04 August 2018

Stories of Futures to be Cautious in, and Pasts that Don’t Let Go

It’s been exactly five months since I posted a review. That mainly means laziness in writing reviews, not lack of stories to review.

Last year, when Smashwords had its annual sale in July, I picked up a lot of stories for free. The year before, I had done the same, but this time I was more cautious. I read the reviews and looked at the ratings. It wasn’t just the cover (ha ha, mostly I ignore covers of self-published books if they aren’t much to look at; a poor cover does not dissuade, though a good cover certainly attracts). It wasn’t just the blurb. It was the average rating, the number of ratings, and the actual reviews.

A good review certainly made me consider a download.

So, it’s time to pay back.

Each of these reviews will also be posted on smashwords. I’ve got about 37 to write, and I won’t necessarily remember all the stories from their names, so I might just reread all of them (heh heh). This means I need to have a quick way to do the reviews, while still doing justice. So here’s how I plan to do it:

Star rating. 1 to 5 stars, which mean: Awful, avoid; mediocre; tolerable; liked, enjoyable; terrific, recommended.

Synopsis: sub-categorisation and a wee bit about the story itself, so you can decide if it’s the kind of thing you like.

What’s good: I’ll mention plot, novelty, characterisation, lesson learned (if any), writing style.

What’s not good: Only if relevant, but things like poor grammar, weak plots, cliched language or plots will show up here.

So, let’s get to it. It’s in reverse order; the stories I read most recently first. The covers I found attractive are included here.

Science Fiction | Expressions of Freedom | Gareth Lewis

Star rating: 4 (enjoyable) ⭐⭐⭐⭐☆

Category: Will AI take over the world?

Synopsis: A curious journalist investigates rumours that all is not well with the foundations of democracy in a near-future world where everyone votes for everything, since it’s all technology-enabled via your personal AI.

What’s good: The protagonist is quirky and likeable. The villains are villainous without being demonic. The personal AIs and new tech are woven in neatly. Smooth writing, no hiccups.

What’s not good, if anything: A wee bit predictable.

You can find the story here. There is also a detailed review by Francis W Porretto there, which will tell you all you want to know about the story. Hat tip!

Science Fiction | Back Again (the short story) | Susan May

Star category: 5 (recommended) ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Category: Time travel, fate

Synopsis: A taut, breathless-speed story about a woman stuck in a time loop, reliving the death of her little boy, trying with all her soul to change the outcome. There are three main characters, the mother, the woman who runs over the boy while focused on texting rather than driving, and the presence of the boy which the reader and the other two are keenly aware of, but who remains oblivious through it all.

What’s good: Everything. Plot, characterisation, plot twists, writing quality, high emotion, suspense.

What’s not good, if anything: -

You can find the story here. It has many good reviews, and was subsequently expanded into a book (like Nightfall and Flowers for Algernon and other classics, it probably did equally well in a longer format, but I haven’t read that version).

Science Fiction | Beware the Well Fed Man | Chris Capps


Star category: 5 (recommended) ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐


Category: Post-apocalypse

Synopsis: In a world of municipal darwinism, where walking cities populated by the lucky are trailed by less-lucky camp-followers, and those who aren’t even camp-followers are preyed upon by bloodthirsty tribes of killers, a Mall falls from the sky and prepares to take in customers.

Ebon and his curious brother Crassus join a group of the most disadvantaged in converting the Plexis Shopping Centre to Home. Except that it’s not so simple. The nearest City wants to take over. Crassus learns more about how the mall works. Along with Thunfir (elected chief) and Euclid (a mathematical man whom only Crassus can barely keep up with) and other less savoury allies, they prepare to take the City on.

What’s good: A novel and thoroughly entertaining plot, high-tech post-apocalypse, weird social structures, weirder world views, nanotech, 3D printing, evil villains, cruel killers, friends and loyalty, heartbreaking choices, extreme capitalism. Crackling good SF, and the title is spot on.

What’s not good, if anything: I don’t have the next book! Waa!

Hat tip to Zachary Seibert’s excellent review. You can find it here.

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Enjoy! More soon.
More soon.

04 March 2018

Irony and time travel

Science Fiction | Time Travelers | Gary Kuyper

I like this set of five stories better than the other Gary Kuyper book I read. Gary Kuyper has a fine appreciation of irony as applied to time travel stories, and this comes out beautifully in the five short stories that comprise this book.

In What Goes Around, an angry inventor tries to outdo the villain who stole his concept and tech. Made to Order has a military R&D team trying to beat the enemy by grabbing tech from the future, and an equally desperate enemy. Latent Images has an inventor make version 2 of a technology for 3D movie spectacles, or is it? What's the man really up to?  A Mammoth Error has both mammoths and errors, and the tech team blissfully unaware. Frozen Assets is a macabre look at the super rich who just want to freeze themselves into a future where their investments will pay for medical cures for their present health issues.

