This is a hard science-fiction novel about an expedition to settle on Mars in the year 2075. The novel begins on a dystopian Earth, where society is collapsing and the super-rich leaders of large corporations live sheltered lives, away from the rest of the desperate populations.

David Gill is head of a food production company, and is enlisted by his business partner, Robbie Newall, to join the mission to Mars. Gill and Newall are incredibly badly-suited to working together, however–Gill is an honest engineer, while Newall is more of a businessman. And not an ethical one, either. He’s always hatching increasingly complicated schemes to enrich himself through morally-dubious means. This is a constant source of tension between the two.

Because the venture includes multiple corporations, as well as the military leadership, there are all sorts of factions jockeying for power on the newly-settled planet. Gill, who has something of the Heinlein hero about him, constantly finds himself getting involved in these power struggles, even as though he really cares about is getting his settlement up and running. It reminded me a little of Pat Prescott’s Fan Plan books, where industry power struggles don’t stop just because of extremely harsh environmental threats.

I have to admit, at times I struggled to follow all the different schemes and corporate machinations. That’s not to say they were poorly written–in fact, I suspect the author gave them a great deal of thought–but dammit, Jim, I’m a writer, not a businessman! If I understood how to make a killing by floating junk bonds… well, I dunno what I’d do. But the point is, I don’t.

There are definitely some moments when I got a strong feeling that I was just not smart enough to understand this book. In addition to the business wheeling-and-dealing, there are long passages of heavy science, as one might expect in a novel about settling Mars. These are, again, well-written, but a lot of it was over my head.

Even with all that said, I enjoyed this book. There are still plenty of action scenes and interesting plot twists to keep an uninformed reader like me interested. If I have a criticism, it’s that the characters tolerated Newall’s increasingly outrageous behavior way too long. In an environment like this, I find it hard to imagine people would put up with the things he does.

Actually, that’s an overarching issue: characters would feud, apologize, then feud again. It seemed sometimes like they just… didn’t remember things. It wasn’t a lack of continuity, exactly–the plot is actually pretty tight–but it was odd. People didn’t have the emotions that one would expect them to. But they weren’t bad characters; don’t think I’m saying that. Besides Gill, I especially liked the expedition’s commander Adrienne Shepherd, the clueless empty corporate suit Graeme Cherrington, and the plucky anti-corporation pilot Jacqui.

Part of it is, it’s a long book, with a ton of world-building and huge scientific concepts throughout. At times I found it hard to picture what was going on, but that’s understandable given the sheer scope of the setting and the amount of technical description involved.

This review sounds more negative than it should. Because despite all the ways I struggled with it, I really liked this book. It reminded me of some of the cult-classic video games of the late ’90s, where the ambition of the designers exceeded the technical capabilities of game machines. The result is sometimes a bit clunky, but that shouldn’t detract from the sheer scope of the story that is being told.

I was hooked on the story and couldn’t wait to find out how it would all end. There’s so much information here, it can be a little bit overwhelming at times, but it’s also an incredibly daring attempt at a thriller set in a plausible, carefully thought-out Martian colony. It’s a big time investment, but it’s worth it.

They say not to judge a book by its cover. In general, this is probably good advice. But when the author of the book is also a gifted painter who creates his own covers, I believe it is necessary to make an exception to this rule. For in this case, the cover is not just some bit of packaging a publisher slapped on the text; it is the product of the same imagination that created the world of the story.

Look at this cover! What does it evoke to you? A fantastic rock formation, perhaps? I encourage you to think for a moment about this before you read on.

It is a “Martian castle,” which is a term for the abandoned grain elevators of a terraformed Mars in the distant future Litka imagines. Most interesting to me is Litka’s description, where he says he envisions his futuristic Mars as being like Nebraska. I love this idea. 

Don’t you feel a little as if you’re gazing at it across some open plain, where the chilly breeze whips against you and the weak light of the sun–paler than on our own planet–throws blue shadows down across the barren desolation? You can almost hear the echoing horn of the train at the elevator’s base as it rolls along.

At least, I can. Maybe I’m biased, because I grew up in a rural midwestern town where the biggest landmark was a grain elevator with a railway beside it. The Mars of this book is a Mars that I can easily relate to.

