Tag Archives: space opera

Michael Siemsen’s new novel “Exigency” is a thrilling science fiction romp

51Jav0RzvPL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_
Review by: KEN KORCZAK

For the 347,098,789th time in science fiction, an intrepid crew of brilliant scientists/astronauts crash land on a distant planet, and now must struggle to survive in an exotic environment populated by multiple species of aliens, some hostile, some not so hostile, and others that just fill out the flora and fauna of an alien world.

No, there is little cutting-edge invention in this latest offering by rising SF star MICHAEL SIEMSEN. It’s all tried-and-true formula stuff with the same themes that have been explored time and again since the creation of the genre.

Even one of the most intriguing plot elements – the way which an alien species achieved a fast track to superior intelligence – has been done before. The very same situation was brilliantly employed by Jack Vance in his 1973 novel, The Asutra. (I won’t tell you any more about this because I don’t want to issue a spoiler alert.)

My point is, like most new works of science fiction today, EXIGENCY stays safely ensconced within the broad parameters of science fiction solidified over the past century, and especially during the “Golden Age” of science fiction.

But you know what? There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with formula fiction as long as we have a writer who is up to the task of making it all seem fresh and stimulating again.

Think of it like blues music. It’s all based on just one fundamental riff: “dah-de, dah-de, dah-dah.” The challenge then is to take that basic form and innovate within it to keep making it seem new, reborn and freshly alive. Hundreds of artists have done it. “The Blues” never go out of style.

I’m happy to say that Exigency not only makes what’s old in science fiction exciting, vibrant and new – but it’s also thrilling and fun.

I found this novel to be engaging and enjoyable from first page to last. The reason why it works is:

• Well-developed characters that we instantly care about. The primary character Minnie (Minerva) is complex. She is at once brilliant, warm and likable, but just as often, cold, self-absorbed and exasperating. She is courageous, tough and talented beyond belief – but also struggles with a debilitating Achilles heel. So she has everything you want in a SF heroine, and maybe some things you don’t want – which, in turn makes for top-notch fiction.

51fcdPEq15L._UX250_

Michael Siemsen

• Almost from the beginning Siemsen expertly builds relationships between his characters (without ever letting the pace drag). This provides an emotional cohesion that is necessary to sustain our interest in the characters as they face their various challenges to survive on an alien world.

• A fully-realized, vividly imagined world that has a depth which not always apparent to the reader up-front, but which looms offstage in a way we can feel intuitively, yet without belaboring us literally.

• The writing is tight – there is very little in the way of exposition, which is the downfall of so many lesser science fiction writers.

• Aliens that are sufficiently alien, yet not so bizarre and exotic as to be entirely un-relatable. This is yet another tried-and-true element of science fiction which, although nothing new, is necessary to sustain the relationship with the reader.

• Plot – well, okay, there really isn’t much of a plot. It can be summed up as: “Stranded space travelers struggling to survive a harsh, alien environment. Will they make it?” But – yes, I’m going to say it – you don’t always need a strong plot to make for an absorbing, exciting read. (To hell with all of those literary snobs who would tell you different). After all, science fiction has always been the “literature of ideas” which separates it from the requirements of mainstream fiction.

But wait a minute, didn’t I already say there were precious few new “ideas” in this novel. Yes, I did, but it’s still a thumping read – and that means Michael Siemsen just has “that undefinable something” that enables him to write a terrific, captivating novel.

It reminds me of the great science fiction editor John Campbell, the famously imperious and despotic leader of Astounding Science Fiction, and the time in the late 1930s when he read a story submitted by A.E. Van Vogt.

The short novel was “The Weapon Shop.” According to ALEXEI PANSHIN, writing in his book The World Beyond the Hill, a study of science fiction:

“… the story proved to have a very strange effect on the editor. As he was reading this novelet, he recognized that he was enjoying it thoroughly. But when Campbell attempted to analyze the story intellectually, he just couldn’t see why it should be so effective.”

