Tuesday, August 20, 2019

2019 Dragon Award Finalist, Best Alternate History Novel: "The Calculating Stars”

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This is a longish review, because I needed to document some things. However, I have posted a condensed version on Goodreads, and submitted a similarly small review on Amazon. 

Greetings, Internet friends and neighbors, and a big hug and kiss to those who are following along with the month-long series of Dragon Awards book reviews: here is the SECOND review for today! 
(Ummm, no, it isn't. This was supposed to go out last night. Sorry.) 
And for my family who may have stumbled onto the site: every once in a while I re-learn why we only had dogs growing up, and not cats. Tonight is one of those times.

If my count is right, I have read 10 of the 2019 Dragon Award Finalists, and this is my 9th review. I have one I am holding in reserve, for a day when LTUE decides I don't get to read or write much for a bit. I am highly gratified to report that I finally have my daily average read required down below 300 pages per day, at least for the next 1 hour and 46 minutes. (Nope) One day real soon I'm gonna have to tackle the monster on the list (784 pages), 

Hmm. Viggo Mortensen got more mileage out of that line. Must be the costume.

“The Calculating Stars” is, if nothing else, a paean to the courage and strength of the women featured in “Hidden Figures,” although Dilly's Girls and the Debs at Bletchley Park in WWII could also accept some of the homage given to those women with amazing math and problem-solving skills. At the time, their contributions to their countries were largely anonymous, a status which has been partially rectified in recent years. Also receiving well-earned  recognition are the women who served with the Women Airforce (or Army, or Auxiliary) Service Pilots (WASP), a cadre of over 1000 pilots who flew in various essential non-combat roles in WWII, replacing male pilots who were cleared for combat status. All of these groups are worth the time it would take to research them, and the author includes some additional information in an appendix.

Protagonist Elma Wexler York and her husband Nathaniel are taking a brief semi-honeymoon, prior to returning to jobs with the newly founded National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in Washington, DC. He is an engineer, she a mathematician, although that title is not used for her. Rather, she and her fellows are called computers. Both served during WWII, he as an Army captain, she as a WASP.

Although the catastrophic meteorite ocean strike offshore Washington DC, at 9:53 AM on March 3rd, 1952, is the foundation of the story, this story diverged from our timeline before that event. We are told that Dewey actually did defeat Truman, and also that NACA has launched three satellites. No additional background is provided, but the author explains that she made the changes so that Wernher von Braun and his crew could receive funding from a Dewey Administration.

The couple survive the blast effects from the strike, and are able to reach their private aircraft, parked some distance from the cabin. Along the way, they see wreckage and body parts, but no living humans. Elma pilots the plane to the nearest open airfield, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. There they meet with Air Force colonel Stetson Parker, who suggests that because of the casualties in the DC area, his command may extend well beyond the boundaries of Wright-Patterson. He is delighted to see Nathaniel, as he believes that the catastrophe may be a result of a Russian rocket attack, and wants to use his expertise to prepare a counter-attack. He is far from pleased to see Elma, though, as he believes she reported him for sexual harassment ('conduct unbecoming for an officer') when they happened to be serving in the same area during WWII. 

NOTE: Throughout the book, he remains the Bad Guy. While his skills as a pilot are never in question, and his ability as a flight instructor is commended, his character strives to denigrate Elma and block her from advancement.

By virtue of family connections and her own expertise, Elma is able to gather data which predicts  global extinction within 50 years. She is able to get the attention of the acting president, the former Secretary of Agriculture. And, what with one thing and another, the nascent American space program is funded to research immediate development of off-planet colonies. NACA is absorbed into the new International Aerospace Coalition, IAC.

Elma recruits a cadre of women to run the calculations necessary to develop the hardware for the space program. Former WASPs are heavily represented, and she is also preparing the women to participate fully in the operational aspects of the program, by the formation of a women's flying club. The woman who was her original hostess when she arrived at Wright-Patterson puts her in touch with some black aviators, and the group incorporates black aviators, as well as a Chinese woman.

Elma's contact with the black women opens her eyes to the segregation in the system. The refusal of the IAC administration to consider women for training as astronauts, as well as the exclusion of non-white candidates, and her efforts to overcome that choice, provides the text for the remainder of the book.

Stories classed as science fiction absolutely get to take liberty with facts. That's NOT a negative. I'm thinking specifically about Heinlein's “Waldo” and “Magic, Incorporated,” and how much I've enjoyed re-reading those over the years. Even so, I am permitted to point out points in which the narrative seems stretched. 

I doubt seriously that there was a data base available that would have permitted such specificity of climate predictions in 1952, and even if some relevant records were available, the number crunching power of methods available at the time simply couldn't make anything like a reliable prediction. While the author does gain some leeway here, by establishing that early results weren't consistent with the original prediction, that isn't quite the point; the point is not coming up with an accurate forecast; the point is coming up with a forecast that policy-makers will accept. It simply couldn't be done. It's not a deal-breaker, though; this IS, after all, science fiction.