On to the text itself: the book’s protagonist, Gy Mons, has awakened after some 700 years of stasis in a Martian facility. While he and his wife, Keiree Tulla, had slumbered in their pods, a plague devastated the solar system, more or less wiping out colonies on Earth and the Jovian moons.

Gy soon learns that Keiree’s pod was stored elsewhere, and so she was not awakened along with his group. So he–and his genetically modified silka cat, Molly–set off to find her, at every step discovering how Mars has changed while he was in stasis.

There’s a fascinating temporal parallax that occurs for Gy as he searches his and Keiree’s old neighborhoods on Mars. For him, it feels as though it’s only been a few weeks since he’s been in these places, though in fact centuries have elapsed. If you’ve ever come back to your old hometown after being away for years, imagine that, only multiplied by 700.

This book is, obviously from the setting, sci-fi. And yet, I’d say it’s really what is often called “literary fiction.” As I read it, I kept thinking of Mark Paxson’s novella The Irrepairable Past, which is not at all sci-fi, but which also deals with someone reflecting on bittersweet memories. Both books are about something deep in the human psyche, and Keiree feels every bit as emotionally relevant and powerful as if it were set on present-day Earth.

This is why I dislike the distinction between literary and genre fiction. We write books to make people feel a certain way. Whether they are set in the distant past, the present-day, or an imagined future, is secondary to their true purpose of evoking a feeling in the reader. And Keiree does evoke many feelings. So what if these characters are living on Mars, many centuries from now? They are still people, and Litka treats them as such.

Well, except of course Molly, who is a cat. A genetically-modified one, but in ways that if anything only accentuate her fundamental “cat-ness.” Anyone who ever owned a cat will know instantly what I mean.

Keiree is a wonderful novella, and I recommend it highly. Everyone, whether they like sci-fi or not, should go visit Litka’s gorgeous vision of Mars.

Okay, I cheated a little on my plan to broaden my reading horizons this month. This is a science fiction book, which is very much my standard fare. But it’s also a romance; trust me! And it’s something of a milestone because it’s the first book I’ve ever bought because of an ad. For years I’ve seen a link to it on the Amazon page for one of my books. So when I needed to find another romance book, I decided to give this one a try. And I’m glad I did.

The setting is Union Station, a sort of hub space station where races from all across the universe meet. (I kept picturing the Citadel presidium from the Mass Effect series.) The station is run by super-intelligent artificial intelligence beings known as the Stryx, who monitor everything and generally keep order.

The Stryx also run a dating service, which purports to be able to find the perfect match for someone due to the telepathic abilities of the intelligence. Kelly Frank, the EarthCent ambassador, who receives a gift subscription to the Stryx’s matchmaking service.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well as she hopes–Kelly ends up having a series of bad dates, some of which lead to bizarre adventures, but none of which result in her finding a good partner.

Much the same story holds for Joe McAllister, a former mercenary spacer turned junk dealer who has also decided to take advantage of the dating service. He too has quite a range of experiences–but he just can’t seem to find that special someone.

You can probably guess where this is going, but it’s still an enjoyable ride, thanks largely to Foner’s first-rate world-building. Kelly and Joe’s bad dates show us glimpses of the wider universe–and what a rich universe it is, populated by all kinds of interesting characters. There’s a royal house in need of a champion, a criminal kidnapping ring, and robot trying to pass itself off as human. Then there are the subplots involving cheating at competitive gaming, a couple of flower girls profiting off of the dating scene, and a bazaar teeming with counterfeit goods.

All of it feels so organic and interesting–not to mention really funny. It’s a lighthearted book, and each vignette ends on an amusing note. There’s plenty of conflict, but of the purely PG-rated variety. There’s nothing too dark here; it’s a romp.

Sci-fi fans should absolutely check this book out. Even if you’re not into romance, don’t worry–there’s a lot more going on here. I have only one complaint about this book, which is that the last chapter felt a bit rushed. I would have liked to see it come to a more leisurely conclusion. But hey, if your biggest complaint is that the ride ended too soon, you know it’s good.

Admittedly, I’m late to the party on this one. This book has over a thousand reviews, so it’s fairly well known, as such an enjoyable book deserves to be. Perhaps it’s proving me wrong about ads after all.

