Girl Genius: Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess–Phil and Kaja Foglio

GirlGenius2“It’s ‘over.'” She snorted. “You speak like a child.  The Baron’s people will be back, or if not, there will be others like them.  You must be ready!”

Agatha looked at her angrily. “What makes you say that?  It’s a perfect plan.  They think I’m dead!”

“There is a serious flaw in this ‘perfect’ plan of yours…you’re not really dead now, are you?”

Beginning shortly after the events of Girl Genius: Agatha H and the Airship City, Girl Genius: Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess chronicles the story of our titular heroine, Agatha Heterodyne, and her feline familiar Krosp 1, (Emperor of Cats) Krosp1as they flee the forces of Baron Klaus Wulfenbach across the Wastelands of Europa. The Baron, essentially Emperor of Europa, has quite the history with the Heterodyne brothers and wants to keep any offspring of his former rivals under his thumb.  Agatha is also fleeing the attentions of the Baron’s heir apparent, Gilgamesh, who is not only the son of her nemesis, but a possible suitor.  Having recently learned she is heir to the Heterodyne dynasty, Agatha is headed for Mechanicsburg, the ancestral home of the Heterodynes, in hopes of finding answers regarding the disappearance of her parents and uncle.

The land across which she is fleeing is called the Wastelands for a reason.  A hazardous place, it’s full of nasty surprises, the result of various experiments and previous wars by some of Europa’s most gifted—and craziest—Sparks.  Abandoned—but otherwise functional and deadly—war machines roam the forests, as do various unnatural creatures, hiding in wait to scoop up the wayward traveller as a snack.  Anyone traversing the Wastelands spends most of their time fighting off the various dangers along the way.  Owing to a bit of luck, Agatha and Krosp come across Master Payne’s Circus of Adventure, a travelling road show of various performers and artisans, plying their trade from city to city and banding together for safety while on the road.  Realizing that a Circus would be a good way to keep both her anonymity and security, Krosp and Agatha join the circus after proving their worth, Agatha, by virtue of her natural affinity for all things mechanical—she is a Spark, after all—and Krosp by merely being a talking cat.

Within the travelling circus, they soon meet a series of interesting characters, such as the vain and talented actress Pym; Abner, Pym’s paramour and right hand man to Master Payne; and Lars, circus hand, reluctant hero, and possible love interest.  Agatha also meets the dour and decidedly dangerous Zeetha, a warrior princess of the lost city of Skifander, and soon is taken under her wing to learn the warrior skills she never needed while working in a lab, but definitely does in the real world.

There’s still the problem of Gilgamesh’s pursuit, but the members of Master Payne’s Circus of Adventure are nothing if not inventive, and masters of misdirection.  One faked death later, and Agatha is out from under the scrutiny of the Wulfenbachs.  During the course of their journey, Agatha manages to gather a following in the form of three Jagermonsters, sworn protectors of the family Heterodyne.  Jagermonsters are Hyde like creatures—formerly human—who use their superior strength and martial prowess to keep their lady from harm.  They’ve also been looking for the Heterodyne heir for the past ten years, and when they find Agatha, become her self-proclaimed heroes.

Agatha also proves herself to be a natural actress, playing the role of Lucrexia Mongfish (Bill Heterodyne’s wife) in many of the Heterodyne Brothers plays put on by the roadshow to entertain locals in the various cities they travel through. Luckily, a lot, if not all, of their plays revolve around the Heterodyne brothers and their various quests to save the townsfolk of the realm from unhinged Sparks and their nefarious creations. Unbeknownst to the other players, Agatha is the long lost daughter of Lucrexia, making her acting all the more believable.

The story comes to a head with the arrival of the circus at the stronghold of Sturmhalten, the ancestral home of the Sturmvaraus family.  The present rulers of Sturmhalten, Tarvek and Anevka—the titular Clockwork Princess–recognize the potential in Agatha to further their own dark designs, and take Agatha captive at the first opportunity.  From there, it’s up to Krosp and the members of Master Payne’s Circus of Adventure to rescue Agatha—before the forces of Baron Wulfenbach descend upon Sturmhalten and take her back into custody—and before Agatha succumbs to the will of the most malevolent being to have ever threatened the people of Europa—a.k.a. THE OTHER.

ggGirl Genius: Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess reads much like an old-time serial, those weekly installments of great classics like Flash Gordon one might see at the theatre week by week.  Understandably so, since Girl Genius is based on the serialized web comic by Phil and Kaja Foglio.  It’s extremely entertaining to be able to flip back and forth between comic and book to compare one’s inner conception of the various characters with the author’s own visuals.  This sequel also helps to flesh out a bit of the back story behind the events of the first novel.  However, it is useful to have the Girl Genius Wiki on hand, as the sheer number of characters can make for confusion.

