Time Travel & the Fear of Death

Title: The Psychology of Time Travel
Author: Kate Mascarenhas
Genre: Time Travel Sci-Fi
Pages: 336
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: February 12, 2019 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review.)

I have always been fascinated by time travel stories in which time travel cannot create reality-altering paradoxes (e.g. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis). As this book’s title suggests, it explores what kind of psychological effect this sort of time travel might have on people. The author does so with a degree of thoughtfulness and complexity that I don’t think I have seen before in time travel sci-fi. Topics explored include crime & punishment, romance, mental illness, bullying, fate/fatalism, and especially the fear of death.

What makes the plot great isn’t the solution of the mystery (the “whodunnit to whom?” is obvious well before the end). Rather, the fun is in watching the characters figure it out and seeing how the three different story arcs (starting in 1967, 2017, and 2018) fit together. The actual narration of the story was a bit flat (e.g. sometimes something momentous would happen and it would be stated so blandly that I would have to go back and reread to make sure I read correctly), but the plotting and worldbuilding more than made up for it.

To me, the characters seemed a bit contrived to check as many “strong, diverse female character” boxes as possible (e.g. black, immigrant, lesbian, mentally ill, aristocratic…). All the primary and secondary characters are women with a handful of men putting in very brief whiny, overprotective, or leering appearances. Though it felt a bit overplayed, if you are looking for sci-fi with strong female characters, this is it.

Overall, the plotting, worldbuilding, and psychology mostly made up for any bits that felt flat or contrived.

Ender’s Hunger Games

Apocalypse Five (Archive of the Fives Book 1) by [Rourke, Stacey]Title: Apocalypse Five
Author: Stacey Rourke
Genre: Dystopian Sci-Fi
Pages: 252
Rating: 2 of 5
Future Release Date: 2/12/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC. This in no way affects the content of the review)

Smoosh together Ender’s Game and The Hunger Games, tack on Children of Men for good measure, and you have this book. I’m not sure if I have ever read such derivative sci-fi. It went straight past cliché and into aping popular franchises while stopping short of actual intellectual property theft. There were a few clever twists on the concepts involved, but not enough to raise this above a “seen it all before and the other guys did it better” 2.5-3 stars plot.

The physical descriptions knocked this the rest of the way down to 2 stars. There was way too much “flexing pecks” “chiseled abs” “ebony locks” “tangle of lashes” “mahogany stare” etc. for me. And only about half of those descriptions came in the (frequent) lusting-after-each-other scenes!

Between the Harlequin Romance-esque vocabulary and painfully derivative plot this book did not work for me at all.

(There were also way too many misused/misspelled words – repel instead of rappel, alude instead of elude, toe-head instead of towhead, etc. – but hopefully those are due to my reading a proof copy and won’t remain in the published edition)

Info-Dumping Trumpian Sci-Fi

Robot Depot by [F. Moran, Russell]Title: Robot Depot
Author: Russell F. Moran
Genre: Sci-Fi
Pages: 202
Rating: 1.5 of 5

I seldom accept requests to review self-published books because of their tendency to be lacking in quality (professional editors and publishers’ rejection letters exist for a reason!). However, the premise to this one (ISIS must be stopped from using consumer-grade robots to deliver bombs) sounded interesting enough that I decided to risk it…that risk did not pay off.

Stylistically this was amateurish. The dialogue was stilted and little more than over-explained info-dumping. The narration switched erratically between first and third person. Most of the characters were so flat as to be virtually indistinguishable.

The actual plot of the story involving ISIS didn’t really begin until almost halfway through the book. The first 88 pages was a little setting and lots of meandering regarding current and near-future breakthroughs in robotics & AI technology and their implications for economics, politics, ethics, etc.  Most of the plot threads in this first half became completely inconsequential or remained unresolved once the actual story started.

The actual story lacked believability. Like most people who were alive in 2001, I remember the national fear, anger, and bravado that followed the 9/11 attacks. I sense very little of that here even though the attacks are of a similar magnitude. Our plot is mostly about the CEO of Robot Depot sitting around with his lawyers, PR people, and the FBI and discussing how to save his company (and stop further attacks, of course). There is little sense of a nation in crisis outside the boardroom, and it just doesn’t ring true. Then, in the last few chapters this becomes a completely different style of book and it all ends in sadistic vigilante “justice” to which the government turns a blind eye.

If that’s not enough, the author’s Trumpian political opinions drive the book’s main conflicts. I’m not a fan of politically preachy books in general whatever the politics, and this one was particularly cringey. Just look at the cast of characters –

  • Good guys: our billionaire CEO and his potty-mouthed wife (both veterans), his lawyers and PR people, a couple Arabs who we are clearly informed are definitely not Muslims, and students who beat down violently protesting “lefties” and “academics” and thus provide “a win for Western civilization.”
  • Bad guys: “Academics,” left-wing protestors (most of whom “don’t even know what they’re protesting”), ISIS, “Islamic culture and the ‘Religion of Peace'”

In summary (since I’ve already gone on way too long), I seldom give a book fewer than 2 stars, but this one is so lacking in style and plot that it richly deserves 1.5 (the extra .5 is because some of the economic and ethical questions raised in meandering bits were somewhat interesting).