The massive number of innovations needed to achieve a space colonization effort large enough to guarantee the survival of the human race, within the 50-year time limit imposed, is more than unrealistic. It's not a deal-breaker, though; this IS, after all, science fiction.

One of the main supporters of the space program is said, in August of 1956. to have been a vocal supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King. That's not likely to be the case, for several reasons. At that time, King had essentially NO national reputation; he did not start to gain notice until the Birmingham Bus boycott. In addition, the possibility of the economy recovering enough by August of 1956 for a non-violent sustained civil rights demonstration along the order of the Birmingham action to take place is small, particularly since the headquarters of the NAACP is in Baltimore, which was destroyed. Finally, King was likely dead. When the meteorite hit, King was a doctoral student in Boston, and Boston streets flood during routine weather. With coastal areas being obliterated from the wave surge, it's not likely that anyone in that area survived.  It's not a deal-breaker, though; this IS, after all, science fiction.

I think the author is wildly optimistic about implementing race- and gender-free recruiting for military programs in a post-meteor US. In our own timeline, President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 AFTER he received his party's nomination for the 1948 election, and even so, the last military segregated unit wasn't eliminated until late 1954. In the chaos following the decapitation of the military in 1952, the military would revert to tradition, not accept innovation. It's not a deal-breaker, though; this IS, after all, science fiction; bit it's CLOSE.

There are two items, which taken together, DO amount to a deal-breaker for me, and they are related, via one particular scene. 
Three of the Lady Astronaut trainees participate in an exercise which simulates an aircraft crashing in water. The “Dilbert Dunker” is a real device used in training, but in this scene,  the women are given bikinis to wear, instead of a flight suit, and are photographed by a horde of reporters as they go through the process. 
This is absolutely implausible. At the time, the bikini was a new and risque item of swimwear, banned from many public beaches. A conversation with a retired NASA scientist affirmed that the intensely conservative space administration would NEVER have exposed trainees to what amounts to a wet T-shirt contest. They might have suicided before permitting women to participate in the training program, but they would NEVER have permitted such a violation of standard dress codes in such fashion.

Besides being implausible, it was the scene that convinced me that the book was less about science fiction and alternate history, than it was about polemics. We are given many examples, prior to this, of the wicked treatment the women are subject to, without any negative consequences to those who block their advancement, or even actively persecute them. There is no disputing the historic fact of systematic segregation and discrimination based on gender and race, which are the two factors presented in the book. However, the author made the point a LONG time before this scene. I found the bikini scene to be clownish and grotesque, and it utterly took me out of the narrative. 

And then we come to the question: Is this book a likely candidate to win the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Alternate History Novel?

The answer to THAT question is largely going to depend on who you ask. The Science Fiction Writers Association gave it the 2019 Award for Best Novel. It also won the 2019 Locus Award, which is determined by an online vote, with votes from subscribers to the magazine given twice the weight of non-subscribers. It also won the 2019 Hugo for Best Novel; those are determined by WorldCon members voting. And so on. So, there is plenty of support for the win.


There are just too many impossible things for me to believe, and I truly was disturbed by the bikini scene. 
It is, however, guaranteed not to put a live octopus on your face.

Peace be on your household.

Monday, August 19, 2019

2019 Dragon Award Finalist, Best SF Novel: Record Of A Spaceborn Few"

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Greetings, Internet friends and neighbors, and a continued SPECIAL greeting to those who are following along with the month-long series of Dragon Awards book reviews: today you are going to get TWO servings, and you might just get three. And for my family who may have stumbled onto the site: Yes, my finger WAS on the trigger, but only for purposes of posing the scene. I had removed the magazine and cleared the chamber, and I verified that before each picture.

Full disclosure: as I gathered the materials for this reviewing project, the title of this book caught my eye, and I found it very difficult to postpone reading it until yesterday. I don't know exactly WHY the title hooked me so significantly; if I understood that, I'd probably start a consulting business writing titles for books. I also found that the thumbnail pic of the author spoke to me, a bit, about a person who had fun writing a book. It seemed such a contrast to a few headshots I'd encountered lately of blustery guys with beetling brows and fierce expressions, and some glam shots of vampires;  people I wouldn't ask for a lift to the next service station if I ran out of gas.

This person enjoys writing books.

This is Book 3 in the Wayfarers series, and it shows. The background work in establishing the world has already been done; we are told exactly where in the story arc this book is found. It's my hope that those who prefer origin stories above all things can find them in the other installments in the series, but I confess that I cannot testify to that of my own experience.

There are a couple of points I found confusing, although I can't really say that they detracted from the presented story in any major way. The primary confusion I had was this: we have a huge exodus of humans from a worn-out planet Earth; they have spent generations in space on their voyage. The departure from Earth is referenced in a ritual followed by those who live on the ships:

We left the ground behind. We left the oceans. We left the air. We watched these things grow small. We watched them shrink into a point of light.
(Chambers, Becky. Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers) (pp. 34-35). Harper Voyager. Kindle Edition. )

This, I understand; I've read unknown stories of giant habitat-ships among the stars. What I DON'T understand is the mechanism by which the Exodans (for so they are called) maintain contact with remaining humans on Earth, on Mars, and living in other artificial environments in the Solar system.

