scientist, Hollis Ware. Not only does it snare Hollis's curiosity, but Jack's too.

This second story takes over for quite a large chunk of the book, but Felix isn't forgotten. Steakley eventually weaves the two storylines together, and we learn more about what happened to Felix as well as his past before enlisting. Along the way, Steakley works on evolving Jack from selfish to selfless in a way that remained true to the character.

There are a few women characters of note in the book, and each is treated differently. Forest is a soldier just like Felix. She's fantastic: smart, brave, and skilled. Colonel Canada seemed like someone fresh out of college: book smart and eager, but not all that experienced. When she appears, it's like an episode of Spring Break: Banshee. Lya is a psychologist and Hollis's handler, not to mention very much in love with him. Karen is the Project Administrator and...wow. Let's just say that when we learn her backstory, it strikes a chord with the #metoo movement. All four impact either Felix or Jack in some way that shapes their worldview.

There's been a lot of comparison of this novel to Starship Troopers and The Forever War. Yes, there are big mean bugs that attacked Earth (ST), and there's a bleak outlook on the futility of war and those calling the shots (FW), but there are major differences. ST was more about patriotism and duty as Heinlein saw a moral decline in 1950s America. Armor rejects patriotism as an excuse for stupidity. FW was a mirror of Haldeman's experiences fighting in Vietnam and the difficulty returning to civilian life. Armor acknowledges it, but forges a different path, concerning itself with the toll taken on the human psyche.

There are some parts, including the ending, that beg for further story exploration. Sadly, Steakley died in 2010 from liver disease, having never completed a sequel.

Overall, a fantastic book (please ignore the typos) that worked for me on numerous levels. 5 stars.

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DED

Monday, May 7, 2018

Book Review: Burning Chrome

Book cover for Burning ChromeNewer editions have better covers. This was the 1987 cover, which is the one I own.

This is a short story collection of Gibson's early work, ranging from 1977-1985. In it, he lays the groundwork for his Sprawl trilogy, which includes Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive. But more importantly, he gave sci-fi a much needed boost in the arm by securing the foundation of what would become known as cyberpunk.

One has to remember that during the time that Gibson wrote these stories, the internet was a domain limited to a select few militaries, government institutions, and universities. The web didn't even exist until 1991. But he saw the potential of where it could lead. While his biotech visions are just starting to show signs of emergence, by and large, he got his computer technology right.

First up is "Johnny Mnemonic." How a 22-page short story led to the movie of the same name is beyond me. It's like the studio cherry-picked several elements from the story that they liked and came up with something else entirely. This story is fine. It rushes by so fast, everything is lost in the world building. I had to re-read a couple of passages as the segues were easily overlooked.

The story was published in 1981, it helped define a cyberpunk future that fortunately hasn't come to pass, though some of the technological elements ring true. Though with the ubiquity of high-density, tiny storage devices (i.e. thumb drives), requiring someone to have wetware for a few megabytes of info is quaint. Tera- or Petabytes would've impressed.

"The Gernsback Continuum": While on assignment, a photographer starts hallucinating about a future that was forecast in the 1930s.

"Fragments of a Hologram Rose": Trying to put a broken heart back together with holograms in a ruined American landscape.

Gibson co-wrote "The Belonging Kind" with John Shirley. In this one, a socially awkward man is smitten by a woman at a bar. As he follows her through the city, he soon learns that she's more than she appears to be, which only makes her even more intriguing.

In "Hinterlands," humanity accidentally stumbles upon interstellar travel, but it's really rough on the people that experience it. There's a team at the L5 station that do their best to help those that come back. It's about as easy as putting a broken egg back together.

After cornering the oil market, the Soviet Union forced the US to concede human spaceflight in "Red Star, Winter Orbit", co-written with Bruce Sterling. Colonel Komarov, the first person on Mars, calls the Soviet space station home, but after two decades in space, it's also a prison. Returning to Earth's gravity would crush him, but that's exactly what the government wants.

"New Rose Hotel": Being a headhunter in the biotech market is a ruthless business. Like love, there's nothing that stings more than betrayal. Substitute thumb drives for diskettes and you'll be ok.

"The Winter Market": When dreams sell like popular music does today (or yesterday), it'll give rise to its own rock stars, complete with their own tragic stories.

In "Dogfight," co-written with Michael Swanwick, a loser drifter decides that he's going to make his mark by being the best holovideogame player in the whole podunk town, and he's willing to do anything to accomplish it, even if it means being a dick.

