Series: Jordan Sandor (Book 4)
Hardcover: 496 pages
Publisher: Post Hill Press (April 26, 2016)
Purchase at Amazon
Bronx native Jeffrey Stephen's Rogue Mission is a crisply written and plotted novel in the tradition of Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, James Patterson and other luminaries in the thriller genre. This is the fourth book in the Sandor's series, perennial Amazon best sellers, the others being Targets of Deception, Opportunity, and Revenge. The series has become increasingly popular amongst aficionados of that legion of hard men who mince few words, don't apologize for America, battle world-wide evil (particularly the Islamist variety), and rarely miss when discharging lead in the direction of our country's enemies. Think of Sandor as James Bond as he'd act and behave if he grew up in The Bronx. In a conflict between the two, Bond wouldn't have a chance.
Now, in the modern-day suspense thriller, certain things are expected and Rogue Mission serves up the goods. These include:
All these elements are in place as the action of Rogue Mission kicks off. The problem with writing a review of a suspense novel is if you say too much, you immediately run the risk of spoilers. I'll simply say the action of the book kicks off when our hero nearly dies during a terrorist attack in Hartford, CT. (Yes, Hartford. Why not Hartford? Isn't it time we all gave New York a rest?)
As he recovers from his wounds (Sandor, while tough, is no cartoon-style superman who can undergo crashes and rapid deceleration events that would macerate his every internal organ), he begins to dig into the circumstance surrounding the bombing, which also kills one his best friends, a federal judge. Despite being ordered off the mission, he continues to dig into the case, hence the "Rogue" in the title of the book. What he finds launches him on a mission to thwart a conspiracy stretching from City Island to Syria. Evil is definitely afoot and it will take all of Jordan's skill and macho to foil the plot and ensure the bad guys get what they deserve. (Boy, do they ever.)
A nice bonus of Rogue Mission is a plot that didn't make my eyeballs roll back in my head. Over the years, I've stopped watching Bond movies because the stories have become increasingly ridiculous. I finally snapped after watching Die Another Day, which featured a North Korean baddie transformed into an English Twit via plastic surgery! Everyone thinks the movie was very avant garde because the opening scenes show Bond being tortured, but since Madonna was also in the film, I thought that was simple justice.
(OK, I admit it, I watched Skyfall on Netflix. Prometheus made more sense.)
One of the fun sub-plots of the book revolves around two lightly disguised celebrities (you'll figure out their identities almost instantly) who are kidnapped and held hostage in a Middle East refugee camp by the bad guys. I particularly enjoyed this part of the tale because I actually rooted for the imperiled famous personalities and worried about their fate. If I were to attempt to write a high-tech thriller with people from People magazine, I'd pick Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian and spend the rest of the novel torturing them to death. (OK, I'd go easy on Kim; after all, she is a mother of two. Bieber, no mercy.) It's why I'm probably not the right choice to author this class of book.
When I read a suspense thriller, I apply a simple test. Once I start reading the book, do I have a hard time putting it down until I reach the end?
Rogue Mission easily met that test.
Read my interview with author Jeffrey S. Stephens on Jordan Sandor, Rogue Mission, and The Bronx by clicking on this link.
I grew up in an apocalyptic faith (I no longer adhere to this religion or belief system), but the experience has left its mark on me. It's one thing to see the end of the world portrayed on movie theaters, TV, or read about it in books, but it's quite another to have felt it in your bones for the first eighteen years of your life. I therefore judge this genre of book by one simple criteria: does the book re-awake the same feelings of dread and awe I felt as a child contemplating the utter destruction of the world around me?
The Getrude Threshold takes place in the near future. The Sun's main sequence has gone awry, and what was once predicted would take place a billion years in the future, the expansion of our star as its nuclear fuel begins to run out, is taking place now. The planet is slowly cooking as the heat rises and there is no solution to the problem and no hope. Fantasies such as a time travel exit out of Hell on Earth have been exposed as opiate for the masses and planned migrations to Mars and similar locales beyond our practical grasp.
Threshold (the book's name is derived from the last name of a scientist who has calculated the exact tipping point when the heat will overwhelm the final barriers mankind has built to survive the inferno) takes place on Last Day and follows the actions and thoughts of four main characters, John, his wife Ellen, Ky, their five-year-old son, and Brandon, Ky's elderly grandfather. Earth's remaining population has retreated to a claustrophobic underground warren of tunnels and living complexes that become increasingly disordered and dangerous as society collapses. In this maze of despair, our four characters will interact with other survivors and seek out what grace they can as fate deals with each of them in turn.
The book's most heart-rending character is Ky, whose birth was probably a mistake but who has provided his parents with joy and some hope for the future until the point that all hope runs out. Like all five year olds (and, at heart, like all of us), Ky understands his life is coming to an end but does not truly believe it. At the end of the story, Ky leaves the small apartment in which he has lived for most of his brief life to meet his destiny and comes upon an abandoned little girl also seeking peace in the dark. The narrative at this point becomes heartbreaking, but never bathetic:
Daisy glanced away. She spoke into the well to pass along a secret, confident it wouldn’t echo back. “Truth is I lied,” she admitted. “I don’t live here. I have no home. It’s just me.”
“No mommy? No daddy?”
“Not for a while.”
Ky hugged her. She hugged him. “Neither do I . . .”
Ky dared to say. “. . . at least, I don’t think so.” Time halted in the presence of their embrace. “What happened?”
“One day, my parents went out. They never came back.” Daisy released him. She wavered listlessly, avoiding Ky’s stare.
“The enforcers tossed me into the tubes to make room for a real family.” Time flooded the void their confessions left.
“Why pretend?” he asked.
This scene and what follows enables author Brooks to end his novella on a note of grace and love.