With this second volume, we also discover some interesting aspects of the Heterodyne family—namely that until Bill and Barry changed their image, the Heterodynes were feared throughout the realm and generally regarded as the worst of a bad bunch.  Hence the instinctual fear everyone seems to have when confronted with the terrifying visage that is your average Jagermonster.  (Note to readers: Jagermonsters are my favourite!)

One notable aspect of both Girl Genius novels is the demonstration of a number of strong female characters, ranging from Agatha herself, a young lady plunged into a situation in which she has to rely on her natural talents, to Zeetha, the lonely, yet dangerous warrior woman, and extending to some of the more villainous characters.  Even the OTHER, the epitome of villainy in this Steampunk world–is a female.

There’s also a strong comedic element to the story, usually embodied in Agatha and her reactions to new experiences, or the comedic relief of her feline familiar.  Sometimes bawdy, sometimes slapstick, there is generally a lot of humour to counterbalance the darker aspects of the characters experiences as they move through a world that hides danger around every corner.

The biggest drawback to this novel is that it’s so very, very, looooooooonnnngggg!  Granted, Girl Genius is translated to print from the web comic and comic story arcs can last for years, but at 590 pages, the novel could be a strain on the attention spans of younger readers.  Honestly, this novel wouldn’t suffer a bit if they had cut out a hundred pages (at least), and I wonder if their intended target audience–bear with me, I’m assuming young teens–would be willing to invest so much of their time. The Foglio’s previous novel topped out at a more manageable 300 or so pages.

Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess is a lot of fun, although it seemed to take forever to get through.  The payoff is well worth it though, and I do hope to see further print installments of the series.  That, I imagine, will depend on how well the first two books of the series sell.  Agatha’s story has barely begun—and I know I’d like to read the rest of it.

Girl Genius: Agatha H and the Airship City–Phil and Kaja Foglio

Girl Genius

“But I don’t have the Spark. I seem to have the opposite.  Nothing I build even works.”

Krosp sighed in exasperation. “What do you think you DO at night?”

Agatha looked wary. “I don’t know. I’m asleep.  What do I do at night?”

‘You build things.”

“But there’s never anything there when I wake up.”

Krosp folded his arms.  “”They always run away.”

Agatha Clay (or is it “H”?) is a frustrated teenager. Essentially an orphan, she lives in the care of Adam and Lilith, friends of the family who promised her uncle years before that they would care for her while he was away. It’s been eleven years and counting.  They’re also “constructs”, the result of some mad scientist (and there are many in Europa) finding a needle and thread and some body parts to stitch together.  A student at the Transylvania Polygnostic University, Agatha works as a lab assistant to the Tyrant of Beetleburg, the aptly named Dr. Beetle.  Yet try as she might, none of her experiments ever work out.  Create a clank (mechanical construct) and it falls to pieces within a few steps.  Try to apply her mind to a problem; the result is splitting headaches.  In a world lit by Sparks–I’ll get to that in a minute–Agatha’s light is much diminished.

It’s especially hard to shine in a time when those that have an almost magical ability to wield science–the aforementioned “Sparks,” create a multitude of wonderful, and sometimes dangerous, constructs.  When the construct is flesh and blood, you end up with her ersatz parents, or the monster soldiers (Jagermonsters) that patrol the streets of Europa.   When it’s mechanical, you end up with Mr. Tock, the giant clank that guards the front gate of the University.  Agatha yearns to fulfill her potential, but fails miserably every time.

A brief word about Sparks: generally, their talent for all things scientific manifests itself at puberty and can be quite disconcerting.  Some go crazy.  Others are just a bit odd, hence the moniker “Madboys” that gets tossed around in any discussion of a Spark.  Being a Spark is a dual edged sword.  They are generally capable of great accomplishments; however, those accomplishments more often than not wind up killing them.

