Time for Dystopian Science Fiction?

Reader’s Alley, a nifty site for bargain eBook lovers, divides their science fiction offerings into sub-genres: sci-fi romance, sci-fi thriller, and science fiction, dystopian. While those first two descriptors would seem self-evident, the dystopian flavor is considered by some (mostly jaded members of academia) as the only serious science fiction. Typically, I avoid reading dystopias because they tend to be so darned depressing. But, with all that is happening in the news, which I also try to avoid, perhaps it is time to take a look at the genre.

One of the finest books about the history of science fiction is Brian Aldiss’ Trillion Year Spree, which covers science fiction literature from its beginnings to the early 1980s. Aldiss does discuss many sub-genres, but the thread of dystopia runs strongly throughout his encyclopedia of science fiction in printed form. The term, dystopia, is applicable to “a world in which everything is imperfect, and everything goes terribly wrong. Dystopian literature shows us a nightmarish image about what might happen to the world in the near future. Usually the main themes of dystopian works are rebellion, oppression, revolutions, wars, overpopulation, and disasters. On the other hand, Utopia is a perfect world – exactly opposite of dystopia.”

Science has, until recently, been viewed as a two edged sword; while it can make life much better, mis-use of science has been the root of all sorts of evils. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is often considered to be the first science fiction novel, and the dark side of science is clearly the central theme of the novel. Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment and Rappacini’s Daughter, short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, also feature mis-use of science as their main themes. When teaching those stories, which used to be in many American Lit anthologies, one way to make it simple for students is to say, “Hawthorne is basically telling his readers, ‘don’t mess around with Mother Nature’.”

Later novelists fine tuned dystopian themes, with societies becoming more and more restrictive upon the populace. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 share these themes, “including the consequences of totalitarianismmass surveillance, and repressive regimentation of persons and behaviours within society.” Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, Harrison Burgeron is one of the most widely read dystopian stories, due to its inclusion in anthologies for students, and I recently read a news story liking our current government policies to Vonnegut’s didactic work. Y’all, it is scary when dystopia becomes reality.

Of course, many fans of science fiction today seldom, if ever, read it. Instead, what they know of utopia and dystopia is presented via video. Early episodes of Star Trek explored both sides of the scientific divide. The Ultimate Computer, rather dated today, explored the man vs. machine conflict, using future war games as a setting for its rather disturbing premise. Various dystopian novels have been adapted to long form (movies) video, including everything from 1984 to Planet of the Apes. There are literally dozens of dystopian sci fi films. Some are rather laughable now (Mad Max?) but others are quite troubling.

My own fiction, which has many conflicts for characters to attempt to resolve, certainly isn’t “happily ever after, ” but it isn’t as dark as some of these works, and that’s because my outlook on life is more pragmatic. Hopefully, there will be some gravitation away from the totalitarian policies of modern politicians and administrators. But, when I consider what I am seeing when I do go out and about, I wonder. I really do. Remember this: In each fictional dystopia, the goal was to make things better for certain segments of the population, and bad outcomes are unhappy accidents. Be careful what you wish for—

Trish Milburn’s “Her Cowboy Prince” review

For readers who want an up to date romance about courtship, then this book merits your attention.

Modern romances are often more about sex than the “getting to know you” that dominated romances in previous decades. Nowadays, it is not uncommon for the first kiss to be followed by sexual fulfillment, and that often happens a third of the way through the narrative. Thus, many modern romances are about the sexual relationship, not about courtship. Her Cowboy Prince is old fashioned, but it is a recent publication, and I liked it very much for that reason. Another reviewer called it “clean” and that’s fair, I suppose. All too often, I’ve downloaded a romance with a recent publication date, only to find references to commonalities from decades ago, such as cassette tapes or pay phones. It may be fun to read an author’s backlist, but please don’t re-release books that are decades old and pretend they are new! In Her Cowboy Prince, the neighbor disturbs Melody by playing video games at all hours; the heroine up cycles items she purchases at thrift stores using techniques she garnered from watching HGTV; the resort uses its website to attract customers for their newest events, and so forth. Yep, this story’s not recycled material, which is refreshing.

