Children Of Time/Ruin – Prologue Vignettes 4-6

51sght5qhjlWe are back with the second half of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s vignettes! If you are just catching up with The Quill to Live, Orbit has graciously allowed us to publish a series of vignettes that take place between two of our favorite books: Children of Time and Children of Ruin. Our reviews of each can be found by clicking the links in the titles, and if you missed part one of this post you can find it here. Thanks again to Adrian and Orbit for giving us the opportunity to post these. We hope you take the time to check out the shorts and original books when you have a second. Enjoy!

Children of Time: Six Prologues – Part 2

4. Tomb Raiders

When the impact came it nearly took Arkin from his feet, for all he was clinging to the airlock handholds. He had his helmet on already, waiting for the alarms to tell him they had a hull breach. Or perhaps they were still intact, but now attached inextricably to the ancient space station, about to explore this brittle treasure trove only to discover that there was no way back.

“We have a seal,” Serry Lain’s voice came in his ear.

“Orbit?” This from their leader, Channec, clinging on next to Arkin.

“Too soon to tell. If we have knocked it loose, it’s only by a little. You’ve got time to get in and out,” Lain reported. Her voice was fizzy with static, ghosting with sudden tides of white noise. The sound brought both wonder and wariness to Arkin. Interference like that meant something was live on the station, after so many, many years.

Live meant worth salvaging. Salvage was why they were here.

Some time long before, a distant ancestor of Arkin had looked up past the thinning clouds and seen the night sky full of stars. The ice had been retreating; the dust of ages had finally settled out of the upper atmosphere, letting the sun take a renewed interest in the planet. Geothermal fires, brought close to the surface by the ice’s own creeping weight, did the rest. Summer returned to Planet Earth, and with it a chance to stargaze.

Even back then, as proto-Arkin tilled his fields and hoped the raiders wouldn’t come this year, he would have noticed how many of the stars moved swiftly across the sky. Old Farmer Arkin couldn’t have known what they were; he couldn’t have known that his distant descendant would travel by thunderous blazing rocket up to those stars, to become a raider himself.

“Check your lid,” Channec said, all business and clasping her own helmet into place. They were piecemeal, these suits. Arkin was uncomfortably aware that two people had died in his before they had patched it up once more and given it to him. But everything was scarce, back home. The great wealth of the Old Empire people had been mined, drilled, burned up, squandered back in their day. Arkin’s people lived on a planet scattered with their leavings.

Almost everything we have is a hand-me-down, he thought, not for the first time. They were here in a rocket that was a child’s crude sketch of the beautiful vessels the ancients had built. They were here because a classicist – meaning someone skilled in interpreting Old Empire writings – had discovered something about this orbiting hulk the ancients had left to the vacuum of space. We’re just ticks on their dead body.

But he had his helmet on. No doubt Channec would say people back home were counting on him.

“Air out,” Channec ordered, and Lain confirmed. Arkin felt his suit bulk out around him, waiting to see if any warning lights would come on this time. Of course, if they didn’t, it might just mean the warning systems had malfunctioned as well.

“Let’s get in there.”

Arkin wound the handle and the airlock hatch juddered open. He checked the seal, finding just enough holes to make him unhappy. Facing them was a pitted section of metal wall, holed through at two or three places. Channec nodded to him and they began the tentative, painstaking job of breaking through.

“I’m detecting low-level power readings,” Lain’s half-obscured voice informed them. “We’re knocking on the right door.”

A section of the station wall suddenly came free in Arkin’s shears and he toppled forward with a cry. For a moment he lost all reference, the universe wheeling freely around him. He was horribly aware of the jagged edges of his incision, the ballooning fabric of his suit, the airless, unpressurised death all around him.

Channec snagged his boot, and for a moment he was just a frozen weight on the end of her arm, already crossed over the threshold into the territory of the ancients.

“Get a grip,” came her sharp voice in his ear, with her own backing of static now, and he managed to orient himself and find something to hold onto.

He looked and nearly swallowed his tongue. He was sharing the compartment with a corpse.

The ancient had died without a suit on, just clothes that looked pale and papery. He – she? – drifted there like one of the drowned, slowly turning, withered to a dry-stick figure, skin brittle and tight over bone. The ends of all four outflung limbs were broken off by collisions with the walls. Arkin’s eyes tracked a lone, mummified finger as it spun slowly past his visor.

“Stop gawping,” Channec told him. “It’s not like it’s your first.”

“Ah…” Lain was hard to make out. “Getting increased power sig… …ever you’re going to do… quick….”

“We don’t even know what we’re going to do,” Arkin muttered.

“Just come with me,” Channec told him. She shouldered forwards, batting the vacuum-dried corpse out of the way as though it were no more than a bad dream.

“What? What do you know? What did they give you?” Arkin thought of that classisist, sitting safe at home on Earth while they risked their lives on a hunch.

“Enough.” Channec pulled herself forwards – zero gravity was like second nature to her; she seemed to swim through the airless spaces of the station while Arkin blundered along behind.

They found more shrivelled revenants: some buckled in as though a little webbing would save them, others floating loose like ghastly bobbing apples. Channec had no time for them, shoving them aside so that they span end over end, colliding with the walls or with Arkin. He could feel a sickness creeping up inside him: he had seen the occasional space-dead corpse before, but when this station powered down it must have had twenty or more souls aboard it. His mind was full of their last moments, as imagined by their distant, distant descendant. They had been the ancients. They had walked the stars and commanded the elements with a science that might as well be magic for all Arkin understood most of it. And yet they had died.

“Here.” Channec had stopped at a half-open hatch. Beyond was a room walled with screens and the minimalist consoles the ancients favoured. Everything had been done for them by their machines, Arkin knew. They had not needed the buttons and levers and instruments of the crude rocket that had brought the salvage team up into orbit. Their civilization had been ghostly, virtual, transcending the physical.

But by trial and error, Arkin’s people had learned how to pirate some few scraps of that world: reviving long-dead electronic libraries just long enough to steal a book or two, pirating from the memories of lobotomised computers. Just enough to recreate a fraction of the wonders of the ancients.

Lain said something over the comms, but they heard nothing except static.

“’Here’ what?” Arkin demanded, but Channec was orienting herself, choosing one featureless console over the others. She bent over it, thick-gloved hands moving carefully as she unhooked something from her belt: a reader.

“How do you know there’s anything?” he demanded, but she ignored him.

He swept his torch beam across the room and felt his gorge rise another inch when he found two bodies up against the ceiling. These were wearing suits: one had no helmet, the exposed head no more than parched skin stretched over an eyeless skull. The other had its helmet on, and Arkin imagined that one ancient living out some few additional hours until the suit’s air supply was exhausted. Had they railed against their doom? Had they desperately tried to reactivate the dead consoles to hear another human voice before the end?

Then the lights came on, throwing their shadows, Arkin and Channec and the corpses, into sharp relief against the walls. Something was glittering over the console.

Arkin stared. Stars; he saw stars. They glittered and span in the air around Channec. He saw her head tilted back, her hard-bitten expression transformed to childlike wonder.

“It’s here!” Over the comms, her voice crackled and spat, the static ghosting louder like a heartbeat. “This is the motherlode!”

“What is it?” He couldn’t take his eyes from the display.

“Maps, maps of where the ancients went!” Channec explained. “The worlds they visited, the new homes they made for themselves amongst the stars. Worlds that aren’t neck deep in poisons, Arkin.”

He felt something catch at his throat, and then the comms roared with a new voice.

It was four times as loud as Channec had been. It spoke with the irregular heartbeat of the static, and in a language that had no native speakers left alive. Stern and pitiless it exhorted them to do something. Leave, Arkin decided. Red sigils were appearing in the air, flickering and corrupt, but definitely bad.

“It’s still alive!” he yelled, but there was no chance of anyone hearing him while that artificial voice dominated comms.

Channec was focused on the reader, willing it to speed up its download. Who knew what would actually be readable, of the pittance they could carry away. But he had seen the stars now. He knew what was at stake.