On her way to school one morning, Agatha is waylaid by a couple of destitute soldiers, one of which steals her necklace.  The locket attached is irreplaceable, containing the only picture of her parents she has.  Late to the lab and rightly upset, she discovers that the Tyrant’s Tyrant, Baron Klaus Wulfenbach, has made a surprise visit to the university, bringing with him a cadre of soldiers and a righteous anger.  Years before, a villain known as “The Other” terrorized Europa, wiping out various members of the Spark gentry and enslaving their subjects before disappearing around the same time as the legendary Heterodyne Brothers, two Sparks famed for their ability to take care of just that sort of problem.  The means by which the Other subjugated the people were known as Slaver Wasps, mechanical insects that sprang from Hive Engines to either kill or enslave the populace.  Dr. Beetle has managed to find a dormant hive and in a moment of incredibly bad judgment, tried to keep knowledge of it from Wulfenbach.  Next you know, Dr. Beetle is dead, the town is occupied by the Baron’s troops, and Agatha has been dismissed from the university.

Distraught after this series of unfortunate events, Agatha retreats back to her foster parents and retires for the night. She’s always been a restless sleeper, dreaming of all the things she wants to build.  The next morning Agatha wakes to find that a clank the size of a steam tractor—perhaps formerly the steam tractor Adam was overhauling–has rampaged through town and brought both the Baron and his son Gil–accompanied by a mob of Jagermonsters–to her doorstep.  Even worse, one of the thieving soldiers has dropped by, wanting to know why his brother died after handling her locket for less than a day.  As for the Baron, he’s excited at the prospect of harnessing the power of a new Spark, and before anything can be sorted out, both Agatha and the soldier have been gassed and whisked away to the Baron’s stronghold.

When Agatha awakes, she’s informed by Moloch (the soldier) that they’re hostages on the Baron’s Airship City, and that Wulfenbach has mistaken Moloch for a nascent Spark.  Moloch knows the truth of Agatha’s abilities and needs her to play the role of his assistant while they find a way to escape.  As for Agatha, she’s beginning to realize she can create things that actually work, that the headaches accompanying her attempts at concentration have disappeared, and that she’s in a lot of trouble.

Gilgamesh Wulfenbach, heir apparent to his father’s tyranny, has taken notice of her.

From there it’s one adventure after another as Agatha explores the floating city, meeting its many denizens, malevolent and benevolent alike, trying to keep her secret from the Baron while looking for a way to escape his clutches.  Luckily, Gil seems a bit smitten with her and wants to encourage her development, even if it’s just to spite his father.

***

I’ll grant this description doesn’t live up to the contents of Girl Genius: Agatha H and the Airship City, but it’s a daunting book to describe.  I’ve omitted a lot in my brief synopsis because there’s simply so much going on that it’s impossible to encapsulate everything in a few paragraphs.  Luckily, there’s a Girl Genius Wiki online to keep everything straight.

Clearly a Steampunk novel with great aspirations, Girl Genius is based on the Web comic of the same name by Phil and Kaja Foglio.  When first sitting down to read it, I worried that Girl Genius was going to be a  Harry Potter knock off, what with the main character being a student at a school for gifted children in a land divided into those who are normal and those who possess a special talent, this time an innate talent for science rather than magic.  However, aside from the fact that she’s a university student and that magic has been replaced by science, there are very few similarities between the two novels.

Actually, that’s both true and untrue.  The more I think of the Other who disappeared years ago after wreaking havoc on the realm, the more I see the comparison to Voldemort of the Potter series.  However, the story of a girl taken from her home and plunged into a strange and wondrous world begs comparison to Baum’s Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, although in this case, the world seems filled with tin men.  Once I got beyond the inevitable comparisons, I was able to sit back and enjoy a thoroughly entertaining tale.  The Foglio’s have done a bang up job of creating their own Steampunk universe and inhabiting it with various interesting and unique characters.  My personal favourites were the Jagermonsters, an army of Hydes (of the Dr. Jekyll variety).  Ferocious and intimidating, they are also endowed with a certain childlike charm.  They also add a nice bit of comic relief, even in situations that wouldn’t normally seem to warrant humour.

Is this a young adult novel?  That’s a hard question to answer, as some of the scenes are (from the perspective of this forty year old) somewhat racy, although there’s really no more hanky-panky than a stolen kiss.  It’s definitely not limited to teens, being a fun filled romp for anyone with a predilection towards the Steampunk genre.

Fair warning: Agatha H and the Airship City is certainly not meant to be a self-contained novel.  Rather, it’s more of a prologue to a larger story, introducing the main characters and the world they inhabit without resolving the greater issues introduced.  Where are Agatha’s parents?  What of the legendary Heterodyne brothers and the mysterious Other that once terrorized the realm?  Why are the Jagermonsters so obviously smitten with Agatha?  Why does Agatha seem to be so important to everyone around her?  These are a few of the questions that will hopefully be addressed in the sequel: Agatha H and the Clockwork Princess.  This teaser novel has definitely got me hooked.