Final Killer Robot Noir

Title: I Only Killed Him Once
(Ray Electromatic Mysteries: Book 3)
Author: Adam Christopher
Genre: Sci-Fi Noir
Pages: 224
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 7/10/18 (Thanks to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This does not affect the content of my review)

The concluding book in Adam Christopher’s LA Trilogy pulls together plot threads from the previous 2.75 books (one short story + one novella + two novels…reviews here) and ties them up in a nice pretty bow. You could probably read this on its own and be able to follow the plot since there is plenty of recapping (too much in my opinion), but why would you deprive yourself of the joy of reading the full version of what came before?

This final tale of the robot PI-turned-hitman in alternate 1960’s Los Angeles contains some fun twists and turns. Admittedly, most of them you can see coming a mile away as they have been pretty heavily hinted at, but the big one caught me by surprise without feeling completely random. Not too many books do that to me, so that (plus some clever Raymond Chandler in-jokes) made this the highest rated book in the series for me. I don’t want to say much more than that so as to avoid spoilers.

Overall: I highly recommend this series! There are some areas where you have to suspend disbelief and go with the flow (but classic noir is always a bit hackish anyway), and you have to realize that the books are not as self-contained and stand-alone as classic noir fiction, but this series is just a lot of fun, and this book was a great wrap-up to it.

Ode to Our Future Overlords

Title: Robots vs. Fairies
Editors: Dominik Parisien & Navah Wolfe
Genre: Sci-fi & Fantasy Short Story Anthology
Pages: 373
Rating: 4.5 of 5

The introduction to this collection assumes that we will eventually be ruled by either robots or fairies and includes ample flattery of both sides. After all, we wouldn’t want to anger our future overlords. Each story features robots, fairies, or both (and a couple with robotic fairies). After each story the author takes a page to tell why they are “team robot” or “team fairy.”

As with any short story collection, the tone and quality varied quite a bit between stories. There was only one that I actively disliked (“Ironheart” by Jonathan Maberry was just whiny and depressing). Some of the cleverest ones riffed on classic fairy tales (e.g. PinnochioThe Tempest, A Midsummers Night’s Dream), but my favorite was the hilarious “Three Robots Experience Objects Left Behind from the Era of Humans for the First Time” by John Scalzi. Only one story featured an actual robots vs. fairies conflict, which I found surprising given the title, but the variety that was present made this a highly entertaining collection that was greater than the sum of its parts.

In unrelated personal news, the move up to Michigan is moving steadily along…just put in an offer on the house (5 minutes from the beach!) and should have a definite move date by Tuesday.

Ascend Higher

Title: Arm of the Sphinx
(The Books of Babel – Book 2)
Author: Josiah Bancroft
Genre: Kafkaesque Steampunk
Pages: 448
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 3/13/18 (though I’m pretty sure it has been previously released self-pub – thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a free eARC)

The first book in this series, Senlin Ascends, was one of my favorite reads last year (review here). Senlin, now an aerial pirate captain of sorts, continues to search for his lost wife in the Kafkaesque “ringdoms” of the Tower of Babel. His mechanical-armed first mate, Edith Winters (a major secondary character from the first book), becomes at least as much of a main character as Senlin, and the other three members of his crew are sympathetically fleshed out as well.

As in the first book, the plot is a bit episodic, but builds toward a better understanding of the characters, the Tower, and, most importantly, the mysterious Sphinx whose name appears on most of the mechanical devices found in the tower. The narration continues to be light (but not farcical), and the worldbuilding and developing plot are fascinating.

Unfortunately for my personal enjoyment, some elements of the plot seem to be turning in directions that I really don’t like – highlight for *MILDLY SPOILER-Y SPECULATION*:

I can’t stand “I’m on a quest to rescue/return to my wife/lover but am going to go ahead and commit adultery along the way” stories, and we’re definitely headed that direction if nothing changes. Also, I’m not a fan of taking biblical stories/concepts and flipping them around to make God (or his analog) the evil tyrant and we might be heading in that direction.


I’m more than willing to keep going with the series once the next book comes out, but I really hope it doesn’t go the direction I think it will.

Biting Satire

Title: Black No More:
Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free
Author: George S. Schuyler
Genre: Classic Satire / Sci-fi
Pages: 200
Rating: 4 of 5

This classic satire imagines what would happen if an African American doctor discovered a way to make black people into white people. It is by turns hilarious and grim. The character who loosely ties the book together is Dr. Crookman’s (yes, there are lots of not-so-subtle contrived names) first patients to undergo the transformation. He promptly works his way into the upper echelons of a white supremacist organization (basically the KKK) and political/social commentary ensues. Additionally, many of the characters are clearly meant to represent/lambaste some of Schuyler’s “Harlem Renaissance” contemporaries and leaders of the NAACP. Even if a lot of those references go over your head (as they did for me), the main points made seem to suffer very little.