Her Cowboy Prince has a cute title and stock cover cute guy on the cover, but the plot is a bit more serious. Melody Shaw is a housekeeper at a spa/resort in Montana, but she is there because she has had to go into witness protection after she testified against her stepmother, who had her father killed and managed to deprive Melody of ownership of the pharmaceutical company that he founded. Oh, and for good measure, Melody’s step-sister tried to have her murdered, so Melody has reasons to keep a very low profile. The housekeeper job across the country from her former home in Atlanta should be safe, but Melody can’t quite keep from looking over her shoulder at everyone.

Justin McQueen, a newly eligible bachelor since he figured out that his latest fiancée was a gold digger out to get everything he owned, runs the resort where Melody works. Before long, the attractive and way too smart for her job housekeeper attracts his attention. The author could have them jump each other’s bones in one of the guest rooms, but she restrains her characters. They plan events for the resort. They run into each other at a local cafe. She rescues his dad from a highway accident. As he takes her home from work, he stops to show her the stars. In short, they develop a romantic relationship. However, Justin is aware that there’s something mysterious in her reluctance to enjoy his company, while Melody is continually afraid of breaking her cover and inviting her troubled past into her new digs in Montana.

Author Trish Milburn does a better than average job using her settings, scenic Montana and metro Atlanta, to help create an interesting story. While the plot is somewhat predictable, there are no jarring moments when the reader just can’t suspend disbelief. The characters are mostly engaging, from the ever suspicious heroine and the diligent hero, to the displaced southern thrift shop owner and the poor but proud video game playing neighbor whom Melody befriends. The villains are mostly off stage, but the threat is sufficient to provide suspense for the reader, along with Melody and Justin.

For readers who want to experience vicarious sex, this book would not be appropriate, but for readers who want an up to date romance, about courtship, then this book merits your attention.

BTW, I am reviewing the book because I liked it, not because I got a free copy for review purposes.

The Crown— review and commentary

Which is which?

Netflix has some amazing original content, and one of its best efforts thus far has been The Crown, a somewhat fictional series based on the reign of Elizabeth II. Written and produced by Peter Morgan, this series begins while Elizabeth is still a youngster, but when her father takes over for his brother (who abdicated the throne so he could be with his “commoner/divorcé” lover) Elizabeth becomes the heir to the throne. From that time period, her father grooms her to serve the people and the royal family, a/k/a The Crown. Seasons 1 and 2 feature Claire Foy as Elizabeth, and former “Dr. Who” Matt Smith is Prince Philip. Perhaps the best performance in this award winning season goes to John Lithgow as an aging Winston Churchill, who guides and yet admires the young monarch as she works to live up to the responsibility thrust upon her when her father dies at a fairly young age.

The Crown does a fantastic job of intertwining history and some suppostion, thus educating a new generation about some of the most important (or at least entertaining) events in United Kingdom in the past few decades. Each season spans several years, so the cast changes in order to better show the aging of the characters. For instance, while Claire Foy is Elizabeth in the first two seasons, the queen is portrayed by Olivia Coleman in seasons three and four. The latter dropped onto Netflix November 15, and Coleman does a really good job as the middle aged sovereign, as does Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher. Another season four cast addition is Emma Corrin, who bears more than a passing resemblance to young Princess Diana. The series has been mostly been praised, but season four is a bit more controversial. Since this season portrays the “fairy tale romance” between Prince Charles and Diana, then quickly lays out the conflicted marital mess that ensued, because apparently Charles didn’t love Diana at all, but maintained his relationship with his former lover, Camilla Parker-Bowles, during most of the marriage, some viewers (and those close to the real people) have been a bit riled.

Of course, Prince Charles and Princess Diana separated then divorced, but younger fans apparently didn’t realize the “why” in the divorce until The Crown brought this back in a big way on the small screen. Recently, the social media accounts of Prince Charles and (now wife) Camilla have been inundated with snarky posts. Furthermore, officials in the U.K. have asked producers of The Crown to assure the public that the show is fictional.