It's a fair question to ask why anyone would read a work as downbeat and grim as The Gertrude Threshold and I'm not going to pretend to have any definitive answers. Some people find catharsis in this type of book. For me, the answer is that at 61, I've become increasingly aware that my own Gertrude Threshold looms not so far away in the future as I once thought, and I find the topic of how I'll deal with my Last Day of increasing interest. (Or maybe I just woke up in a gloomy mood this morning.)
Certainly, the book awoke in me those memories of the end of times I experienced once so regularly.
The Gertrude Threshold is a powerful tale very well told. You will not forget it once you put it down.
File Size: 627 KB
Print Length: 341 pages
Publisher: F.W. Fife (Zharmae); First edition (August 20, 2015)
Publication Date: August 20, 2015
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
Timberwolf had me with its cover image of its eponymous hero puffing on a stogie. I have to tell you, watching environmentalists and "Moms against Smoke" and every other social nag and bureaucratic Bossy Boots faint, whine, and pass stupid intrusive laws when someone puffs on a bit of tobacco while simultaneously hacking huge clouds of unfiltered pot smoke into their lungs while beginning the inevitable cycle of stupid giggles and jokes that are only funny to the temporarily mentally impaired is painful. Timberwolf would throw the whole lot out the airlock of a spaceship first thing and wouldn't that be grand!
Here's a bit more macho musing for you. One of the great things about Heinlein's Star Ship Troopers series was that wussy little girly boys weren't welcome. Johnny Rico was there to kick Bug and Skinny ass and he enjoyed doing it. If someone from Code Pink had shown up before a drop, they'd have been fed to the aliens alive as a diversionary tactic. That's MY kind of fighting force!
Another thing I love about Timberwolf is attitude. In Sci-Fi, Earth has recently become a dumping ground for every second-rate group of interstellar under-achievers and delinquents. Ok, Ok, I admit that Earth as Pantywaist started with H.G. Wells and War of the Worlds and that evil meanies from outer space conquering all Peoplekind (I bet Timberwolf would say "Mankind" cuz that's how he roles) remains a very durable plot line, but I think the zeitgeist has moved too far recently in the direction of political mush and PC. It's time for a corrective.
Timberwolf Velez is the corrective. He's what you'd get if Dirty Harry and Ripley married and had a son. In his future, EARTH is the dystopia, and we've become very good at dishing out pain and punishment to misbehaving aliens. It's not only the military that's in on the action. The Church (the denomination is not made clear in the novel, but it feels like what you'd get if the Catholic Church started going to the gym, bulked up with 'roids, and started using those chalices not to drink wine but instead dent the heads of vicious off-world scum and teach them who's boss. I have a feeling if the current Pope reads Timberwolf, he'll faint) is also in on the fun and a key player in the tale.
The plot of the novel takes place in an expansive and action filled universe in which humanity has moved out to the stars and fought with great success a series of wars with alien species. Driven by religion and xenophobia, it appears we've solidified our role as Galactic Apex Predator until we confront the Arnock, a species of giant intelligent spiders who are also telepathic and no pushovers. During the conflict, Timberwolf has the misfortune to meet the enemy up close and personal, and ends up with an evil-alien-giant-spider persona permanently implanted in his psyche. Ah, but is everything what it seems? Just how evil are those spiders, really? And as the action unfolds between Church, Arachnid, and Highland, an entire world constructed for an AI, the lines between good and evil become increasingly blurred.
At least till Timberwolf Velez begins handing down some hard justice. Even if he has to do it with that damn spider still stuck in his head.
There's plenty of slam-bang action writing in the novel that will keep the pages turning. Some of the best scenes involve "Wrath," a bio-mechanoid warrior who's almost as dangerous as Timberwolf. Wrath is what you'd get if you crossed "Alien" with "Predator" and the resultant hybrid joined the Catholic Church down at the gym for its own killer workout.
Here's one early scene of Wrath doing what he does best:
The guard emptied his weapon on Wrath, but the plasma bursts deflected harmlessly away. The beast approached closely, scanning the door, the guard struggling to reload. Wrath absently slashed the guard down as he examined the lock. Then with his shoulders flexing, he turned the wheel on the door until its gears snapped and spun free. Bayonets extruded from over his forearms and he dug into the lock mechanism. He peeled the door outward, tearing it off its hinges. He tossed it away as two guards on the other side unloaded their weapons on him.
Wrath lashed out with his razor-tipped tongue, taking one guard’s head clean off. His plasma clip empty, the other man just stood there, terrified and unable to make a sound. Wrath backed up, dropped his head and drove his iron-crowned skull into the man’s chest, smashing him against the wall. The guard crumpled like a rag-doll.
Wrath and author Tom Julian are just warming up at this point.
OK, I've said enough. Now, you maggot, go pour yourself a long pull of a good bourbon, light up a smooth maduro, and sit down to enjoy a classic Earth-Kicks-Alien-Butt tale with just enough humanist subtlety and angst to allow you to escape accusations of Terran Nativism.
In sum, Timberwolf is fast paced, dynamic, and a blast to read.
Tom Julian works days at an insurance company and nights and weekends as an author. He enjoys traveling, long-distance cycling and waking up early to brew the perfect cup of coffee. He's an unabashed beer snob and native of Trenton New Jersey.
Timberwolf is Tom's first novel. His lifelong love of writing was cemented after pitching story ideas to Star Trek DS9 and Star Trek Voyager in the 90's. Tom is the father of Izzy and Liam and husband to the lovely Brenda-Lea. He writes while warming his feet under Maggie May, his Bernese Mountain dog. Favorite movie/book/food = O Brother, Where Art Thou?/Sirens of Titan/Trenton Style Tomato Pie.