One of Schuyler’s main points seems to be that those who keep the racial tensions boiling (both the KKK and the NAACP) do so primarily for personal wealth and power (especially as a way of manipulating the poor whites in the South). And, of course, there’s the point that people are just people and distinctions based on racial ancestry are ultimately absurd. There’s a lot more going on too for such a small book, but I feel like I would have to read it again (as well as some other “Harlem Renaissance” literature) to be able to discuss it intelligently. Overall: there’s a lot to think about in here presented in an entertaining fashion.

One final note: I am using this book as my “Classic with a color in the title” over at the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018.

Killer Robot Noir

Title: Killing Is My Business
(Ray Electromatic Mysteries: Book 2)
Author: Adam Christopher
Genre: Sci-fi/Noir Mashup
Pages: 284
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Like the first book in the series (review here), this tale of a robot hit man in alternate 1960’s Los Angeles was a lot of fun. When it comes to escapist reading, I love both sci-fi and vintage noir, and this an entertaining fusion of the two. I still don’t quite buy that Ray can be the last/only functioning robot in the world and still remain inconspicuous while doing PI/hit man type work. However, it doesn’t pay to think too hard about plot details in Raymond Chandler-esque stories, so I’m willing to mostly ignore it (and a couple other “not quite sure that makes sense” moments).

There seems to be a glaring continuity problem in regard to Ray’s memory from the end of the first book to this one, but as the book goes along there are hints that this is intentional and part of an over-arching story that will be resolved in the next book (at least I really hope that’s what’s going on).  The main case is resolved by the end of the book, but we are left with a lot of questions regarding Ray’s relationship with Ada, his computer counterpart/boss. Personally, I like noir/detective stories to have a little tighter wrap-up rather than using unresolved plot points to string me along to the protagonist’s next story, but it was still a good read.

Death to the false emperor!

Title: Night Lords: The Omnibus
Author: Aaron Dembski-Bowden
Genre: Military Sci-fi (Warhammer 40K)
Pages: 943
Rating: 3 of 5

In the dark, violent Warhammer 40,000 universe, stories about loyalist Space Marines tend to be monotonously alike. They are all ridiculously over-powered and fanatically single-minded in doing the Emperor’s will. The forces of Chaos are more disturbing/evil but can offer a lot more variety as protagonists, so I decided to check out this trilogy featuring a company of Chaos Space Marines (aka the bad guys).

The Night Lords are sadistic, atrocity-committing cowards almost as likely to turn on each other as they are to wreak their vengeance on the Empire. They are not so corrupted by Chaos that they are unthinking monsters, but they have become little more than scattered bands of raiders and pirates. The narration mostly follows the “prophet” Talos and his human slaves, Septimus and Octavia as Talos tries to bring some sort of unity and meaning back to the scattered VIII Legion.

As with any Warhammer 40K book, these are purely escapist stories filled with violence and gore (given the nature of our protagonists, the gore is ratcheted up a few notches), and the writing is only so-so (certain stock descriptions/phrases get overused, one seemingly important story thread just vanishes without resolution, etc.). Basically, it’s about what you would expect from a series based on a tabletop game.

It was interesting reading from the “bad guys'” perspective and seeing their reasons for doing what they do. At least they’re honest about being evil…I personally find the Emperor and other “good guys” to be almost as reprehensible in most stories. It was pretty much what I expected it to be, it was a good read for what it was, and I’ve had my fill of dark uber-violent sci-fi for a while.

Chaldean Steampunk?

Title: Senlin Ascends
Author: Josiah Bancroft
Genre: Steampunk?
Pages: 448
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 1/16/18 (though I’m pretty sure it has been previously released self-pub. Thanks to NetGalley for an eARC!)

Steampunk usually has a Victorian England-ish setting and rests on a premise like “this is what the world would be like if Babbage had actually built the clockwork/steam computers he invented.” This steampunkish book goes much farther back for our point of divergence…apparently in this world God never stopped the construction of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) and it has become the pillar (or possibly sinkhole) of culture and civilization.

In this world we meet Senlin, a young idealistic schoolmaster reminiscent of Voltaire’s Candide in his optimism and naivete (with a side order of smug fussiness). He arrives at the Tower with his new wife and his trusty Everyman’s Guide to the Tower of Babel (a book almost but not entirely unlike The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). The honeymoon quickly descends into a Kafkaesque nightmare as he is separated from his wife and begins working his way up the Tower in hopes of finding her.

For the sake of spoilers, I won’t tell any more of the plot or setting since exploring the  surreal hodgepodge world of the Tower with it’s stacked “ringdoms” is part of the fun. Let’s just say that as Senlin ascends the tower, his idealistic vision of the Tower as a shining beacon of culture and his bright-eyed trust in humanity go in the other direction.

For all that, I didn’t find this to be a grindingly depressing book. The author has a light, slightly sarcastic touch and has you rooting for Senlin as he becomes a sadder, wiser man. The book does not offer much resolution to the main plot (there appears to be plenty more Tower to ascend), but I enjoyed the journey enough that I’m not even mad…I’m glad there’s much more to come of this fascinating world. This quirky book just might make my top five list for the year!