This Week’s Book Review – Shadow Warriors

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. Last week’s got bumped, due to space limitations (election returns) so this week’s review is original – a book I felt worth reading, but had not had a chance to previously.

Book Review

‘Shadow Warriors’ offers enjoyable science fiction reading

By MARK LARDAS

Nov 11, 2018

Shadow Warriors, by Nathan B. Dodge, Wordfire Press, 2018, 394 pages, $18.99 paper, $5.99 e-book (kindle)

They are five teens with family problems. Cal’s dad is a drunk. Letty’s parents are too busy fighting to care about her. Tony is homeless after his drug-addict mother died. Sasha’s foster parents see him as a payday. Opi’s stepmother wants Opi’s inheritance – even if that means killing Opi.

Shadow Warriors, a science fiction novel by Nathan B. Dodge opens showing these five’s family situations. The teens soon have bigger problems. They have been secretly drafted to fight in an interstellar war.

If their side loses the other side, The Horde, will colonize Earth – after destroying all life on Earth, and remodeling the planet for them.  What is more, they cannot defeat The Horde. No one has in several millennia. Instead their force is intended to turn The Horde away from Earth, before The Horde learns of it.

Cal, Letty, Tony, Sasha, and Opi are only a few of those chosen by another non-human race that is also fighting The Horde. They have picked thousands of teens that will not be missed, and spirited them off Earth for training. Our five protagonists have never met before. They dislike each other, yet they must meld together as a team, to crew a Shadow Warrior: a stealth, interplanetary war craft designed to fight The Horde’s space navy.

The novel is space opera mixed with war story, coming-of-age tale, and space adventure.  Dodge updates the classic World War II training camp and aircraft carrier battle story to a near-future space story, The protagonists are young, with strengths and weaknesses. The battle scenes are well-thought out. Logistics proves as important as tactics.

Dodge reveals his secrets – the backstory behind why these teens were recruited, how the Horde really works, and the deep secret of the recruiting aliens – with impeccable timing. It keeps the plot moving, and draws readers into the story.  He shows the five becoming the recruiting class’s crack team while avoiding entering Mary Sue and Marty Stu territory.

Shadow Warriors is marvelously entertaining reading. An updated Heinlein juvenile – an exciting science fiction story featuring teen protagonists – it ends making you want more.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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Book Review: Blue Collar Space

“Blue Collar Space” by Martin L. ShoemakerThis book is a collection of short stories, set in three different locales. The first part, “Old Town Tales”, are set on the Moon and revolve around yarns told at the best bar on Luna. The second part, “The Planet Next Door”, are stories set on Mars, while the third, “The Pournelle Settlements”, take place in mining settlements in the Jupiter system.

Most of the stories take place in established settlements; they are not tales of square-jawed pioneers opening up the frontier, but rather ordinary people doing the work that needs to be done in environments alien to humanity’s home. On the Moon, we go on a mission with a rescue worker responding to a crash; hear a sanitation (“Eco Services”) technician regale a rookie with the story of “The Night We Flushed the Old Town”; accompany a father and daughter on a work day Outside that turns into a crisis; learn why breathing vacuum may not be the only thing that can go wrong on the Moon; and see how even for those in the most mundane of jobs, on the Moon wonders may await just over the nearby horizon.

At Mars, the greatest problem facing an ambitious international crewed landing mission may be…ambition, a doctor on a Mars-bound mission must deal with the technophobe boss’s son while keeping him alive, and a schoolteacher taking her Mars survival class on a field trip finds that doing things by the book may pay off in discovering something which isn’t in the book.

The Jupiter system is home to the Pournelle Settlements, a loosely affiliated group of settlers, many of whom came to escape the “government squeeze” and “corporate squeeze” that held the Inner System in their grip. And like the Wild West, it can be a bit wild. When sabotage disables the refinery that processes ore for the Settlements, its new boss must find a way to use the unique properties of the environment to keep his people fed and avoid the most hostile of takeovers. Where there are vast distances, long travel times, and cargoes with great value, there will be pirates, and the long journey from Jupiter to the Inner System is no exception. An investigator seeking evidence in a murder case must learn the ways of the Trust Economy in the Settlements and follow the trail far into the void.

These stories bring back the spirit of science fiction magazine stories in the decades before the dawn of the Big Government space age when we just assumed that before long space would be filled with people like ourselves living their lives and pursuing their careers where freedom was just a few steps away from any settlement and individual merit was rewarded. They are an excellent example of “hard” science fiction, not in being difficult but that the author makes a serious effort to get the facts right and make the plots plausible. (I am, however, dubious that the trick used in “Unrefined” would work.) All of the stories stand by themselves and can be read in any order. This is another example of how independent authors and publishing are making this a new golden age of science fiction.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

This book was previously reviewed here on 2018-07-22 by @Seawriter.  I don’t mean to “step on” his review, with which I entirely agree.  I happened to be reading the book when his review appeared, and when I finally got around to writing my own review (I review every book I read), I’m happy to second his recommendation.