File Size: 1311 KB
Print Length: 189 pages
Publisher: Solstice Shadows (August 28, 2015)
Publication Date: August 28, 2015
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
Sold by: Bookgoodies
Bears are perhaps literature's most widely employed animals in myth and story telling. Members of the species who've enjoyed major literary attention include Goldilock's nonplussed three bears, the New York-themed Yogi, the pantless Winnie the Pooh (I always found Winnie a bit disturbing), Baloo from Jungle Book and many others. In Sci-Fi, the most recent major ursine sightings were the grim polar bears of The Golden Compass. The roles assigned to bears encompass many different emotional states, from childlike to fierce. But I have never seen a bear portrayed as "ridiculous." They are far too powerful and imposing.
Camille and the Bears of Beisa-Drafnel is composed of four pirmary narratives interwoven throughout the story.The core story takes place in the here and now and focuses on Camille Matahari. We first meet her as she's moving into her new Manhattan apartment with several friends. The writing in this section is very contemporary and accurately reflects the self confidence of young urban women who feel they're on the cusp of great things and fully in control of their personal destinies. (I've met this class of female in the person of my daughter and her friends. As a father, part of me admired their unrelenting sassiness and optimism while another gritted my teeth at their naivete. It's all part of your Fatherhood training.)
Soon, however, it becomes apparent that there's something more inhabiting their cozy apartment space (and I'm not referring to the pervasive cockroach community that is a permanent fixture of the New York tenement scene). Unseen forces are attempting to communicate with Camille and at this point the book's narrative shifts to our second heroine, Camille's "Gram," Catherine.
The scene's describing Catherine's sojourn in Jamaica are the strongest section of the book. This narrative begins when the young girl, along with her brother and sister, is sent from India to live with her "aunt" in Jamaica, an evil character cast in the same mold as Mrs. Reed of Jayne Eyre and on a lighter scale, Aunt Petunia of Harry Potter.
The aunt is secretly renamed "Ugly Red" by the young Catherine and over the years imposes a regime of deliberate cruelty and suffering on Catherine and her two siblings. I found this description of Ugly Red's murder of Catherine's only friend, a small pet chicken, particularly heartbreaking and horrifying:
One day, Ugly Red trapped Taw under an old dirty bucket after discovering our playtime and friendship. Ugly Red wrung Taw’s fragile neck with a brittle crack. On her final breath, Taw’s head sagged to the side.
Ugly Red sniffed Taw’s dead body and then tied her feet to the clothing line so that she hung upside down. I watched, horrified, as all of the blood drained from Taw’s tiny body. She then proceeded to boil Taw and pluck all of her beautiful feathers. Afterward, Ugly Red laughed, licking her lips, as I cooked and fed her my only friend.
That's a bit of writing that stays with you a long time.
As the story progresses, Camille's hidden powers begin to manifest themselves and the four different worlds and times the book tracks begin to intertwine across the aeons. We discover the bears of the story's title are a cadre of protective guardians sent to protect Catherine and her ancestors from the forces of darkness represented by Ugly Red and her minions.
As I noted earlier, the other two narratives of the book revolve around a "present" and "future" Narvina, where much of the mystery surrounding Camille and Catherine is explained. However, since Bears is the first in a trilogy, I expect to see these other aspects of her universe expanded and fleshed out with the rich prose she is capable of writing. The story deserves it.
A word about the book cover art. I found it lovely and moving, a bright visual blend of pathos and primitivism, and very reflective of author Simone Salmon's Jamaican heritage.
Simone Salmon, a Jamaican born New Yorker, is the mother of two sons and a Jack Russell terrier.
Simone is still working on her exit strategy from Corporate America, but in the meantime she writes novels, poetry and expands her multisensory perceptions. She is also a spiritual truth seeker who appreciates psychic phenomena and timelessness.
Music of all kinds, warm weather, lounging on the beach, and experiencing the unknown are just a few of her most favorite things.
Folks can look for upcoming events such as giveaways and book signings on my website: www.ssalmonauthor.com.
The Cerulean's Secret by Dennis Meredith
Paperback: 285 pages
Publisher: Glyphus LLC (February 2, 2015)
Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
Purchase on Amazon
OK, first things first. I have found rather late in life that I am a cat person. I've always liked cats, but didn't have strong feelings about the species until my daughter "gifted" me Hunter, a black cat who was being kept in a foster home until my daughter adopted him to be her college companion. I'm not quite sure how it happened, but somewhere along the way, Hunter came to visit my house and ended up staying.
A few years later, Hunter was joined by Daphne, a muted-calico dumpster kitty my daughter, who was then currently at law school, removed from the front of a bodega where the animal had set up a regular begging station. Judging by the kitty's weight at time of pickup, this strategy was not working well, so Daphne was whisked home to my budding law student's studio apartment, which was apparently too cramped to accommodate six pounds of cat. Daphne soon joined Hunter at my house, where the relationship between the two can be best be described as "polite." Hunter like to rough house and Daphne does not, leading to occasional fits of loud hissing and cat screams when Daphne feels her dignity being impinged upon. She likes to take revenge by sneaking up on Hunter and whacking him on the back of his head with her paw when he's not watching. Both of them feel it is their inalienable right to walk all over me when I'm laying in bed, then snuggle up to my side (Hunter left, Daphne right), and take a nap.
Thus, when I was asked to review The Cerulean's Secret, a story of a cat genetically altered to possess bright cerulean blue fur, I said yes. Also, the color plays a role in my new novel Selling Steve Jobs' Liver, so that was another inducement (the blue cloud on the cover is cerulean). Finally, much of the book's action takes place in a Bronx milieu set 50 years in the future and having grown up and lived the majority of my life in the burrough, I wanted to see what it would look like in a few decades.
