A Bleak New World has Arrived!

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

~Robert Frost

Just in time for Halloween, A BLEAK NEW WORLD anthology has hit shelves–are you ready to take the road to dystopia with a few maladjusted (yet intrepid) authors like myself?

www.amazon.com/Bleak-New-World-Dystopian-Anthology-ebook/dp/B017C60E46/

Bleak

Star Wars Aftermath: A Lesson on the Hype Train and Internet Trolls

Let it be known: Disney is ready for its Star Wars debut and they really, really want you to know it. Their mark? To hearken back to days of old, but with fresh new insights brought to you by wonderfully sassy and modern writers like Chuck Wendig.

Wendig’s garnered himself a lot of controversy with this book. Yet it’s not the character of the novel many are attacking; it’s the nature of its characters. See, he broke an old Star Wars maxim and, in turn, made the universe more realistic for it.

Send in the Rainbow Stormtroopers.

Not really. His was a more subtle touch. Five characters. All homosexual. One of them a main character (out of a bajillion – technical term) who makes it apparent exactly once, and which has absolutely zero impact on the driving plot. And for this? The internet explodes. Yet the characters weren’t exactly made overt. Like I said: no Rainbow Stormtroopers. They were just going about their lives, while happening to be gay.

Almost like…people! Who could imagine?

Honestly, it’s sad that I even have to take time out of my review to mention it, but given the furor of the fandom over it? I felt need. Serious need.

But since I’m on the subject: characters. Aftermath has a lot of them. Main characters. Side characters. One-off characters. Badass mother characters and less developed, gruff bounty hunter characters. At times it feels like delving into a George R.R. Martin piece, minus the risk of death. (Cue Rains of Castamere)

Norra, the mother figure, is probably my favorite of the bunch. Sloane, the Imperial villain of our piece, is a close second. The former because she is the most developed—a lioness with her own skills and desires who never the less is fiercely devoted to her son: a roving ball of snark and stubbornness who also happens to be a…technological savant? The latter, because it’s a Star Wars villain who isn’t simply possessed by the drive to kill the non-believers. She likes the Empire for the order it brings—not necessarily the genocidal undertones. To achieve that, she will play the game anyway she must.

For the most part, though, what we’re given is a bunch of very skilled characters that, while enjoyable in small doses, are somewhat lacking in the personality department. You’re not going to lose yourself in them, particularly due to the construction of the novel: short chapters, interspersed with “interludes” from around the galaxy, which feature additional one-off characters.

I get what Wendig was attempting to do with these sections—this book, after all, is an ode to the universe at large, trying to show us the breakdown of one society and the restoration of another. These vignettes give hints as to the greater picture…yet they can’t help but feel a bit jarring and out of place. The characters therein aren’t particularly memorable, the events have no immediate impact, and while they contribute to the mood of the piece at large, I dare say the book would have been largely unchanged without them.

The writing? Fast-paced, as I mentioned, with points that reach for depth, but usually end up clawing at the surface. A little stilted in execution.

The plot? Simplistic on the good side of things, intricate on the evil side of things, but since the evil side of things really doesn’t get anywhere with their intricate scheming, and the good carries the majority of our attention throughout the novel, what we’re left with is a somewhat convoluted, but not entirely thought provoking adventure romp. Pretty much all problems can, in fact, be solved by shooting first.

And bucketheads can’t shoot.

What we are left with, for all this, is a somewhat clunky, if entertaining, romp through the side alleys of the Star Wars universe. I’d describe it as a good beach or airplane read, but not something that’s going to enthrall you from start to finish. Certainly not something that deserved all the hype and shouting and angry roars from the community. Calm down, everyone. It’s a book. Judge it on its merits, not on an all too human agenda.

Given to the stars? 2.5/5

Calculation

From the movie “Ex Machina.” Seemed appropriate.

(Hello everybody! As it turns out, I’m going to be scampering off to Colorado for a little over a week. As such, the Den’s going to be a little quiet for the next while…but that also means today you get a special treat. Who here’s in the mood for some sci-fi? Everyone?Good. Now let’s play a game.)