"Burning Chrome" wraps up this collection with the quintessential cyberpunk story: Two console jockeys set out for that one final score that'll make them rich. To do it, they'll need to take down a criminal kingpin via the internet matrix.

The first three stories are too obsessed with describing Gibson's world and throwing cool, new jargon at the reader than in crafting good stories. Style over substance. But after that, the real storytelling begins. Gibson eases off the nuevo lingo, particularly when writing with others, to develop the characters into people we can recognize beneath the veneer of tech. Definitely worth checking out to see a successful writer when he was still hungry and passionate about writing down his vision of the future.

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DED

Friday, April 27, 2018

I Killed MySpace

MySpace logo
No, not really. It's just a coincidence that the #1 social networking outlet went into decline shortly after I joined up. It's also very much alive, albeit largely irrelevant in the social media landscape, as a music and entertainment platform.

I resisted joining for years, but I finally gave in to peer pressure. While I was connecting with obscure indie metal bands, scandals rocked the platform. It was labelled a "vortex of perversion" after sensationalized stories of teen sex, drugs, and kidnapping surfaced, reinforced by unsavory ads that everyone could see regardless of age and "moral standing." Throw in technical difficulties and the platform quickly hemorrhaged users. If you want, you can read a thorough story here.

MySpace was displaced by Facebook, and the rest is history.

I'm still not on Facebook. Why? So many reasons, but they can be categorized into two camps: the politics of personal relationships and Facebook's use of my data. I think both are pretty self-explanatory, but I'll elaborate.

The politics of personal relationships requires that I friend people who I don't like or don't really connect with in real life. And then I have to like things that they post like "sitting on the couch with a bag of Doritos watching TV" or "here are 32 pictures of my kid". Some people don't understand the concept of oversharing. In either case, if I don't play along, I'm a dick. When I see them in person, I then have to explain why I didn't "like" their post or refused their friend request. Makes for some really awkward times. I much prefer to be polite and keep my interactions with them in small doses.

If that makes me seem like a jerk, I'll accept that. But one should bear in my mind, that politeness in uncomfortable situations keeps things civil. Human history is rife with violence. The polite veneer of civility helps us all get along, but it can be exhausting. Do I really need to play this game with people who overshare? Do we really need more drama?

Facebook uses its members' data to make money. Nothing is off limits. It seems like people are just waking up to this. The counter argument is that you can't something for nothing. Yeah, I get that. I'd pay a reasonable subscription for a social media platform (I already pay for my website) where I had full control over how my data was used. But nothing sells like FREE.

I'll spare you the whole fake news crap that surfaced during the last election. Like I want to have a page of lies clogging up my screen.

So why am I considering joining? Because nearly everyone is on there! That isn't hyperbole: 40 million businesses, 2 billion people. Start up companies (breweries come to mind) forego having websites in favor of a Facebook page due to cost and simplicity. But even mature businesses have a presence on Facebook to drum up interest and will use it to handle their communications.

As an indie author, I need to find ways to reach out to people. Websites and blogs are just islands in the vast sea of the internet. Facebook is a continent. If you don't have some connection, you won't necessarily die, but you won't flourish either. If one person likes something, it shows up in their feed, which their friends see. Some might actually follow up and see what their friend liked. Such is the power of the network.

I've tried two other social media platforms (besides MySpace), but neither compares to the Pangaea of Facebook.

Google+ is fine, but its activity is tepid. Yes, I realize that Google is using my data, but I'm careful about what I share. Also, I haven't had any of the liking pressure. Of course, nearly no one I know uses it. I keep wondering when Alphabet is going to pull the plug on it.

Goodreads is a haven for bookworms. Its defined structure means I don't have to worry about drowning in cat videos. Again, no pressure to like someone's review or update. But maybe that's because I don't have a big network of people I connect with there. That's not to say it doesn't have issues, but I haven't had a problem avoiding them. It also offers authors a means to self-promote. I haven't taken full advantage of them yet, but plan to once I finish Gateway to Empire. Maybe that will be enough, but I'm inclined to think not.

But maybe this angst is all for naught. There's anecdotal evidence that Facebook usage is in decline. By the time I get around to joining it, maybe all of its issues will have finally caught up to it and send the company down into a death spiral. I don't think so. It's too big to fail, and there aren't any real alternatives. Unless there's an anti-social media movement where we downplay the importance of its role in our lives, I don't see that happening.

So I guess I'd better get ready to like a lot of cat videos and baby pictures.