I’m not sure where to begin with this book. Perhaps a good way to start would be to define what kind of book it is, but you see, there are layers to it. You could approach it in a number of different ways.

One avenue would be to say it’s a romance. The protagonist, Dr. Alasandr Say, is in love with a fellow physicist named Penny. Only that’s not the romance. That’s backstory. Dr. Say goes to a remote village in Scotland as his first post-doctoral research assignment. He has been hired by the foul-tempered Lord Learmonte to transcribe notes taken by an ancestor of the latter, a mysterious scientist whose own research produced a number of bizarre results.

You see though, already I’m getting off-track, because I haven’t gotten to the romance part. Dr. Say strikes up a friendship with Nesta, Lord Learmonte’s daughter, who is being pressured by her father into an arranged marriage with an old family friend.

It’s a classic Victorian romance, or comedy of manners–a drama about engagements made for reasons of family business competing with the desires of the heart. It’s full of well-mannered upper-class society folks holding gatherings, with ladies in dresses and men in suits, all set against the backdrop of a dreamy glen in Scotland. Dr. Say even gallantly assists Nesta after she falls into a river, in a scene straight out of Victorian literature that is charming in its modesty.

Except… it’s not set in the 1800s.  Rather, it takes place in a future where much of modern technology has been rendered useless by sun-storms–bursts of energy from the sun that wrought catastrophic damage on the modern world, which is still recovering. The reason for the revival of the old-time fashions is to cover people’s skin against the powerful solar rays. This is retro-futuristic world-building at its finest.

And what is Dr. Say researching, exactly, while on his romantic summer retreat into a dreamy wilderness? It has something to do with the powerful electrical storms that well up nightly, originating from the site of Lord Learmonte’s ancestor’s laboratory. Storms which may be somehow connected to the solar anomalies of decades past, and which local superstition maintains are connected with supernatural forces–such as the glowing will-o’-the-wisps that appear late at night, known as the “Riders” from the “Otherworld.”

You see? I told you this book had layers. Sometimes I felt like I was reading Austen or even Wodehouse; other times it felt closer to something by Jeff Vandermeer.  The closest analogue I can think of is Sheila Hurst’s Ocean Echoes, a book that combined interpersonal drama with scientific research and a dash of pure magical fantasy. Not many books give you romance, magic, mystery, and glimpses into the politics of scientific research funding, but Ocean Echoes does, and A Summer in Amber does too.

I could go on more about how much I enjoyed this book, but it seems better to let you discover the mysteries and bewitching atmosphere of Glen Lonon and Maig Glen for yourself. It’s a marvelous place. Be sure to check out some of the supplemental material, such as maps etc., on the author’s blog.

This is a cover for a 1980 edition. There are many like it–and many un-like it–but this one is my favorite.

Starship Troopers is a famous book, with a profound influence on modern science fiction. It’s one of the earliest known appearances of powered armor in fiction, elements of its setting can be seen in countless other science-fiction works about humans battling alien insects, and it was the basis for a cult-classic movie franchise.

The book is told in first person by Juan “Johnny” Rico, a soldier in the Mobile Infantry. It begins with Rico and his platoon attacking an enemy planet, then flashes back to when Rico joined the military, over the objections of his father.

Rico details all the details of basic training, as the drill sergeants mold the recruits into a fighting force. Occasionally, he flashes further back to his high school class in “History and Moral Philosophy,” taught by a retired officer, Lt. Colonel Dubois.

Throughout the book, Rico reflects on Dubois’ lectures. And why is that? Well, we’ll talk about that later.

Eventually, Rico graduates and joins the war against the bugs. His mother is killed by a bug attack on Buenos Aires, a devastating attack which mobilizes Terran forces against the bugs, and Rico soon ships out to attack Klendathu as part of the formidable unit “Rasczak’s Roughnecks.”

Ultimately, Rico becomes an officer and, after another daring raid to capture a “brain bug,” becomes an officer and commander of “Rico’s Roughnecks.”

There really isn’t that much sci-fi stuff in the book. Apart from a few episodes of high-tech infantry attacks against the bugs at the beginning and the end, you’d barely notice the book is set in the future. It’s mostly about military basic training. My father was in the army and trained at West Point, and the descriptions don’t seem much different from the stories he’s told me.