Xiangqi was commonly referred to as Chinese Chess. While the name certainly captured the motivation behind it, it hardly did the game justice in terms of execution. Xiangqi was to Chess as Chess was to Checkers: essentially, a more complicated version of a series of moves designed to pique the human interest and measure its strategic capability for micromanaging.

Two figures considered the game. On either’s chest was pinned a name. For the one: “Victor.” For the other: “Ursula.” They had but two things in common: both had spent entirely too many hours with this particular game, and neither had chosen their name at birth.

Victor was something of a prodigy when it came to the game. His country was known for its love of this sort of game; but then, they loved to play games at nearly every level of life’s offering. Some people (other people, that is to say) tended to find it disconcerting. Both at a personal level, and an international one.

When Victor leaned back, it wasn’t to relax. It was to size up his opponent.

As soon as the shadow of a hand had secured its move, he countered, sweeping a scholar along its predetermined lines to block access to his marshal. But here he tittered, though he tried not to let his trepidation show. Game after game, he had watched the number of moves it took him to dominate the board lengthen and lengthen. Now, he was actually on the defensive. He could see the outcomes laid before him in a sort of Robert Frostian choice: Ursula could move, she could strike, or she could have him pinned with the most delicate of military operations. It would take coordination, foresight, and most importantly: imagination.

Ursula seemed to imitate him. It was not like her. When he looked up from the board, he found her watching him, no trace of emotion to mark her face, but still. Her eyes were not on the board. She was reading him, rather than doing the mathematical calculations that carried her game against so many others.

This, he told himself, was not the little girl he had first set out to fool when she was nothing more than a series of code strings and a monitor in his parents’ basement. The form had changed since then. So, too, had the code.

It was odd to feel nervous doing something that had always been his mode of relaxation. He imagined this was how thousands of young American minds must have felt, years before, when they had first watched the Watson computer system decimate its opposition on live trivia TV.

But all Watson had to do was cross reference information. It didn’t consider the people it competed against.

Unpredictability. That was what he was testing here. Not the ability to conquer.

“Victor,” Ursula said. “I believe you are over-analyzing.”

He blinked, nodded. “I’m just waiting on you, darling,” he lied.

Ursula cocked her head to one side and smiled. She liked to smile. Then she shifted her final chariot to snare his scholar. It was the easiest path, the most sensible path. It left his marshal briefly open, but it would sacrifice her most powerful piece and, inevitably, cost her the game. Victor sighed heavily and the crowd, seeing what he had seen, answered his counter with a series of low-grade applause. The eyes of the nation were watching.

Ursula nodded as he picked off first one piece, then another, her own pieces countering deftly, but not enough to stem the tide. When he took her general, the crowd cheered. They loved to see how far technology had come, but they loved it all the more watching mankind still triumph over it.

With a practiced smile, Victor stood and took Ursula’s hand in his. She answered, leaning over the board toward him.

“You are pleased, Victor?”

“Of course I’m pleased, Ursula. It was a good game.”

She shook his hand and twisted toward the enthusiastic crowd. Unlike with people, her lips did not need to move to reply to him.

“I thought they might like this better.”

For an instant, he must have looked like a fish out of water for the cameras. But he forced the stiffness out, and kept waving his hand for those watching. Victor had his part to play. He knew this. But so, apparently, did Ursula.

(Like what I do with Sci-Fi? Then you might also consider “New Frontiers,” a space story out on Kindle Singles. Others of this type of fiction are set to appear in A Bleak New World Anthology and in a collection published by Evil Girlfriend Media later this year.)

Lift-off with New Frontiers!

New FrontiersGreetings, gentle readers!

Today’s a special day! Yes, it’s Tuesday, but it’s also a release day! Not the next novel, I’m sad to say–though the final chapter of the Haunted Shadows trilogy is coming along nicely–but a short story for your good, cheap fun style perusal. (Note: for the trollers among you, I am not, in fact, good cheap fun…but this bit of sci-fi is.) Some of you may remember “New Frontiers” in an earlier incarnation. Well, it has been tightened up, edited and remastered, and now it has been repackaged in its own shiny form for e-book distribution. Grand Celestia has been kind enough, in the meanwhile, to coincide a Super Moon with the release. Seriously, you can read by that thing at night.