B+

Memories of Futures Past

“To the Moon, Alice!”

Ever wanted to read some classic Science Fiction yet been unable to find a copy of your favourite author’s work?  I myself have been fruitlessly looking for a copy of E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen series for a while now.  Or, say you’re a fan of Murray Leinster.  His works are out there, but few and far between.

Well, someone’s decided to make sure that visions of future past don’t disappear into history. The good people over at engadget have a nice little profile of a bookstore in New York (Brooklyn to be specific) whose proprietors have dedicated themselves to bringing lost and out of copyright Science Fiction back into the mainstream.

Singularity&Co have dedicated themselves to:

Save the SCIFI!

Singularity&Co. is a team of time traveling archivists longing for futures past. 

Each month, our subscribers help us choose a vintage, out of print scifi book to rescue (with the rightsholders’ permission).  We’re bringing forgotten 20th century scifi into the 21st.

They’ve dedicated themselves to scanning rare and classic Science Fiction books into a digital format and then releasing them as ebooks.  If you’re an  aficionado of classic SciFi, these are the people to watch!

(Thanks to Mat Smith at engadget)

The Hunger Games–Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games, first in the trilogy by Suzanne Collins, is the story of Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl living in a community known as District 12, one of a dozen that make up the country of Panem.   Panem itself is a future version of North America, ravaged by war and natural disasters, a dystopian society set in the near(ish) future.

It is a society of haves and have-nots, the haves populating what is simply known as the Capital, the have-nots (or proletariat) inhabiting the rest of the country.  While citizens of the Capital have all the amenities that modern medicine and technology (and wealth) afford, those in the other regions live lives of mere subsistence, each district tasked with a distinct function by the central government.

Katniss and her family live in what was formerly called the Appalachians–coal country–and eke out an existence supplying the Capital with fuel.  Having lost her father many years before in a mining accident, Katniss has become a skilled hunter, supplementing their meagre supply of food with poached game and various nuts and berries, painstakingly collected day by day.  It is a life of fear of starvation and starvation, interspersed with the daily struggle to make sure the former does not become the latter.  Yet Katniss is content with her family, if not her situation, and shoulders the burden without much complaint. 

However, there is one other thing each district must supply the Capital.  Every year each district supplies contestants  for the spectacle which is The Hunger Games.

Inaugurated 74 years earlier after a failed rebellion by the Districts, the Hunger Games pit two teens (between the ages of 12 and 17, one male–one female) from each District in a battle royale with their counterparts from the others.  It is a battle to the death with only one possible “winner”.  Used both as a means to terrorize the populace and demonstrate their absolute authority, the government of Panem ruthlessly exploits the children to keep the people submissive.

When Katniss’ younger sister Prim is chosen for the games, she makes the choice to volunteer in her stead,  knowing that it’s a death sentence, yet willing to make that sacrifice for her kin.  Within days she and the male contender of District 12, the baker’s son Peeta, are whisked off to the Capital for a bit of training and a lot of promotion.  And then the games begin.

Dropped into an arena consisting of varied environments and climates, each competitor must rely on their wits and physical skill with (if they’re lucky) a weapon to eliminate the others.  They also have to make it a show–if things get boring, the gamemakers will “move things along” by either altering the environment in an unpleasant manner or introducing deadly obstacles such as mutated animals, flame throwers, etc.  Of course, without giving away too much, this is the story of Katniss and her time in the arena.

For a young adult novel, Collins has crafted a remarkably serious yet not overly graphic tale that manages to hold the attention of her market audience while appealing to those of us who fall into the category of adult.  Not just a story for kids, Collins manages to explore several complex themes: oppression vs. liberty; authority vs. non-conformity; proletariat vs. oligarchy, etc.

Her novel can have different meanings to the reader depending on your political persuasion.  A progressive might see it as the story of fascism stifling the free expression of the people, while a conservative might see it as an example of the intrusive nature of big government–the aforementioned liberty to live our lives without too much interference.  I think Collin’s intent falls somewhere in between–more of a cautionary tale of how easily society can be controlled once they cede authority to a small minority, and also a condemnation of today’s “reality television” society.

It’s also a ripping good read that doesn’t require a huge time investment–just an emotional investment in several appealing characters, knowing that not all will survive The Hunger Games.

B+

The Hunger Games vs. Battle Royale

With the movie forthcoming, it seemed time to read Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games, the story of a post apocalyptic society in which children are forced to fight to the death in an arena both as a way to assert control over the populace and entertain the ruling class.  Ruthless, yet endearing, it’s the story of Katniss Everdeen, the contestant from District 12 who volunteers in place of her younger sister knowing full well she’s signing her own death warrant.