The virtual starfield wheeled about him, ancient numbers and alphabets projected across his visor and his suit, and the shadows moved too.

He saw it too late: the lights stayed still but the shadows moved.

The suited figure was drifting down from the ceiling. Within its helmet Arkin saw a death’s head shift loosely as the suit’s ancient mechanisms propelled it towards Channec.

He yelled; he yelled at her, and tried to bumble his way towards her, but already too late. One gloved, dead hand snagged the hoses of her suit.

Channec twitched and flailed, unable to see what had her. Arkin bounced off the consoles, spun through the stuttering red glyphs, groping for purchase. When his view brought him Channec again, she had smashed the ancient suit’s faceplate in with something, but of course the wasted cadaver within was not directing its movements. He saw its armoured gloves clamp to her own helmet. His screaming voice was loud in his own ears, and in his ears alone.

With a convulsive movement Channec wrenched the reader from the console and shoved it at him, even as he reached her. Her helmet was askew. He caught a last view of her determined face.

She got the reader clamped to his belt and kicked him in the chest, sending him hurling back the way they had come, sending herself and the homicidal suit spinning off across the room. Before they reached the far wall, he saw her helmet come loose.

Whimpering and panting, surrounded by the sounds of his own exertion, he fumbled and scrabbled his way back towards Lain and their ship, desperate to escape this orbital mausoleum with the inestimable treasure Channec had died for.

5. Voyage to Nowhere

You wake in darkness, enclosed. Something is forcing its way into your mouth, down your throat. Something is clamped about your nose. Things are invading you. You fight; you can’t fight: you are restrained. Then something gives; your arm clutches towards your face but strikes a cold, hard surface right before you… above you… you cannot tell. You cannot tell which way is up.

Your hand slithers up the cold surface until it is at your mouth. Tubes, there are tubes. You wrench them out. You stare into the darkness until the lights come on.

They are soft lights, originating from somewhere behind your head. Probably they are intended to be comforting. You are not comforted.

The barrier before you is clear. Looking out of it you see… ranks of clear-fronted coffins in a great dark space. At first you think they are reflections, but all the others of you are asleep, their tubes still plugged into nose and mouth.

You have no idea where you are. You yell. You bang at the clear plastic. It is colder than it was.

There is a voice, a man’s voice.

“Can you hear me?” it says.

You listen. It repeats itself. The voice sounds patient, sad.

“Yes,” you whisper into the tiny coffin that is your world. “I hear you. Who are you?”

“Do you know where you are?” asks the voice, leaving you uncertain whether it’s owner can hear you.

You open your mouth to say, and there is a hole in your mind, a great yawning gulf where the knowledge should be. You do not know where you are. You do not know who you are. Your sense of self is a string of disjointed images: the sun, parents, a brown landscape, the harsh taste of the air.

“Listen to me,” says the voice. “You are on the Gilgamesh. The Gilgamesh is a colony ship. Do you remember.”

You know the name, but it’s like someone you met a long time ago. You can’t place it. You try to understand what the voice means. A colony ship…?

The voice continues with its dreadful, didactic patience. “The Gilgamesh is on a journey to another world, do you understand that?”

And you do. When the information abruptly flowers in your mind you feel like weeping. You are coming back to yourself. You are more than these broken fragments. “Yes,” you say, and “Yes!”

“We have star maps from the Old Empire,” the voice confides to you – things you think you knew once, fitting into place like bricks, one on another. “We are humanity, in this ship. We are on a long journey to a planet that we believe the ancients made into another Earth. But an unspoiled Earth, one not poisoned by their war.” There is a terrible, wistful yearning in that voice.

“Who are you?” you demand. If not for that yearning you might have taken it for some thinking computer, such as the ancients were supposed to have.

“My name is Guyen. I am the Gilgamesh’s commander. Right now I’m the only member of Key Crew not in suspension. You and I are the only two human beings awake.”

And you think about that, and you know it must be an honour that they’ve woken you first. You and the commander, of all those sleeping people outside your coffin. “Commander,” you say, “how long before we’re on this new Earth?”

Guyen’s voice says nothing for long time.

“Commander?” you prompt him, and then again. And then again.

“If it is there,” says Guyen’s disembodied voice, “then the Gilgamesh will reach it in approximately twelve-hundred years.

You do not understand. Guyen does not volunteer an explanation. You cannot even think of how to phrase the question. The silence stretches out, and it’s getting colder.

“You see,” the commander tells you eventually, after listening to your teeth chatter, “you are the first.”

“The first to wake.” You can barely get out the words.

“The first cargo malfunction,” Guyen tells you. The words mean nothing. You turn them over in your mind. Still nothing. Then, as though a visual illusion has just flipped before your eyes, you understand.

“We knew this would happen with a proportion of the cargo over the time periods involved,” Guyen goes on, and you wish he would just shut up but you have no way to make him. “I had the Gilgamesh wake me, when it did. You are the first. I felt I owed it to you.” And, perhaps because his voice is all you have, you can hear the ragged edges there: the man who is responsible for everything.

You try to say something. Guyen will never know what your final message to him would have been.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

The light goes out.

6. Trespassers in Eden

Another Earth.

They were working on this place when the bomb went off in Reykjavik, putting the finishing touches to a biosphere imported from earth. A big job, but the planet was perfect for it, the first of a long string of islands in the great empty night. The dream project of a misanthropic genius transhumanist, who planned to make it her grand experiment.

When everything fell apart, when the colonies on Mars and Europa and all the others died, when the signals from Earth ceased, this other Earth circled its far-distant other sun with blithe unconcern. The genius behind it never got to run her experiment. Something else happened instead, something unplanned for, unexpected, unwanted.

All the while, when the tough remnants of the human race lived in the shadow of the ice and dragged themselves back into an understanding of themselves, something else was breeding and growing on this world, a usurper in this human paradise. Not an experiment, barely a mistake, just an unintended side-effect of how things fell out.

And one day, while mankind regrouped on its poison Earth, eyes looked up at the sky and asked Why? and Where did we come from? They looked at the pinprick lights above them and wondered why one moved so swiftly across the sky, never realizing that they were looking at all that was left of their creators.

From something that merely bred and fed, they became something that remembers and builds and dances and thinks. They told their own stories in their own language.

They cannot know that their creators are coming back to haunt them. They cannot know that sometimes, Where did we come from? is the worst question of all.

Children Of Time/Ruin – Prologue Vignettes 1-3

51wkqa3knrlToday we have something a bit different and very fun. If you are a reader of the site you might be aware that we absolutely loved Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time and Children of Ruin. Our reviews of each can be found by clicking the links in the titles, and if you haven’t read them before you will hear about all the various things that make them great. So, when Orbit kindly reached out to me and asked if I wanted to be a part of an effort to republish some prologue vignettes that Tchaikovsky wrote for between the two books – it was an emphatic yes. We will be posting the vignettes in two sets, half today and half later this week (found here). Now, in an effort to not drone on like someone giving you their life story similar to an online recipe page – please enjoy these fun prologues to some of our favorite books.

Children of Time: Six Prologues – Part 1

1. For the Love of All Humanity

There was nothing he could do about the millions watching remotely except show them.

Njall Torek’s record said he was diligent and hardworking. He had come to the University of Reykjavik with immaculate references back before the major establishments had begun vetting their staff quite so carefully. He was well-liked amongst his fellows and he didn’t try to bother the actual academics. He knew his place. That was what most of his superiors felt about Njall: he knew his place. He was a good man for electrical problems, for minor repairs, installations, pest-control even. For a university whose business was increasingly virtual, these little physical problems would crop up, and when they did, Njall would be there to put them right down again.
He had now finished his last little physical problem for the university. Now, like those millions, it was his role to watch from a remote location. What he could do, he had done.

On the physical stage, now, one of the guest speakers was standing to introduce herself. The auditorium was packed out with those were willing to go to the expense of travelling to meet these people. Not students, but industrialists, foreign academics and politicians, big names here to make big deals behind the scenes.

Members, Njall knew, of the conspiracy.