Panshin later explains why Van Vogt’s works can invoke such a magical effect on many readers (but completely turn off others) – and all I will say here is that the reason Siemsen’s novel is so enjoyable (and perhaps not so much for others) is due to a similar (similar but not exactly the same) effect.

But I’m not going to go into that further here – this review is already way too long.

In the final analysis – because of what science fiction is today, where it has come from and where it is going – what we truly need to make for a thoroughly enjoyable read is an author who has that certain “Van-Vogt-Like-Effect” that makes us want to keep turning the pages, and wishing that a 400-plus tome such as this was even a 100 pages longer.




Ken Korczak is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS

All NEW: KEN’S BOOK REVIEW SITE ON FACEBOOK: REMOTE BOOK REVIEWING

Follow @KenKorczak

Retro Review: Jack Vance and the Demon Princes: “The Killing Machine”

download
Review by: KEN KORCZAK

Think of all the great names of science fiction from the previous century – Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Silverberg, Dick, Pohl, Cordwainer Smith, Sheckley, Van Vogt, de Camp, Harrison (insert your own) …

Well, there was one man who was a greater writer than all of the above.

It was Jack Vance.

I won’t belabor the point here anymore – if you read enough of his books, I’m certain you’ll come to agree with me. This book, The Killing Machine, one of the five-part “Demon Prices” series, is one Vance’s best.

Briefly, the scenario is this:

On a faraway planet at some time in the far-flung future, a young man by the name of Kirth Gersen witnesses to the horrible spectacle of his family being murdered in a raid on his village. The killers are the Demon Princes. They’re not demons, per se, but intergalactic mobsters/crime bosses who wreak havoc across the galaxy.

They do whatever they like: raid, steal, plummet, kill, rape and massacre. They’re extremely powerful, highly secretive and their desire for wealth and power cannot be quenched.

Gersen grows to manhood and dedicates his life to tracking down the Demon Prices. His goal is to assassinate them one at a time, seeking justice and to avenge his slaughtered family.

jv_cat_dog

Jack Vance, 1916-2013

With great self discipline and constant training, Gersen develops into a powerful man. He may be the only man in the entire galaxy who is even more lethal and dangerous than the Demon Princes themselves.

Gersen makes James Bond look like a rank amateur – his expertise with manual fighting techniques, personal weaponry and private eye investigative skills is unequaled – although he does have flaws; just a chink or two in his armor to make things interesting. He’s a gloomy man, fiercely intelligent and driven — a monomaniac.

His target in this book is the mysterious Kokor Hekkus, one of the Demon Prices. The name Kokor Hekkus literally means “The Killing Machine” in the language of the locals of the planet Thamber, where Hekkus is believed to live – although no one is certain.

In fact, many believe that the planet Thamber may not exist at all. Is it a mythical world? — A realm of castles, magic and dragons? Or perhaps there really is a Thamber, somehow lost or forgotten from the star charts of the known galaxy.

The Killing Machine is a book of almost unimaginable science fiction fun.

Expertly plotted, tightly written, it is inventive to a wonderful degree. Vance has an ability like no other writer to create a tone that is serious, but at the same time, impregnated with a pervasive, understated sense of humor. Vance’s humor is dry, wry and deeply ironic.

There is one scene in the book that is my favorite perhaps in all of science fiction, and I must mention it here:

It’s a situation in which the characters build a gigantic fighting vehicle that looks like a giant centipede. This “rolling fortress of death” travels on rows of flexible magnetic-metallic whip-like legs. It shoots deadly bolts of searing laser rays and bristles with an array of other weapon options – and the drivers operate it by sitting comfortably inside on plush captain’s chairs, much as if they were tooling around in a luxury RV.

It’s just great! You’ll know it when you read it!

Although each of the five Demon Princes novels are Class A, 5-star reads, The Killing Machine has always been my favorite of the series. It’s the second of the bunch, and you probably don’t need to read the first to jump right into the narrative.

This is a book that is magical and fantastical, while also staying true to those principles of hard science fiction, employing plausible inventions of futuristic technology, gadgetry and science.

In my almost 50 years of reading thousands of science fiction novels and short stories – The Killing Machine is among my Top 5 of all time. It’s just that good.