History only works after the fact. Peter Morgan (series creator and chief writer) benefits from the many publications about the British royals, and is able to pick and choose what he presents to the audience in The Crown. Mostly the characterizations and storylines seem spot on, but those close to the royal family point to discrepancies, and no doubt some “fiction” does come in. Regardless of these points, The Crown has extraordinarily high production values. The cast is first rate, the scripts mostly entertaining; and the sets, costumes, and locations all contribute to the feeling of being an eyewitness to history. If you haven’t seen it yet, this series is one of the very best shows on Netflix.

Last Stand series by William Weber—review and commentary

Last Stand: The Complete Box Set

From time to time, I’m offered a “box set” of eBooks, which strikes me as funny as there is obviously no box, just a longer than normal eBook. While these often seem to be great values, I seldom read an entire series. Last Stand is different, because I did indeed read all four books, and while I enjoyed them, I liked each one a little less, but that’s just me and what I Prefer to read, rather than any flaws in the books themselves.

Book one, Surviving America’s Collapse, was so suspenseful that I read it in less than 24 hours. Apparently survivalist/prepper books are a sub-genre, but this is my first such book. Viewed simply as fiction, readers might be annoyed, as the narrative often becomes pedantic, teaching survivalist techniques to the reader, but I rather enjoyed those segments. In short, the story begins with the hero, former Army officer John Mack, being the only guy in his neighborhood who understands that the vehicles, phones, and other conveniences aren’t working because some entity set off an “EMP” device. Mack rescues his wife, then his children, thinking they will soon retreat to his survivalist hideaway cabin, but his wife convinces him to remain in their neighborhood, to assist their friends. This proves to be increasingly difficult, as resources dwindle and nefarious elements attempt to takeover their community.

Book two, Patriots, begins in the second setting, the Mack family hideaway. The canvas of conflict widens a bit in this book, as Mack realizes the scope of the attack upon America, and feels the need to take up arms not just to defend his family, but his country. Book three, Warlords, is a bit darker in tone, as the forces behind the attack upon America begin divvying up the country. Book four, Turning the Tide, is on a grander scale, as Mack is one cog in the military effort to fight back against the foreign powers that seem to have figured out how to conquer the United States.

Each of these books has a fictional story, but invariably the author uses his story to also instruct the reader. Those who like lots of details about the military and/or weaponry might like these books more than I did, but I did enjoy them. Some of the characterizations are fairly stereotypical, and sometimes the main characters are able to overcome situations which would probably be hopeless without the assistance of the author. So, suspending one’s disbelief a bit is a necessary skill for staying with the series. Still, the suspense is sufficient to keep the reader turning the pages.

Survivalists, military buffs, and those who enjoy suspense will all find something to like in Last Stand. As of this post, the price for the eBook set is three bucks, which is a down payment on a hamburger! I can’t think of anything as entertaining as these books for that price, so take a look. These books are also available in paperback and as audio books, and all have hundreds of ratings on Goodreads, mostly 4-5 stars.

Halt and Catch Fire—a series to catch on Netflix

As we aren’t “cable” subscribers, sometimes we miss a show that was commissioned for a network. Halt and Catch Fire is such a series, as it was originally shown on AMC. Honestly, the title is so weird that I would have never given it a thought, but one of those “Best things to watch on Netflix” lists gave it a good review, so hubby and I decided to give it a go.

Of late, it has been our favorite binge-watch. Usually, I wait until finishing a series before reviewing it, but Halt and Catch Fire ran for four seasons, and we are mostly through season three, so it’s time to let y’all in on this excellent period drama.

First off, the title has something to do with writing computer code, but I don’t remember what it means (and it probably doesn’t matter). I like computers; I’m typing on a MacBook Pro right now! This show is about the computer revolution, and how you view it might depend upon your age. If you are younger, this show will be a bit historical. But, if you are a somewhat chronologically gifted, you probably remember the first computers. As a classroom teacher, I remember begging to put computers into my classroom so we could edit copy for the yearbook. Back in the 80s, editorial changes for typewritten copy were costing us hundeds of dollars per year, so I managed to get a couple of surplus Apple IIe computers. They had green flashing characters and those big floppy drives, but they saved us some dough and were my intro into the modern age of publishing. Then I got a Mac SE that used smaller disks. That little machine was bequeathed to use from an administrator who felt some pity for the plebes in the classroom, and it was so different that I took it home over the summer to learn how to use it. I digress, but the 80s is the era where HACF begins.