This book was not presented to me as a YA title, but after reading it, that's how I'm classifying it. As I say in the submission guidelines, I'm not the best fit to this type of book, but I went ahead and read the novel and it's a fun, though flawed, experience.
Cerulean is about the adventures of Timothy Boatright, who works as a NYC cabbie and dreams of becoming a writer. He becomes embroiled in the "catnapping" of the Cerulean, a genetically altered cat who because of its color (and other characteristics I won't discuss in the review), is worth a fortune. Powerful forces in this future society have created this cat and powerful forces want it back and are prepared to leave no pile of kitty litter unturned until the Cerulean is returned to their control.
From a Sci-Fi standpoint, I enjoyed author Meredith's speculations about how genetic engineering will enable us to one day create exotic animal chimera's and how their presence will impact society and future markets. We're at the dawn of the age of direct genomic manipulation of pets and other animals, but we can all see that some very different creatures are going to be barking, woofing, and chirping at us in the future.
Much of Cerulean's writing is also crisp and interesting. Here's a sample of what I mean:
It all started on a day I drove my cab like always, and New York stunk the way I liked New York to stink, with the sharp tangy aroma of electrics, the fumes from the gas cars, the aromas of sidewalk food, and the general rich, organic funk of people and the city. As it got hotter, all the great smells just sort of cooked themselves together like a steamy bubbling stew. Everybody immersed in the stew busied themselves acting the way only New Yorkers do. The drivers inched along in bumper-to-bumper Manhattan traffic, cabbies cussing and big traffic -scarred trucks double-parked, with everybody trying to squeeze in on everybody else.
That's pretty good stuff and reminds me very much of Manhattan in August. Of course, being a native New Yorker and speaking of pets, when I was a kid I remember another sort of odor that was baked into the city streets and it wasn't very fragrant. But then the pooper scooper came along and things are better these days.
However, in certain respects, The Cerulean's Secret suffers from the curse of YA plotting. The Bad Guy of the book is a dastardly English ne'er do well who takes control of the company that has engineered the Cerulean from its benign creator, Rozoff. It's a bit hard to take this part of the book seriously when Timothy is able to look up this bit of information about the story's resident Snidely Whiplash with almost no trouble:
I called up Talbot’s bio, and it wasn’t flattering. Boy, it sure wasn’t! His history showed him to be the black sheep of an upper-crust British family, which was ironic considering the animal-making business he’d gotten into. He’d squandered most of his inheritance on drugs, gambling, and expensive yachts. Then he tried to get it back by drug-dealing. Not just nickies, but the really bad stuff.
I mean, just how did the job interview for Talbot go?
Interviewer: So, Mr. Talbot, it says here on your resume that you're a drug dealing Limey mobster. What makes you think you're a fit to the culture here at Rozoff, Inc?
Talbot: Uh, I drowned a kitten when I was twelve?
Interviewer: You're hired!
You can get away with that kind of clunky exposition in YA, but that doesn't cut it for adults. At least not this one.
If I were giving this book stars (which I do not do), I'd give The Cerulean's Secret 3.0 stars as an adult read, 4.0 as a YA title. For the teen in your life, a fun, enjoyable afternoon's read.
Nighthawks at the Mission by Forbes West
File Size: 558 KB
Print Length: 302 pages
Simultaneous Device Usage: Unlimited
Publisher: Brontide West; Third Edition edition (July 23, 2015)
Publication Date: July 23, 2015
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
There are four main perspectives used in writing novels. The first person, the second, and the third (the most popular). Third can be sub catgorized into single, POV, and the omniscient, but I'll save my schoolmarm shtick for another day.
In the first person, you share the protagonist's thoughts and feelings, becoming in a sense their best friend for the length of the story. In the third person, you view the story and become part of an intimate audience. In the second person, you become the protagonist. Writing in the second voice is the trickiest task in writing, because your story must be compelling enough for your reader to be comfortable in the skin of the character they're going to be inhabiting. Think of the second person as "The Thing" of novel writing.
Both of my novels (Rule-Set and Selling Steve Jobs' Liver are written in the first person and my future literary itinerary calls for me to write one in the third. I'm not sure I'll ever write one in the second. There are a few examples of recent successful books written in the second voice, including Bright Lights, Big City and A Prayer for the Dying. In Sci-Fi, Ray Bradbury liked to experiment with the second person, but I don't think any of his novels use it.
This brings us to Forbes West's Nighthawks at the Mission, which is decidedly written in the second person. So, the first question we must ask is: Does he pull it off?
The answer is yes. West creates a compelling, cracked world that's fits the peculiar power of the second voice beautifully. The novel reads like what would happen if Jack Kerouac's On the Road took a left turn into Mordor at some point and ended up employed at a meth lab run by the Dark Lord. Visually, the world the author creates "feels" (and I use that word because Forbes West's prose has a very visceral quality) as if someone had poured a Dali landscape into a de Chirico street scene.
The plot of the story revolves around Sarah, who departs Earth via a refurbished Queen Mary, for The Oberon, an "off world" destination that is reached not via space ship but by passing through a dimensional portal located in the Pacific Ocean. The book does not explain the origins of The Oberon nor why thousands of people are emigrating to a place whose senior executive is called "The Witch-Lord," but never mind. You're on your way and will just have to puzzle it all out while you learn how to survive. The drugs, alcohol, and side trips to ancient structures that are described as "temples" but feel like long abandoned shopping malls, now infested with ancient insane human vampires, shoppers who stayed picking over the Blue Light Specials a bit too long while all the stores were being shuttered, will help keep boredom away. If by chance you're chased by one of the vampires, you can pray to survive, but don't recite from the Bible while doing it; those are illegal in The Oberon.