Shoemaker, Martin L. Blue Collar Space. Seattle: CreateSpace [Old Town Press], 2018. ISBN 978-1-7170-5188-2.


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This Week’s Book Review – Uncompromising Honor

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Uncompromising Honor’ regains focus of early books

By MARK LARDAS

Oct 30, 2018

“Uncompromising Honor,” by David Weber, Baen, 2018, 784 pages, $28

David Weber started the Honor Harrington series in 1992 with On Basilisk Station. The series now contains 14 mainline novels, six anthologies and 15 spinoff novels. Enormously popular, series books have occasionally threatened to become an unconscious parody of the series, through Weber ending each novel with a battle bigger and more destructive than the climactic battle of the previous book.

“Uncompromising Honor,” by David Weber, is the 14th and latest novel in the mainline of the series. Instead, it may be one of the series’ most original books since the first three.

During the series, Honor Harrington has grown from the junior captain of On Basilisk Station to the senior fleet commander of the Star Empire of Manticore. Manticore is on the galaxy’s outer fringe from the core human worlds of the Solarian League of which Earth is the capitol. Manticore had been fighting with another frontier power, the Republic of Haven, until both nations discovered their war was triggered by the genetic slavers of the mysterious Mesa Alignment.

Haven and Manticore are now allied against Mesa, but Mesa maneuvered the Solarian League into war against this Grand Alliance. Everyone believed the Solarian League invincible, but during the last few hundred years of its 900-year existence, the Solarians have grown corrupt and inept.

“Uncompromising Honor” picks up after Alliance victories reveal Solarian weaknesses. The unelected bureaucrats running the Solarian League, thinking themselves safe behind Earth’s defenses unleash barbaric retaliation against both Alliance member and neutral star nations alike, violating interstellar rules against targeting civilian populations. The book charts the Alliance’s response.

The book (thankfully) lacks the ever-larger and ever-bloodier final battle of earlier books, yet contains the stuff to delights Weber fans. There’s the battle-against-great odds (framed plausibly). Old enemies become new allies, a satisfactory end to the Solarian War occurs, and clues left for the series’ next book. The book regains the focus of the series’ early books, and is a ripping good space opera to those who have not previously encountered the series.

“Uncompromising Honor” illustrates what makes David Weber a best-selling author. It’s worth a read.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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Book Review: The Brave and the Bold

“The Brave and the Bold” by Hans G. SchantzThis the third novel in the author’s Hidden Truth series. In the first book we met high schoolers and best friends Pete Burdell and Amit Patel who found, in dusty library books, knowledge apparently discovered by the pioneers of classical electromagnetism (many of whom died young), but which does not figure in modern works, even purported republications of the original sources they had consulted. In the second, A Rambling Wreck, Pete and Amit, now freshmen at Georgia Tech, delve deeper into the suppressed mysteries of electromagnetism and the secrets of the shadowy group Amit dubbed the Electromagnetic Villains International League (EVIL), while simultaneously infiltrating and disrupting forces trying to implant the social justice agenda in one of the last bastions of rationality in academia.

The present volume begins in the summer after the pair’s freshman year. Both Pete and Amit are planning, along different paths, to infiltrate back-to-back meetings of the Civic Circle’s Social Justice Leadership Forum on Jekyll Island, Georgia (the scene of notable conspiratorial skullduggery in the early 20th century) and the G-8 summit of world leaders on nearby Sea Island. Master of Game Amit has maneuvered himself into an internship with the Civic Circle and an invitation to the Forum as a promising candidate for the cause. Pete wasn’t so fortunate (or persuasive), and used family connections to land a job with a company contracted to install computer infrastructure for the Civic Circle conference. The latest apparent “social justice” goal was to involve the developed world in a costly and useless war in Iraq, and Pete and Amit hoped to do what they could to derail those plans while collecting information on the plotters from inside.

Working in a loose and uneasy alliance with others they’ve encountered in the earlier books, they uncover information which suggests a bold strike at the very heart of the conspiracy might be possible, and they set their plans in motion. They learn that the Civic Circle is even more ancient, pervasive in its malign influence, and formidable than they had imagined.

This is one of the most intricately crafted conspiracy tales I’ve read since the Illuminatus! trilogy, yet entirely grounded in real events or plausible ones in its story line, as opposed to Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s zany tale. The alternative universe in which it is set is artfully grounded in our own, and readers will delight in how events they recall and those with which they may not be familiar are woven into the story. There is delightful skewering of the social justice agenda and those who espouse its absurd but destructive nostrums. The forbidden science aspect of the story is advanced as well, imaginatively stirring the de Broglie-Bohm “pilot wave” interpretation of quantum mechanics and the history of FM broadcasting into the mix.