This speaker was a small Chinese woman, grey-haired and neat. She was something in genetic surgery: her team had been key in embryological engineering, or so Njall gathered. There was quite a Chinese contingent in Reykjavik these days. He might have passed her in the street without comment, without knowing that she was one of them.
Some of the others – on the stage, in the audience – he wouldn’t have made that mistake with, not ever.

There was a war on, Njall knew. It was a war against humanity. Njall loved humanity. He was fiercely committed to it, as a patriot was to a nation, as a true believer to a creed. Njall knew humanity had a destiny, and that destiny was being taken away.

These people who had gathered here at Reykjavik, they were traitors to their kind. He knew them all – he had looked at their biographies and their bibliographies, seen the fields they worked in and the ‘achievements’ they were responsible for.

Out there, out past the blue of the sky, there were worlds, Njall knew. Not just the other orbs of Earth’s solar system – settled by human ingenuity, at cost, and still imperfect and hostile places to live. There were worlds around other stars that ships from Earth had reached. They were terraforming them even now, finding planets of the right mass, within the Goldilocks band between death by fire and death by ice, and putting the last touches on them to make a better home than Europa or Titan or even Mars would ever be. Those were humanity’s inheritance, Njall knew. And they were being taken away. These people – people like the men and women and – some of them he couldn’t even tell! – on the stage, they had already made plans for those worlds. And no matter what they might say, Njall knew those plans did not include provision for anything he would recognise as human.

He knew this. He had been told this by his leaders, and he believed them. The defenders of humanity had plenty of friends in high places who knew the truth.

Out there in that auditorium there were people who made computers that thought, or who turned human eggs and seed into abominations, or who altered chimpanzees and dolphins and elephants so they could speak.

Non Ultra Natura. No more than human. That was Njall’s flag. Out there in the auditorium there were already people who had cast off the birthright of their humanity to become part machine, part beast, part something else entirely. Some of Njall’s comrades held that it was against God’s law, but Njall only knew that he was human, and proud to be human, and that those who sought to become more than human would only ever become less, slaves to the AIs and the talking dogs and whatever other atrocities they dreamt up.

There were millions worldwide watching this conference on ‘transhumanism’, millions who had been fooled by this circus into wanting to give up the one true gift they were born with. All Njall could do was show them the error of their ways. All Njall could do was fight for the side of life.

As the next speaker stood – some thing that was neither male nor female, neither human nor machine – Njall felt his revulsion peak, and the bomb he’d set beneath the stage went off.

2. The Last Martian

One hundred and four days.

Jenniver Amartez was impressed, in a way. None of it was supposed to last that long, not in these conditions. But it had struggled gamely on, and there had come a point, around the sixty day mark, when she had thought they had wrought better than anyone had anticipated, and it would last.

By seventy-five days that illusion was gone. The living systems were too complex to find equilibrium, the environment too hostile to give them the time. Everything had begun to die.

The main colony was long dead by then. By the time she had been able to jury-rig a receiver, the only signals she could pick up were automated warnings, and precious few of those. Pretty much everything had been knocked out.

She didn’t want to think about how many Martians there had been, before the virus pulse from Earth. Thousands, certainly. Men and women and children whose parents and grandparents had been Martians. People whose ancestors had come here when the planet truly was a freezing hell, instead of just a steadily deteriorating purgatory. They had lived in domes and they had worked on the atmosphere – painstakingly transforming it into something that was a slower death for humans, and that could just about sustain other life, with help.

She had not realized, until the pulse, just how much help.

Jenniver Alvarez walked through the dying forests of Mars.

Trees stood in tall rows – not really trees, not really like anything that had evolved on earth, but bioengineered life designed to suck in carbon and push out oxygen. The orderly ranks of them ran as far as the eye could see, and the ground around them was carpeted with a man-made moss/fungus symbiote. All artificial, just like everything on Mars was artificial except the rocks and the ice and the thin carbon dioxide atmosphere that was gradually re-establishing its hold on the planet.

A fourth-generation Martian, she had given her life to Mars. Not long ago she had been able to walk in the plantation without a suit, with only a portable air supply to tipple from, like a hip flask. The biomass around her had pumped out heat and oxygen, and she had looked forward to her children or her grandchildren running free and swift in the low gravity, masters of a world made home by the hand of humanity.

Now she wore a suit, for as the atmosphere around her thinned, the heat given out by the plants was sucked away. Now she carried her air with her.

Some part of Mars had been green, for a brief moment: a generation in individual human terms, an eyeblink in the history of the species. Now it was brown as the plantations withered and died around her.

Everything had been so carefully maintained by the computers. The entire colonised area of Mars had been a colossal cybernetic system managed by artificial brains able to tweak every little detail. The vast plantations were maintained by an irrigation network, constantly fed exactly the required balance of nutrients and chemicals to help them conquer the red planet’s ire. When the pulse came, transmitted on multiple frequencies from Earth, travelling at light speed without any warning, every system on Mars had gone down, hopelessly riddled with a virulent artificial plague.

She had been keeping track of the war, of course. There had even been fighting on Mars, though not so very much. Everyone had followed the reports, hoping that someone would win quick enough that a normal service would be resumed. If not for the anti-tech backlash, probably it would have been. But one side in the war had yoked its fortunes to the popular groundswell worked up by the NUNs and the other extremists, and then they found them were the tail trying to wag the dog. They found you can’t just put crazy like that back into the bottle. Every time someone came to the peace table there was another attack, an assassination, something to fan the flames. On Mars, the colonists had listened to the reports grow graver and graver, until there were no more reports, and the only comms they could intercept were military. They were still listening intently when the virus pulse came through.

They had all died, the people in the domes. The computers had been keeping them alive. But Jenniver, out here alone in the agricultural station, she had lived. Here, within the planet’s raw new lungs, the work of human hands had persisted for a few more tens of days.

She passed one of the robot workers, little more than a wasted weight of metal. Everything had gone down. She didn’t want to think of the outer colonies, those fragile little bubbles on the gas giant moons or the mining bases in the asteroid belt. The pulse would have reached them all, and further and further, radiating outwards towards the stars.

Not long now.

Jenniver Amartez stood amidst the dying Martian forests and looked out into the dark sky, seeking the dust-shrouded, silent orb that was Earth.

3. Home Fires

He was a hunter in a harsh season. His name was Rom.

His people lived in the lowlands, near the sea, but the fishing had been poor this year, poorer than the last. The fish were so few, and many of them caught deformed. A strong man could live on fish alone and not get sick, but not the children, not women heavy with child, not the old. So Rom had set out to his old hunting grounds to trap and kill the beasts his forefathers had left him.

Last year he had been everyone’s favourite. He had come home with four sticks strung with rats and squirrels and rabbits. This year the cold had come early – the first snows seemed only a moon after midsummer, and he could count the days he had seen the sun on his fingers and toes. Today, the sky was closed with white cloud, and sky-dust was blowing on the wind, that tasted sour and salt on his tongue.

This year he had set his traps but the beasts did not come. The cold had driven them further afield, or else they remembered Rom and his snares, and their dead relatives, and avoided him.

He knew the legends: how great magicians of an elder age had raised up the beasts and given them thought and speech, and how that had angered God, who had brought the winter to make an end of all the sinners in the world.

Rom wondered sometimes if he was a sinner, and how many sinners were left, for the winters were no less fierce than in his childhood. If anything they were worse.

Rom could not know that the pale masses of dust that still clogged the upper air had thrown back so much of the sun’s heat that his world was gripped between two hands of ice, north and south. Every summer they relaxed their grip, those hands, but each winter those fingers stretched out, further than the year before. But all Rom knew was that the winters grew worse by little increments, and the hunting sparser, and life grew harder. He had been forced to go further afield, each day’s travel a burden on him as the way back lengthened. Now he had come uphill to the broken stone land in the hope that the shelter of the place would have brought in perhaps cats or foxes or even swine, big game to make the journey worthwhile.

But the snows were closing on him, numbing his fingers and nose and ears even though he wrapped his cloaks about him, each a patchwork of tiny pelts.