However, this is not the first time a writer has addressed the idea of a dystopian society sacrificing their children to appease a government that rules the people, rather than being ruled by them.  Koushun Takami tackled a similar storyline in his 1999 novel, Battle Royale, which became a film in his native Japan in 2000.

I’ve been wanting to read this for a while and it seems a good follow on from The Hunger Games.  Has anyone read both?  If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  For now, here’s The Hunger Games trailer:


The Bookman–Lavie Tidhar

“A myth,” he said. “Oh Orphan. This is the time of myths.  They are woven into the present like silk strands from the past, like a wire mesh from the future, creating an interlacing pattern, a grand design, a repeating motif.  Don’t dismiss myth, boy.  And never, ever, dismiss the Bookman.”  ~Gilgamesh

Orphan is his namesake, living one step from the streets of what in any other age would be called Victorian England, but with the coming of Les Lezards and the subsequent fall of the house of Hannover, mad King George (the lizard) has the throne.  It is an age of wind and steam, man and automaton, order and anarchy, the last embodied in the form of a terrorist named, “The Bookman.”

When Orphan’s paramour Lucy is killed in one of the Bookman’s attacks, Orphan is devastated, but after an encounter with inspector Adler (Irene) and the Byron simulacrum, he learns that death may not be all there is, and that what small hope there is of recovering his beloved lies in running the Bookman to ground.  Barring that…vengeance.

There are many forces at play in his majesty’s empire: Prime Minister Moriarty and the Lizards; Mycroft Holmes’ shadow government floating high above London in their black airships; the Turk, an automaton among automatons who yearn for the translation, a device that they hope will make them equal to their fellows of flesh and blood; and of course, Orphan.  All believe the Bookman (or his death) holds the answer to their various problems and that Orphan is a tool to be wielded in that pursuit.

Yet when Orphan finally finds the Bookman, he is offered a choice.  Help his nemesis to stop Les Lezards from launching a device into space that may be mankind’s salvation (or doom) and Lucy shall be returned, hale and unharmed.  Don’t help, and Lucy is lost forever.  Really not much of a choice for a young man in love.

From the heart of Britannia to the depths of the Caribs, Orphan journeys on his mission, beset by danger and double dealings, culminating in one final meeting with the Bookman, which will either see Lucy returned to him or  the destruction of that which the Bookman covets the most.

The Bookman is everything one would want out of a Steampunk novel, blending both science fiction and fantasy, historical and fictional personages, all with a twist on the original source materials.  Irene Adler is now an agent of Scotland Yard, Moriarty is Prime Minister, and Jules Verne is both author and adventurer.  Lord Byron is a simulacrum, Karl Marx a revolutionary, and then there’s  Orphan, who has a greater role to play in the Empire than ever he could guess. 

Sometimes though, it felt as though the writing had a tendency to meander.  I spent a lot of time reading of Orphan wandering the streets of London moping about his lost love when (for my part) I’d rather just see the story advance.  It’s not really wasted narrative, but sometimes slowed the story to a crawl.  Tidhar also has a habit of skipping forward in the narrative and writing scenes in retrospective.  There is a moment near the end of the novel where Moriarty and Orphan come face to face…and next you know Orphan is on the run with no real explanation of what happened.  When it does get explained, what seems like it should be a pivotal moment simply comes across as trite.

There is also surprisingly little interaction with the lizards during the course of the novel, but the one time we meet one, it is a pirate named Wyvern, and he is entirely unforgettable.  More lizards please!

As for the Bookman and Les Lezards, when their background is finally revealed, I was pleasantly surprised to find that what was at first a fantasy novel had somehow morphed into science fiction with fantastical elements. 

The Bookman does leave a little too much unfinished by the end of the novel, but also leaves the reader (at least this one) with a desire to read more of Orphan’s exploits and to explore the Universe Lavie Tidhar has created.  Luckily for us, it is the first of a series of three, continuing with Camera Obscura  and the forthcoming The Great Game.  All in all, The Bookman is a wonderful novel and what minor flaws I’ve mentioned are just that– minor.

Lavie Tidhar maintains his own blog if ever you’d like to check out what’s new in his world.