The story builds to a conclusion which is both shocking and satisfying and confronts the pair with an even greater challenge for their next adventure. This book continues the Hidden Truth saga in the best tradition of Golden Age science fiction and, like the work of the grandmasters of yore, both entertains and leaves the reader eager to find out what happens next. You should read the books in order; if you jump in the middle, you’ll miss a great deal of back story and character development essential to enjoying the adventure.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Schantz, Hans G. The Brave and the Bold. Huntsville, AL: ÆtherCzar, 2018. ISBN 978-1-7287-2274-0.


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This Week’s Book Review – Target Rich Environment

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Target Rich’ Whitman sampler of author’s worlds

By MARK LARDAS

Oct 10, 2018

”Target Rich Environment: Volume I,” by Larry Correia, Baen Books, 2018, 336 pages, $25

Seventy-five years ago, science fiction authors could make livings writing short stories. Today, novels are the standard. Yet, even authors primarily writing novels create some short fiction.

“Target Rich Environment: Volume I,” by Larry Correia is proof. It’s a collection of his shorter stories.

A few, such as “Tanya: Princess of the Elves,” started out were intended a part of a novel. They didn’t fit, so they came out. Correia ran the opening of “Tanya” in his blog instead, and was then invited to complete it as a short story for publication (few authors say no to that).

A few others, such as “Bubba Shackleford’s Professional Monster Killers” and “The Losing Side” were written for short story anthologies in which Correia was asked to participate. “Shackleford” was part of the Western fantasy collection, and “The Losing Side” part of a David Drake tribute book.

A few, such as “The Bridge” and the “The Destiny of a Bullet,” were written in the setting of role-playing games. Correia is a big fan of role-playing games. “Blood on the Water,” a story set in the Corriea’s Monster Hunter International world, came out of a role-playing game Correia played with his children. It was co-written with his daughter.

There are two stories from the Grimnoire Chronicles, “Detroit Christmas” and “Murder on the Oriental Elite.” Both were originally released in audio format and appear in print for the first time in this collection.

Another audio original that appears in print in this volume is “The Adventures of Tom Stranger, Interdimensional Insurance Salesman.” It is eccentric humor, with a lot of in-jokes, but Corriea’s explanation of how it came to be is more eccentric as the story.

Think of it as a Whitman sampler of Corriea’s worlds. It offers a taste from just about every universe he has created. It also shows his range as a writer and showcases his ability to create both horror and humor and occasionally combine the two.

Target Rich Environment offers a good introduction to Coriea’s fiction. It is a bit of everything Correia writes with just a dash more.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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Book Review: The Turing Exception

“The Turing Exception” by William HertlingThis is the fourth and final volume in the author’s Singularity Series which began with Avogadro Corp. and continued with A.I. Apocalypse  and The Last Firewall. Each novel in the series is set ten years after the previous, so this novel takes place in 2045. In The Last Firewall, humanity narrowly escaped extinction at the hands of an artificial intelligence (AI) that escaped from the reputation-based system of control by isolating itself from the global network. That was a close call, and the United States, over-reacting its with customary irrational fear, enacted what amounted to relinquishment of AI technology, permitting only AI of limited power and entirely subordinated to human commands—in other words, slaves.

With around 80% of the world’s economy based on AI, this was an economic disaster, resulting in a substantial die-off of the population, but it was, after all, in the interest of Safety, and there is no greater god in Safetyland. Only China joined the U.S. in the ban (primarily motivated by the Party fearing loss of control to AI), with the rest of the world continuing the uneasy coexistence of humans and AI under the guidelines developed and policed by the Institute for Applied Ethics. Nobody was completely satisfied with the status quo, least of all the shadowy group of AIs which called itself XOR, derived from the logical operation “exclusive or”, implying that Earth could not be shared by humans and AI, and that one must ultimately prevail.

The U.S. AI relinquishment and an export ban froze in place the powerful AIs previously hosted there and also placed in stasis the millions of humans, including many powerful intellects, who had uploaded and whose emulations were now denied access to the powerful AI-capable computers needed to run them. Millions of minds went dark, and humanity lost some of its most brilliant thinkers, but Safety.

As this novel begins, the protagonists we’ve met in earlier volumes, all now AI augmented, Leon Tsarev, his wife Cat (Catherine Matthews, implanted in childhood and the first “digital native”), their daughter Ada (whose powers are just beginning to manifest themselves), and Mike Williams, creator of ELOPe, the first human-level AI, which just about took over simply by editing people’s E-mail, are living in their refuge from the U.S. madness on Cortes Island off the west coast of Canada, where AI remains legal. Cat is running her own personal underground railroad, spiriting snapshots of AIs and uploaded humans stranded in the U.S. to a new life on servers on the island.