The broken stone land was ahead of him, as far as the snow let him see: some great towers still stood, reaching high enough to prop the clouds up. Many more had fallen, making the place a maze of broken stone. There were riches there, so they said, but it was haunted by terrible spirits, and there were other tribes, too, jealous of what they had. And surely, if that was the case, the hunting would be no better there. But Rom was desperate.

He had heard that a great guardian had once stood before the Stone Place, warding off any who sought to claim its riches. Now he saw the truth of it, though she had fallen long before, her gigantic stone body strewn in sections down the slope from the broken stump of her feet. She had stood tall and robed and crowned, said the stories, and he believed them, seeing her now. She had one hand lifted high, bearing a sword to smite those who might trespass in the broken stone land.

Rom’s feet dragged: he could not feel them through the chill. Even his own weariness was just a distant drumbeat, slower and slower. If he did not find shelter soon, he would be simply one more hunter who walked out into the world and never returned, and his people would speak his name a few more times, and forget him.

The furthest-flung pieces of the guardian were ahead of him, stone shrapnel looming high, half-smothered with snow. He could see the wind-shadow they cast, though, and forced his senseless legs onwards, step after step, even as the gusts blew fiercer and swifter, a blizzard building in the eternally white sky.

He saw the outflung arm, now in pieces but still reaching out towards him. She had been bearing something aloft, but amongst the fragments of her splendour he saw no shattered sword blade or spear haft. Whatever it was she had been holding, he could not make it out.

As his stumbling progress brought him closer, his mind drifted. He saw her, in his head: a beautiful tall woman standing defiantly, daring any to challenge her. In his mind she was not placed to warn away travellers, but to challenge the winter itself: standing firm against the wind and snow, and in her hand, a flame.

He collapsed at last, but he was in the shadow of the stone. With clumsy, unfeeling hands he got out his sticks and tinder, and lit his fragile fire in the shelter of a broken stone torch.

Every Sky Is Full of Stars – Blog Guest Post By Yoon Ha Lee

81s4snnvywlWhen Ninefox Gambit came out, I remember the consternation of some readers that starships were called “moths,” and not just “moths” but different kinds of them, everything from the big cindermoths to the logistical support ships called boxmoths and later the stealthed needlemoths and shadowmoths.  Why moths?  Why not just call them ships like everyone else?

I had a couple reasons for this.  The first was pure convenience on my part.  I can barely tell left and right apart in English, let alone port and starboard.  (This certainly made things interesting when I read Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander years ago, excellent book though it is.)  The thought of having to spend an entire book figuring out nautical terminology filled me with horror.  I wanted to refer to floors and walls, not decks and bulkheads.  So I didn’t call my starships “ships.”  Problem solved!  I figured that given that the hexarchate’s denizens aren’t actually speaking English anyway, I could justify this as a reflection of their own terminology.

Why “moths” instead of some other creature?  I wanted something that flew, that had a name that was one syllable long in English, and that had a group name (e.g. herd of cows, pack of elephants) that sounded sufficiently warlike.  I made the mistake of relying on a glorious Tumblr picspam for my information (protip: don’t do this!) and thought that moths came in “swarms,” which sounded perfect for an analogue to “fleets.”  This is probably incorrect, though, sorry!  I can’t seem to find a definitive answer to this on Google (one site suggests a group of just moths is a “wainscot”); anyone?

The other big reason was that my ships were living ships.  Specifically, as if the hexarchate weren’t awful enough as it stands, they’re enslaved cyborged aliens from a shadow dimension.  This isn’t really brought up in the first book because none of the viewpoint characters really know or care about it.  In hexarchate culture, they would no more think about moths as potentially having autonomy than I would think about whether my socks have opinions.  They’re just tools for the humans’ convenience.

But the moths aren’t just enslaved aliens, they’re enslaved sentient aliens.  This fact comes into play at last in Revenant Gun, when the titular ship, the Revenant, begins talking to Jedao.  The Revenant has definite opinions about what it wants to be doing with its life, which do not include being a slave for the rest of its life.  And it’s not incapable of making plans or gathering allies in support of those plans.  To find out how those plans go, you’ll have to read the book!

John Dies at the End – No, He Doesn’t.

john-dies-at-the-endThe days are getting shorter, the temperature is fluctuating 30 degrees a day, and everything is slowly turning brown. This can only mean one thing: We’re most of the way through October and Halloween is fast approaching. Regular readers of this blog know that with Halloween comes…a SPOOKY CORNER POST.

Yes, that’s right. I’m back in all my cobwebby, dusty, half-seen-in-the-dark-of-a-new-moon glory. With me, I bring a review of a book that was released over a decade ago, John Dies at the End, by David Wong (pen name of Jason Pargin, executive editor of Cracked.com). Now, you may be asking yourself (or me), “Why review a book that’s been out for a decade, one popular enough at that time to have spawned a cult-favorite motion picture?” Well, kind readers, because I’ve made a note to read it, and subsequently forgotten to, more times than I can count. Also the third book in the series released this month, jogging my memory. Without further bullshit meant to inflate my word count and pay (that’s a joke, Andrew refuses to pay me), let’s find out what I think about what will henceforth be known as JDatE (note that I am not reviewing Jewish dating services though).

John Dies at the End is a weird book, for a variety of reasons. I can describe it as: scary, funny, clever, dumb, enthralling, confusing, and unique each in their turn. It is essentially the story of a couple young delinquents who take a drug and start seeing shit. This drug, named Soy Sauce by the characters, does something to them that peels back the layer of normalcy from the world and allows them to see things as they really are. Based on the fact that this is at least partially classified as a horror book, you can probably guess that “things as they really are” means “HOLY FUCK WHAT IS THAT”. After taking the sauce and having the veil lifted, they go on an adventure or two and save the world…sorta.

Now, I’m a huge fan of cosmic horror. The idea of the universe as a dark and terrifying place occupied by vast, unknowable entities is one that appeals to me. In this, JDatE is extremely up my alley. The specific explanations given for how the human mind reacts to seeing things it has no ability to fully comprehend was, if not completely unique, certainly spelled out more explicitly in this novel than in many I’ve read. The idea that paranormal sightings (ghosts, aliens, demons, etc.) are really just your brain trying to wrap itself around something that’s impossible for a human to have a frame of reference for is really cool. Now, explaining why people are seeing certain things isn’t enough, by itself, to make a good horror book. Luckily, Wong/Pargin does a great job in thinking up some actually horrific stuff. There’s a decent mix of atmospheric, shock, and body horror, and I feel like when you consider how childish a lot of the humor is, the fact that the horror wasn’t exclusively gross-out body horror is something to be applauded. I was as creeped out at various points in this book as I ever have been by Barron, Lovecraft, or Chambers, and that earns this book major points from me.

The humor was somewhat more hit or miss for me. Before I get into any criticism, it must be said that this book did have me laughing so hard I cried a couple times, so when it hits it really hits. However, a lot of the humor would find itself comfortable in a Reddit.com comments thread, and while that’s all fine and dandy, it’s really not something I’m looking for in a long-form novel. The shock humor and childishness of it can wear thin at points, even with the understanding that this is keeping in character with the novel’s two leads, David and John.

On that note, if you’re someone who needs likable protagonists, or just protagonists that aren’t lowlife shitheads you may want to look elsewhere. John and David are not successful or mature adults. They do not become successful or mature adults by the end of the book. They are very much a pair of college dropout fuckups just trying to get by day-to-day, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that by itself was enough for people to drop the book. Personally, I was alright with it, but it is something of a trope in cosmic horror/weird fiction for the protagonists to be…well…shitheads. The alcoholic and once-great detective, the journalist out of a job and needing a big story to afford his morphine addiction, the obsessive and immoral scientist: these are all standard themes in horror, and lovers of the genre will likely have grown a somewhat thick skin for bad behavior in leads. Readers coming for the humor, or simply trying out something new may not be as forgiving, and I would have a hard time holding that against them.