The other issues are more trivial. I understand that there are two primary languages spoken by humans, Ensk and Klip, and that Ensk is primarily Terran in origin, while Klip is Galactic, but I wasn't able to determine how the mix began. It's easy to pick up, and is, in fact, a central story point, that humans are significantly limited in their technological prowess. It SEEMS that they gained almost all of the essential technology currently in use as a gift from more advanced species, but the nature of the technology transfer is undefined. And the ability of humans to adapt easily to different gravities (okay, accelerations!) isn't addressed. As I said, though, these are trivial.

There is one respect in which they MIGHT matter, though, and I don't have enough evidence from this single exposure to know whether it applies. With the exception of a tiny area of science fiction literature, that dealing with the intrusion of a new technology on current society, it's accepted that you can violate any ONE aspect of reality with no penalty whatsoever. That's usually some form of hyper-space, but it can vary. However, given that single violation, anything else has to be explained, or at least justified. It's all a matter of acceptable limits. Within the context of “Record of a Spaceborn Few,” I don't know how many of the technological marvels have been properly introduced. I'm inclined to give the benefit of the doubt, as technology transfer is a significant part of the storyline. However, if it's ALL handwavium, or even if it's ALIEN handwavium, then: ouch. 

This is a mere quibble.  

The book delivers EXACTLY what the title promises. These are the personal stories of a few individuals, told over the span of a few years. I'm not really good at paying attention to chapter headings (actually, I'm very bad at it). However, the kind author provided a subtle clue about which character's POV was going to be represented in each section, via the esoteric method of TELLING US THE NAME! (Yes, I am slow to catch on.)

The protagonists are Tessa, a materials handler and young (almost single) mother of two; Isabel, a keeper of the archives of the Exodans, and administrator of rituals; Sawyer, a young adult, orphaned on a planet, who enters life aboard the Fleet; Kip, a ship-board teen who has to fight the coming-of-age crisis in an environment he finds unreasonably limiting; Eyas, a Caretaker, the high-status professional who manages the funeral rites of the ship, including preparing the bodies of the deceased into compost, which is then returned to the soil which grows the oxygen-providing plants.  Each one is surrounded by a rich community, and it's in the interaction of these with the primaries that we really understand the tensions experienced by the humans who have fled Earth.

Without exception, the characters presented seemed very real to me, and likable. There was something about each character, other than Caretaker Eyas, that I could relate to, whether encroaching limitations of aging, the perils and joys of parenthood (& grand-parenthood), or the struggles Kip and Sawyer were facing in discovery of their place in the world. As for Eyas, her story was told with such beauty and power that I didn't feel a need to recognize myself in her. 

And now we come to the question: is this book a real contender for the 2019 Dragon Award for the Best Science Fiction of the Year?

I've already addressed the issue of whether or not a series novel has the same chance of winning the award as a stand-alone novel. My answer is ALMOST the same as before “I have no clue.” However, in this case, the book in question is not the first of a series, it's the third. And, for a mid-series work to qualify for Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year, I think the burden is SIGNIFICANTLY higher; it must tell an ENTIRE story, not just a part of one.

This is just my opinion, and you can take it or leave it: while “Record of A Spaceborn Few” is an excellent read, I just don't think it brings enough innovation to the table to warrant “Best of the Year” status. Too much depends on the other books in the series. This is NOT a criticism of what I found between the covers, because I really enjoyed the book. However, I don't find myself highly motivated to interrupt my sleep to read the other installments in the series, and frankly, I think that's exactly what a mid-series nomination for Best SF of the Year ought to do.

Having said that, it was an excellent read, and I recommend it.

Peace be on your household.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

2019 Dragon Award Finalist, Best Military SF: "Order of the Centurion"

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Greetings to all my internet friends and neighbors, and  for those of you who are following the Dragon Race To Review, here is review #7 of 24!  I have 14 days left to review 17 books. (Will he make it, folks?) And to any of my family who have made an appearance, signing up for that membership in AAA has paid off again. That's AAA, not AA; although the AA membership has paid off even more. But I digress.

Yesterday was a bit of a marathon session. I posted two reviews here, and on Goodreads, and submitted them to Amazon; I think I had to fool around a little bit with Amazon jail; and then, Life, The Universe and Everything. I also re-posted something from September 2017, because of LTUE; and then, a little later on, the Dear Chopper Lady (DCL) herself, Kacey Ezell, suggested I needed to know a friend of hers, Butt Hat Sally. DCL was not able to provide any additional information, but I'm writing all of my appointments in pencil, just in case I need to make a last-minute meeting.

So, a VERY busy day. And I intended to take a brief rest. However, the BOOKS had a different plan. And, right around 8 PM, “Order of the Centurion,” by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole, took over the controls of my iPad, and only allowed me the minimum amount of time needed for family maintenance issues and comfort breaks, until I finished shortly after 1 AM. 
It was a glorious time!

