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!


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.

17 February 2018

Should we design ant-monkeys to do our dirty work?

Science fiction | Orussian Quarantine | Rob J Meijer

This is a story we are told, not shown, a bit in the fashion of Doris Lessing's sci fi (unfortunately, I don't like that style, so this is not a compliment). There are a lot of clever acronyms, but the technology and planet are finally given short shrift. Characters are introduced in detail about their looks and position, but then they don't seem to do anything. The Orus star system is covered in bewildering detail, lots of planets with names and alternative names, but then nothing else, really.

And when a 'water world' turns out to be nothing more or less than a giant fish tank, I just gave up. That's not how water worlds are. There are other physical impossibilities, too. Sometimes, you forgive them if the rest of the story carries you with it, say, emotionally or with a moral question. There is a moral question or two, but it's skirted and never tackled.

Should we design ant-monkeys to do our dirty work? How should we ensure safety for the ant-monkeys, their handlers, and the rest of the world?

Sorry, Rob J Meijer, it's a lot of detail, as if a bigger story is about to jump out at you, but it never does. There isn't any character whom I can remember, just two days later. A potentially nice concept, but it didn't get a good treatment.

You can read it here if you like Doris Lessing style writing.

Horror at the North Pole, somewhere in frozen Greeenland

Horror | North Pole: A Horror Story | Edward Punales

This is the kind of story that makes you regret having liberally given 5 stars to other stories, and wish for the ability to give 6 stars. (And no, I have not lost my mind with the heading; I know that the 'real' North Pole is not in Greenland. But this heading is accurate. If you read the story, you will understand why and how).

An exceptional treatment solidly in the middle of the horror genre and What A Concept. Full marks for concept, language, editing, pace, build up, climax and post-climax, and ending. A classic piece of horror fiction.

A military doctor, recently bereaved and feeling a numbed apathy to life, agrees dutifully and promptly to a trip in advance of a snowstorm in Greenland, to respond to an SOS from a location where no research group, military base or civilian settlement has been known. All that is known to be around there are tales of UFOs spotted but not quite. The soldier and the doctor set off in their sturdy truck and reach a strange mansion, decayed and foreboding, where no mansion should be. Anything that I write further to this will be a spoiler, so all I will say is that the SOS-sender is also bereaved, but in a more sinister way. After disarming you charmingly, the story whips you back to horror, which grows slowly and relentlessly and does not spare you.

Awesome, Edward Punales, awesome! Worth every one of the 5 stars.

Get it here.

15 February 2018

Quick Sunday reads: more sci fi short stories

Science fiction shorts

Chemical creatures | Gary Kuyper

We have here a depressive with blackout episodes and an alien with a humble task at which he/it hopes to excel and get promoted. There are chemicals involved and a weird kind of salvation for the depressive. The bit focussed on the depressive is very very chemical and the bit about the alien is a little funny and a bit of a surprise. The best part is the description of Cape Town.

It's neat, but not really my type. You can read it here.

Beyond: Space Opera | Milo James Fowler

This is a collection of shorts, which I'm taking one by one:

Captain Quasar and the Kolarii Kidnappers by Milo James Fowler has our intrepid Captain attempting to recover from the slow-moving Kolarii, a bunch of children whom they are alleged to have kidnapped. Except that it's not that simple. Captain Quasar stories are droll, but the villains always get their comeuppance, which is very satisfactory.

The Ungreat Escape by Siobhan Gallagher features a jewel thief and rocket motors, and eventually, an escape best described as ungreat. A bit funny in parts, and of course, crime doesn't pay...yet.

All Comms Down by Anne E Johnson is about one of the first extra-galactic spaceships, carrying a crew of colonists, and the trouble they encounter. Is there, ultimately, a cure of sorts for the mysterious illness that strikes the humans aboard? Plain and simple space opera.

Remembrance Day by Simon Kewin has a Mobius Strip in outer space, a Space Bar (I kid you not, he put this in with a straight face), a bar owner with little memory, a long-lost girlfriend, an old enemy and a startling surprise. I liked this one second best in today's lot. The plot is neat enough and the characters are well done.

The Lion's Den by Devin Miller has a very light touch. There is an ill-maintained spacecraft, zoo animals and a love-struck young man out to rescue the girl of his dreams. It's a fun and funny story, and my favourite in this collection.

Captain Clone by Deborah Walker has clones, wine, and a spaceship stuck on a planet, held by tentacles. Not to mention two utterly unloving 'mothers'. Creepily well done.

There are also short notes on the inspirations for the stories, which add to the experience.

You can buy this on Amazon.

A Golden Goose of a Girl

Science Fiction | Girl of Great Price | Milo James Fowler

Milo James Fowler writes sci fi, noir and detective, and this story is a mix of all three. Charlie Madison, the hard-boiled detective who is on the verge of bankruptcy, gets clients who want their kidnapped daughter back. Except that the city is run by the Russian mobster Ivan, whom nobody has ever seen, and Ivan is interested, too. Why is murder a real possibility in this mad search for a little girl? An old war with bioweapons results in strange and creepy outcomes. Is there a happy ending? Read this short story, and enjoy finding out.