The one thing I’ve really struggled to form an opinion on was the pacing. It felt incredibly off in some aspects and incredibly on in others. The book really felt like three separate stories to me due to a few time jumps and narrative changes. It’s not bad to have the different “adventures” each feel relatively self-contained, but I think the transitions could have been handled a little better. They felt abrupt, and while I think that was intentional, they were still a little more jarring than I think they should have been.

When looked at as an entire package objectively, I think John Dies at the End is a solid book. It will be very hit or miss for people based on the style of the humor and some of the descriptions of various…things in the book, but I definitely recommend at least giving it a try. However, when looked at as an entire package personally, this book was an absolute blast that I read in one sitting. I absolutely loved it and cannot recommend it highly enough to people that share my love of cosmic horror and sardonic humor experienced through the perspective of characters that have no business being the heroes in any story, especially their own.

Rating: John Dies at the End – 7.0 (objective rating) 9.0 (personal rating)/10

-Will

The Mote in God’s Eye – Vision From The Past

51fdqllebklIn an attempt to be more thorough in my understanding of science fiction, I decided I would look back at some more well-known books that I have yet to read. My Dad recommended Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s 1974 novel The Mote in God’s Eye, and I decided to crack it open and give it a whirl. Unsurprisingly, it is a great representation of old-school science fiction that tends to explore big ideas, rather than being published solely for entertainment. Clearly written with the intent to perform a thought experiment detailing first contact with an alien race, the story services the “what if” scenario presented by the authors. While Niven and Pournelle avoid directly addressing the morality of their answers, their solutions feel natural to the world they created.

As the book opens, humanity is in the midst of its third interstellar empire, and scientists notice an object approaching a star within one of the empire’s outermost systems. Realizing this could be an opportunity to engage with an alien object, naval captain Lord Roderick Blaine is sent to investigate with a team of scientists and anthropologists on the McArthur, the ship he commands. Upon intercepting the object, Blaine and his crew find the dead body of an unknown species occupying the starship. After returning with these findings, the system’s local government sends the naval crew to the Mote, the starship’s system of origin. Their mission is to make contact with whoever may have sent the manned probe, and determine the sender’s intent. Upon arrival to the Mote, the crew of the McArthur encounters a wholly alien species that could present a threat to the future of humanity.

The plot fully begins about one hundred pages into the book upon first living contact with the aliens. The crew of the MacArthur intercepts a ship while on their way to Motie Prime, the presumed home world of the aliens, and the scene that unfolds feels like a stroke of genius. Assuming the pilot of the intercepted ship is an envoy, the humans prepare for an historical moment of meeting its first intelligent species amongst the stars. In the first change in point of view for the book, the readers are let in on the joke that the alien is not an envoy, but an engineer unable to communicate. As the humans try desperately to talk with the alien, they repeatedly fail and grow more perplexed as the encounter continues. The innate grandeur assigned to first contact is completely undercut by the innocent confusion on both sides. Neither side can engage with one another in a scene that plays more like a comedy than a drama.

What follows is a more in-depth introduction between humanity and the peoples of the Mote. Through their interactions with the Motie mediators, the humans find out that the Moties are a species subdivided genetically into different biological roles (engineers, farmers, masters, etc.). This is particularly well-written, as the authors show the work involved when two different species with different vocal patterns slowly learn to talk to each other. In a refreshing chain of events, both sides meet in the middle with great optimism about what they can offer each other. Both sides are open with their intentions, but remain guarded about their vulnerabilities and secrets. However, when the humans discover that the Moties are a more advanced species, most of the humans do not react maliciously. The conflict starts to creep in when Lord Blaine discovers the empire holds the keys for the Moties to travel through the stars.

The patient pacing truly shines at this point, as the characters debate how to proceed throughout their interactions with the Moties. The novel moves quickly enough to keep you interested, but allows for the Moties to become more and more alien as they are fleshed out. The humans are constantly adjusting their intentions as they learn about Motie biology and culture, while the Moties attempt to unveil the secrets of space travel and the act of human sexual reproduction. As the writing shifts to the Motie perspective, the authors make unambiguous observations about humanity’s odd social constructs, such as our attitudes towards discussing sex or the formalities that humans apply to conversations. Normally, I would find this interesting because the engagements are cool to read and it feels like the authors have created a funhouse mirror. However, instead of exploring the bizarre truths behind already strange interstellar interactions, these reflections on humanity felt wooden and almost perfunctory.

Niven and Pournelle truly found the Goldilocks zone while detailing their world, as they limit their descriptions to the utilitarian and do not burden the reader with cosmetics. Their focus on the cultural, political, and scientific aspects of the empire flows seamlessly into the story. The imperial society feels quaint and reserved, with an emphasis on religious ethical code and prominent displays of military force to keep order. Time is used to ground the reader in this universe, setting up the conflict on a civilizational scale. The characters are generally shallow, but fit perfectly into the story. They have important roles to play and are written to service the plot. The main protagonist, Blaine, is a quick-thinking decision maker who uses his crew’s knowledge to efficiently weigh the pros and cons of any situation. The list of supporting characters includes: the plucky pilot, the ethical anthropologist, the high minded optimistic scientist, the scheming profiteer, the rock-faced admiral, and a host of other side characters who fill the gaps. All of them are fleshed out and handed their cue cards through a mixture of dialogue and action that pulls the reader into their lives. The roles hold up for most of the book, but start to wear thin near the final third as Blaine becomes the central focus in the story.

At this point, I started to lose interest. The main conflict drifts increasingly far away as the reader is given glimpses of alien history through Motie internal conversations. Most of the characters also felt stretched to their breaking point, pulled to make sure their role felt used to its fullest extent. The main conflict lingered heavily like Damocles’ sword, but progress towards finding a solution felt artificially stalled. My interest was recaptured with a well-timed action sequence that heightened the immediate tension in the story. While it served as a good way to lead the reader into the final act, the last section itself is a plodding reflection on how humanity deals with “the other”- in this case, a thinly-veiled symbol for Cold War-era communism. The characters’ decisions and attitudes feel heavily influenced by the dangerous duality of U.S. establishment thinking during the post-Cold War years, where “the other” is considered to be both a potential threat and a possible future partner. Even though these attitudes can be partially translated into contemporary thought, the decisions made by the characters feel of their own time. They are reactionary, inflexible and fairly myopic. The novel, while well written and true to the characters and world created, does not question the morality of those decisions, leaving the reader to take them at face value.

Ultimately, The Mote in God’s Eye feels confident in its cohesive portrayal of humanity protecting itself from a future threat. Niven and Pournelle avoid distracting the reader too often with unrelated ideas, and keep a strong focus on the central question. There are clearly some issues, but overall, The Mote In God’s Eye is a clever thought experiment. There is a noticeable attention to detail that is completely in service to story and does not feel contrived. It is especially apparent on the macroscopic scale and applies less so to the personal character arcs. The concluding moments of the story will stick with me for a long time, while the existential absurdity of first contact will be forever burned in my memory. It deserves to be read and serves as a great comparison piece since there is a decent amount to learn from it. I wish I liked the book more, but maybe it is far more tailored to its time than mine.

Rating: The Mote in God’s Eye – 7.0 out of 10.

-Alex

Aurora: The Beauty Of Home And The Importance Of Hard Science Fiction

Post by Alex Tas.

41ji898by9lI have been eagerly awaiting a chance to read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, but since I am already bogged down in so many series, I opted for his 2015 novel, Aurora. It starts at the end of a generational starship’s 170 year journey to the planet Aurora. Told from the perspective of a learning quantum AI, Aurora follows the chief engineer and her daughter as they address the day to day problems of maintaining the ship. Aurora is an important book that investigates the worth of long-term space travel, and questions our understanding of our environment, whether natural or constructed.