“The planet Psydon”
“27 years prior to the Battle of Kublar”

That's how the story opens. At this very moment, I know that the Battle of Kublar figures prominently in the series “Galaxy's Edge” by the Anspach-Cole team, but last night when I started reading, I had not a clue. And my first interpretation of the data was: 

“...this is going to tell me about how Lieutenant Washam, the protagonist, goes from a naive butter-bar on this back-water planet to achieve greatness at the Battle of Kubar...”

I knew greatness was in the picture, because the name of the book is “Order of the Centurion.” The preliminary material describe the nature of the award, which only goes to those who display exceptional valor, refusing to yield even unto death, and that 98.4% of all citations are awarded posthumously. This will NOT be a story of a young man who finally learns from a kindly drill sergeant how to put a spit-shine on his boots, and gets to have an extra cookie on graduation day *, okay? Greatness is going to happen.

*This is not meant to be a disparagement of shiny boots, kindly drill sergeants, or cookies. In fact, all are worthy of endorsement.

But: what I was expecting was a quick series of episodes, taking Lt. Washam across the galaxy, sort of like Johnny Rico. Oh, my, no! This is the tightly-wrapped story of a single patrol, with appropriate head, tail, and feathers attached to give proper context. And, the closer I got to realizing that was the scope of this book, the more respect I gained for the opening: “27 years prior to the Battle of Kumar.” NEVER, not once, within the pages of this book is Kumar referenced after that opening. It doesn't have to be; the intro is enough to tell me it's enormously significant. And because it's significant, I looked it up, and now, I know how to find out about it.

Well-done, Anspach and Cole!

And on to the story:

Lieutenant “Wash” Washam is stuck in a rear-echelon office as a paper-pusher, and he hates it. He's part of a group of political appointees that have been commissioned in the Legion, the elite military force that is responsible for the continued existence of civilization. To a man, they have been rejected as unworthy by the rest of the Legion, who correctly see them as 

“The long con everyone saw and couldn’t get out of.” (Anspach, Jason. Order of the Centurion (Galaxy's Edge) (p. 4). Galaxy's Edge Press. Kindle Edition. )

The rest of the 'points,' as the legion contemptuously calls them, accept their pariah status as a necessary preliminary to political careers after they complete their terms of service, and spend their days doing nothing that looks like work. Washam alone went through all of the training required to be a regular member of the Legion, while the other points skipped everything, knowing that there were no consequences.

Except: there are political consequences, and there are consequences that have tissue damage attached to them. Wash has ignored the political, and prepared for the lethal. Unfortunately, the Legion will not give him the opportunity to show what he can do. And so he sits, processing supply requests.

Until his buddy shows up. Almost everybody has a buddy like this; they show up, they have a plan, and you know in advance it's going to be a bad idea. Still, they cajole, and prevail; and, despite the fact that good old buddy Major Berlin's idea is most likely to result in death or court-martial, Wash goes along with it.

And the next day, a helicopter shows up, loaded with a squad of Marines, and Berlin and Wash get aboard so that Berlin can get in some combat time, which will almost certainly guarantee a successful political career upon discharge. The fact that he skipped ALL of the training necessary to lead a small group in combat, the fact that these troops are NOT in his chain of command, the likelihood that they will all die; none of that enters his  plan. He blithely assumes that he can do Great Things, despite all evidence to the contrary.

It's up to Wash to fix things. The first order of business is to keep the Marines, all with some degree of experience in combat, from fragging Berlin as soon as they realize he is a fraud. The second is to accomplish whatever mission he can, and to bring back as many alive as possible.

Once I realized the entire focus was going to be on a single mission, I had a new appreciation for the fact that some of the story arcs might be closed, and that there was no guarantee that ANYONE was going to make it out of the story alive. Everything was on the table, and that adds to the fascination with the story developing before me.

As evidenced that I read this book in one setting, I loved the story, the writing, the characters. And so to the question: is this a viable candidate for the Dragon Award for Best Military Science Fiction Novel?

I joyfully pay for the privilege of reading books of this quality, and I have every reason to believe that FINALLY, I can expect to have offerings on a regular basis. There was a long, long dry spell when this wasn't the case, when any mil sci-fi gem found was clutched close to the chest and fondled; I must have read my copies of Jerry Pournelle's “War World” series 10 times over. I have now read four of the six entries in this category, and reviewed three of them. And based on what I've seen, the winner of this category will NOT be decided on excellence of story. Of the four I've read, every single one of them is a premier work. They aren't carbon copies of each other; even the two books which share a universe are quite different. But, I can't identify any particular discriminating factor that is going to hook a huge subset of the fans of military science fiction. Therefore, based on what I'm seeing: the size of the fan base is going to determine the winner. 

But, based ONLY on what is found between the covers, yes. This is a book that could very well bring home the Dragon.

Peace be on your household.

Friday, August 16, 2019

2019 Dragon Award Finalist, Best Alternate History Novel: "Machines Like Me”

Don't buy this book. It's awful

Usually, at this exact point in my blog post, I include a cover image and a link to Amazon for people who want to buy the book, but are running an ad blocker.
I almost decided not to do that, because I think the book doesn't deserve to be bought.
But, what the heck. If you are determined, go ahead.