The following passage gives you a sense for the book's style and ever evolving weirdness:
You and Guy come upon a massive hallway with statues of two-headed men and of otherwise normal-looking women with fangs for teeth. The ceiling stretches upward, the vaulted roof and
tiled floor separated by a hundred feet of air. You feel like you are in one of those documentaries about the Vatican due to the Urncalles’ ancient and positively Greco-Roman look. Farther along is a corridor where purple water travels quickly upward on a slant with nothing supporting its trajectory, just open air.
A few young men and women in bathing suits and equipped with those ring-shaped life preservers are jumping into the pool and shooting upwards, disappearing into some area beyond in a rush of ever continuing water. A Ni-Perchta man, tall and imposing, guards the entrance to the water arc with a whistle tied around his neck.
I imagine this is the type of water park attraction Milton's fallen angels might have created while laying down the foundations of Hell.
Looking for something different? Want to kick your mind onto a very different plane? Tired of the same old, same old?
Nighthawks at the Mission and The Oberon await you.
Schism by Brett Dent
File Size: 1088 KB
Print Length: 287 pages
Simultaneous Device Usage: Unlimited
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
When I was a kid, I used to watch the Sonny Fox show, Wonderama, regularly on channel nine in New York. New York was the TV media hub of the world back then. In additional to channel nine, we also had two, four, five, seven, eleven, thirteen (CPB crap) and even a couple of grainy, unwatchable UHF channels. No idea what they were. The Soviet Movie Channel maybe?
One of Sonny's regular guests was The Amazing Randi. Randi was famous for following in the steps of Houdini by performing Amazing Escapes in all sorts of death defying situations (wriggling free of a straightjacket while suspended upside down over Niagara Falls, for instance.) As he grew older, Randi, as did Houdini, became a debunker of psychic charlatans. He drove fraudster Uri Geller out of the U.S. market by successfully reproducing every trick Geller performed in public and explaining how he did it.
In 1982 I read a book by Randi that has a profound impact on my thinking about ESP. Up till then, I as well as most people, thought there some scientific basis for a belief in extra sensory perception. After all, the brain generates an electric field and electrical fields can be generated and transmitted. Prestigious universities had conducted studies that seemed to confirm the existence of ESP. More movies than I can remember featured scenes of people using Zener cards surrounded by lab workers in white coats pursing their lips and making meaningful marks on clipboards while "espers" successfully "remote viewed." Sci-Fi, horror films, writers, manga all feed their readers regular diets of ESP.
Randi's book was called Flim Flam and it he made a claim that he has regularly backed up over the decades. Randy stated that when a double blind test for ESP is performed from which all possibilities of cheating are removed, no one has ever provided a valid (in other words, not a brief sequence of lucky guesses but a series of predictions that cannot statistically be ascribed to chance) demonstration of ESP.
Randi put his money where his mouth was. Back then, I think he offered a $25K reward to anyone who could demonstrate ESP. He's tested dowsers, remote viewers, seers, predicters, etc. None has collected the reward, which is now up to $1M. "Professional" espers stay well away from Randi and the money.
Schism by author Brett Dent takes ESP and puts it on a firmer scientific footing. The novel takes place in Hillview Institute, an out of the way institution in the hills of Virginia. Hillview's latest "visitor" is Adam Hutchinson, who has murdered his grandmother during what appears to be a psychotic attack. But instead of being tucked away in an asylum for the criminally insane, Adam finds himself in the company of a group of remote viewers, psychics who can observe actions and at a distance and in at least one case, destroy minds. Why are they here and what is the goal of the research taking place at the Insititute?
A safe bet is nefarious and dark deeds are underway. There are evil doctors, corrupt corporate interests, and nefarious military plots. And a group of increasingly powerful psychics growing more and more unhappy with their manipulation and confinement.
One of the interesting elements of Schism is Brett's successful effort to give ESP research a more scientific and visceral feel. This, coupled with the oppressive, Gothic atmosphere of the tale, makes for a story that keeps you interested. The characters are also engaging, most particularly the powerful but doomed Kevin. I found a few of Brett's sentences a bit gnarly, but plot and pacing keep Schism on track and compelling.
I think the Amazing Randi would like this book.
You (Don't) Suck: My Review of Suction Cup Dreams: An Octopus Anthology by David Joseph Clarke (Editor)
Suction Cup Dreams: An Octopus Anthology, David Joseph Clarke (Editor)
Paperback: 168 pages
Publisher: obsolescent.info (November 5, 2013)
Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.4 x 9 inches
Shipping Weight: 11 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
The octopus is probably the strangest form of intelligent life on this planet. An octopus is an invertebrate (no backbone) and belongs to the phylum Mollusca (oysters, slugs). When you see a picture of an octopus jetting and slithering its way across the seabed, you're watching a clam with eight legs and an attitude. Octopuses climbed out of their shells millions of years ago and joined cephalopods, other members of the club being Squids, Cuttlefish and the Chambered Nautilus, which is as beautiful as its name suggests.
Octopuses (yes, I know, there are long standing arguments on how you pluralize the noun. This is my choice and I'm sticking with it) are carnivores and cannibals. The anatomy of an octopus is as strange as their appearance. To devour their prey, they possess a beak that looks almost exactly like a parrot's. They have eight arms, one of which is dedicated to sex (I'm going to skip describing how this works) that also function as part of their brain. They also taste with these arms. When extra speed is needed to escape attack, they can deploy a built in jet-ski.
Octopuses can squirt clouds of ink when assaulted and some species can shed an arm when necessary, which crawls away and (hopefully) deflects further attack.. They have three hearts (Dr. Who only has two) which pump copper-based blood. They have incredible camouflage capabilities, but paradoxically, many species are believed to be color blind. All octopuses are venomous, and never eat a Blue Octopus, as it's loaded with the same poison as the Puffer Fish. Their life span is short and mating is ultimately deadly to males and females. The Giant Octopus can grow to over 30 feet and weigh over 600 pounds. This animal has been implicated in dozens of fictitious assaults on hearty male divers and bikini-clad maidens in many Sci-Fi/horror movies.