The characters who come together in the first episode represent various aspects of the nascent computer business. In season one, the show is set in Texas (the Silicon Plain) but the group moves to Silicon Valley in later seasons. Joe is the super salesman who cut his teeth at IBM and wants to create a better personal computer. Gordon is an engineer who already made a better computer, but since the machine failed, he’s slogging along at Cardiff Electric, a company that produces software for mainframes and tries to compete with IBM. His wife, Donna, is a brilliant computer developer who is relegated to support work at the Texas Instruments learning division, because she and Gordon need to feed their family. The catalyst for change is Cameron, a female college drop out who writes code better than Shakespeare wrote plays. Cameron is recruited by Joe to come to work at Cardiff Electric, where he’s a recent hire. The company manager, John Bosworth (Boz), is just trying to make the owner happy and is baffled by the changes that are coming to the company as these players all work together to build a better computer.

This show is well-written and well-acted by the ensemble cast. As I wrote that summary, it sounds a bit boring. Not! While there are a few technical aspects that are necessary in a show about the informational technology revolution, this is a show about people—their hopes, their ambitions, as well as success and failure of people and businesses. The series is a blast from the past in terms of technology, but seeing how these fictional characters helped create the computers that we tend to take for granted is both entertaining and compelling.

If you didn’t watch Halt and Catch Fire the first time, catch it on Netflix before it goes away!

Semi/Human by Erik Hanberg—review and commentary

A Y/A science fiction yarn

As the pandemic has continued to plague businesses, many of them are accelerating their transition to robots and artificial intelligence, thus replacing or supplementing their all too frail human employees. Semi/Human is set in the near future, and in this novel Silicon Valley has finally written an adaptable code that makes most human employees obsolete. Vehicles drive themselves, dealers in Vegas are all robots, police have been replaced by armed drones, and so forth.

Main character Pen(ney) Davis is more than depressed, because like most other human jobs, her intern job at a Silicon Valley computer firm has been eliminated. However, Pen has come up with a less than practical scheme to steal a ridiculously expensive treasure from her former employer and get rich enough to care a lot less about being unemployed.

As Alexander Pope once observed, “A little bit of learning is a dangerous thing,” and recent intern Pen re-writes the code of a self-driving truck, intending to hijack it for a trip across the country, but ends up making the aforementioned truck autonomous instead. Fortunately for Pen, the truck, Lara B, is both friendly and grateful.

Lest I ruin this tale for readers, let me just say that this yarn is cogent, examining the societal damage which would ensue if gainful employment ceased, as well as the ethics of dealing with a self-aware, nearly omniscient super computer. There’s a dash of economic reality sprinkled in as well, because with no work, there’s no money coming in for the vast majority of the populace, so they end up fighting over whatever is left behind in the technological revolution.

There’s also more than a little suspense, as Pen and Lara B join forces to accomplish the original mission, wherein Pen hopes to acquire both riches and revenge in one fell swoop. Semi/Human is one of those rare books that blends a cautionary theme with an entertaining plot. Most of the characters are well drawn, and there is sufficient description of settings to keep the reader entertained but the plot never bogs down.

As a frequent reader of science fiction, it is rare for me to call a novel memorable, but for me Semi/Human is such a book. Perhaps I simply read it a the right time, or perhaps the book is really that good. If you like youthful, sassy heroines, self-aware computers (and trucks) along with a suspense filled story line, you really should try Semi/Human.

Seduced by the Sea Lord by Starla Night—brief review

A while back, I purchased (at a reduced price) the box set entitled Lords of Atlantis books 1-4, but the review is for Seduced by the Sea Lord, as that was the only novel I read. Quite frankly, it took me a while to read it, because it wasn’t very good.

Here’s the book blurb: “Determined warlord Torun cannot wait to claim Lucy, who mistook him for a shipwreck survivor and pulled his injured body from the ocean. All his instincts tell him she is his soul mate. Now she must join with him and give him a child. 

Lucy can’t believe the words coming out of this dominant male. He insists her destiny is to become a mermaid queen and mother to his future children. The one thing “destiny” forgot to mention was that Lucy’s a broke divorcee who can’t even have a child. 