The story itself is easily digestible. As the aforementioned AI learns how to tell a story, the prose develops. The AI’s grasp on language starts simple and grows more complex as the story continues. This allows the reader to adapt quickly when Robinson shifts between the main story, the science driving the starship’s maladies, and several introspective monologues. Robinson also relies on basic geographic understanding of Earth, naming each of the ship’s twelve biomes as they relate to a similar region on Earth.  He efficiently describes the landscape in a way that does not burden readers, while managing to place the reader in the scene. Typical of hard science fiction, the characters are not the main focus, but serve as a vehicle to the narrative and the ideas it introduces. Using the limited third person perspective embodied by the AI, Robinson gives himself space to explore these ideas outside of the typical narrative progression. The story focuses on the constant conflict of living in space, instead of building up to an ultimate conflict.

With all the talk in our own lives of interstellar travel, manned missions to Mars, and the looming possibility of extra-terrestrial colonization, Aurora stands out. Instead of the usual gung-ho planet grab, the book is a solemn meditation on how humans tend to view their environment and how they try to adapt. Most of the problems that pop up are bizarre chemical reactions between the ship and the biomes, issues as the ship decelerates, or the effects of small populations on genetics across generations. While the crew has a fairly sizeable array of useful materials, the problems are not easily solved and sometimes cascade into each other. As media in our world tends to trumpet the advances and breakthroughs, Aurora highlights the labor behind the triumphs and explores their after effects. By not placing us into the mind of a central human character, Robinson gives the reader space to ponder the bigger picture he is painting. Instead of being tapped into the emotions of a single character, the audience understands this as a cautionary tale of reflection, not a triumphal scream into the void.

Robinson also uses science to consistently hammer this point home. Aurora is heavy on biology, physics, and chemistry. The scientific explanations are digestible, but there are a few areas where numbers are unavoidable and concepts have to be detailed. While the majority of these sections are written into the story, several do feel like annotations to better explain the text. This may distance or even lose some readers, even though Robinson is not using them to show his scientific expertise. These areas of the book serve as more color with which to paint the big picture. Personally, I enjoyed these sections as they show the collision between the human spirit and the inevitability of facts and natural law.

All of this is not to say that this is a cold book with no feelings towards the ship’s inhabitants. While the omnipresent AI cannot delve into the inner workings of the character’s minds, it highlights conversations that shed some light on the relationships that we, as humans, build. By revealing people’s interactions, the stress they endure, and the impact of constant environmental pressure on the human psyche, Robinson pushes the story to a larger scope. This is not a character-based narrative, where the protagonists learn something to further their goals. Instead, Robinson frames the ship as a microcosm of Earth. By increasing the distance from the central characters, Robinson broadens the historical scope of the ship as the story progresses. It slowly shifts from a tale about a few humans in space, to a parable about humanity.

Robinson handles most of his ideas deftly, with skill, efficiency, and well-tempered force. There are rare moments when the illusion is broken, but they are not frequent enough to drag the book down.  I would never call this a subtle book, but it is not overtly judgmental. While Robinson focuses on humanity’s relationship with science and technology, he chooses to highlight the limits of technology and human understanding. Through many of the conflicts in the book, Robinson critiques humanity’s intent through its application of science. To Robinson, technology is not damnation or salvation in and of itself, but is instead used by humans to bring about these ends.

By making humanity his centerpiece, Robinson leaves the reader with questions, doubts, and revelations about humanity’s place among the stars. Much like the northern lights the book is named after, Aurora is a wonder to perceive. It is a chance for readers to gaze up at the stars, admiring their elegance and ask “how”? Afterwards, they can look at the beauty of the world around them and ask “why”?

Rating: Aurora – 8.5/10

Thrawn-Right at Holmes in the Star Wars Universe

mt5s45ejdm9xWhen I wouldn’t stop gushing to The Quill to Live’s Book Tyrant about my excitement to read a new canonical book in the Star Wars universe about Grand Admiral Thrawn, the aptly named Thrawn by Timothy Zahn, our Tyrant calmly informed me how pleased he was that I could write another review for the blog. I’ll start with a brief overview of the Thrawn saga for those that are unaware: after Disney purchased the Star Wars franchise, they took the entirety of expanded universe media and declared them all null and void in their current canon. Only the movies, TV shows (Clone Wars and Rebels), and future books would be within official Star Wars canon. This was devastating for many of us who grew up on the Thrawn Trilogy (which I have already reviewed here). We hated to see one of the best villains of all time removed from the Star Wars universe. Luckily, Disney didn’t let Thrawn languish in non-existence for long, and added him as a character in Season 3 of Rebels, in addition to approaching Timothy Zahn with an offer for him to author a canonical origin story of his beloved villain. After reading it, I held off on putting my review together until I could watch the Star Wars: Rebels television show, and this turned out to be a worthwhile endeavor for reasons I will explain shortly. For now, let’s get into the meat of the review.

Thrawn delivers a hearty dose of nostalgia for everyone who grew up on the original Thrawn trilogy, while also providing a solid introduction for new fans coming from the Rebels show. We get to see how Mitth’raw’nuruodo (if you can pronounce that correctly on your first try I’ll give you a cookie, or maybe some blue milk) first ‘meets’ the Empire and begins his surprisingly meteoric rise through the ranks of the Imperial Navy. He does this through a combination of brilliant deduction and devious execution of strategy. Each chapter focused on Thrawn feels very much like a look into the mind of a militaristic Sherlock Holmes as he navigates his way through the politics of the Empire and matches his will against the criminal mastermind Nightswan (a la Moriarty). Thrawn’s even got himself a Watson in Ensign Eli Vanto, the second of three POVs in the story. Vanto takes the place of Captain Pellaeon from the original Thrawn Trilogy as the man Thrawn has decided to mentor and take under his wing. It’s quite enjoyable to have an outside viewpoint from which to watch Thrawn, and Vanto is easy to cheer on throughout the book. Vanto is an intelligent and friendly Imperial Ensign who just wants to be in charge of organizing supplies for the navy. Instead he is pulled into Thrawn’s wake, and learns more about strategy and warfare than he ever thought he would. The best part about this is that we get to learn and struggle right alongside him in his chapters. Zahn does a great job of using Vanto’s chapters to keep you in suspense as Thrawn executes his plans. The last POV is from Arihnda Pryce, whom I will talk about later.

Timothy Zahn is quite gifted at writing a book that feels like Star Wars. His original trilogy probably goes a little too far with the constant flashbacks to scenes from the movies, but every minute you are reading it you are whisked to a galaxy far, far away. That same sensation is back in Thrawn, but this time around Zahn has added some flair. Each chapter starts with a quote from the Grand Admiral that would be right at home in The Art of War. Each quote references a stratagem or piece of wisdom that Thrawn uses or sees used in the upcoming chapter. I love little teasers like this, and these were done really well in this book. One issue I had with writing, however, was in the Thrawn POV chapters. There were too many lines of Thrawn’s internal Sherlock Holmes at work. He would constantly be noting the change of people’s breathing and the size of their pupils. It felt exactly like the scenes from the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes television show, but in book form and didn’t quite convey the same fun ‘brilliant mind at work’ sensation I got from Sherlock.

There was one other aspect of the book that bothered me. The character Arihnda Pryce felt like she was shoehorned into the story, and at first I couldn’t figure out why. She is an unlikeable villainous protagonist, willing to sacrifice almost anything and anyone for more power, and her character didn’t feel like it belonged in the story as an ally to Thrawn. Her chapters were only tangentially related to Thrawn’s story, and seemed mostly to serve to build up her own backstory. I was very confused as to why so much effort was being put into building up a new character I had never heard of before. However, I then watched up to Season 3 of Rebels where Thrawn is introduced simultaneously with Governor Arihnda Pryce. Aha, there she is! I still feel that Pryce didn’t truly belong in Thrawn, but now I understand that Disney was trying to get a two for one deal on backstories.

Overall, this is a fantastic addition to the new Star Wars canon, and I couldn’t be more pleased to see Thrawn back in action. It is great to see Timothy Zahn bringing his engaging writing and storytelling back into the Star Wars universe. And while Thrawn shares a very large number of similarities to the stories of Sherlock Holmes, they manifest into an exciting origin story for one of Star Wars’ greatest characters. Whether you are a long-term expanded universe fan, or coming in having only seen Star Wars: Rebels, The Quill to Live heartily recommends you pick up Thrawn.