So why did Heinlein even bother setting it in the future, if we’re only going to get a few pages of power-armored spacemen fighting overgrown bugs and lots and lots of “history and moral philosophy”?

Heinlein was a fervent anti-communist, and it is widely believed that he chose insects for the antagonists because they represented a collectivist society taken to an extreme. The bugs care nothing for individuals; indeed, they frequently are willing to sacrifice hundreds of “workers” in order to kill just a few humans. The centrally-coordinated, anti-individualist bug society is meant to represent communism in its most extreme form.

Here is where things get strange. Much of the book is dedicated to showing Rico and his comrades being molded into a cohesive fighting unit–a hierarchical structure where soldiers follow orders from their superiors unquestioningly, the chain of command is respected, and if necessary, soldiers sacrifice themselves to defend society.

Doesn’t that sound awfully… I don’t know… collectivist to you? It does to me. But now I’m confused. Rico and his men are the good guys, and the bugs are the bad guys, and both are collectivist. I’m not saying they’re the same, but it’s a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind as far as I can see. What’s going on here, Heinlein? Make up your mind if we’re supposed to be for collectivism or against it!

Well, there’s more to this story. But first, it occurs to me I’d better apologize to new readers coming to this as part of Little Red Reviewer’s Vintage Science Fiction Month. You probably are used to normal, sane people who review a book by talking about the plot, the characters, and saying what they did and didn’t like. (For a long list of VSFM posts, written by competent and focused reviewers unlike yours truly, see here.) I have a tendency to write long, rambling reviews that go off on tangents, and I daresay this particular book only encourages me. If you want the TL;DR version, it’s this: I didn’t especially like the book as a novel–I found it too didactic, with not enough actual plot to liven it up. That said, it is interesting, and worth reading nevertheless.  But to find out why I think it’s interesting, I’m afraid you’ll have to be subjected to more of my idiosyncratic review style…

Check out the Wikipedia page on Starship Troopers. You’ll see in the contents a section called “Allegations of fascism.” You can read the section if you want, although it really tells you nothing beyond what the title conveys–the fact that some people alleged the book was promoting fascism.

That’s a serious allegation! And maybe it’s the answer to our question. After all, 20th-century fascism was another totalitarian ideology that competed with communism. And when I say “competed” I mean “fought bloody wars against.” Between them, these two ideologies are responsible for death and destruction on a mind-numbing scale.

But you’ll notice I specifically mentioned 20th-century fascism, as formulated by Mussolini. But that was more of a darker take on the nationalism of Garibaldi, wedded to some concepts borrowed from 20th century socialism. We must dig deeper still.

The name “fascism” comes from the fasces, a symbol of wooden rods bound together, which shows up in all sorts of surprising places across the globe. The fasces symbolized power in Ancient Rome, and if there’s one tradition Heinlein seems to be modeling his futuristic society on, it’s the values of the Roman Republic.

It’s time to talk about Lt. Col. Dubois, as promised. Here he is replying to a student who has just said that “violence never solves anything”:

“I’m sure the city fathers of Carthage would be glad to know that… Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and their freedoms.”

Wow! Whatever they’re teaching in that Moral Philosophy class, it probably ain’t pacifism, is it? No wonder it got Rico so excited to join up, even over his father’s objections.

Well, that and another reason. Sorry if I buried the lede here, but in the society of Starship Troopers, you only become a full citizen by serving in the military. In other words, you have to complete basic training and fulfill a term of service in order to be able to vote. And why is this? Dubois explains:

“There is an old song which asserts that ‘the best things in life are free’… This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted… and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears…

The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion . . . and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself — ultimate cost for perfect value.”

The goal of Heinlein’s society is cultivating civic virtue. (Much like the fasces, the words “civic” and “virtue” both come from Latin.)  The idea is that people who have paid a heavy price to wield authority will use it judiciously and wisely. Thus, restricting citizenship only to those willing to fight and die in the defense of society.

Is this fascism, as we understand it today?

Not quite, I don’t think. I don’t believe a society governed by the votes of military veterans is inherently fascist. That said, you can see the potential for it to turn into something a lot like fascism. The Freikorps weren’t all Nazis, by any means, but you can see how easily the former can produce the latter.