By the way, for all of those indie and small house authors: if you were wondering what benefits you get from a Big House, read the burbs on Goodreads. You'd think this was the definitive work on Life The Universe, and Everything.
I must dissent.

Greetings to all my internet friends and neighbors, and  for those of you who are following the Dragon Race To Review, here is that second installment I promised you! And to any of my family who have made an appearance:STOP. Close this file, don't read it. You will NOT benefit by going any further.

Alternate history. As soon as I started reading this book, I had to do a LOT of thinking about the field, and the most hopeful thing I came up with is: maybe it's not even science fiction, and everyone will realize that, and thus I will never have to read something like this again.

Yeah, that WAS the most hopeful thing I came up with, and the hope lasted maybe 30 seconds. It was at that point that I remembered some of the EXCELLENT alternate history I've read in the past, and hope to read more of in the future. In fact, prior to reading THIS work, the only BAD alternate history I've encountered was written by Harry Turtledove about the Civil War. It was bad, because I found NO creativity in the writing; all he did was flip North and South, turn black slaves into blond slaves, and assign slightly modified names to the principal characters, like Avram for Abraham Lincoln. That's a book your word processor can write, if you know how to use the search-and-replace function.

Still, I'd much rather read THREE works like that, than one like “Machines Like Me.”

This is, clearly, alternate history, and thus qualifies for the category. It's hard to say exactly what the point of divergence could be; Alan Turing is the most prominent secondary character, and one source said the divergence was that Turing refused chemical castration, and took a year in prison instead. That doesn't fly, though, because Turing was arrested in 1952, and died in 1954, while the book also mentions that the US did NOT drop the atomic bomb on Japan, which would have been a divergence in 1945. Whatever the divergence point, in the setting of the book, England in the 1980s, there are numerous technological advances that vary from our timeline, and that leads to a British loss to Argentina in the Falklands War.

So, yes. Alternate history.

But that hardly seems the point. Although a chief plot device is the ability to purchase a human-appearing robot, which then acts more-or-less like a human, almost all the action takes place in the mind of the protagonist. And his mind is a terrible thing to waste your time on. He's a boring drone; although not born to wealth, he has inherited a great deal of money due to the sale of his family home. He then proceeds to squander it, mostly on the purchase of a robot, but on a smaller, more constant scale by online trading. He is really a zero, going nowhere, and the purchase of a robot human mostly serves to give him the opportunity to whine about how pathetic he is.

He's right, you know. He IS pathetic. He has a wretched love affair with his neighbor, which he is afraid to invest in. They appear to have some sexual chemistry, the details of which transpire behind a closed bedroom door, thankfully, but otherwise, don't really seem to like each other.

There are plot developments. They transform the story from a dull monotonous tale of a drone who owns an android to a dull monotonous tale of a drone who owns an android and has a couple of things happen to him. However, none of the things which happen to him seem to result in any change at all.

It is entirely possible that this is a brilliant, scathing satire on middle class British life. If so, it went over my head entirely, and makes me ever so grateful that my ancestors fled the island for America.

It took me the better part of a day to read this. If it weren't for the honor of the thing, I would rather have done just about anything else.

Is this a legitimate contender for the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Alternate History? If it wins, the fix is in, and the people who are responsible for the fix wish to kill enjoyable science fiction.

Peace be on your household.

2019 Dragon Award Finalist, Best SF Novel: "A Star-Wheeled Sky"

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Greetings to all my internet friends and neighbors, and a MOST auspicious day for those of you who are following the Dragon Race To Review, because I BELIEVE you are going to get two installments today! And to any of my family who have made an appearance: do you know if there was ever any serious consideration given to settling in an area a bit less hot and humid?

A comparison with Robert A. Heinlein usually results in a collapsed modern author, but Brad Torgersen does just fine, in my humble opinion. I don't make the comparison lightly; I can point to four separate profound influences on my life from Heinlein's books, from “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel” in 5th or 6th grade, to my discovery of a dog-eared copy of “Starship Troopers” in the day room of Charlie 2 at Ft Sam Houston in 1972. Perhaps, if I were found in the form of an impressionable 12 year-old lad, and someone gave me a copy of “The Chaplain's War,” similar life-changing understandings would emerge, because Torgersen did two things in that book I've never seen before.

In the first place, in all the military movies and literature I consumed in my life, there was never anyone like ME, or any of my family. My grandfather took care of the mules in France. My father was a B-17 door gunner during WWII, my uncle was an aircraft mechanic in Korea, and I was a medic in Germany. It wasn't until they send my cannon-cocker son the Afghanistan, and turned him into infantry for the good of the service, that any of us who served did something that looked like what John Wayne did in all those movies. So, who is the hero of Torgersen's book? A chaplain's assistant, later turned into a chaplain, for the good of the service.
The second thing that Torgersen did in that book was to come up with a brand new take on the Bug Eyed Monster. I can't spoil it for you, but every prior BEM was going to eat your face, OR you THOUGHT it was going to eat your face, but it turned out to be harmless and gentle and helpful. Well, that's not the nature of Torgersen's BEM, and read the book.