8.0/10

Altered Starscape – Conflict of Disinterest

26001236Hey there readers, I’m Alex, a new guest poster here at The Quill To Live, and boy do I have a treat for you. I recently read Altered Starscape: Andromeda Dark Book One by Ian Douglas of Star Carrier fame. Altered Starscape follows one Lord Commander St. Clair, a naval officer within the newly proclaimed United Earth Directorate, as he leads his crew to set up an embassy at the galactic center- a super massive black hole. Upon arrival, an attack blows up the space station and the blast throws the Tellus Ad Astra (the ship) and its crew into the black hole. In ways that can only be explained by some science, it throws them four billion years into the future, where the majority of their time is spent encountering the mysterious enemy, known only as the “Andromedan Dark.”

The story itself is a military space adventure, following the crew as they discover a breadcrumb trail of interstellar coordinates left behind by another species. As they reach each location, the crew finds several wondrous and derelict superstructures. Most of these were variations on the Dyson sphere, a construct that encapsulates a star. As the ship approaches the objects, the size grabs the reader’s imagination. However, upon landing on the artifacts, the language employed leaves the reader wanting, destroying any sense of awe I had. Too many of these discoveries were shoved into a short span to evoke any sort of fascination or make the reader feel small.  There was no sense of human scale, as the environment becomes uninteresting scenery where the marines  engage in battle. With a little time and some flourish, these landscapes could have been unforgettable. Instead, they’ll continue to float in space, and the reader couldn’t care less.

The few scenes of action that do take place are exciting. Especially important is Douglas’ ability to illustrate the chaos of the scene without getting lost. While not as engaging as some other military science fiction I’ve read, the story is built on clear action with a good amount of frenetic tension. There were moments of confusion, distress, and triumph that blended together in a satisfying way. The enemy’s otherworldly ability to appear out of nowhere using the fourth dimension was a delightful addition that made the conflict more exciting as well.  However, as the story pushed on, I was less and less engaged as it became apparent that the Dark’s sole motivation was mere domination. Each successive battle felt like there was less on the line, instead of ratcheting up to a climactic battle that sets the stage for future books.

Another positive aspect of the book is Douglas’ willingness to talk science. Black holes, fourth and onwards dimensions, spacetime, faster than light travel- you name it, this book probably mentions it somewhere. Luckily, Douglas spends a decent amount of time trying to explain the theory, even working to break it down so that the reader can follow along. Because St. Clair is no scientist, he relies on his crew to explain, allowing the reader to feel included. To me, this is Douglas’ strongest skill in this book, even though he makes a bad habit of explaining after the fact.

Douglas doesn’t only depend on the latest scientific theories to tell his story, but frequently turns to other science fiction writers’ ideas. Unfortunately it never feels like a tribute, as the book descends into a show of one-upmanship.  Douglas builds his world on concepts introduced by the likes of Asimov and Niven.  Instead of accepting the fictional worlds they created, however, he uses them as a jumping-off point to promote what he believes to be his own shinier, more streamlined ideas.  The book also tends to follow in the tradition set forth by Heinlein. As if it were an ode to Starship Troopers, Douglas blends military action with musings on the nature of civic responsibility and personal liberty. Regrettably, the book read more like an self serving update to the genre, rather than an expansion of science fiction.

As I continued to read the book, I became painfully aware of its incompleteness. Douglas rarely spends the time necessary to polish his ideas. From his history of robots to the establishment of the imperial United Earth Directorate, I never felt that any major theme or idea in the book was satisfactorily explored. Everything was the beginning of something that turned out to be nothing, which was disappointing. While it makes sense to set a foundation in book one of a series, everything felt unfinished in a “project due tomorrow” sort of way. On top of that, all these small parts served as reminders to the reader that they are, in fact, reading a science fiction book.

Altered Starscape continues to fall apart from there. It’s hard to discern what the point of the book actually is. Is it just a military sci fi romp? Is it a discussion of freedom within an inherently rigid societal structure? Is it a sightseeing tour of a future universe we can only begin to imagine? These are several of many questions that never get answered. It also doesn’t help that our point of view is very limited. As the book is written in the third-person, following mostly St. Clair, every scene feels tinted and in some ways tainted by the main character’s perception. St. Clair’s feelings set the standard for every character’s  feelings and the tone for every interaction, regardless of his involvement in the scene. The narration is intended to be taken at face value, hiding nothing about St. Clair’s intentions, and offering no alternative perspective.

This problem is only compounded early in the book, where the entirety of chapter five is devoted to St. Clair’s political and personal views. St. Clair’s worldview consists mainly of notions of individual freedom, a dislike of concentrated power, and distrust of those willing to use that power. The bluntness with which they are unveiled shades future interactions between St. Clair and his peers. The rare times when St. Clair engages with his dissenters were lectures, not conversations.  These diatribes occur at different times throughout the book, and never feel like they are a part of the plot. On top of that, there is very little nuance in these interactions. It was disengaging, as no character really had an ability to dialogue with the protagonist. This distance is further solidified by the fact that St. Clair’s convictions are never truly tested, almost making them pointless.

Gunter Adler is particularly illustrative of these interactions.   Adler, the leader of the civilian portion of the Tellus Ad Astra, is portrayed as a sniveling man who flexes his power to enrich himself under the guise of civic duty.  In contrast to St. Clair’s unquestioned stability and virtue, Adler is shown to be weak of mind and spirit through his inability to act in the interest of anyone but himself.  In keeping with the superficial nature of their relationship, Adler spends most of his time belittling St. Clair without actually challenging the substance of what St. Clair says.  Had Douglas added weight to Adler’s character through deeper conversations, he would have also added dimension to St Clair as well. Instead the reader just gets to enjoy the show without witnessing any moral consequences of these leaders’ decisions.

In the end, I just couldn’t enjoy this book. Unfortunately for Douglas, I’m a tenacious little bastard and powered through, trying to enjoy the little bits of the book that felt like they belonged to a larger narrative. Even though it’s clearly written with the intention to continue as a series, Douglas just tried to do too much with very little space. The characters never felt fully fleshed out. Even St. Clair only felt characterized to the point of relatable, but reluctant hero. After the initial politics were outlined, I read it out of spite. While there is still so much more to discuss, I will end this here for fear of this review turning into a political rant. I recommend this book only to people who aren’t concerned by their personal politics or those who want to read it in spite, to discuss it afterwards.

Verdict : 4.5 out 10

5 Stories About the Living Dead that You Should Be Dying to Read

Will won’t stop bothering me about the lack of zombies on the site (despite our recent reviews of the Ex-Heroes series), so he has convinced me to let him do a post demonstrating the wonder and glory of the undead. Enjoy:

Can something be a guilty pleasure if you don’t feel guilty about the pleasure you take from it?

Considering I edit and contribute to a blog (this one) that trades primarily in reviewing fantasy/fiction/sci-fi/whatever, I like to think that I have what could be considered generally good taste. While I may have my soft spots, I’m usually able to tell whether a book is objectively good or not, without regard to how much I may personally enjoy the story or subject. There is one genre I have more difficulty with than others, in this regard. If you’ve read my prior reviews, you’re probably already nodding your head, a tired and long suffering look on your face. “Horror, obviously. The man likes his spooks,” you say to no one in particular as you take another sip of the mediocre coffee that your company stocks in its office kitchen. Well, to anyone who said that, no points for you! The genre is “Zombie Fiction”, and I love it all. Good, bad, indifferent, I can find something to like in all of it.

Now, that being said, I understand that most people aren’t quite fond enough of the genre to forgive what is, speaking honestly, the dearth of objectively good zombie stories. It is in this spirit that I present to you the following list of recommendations. Hopefully you try them out and find something you can enjoy without having to slog through yet another self-published ripoff of Romero’s 2004 version of Dawn of the Dead.

Please keep in mind that the following books aren’t in any particular order, except that if you haven’t read #1, stop reading this and come back to the list once you’ve finished it.