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DED

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Book Review: The Practice Effect

book cover for The Practice EffectPhysicist Dennis Nuel is the first human to probe the strange realms called anomaly worlds: alternate universes where the laws of science are unpredictably changed. But the world Dennis discovers seems almost like our own—with one perplexing difference. To his astonishment, he’s hailed as a wizard, meets a beautiful woman with strange powers, and finds himself fighting a mysterious warlord as he struggles to solve the riddle of this baffling world.

While this novel is couched as sci-fi, it reads like fantasy. Sure, the beginning of the novel takes place in a near future Earth, and there's the zievatron thingee that allows Nuel to travel to another world, but it ends there. The rest of the novel is spent in a medieval world, and Nuel must put his wits to use inventing things to gain favor and the upper hand in his struggles with the denizens of this world. There's a princess who needs rescuing, castles and dungeons, and superstitious peasants.

So what is "the practice effect?" Well, you know how you have to practice playing the clarinet to learn a song or get on the ice and skate to improve your hockey skills (maybe not the best examples, but you should get my point)? On this world, that's how you make objects better. The more you use them as they're intended, the better they get. Got a pair of ripped jeans? Wear them a lot and let them practice being jeans and those rips will go away. Got a crude stone axe? Go chop some wood with it, and it'll slowly sharpen on its own accord.

If you remember physics class, you'll know which law has been turned on its head to make worn out things magically like new. Just another element to bolster the case for this being a fantasy novel.

90+% of the story is told from Nuel's POV. Fortunately that 10% exists as it affords the reader a chance to learn that the villainous Baron and Princess Linnora aren't two-dimensional stock characters. The Baron is greedy and lusts for power, but he does have a few principles. It was especially nice to see that, while the princess was in need of rescuing, she carried her own weight as the novel wore on.

None of this is said to infer that this is a bad book. It's definitely not. I enjoyed it. The pacing is good, and the story is entertaining. The characters are fine, though they could've used a little more depth. They're likable, you still root for them to succeed. The story could've devolved into one of those stereotypical square-jawed male heroic fantasy tropes that were so popular decades ago, but it didn't. Not Brin's best work, but still fun.

3 stars

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DED

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Book Review: Mission of Gravity

Book cover for Mission of Gravity2.5 stars.

Clement's world building is the highlight of this sci-fi classic from 1954. Mesklin is a large, disc-shaped world that spins so fast that days are only 18 minutes long. Gravity runs from 3 G at the equator to 700 G at the poles. It is a world of liquid methane seas and ammonia snow. The humans have special environmental suits to protect them from the hostile atmosphere and tanks to get around, provided they stay close to the equator. And yet there's sentient life: 15 inch-long centipede-like beings who are in the early stages of civilization.

And that's the high point of this book.

Characterization is flat. Even the aliens show very little depth, behaving very much like their human counterparts. Interactions between Barlennan, the local Meskinite captain, and Lackland, his human contact, are rather easy. Lackland taught Barlennan English (before the story begins) and except for the occasional idiom or scientific concept, there is little lost in translation. The most interesting part is that the humans and Barlennan's trade group work together to solve problems rather than trying to kill one another.

Science fiction doesn't really age well. Unforeseen technological advances (Computers!) and cultural progression trip up most stories. While the technological hiccups here are few and easy enough to skip over (slide rule, film projector reel), and there isn't any cultural baggage, the writing style is stuck in the time period from when it was written. It's stale. Conversations are all business. The prose is stark, all too objective. It's the Asteroids video game equivalent of literature, with far fewer explosions.

The story is a very linear progression from one encounter to another as the Mesklinites journey from the equator, where they encountered to the south pole of their world to retrieve very expensive equipment from an incapacitated human rocket. It's as much a mission of exploration for the north pole dwelling Barlennan as it is for the visiting humans (though they're keeping an eye on the action via a radio). Unfortunately, we drown in minutiae, both travelogue and mathematical. At times, it seems as if Clement has written this story for boys yearning for careers in science. "Look lads, you can have all sorts of adventures if you study hard!"

It isn't bad, but it isn't terribly exciting either.

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DED

Monday, March 19, 2018

Book Review: Aftermath

book cover for AftermathAs the Empire reels from its critical defeats at the Battle of Endor, the Rebel Alliance—now a fledgling New Republic—presses its advantage by hunting down the enemy’s scattered forces before they can regroup and retaliate. But above the remote planet Akiva, an ominous show of the enemy’s strength is unfolding. Out on a lone reconnaissance mission, pilot Wedge Antilles watches Imperial Star Destroyers gather like birds of prey circling for a kill, but he’s taken captive before he can report back to the New Republic leaders.