Here's another Heinlein tie-in: he wrote a short story called “Goldfish Bowl,” in which inscrutable and undetectable aliens create giant structures that humans don't understand. The story has NO resolution, except to equate our relationship to the aliens with the relationship existing between goldfish and humans.

And, in “A Star-Wheeled Sky,” inscrutable and undetectable aliens have constructed an interstellar network of passages between star systems that humans can't understand. However, as far as I can tell, there is nothing else that connects the stories in any way: just: two guys, seventy years apart, thinking about things and then writing them down.

“A Star Wheeled Sky” is set in the far future, long centuries after humans boarded arcologies and fled some impending disaster to Earth. So much time has elapsed that only the tiniest fragments of  Earth history are known; not even the location of the home planet, nor the reason for the exodus. Surviving humans, separated into five factions, have settled a region of space, which they refer to as the 'Waywork,' linked together by mysterious passageways (Waypoints), which can only be opened by alien artifacts humans call “Keys.” The Keys can only be operated by a select few, those with the talent to make psychic contact with them. The drain on the operators is intense, and they have to be closely monitored to prevent burnout.

We discover early on that there is an ongoing war in the Waywork, with the Nautilan faction determined to conquer all. People of the Starstate Constellar provide the primary POV characters' they are the number one enemy of Starstate Nautilan. Minor players include Starstates Yamato, Sultari, and Amethyne. Nautilan has overwhelming military superiority, however, and it seems that their goal of total conquest will be realized.

That path is completely disrupted by the unprecedented appearance of a new Waymark, with unknow resources on the other side. The structure of the book is set by the race of the competing factions of Constellar and Nautilan to secure the Waypoint, and whatever is on the other side of it,

1. This is book one of a new series. No idea how many are planned, but while numerous story plots are resolved, the main issue is only JUST broached.
2. These are not trivial characters, and they aren't treated trivially. Clearly, the Nautilans, with their desire to conquer and tyranical rule, are the Bad Guys, and the Constellars are the Good Guys, but there is plenty to be ambivalent about with both sides. Some of the Good Guys die, usually heroically; some of the Bad Guys die, and it's a bit sad. One of the primary characters voices the truth that war requires good people to do bad things to other good people.
3. In my mind, this story unfolds like a path in the woods. We go down the path, and then, there is a fork! Okay, Mr. Author, let's see how you handle THIS! And .every.single.time. Torgersen pulls a ptarmigan out of his trilby. He makes this work with technical problems, story-line resolutions, and relationships between the characters.

There are MANY examples of this masterful writing, such as his explanation of why the humans stopped expanding, and a wonderfully played, throw-away few lines about current habitats, but my favorite involves an interaction between what passes for royalty, First Family heiress Garsina Oswight, and her long-time bodyguard, Elvin Axabrast. For Garsina, no image comes to mind, but maybe Natalie Portman would fit. However, for crusty Elvin, I DEFINITELY have the image of some combination of Lee Marvin and Sean Connery (the gray-haired version). They have a heart-to-heart about his past, and his loyalty, and why he has a tattoo on his hand that says, essentially, “I HATE FIRST FAMILIES” and quite frankly, I didn't see HOW Torgersen was going to write his way out of the situation he had set up.
And then, he did it, and it was as perfect as we have any right to expect.

And for those who would like a look behind the scenes, here's some backstory on Elvin Axabrast.

“A Star-Wheeled Sky” contains “Death before Dishonor!”; desperate ruses; a tiny, tiny hint at potential romance maybe; “so crazy it just might work”; the demands of service; exploding spaceships; David vs Goliath; and a huge portion of technology-indistinguishable-from-magic. There is even some slight taste of Bug Eyed Monster. No scantily-clad maiden fainting into the arms of a rescuer, though; Torgersen ain't that kind of writer. Other than that, it's got it all that you could want in space opera.

Query: is it a contender to win the Dragon Award?

Here's one factor that I don't know how to evaluate, or even if it's relevant: is a stand-alone novel a more likely winner than a series novel? I know that at one point, back in yawn-take-a-nap, there was some serious discussion about a separate category entirely for books considered as a series. I know this, because I read about it in Isaac Asimov's autobiography; he won the award with “Foundation.” But apart from that bit of trivia, I have no clue. Furthermore, this is only my second review of a finalist in the Best Sci Fi Novel category, and I don't know the nature of the other four entries.

With that caveat, I've got to say that Torgersen has lost NONE of his ability to generate compelling story, and what he has produced is NOT some other kind of story, with a thin veneer of science fiction spray-painted over it as a disguise. It's solid, with respect to characters, interaction, setting, technology, and I don't know what else a reasonable person could want. So, for the second time in this review series, I find myself saying: if this wins, I will be neither surprised not disappointed.

Peace be on your household.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

A Brief Non-Dragon Interlude: Southern Boys, Life, and Fans

Greetings, to all my internet friends and neighbors, even to those only interested in the Dragon Awards, although you will find nothing here for you in this post. And to any and all of my relatives who have somehow wound up here, in case you didn't already know it, I got my every-three-or-four-year haircut yesterday.