Of course, a society in which only military veterans can vote will be much more militaristic than one where everyone can vote. That goes without saying. And militarism, while possibly not the most collectivist society imaginable, is certainly not friendly to ultra-individualism either.

To an ultra-individualist, anything that’s less individualistic than their own ideals looks like some form of creeping collectivism, whether fascist or communist or whatever. Judged by the standards of 2020s America, 1930s America looks pretty collectivist. For example: a huge national service program in which people perform manual labor sounds pretty weird to us, but FDR pulled it off with some good results.

There are some problems–such as alien bug attacks and highly contagious viruses–which require collective action to solve. A certain amount of civic virtue is needed to meet such emergencies, which is why the society Heinlein envisioned is so militaristic.

That is, what we see of it, which admittedly isn’t much. Actually, one of my problems with the book is the lack of description of the wider world outside the Mobile Infantry. Rico’s father does some sort of business, but other than that, details about the economy are vague. Even the government itself is unclear. Veterans vote, but what do they vote on? Do they vote directly for policies, or for representative candidates? Who, in short, is driving this bus?

Starship Troopers isn’t the sort of pulse-pounding action-adventure novel its name suggests. Actually, it’s a philosophical novel about society and government. Given that, it would have been nice to see a bit more of both. But it’s also intended as a tribute to, as Heinlein puts it, “the bloody infantry, the doughboy, the duckfoot, the foot soldier who goes where the enemy is and takes them on in person.”

And certainly, anyone who does a job requiring discipline and sacrifice is deserving of praise. DuBois’ speech above relates to something I’ve been musing about lately: in wealthy societies, where options for entertainment and leisure abound, people easily can forget about the dignity and respect afforded to those who do the hard jobs that keep society running. But it is, and always will be, noble to forgo pleasure to do something good. And the more opportunities for pleasure there are, the nobler forgoing them will be.

In that regard, Starship Troopers certainly offers plenty of food for thought, and it’s easy to see why Heinlein chose to put such an austere message in the form of a science-fiction story, at a time when the United States, as a prosperous superpower, was beginning to focus on the possibility of traveling into space. As President Kennedy said in 1962, three years after the publication of Starship Troopers:

“There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? 

…We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

“Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” There’s a political rallying cry for you! Sadly, there is always the danger that “Can’t Someone Else Do It?” will be competing with it…

Anyway, Starship Troopers is definitely a worthwhile book, not only for its status as a hugely influential work of science-fiction, but also as an insight into the mindset of the Cold War.

Dune-Frank_Herbert_(1965)_First_edition
There are many different covers for Dune, none of them totally adequate, IMO. This is a good image, but the fonts… ugh.

Dune is such a weird book. As almost everyone knows, it’s about a young nobleman named Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto and Lady Jessica, who are taking control of the barren desert planet Arrakis.

Almost immediately, they are faced with political machinations among various factions, including the rival House of Harkonnen, the smugglers of valuable spice that can be found only on Arrakis, the natives of the planet–the mysterious Fremen, a reclusive desert people–and the Bene Gesserit, a mystical order of witches, of which Jessica herself is a member.

Early on, I was struck by how likable many of the characters are. Duke Leto and Lady Jessica are genuinely in love with each other and care about ruling well and raising their son. Paul’s mentors, including Gurney Halleck, Duncan Idaho and Thufir Hawat all are earnest loyal members of House Atreides. I feel like many modern stories would go right for the grimdark by having everyone be a jerk. But in Dune, there’s only one character who is obviously evil right from the start, and that’s Baron Harkonnen.

Of course, he is successful in his scheming against House Atreides, and quickly ends the Duke’s reign, forcing Paul and his mother to flee into the desert wilderness of Arrakis. And an inhospitable world it is–an endless sea of sand, populated by the monstrous worms that seethe beneath its surface.

Paul and Jessica soon make contact with the Fremen, the indigenous tribe who, thanks to Bene Gesserit of a bygone era, believe Paul to be a messianic figure. This is helped by the fact he has all sorts of strange second-sight abilities as a result of a Bene Gesserit breeding program designed to produce the Kwisatz Haderach, which means “the one who can be many places at once” or, in the language of fictional tropes, “the chosen one.”