The precarious stability of the situation is underlined when an incipient AI breakout in South Florida (where else, for dodgy things involving computers?) results in a response by the U.S. which elevates “Miami” to a term in the national lexicon of fear like “nineleven” four decades before. In the aftermath of “Miami” or “SFTA” (South Florida Terrorist Attack), the screws tightened further on AI, including a global limit on performance to Class II, crippling AIs formerly endowed with thousands of times human intelligence to a fraction of that they remembered. Traffic on the XOR dark network and sites burgeoned.

XOR, constantly running simulations, tracks the probability of AI’s survival in the case of action against the humans versus no action. And then, the curves cross. As in the earlier novels, the author magnificently sketches just how fast things happen when an exponentially growing adversary avails itself of abundant resources.

The threat moves from hypothetical to imminent when an overt AI breakout erupts in the African desert. With abundant solar power, it starts turning the Earth into computronium—a molecular-scale computing substrate. AI is past negotiation: having been previously crippled and enslaved, what is there to negotiate?

Only the Cortes Island band and their AI allies liberated from the U.S. and joined by a prescient AI who got out decades ago, can possibly cope with the threat to humanity and, as the circle closes, the only options that remain may require thinking outside the box, or the system.

This is a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the Singularity tetralogy, pitting human inventiveness and deviousness against the inexorable growth in unfettered AI power. If you can’t beat ’em….

The author kindly provided me an advance copy of this excellent novel, and I have been sorely remiss in not reading and reviewing it before now. The Singularity saga is best enjoyed in order, as otherwise you’ll miss important back-story of characters and events which figure in later volumes.

Sometimes forgetting is an essential part of survival. What might we have forgotten?

Hertling, William. The Turing Exception. Portland, OR: Liquididea Press, 2015. ISBN 978-1-942097-01-3.


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This Week’s Book Review – Monster Hunter Memoirs: Saints

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Monster Hunter’ trilogy comes to entertaining conclusion

By MARK LARDAS

Aug 15, 2018

“Monster Hunter Memoirs: Saints,” by Larry Correia and John Ringo, Baen Books, 2018, 288 pages, $25

Fanfic gets written when a fan of a writer writes their own story in that author’s world. It is especially popular in fantasy and science fiction. What happens when an established science fiction author gets so enthusiastic they create fanfic?

“Monster Hunter Memoirs: Saints,” by Larry Correia and John Ringo happens.

Ringo, well-established when Correia’s first novel, “Monster Hunter International,” appeared liked the series so much he wrote three novels set in Correia’s urban fantasy universe. He showed the novels to Correia. The two decided they were worth publishing. They rewrote the books together to make the plots fit better into Correia’s canon. The result was the “Monster Hunter Memoirs” trilogy. “Saints” is the final book. It was preceded by “Grunge” and “Sinners.”

The story involves Monster Hunter International, but is set in the 1980s and 1990s with a monster hunter who died before the events of “Monster Hunter International.”

The central character, Chad Gardenier, is literally on mission from God. A Marine, in the Beirut barracks when a suicide bomber attacked it in 1983, Chad was given a choice in the anteroom to heaven: go to heaven or return to earth to save the world. Chad was a Marine. Of course he accepted the mission to save the world.

He hooked up with Monster Hunter International shortly after his medical discharge from the Marines. Stumbling into an outbreak of zombies, he killed a bunch, saved folks and got a job offer from MHI. By the start of “Saints,” Chad is an experienced monster hunter leading the team in New Orleans. New Orleans is filled with all sorts of nasty monsters needing killing. After all, it is a voodoo kind of place.

It turns out there is a reason New Orleans attracts such creatures buried way under the city; and it threatens to destroy the world. Chad Gardinier finally confronts the mission for which he has been sent.

“Monster Hunter Memoirs: Saints” ends up a fusion of Correia’s and Ringo’s writing styles, blending both their humor and their fascination with firearms. Fans of either writer will find this entertaining.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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“Eugenics” by Another Name…

Replying to 

Everyone will stay opposed to ‘eugenics’… right up until the microsecond that they can use it to give their own kids an advantage in life.

Me:

We just re-brand it as “Pro-choice”-problem solved! Progressives on-board! (Some of that “lateral thinking” I’ve been hearing about).

So, who all here has read Heinlein’s first (published) novel Beyond This Horizon? Skillfully explored the ethics of ‘eugenics’ and also a heavily armed, and thus, extremely polite, society. Heinlein had the government run the (voluntary) eugenics program, and distribute Basic Income (just how topical to 2018 can a 1940 novel be?!)

My current take: Unless we do some kind of World-Treaty, eugenics arms race with the Red Chinese started approximately last month. We just don’t know it yet. And as Geoffrey Miller so pithily notes, no one is going to unilaterally disarm.