I'm reading Chief Brad Torgersen's "A Star-Wheeled Sky," and I can't help thinking that this is a subsequent chapter to Robert A. Heinlein's 1942 short story "Goldfish Bowl." If you aren't familiar with that particular work, it's in the collection "The Menace From Earth." I know Baen carried it at one time, not sure now. Anyway, search engines. But that's not what I want to talk about.

If you don't know Southern boys, you might not understand our affinity for fans. Mostly, of course, that comes from trying to sleep at night in the hot, humid air of the Georgia (North Caroline, Mississippi, Texas, etc) summer. However, by the time we are old enough to express an opinion, we  NEED a fan on the bedside table, regardless of the outside temp.

And I sure do need one next to my workspace, as I am reading, reviewing, and hanging out with grandson Tre.

You can't see the fan, but it is there.

And mine stopped working. The blades still turned with appropriate velocity, but it wasn't putting out any air. Hence, no cooling breeze.

Fortunately, I have a resource: the local hardware store. This isn't one of the mega-stores, although those are great for buying cheap items if you know what you need. Nope, this is a family-owned and operated hardware store (although part of the Ace Hardware franchise)  I've been frequenting since I moved to Woodstock in 1992. And, over the years, I've come to have a great respect and even affection for Mr. Morgan, the gent who runs the store.

I hesitate to say he is a grandfatherly-type, as I happen to be a 14th degree grandfather myself, number 15 on the way, and expect to be a great-grandfather within the next couple of weeks. Let me just say that he has always treated me, my gift-from-God, happily-ever-after trophy wife Vanessa, the elegant, foxy, praying black grandmother of Woodstock, GA, kids and grandkids with unfailing courtesy and respect, even when I present him with ridiculous questions about plumbing, electrical and landscaping hassles.

It actually has gone a bit further than that. Over the course of the past 27 years, I guess I've had 30+ people live in my house, some with special needs, and that has presented me with all KINDS of tangled needs to modify my dwelling in some way. Install a hand-rail on the stairs. Expand the capacity of the HVAC system. Replace rotting decks. You get the picture, I hope, because it's making me just a wee bit grumpy and nauseated to think of all the maintenance issues over the years.

At any rate, sometime in the mid 1990s, I learned that I would save a WHOLE lot of time, if I told Mr. Morgan what my problem was, and let him come up with a solution, instead of just asking where I could get a left-handed monkey wrench and a 4'x8' sheet of 1/16" molyglobulose. As a result, I have had a LOT more issues resolved, and I don't have as many molyglobulose fragments stored in the shed.

Not only has he been able to address the hardware issues, he has been an encouragement and support. He never fails to ask about the grandkids when I come in, and there have been a lot of times when his kind words have been far more valuable that the sack of fasteners I wind up purchasing.

So, yesterday, I took my fan in to look for a repair or replacement. I told him about the loss of air flow, and how important it was to me, because I was working diligently at getting these reviews done. And somewhere in there, I told him about how I was working out of the bedroom, because the most recent pain meds I was trying weren't getting the job done, and I couldn't sit in the chair for long periods. And it had gotten so bad, that I simply hadn't even been able to get out of bed to go to church, and I was missing out on things, and I couldn't even enjoy the time I was spending with my grandkids; and how this was a really bad time for even the SMALLEST expenditures, because we had some monstrous medical bills, but I really did need a fan.

Mr. Morgan looked patiently at the fan, and then looked at me. "Pat, you don't need a new fan. What you need to do is clear out the air-flow on this one. Get rid of the dust that's accumulated, and you'll be back in business."

His words hit me like a bomb. In a flash, I got the true significance of when he was saying.

"I get it! " I said excitedly. "Your saying that if I get rid of all the clutter in my life, all the stuff that's getting in the way, that I'm not going to be overwhelmed! I just need to sit down, and work out the budget, and organize my work schedule, and ask for help when I need it, then all the stress and worry will go away! I'll be able to get things done, and be at peace!"

He smiled at me. "You're an idiot. I told you to clean your filthy fan."

So, that's what I did. It worked.

This is the fan, post-cleaning. Works great.

Peace be on your household

Monday, August 12, 2019

2019 Dragon Award Finalist, Alternate History: "The World Asunder"

For the second time today, GREETINGS to all of my internet friends and neighbors, with extra hugs and kisses for those fellow-followers of the 2019 Dragon. And, if any of my family happen to have stopped by, I think we need to get two more dogs, one (at least) a black lab.

If you are running an ad blocker (as I am), then you won't see the above cover art graphic & link. I do not wish for you to suffer, though, so here is your very own:

The Cover Art!

The first book in the series, “Minds of Men,” was a finalist for the 2018 Dragon Award for Best Alternate History Novel. (Not only was it the first book in the series, it was also the first novel published by the author! Quite an accomplishment, for the first time at-bat.) Ezell has continued to produce high quality work, as evidenced by the selection of this work for the 2019 Dragon Award in the same category.