Humans have long suspected octopuses have smarts, and you see this reflected in such Sci-Fi movies as the 1953 War of the Worlds film, where the Martian invaders, though never clearly seen, are definitely octopidian when glimpsed (and dig those suckers in the movie's penultimate scene). Recent research has confirmed they are indeed very smart. Octopuses can solve mazes and become faster and better at the activity as they practice. They are expert at opening jars, particularly if there's a tasty treat inside. In captivity, an octopus will remember you, makes direct eye contact, and will squirt you with their jet-ski if they take a dislike to you. If you're to their fancy, they will wrap themselves around you and cuddle. They're also escape artists and not afraid of exploring on land or in nearby tanks, where if they come across a fellow octopus the resultant confrontation may be unfortunate for at least one of the parties.
Suction Cup Dreams: An Octopus Anthology, edited by David Joseph Clarke is a compilation of fascinating stories about these strange, smart, alien creatures. The stories are in the main haunting and memorable. The ones that most struck me were:
Venus of the Waves by Karen Munro. A wife watches while her husband, whose brain has been transplanted out of his dying body and into an octopus, is slowly overwhelmed by the new thoughts and environment in which he now exists.
Three-Hearted by Elizabeth Twist. Told from the POV of the octopus. "Bold" undergoes strange alterations at the hands of "the seven-armed glass and metal Gods."
A Stranger Returns from an Unexpected Trip to the South China Sea by by Henry W. Urich. James Dougherty was murdered and his body disposed of at sea, but with a little help from his friends, he's back.
A Late Season Snow by T.E. Grau. A murdered woman undergoes a rich and strange transformation.
I can ensure you of one thing. Once you've read this book, you are going to rethink the morality of eating octopus.
Orconomics: A Satire (The Dark Profit Saga Book 1) by J. Zachary Pike
File Size: 1136 KB
Print Length: 385 pages
Simultaneous Device Usage: Unlimited
Publisher: Gnomish Press LLC (September 30, 2014)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
Economics typically gets short shrift in Sci-Fi and fantasy. It doesn't really matter the genre. The fact is that when spaceships go out a' faring, or knights out a' questing, no one ever brings anyone with a degree in accounting to keep track of expenditures. The exceptions are few and far between (to enjoy one of the best in manga, I recommend Spice and Wolf). I first wrote about the problem years ago in In Search of Stupidity: Over 20 Years of High-Tech Marketing Disasters:
...as Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Bones, Scottie, and their innumerable successors went gallivanting through the galaxy, they seemed to have no visible means of financial support. No one in the Star
Trek universe wearing green eye shades ever appeared to worry about the propensity of the various casts to blow up what you’d think were undoubtedly very expensive spaceships, given their capabilities of violating the laws of physics, transporting the crew to numerous planets inhabited by women who spent most of their time wearing lingerie, and dodging ray-gun fire from angry races of aliens who kept screaming “kaplok!” (and who also seemed to have no monetary worries).
The problem looms just as large in fantasy. Take, for instance the Lord of the Rings. Now, I know you've probably read the official version of what took place in Middle Earth at the end of the Third Age, but I have recently, at great effort and peril on my part, obtained a partial copy of The Silmarillon: The Rejected Chapters. It's only a partial manuscript, and the relevant sections are written in the dread tongue of Mordor. Translating it has been a bear what with all the declensions and the fact that these people just had no concept of the apostrophe, but I have done my best. The narrative below describes a key meeting between Sauron and an individual who served as Mordor's primary bean counter. Roughly translated, his court title is CME or Chief Mithril Extractor. I believe the text provides crucial insights into the real story behind TLOR and the fall of Sauron.
CME: Oh Cataclysmic Cat's Eye of Catastrophe, Dread Lord Sauron, I come to you with doom-laden news!
Sauron: What is it? Has Golem stuffed up his toilet again?
CME: No, Dread Lord Sauron, Oh Perilous Practitioner of Puissant Pestilence. Though that last episode was truly horrendous. The plumbing Orcs sent to rectify the situation have not yet recovered. No, Oh Master of Merciless Mayhem, the tidings are far more fell. The invasion of Gondor must be postponed!
Sauron: Postponed? Don't be ridiculous. I've been planning this invasion for years. The Orcs are armed and thirsting to plunder and kill any elf they can catch. The Ringwraiths are writhing in anticipation of drinking Gondorean blood. The Balrogs are bored from too much sitting around and are starting to whip each other. It's getting kinky in their section of the Dark Tower. They need to deploy right now and work the ya yas out. We march tonight!
CME: Alas Lord Sauron, Oh Sublime Sultan of Supreme Sadism, we cannot.
Sauron: Why not? And this had better be good.
CME: Because Oh Great Gargoyle of Gruesomeness, I have just come from an inspection of thy Dread Armies and have uncovered great woes. The Orc's armor is fourth rate and our production of MEMREs (I have translated this as "Middle Earth Meals Ready to Eat." Ed. note.) lags greatly behind quota. In their current shape, I rank the fighting prowess of the Uruk Hai just below that of Disney fairies. The entire horde couldn't stand up to a squadron of Hobbits armed with butter knives.
But this is just the start of the grim news. The Black Steeds of the Ringwraiths have disappeared and our chief cavalry arm is crippled. While no one has confessed, a domestic Orc emptying a chamber pot reported hearing strange whinnying sounds coming from the Balrog quarters the other night. I myself heard the Witch King threaten to "Uv thangor shakburz nash burzum" (I have translated this as "unload a can of whup ass." Ed. note.) unless those ponies are returned immediately. Despair and disorder fill the ranks, Oh Enduring Emblem of Eternal Evil.