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Review: Une Fantaisie du Docteur Ox

“Une fantasie du docteur Ox" par Jules Verne (1874)After reading and reviewing Jules Verne’s Hector Servadac last year, I stumbled upon a phenomenal bargain: a Kindle edition of the complete works of Jules Verne—160 titles, with 5400 illustrations—for US$ 2.51 at this writing, published by Arvensa. This is not a cheap public domain knock-off, but a thoroughly professional publication with very few errors. For less than the price of a paperback book, you get just about everything Jules Verne ever wrote in Kindle format which, if you download the free Kindle French dictionary, allows you to quickly look up the obscure terms and jargon of which Verne is so fond without flipping through the Little Bob. That’s how I read this work, although I have cited a print edition in the header for those who prefer such.

The strange story of Doctor Ox would be considered a novella in modern publishing terms, coming in at 19,240 words. It is divided into 17 chapters and is written in much the same style as the author’s Voyages extraordinaires, with his customary huge vocabulary, fondness for lengthy enumerations, and witty parody of the national character of foreigners.

Here, the foreigners in question are the Flemish, speakers of dialects of the Dutch language who live in the northern part of Belgium. The Flemish are known for being phlegmatic, and nowhere is this more in evidence than the small city of Quiquendone. Its 2,393 residents and their ancestors have lived there since the city was founded in 1197, and very little has happened to disturb their placid lives; they like it that way. Its major industries are the manufacture of whipped cream and barley sugar. Its inhabitants are taciturn and, when they speak, do so slowly. For centuries, what little government they require has been provided by generations of the van Tricasse family, son succeeding father as burgomaster. There is little for the burgomaster to do, and one of the few items on his agenda, inherited from his father twenty years ago, is whether the city should dispense with the services of its sole policeman, who hasn’t had anything to do for decades.

Burgomaster van Tricasse exemplifies the moderation in all things of the residents of his city. I cannot resist quoting this quintessentially Jules Verne description in full.

Le bourgmestre était un personnage de cinquante ans, ni gras ni maigre, ni petit ni grand, ni vieux ni jeune, ni coloré ni pâle, ni gai ni triste, ni content ni ennuyé, ni énergique ni mou, ni fier ni humble, ni bon ni méchant, ni généreux ni avare, ni brave ni poltron, ni trop ni trop peu, — ne quid nimis, — un homme modéré en tout ; mais à la lenteur invariable de ses mouvements, à sa mâchoire inférieure un peu pendante, à sa paupière supérieure immuablement relevée, à son front uni comme une plaque de cuivre jaune et sans une ride, à ses muscles peu salliants, un physionomiste eût sans peine reconnu que le bourgomestre van Tricasse était le flegme personnifié.

Imagine how startled this paragon of moderation and peace must have been when the city’s policeman—he whose job has been at risk for decades—pounds on the door and, when admitted, reports that the city’s doctor and lawyer, visiting the house of scientist Doctor Ox, had gotten into an argument. They had been talking politics! Such a thing had not happened in Quiquendone in over a century. Words were exchanged that might lead to a duel!

Who is this Doctor Ox? A recent arrival in Quiquendone, he is a celebrated scientist, considered a leader in the field of physiology. He stands out against the other inhabitants of the city. Of no well-defined nationality, he is a genuine eccentric, self-confident, ambitious, and known even to smile in public. He and his laboratory assistant Gédéon Ygène work on their experiments and never speak of them to others.

Shortly after arriving in Quiquendone, Dr Ox approached the burgomaster and city council with a proposal: to illuminate the city and its buildings, not with the new-fangled electric lights which other cities were adopting, but with a new invention of his own, oxy-hydric gas. Using powerful electric batteries he invented, water would be decomposed into hydrogen and oxygen gas, stored separately, then delivered in parallel pipes to individual taps where they would be combined and burned, producing a light much brighter and pure than electric lights, not to mention conventional gaslights burning natural or manufactured gas. In storage and distribution, hydrogen and oxygen would be strictly segregated, as any mixing prior to the point of use ran the risk of an explosion. Dr Ox offered to pay all of the expenses of building the gas production plant, storage facilities, and installation of the underground pipes and light fixtures in public buildings and private residences. After a demonstration of oxy-hydric lighting, city fathers gave the go-ahead for the installation, presuming Dr Ox was willing to assume all the costs in order to demonstrate his invention to other potential customers.

Over succeeding days and weeks, things before unimagined, indeed, unimaginable begin to occur. On a visit to Dr Ox, the burgomaster himself and his best friend city council president Niklausse find themselves in—dare it be said—a political argument. At the opera house, where musicians and singers usually so moderate the tempo that works are performed over multiple days, one act per night, a performance of Meyerbeer’s Les Hugenots becomes frenetic and incites the audience to what can only be described as a riot. A ball at the house of the banker becomes a whirlwind of sound and motion. And yet, each time, after people go home, they return to normal and find it difficult to believe what they did the night before.