The character of Lina Sucherin was introduced in the first novel in a secondary and brief story-line. Portraying a WWII interrogator for the German Secret Police as a sympathetic character HAS to be a tough assignment, but by keeping a tight focus on Sucherin's personal motivations and needs, Ezell made it work. Now we see her story in full, and it's not a pretty one.

The story is set in the Soviet Occupation zone in Berlin, immediately after WWII. Picture every movie or newsreel you've ever seen of bombed out ruins, with dirty-faced, ragged, haggard people pawing through rubble, in search of anything of use, and you will have a good start on the setting. Although things HAVE recovered, somewhat, and there are no bombs or artillery rounds falling, life is all of the bad words, and hardly any of the good.

Sucherin is fortunate to have a job as a typist for the State (which is the only employer), and a little apartment, even if utilities aren't always available. Best of all, she has good friends who live across the hall: husband Rolland, his wife Isa, and their three daughters Ginette, Aleda, and Johanna. They represent all that she values in the world.

Apart from her affection for them, she is numb. Her history is closed off to her, as if it had been removed surgically, and the incision cauterized. Each day is a copy of the one before, without even any variances in the few food items available for purchase.

Focused solely on the need to keep her head down, and survive, her brain turned off for survival, Lina isn't aware of the Cold War escalating in her own city. The Soviets have decided to blockade West Berlin, and starve it into submission. In response, the Western forces initiate the Berlin Airlift, airplane after airplane descending into Templehof, Gatow, and Tegel air fields with loads of coal, food, medicine, and clothing.

It's the sound of the first transports that triggers Lina's fears that the bombing has started again, and shocks her mind into a re-start. She remembers: she has psychic powers; she last used them right after Berlin fell. She had killed a drunken Soviet soldier, to prevent him from raping two little girls in her charge, and murdering them all.

The day after her awakening, Lina comes home after work to find that the state police have taken away Rolland, while Isa and the girls hid. Isa is nearly helpless with shock, and Lina has to do the planning and organizing, with the help of the girls. They make the crossing over the border into the American zone, where Isa has a sister. And there, Lina makes several unpleasant discoveries. First, She finds that Emilia is married to an American intelligence officer, Col. Russel Connor. Second, Connor is interested in Rolland, but not out of altruistic or family reasons; Rolland is on the list of scientists formerly employed by the Nazi government who are sought by the Americans. Third, they will only try to extract Rolland if Lina agrees to help. Fourth, she is to handed into the care of Major Paul Rutherford, a former aviator, now serving in counter-intelligence.

And worst of all, Rutherford knows all about her psychic abilities, and plans to use them, and her, to accomplish the extraction.

That's the core story set-up, although there is much, much more. I leave the discovery of her adventures, torments, and conflicts as an exercise for the reader. You may anticipate losing sleep over this one.

I will, however address an extremely important plot device, the device central to the story, which has an unexpected impact on the romantic liaisons formed in the book. Specifically, the speed at which mature/lasting romantic liaisons can be formed.

The PURPOSE of a courting period is to discover the other person. You have to spend time with them in order to distinguish between attraction, which is fast and fairly common, and a determined commitment necessary for a healthy, mature relationship. Usually, that period of getting to know the other person takes months, or longer. And it is ESSENTIAL in Western culture, which doesn't accommodate arranged marriages.

But! Ezell's “Psyche of War” series postulates something closely akin to telepathy. It's not just thought transfers, though; there is a sharing of emotional states, and beliefs; it's a dreadfully intrusive act, if not voluntary. Hence, Lina avoids doing it, even after her powers return, out of respect for the others. However, Paul Rutherford, the American intelligence officer, not only opens his mind to her, he INSISTS that they maintain a continuous link, and as a side effect, they come to know each other, thoroughly.

And, having accomplished that in a very short period of time, they fall in love, and ...not spoiling further.

And it's LEGIT!

How do I know it's legit? Because Poul Anderson addressed the Very Same Issue of knowing another via telepathic communication, in his 1957 story, “Journey's End.” True, that one has a different ending, but it doesn't matter.
The essence is the same: via the type of communication Ezell describes, two people can come to know each other much faster than is possible with mundane forms of communication. For one thing, there is no hiding secrets, and no possibility of deceit. Each person, even if unwilling, brings nothing buy the truth to the communication. For another, the ever-important issue of trust is quickly laid to rest. Lina is instantly able to discern what Paul's intentions are toward her, and will encounter no surprise betrayals.

True, there are other elements necessary to the formation of a mature relationship, but the most important aspect has very little to do with the body; it's almost entirely a decision, a choice. And, while for the mundane world, bad choices can be made, because the proper evidence is hidden or ignored., that's simply not possible with the mind-to-mind connection in this series.

SO: the romance works, and I don't want to hear anyone whining that it isn't realistic. Got that?

This is only the first finalist I've read and reviewed in the Alternate History category. At first glance, my impression is that the field this year doesn't have quite the depth that it had in 2018, and the integrity and brilliance of Ezell's writing might very well result in the prize going to her. There could be some sleepers, though, and I'm surely not going to presume to crystal ball status.

But that flame-in-amber would look mighty nice, sitting on the dashboard of a helicopter.

Peace be on your household.