It’s really too bad, because his gorgeous lips are all too kissable, and she’d love to see his iridescent gold tattoos moving as he flexed those broad, hard pectorals under the water…”

This cover image is for the set; I am reviewing book 1

There are a bunch of five star reviews for this set, by Starla Night, and one reviewer who rated the set at one star accused the others of being “paid reviewers.” Darn, I wish I could afford to pay some of those reviewers to put up five star reviews of my novels. Maybe I’d make some bank, but I’m too honest. Or poor.

Anyway, back to the review. The point of view character, Lucy, is chick-lit cute in her narrative. The alpha male hero is appropriately madly in love with Lucy. The bad guy is Lucy’s ex, and he is cardboard cut out bad. Many gals dislike their ex, but Lucy’s guy stole her money, her ideas, and her dignity. Yep, he’s bad, all right, but some how I didn’t hate him. Nor did Lucy’s grousing about him endear her to me.

The trappings of “mer” vs “human” seemed alternately implausible or just plain silly, which didn’t help the novel at all. In a word, this novel seems phony. I have three more books in the set, but unless I am stranded on a desert island with nothing else to read, I rather doubt I will re-visit the Lords of Atlantis.

The Night Manager (television series)—a brief review and commentary

managerOften, the best stories begin as, well, stories. Before The Wizard of Oz was a groundbreaking film, it was a book by L. Frank Baum. Before 2001 A Space Odyssey was an influential science fiction film, it was a book by Arthur C. Clarke. Television series have also been book based, including such diverse stories as Little House on the Prairie, based on a series of books by Laura Ingles Wilder, and Game of Thrones, which was based on a series of books by George R. R. Martin. There are literally dozens of others, but I’m going to discuss one that you might have missed: The Night Manager, based on a book by John Le Carré. A friend recommended this six part series, and we usually enjoy the same sorts of stories.

The Night Manager is currently on a streaming service offered by a large online reseller, the one that starts with an A. Originally, however, the series was made for British television and shown in the states on AMC. As I don’t subscribe to cable, I missed it there, but my hubby and I saw this winner of three Golden Globe awards recently. The plot, although updated a bit from the 1993 novel, is intricate enough to puzzle, but not nearly as confusing as modern teleplays tend to be. The direction is subtle but sure. The acting is simply outstanding, with a star cast including Hugh Laurie (who starred eight seasons in House M. D.) and Olivia Coleman (who dons The Crown in seasons 3 and 4 over on Netflix.) The main character is brought to life by Tom Hiddleston, who has several Marvel movies as well as a video game in his resumé. This series was rather expensive to make, by BBC standards anyway, and was filmed in Egypt, Morocco, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.

Here’s a bit of plot summary: A former soldier for the British army, Jonathan Pine, is portrayed as the night manager of a Cairo hotel as the story begins. He gets involved with a mysterious guest who is the girlfriend of a local gangster. Through her relationship with the gangster she has acquired information linking illegal international arms sales with Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), an English billionaire. Just after leaking information regarding the illegal arms, she is found murdered.

(Minor spoilers ahead)

Fearing for his own life, Pine flees, and is next seen, a few years later, doing the same job at a remote hotel in Switzerland. When super villain Roper visits the Swiss hotel, Pine longs to have some revenge, and soon he is enlisted by British Intelligence to spy on Roper. Before long, he has a new identity and an opportunity to infiltrate the small network of arms dealing. Getting information out, while staying alive and undercover is quite a challenge.

One reviewer called it a “classy thriller.” That nails it, but do check out this amazing bingeable series.

ARC review—Edge of Extinction by Kim Borg

EdgeOfExtinction_CVR_SMLI read Kim Borg’s debut novel as an ARC, and published public reviews on Big A and Goodreads, and I stand by that review. This one is going to be a bit different, however, and there are gonna be a few spoilers, so if that bothers you, go read the Goodreads version.