Sauron: Egv gor fukardum upzorum!? (I have translated this as "What is the cause of this SNAFU?" Ed. note.)
CME: Lord Sauron, Oh Tremendous Thane of Truly Titanic Terror, we have suffered a supply chain breakdown.
CME: A supply chain breakdown. You see, the peasants plant and harvest the food, which they in turn provide to the Orcs, who in turn do most of the mining and weapons production around here. If not enough food is produced, the Orcs' manufacturing production drops off and quality goes to hell, so to speak. Also, remember that an army marches on its stomach. The peasants are also responsible for providing fresh meat to the Balrogs, who aren't big on veggies. Oh, and the peasants also provide the hay that the Ringwraiths' horses eat, thought that doesn't seem to be a problem at the exact moment.
Sauron: This issue is easily solved. Torture the peasants to produce more food!
CME: Ummmm, well, you see Oh Demonic Deity of Destruction, we can't do that. We have no more peasants.
Sauron: What happened to the peasants?
CME: The Orcs ate them.
Sauron: Nagth lat ronk shitztorum!" (I have translated this as "Uh oh." Ed. note.)
At this point, the writing on manuscript becomes disordered and the readability of the parchment drops because of a series of blotches that have a suspicious resemblance to blood stains.
But, not to worry. Into this gaping literary void fearlessly tramps Orconomics, Part I of the Dark Profit Series by J. Zachary Pike.
Orconomics is set in your typical Tolkienesque/World of Warcraft milieu, but in Pike's universe economics lies at the core of everything that takes place in the book (just like the real world). The hero of Orconomics is Gorm Ingerson, a dwarf whom we first meet when he (reluctantly) saves the skin of Gleebek the Goblin, who repays our hero by attaching himself to Gorm's service despite the dwarf's deep desire to enjoy no such relationship.
Gorm and Gleebek's meeting is sparked by the activities of the Heroes Guild, an organization tasked with training, ranking, and regulating the various adventurers who comprise the organization's membership. The world of Orconomics is built on mercantilism, a zero-sum economic theory that was all the rage in Europe from the 16th through the 18th century. Modern forms are still practiced in Russia, China and similar places. Orconomics' mercantile model is built on raiding hoards of gold and treasure and redistributing them to the benefit of the raiders. Unfortunately for the heroes and the governments and institutions that rely on their labors, the number of hoards is running out.
Over the long term, mercantilism is a corrosive force that erodes an economy instead of building it (ask the Spanish Empire how this works). The same dynamic is at work in Gorm's world, and schemes and plots are afoot to try to reverse the tide of growing economic dissolution. Gorm, Gleebek, and a series of reluctant companions that include elves, wizards, thieves, bards (the usual mix) are soon caught up in a mysterious quest whose true goals are hidden and outcome unexpected.
Orconomics is at its best and funniest when it focuses on the sales and marketing issues underlying its economic woes. For instance, the following passage describes an unfortunate misunderstanding brought on by an Orcish community's unfortunate mishandling of a marketing opportunity and over reliance on the hard close during the sales cycle:
“But tell me, Tib’rin, how have I offended the honor of these mercenary-dogs. I have made every effort to please them. See, I sent them my own son to assist with their satisfaction.”
“Indeed, Lord Father,” said Char, stepping forward. “And I have followed the way of aggressive sales, just as you have commanded.” “
And how did you open?” Zurthraka asked him. “
I showed them our fine assortments of weapons for sale.”
“A thousand pardons,” said the Goblin. “But it could also be said that you waved your axes at the Lightlings, and took their own weapons from them.”
“I contrasted our product and disparaged the competition,” said Char. “It is the way of the aggressive seller.”
“And then we were commanded to follow you,” continued the Goblin.“
I would not take no for an answer!” Char was becoming agitated.
“And we were separated from each other—” “
You were given service at a personal level!”
“Then were paraded through town—”
“I showed off our impressive facilities and shopping centers!”
“Wait a moment,” said Zurthraka, pointing to the Goblin. “Do you suggest that our guests felt too much sales pressure?”
Any CMO or CSO can learn something from the above.
Orconomics is also professionally edited and the prose is bright and clean. And while I thought the economic scenarios of the book the most fun, the adventuring and derring do is enjoyable as well. As the characters interact and bicker, there are several poignant scenes that provide the tale with more emotional depth than you would expect from a "satire."
Orconomics is fun, funny, exciting and different. You should go out, buy a copy and read it. You'll have a great time.
File Size: 437 KB
Print Length: 408 pages
Simultaneous Device Usage: Unlimited
Publisher: Nick M Lloyd (October 14, 2014)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
Author Website: http://www.nickmlloyd.com/#landingpage
In 1967, Star Trek introduced the concept of The Prime Directive in "Return of the Archons," one of the series' best episodes. There's some dispute over whether STOS's most productive writer Gene L. Coon, or Theodore Sturgeon came up with the idea (my vote is for Coon), but the concept has proved to be one of Sci-Fi's most durable memes.
In the Star Trek universe, the Prime Directive states that it is forbidden for members of the United Federation of Planets to contact or interfere with the development of "pre-warp" civilizations unless the needs of the plot or to whip up another morality episode requires it. No Star Trek series has failed to mention the PD or to drag elements of it into their episodes, much to the happiness of the different screenplay writers. It's a given, in Star Trek, that if you introduce light bulb technology to a species too soon, they'll promptly use the extra reading time to prematurely create fusion reactors and melt down their planet.