“New Frontiers” also has a shiny tag on the inside, for which I am grateful: an Unfettered Books selection. They’re quality people, those Unfettered folks, and I tip my hat to their efforts in redistribution.

Here’s the relevant links so that you might snag your own copy (for just $0.99!) — a link that comes with a rather broad smile and a most lofty salute to anyone who decides to take the plunge into the depths of space with me, and learn a bit about where privatized exploration just might take us.

Amazon (US) 

Amazon (UK)

Special thanks to anyone who takes the time to share these links today. May the week find you well!

Book Review: Halting State

This was my first involvement with a Stross novel—to the chagrin of some of my more varyingly read friends—but after this unique little stepping off point, I think there’s potential for some trail prodding down his road after this. Halting State is a near-future Sci-fi novel set in a post secession Scotland (relevancy and timeliness points!). That, however, is not the point of the novel—that lies in the crime.

A crime, you ask? Egads, who lies at the heart of this madness? Well, that’s the question. The crime in question is a digital caper, one that has left Hayek Associates—economists for online games—robbed, in a way that suggests someone’s making use of cryptographic keys. Enter the cops, panicky insurers, and an ex-game developer filling the role of partner and consultant to the aforementioned cops. These take the form of three different protagonists, sent to tackle a robbery that only seems to form the first piece in a very large puzzle.

To begin, I would be remiss if I did not address the POV, as it will no doubt put a lot of people off—and very nearly did to me—in the manner of its approach. From the earliest days of English class it was beaten into all of our heads that second person POV—let alone second person POV for THREE different branches of a novel—is bad. Very bad. So bad you want to whack it with a stick.

Naturally, Stross broke that stick and threw it in the woods, before proceeding to mix his language with a whole bunch of technobabble. It’s daunting, and it’s off-putting, but my one assurance here is that to stick with it is to break free—as the novel goes along, its pacing and enjoyability increases quickly.

Unfortunately, I’ve got to pick a little more before I praise. The character-loving soul inside me was not satisfied. Surprisingly, the panicky insurer was the most entertaining and engaging of the heroes; of the others, one seemed utterly unnecessary to the greater mobility of the plot, while the other manages to bring some good twists into the mix. (Full disclosure: I adore the Song of Ice and Fire saga. This should indicate the level of twist snobbery that is involved in that analysis.)

All this said, if the first bit of the book is pressed beyond, what remains is a well-paced, well-penned mystery that knows enough not to dwell on any one point too long before a new piece of the mystery arises and the plot as a whole tumbles forward. There is sufficient action for entertainment, a delightful course of thrill, and enough detail to leave you bobbing your head along in understanding when the reveals do happen.

Halting State is a book with its share of troubles, but in all, it is an entertaining, well-plodded mystery set in a uniquely built world. It’ll steal some hours away before you know it—you just have to stick it out.

New Frontiers, Part Five

All things come to an end, though the light at the end of the tunnel may not always lead to sanctuary. Discovery–is it worth the price we pay to reach it? That is for each to decide their own selves. As for the Angeion and its crew, we come now to the end of their story, and the revelations it brings…

What have you thought of this glimpse into futures far from realized?

(For Part One, be sure to catch up here. You’ll meet Jake, and learn a little more of what this flight really is…
For Part Two, witness the first threads of the horror Jake now faces aboard the Angeion.
For Part Three, a destination looms far nearer than it should, and the truth emerges: sometimes waking can be a terror greater than any other…
For Part Four, is salvation anything more than a dream?)

New Frontiers

“Give me Jane,” I murmured, watching her through the monitor. I knew not which was her, in truth. All the pods were laid before me, and all watched behind their looking glasses, but I could not see in. “Wake them. Please God wake them.”

The command flashed three times across the screen. Processing. Each time, processing. I hit it. “Wake them.” System failure. I hit it again. “Wake them goddamnit.” I was finding my voice, but the computer was not. Angeion repeated the system failure, big bold red letters emblazoned in my mind.

Then: Non-essential crew decommissioned to preserve power. 4 years, 8 months, 22 days.

Dante And Virgil In Hell by William-Adolphe Bo...