All in all, a very enjoyable read. You can get it here, for free.

Detecting in the crimefree far future

Science Fiction | Grey Enigmas | Gareth Lewis

An excellent mystery, with proper clues, a sci fi world in which a detective is resurrected (from death? incarceration? virtuality?) and tasked with solving a murder which should not have been possible. Alex takes up the task with a cheerful and endearing lack of penitence which not only disarms us but the stubbornly pro-law and order Theresa Patel, the closest the crimeless future has to a detective. The introduction of mind-bending tech is done so deftly, you don't even mind when 'ghosts' come in. The tech is far-out but the motivations for murder are everyday and human.

The pace is excellent, the suspects plausible, the backstories clear enough, and the climax and ending sufficiently unpredictable to keep our interest.

Recommended for people who liked Altered Carbon more for its concepts than the violence and sex. You can get it here. Unbelievably, this excellent story comes for free!

Why do alien abductions happen? Is Govt involved?

Science fiction | Volition: An Extra-Terrestrial Incident | JD Lowes


A fairly standard alien abduction story. Actually, it's more about the interactions between two of the four friends involved in the first abduction (the youngest one, physically challenged, was abducted). There is lots of dialogue between them, much of which could be cheerfully cut in half, but which actually makes them into more than cardboard characters. There are also aliens, govt officials who ought to know better, a number of characters who appear and then don't do much, a dog and a grumpy cat (who is there just for lulz).


The aliens are in contact with govt agencies, and exchange tech in place of being allowed to abduct people. It's not clear why that is expected to make sense.

There is a lot of whee-magic! in the story. References to pop culture movies abound. The alien is a mix of omnipotence and ineptitude. The various agencies indulge in a lot of jargon-speak. The motivations of the bad guys are never clear. The motivations of the good guys are a bit better placed. There are astounding amounts of naivete, and very little plot tension, which makes for a fairly shallow story, though with TV-level special effects.

There are also spelling mistakes, I regret to say. Rappelling is not repelling.

However it gets 3 stars because, while not great, it's not a bad book and probably better than some of the potboilers that actually see the light of paperback sales. All in all, a reasonable lazy Sunday read when you have nothing better to do.

You can get it here.

19 February 2018

70s horror, not-so-SF, and fantasy

Horror, SF, Fantasy, Fanfic | You have been Murdered and other stories, Zero 'g', The Thief's Tale, The Girl with the Scarab Necklace | Andrew Kozma, Srujan Joshi, Lee Murray, Tyro Vogel

You can't get a more mixed bag than horror, SF and fantasy in the same post, unless you also add fanfic. This is also a mixed bag in terms of how much I liked each of them.


Let's start with You have been Murdered and other stories. A collection of weird stories that reminds me of 70s sci fi/horror, in a good kind of way. Story wise:


You have been murdered: as described in the synopsis above, the horror is in the need to show a smiling face despite life-shattering events.

Teller of tales: Heart-rending

Breach of contract: Funny in a macabre way, with urban mediocrity running straight up against rural high fantasy.

The trouble-men: Creepy and suitably end-of-the-world.

Recommended for those who like their horror a bit laid-back, a bit incomprehensible, and a bit thought-provoking (with shudders). 4 stars. Find it here.

Zero 'g' was a disappointment, because this is not my expectation of a sci fi story. This story has all the masala but none of the main ingredients.

I'm reviewing after only a few chapters, but you lost me at the earth losing gravity for no reason given, not even a mad fantasy reason. Gravity is to be replaced by Particle B, to be hauled from outer space. That's too banal and ... Hollywoodish.

That said, there is nothing objectionable about the story or the treatment. The writing is fairly taut, there are neither typos nor bad grammar nor bad editing. The characters are reasonably developed and decent humans. I just expected it to be more hard sci fi, which is my fault because the intro on this page is clear enough that the Earth is just sick and tired of humans. So, if that's your scene, have at it. Two stars.

The Thief's Tale is no longer available on smashwords. Lee Murray has come up with a neat little thief story mixing history, fantasy, and horror. A thief with new names for new capers (in alphabetical order) pulls off a heist of a Faberge Egg from the up-for-sale estate of a dead lady, in the teeth of opposition from an evil Mayor (also a thief, but more brazen and powerful). From then on, it's a race between the ancient curse and the Mayor. Which will get her first, or will she escape?

The Girl with the Scarab Necklace is a sweet fanfic from Tyro Vogel, which he used to call The Crimson Tide but has since renamed. Here are my old reviews of it, since I reread it this month and see no reason to change. You can get the book here

A wonderful story for all Dr Who fans, who (heh heh) love a good detective story with a solid plot. But wait, what are guys with these laser swords doing? The game is afoot, Watson.