Science fiction is a modern art form, which probably begins with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, although there is some debate on that. Actually, there is also debate as to the exact definition of science fiction, along with what works should be classified as science fiction. For instance, many works of horror and some that are largely fantasy end up in the SF basket. As I don’t especially like either of those genres, that bothers me, but the lines are often blurred. Anyway, science fiction generally takes what is known (science fact) and extrapolates that is some manner (the fiction part.) I like to say it this way, science fiction asks “What if______?” In this case, we have a novel which poses several questions.

Borg’s novel is set in 2086, when Teslas drive themselves, which isn’t much of a stretch, and population control is a world-wide mandate, which extrapolates a bit more. Oh, and the Earth is a polluted mess, and rather than clean it up, at least one rich and famous guy  is looking to find a new spot to colonize. Apart from the one child per couple population control, which China tried a while back, none of this is much of a mental stretch.

However, after a few more scenes, the point of view characters, Dr. Amber Lytton and Dr. Joel Carter, become members of a space going team who board a ship called the Hermes, launch into space, and rely on a Phoenix drive to take them to the pristine Earth type planet, Arcadia. During their training, the couple learns that they are actually the second team to venture to the planet to assess it as a possible location for colonization. Once there, the travelers must dodge aliens of various sizes and levels of ferocity, while looking for clues as to the fate of their predecessors. Problems, both external and within the group, complicate the mission. Borg’s debut novel has quite a bit of suspense, a good character development, and lots of world building. The gadgets, although present, don’t over-power the story, either, which I like.

As in many worthy stories, the bad guys (or critters) aren’t all bad, and the good guys aren’t all good. There are a lot of questions to answer, such as will the villain who is only along to steal a valuable hunk of mineral get away? Will our point of view characters both live through the conflict between species which rule Arcadia? Is Arcadia a parallel planet to Earth, wherein the dinosaurs were never killed off? And, perhaps most important, are humans too wicked to trust to colonize any planet? This novel reminds me of some excellent science fiction writers, especially Jules Verne and Pierre Boulle (Planet of the Apes.) The ending isn’t quite a cliff hanger, but it opens the door for sequels, and I hope the author continues the story line in other novels.

Edge of Extinction is skillfully written and worth the reader’s time. Kim Borg states in her acknowledgements at the end of the novel that her goal is to both educate and entertain the reader, and while she certainly tries to educate, she does entertains. Borg is a new author for fans of classic science fiction to watch.

 

Retro Review: Moondust and Madness by Janelle Taylor

MoondustA friend (a generation older than I am) recommended books by Janelle Taylor, saying she is a prolific series romance writer from Georgia.  That’s true. Goodreads lists lots and lots of titles by Taylor, and apparently she sold quite a few books in her heyday. The series my friend recommended was “western” but as I am a science fiction fan, I chose to read book one in the Moondust series, Moondust and Madness.

Reviews for the ebook, which I read, are not plentiful, but are mostly positive. However, a deeper dive into those reveal that the positive reviews are mostly by readers who remembered this yarn from way back, whereas younger, first time readers are not impressed. I understand both points of view.

Moondust and Madness is a traditional 80s bodice ripper novel, which just happens to be set in space. Heroine Jana Greyson is a scientist who is abducted by an alien gathering up human mates for a large system of planets in another galaxy. These alien abductions are sanctioned by the alien powers that be due to the devastation of an engineered virus which caused a lack of fertility amongst the alien females. BTW, these aliens look just like humans, and can breed with them, so the only thing Jana (and her five hundred companions) need is an inner ear translation device and some brainwashing to help her get ready for her new life. Much of the science fiction trappings seem to have been lifted from Star Trek, from “Star Fleet” to transporters. That could be viewed as “ripping off” Trek, but I think it was more to give readers some familiar science fiction props. This is a romance novel, so there are very few explanations of how gadgets or space ships work.

Lots of political intrigue and the on-again off-again romance between Jana and her captor, Varian Saar, make up the more than five hundred pages of this novel, which begins a series featuring other characters set in the same universe. While I liked the book at times, it is just too retro for most readers. I won’t continue the series, but I did finish it.

For readers who like alien abduction and then fall in love plots, Myra Nour used this same basic plot for her much better novel, Love’s Captive. And, if you want a dose of reality wherein the heroine doesn’t fall in love with her captor, try my novel, Trinity on Tylos.