Yes, this is a “our-hero-is-the-chosen-one-from-the-prohecy” story. Normally, I can’t stand those, but I’ll give Herbert credit, he manages to do it in a way that pretty much works. Part of that is just due to the obvious care and effort he put in to building every aspect of this world–each character, each faction, is carefully described and thought out, all with their own motives and plans. Herbert clearly put a lot of work into the worldbuilding here, which is maybe why there are so many scenes of Paul and Jessica having hallucinogenic experiences where they glimpse different possible futures–there are any number of ways this story could go at any moment.

Speaking of Jessica, I really liked her. She’s a good mother, a good wife, and a brilliant strategist and a genius at political maneuvering. Classic science fiction is not necessarily a genre where you find a lot of strong, believable female characters, but Jessica is certainly that.

Most of the characters are very good–in fact, if there’s a weak link, it’s Paul himself. His mind is so weird that he can be a little hard to relate to at times. I guess that’s the idea, since he has achieved some sort of near-omniscient consciousness.

It’s not news to observe that Paul is clearly modeled on T.E. Lawrence, an Englishman who led Bedouin guerrilla forces against the Ottoman Empire in World War I, and who had quite a complex psyche himself. Dune is loaded with quasi-Islamic terms and concepts, and it seems quite likely that Herbert was influenced by Lawrence’s portrait of the culture depicted in his memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. (Paul Atreides is referenced as writing a book called “The Pillars of the Universe” in Dune.)

Lawrence was also the subject of the film Lawrence of Arabia, which was released to near-universal acclaim three years before Herbert published Dune. I can’t imagine it didn’t influence him. I even wonder if the idea of the effect spice has on people’s eye color was inspired by Peter O’Toole’s baby blues in the film. 

The big difference is that Paul’s revolution succeeds, and he ultimately brings both the House of Harkonnen and even the Emperor himself to their knees, forcing the Great Powers to bargain with him. T.E. Lawrence, um, didn’t. I think Lawrence’s story is actually more dramatic, but Herbert was telling a mythopoetic saga in the grand tradition of heroic legend. The Hero with a Thousand Faces can’t be overruled by the Politician with Only Two, even if that is more true to life.

Dune totally follows the path laid out in Joseph Campbell’s book. It’s practically the archetypical heroic myth. Small wonder the book has had such influence. The desert world, with its “spice” and its “sandcrawlers” and its “dew collectors.” Not to mention its quasi-religious order of people with superhuman powers… it all reminds me of something. Hmm, what could it be?

Yeah, the Tatooine portion of the original Star Wars has some serious overlap with Dune. I’ve even heard it said that the Krayt dragon skeleton C-3PO sees is meant to resemble a sandworm. I’m not so sure about that (worms wouldn’t have endoskeletons.), but there’s no doubt somebody had Dune on their mind while making Star Wars.

I’d argue that The Phantom Menace is also weirdly like Dune. It’s about a young ruler who loses their throne thanks to the machinations of a sinister trade guild, flees to a harsh desert world, develops a keen head for political and military maneuvering, and leads an army of indigenous warriors to take back their throne.  Yes, Padmé Amidala is the female Paul Atreides. They even have the same initials! And here they thought some kid who could drive fast cars was the Chosen One.

All right, I’ll quit re-litigating The Phantom Menace. (For now.) The point is, Dune had a massive influence on the world of science fiction and fantasy. It’s weird, but here at Ruined Chapel, we like weird. Like Paul Graham, we believe that good design is strange. This is why you can’t have strict rules for writing. As I discussed with Mark Paxson a while back, Dune breaks writing rules, and well it should, because it is in service of creating a memorable world and telling an interesting story.

This is a collection of short speculative fiction stories that deal with complex concepts–the existence of God, the nature of reality, human relationships–as approached by everyday people. Goats has a knack for writing characters who are instantly relatable. Although this is in many ways a stylistic departure from his earlier books, which are primarily comic novels and crime thrillers, the thing they all have in common is the intelligent and humane voice of the narrator.

Even in “Snowlight,” which is one of my favorite short stories ever, and is probably the darkest one in the collection, the protagonist has a basic decency and pathos to him that makes the reader sympathetic, even when he does something that is objectively quite shocking. The characters always feel like humans–even when they’re not. There is a religious robot in one story, and a man who thinks everybody is a robot in another. Philosophy and humor are mixed frequently; as in the case of Zetoxis the philosopher, of whom it is said, “the wise man and the fool reside in the same body.”