Ken Korczak is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS

All NEW: KEN’S BOOK REVIEW SITE ON FACEBOOK: REMOTE BOOK REVIEWING

Follow @KenKorczak

Cool indie writer website of the week: Science fiction writer Chris Reher and the Targon Tales

Screenshot (3)

KEN KORCZAK;

The smartest, hardest-working indie writers bolster their book-selling efforts with a kick-ass website, and this week we select the site of Canadian science fiction writer CHRIS REHER.

It’s a clean and attractive design which displays the covers of Reher’s books. The book covers themselves do a lot of the heavy lifting in making the overall site look good because they’re professionally done, exciting and attractive. Terrific cover art.

Navigation around the webpage is easy. The personality of the site evinces a feeling of: “Hey, science fiction is fun and exciting” while doing the basic legwork of promoting and marketing the author’s selection of titles.

We also notice that Reher is offering the first book in her series for free, and you can get it here: SKY HUNTER FREE.

Note: I read and reviewed Sky Hunter and liked it quite a bit. See my review HERE.

You can visit Chris Reher’s site here: GO TO WEBSITE

Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @KenKorczak and please consider giving a “Like” to REMOTE BOOK REVIEWING on Facebook!

Borrowed plot gimmicks straight out of the boob tube sink this SF novel

download (3)Review By KEN KORCZAK

Artificial Absolutes is a book with a fairly intricate, well-developed story line buried under a gigantic mountain of cliché plot gimmicks that renders what might have been a decent book into a dreary mass of almost insufferable blandness.

The work often also devolves into mawkish dialogue so drippy with smarmy goo, it’s on par with a weepy love ballad written by, say, the Jonas Brothers, for tweenie fan girls.

To prove that I am not delusional or just being a mean reviewer, I will invite the reader to join me now by logging onto a favorite search engine and look up something like, “The 10 most common cliché movies scenes” — because many appear in this book.

The first cliché is one we all know and you probably won’t even have to Google it (although please feel free to do so) is that the best way to escape from the cops, or the bad guys, or anyone chasing you with guns is to squeeze into the ventilation duct work of a large building.

Time and again, movie heroes (and criminals) cleverly slip away from their pursuers by getting into the duct vents because they know that the clueless authorities or bad guys will be 100% perplexed and always fooled by this never-before-thought-of escape plan.

Artificial Absolutes includes this scene — and for good measure, it also presents the first cousin of the Great Air Duct Escape Plan — the dreaded — Escape Through the Opening at the Top of a Stalled Elevator Car Plan — and an oh-so-hackneyed climb up the cables of the elevator shaft to baffle one’s pursuers.

The next cliché plot gimmick that fills dozens of pages of this book is the:

“The bad guys can shoot at you all they want and they can never hit you, but the good guy can shoot back and score a hit on the bad guy almost at will.”

We have all seen it hundreds of times — Bruce Willis, Sly Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris — they run around bristling with machine guns while being pursued by dozens of other guys with even more machine guns — but no one can hit the good guy! Yet, the hero can score a dead-middle-of-the-torso-shot while jumping, rolling and firing.

mary-fan-author-pic

Mary Fan

In Artificial Absolutes we are inflicted with page after page of the same. The first such scene features a sophisticated, high tech robot which chases our heroine Jane “Pony” Colt through the hallways of a building — the robot shoots and shoots and shoots but it can’t hit the broadside of a barn!

The conveniently inept robo-killer suffers dozens of near misses — right next to her shoulder! a real grazer just missing her head! a blast that splinters the door frame she just runs through! — it’s not the least bit exciting because we all know the scene — we’ve seen it hundreds of times in movies.

One would think that a super-advanced robot constructed in an advanced society that has mastered interstellar space travel would include some kind of sophisticated target acquisition and tracking hardware to easily laser down it’s prey — like our drones can do today. But not in this book.

Even when “Pony” and her brother, Devin Colt, are being chased by a squad of heavily armed, battle-trained starship troopers, all they have to is run, dodge, zig-zag — and they become completely unhittable targets! Robotic drones flying through the air at the same time can’t nail them either!