1: World War Z – Max brooks 

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Please don’t watch the movie. Actually, go ahead and watch the movie, but make sure you pretend the entire time it’s called “Brad Pitt Saves the World from Zombies” and has nothing to do with this license.

Written as a series of interviews taking place 10+ years after the conclusion of the Zombie War, World War Z is a very different experience than the books making up the rest of this list. The reader is put into the shoes of a United Nations investigator trying to find out what the cost of the Zombie war was. You are treated to interviews with people ranging across the entire spectrum of humanity. From a doctor in rural china to a young Russian soldier to the Vice President of the United States at the start of the outbreak, the viewpoints are varied and tie together incredibly well. This is a book that rewards careful attention to detail and multiple rereads, as many of the stories are intertwined and crib off of one another. This is my personal favorite book of all time and I cannot recommend this enough.

Personal Rating: 10/10

2: The Zombie Survival Guide – Max Brooks 

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Set in the same universe as World War Z, and published earlier. The Zombie Survival Guide is probably the lightest entry on the list in terms of weight and depth. It is, however, effectively comedic and fun to read.

Taking the form of a, you guessed it, survival handbook for people in zombie outbreaks, this book is very similar to titles in the Worst Case Scenario series. If you enjoy how-to guides with a sprinkling of brains and machete recommendations, this is a fast, fun book to pick up. There is also a graphic novel version of this book that, while great, I would recommend reading as a supplement after the novel itself.

Personal Rating: 8/10

3: The Morningstar Saga – Z. A. Recht

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This series is difficult to review as a single entity due to the tragic and untimely death of the author partway through the third and final book in the trilogy. The ghostwriter, Thom Brannan, did what he could but the change in tone and character voice is just too stark for me. With some major character arcs being wrapped up unsatisfactorily and a muddy, confusing end, I can’t personally recommend book 3.

All that being said, I thoroughly enjoy Recht’s take on zombies. He combines the two classic versions (fast rage zombies and slow relentless zombies) into different stages of the same infection. This gives a formulaic “military response to global catastrophe” story a breath of fresh air. While nothing is absolutely exceptional, all the ingredients work well together and create some zombie fiction comfort food.

Personal Rating: Plague of the Dead – 8/10  Thunder and Ashes  9/10 Survivors – 4/10

4: Day by Day Armageddon – J. L. Bourne

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Another military-focused entry on the list, which is something of a theme for the genre, Bourne eschews the more standard pov of the military machine itself in favor of a single soldier.

Taking the form of the (now ex) soldier’s journal entries, we are treated to a….day by day…look at the world falling apart and the overall struggle to survive in a worldwide collapse. With simple, direct prose informed by the journalistic window-dressing, Day by Day Armageddon is a quick, fun read that I highly recommend.

Personal Rating: 8.5/10

5: The Remaining – D. J. Molles

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Well, I probably should have mentioned this earlier, but for those of you who are turned off by military fiction the zombie genre is likely not the place for you.

The Remaining is written from the perspective of Captain Lee Harden of the United States Army. Lee is an embedded agent specifically trained to maintain the rule of law in the US and rebuild after any near-apocalyptic event. If that sounds awfully convenient to you, well it is. While there are some things in this series that you may roll your eyes at, the action is well written and nothing I read was too egregious to overlook.

Personal Rating: 8.5/10

Well there you go. Now, valued and beloved reader, you are ready to take your first slow, shambling steps into the world of zombie fiction. With this list you should be able to get a nice strong start, without getting completely turned off by thinking that my zombie fan fiction is actually anything you ever want to read (you do, by the way, it’s pretty great). At the very least go read World War Z, it’s been out forever and it’s amazing. No, really, I promise, just read it and you’ll see.

-Will

Two Serpents Rise – This Sequence Gets Craftier

2sr-coverMy father was 60 years old when I was born. Kind of an odd thing to start a book review off with, but those of you who are the guessing sort are probably guessing that this will be tied into the review later on. Bonus points for you. As for the rest of you, just bear with me. 60 years is a long time, and when you think about how much of a generational gap there is between those of us born on the cusp of the millennium and those born as recently as the early 80s, one can imagine just how different my father and I were. I loved him dearly, but we had what some would call a tempestuous relationship. It’s something that I regret, but am unable to change since he passed.

I touch on this because the story in Two Serpents Rise, the second book in The Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone, is a departure from what was the main theme of book one, Three Parts Dead. The first book in the series, as you can read in Andrew’s review here, was an exciting and satisfying look at difficult workplace dynamics. Two Serpents Rise, on the other hand, examines how we can deal with the family we’re born into, and how important it is to build another family for ourselves through our friends and loved ones.

Caleb Altemoc, the protagonist of this book, is a risk manager and avid card player working for Red King Consolidated. For those of you new to the world of The Craft Sequence, the gods fought a battle with some powerful sorcerers known as the Deathless Kings…and lost. As you can probably guess from the name, RKC is run by the Red King, a skeletal sorcerer of immense power. After an infestation of some frankly horrific water demons (they take the form of arachnids, imagine drinking some water infested with them and having them form inside your stomach…shudder), Caleb is embroiled in a variety of plots as he tries to keep the city of Dresediel Lex, and the company he works for … afloat (I had to).Caleb interacts with his boss frequently, and The King in Red is an absolutely fantastic character. We are given some incredible insight into what could drive someone to become something so inhuman, and how underneath all that…bone…is something that was human once and may be human still. I think the scenes where we learn about the Red King’s past and his history with the city of Dresediel Lex are some of the strongest in the book.

The city of Dresediel Lex and its history is as large a character as any of the human/skeleton/whatever(s) in the book. Drawing heavily from mesoamerican history and mythology, Gladstone has created an incredibly unique city, at least in terms of fiction I have experienced. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been exposed to cities in fantasy that were influenced by Aztec culture, and even fewer of those that weren’t simply relegated to “BLOODTHIRSTY GODS WANT BLOOD”. While human sacrifice is definitely something that is explored, the conflict of what constitutes true sacrifice and how those sacrifices are offered is a huge aspect of the book and I thought it was handled very well. I also want to really quickly touch on how unsettling the bug taxis are. They’re giant dragonfly-type things that suck your soul out as taxi fare. I am so uncomfortable thinking about that, just the description gave me shudders every time.

The conflict between Caleb and his father, Temoc, is one of the main driving forces of the book. His father is an Eagle Priest, a powerful and uncompromising worshipper of the old gods of Dresediel Lex. He is very much of the old guard and his belief that human sacrifice is an absolute necessity to appease the gods is in direct conflict with Caleb’s views of it as murder by another name. The descriptions of the arguments they’ve had playing out for the thousandth time reminded me a great deal of my relationship with my dad, and I was left upset and shaking my head when I saw myself in Caleb’s shoes, unable to understand his father and unable to make his father understand.

My only real complaints with the book come from the pacing and the climax. In terms of the pacing I was left feeling like more time had passed in the world than made sense for the story, though that could be a personal gripe. In addition, I felt the climax was rather abrupt. While the end of the book was exciting and certainly not short of spectacle, the actual final showdown with the ultimate enemy of the book was over very quickly and felt almost glossed over. I was expecting more going into it than I received, and while this is an issue, I think it’s a minor one when considering the story as a whole.

Two Serpents Rise is most definitely not the book I was expecting when I started it. After the funny and quirky romp that was Three Parts Dead, the introspective nature of this story really surprised me. I think, though, that the mileage of this story may vary for readers that aren’t in my shoes. In our book club discussion of Three Parts Dead, the ratings varied along the lines of those who enjoy their work and those who don’t. I Imagine that ratings would vary similarly in readings of Two Serpents Rise for those who have difficulties dealing with parts of their family and those who don’t. Regardless of that fact, though, Two Serpents Rise is an enjoyable read that I would recommend to anyone who enjoyed the world of The Craft Sequence and wants to delve further into this land of gods and the people who live with them.

Rating: Two Serpents Rise – 9.0/10

-Will