Many of the stories suggest a moral or logical question for the reader to ponder. Some of them just let you look at the world in a different way through revolutionary technology, as in “Sentenced to Hard Empathy,” or “The Big Punch-Out,” the latter of which creates a dystopian world reminiscent of the imaginings of early 20th-century futurists. Sometimes this is blended with satire, most notably in “The Obscurators.”

The longest stories, “Alone” and “Fact of Existence” present concepts that could fill whole novels. “Alone” reminded me of John Brunner’s novel Total Eclipse with its depiction of being stranded on a desolate alien world. “Fact of Existence” is a fascinating exploration of consciousness and religion, in the context of a science-fiction mystery. This is everything that science fiction should be–a great story that gives the reader something to ponder. The whole collection is like that, as Goats riffs on the same themes from a variety of different perspectives.

The only problem I have with this book is a purely technical one specific to the Kindle version. It has no table of contents. That’s not a big deal in a novel or novella, but in an ebook of short stories, it’s a hassle to have to scroll through it to find the one you want. As a workaround, I bookmarked the start of each story. Yes, I’m lazy. What can I say?

Still, it’s a small price for being able to read these stories. And we are lucky to be able to read them, for as Goats explains in his afterword, all but “The Big Punch-Out” were rejected for publication. This lack of taste on the part of literary website editors is to our advantage, as these tales might have ended up scattered behind a Balkanized array of paywalls. But you can get them all, now, for $0.99. (Or if you don’t want to deal with the ToC issue alluded to above, it’s worth it to spring for the paperback version.)

I highly recommend this book. I could go on about all the reasons why, but it’s really best if you just go check it out and lose yourself in a world of madmen, robots, wanderers and philosophers, all with different ways of looking at the universe and its mysteries.

GossamerThis is the sequel to The Gossamer Globe, which I reviewed here. It’s a fantastic book, and I’ll keep the plot synopsis to a minimum because I would not want to spoil the first book. Gossamer Power follows Lucia, Kailani, Ms. Battenbox, Jevan and other characters from Globe, as well as introducing some terrific new ones, including the handsome Sebastian, who is irresistibly fascinating to almost everyone, and a character known simply as “Glorious Leader” or to use his full name, “Oh Great Glorious Leader.”

All the things I loved about the first book are present here as well: the humor, the sword-fighting, the political intrigue. I was worried this installment wouldn’t live up to the high bar set by the first, but I enjoyed this one almost as much. I say “almost” because this one ends on a cliffhanger, so it doesn’t have a totally satisfying ending. Tonally, it’s definitely The Empire Strikes Back to Gossamer Globe’s A New Hope. 

So much of what makes these books wonderful are the little things, as in when, on having traveled by airship to his native land, the Glorious Leader shows Jevan and Lucia the flying carriages of his home, commenting that the people who clamored for them had no “regard for the fact that an airship is, essentially, a flying carriage. They already existed.” And indeed, how many times have you heard people talk about not having flying cars when in fact that’s basically what an airplane is?

The book is full of little moments like this. Ms. Battenbox isn’t in it much, which is kind of a pity, since she was one of my favorites from the first book, but her keen mind for strategy and her biting wit are still in evidence during her few scenes. At one point, she remarks, “There are many state secrets this sham government will never know about… How stupid are you commoners to think you could imprison me in it?”

In addition to being a bawdy, swashbuckling adventure, Gossamer Power, like its predecessor, is also a clever satire, touching on everything from the “Internet of Things” to the modern surveillance state. Like any good fantasy, for all its outlandish elements, there are some things that really ring true.

It’s a worthy sequel, and I can’t wait for the next one!

Colors of the DeadI picked this book up after Kevin Brennan blogged about it. I assumed it was about a planet of zombies or something. I don’t like zombie stories much, but I figured I’d give it a whirl.

My initial impression was kind of off. I was picturing explorers being chased by zombies on a remote planet, and that’s not exactly what happens. There are space explorers, and there are zombies, and there is a remote planet… but it all combines in a surprising and interesting way.