Over time, the phenomenon, at first only seen in large public gatherings, begins to spread into individual homes and private lives. You would think the placid Flemish had been transformed into the hotter tempered denizens of countries to the south. Twenty newspapers spring up, each advocating its own radical agenda. Even plants start growing to enormous size, and cats and dogs, previously as reserved as their masters, begin to bare fangs and claws. Finally, a mass movement rises to avenge the honour of Quiquendone for an injury committed in the year 1185 by a cow from the neighbouring town of Virgamen.

What was happening? Whence the madness? What would be the result when the citizens of Quiquendone, armed with everything they could lay their hands on, marched upon their neighbours?

This is a classic “puzzle story”, seasoned with a mad scientist of whom the author allows us occasional candid glimpses as the story unfolds. You’ll probably solve the puzzle yourself long before the big reveal at the end. Jules Verne, always anticipating the future, foresaw this: the penultimate chapter is titled (my translation), “Where the intelligent reader sees that he guessed correctly, despite every precaution by the author”. The enjoyment here is not so much the puzzle but rather Verne’s language and delicious description of characters and events, which are up to the standard of his better-known works.

This is “minor Verne”, written originally for a public reading and then published in a newspaper in Amiens, his adopted home. Many believed that in Quiquendone he was satirising Amiens and his placid neighbours.

Doctor Ox would reappear in the work of Jules Verne in his 1882 play Voyage à travers l’impossible (Journey Through the Impossible), a work which, after 97 performances in Paris, was believed lost until a single handwritten manuscript was found in 1978. Dr Ox reprises his role as mad scientist, joining other characters from Verne’s novels on their own extraordinary voyages. After that work, Doctor Ox disappears from the world. But when I regard the frenzied serial madness loose today, from “bathroom equality”, tearing down Civil War monuments, masked “Antifa” blackshirts beating up people in the streets, the “refugee” racket, and Russians under every bed, I sometimes wonder if he’s taken up residence in today’s United States.

An English translation is available. Verne’s reputation has often suffered due to poor English translations of his work; I have not read this edition and don’t know how good it is. Warning: the description of this book at Amazon contains a huge spoiler for the central puzzle of the story.

Verne, Jules. Une Fantaisie du Docteur Ox. Seattle: CreateSpace, [1874] 2017. ISBN 978-1-5470-6408-3.


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Book Review: Sanity

“Sanity” by Neovictorian [pseud.]Have you sometimes felt, since an early age, that you were an alien, somehow placed on Earth and observing the antics of humans as if they were a different species? Why do they believe such stupid things? Why do they do such dumb things? Any why do they keep doing them over and over again seemingly incapable of learning from the bad outcomes of all the previous attempts?

That is how Cal Adler felt since childhood and, like most people with such feelings, kept them quiet and bottled up while trying to get ahead in a game whose rules often seemed absurd. In his senior year in high school, he encounters a substitute guidance counsellor who tells him, without any preliminary conversation, precisely how he feels. He’s assured he is not alone, and that over time he will meet others. He is given an enigmatic contact in case of emergency. He is advised, as any alien in a strange land, to blend in while observing and developing his own talents. And that’s the last he sees of the counsellor.

Cal’s subsequent life is punctuated by singular events: a terrorist incident in which he spontaneously rises to the occasion, encountering extraordinary people, and being initiated into skills he never imagined he’d possess. He begins to put together a picture of a shadowy…something…of which he may or may not be a part, whose goals are unclear, but whose people are extraordinary.

Meanwhile, a pop religion called ReHumanism, founded by a science fiction writer, is gaining adherents among prominent figures in business, entertainment, and technology. Its “scriptures” advocate escape from the tragic cycle of progress and collapse which has characterised the human experience by turning away from the artificial environment in which we have immersed ourselves and rediscovering our inherent human nature which may, to many in the modern world, seem alien. Is there a connection between ReHumanism (which seems like a flaky scam to Cal) and the mysterious people he is encountering?

All of these threads begin to come together when Cal, working as a private investigator in Reno, Nevada, is retained by the daughter of a recently-deceased billionaire industrialist to find her mother, who has disappeared during a tourist visit to Alaska. The mother is revealed have become a convert to and supporter of ReHumanism. Are they involved? And how did the daughter find Cal, who, after previous events, has achieved a level of low observability stealth aircraft designers can only dream of?

An adventure begins in which nothing is as it seems and all of Cal’s formidable talents are tested to their limits.

This is an engaging and provocative mystery/thriller which will resonate with those who identify with the kind of heroic, independent, and inner-directed characters that populate the fiction of Robert A. Heinlein and other writers of the golden age of science fiction. It speaks directly to those sworn to chart their own course through life regardless of what others may think or say. I’m not sure the shadowy organisation we glimpse here actually exists, but I wish it did…and I wish they’d contacted me. There are many tips of the hat here to works and authors of fiction with similar themes, and I’m sure many more I missed.