Agent to the Stars: John Scalzi

Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi is the first novel I someday hope to write.  Started as what he calls, “a practice novel” (that novel everyone tries just to see if they can do it) back in 1997 and posted to his website as “shareware” (from the preface),  there it sat, gathering fans until 2005, when he was contacted by a publisher (every writers dream) and an initial run was printed by Subterranean Press.  This time around, Agent to the Stars has been picked up in paperback format by TOR.

Now Scalzi is not new to writing, beginning his career as a film critic and humour columnist, later becoming a freelance writer and author.  Since 2005, when Agent to the Stars became his second published novel ( Old Man’s War beat Agent out of the gate by mere months but it can be accurately claimed to be his second novel), Scalzi has focused on follow-ups to OMW and his personal blog entitled “Whatever“.  So, he’s had some practice.  However, that doesn’t detract from the impressive quality of a novel he wrote on a lark.

As to the story:

Suppose you’re a member of an alien society wanting to make first contact with the silly little creatures that inhabit the third planet around a very average G-type (aka yellow dwarf) star.  Then suppose you’ve tapped into all the random information (specifically television and movies) they’ve been broadcasting into space for the past century or so.  For every E.T.  you watch, there’s a Thing, or more specific to the Yherajk (as you call yourselves), a little movie called, The Blob.  Well, you might have second thoughts about the whole thing, based on the apparent xenophobia exhibited by the local populace.  However, if you’ve spent the time and energy to come half way across the galaxy, you’re not going to let a little paranoia get in the way of first contact.  The question is how to make a good first impression?  The answer…hire a great publicist!

That, in essence, is the premise of Agent to the Stars.

When Tom Stein, an up and coming talent agent is told he has a meeting with the head of the agency, he expects that Carl Lupo (legendary agent and owner of the agency) is going to congratulate him on his latest deal.  Tom certainly doesn’t expect to take a meeting with some gelatinous goo named Joshua, sitting on the table in an aquarium.  Once he gets over the initial shock of first contact with an alien that resembles a bad b-film monster (and incidentally, smells like ass), Carl sets forth a proposition.  Find a way to market the Yherajk to humanity, a way to gently introduce the populace to a genuinely agreeable alien society wrapped in very unpleasant form.  No big deal for one of the hottest talent agents in Hollywood, right?

And with that, Tom takes home Joshua (in a water jug) to brainstorm ideas on how not to spook the entire human race when the time comes to introduce the  new neighbours.  The answer they come up with is a doozy.

If there were any comparison to make to other first contact stories, I would equate Agent to the Stars to E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, only with a really, really uncute alien.  The refreshing thing about this novel is the lack of any sinister motive.  There’s no desire on the part of the Yherajk to ingratiate themselves into earth’s society only to round earthlings up to process into tasty treats.  They don’t want our water, or to subjugate the planet.  I spent most of the novel expecting that overused plot device to crop up, so it was a pleasant surprise to see that the Yherajk have no ulterior motive.  Of course, there is also the comedic element of this entirely benign alien society that resembles something from our worst nightmares. 

The cast of secondary characters are well thought out, from Tom’s feisty assistant Miranda, to Jim Van Doren, the mildly slimy, yet talented journalist who has no idea where his snooping will eventually take him (Let’s just say, it’s not Kansas).  There’s also Michelle Beck, Tom’s biggest client, a beautiful actress long on legs but short on intelligence.  Unfortunately, she wants to stretch those legs, insisting that he get her a casting of substance, regardless of talent.  As if Tom doesn’t have enough on his plate, what with that whole, “introducing an alien species to mankind,” thing…he’s got to keep a spoiled (yet loveable) actress happy.  Which will prove harder?

By the end of the novel, Scalzi’s got the whole situation wrapped up in a satisfying bow (no spoilers here, thank you!).  Agent to the Stars is so much fun that the reader (well, this reader) couldn’t put it down, and deserves a place of note in a genre where (usually) the only good alien is a dead alien.  Very refreshing and well worth the time.

Night of the Living Trekkies-Kevin David Anderson and Sam Stall

 

  “They thought Space was the Final Frontier–They were wrong.”