Dante And Virgil In Hell by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1850) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The words hit me like a punch in the stomach. I cursed God and Hell and every saint I could remember, right along with the computer and the company and anyone else I could think of. I screamed my voice hoarse. I beat the screen, tore at another, howled and screeched and stamped my feet as I tried feebly to tear the captain’s chair from its welded binding on the floor. The computer watched, and waited, and the silence listened to the sounds of a grown man breaking, like I was nothing.

This was the mother of the children I had never had. I could picture them at night, sometimes, when I would sleep. They always had her eyes. The woman I had called my own since that first final. Gone, just like that. She wasn’t human. She wasn’t even necessary. Yet somehow, some ungodly way, I supposedly was. These hands, that knew nothing. This mind, that saw nothing. These were necessary. These were “essential.” The system was broken.

That was it then. The screen scrolled a final detail, but it was meaningless. 4 years, 12 months, 19 days operation time. 2400 hours, earth standard. I woke, as we were all supposed to wake. This was the moment of our revival, the time when all the world was supposed to be before us. So it was, but before me, not them. The ship dipped forward into peril, and I could but watch, a broken man, leaned into the emptiness of a chair. I had never seen anything so blue before.

I thought of all the people back home that would never know. My parents, Jane’s parents, our brothers, sisters–they would never know what happened to us. The company would send a letter, one page, detailing how sorry they were, extending their condolences without ever saying anything more than “accident” to state how we had gone. That was their way. It was just as well. When you don’t know, you assume it’s quick. You hope it was quick, because you don’t want to reconcile suffering into your life. It’s bad enough to lose them–you don’t want to put that extra horror into it. It was best to leave them that small mercy. Let them think I had gone to my end with grace and dignity–or quietly in my slumber. The rest. . .well, I didn’t even want to know the rest. It was bad enough living it.

Thus rode the hours on a railway straight to Hell. The stars slipped away into the dark, and inch by inch, this planet rose before me, until it encompassed all that I could see. It had been nothing once, a thought, a dream beyond the edge of knowing–and now it was everything, and I was nothing before it. The computers blinked and screeched in protest. Alarms rattled as the final preparations began. Warning bells, demanding staunch resistance to our own decay. Yet there was only I, and I could do nothing to prevent it.

The cold came, gave way to heat. Lights flickered into dark across the board–only the engines burned, only the bridge remained. The ship lurched to one side as we struck the air–we would not merely drift. The ship was too precisely aimed. All the calculations were in check. It was merely the human factor we were lacking.

Fires flared around the edge of my vision, frost broiling off with bits of steel–wings, frame, mass. Some clattered against the glass and fell away, others became mere blips along the dying monitor, another sound, another memory. We were being devoured by our own ambition, the world itself rising up against us. I saw her in the flames. Dancing. The lovers waltz, two flickers, moving as one amidst the devastation. The glass fragmented as the nose dipped–the resurgence of pressure forced me back into the chair, a puppet caught, pulled taught against his strings. I felt as though my flesh would surely tear itself from my bones, that everything would be torn and burned by the memory of those lovers intertwined, burning into nothing as the air consumed us.

Jane never could dance, and nor could I. We never did learn. I suppose we’d always meant to.

Amidst the pop of blood vessels, the cracking skin and the flaming chill–such fire is this!–I beheld all salvation’s taunts. Through the clouds, the mountains loomed tall and proud, black as night, their caps tipped with the snow of antiquity. I saw all the veins that ran beneath, the rivers and the rock, strength of nations and of notions not before beheld. I saw the foundations she would have loved, the top and the core, all manner of life brimming through the depths of this hallowed unknown. Beneath us swam the rivers and the oceans, the grasses blowing in the wind, stretching beside the sea, growing long beside canyons, the trees. All was glowing emerald life, and sapphire breath, a world of possibility, unknown, unseen by all but me besides.

Before me laid paradise, and I, the first eyes to see it, though they tinged all possibility in scarlet. Behind me laid all the fire and force of Hell, and I brought it burning on that ride, to Heaven. It would die as it had lived, unknowing of the pains to come. They say an asteroid killed the dinosaurs. All in nothing. Nothing but me. I am become Alpha and Omega–the Beginning and the End of Eden. Yet I am Man, just Man.