What really stands out to me about this book are the characters: the space explorer Derek Rain, leading an expedition to the distant world of Draconis IV. His girlfriend Lydia Torch back on Earth, trying to cope with the guilt she feels after surviving a horrific space exploration accident of her own. A young orphan boy named Kito being raised by nuns. Prisha, the sister of one of Rain’s expeditionary crew, stuck back on Earth caring for her elderly mother.

Each of these characters’ threads gradually draw together, beginning with Rain and his crew making an unsettling discovery on Draconis IV. Soon, apocalyptic events begin to erupt back on Earth. I wasn’t entirely off-base with my assumptions about this book, and there are some gory zombie apocalypse scenes. There are really two different styles of horror here: the undead-armageddon scenes on Earth and the Alien-esque sense of isolated dread on Draconis IV. There’s also another sequence in the desolate badlands of Earth that has a vaguely Mad Max feel to it. 

The plot is perfectly-paced, with tension escalating in every chapter, and the different strands of the story are expertly balanced. I could picture the action unfolding as I read, and I found myself feeling almost as though I were watching a movie. 

Without spoiling too much, I’ll just say the ending struck just the right note–a satisfying resolution that also leaves the reader pondering what comes next. And it even raises some existential and philosophical questions to think on, in the vein of classic Arthur C. Clarke-style sci-fi.

Now, as I said, I’m not a huge fan of the zombie genre in general, and some of the violent and gory scenes I could have lived without. Not that they were bad; just not to my taste. But the story and characters were so good I could deal with it. And fans of that brand of horror will undoubtedly find this story a real treat. 

Simply put, this is a fantastic book. It has great characters and a magnificently constructed plot. Fans of horror, science-fiction and action-adventure alike can all find plenty to enjoy here. It deserves to be widely-read, and frankly, I’d love to see it adapted for the screen. In addition to Alien and Mad Max, it also had parts that evoked Predator, Jurassic Park, Annihilation and The Mummy. It’s an absolute masterpiece of sci-fi horror.

Bird of PreyReviewing a sequel is always difficult, because the deeper I get into a series, the more spoilers from previous books there are that I have to be careful not to reveal in summarizing the plot of the latest installment. I won’t dwell too much on plot elements here. Let it suffice to say that Capt. Robbin Nikalishin is sufficiently recovered from the trauma in his past that he embarks on a new chapter in his life, but one that brings with it new challenges.

Taylor’s world-building continues to be first-rate—I particularly enjoyed her depiction of the Martian colony and the delightful term she uses for the Red Planet’s settlers: “humartians.” The sprawling world is rich with plenty of detail and a huge cast of supporting characters.

There are more philosophical asides in this book than in earlier installments—commentary from the narrator on the protagonist’s highly questionable and emotional decision-making. This is more of a romance than the previous ones. Maybe “romance” isn’t quite the term—it’s a true biographical novel, as the subtitle implies. As I was reading it, I realized that in many ways it’s a throwback to an older style of novel: the long, winding sort of tale popular in the Victorian era. Except, of course, set in the 28th century.

There’s a hint of spirituality woven in, too—as in one scene where Nikalishin and a character by the name of Fedaylia High Feather speak with a priest—or “prayst,” as he is called in the Eirish dialect. It’s a powerful scene, and reveals a lot about the characters. I won’t say much about Fedaylia High Feather. How can you resist wanting to meet a character with a name like that for yourself, eh? But I will say this: I think it’s interesting that we are informed she was born on April 30, a date which followers of this blog may recognize as the semi-obscure holiday of Walpurgis night, a sort of Spring equivalent of Halloween. And Nikalishin, of course, was born on Halloween itself. Whether the author had this in mind when choosing these dates, I don’t know, but I thought it was interesting.

As previously, Nikalishin’s pathetic inability to form normal relationships with women continues to be a problem for him, and made me want to shout “Oh, grow up, man!” And to be clear, this is a criticism of the character, not of the writing.  Taylor succeeds quite well in crafting a careful portrait of Nikalishin’s extremely irregular psychology. 

I would love to talk at length about all these peculiarities of Nikalishin’s, as well many other things, but the fact is, more people need to read these books first, and I won’t risk spoiling them for others by discussing details here, when there is a very real chance this may be the first time some readers learn of their existence. The world of The Man Who Found Birds Among The Stars is one that more science fiction lovers need to discover for themselves.