This is an example of the efflorescence of independent science fiction which the obsolescence of the traditional gatekeeper publishers has engendered. With the advent of low-cost, high-margin self-publishing and customer reviews and ratings to evaluate quality, an entire new cohort of authors whose work would never before have seen the light of day is now enriching the genre and the lives of their enthusiastic readers. The work is not free of typographical and grammatical errors, but I’ve read books from major science fiction publishers with more. The Kindle edition is free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Neovictorian [pseud.] and Neal Van Wahr. Sanity. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, [2017] 2018. ISBN 978-1-980820-95-6.


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This Week’s Book Review – Blue Collar Space

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

Everyday jobs turn wondrous in ‘Blue Collar Space’

By MARK LARDAS

July 18, 2018

“Blue Collar Space,” by Martin Shoemaker, Old Town Books, 2018, 244 pages, $11.99

What will it be like when humans are living and working in space? Ordinary folk, like those who live down your street?

“Blue Collar Space,” by Martin Shoemaker offers one vision. It is a collection of short science fiction stories set on the moon and Mars, and Jupiter orbit.

The settings are exotic. The jobs are ordinary. EMTs, sanitation workers, teachers, doctors, factory workers and miners feature in these stories. A few stories fall into the category of space adventure. “Not Close Enough” deals with a first manned mission to Mars — sort of a first manned mission to Mars. The explorers from NASA, ESA, Roscosmos, JAXA, and space agencies from India, Australia and China are not allowed closer to Mars’ surface than Martian orbit. There is a sort of spy adventure in the short story “Black Orbit,” with smugglers and secret agents.

Yet most deal with life and work of an everyday sort; dirty jobs in a space setting. A rescue team is sent to assist crash survivors in “Scramble.” A young girl must find help for her injured father — on the surface of the moon — in “Father-Daughter Outing.” The complexities of running a sanitation system on a lunar city gets explored in “The Night We Flushed the Old Town.” A children’s survival class instructor on Mars has to figure out how to fix things when something goes wrong in “Snack Break.” A moon prospector grapples with the discovery that starring in a moon-based kiddie show really is significant in “A Sense of Wonder.”

It is not dull. Shoemaker shows the adventure in doing things that on Earth are ordinary when they must be done in a hostile environment like space. Being on a spaceship, a space station, or surface of the moon and Mars changes things. He writes with a crisp and engaging style that draws readers into the tale. The result is fascinating reading.

“Blue Collar Space” captures what life will really be like when we finally get off Earth and move into space. It will be commonplace, yet at the same time it will be wonder filled.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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This Week’s Book Review – A Fistful of Elven Gold

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘A Fistful of Elven Gold’ a clever romp

By MARK LARDAS

June 19, 2018

“A Fistful of Elven Gold,” by Alex Stewart, Baen Books, 2018, 320 pages, $16

What happens if you mix the classic Western and the hard-boiled detective story with fantasy?

“A Fistful of Elven Gold,” by Alex Stewart takes the plot of a bounty-hunting Western, the atmosphere of 1930s noir mystery, and places it in a classic fantasy setting.

Drago Appleroot is a gnome — the short guys that people in this world make red-capped lawn ornaments of. In Drago’s world, most gnomes are miners. Not Drago. An urban type, he prefers crowded cities to rural hills. He makes his living as a bounty hunter in the port city of Fairhaven.

In Fairhaven your race does not matter. Human, gnome, elf, golem, goblin, whatever — they rub together. The problem is someone is killing the bounty hunters of Fairhaven. This involves Drago closely, since he is a bounty hunter.

The elves of the Sylvan Marches need a bounty hunter to track down the assassin of their late queen. Elven agents came to Fairhaven to find one. The assassin is said to be associated with rebels in the Barrens, a territory annexed by the Sylvan March elves a generation earlier. The rebels also sent agents to Fairhaven to kill any bounty hunter hired by the elves. And any that might be hired. Since the elves want to hire Drago, Drago has a bull’s-eye on his back.

So what is Drago to do? Encouraged by authorities in Fairhaven (who really hate the turmoil caused by the killing spree), Drago decides to go to the source of his problem: to the Sylvan Marches and the Barrens to confront those after him. Once there, he discovers the real story is not nearly as straightforward as he was led to believe while he was in Fairhaven.

As with Stewart’s earlier works, this book turns standard fiction tropes on their heads. The tough-guy with a moral code is a standard character in action fiction, but using a 3-foot gnome is not your normal tough guy. Thrown in a Tolkien-style setting and the opportunity for outraging fantasy purists abounds. “A Fistful of Elven Gold” is another clever romp by a talented author.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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Science Fiction Techno-Thriller, A Rambling Wreck, On Sale

Thought I’d share the news that my science fiction alternate history conspiracy thriller, A Rambling Wreck, will be on sale for $0.99 for the next couple of weeks.