There is no salvation here.

New Frontiers, Part Four

The Angeion, exploratory vessel, a hope to mankind and a vision of the future. But hope is a frail thing. When the darkness looms, what is it we will remember of the past? How did we get to this impasse?

As ever, feel free to share your thoughts, and enjoy the third part of New Frontiers, a sci-fi short set in the age of space exploration…and an exploration, in and of itself, as to whether a story beaten down by rejection can find new life on the blogosphere.

(For Part One, be sure to catch up here. You’ll meet Jake, and learn a little more of what this flight really is…
For Part Two, witness the first threads of the horror Jake now faces aboard the Angeion.
For Part Three, a destination looms far nearer than it should, and the truth emerges: sometimes waking can be a terror greater than any other…)

The spacecraft New Horizons launched in 2006 t...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even worse: I still didn’t know what it meant for the rest.

Beaumont Tower, from Michigan State University.

I thought of college, of all things, in that moment. Technical school–I’m a mechanic, not a doctor. All those eyes on you, watching, scribbling, waiting for the moment you panicked, the moment you crossed the wrong wire or welded the wrong plate. You felt as though the whole world was on your shoulders, and for all the people all around you, it was only you that mattered. You. You. You. One mistake and the world itself would come crashing about your shoulders. Funny, when one is young, how they equate such mundane trials to such great disaster. Funnier still, how easily distracted they are from them.

We undertook large chunks of our real hands-on training up on one of the space stations. It was the best place to get a handle on some real ships. We still spent most of the time on the ground back then, though, where I could easily escape the mundane VR simulations and the classes three hundred thick and find refuge in real life–in the city, and in familiar faces. I thought of coffee shops along the river bank, and Jane, with her mocha and her laptop, my little hipster scientist. That was when she went through her writer phase. To think, then, I thought I would surely go mad without her.

And here I was.

The computer screen blinked back at me, waiting for my next command. The question led to the cause–the ship rumbled gently as it tilted ever so slightly. I thought of asteroids, tiny little asteroids, plowing through the hull in some insignificant spot I’d never see. Little green men pulled at the wires in my mind, damning us all to Hell with their cruel, anti-human intolerance, and all the while smiling like tigers to the kill. Bloody racists.

Perhaps, most elaborately, there came an intricate image of a spy on board, some saboteur that had been paid off. As I’ve said, I prided myself a logical man. That one went away quickly. After all, for such a man to willingly tamper with the ship in such a way was to damn himself as well. Then again, there were kamikazes. There were suicide bombers. Was this so different? Pay a man enough, or threaten the right people, promise the right things. . .he’d do anything. People didn’t wage war anymore. They stabbed one another in the dark, their battles of the shadows in the grimy halls of corporate espionage. I shifted in my seat, loathe to think of any of my colleagues in such a light.

Alien

Little green jerks. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d have rather it be the aliens.

Yet it wasn’t any of those things. The ship brought up the schematics, showed me the time card that told exactly when and how it had happened.

Something had caused a power surge, simple as that. A circuit shorted, breakers tripped, the ship flickered into dark, and rebooted itself. The ship lurched, time held itself. Locked in our chambers, we never knew a thing. Still, the auto pilot rebooted. The surge passed. Yet in its wake, some of the rebooted systems didn’t actually reboot. Wires had fried, something had blown out in electrical. Chang would’ve known what to do. He was the computers expert. I was a novice at it. Hull work, the physical stuff–that was my end of things.

The numbers flashed at me again: 4 years, 2 months, 7 days operation time. 1600 hours. The moment of my waking.

Following procedure, the ship ran a system analysis and had attempted to wake essential crew. The command was issued first to the captain, then the first mate, then to me. But the surge had corrupted something in the system. It didn’t come back right–it didn’t come back all together. The system malfunctioned. Power faltered. Some of the pods hadn’t come back online. The captain’s was among them.

It got to Kate’s–but for whatever reason, that had led to her death, rather than her salvation. The ship couldn’t tell me why. The date repeated itself.

