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.

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.

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.

Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help— review and commentary

ToxicA friend who works on the staff of a large church recommended this book to me, and while it lacks sufficient support for some of the concepts, the principles are sound. Basically, the title says it pretty well—whether just throwing money or a week of unpaid labor at poverty—this act of charity might do more harm than good.

Author Robert D. Lupton has plenty of experience in urban ministry, and he cites many examples from his experience in Atlanta, Georgia, which is where he lives and works. But, as I have seen lots of churches gather a group of volunteers for week long “mission trips” I was fascinated by the story of a church in Mexico that was painted six times during one summer, by six different sets of volunteers. Indeed, what the author terms “religious tourism” is big business. He states that in 2005, $2.4 billion was spent by 1.6 million Americans, who traveled abroad for short term mission trips. My favorite statistic: “The Bahamas, it is estimated, annually receives one short-term missionary for every fifteen residents.” Okay, I have never traveled abroad on a mission trip, but the Bahamas sounds like a great place to visit. (My daughter mentioned knowing of a local church that did a mission trip to Ireland. Sounds heavenly!)

Lest readers get the idea that all Lupton does is make the good hearted look either mis-guided or just plain stupid, he does mention that many people set out on these trips with good intentions. Then he explains that in the third world, a little bit of money spent properly can do quite a lot. He explains the use of “micro loans” which can give a struggling person a needed hand up. For example, a $50 loan to a woman in Nicaragua allowed her to buy a sewing machine so she could ramp up her production of baby clothes. Once she paid off the loan, she still had the increased earning capacity.

In the U.S. many churches and other charities give away certain items. One example was giving holiday presents to needy families, but the fathers in such situations are often embarrassed that they can’t match the generosity of the well meaning givers, and are thus emasculated in front of their wives and children. Another example was a food bank, wherein the recipients had come to view the handouts as entitlements, which the author then contrasted with a food co-op, where members paid a small ($3) membership fee, and the members then gathered food from free or discounted sources, set their own rules for distribution, and so forth. The co-op helped the members but did not demean them or destroy their work ethic.

Toxic Charity is a bit controversial, but the U.S.A. is one of the most generous nations which has ever graced this planet. Unfortunately, just throwing money at problems can actually make things worse. This book is a must read for anyone who is involved in charity work, faith based or not, because it explains the problem but gives some good guidelines for better ways to help without hurting the recipient or wasting effort and money.

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.

 

The Functional. Fragment. Celebrated. Or reviled.

ARC5Claimed (which may or may not also have the title of Rescued) came to me as an advanced review copy (ARC) which I read recently for a review site. Actually, I am glad to have the opportunity to review again, as it has been quite a while since I’ve done this. Most such sites really want a positive review, and I have written one. My comments for the site are true but censored a bit. What you’ll read here is more genuine.

First of all, sometimes minor mistakes are in an ARC, and I certainly understand that. The author used “fussed” for “fussy” for instance. That’s the kind of minor mistake that should be corrected before the final book is published. This book is a science fiction romance, with the emphasis on romance. For me, science fiction should have a bit science, but in Claimed/Rescued there aren’t many science fiction elements, apart from characters (lots of aliens) setting (a spaceship and a space station) and plot (alien abduction.) Apart from vivid descriptions of aliens, the other elements are not especially detailed.

Romance comes in several flavors these days, from very hot (nearly pornographic) to sweet (think Amish stories that talk about feelings rather than body parts.) Claimed/Rescued is skewed well on the sexy side of the continuum. For those who read romance for vicarious sex, this novel is a winner. From a science fiction standpoint, this yarn disappoints a bit. Okay, I don’t have to know how the ship goes or how the remote control on her wicked slave collar works, but a little more detail concerning the gadgets would be welcome. The most sci fi part of the book is the afore mentioned vast array of aliens, and those are described in varying levels of detail.

For me, the most annoying aspect of the book was the author’s reliance upon the “functional fragment.” Of course, lots of dialogue depends on the functional fragment. Think about one side of a phone conversation:

“Hey!”

“Oh yeah.”

“Really?”

“No kiddin’!”

I have no problem with the construction in that context. But. This author. Tends to write. Like. This. The words shared in this manner tend to be feelings or observations, such as “Handsome.” “Kindness.” “To Bond.” “To become as one.” “Tenderness.” “Aroused.” “Stay strong.” “Traumatized.” “Wary.” “Forever.” Y’all, I just listed a few of the functional fragments. Every once in a while, this could be an effective technique, but Claimed/Rescued is far too reliant upon these pseudo sentences.

No doubt Claimed/Rescued will be published, and there will be enough positive reviews that some science fiction romance fans will read it. And, those who want to experience sex vicariously may well enjoy it. But. All I seem to remember. Are. Those. Fragments.