 

Jim Pike is a man tortured by the events of his past.  An Afghanistan veteran in the throes of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Jim has seen the bloodiest aspects of war and no longer wants the responsibility that came with his service.  In fact, he doesn’t want any real responsibility whatsoever, haunted as he is by the loss of several members of his platoon.  So, security guard at the Botany Bay Hotel and Conference Centre in the lovely town of Houston seems like the perfect fit. After all, the worst thing he’s going to have to deal with this weekend is a bunch of Star Trek geeks attending the annual GulfCon Star Trek convention.  Or so he thinks…(cue ominous music)

Just down the road the  Johnson Space Centre has been put into lockdown mode and convention goers are complaining about poor to nonexistent cell phone reception.  Even the televisions seem to be on the fritz.  To top off his day, Jim’s supervisor is missing, half the staff hasn’t shown up for work, and his sister Rayna is coming to town, bringing along a motley collection of Star Trek fans such as:

  • Matt Stockard–Wunderkind software developer drunk on his own dubious fame and possible paramour of Rayna’s (at least in his mind)
  • Gary Severin–Matt’s nominal boss, a stereotypically obese Sci-fi nerd and the foil of Matt’s excessive personality (picture comic book guy in a trek outfit)
  • T’Poc—Matt’s executive assistant and the girl who’s looking to hook up with Jim while wearing a suggestive outfit from the Star Trek Mirror Universe.

During the course of the next several hours, Jim’s finely honed sense of danger (which he first exhibited in Afghanistan while on patrol with his squad) keeps going off, but he’s too overwhelmed with the staff disappearances and his desire to connect with his sister to listen to them.  That is, until his manager points out that anyone leaving the complex for a smoke…never comes back.  Things quickly degenerate from there to an all out battle to stay alive in a convention centre populated by what at first glance appears to be the living dead.  Jim soon comes to realize that things are not what they seem, they’re even worse, and that the monstrous hordes may have an extraterrestrial connection to recent events at the Space centre involving the Genesis probe.  Luckily, a NASA exobiologist by the name of Sandoval may have the answers to their dilemna…if only they can find him before the Zombies do.

In the course of rounding up Rayna and her friends and trying to find a safe haven within the Hotel complex to hole up and wait for help, Jim comes across a girl dressed in a slave outfit (a la Princess Leia from Return of the Jedi).  Strangely enough, she’s handcuffed to a bed with a video camera set up.  Leia (not her real name) got herself mixed up in a little Star Trek dominatrix video and like everyone else, just wants to get out of Dodge.  Add one Klingon with a Bat’leth,  a guy in a red shirt with the unfortunate name “Willy Makit” (sound it out phonetically and you’ll get the joke) and the carnage begins.

The authors of Night of the Living Trekkies have created a unique perspective  on the Zombie genre.  Rather than those horror novels that leave the explanation of the Zombie outbreak to the reader’s imagination, they come up with an explanation of Zombism that has a scientific element to it.  The pathogen is extraterrestrial, much like in the Andromeda Strain with one twist…this time those affected don’t stay dead. 

Anderson and Stall are clearly Star Trek fans and have jam packed their novel with references both obvious and obscure.  Each chapter title is an homage to the original episodes, and Jim Pike’s name is a subtle reference to both Jim Kirk and the Enterprise’ first captain, Christopher PikeEven Dr. Sandoval’s name is a reference to a character in the original series (spoiler alert!) with a similar problem. 

Night of the Living Trekkies departs from your usual fan fiction…it’s actually good!  With a fast pace and interesting (although predictible) cast of characters, Night of the Living Trekkies takes the reader on a bloody yet satisfying journey into the world of Star Trek fandom while adding more than a dash of horror to complete the picture.

Publisher Quirk books has engaged on a unique marketing campaign to promote this book, investing in a faux movie trailer on youtube to showcase their author’s work.  Here’s hoping a full length feature is in the future.

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Von Neumann’s War

Von Neumann’s War :Travis S. Taylor (Baen Books, 2008; 522 pp.)

Man has always seemed to have a fascination with our closest neighbour.  Little green Men from Mars have been a staple of Science Fiction (both literary and film) since, well, forever.  My (and I suspect everyone’s) first experience with this phenomenon was H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1898).  Amazing guy…already plotting the destruction of life as we know it at the hands of our Martian neighbours, 71 years before Man landed on the moon.

Since then, the idea of invasion from above has been a staple of written fiction and film.  War of the Worlds was updated to modern times by Douglas Niles (War of the Worlds: New Millenium) and rewritten as an account from the eyes of H.G. Wells by Gabriel Mesta (The Martian War).  In film, there was the classic War of the Worlds and the less than classic remakeMars Attacks spoofed the idea and Harry Turtledove spun the idea on its head with man intruding on Mars (A World of Difference)…although he sets it in an alternate Universe and substitutes the fictional planet of Minerva for Mars.

Now Travis S. Taylor and John Ringo have spun a worthy tale about invasion by our Celestial neighbours in Von Neumann’s War.