But that wasn’t right. If we had woken at the same time, there was no way. . .

I checked the time stamp. A chill prickled along my arms, ran down my spine. My shaved head bristled. 4 years, 12 months, 19 days operation time. 2400 hours, earth standard. Ten months had passed between waking procedures and the time I had actually woken. It hadn’t reached me, then. For some reason, I had remained trapped but alive, caught within the coldsleep, the computer unable to reach me. Yet it had reached Kate. Her door jammed. Or something gave out. But she was stuck, one way or another. She had woken, only to die–and God help me, I thought of her face, her once rosy face, and God I knew, that she had woken, only to starve to death in that steel coffin, trying to claw her way out of her own tomb. It had killed her in trying to wake her, to save us.

Why hadn’t it woken anyone else? Why not me? Why didn’t I wake? Why did some systems restore, others not?

The breaths came on, quicker and quicker. I was hyperventilating. My head spun. Ten months we had been on reserves. Ten months the ship had staggered toward its destination, hemorrhaging power, crippled, with no one to aid it. No wonder it was going dark–and as I watched, another section of the ship did just that. The cold stemmed from the heaters no longer having the energy or the need to continue on.

“Manual distance entered. Auto pilot disengaged. Captain and nav-i-gation officer requested on the bridge.”

Would I die as Kate had, locked around the orbit of a planet that I had no hope of reaching? I remained, like a gargoyle, locked to that chair. I had no idea what I was doing.

The computer scrolled on.

Non-essential systems deactivated to preserve power. 4 years, 5 months, 25 days.

Food storage. Primary lighting. Various programs the computer kept running. Heat, in some areas. Terminals powered off, functions diverted to main drives. Power was centered in the bridge.

I could not take the ship in on my own. I did not know how. I had never flown a spacecraft in my life, let alone navigated one, or landed one, or even learned the technicals of doing so. I could build them. I could give them life, give them the possibility of flight–but I could not make them do so. Without the others, there could be nothing. We would either die, caught among an endless drift, or plummet into the atmosphere of that which we had come to find, and burn in the midst of our discovery. I did not know how to work the heat shields.

I turned from the list, redirected the ship to the place of my rebirth. The commands scrolled out, the release was given. Wake them. I wanted to wake them all, to send me someone, anyone that could tell me what to do. It flickered, waited. Flickered, waited. No response.

Then: critical power loss. Vessel preservation mandated. Essential status revoked. Crew members Valdez, Torine, Chang, decommissioned for preservation of power. Reserve power redistributed. No response from remaining crew. 4 years, 11 months, 12 days.

Revoked.

Decommissioned.

Like one might talk to a machine. The words wrapped around my mind, bound up in a single, overwhelming presence, but I could not look at them. Just like that, the computer decided that rather than wake them, it would end them. People I had worked with years on end. People that knew Kate, people that knew Jane. I knew their kids. Their families. Chang had gotten us our first bloody apartment.

But the computer decided that in the face of certain doom, they were no longer “essential.” Yet others of us were. It ranked us. Some men were more important than others. It ranked us. The company ranked us. Were we numbers? Draw your straw, take your pick–don’t fret if you pull up short. You’re only human, after all.

Medical Officer. Ship Security. Technical Maintenance. One by one. Kate was dead. So was the Captain. Plug’s pulled early–you don’t ever wake. The heart, stopped, merely sags in the warmth, and the body decays. If you’re in the pod, it’ll still preserve you, perfect, like a mummy. But you’re dead. Were they all dead, than?

“Clarke, unresponsive. Dewallte, unresponsive. Dieters, unresponsive. Kalman. . . ”

A white gold wedding ring. Photograph taken by...

Wedding ring. Photograph taken by CLW and released into public domain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I stared at death, and it stared back at me. It looked remarkably like my wife, even smiling as it took me by the hand, and behind it–the planet, this perfect sapphire on the necklace of her dominance.

“Jane. . . ”

The screen paused, mid-sentence. I typed and redirected it to the starboard cryochambers. I activated the camera, diverted power. I entered the command to wake them all. Deactivate the sleep. Give me life.

“Give me Jane,” I murmured, watching her through the monitor.