Meanwhile, on the planet’s surface, former rebel fighter Norra Wexley has returned to her native world—war weary, ready to reunite with her estranged son, and eager to build a new life in some distant place. But when Norra intercepts Wedge Antilles’s urgent distress call, she realizes her time as a freedom fighter is not yet over. What she doesn’t know is just how close the enemy is—or how decisive and dangerous her new mission will be.

Determined to preserve the Empire’s power, the surviving Imperial elite are converging on Akiva for a top-secret emergency summit—to consolidate their forces and rally for a counterstrike. But they haven’t reckoned on Norra and her newfound allies—her technical-genius son, a Zabrak bounty hunter, and a reprobate Imperial defector—who are prepared to do whatever they must to end the Empire’s oppressive reign once and for all.


I wasn't planning on reading this one. After reading reviews by those whom I follow, it didn't strike me as a must-read. It's not an angry fan boy thing. Except for two volumes of the Knights of the Old Republic graphic novels, I haven't read any of the pre-Disney Star Wars novels either. But then I received this book for Christmas and so I had to read it.

I didn't like the writing at the beginning of the book. It was all short, choppy sentences, a good many of them incomplete. It was more like someone blocking a scene in the script to a movie. Fortunately, that style was abandoned and a true narrative took over. This is my first Wendig novel, so I have no idea if he does that sort of thing. Maybe he felt the need to set the scene that way, give the feel of a watching a movie. I liked his writing the rest of the way. Action scenes were choreographed well and his descriptions of the setting made it easy for me to visualize the scenes.

Other reviewers have pointed out how difficult it was to connect with characters that have never made it into film. I get that, but that wasn't much of a problem for me. Wendig's characters were well-developed. I particularly liked Jas the bounty hunter and Sinjir the ex-Imperial loyalty officer. I couldn't stand Norra's teen-aged son Temmin because Wendig nailed it (being a parent of one and a soon-to-be one I can attest to it), so props to you, sir! I think that Wendig had more freedom to develop these new characters than the familiar faces—I found Wedge Antilles to be sorely lacking, but Admiral Ackbar was ok, albeit limited.

Every few chapters there are "interludes." These short tales offered a glimpse into the lives of the everyday people on several worlds and how they dealt with the aftermath of the fall of the Empire. To be honest, I enjoyed these more than the story itself.

Which brings me to the reason why I didn't really love this book: the perceived significance of the events portrayed here. There's more drama packed into the lives of the Interlude characters than the main story. Sure it's entertaining, but I never got the impression that the stakes were high. The Epilogue may have teased something, but it was left too vague to ascertain what was actually teased. If Aftermath were a collection of Interlude short stories, I think I would've enjoyed it more.

All in all, this is still a fine book by an author forced to write with one hand tied behind his back. Three and a half stars.

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DED

Monday, March 5, 2018

First Milestone in a While

Murphy saying hello to a frogEvery winter for the last several years, I've made it my resolve to take advantage of being cooped up indoors and write. If you've paid any attention to me whatsoever, you know that I haven't been successful at all at seeing that resolution come to fruition. Sometimes the reasons are good: I have a freelance job editing or coding and I'm actually earning money. Sometimes the reasons aren't so good.

I'll confess here and now: I have seasonal affective disorder. I've had it at least as far back as my teens. It varies in intensity over spans of weeks and from one year to the next. Most years, it just wears on me, dragging on me like I'm pulling a sled full of firewood uphill in the snow. But occasionally, it pulls me down into a pit of despair. Over the last few years, I've had back-to-back bad winters and life came to a grinding halt. Fortunately, I have a loving wife and family to help me get through it.

I don't bring this up because I'm seeking pity. I don't like talking about it in general. When I grew up, admitting that you had a problem like this was a sign of weakness (I can only imagine what it's like for veterans with PTSD), and that hasn't left me, though society seems to be getting better about it. The reason why I'm bringing it up at all is that I feel like I owe an explanation to anyone and everyone who has paid any sort of attention to me as a writer. I feel like I've let them down. I want them to know that I'm not lazy or apathetic; I self-sabotage. I make up reasons not to write, or I'm such a zombie that before I know it, the day is gone. And this goes on every year.

But this winter I've managed to keep plugging away. I still throw up roadblocks to progress, but I've been able to make my way through the barricades more often than not. So I'm happy to announce that I've reached the 30,000-word milestone with the manuscript. To me, that could very well be halfway. Armistice Day wound up at 66,000 words over 250 pages, so there's that. For me, it's a psychological milestone, and I felt like sharing. It gives me a measure of hope that I'll actually keep my word about finishing the book this year.

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DED