A little background…in the near future, astronomers discover that the surface Albedo (how strongly an object reflects light from  a light source such as the sun) of Mars is shifting from the familiar Red spectrum to something much more gray.  Several probes on the planet, such as NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers, have gone disconcertingly silent, raising alarms within both the defense and scientific community around the World.  NASA is tasked with developing a new probe for a fly by in a ridiculously short period of time, but using off the shelf parts and a fair bit of ingenuity, they manage to get a mission underway…only to have it destroyed within seconds of reaching the outer atmosphere of Mars.  Alarmed, both the Military and Scientific communities team up in efforts to prepare for what appears to be imminent (relatively speaking) invasion.  Within months the same effect is observed on the Moon, and with a little help from the Hubble Telescope, the nature of the threat is determined.

Von Neumann machines have come…and they are not friendly.

These self replicating machines have been stripping the Solar System of any metal both to repair and replicate themselves, and it seems that Earth’s turn has come.  Helicopters, jeeps, tanks, jet aircraft; none have any usefulness in combatting such a foe.   So, what to do when you’re facing a nemesis  light years (literally) beyond your technology who eats pretty much any weapon system you might throw at it? 

Well, the answer is…you get innovative pretty damn quick!

That’s much of the fun of this novel…reading the inventive ways in which the protagonists combat an enemy which is essentially invulnerable to any weapon system mankind has created within the last century.  The protagonists become creative with their weaponry…paint ball guns firing plastic explosives…ceramic bullets, aircraft, and engines…advanced laser technology…and frankly, once in awhile…a good old stick. 

So, is it a good book?  Definitely.  Yet there are a few flaws.  The characters have a tendency to come up with the technology needed to combat the machines  in an inordinately short period of time.  Furthermore, the climax of the novel revolves around a “God in the Machine” moment, in which one character (whose back story is nicely ramped up during the course of the novel) finds that “fatal flaw” that delivers the “Hail Mary” moment that kind of irked me.  It’s not even the solution that irks…but rather the swiftness with which the problem is solved.  And finally, it could use a damn good glossary of terms.  DARPA anyone?

However, if you are a Sci-Fi junky looking for your next fix of planetary devastation…then this is the book for you.

(Note:  Travis Taylor has put a lot of thought into the idea of Alien invasion and defense from such.  For further (serious) reading on the subject, try An introduction to Planetary Defense: A Study of Modern Warfare Applied to Extra-Terrestrial Invasion)

Illegal Alien

Here’s a little Sci-Fi gem for you…Illegal Alien by Robert J. Sawyer.

Written in 1997, Illegal Alien is not the story of migrant workers working under the radar in America, but rather a story of first contact between humanity and an alien race know as the Tosok…and the resulting murder trial.  Ahem, what? 

When a small craft lands in international waters, the United States scrambles to quickly get a representative on-scene, in the form of Clete Calhoun, astronomer and celebrity host of PBS’ “Great Balls of Fire”, a documentary show akin to Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos: A Personal Journey.”  He and Frank Nobilio, the presidential science advisor manage to Intuit the blinking lights atop the craft as an attempt at communication, and very shortly, they have an honest to goodness alien life form to chat with.

It seems that the alien, who introduces himself as “Hask”, is the caretaker of an interstellar exploratory probe from the neighbourhood of Alpha Centauri whose crew has travelled to Earth to “introduce” themselves.  However, these explorers fell victim to an accident while traversing our Solar System which damaged their craft and killed one of their crew.  In exchange for access to mankind’s manufacturing capacity, the Tosok offer an exchange of technology that could propel the human race light years (no pun intended) beyond where we’re at now.

And then Calhoun ends up dead, murdered in a fashion that can only be explained by the use of alien technology, and Hask is the prime suspect.  From there, the story revolves around the resulting trial and the implications of arresting not only a foreign diplomat, but one whose race could literally wipe out humanity.

Written shortly after the Simpson murder trial, Sawyer inserts many similarities to the trial, from a Cochranesque defense attorney by the name of Dale Rice, to a cameo by Marcia Clark.  Rice is a slippery lawyer, determined to mount the best defense in the face of what seems to be incontrovertible evidence, and his character is used by Sawyer as a device to explore the American judicial system and the sometimes inconceivable outcomes of such as the Simpson trial.  However, rather than being an open and shut murder mystery, the plot makes a radical twist towards the end, revealing a  plot more sinister than simple murder…

Unfortunately, at the moment Illegal Alien is out of print, but if you get a chance to buy a secondhand copy, or read it at the local library, you won’t be disappointed.

(Update:  As of December 1st, 2009, Illegal Alien is again in print)