Screen adaptation or book?

Science fiction | Altered Carbon | Richard Morgan

A few weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find that a book I had liked was about to be released on screen, so I decided to refresh my memory before the screen adaptation was released.

What I remembered after a few years was that there was a murder mystery, very ingeniously written, and with all clues duly handed to the reader. If you’re really, really sharp, you can figure it out for yourself, but that’s if you get past the action scenes and have a few minutes to breathe and think! I also remembered that the name of the book was never explained. Why Altered Carbon, after all? What was the alteration?

I also read online that the screen version (on Netflix) had attracted complaints: of white-washing (why wasn’t an Asian playing Takeshi Kovacs) too many sex scenes and too much blood. I rolled my eyes at the first. In Chapter 1 itself, the Envoy feels upset at being put in a Caucasian body. And he’s half East European, so what’s with the Asian-Asian thing? He’s Asian-European. Eyeroll, and more eyeroll. So, what about the other complaints? Since I remembered the iconic scene in the AI hotel as the second thing in the story, along with the neatly packaged whodunit, I was keen on checking out if the original actually contained the complained of sex and violence.

What do you know? It does. Every second chapter has mayhem, and every third or fourth is hidden behind too much steam. And yet, they are so integral to the plot that you wish Richard Morgan had written less of them, while scratching your head as to how that was supposed to be done short of censoring whole scenes and replacing them with asterisks, and thereby removing the immediacy of the motivations of the characters.

So, since the book is sufficiently famous, let me mutter and grouse about the screen adaptation. Now, here’s the thing, I haven’t yet read the other two books in the series, and I understand the screen adaptation (10 episodes/hours) leans heavily on stuff that is made clear in them, like about the Elder civilisation, which hardly rates 10 lines in book 1.

Mutter and grouse no 1: why didn’t Bancroft have a ponytail? Honestly, I expected him to look more like Malfoy senior, but by episode 3, it was not such a big deal.

Mutter and grouse no 2: You can’t mix Virginia Vidaura and Quellcrist Falconer! That is just not done! Waily waily, indeed, on this one. Quell is a distant person in the book, a bit like Mahatma Gandhi. Sure, people have actually met him, but it’s scarcely believable. In the screen adaptation, she’s right there, real as anything and twice as solid. This bit grated right along till the very end. Virginia, in fact, is the one who trained Kovacs. And then to mix her up with Sarah, who gets short shrift by getting only one scene, whereas she is a pivotal motivation in the book? Naaah!

Mutter and grouse no 3: What’s with the Envoys being terrorists?? They were the elite troops of the UN Protectorate, not the enemy. Envoys who moved to the private sector, like Vidaura and Kovacs, turned into master criminals. They weren’t wiped out. They were around. Our protagonist is disavowed, but the organisation is very much alive. Kovacs threatens the people in the Wei Clinic with them.

Mutter and grouse no 4: Why was the Hendrix downgraded to the Raven? Wail! Poe? That’s like ... Kung Fu Panda, not a deadly AI. But the scene in which Takeshi asks for a room? Very well done, and true to the book. That’s the point I’d decided would determine if I continued watching or not. Kudos for holding on to the viewer who wants faithfulness to the book.

Mutter and grouse no 5: What’s with the sister and associated maudlin stuff? Reileen Kawahara in the book was so much more believable. Sister?? Eyeroll all the way. Where’s the water-carrier, eh?

The screen version has stuff that diverged so much. Backstory for Kristin Ortega. A different bodyguard. A son for Bancroft instead of Kawahara. Deus ex machina for Lizzie Elliot. An evil CTAC colonel. Ya, well, it’s all good. Otherwise, I could just read the book, right?

But here’s a really cool thing spotted in Episode 1 by my resident youth: check out what’s written on the side of the Police cruiser. Hee hee hee. I now believe totally that the series producers went truly overboard in trying to be as inclusive as possible, to counter the accusations of white-washing.

And you know what? The lead male actor is totally cute, as is the lead female actor. The Bancrofts are believable. Dimi the Twin is as evil as expected. The sets and special effects and CGI are super (I guess even better in 4K, except that I have no such screen). I only keep tripping over Reileen Kawahara and her katana. I look back on the ten episodes of series 1, and realise that the sex scenes, like in the book, leave less impact on my memory than the screen time they get. The mayhem scenes are gruesome, as in the book, or maybe more so. The burning forest is totally crazy (yes, I did notice that they ran all the ‘rebel’ scenes in brown and green, unlike the more popular cyan and orange colour schemes in most movies).

Is the screen version faithful to the book? Not as much as LOTR, a lot more than I Robot. Is it the same story, with the same characters? About as much as the new version Star Trek movies of the alternate timeline James T Kirk and Spock are the same as the original series/movies. So yes, it’s only nominally the same story. The book is denser, but the series is worth watching. Go for th
em both.