I finished this story with a big grin on my face. Fun!

and

A tribute to Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who and Star Trek. If you like even one of these three, this is a book worth reading. What are you waiting for? It's even free. (You could buy some of Tyro Vogel's other books, though).

Strongly recommended.

So there you have it: Most good, some disappointing.

Near future wars

Science Fiction | War Stories from the Future | August Cole (ed)

The Atlantic Council Art of Future Warfare Project created in 2015 a book of science fiction, ostensibly "to shed the shackles which bind us to our current constructs and instead imagine things as they might be, for better or for worse," as Gen Dempsey says in the intro, "hope they make you think. Glean as many lessons as you can, but don’t blindly accept the authors’ conclusions. Challenge them. Wrestle with them. Refute them if you can. And build these insights into your mental arsenal so we can better understand how these evolutions—in some cases revolutions—of technology might affect our national security."

Pfft, say I. Read them as sci fi and review them the same. Hardly two stories made me think of how war would take place in the future, and I think they may already be outdated. So, here goes, story by story:

From a Remove by Alec Meden brings us a shadowy cyber group of 'sovereign citizens' who enforce the peace, at the point of space-based weapons platforms. Any of them could be your classmate sitting with you in a lecture, and controlling the drone spacecraft that protect the space reflectors set up to combat global warming, like Donya. But what if the nation states, displaced by the Sovs, chafe and plot revenge? Space opera, by all means.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 by Ken Liu. This story brings home how little the USA believes in international law except in its own understanding, though that's probably not what the author intended. An irritated presidential hopeful lets loose cyberterrorists, granted permission by the USA government as 'privateers', with not-so-well-anticipated consequences. Wish fulfilment, possibly.

A Stopped Clock by Madeline Ashby is a little love story set in the great cyber crash that afflicts future S Korea. A little rice and kimchi goes a long way to a return to barter when the entire cybergrid mysteriously goes down. This one is more pure story than thought experiment, and better for it.

A Visit to Weizenbaum by Jamie Metzl is a story of psychological support provided to soldiers manning the last line of defence, by an AI. It's also a chilling look at the kind of pressure a 'last line' faces, and how dehumanising such military demands can be, never mind the light touch and relatively innocuous problem the soldier brings.

ANTFARM by August Cole is one of the most future-war stories in the collection. The title of the story is the name of a flying 3D fabricator which produces custom bombs and drones to destroy designated human targets. The targets are validated by crowd-sourcing analysis from civilians back at home, who have rather strong views on how seriously their thumbs up or down should be taken. The pilot on the spot, though, feels he has to overrule them sometimes. That's a conflict entirely separate from the distant war of drones that most of us already know about at the current, less high-tech levels. This one is macabre in its opinion on what's just. One of the best in the book.

I normally read the story first, and then check the author but when you see that Linda Nagata wrote Codename: Delphi, you won't be surprised to find I thought this one of the strongest stories in the book, heartbreaking and eerily predictive. Delphi is the code name of a volunteer who makes extra money by taking a shift, sitting in the home country, monitoring the drones that gather on-ground intelligence for soldiers in the field, and giving them back-office support in real time. This is one of the stories that seems to be a likely prediction of the wars of the future. It's the stage between human-run wars and wars run by drones and AI.

The Exception That Proves the Rule by Mathew Burrows is based in near-future UK, with its ubiquitous surveillance, and shows how human failings break the best models. The story is about a predictive system to analyse everything from DNA to friends' networks to finger terrorists before they strike. It only needs one failure...

Coffee, Wi-Fi and the Moon
The unknown story of the greatest cyber war of them all by Nikolas Katsimpras starts with blank computer screens and the sound of typewriters in newsrooms, and walks us through a cyberwar that brings most nations to their knees. Like most near-future sci fi that predicts near future, it gets some things spectacularly wrong: Dick Cheney has comprehensively beaten the predicted death in 2016, Putin is still alive and Hillary Clinton is not the President of the USA. But it's not yet 2019... Nope, I see no chance of this story being real in any way.

A Need for Heroes by David Brin has a war in Central Europe in its past, and the big military targets being ... poachers. UNEPA is the glam group that mere UN soldiers aspire to. This is still a story of the camaraderie, cowardice and courage that form most soldiers' real life experiences, not really predictive in any sense.

Another Day of Infamy by Ashley Henley is a future declaration of war, bland and scary in its almost stereotyped phrases. I don't forgive it for the acronym of the Federation Alliance of Socialist, Communist, and Islamic State Members. I suspect the writer giggled his way through 1000 words on that basis alone. Nope, buddy, no forgiveness.

All in all, mostly good stories, three good pieces of art inside the covers, and a few gems. You can get it for free here.