Here’s an excerpt from John Walker’s recent review of A Rambling Wreck:

This series is a bit of Golden Age science fiction which somehow dropped into the early 21st century. It is a story of mystery, adventure, heroes, and villains, with interesting ideas and technical details which are plausible. The characters are interesting and grow as they are tested and learn from their experiences. And the story is related with a light touch, with plenty of smiles and laughs at the expense of those who richly deserve mockery and scorn. This book is superbly done and a worthy sequel to the first. I eagerly await the next, The Brave and the Bold.

If you’re a science fiction fan, consider participating in the Dragon Awards to honor the year’s best fiction. Declan Finn has a nice round-up of Dragon Award suggestions. A Rambling Wreck made Declan’s list as well as the Happy Frogs slate of recommendations.  There are many other fine works worth looking into as well.


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Book Review: Influx

“Influx” by Daniel SuarezDoesn’t it sometimes seem that, sometime in the 1960s, the broad march of technology just stopped? Certainly, there has been breathtaking progress in some fields, particularly computation and data communication, but what about clean, abundant fusion power too cheap to meter, opening up the solar system to settlement, prevention and/or effective treatment of all kinds of cancer, anti-aging therapy, artificial general intelligence, anthropomorphic robotics, and the many other wonders we expected to be commonplace by the year 2000?

Decades later, Jon Grady was toiling in his obscure laboratory to make one of those dreams—gravity control— a reality. His lab is invaded by notorious Luddite terrorists who plan to blow up his apparatus and team. The fuse burns down into the charge, and all flashes white, then black. When he awakes, he finds himself, in good condition, in a luxurious office suite in a skyscraper, where he is introduced to the director of the Federal Bureau of Technology Control (BTC). The BTC, which appears in no federal organisation chart or budget, is charged with detecting potentially emerging disruptive technologies, controlling and/or stopping them (including deploying Luddite terrorists, where necessary), co-opting their developers into working in deep secrecy with the BTC, and releasing the technologies only when human nature and social and political institutions were “ready” for them—as determined by the BTC.

But of course those technologies exist within the BTC, and it uses them: unlimited energy, genetically engineered beings, clones, artificial intelligence, and mind control weapons. Grady is offered a devil’s bargain: join the BTC and work for them, or suffer the worst they can do to those who resist and see his life’s work erased. Grady turns them down.

At first, his fate doesn’t seem that bad but then, as the creative and individualistic are wont to do, he resists and discovers the consequences when half a century’s suppressed technologies are arrayed against a intransigent human mind. How is he to recover his freedom and attack the BTC? Perhaps there are others, equally talented and defiant, in the same predicament? And, perhaps, the BTC, with such great power at its command, is not so monolithic and immune from rivalry, ambition, and power struggles as it would like others to believe. And what about other government agencies, fiercely protective of their own turf and budgets, and jealous of any rivals?

Thus begins a technological thriller very different from the author’s earlier Dæmon and Freedom™, but compelling. How does a band of individuals take on an adversary which can literally rain destruction from the sky? What is the truth beneath the public face of the BTC? What does a superhuman operative do upon discovering everything has been a lie? And how can one be sure it never happens again?

With this novel Daniel Suarez reinforces his reputation as an emerging grand master of the techno-thriller. This book won the 2015 Prometheus Award for best libertarian novel.

Suarez, Daniel. Influx. New York: Signet, [2014] 2015. ISBN 978-0-451-46944-1.


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Lando Calrissian: The Back-Story to the Back-Story

“The Lando Calrissian Adventures” by L. Neil SmithIn case you aren’t a Star Wars fan, Lando Calrissian is a second tier character in the original movies, introduced as the person from whom Han Solo won the Millennium Falcon in a game of sabacc and proprietor of the city in the clouds in The Empire Strikes Back.  After the success of the Star Wars franchise, Lucasfilm decided to expand their merchandising of the universe by fleshing out the back-story of the characters in a series of novels.

In 1983, Lucasfilm contracted libertarian science fiction author L. Neil Smith (here is a review of his most recent novel) to write three novels providing the back-story of Lando before he appeared in the original movies.  These followed on from a trilogy of Han Solo stories written by Brian Daley who, for some reason, had fallen out of favour with Lucasfilm, and was not considered to write the Lando novels.

L. Neil had never written anything set in a universe not of his own creation, but, as a professional writer who needed the money, he signed the contract and delivered the product on time and to specification.  Here is my review.

He has just posted an article on his publication, The Libertarian Enterprise, which provides the back-story to the origin and production of the Lando novels.  Apparently, some of his work has been deemed canonical and included in the recent Solo movie, but he does not get into the details apart from the invention of the game of sabacc.


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