And yet, whenever Devin Colt chooses to whirl, shoot wildly from the hip while on the run with a borrowed gun — he can expertly knock the weapons right out of the hands of the bumbling, can’t-hit-nothin’ interstellar marines! And do it again and again!

Suffice it to say: Heroes who can run through a torrential hail of bullets without getting hit, while at the same time being able to shoot anyone they want — is among the used and abused of movie clichés — and the fact it has been transferred to the pages of a book does not make it any less of a hack.

For good measure, and to really slather it on, the book includes what has become one of the most universally used, overused and annoying visual gimmicks of all time — it’s ye olde:

The hero blows something up, but turns his back and walks away not bothering to look at the massive fireball erupting being him.

Here’s the scene right from the book at location 5561 on my Kindle:

“The attackers were gone, and not much remained of the mansion. Devin nevertheless fired a fifth grenade. He walked up the ramp as a colossal fireball rose behind him.”

Speaking of moth-eaten plots, the very central plot element, the heart of Artificial Absolutes, is an worn-to-baldness retread premise that has already been explored by hundreds if not thousands of other science fiction writers, beginning in the 1920s.

SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!

Just a few months ago I was wading through the free pulp science fiction of Project Gutenberg and selected to read the 1961, “The Memory of Mars” by Raymond F. Jones. In it, the hero falls in love with his childhood sweetheart. They meet in the third grade. They have a long courtship through high school, they fall madly in love and they get married. Later — GAK! — he finds out she was never real in the first place! She’s a robot!

In Artificial Absolutes, Devin Colt meets a beautiful woman, they date, the fall in love and he asks her to marry her. Later — GAK! — he finds out she was never real in the first place, She’s a robot!

His sister, you know “Pony Colt,” meets a handsome young man (boy). He rubs her the wrong way at first because he is a simplistic religious gasbag, yet they keep seeing each other, they go through some stuff together, they fall in love, she has finally found her soul-mate. Later — GAK!– she finds out he was never real in the first place! He’s a robot!

It just keeps happening!

But even by 1961, falling in love with lifelike robots was already far from original — dozens of others had already written a spin on the same plot element. In the mid-1960s Philip K. Dick practically built a career around stories in which perfect replicants of human beings pose questions of what is real and what is not real, and whether a robot can possess true consciousness or not have true consciousness.

END SPOILER ALERT!

Certainly, these are standard saws of science fiction, so we can’t take points away from author MARY FAN for trotting out this threadbare SF rag doll one more time — it’s a fan favorite after all — but we certainly can’t give extra credit for originality either.

There are many other elements of hackneyed plot devices and cliché gimmicks, but I simply can’t get to them all (er … cough, cough … Travan Float is a thin re-imagining of Mos Eisley of Star Wars … ) without making for too lengthy of a review, and I want to make a final comment:

Young writers today — those of Generation X, Generation Y and Millennial extraction — have all been raised on TV and movies like no generations before. They have also been embedded in the online world since they were babies. They have endured total immersion in on-the-screen fictional scenarios.

Thus, what I am seeing from one young writer after another today (I read more than 100 books per year) are plots and scenes in books that are soaked in movie and television clichés. Even the minor characters are not original creations — very often plucked right out of a TV or a movie.

For example, in this book Commander Jihan Vega would seem to be almost an exact duplicate of Admiral Helena Cain of Battlestar Galactica. Again, I challenge the reader to find a scene featuring Admiral Helena Cain on `Battlestar’ and compare her to Commander Jihan Vega of this book — they are near Kinkos of the same fictional person — different in name only.

Sure, in a sense, most books are at least somewhat derivative of other works and leverage broad themes, archetypes and conventions of their genre, but Artificial Absolutes takes the copy-and-paste lifting of other memes to such an extreme degree, the result is a literary work of Absolute Artificiality.

Ken Korczak is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS

All NEW: KEN’S BOOK REVIEW SITE ON FACEBOOK: REMOTE BOOK REVIEWING

Follow @KenKorczak