Screen play requirements aside, there is good reason to take elements of the PD seriously. In one of my favorite history treatises, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, author Jared Diamond describes in stunning detail why Pizaro was able to defeat on the battlefield Inca forces that outnumbered his own 300-800 to one.
Still, when you put the germs under the sociological microscope, the issue becomes a bit muddier. Suppose, through some twist of history, it had been the Aztecs who developed iron working technology and blue water sailing ahead of the Spaniards. Driven by distant tales of a people who worshiped a strange blood god, the "Chyrstos," and legends of fabulous temples filled with gold and treasure devoted to assuaging the wrath of this god and ensuring his continued beneficence, the Aztecs land on the west coast of Spain and march on Madrid. What would have been the likely outcome? We know what happened in the reverse case.
What probably would have happened was that 90% of the invaders would have died before they reached any of the treasure temples. You see, what actually destroyed the foundations of pre-Columbian civilization was disease and plague. In facing "Stone Age" Spaniards, the Aztecs may have been able to bring superior technology to the fight, but inferior immune systems (ask the Martians from War of the Worlds how this can put a crimp in your plans to conquer all mankind. (And yeah, yeah, I know, most diseases don't cross species boundaries. Except when they do. Ask the influenza virus and your local duck).
Europeans, because of their interaction with different groups and nations and their domestication of populations of fowl, cattle, swine, dogs, cats etc., all absent in North America, were epidemiological supermen in contrast to the Aztecs. If any of the invaders had survived to flee back to Tenochtitlan, they would have returned carrying catastrophe and despair. (And the more you know about the Aztecs, the less inclined you are to feel sorry for them. Especially after seeing those on-velvet paintings of Aztec warriors and princesses that are popular in Mexico City.They always leave out the heart-yanking bits.)
I've also always been skeptical of the absolute moral posturing of the PD. For instance, despite much hand wringing and revisionism about native American Indians and their regard for nature, the overwhelming evidence seems to be that when Chief Seattle's ancestors crossed over the land bridge from Siberia to the New World, their immediate reaction to the undiscovered continent's mega-fauna was "Let's Eat Em!" And for the next several thousand years, it was Giant Sloth ribs on the grill and McMastodon burgers to go.
As for the Incas, they thought transporting children up steep mountains for ritual slaughter was a splendid idea. A picture of one of the dead children is here. Looking at this, you wonder. Who held the high moral hand in Pizaro's and Atahualpa's deadly game?
This issue, and others, are examined in Emergence, a fascinating new novel by Nick Lloyd. Set in the present, we discover that a highly advanced alien species, the Gadium, a race of burly lizards, with the females weighing in at about twice their male counterparts, are sure it knows what's best for Earth. Official Gadium policy is to actively intervene, guide and manage (with the help of an occasional planetary orbital bombardment), all with the very best of intentions, the course of thousands of civilizations throughout space. As long a you do what you're told, life under Gadium suzerainty is pleasant, with advanced technology being provided to the compliant at regular intervals. Step out of line and you can consider the aforementioned orbital bombardment alternative.
The Gadium manage the process of planetary "guidance" via an elaborate systems of surveillance that infiltrates every aspect of our communications, computing, and transportation infrastructure as well as our bodies. In a switch from Star Trek's focus on technology, what the Gadium are looking for are "emergents," humans who exhibit advanced capabilities that enable them to manipulate matter at the quantum, probabilistic level.
Managing a galactic-wide bureaucracy is no trivial task. While the first book is not completely clear on the exact means by which the Gadium achieve interstellar flight, the means used require that a severe relativistic penalty be paid. Members of the Gaidium are used to being placed into stasis for thousands of years as they travel from point to point, putting quite a strain on family relations. When George Orwell was asked to shoot an elephant, at least he did it in real time. When a Gadium is told to bomb a planet, or dispose of someone who's behavior may disturb the emergence timetable of a civilization, his or her family may have been dead for centuries.
Despite its power and reach, all is not well in the Gadium imperium. A strong dissenting force opposes the Gadium policy of active galactic intervention and management. To my fascination, author Lloyd has created a society where this opposition is expressed via a quasi religious argument focusing on the moral choices a society makes based on its belief in Niels Bohr's Copenhagen vs. Hugh Everett's multiverse interpretation of the most famous experiment in modern physics, the double slit.
And yes, if you want fully enjoy and understand Emergence and have not read about the double slit experiment, you need to take some time to fully appreciate its implications for modern science. Don' t be intimidated; it's not that hard to understand and huge numbers of Sci-Fi plots and novels key off of double slit. Think of this as an opportunity to build your nerd cred.
Emergence's narrative is built around two tracks, (with a brief side story meant to illuminate the main plot). The first, and most interesting, follows the intrigues and maneuvering of the different Gadium factions as they struggle for political supremacy in an increasingly roiled and factional political milieu. The second follows a group of Earthlings as they begin to realize what is taking place on our planet and one of their members begins to exercise his growing mental capabilities. I found this track at times a bit of a drag on the flow of the story, and think the amount of plot and the cast of characters devoted to it could have been cut down. I would have spent more time on the big lizards out in space and to two members of the earthbound entourage, Jack Bullage, a man on the brink of emerging into a new kind of human and Louise Harding, who first begins to uncover the Gadium surveillance of our planet. But this is a minor criticism.
Emergence is a very intelligent and well-written book that fascinates on many levels. You can think of it as a critique of Star Trek's original Prime Directive that examines the outcome of this policy from both the viewpoint of the society impacted by the concept and the toll extracted by the power that upholds it. A social and religious discussion of the fundamental moral nature of our universe. A political fable arguing progressiveness vs. libertarianism.
Regardless of which aspect of the book you choose to focus on, you'll be rewarded. Take some time out during the Holiday season to read one of the most stimulating Sci-Fi books I've read in a long time.
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