science fiction


The final book in the Star Trek: TNG series which returns to the beginning. And to Stargazer.

Publication year: 1999
Format: print
Page count: 276
Publisher: Pocket Books

The cover is misleading: Beverly isn’t in the book much. (Now that I took a good look at the cover on GoodReads I realize that it’s not the same cover! My cover has Beverly and Tuvok. GR cover has Beverly and some unknown white guy, presumably Jack Crusher. So, if you took a mash-up of the covers, they’d be right: Jack Crusher and Tuvok are in the book.)

This is one of the previous untold adventures of Picard’s Stargazer years. (So, still not a Next Gen book…) About a decade before Enterprise-D, (Wesley is just a little boy at this point.) Picard and his crew are about to investigate some very exciting, nearly unexplored ruins. But instead they’re ordered to stop a war between two species who aren’t Federation members. The Melacronites and Cordracites races have hated each other for generations but a Benniari diplomat, Cabrid Culunnh, has managed to avert a war before by creating a neutral place where their diplomats can discuss things. But now a wave of terrorism has swept over both species and they are blaming each other for it. As the nearest starship, the Stargazer is ordered to support the Benniari. Also, they are picking up a person who is familiar with the species and this sector of space. That person is Ensign Tuvok, who resigned from Starfleet decades ago but has recently rejoined.

The diplomat Culunnh suspects that a third party is responsible for the terrorism. Picard sends Ensign Tuvok and Lieutenant Commander Jack Crusher undercover to find the culprit.

The book actually starts with the machinations of the guilty party so we readers know who is responsible. We also know because that same person was behind the plagues in the previous books and was revealed in “Double or Nothing”. So, this is a “how he’s going to get caught” rather than a “who did it” mystery.

We follow Picard’s efforts in diplomacy and he’s fully in character. But the more fun (and funnier) part of the book is Tuvok and Jack Crusher undercover. Tuvok is very formal and cold but he seems to reach a little common ground with Jack through their families. Both have wife and children at home. But Jack’s style rubs Tuvok the wrong way very quickly.

Because this tale isn’t set in Federation space, we also get to experience bars and brothels which aren’t usual in a Trek novel. I can get those in almost any book, so it took away that Trek-feeling.

A decent read but not really necessary to the series, unless you’re interested in Picard’s Stargazer years.

The penultimate book in the Double Helix Star Trek: the Next Generation series. Captain Mackenzie Calhoun and the crew of Excalibur take over the book.

Publication year: 1999
Format: print
Page count: 276
Publisher: Pocket Books

Like previous books in this series, “Double or Nothing” doesn’t have much TNG content. It starts seven years in the past where a fierce Orion dancing girl named Vandelia has been kidnapped by a thug of a man, Zolon Darg, who wants her for himself. She’s rescued by Mackenzie Calhoun who is, in fact, undercover doing something quite else. Darg confronts them but when his base explodes around him, Calhoun and Vandelia leave him for dead. But he’s not. Instead he has a burning desire for revenge.

Seven years later, researches at Daystrom institute have found a way to use nanites to make a computer interface directly to the human brain. Unfortunately, the outpost is attacked by Darg’s forces and the prototype computer stolen. The USS Independence is taking Riker to a fancy celebration. It notices the distress call and comes to help the outpost but is too late – it can only chase the villains to Thallonian space. There the starship is surrounded by many Romulan warships led by Sela, Tasha Yar’s half-Romulan daughter. They attack and destroy the Federation starship. Riker and a some of the crew are rescued by Captain Calhoun and USS Excalibur.

Admiral Nechayev decides to keep Excalibur in Thallonian space, looking for a secret Romulan base. However, she has another assignment for Calhoun and Riker is appointed Excalibur’s temporary captain, much to the annoyance of Excalibur’s first mate, Commander Shelby (from the episode “Best of Both Worlds”). Calhoun is sent into an undercover mission.

This book reveals the big bad guy behind the virus plagues in the previous books. It starts as an action, or even a spy, movie and Calhoun’s plotline does feel like a spy movie. Calhoun even gets some specific spy equipment from a mysterious Professor character before he’s sent off. Riker’s half of the book is mostly comic relief when he gapes at the strange crew and their relationships. We also follow Zolon Darg and a mystery man named Kwint.

This was great fun but I had some trouble believing some of the happenings. For example, Nechayev knows that it’s quite possible that Calhoun will be recognized. That would most likely kill him. So why not send someone else? I had the same gripe about the other undercover agent. Also, the main bad guy came out of the blue. I had no idea who he was. Also, I rather liked Vandelia and she would have made a terrific recurring character. So, I was angry with what happened to her. Also, Sela’s fate was left open. She’s captured, mind raped (which was a horrific decision), and left comatose.

On the other hand, it was great to see a crew which is very different from our familiar crews and to see familiar faces from previous episodes.

The book has several alien races who I’ve never seen and they have apparently only been used in books. Thallonians, who are the main antagonists, seem to be from David’s New Frontier books. Some scenes are set outside Federation space which reminded me more of “hive of scum and villainy” than anything seen on TV.

Still, this was a good read and probably would have been better if I had read New Frontier books before. The next book will return us to the roots of the conflict with the main bad guy and to Picard’s previous command: Stargazer.

The first book in a YA science fiction/fantasy trilogy Feyland.

Publication year: 2012
Format: ebook
Page count: 319

I’ve enjoyed Anthea Sharp’s short fiction before so when I got a chance to try out one of her books (which seems to be still free on Kindle), I jumped up at it, even though the book is YA which I don’t usually read.

This is an interesting mix of science fiction and fantasy. The setting is near-future SF world where the people with money have all sorts of gadgets in everyday life, including homes with AI, and the poor people… barely survive. Jennet Carter is a game developer’s daughter. Her father gave her access to the latest fantasy full immersion simulation game, Feyland, which is still in development. But when she loses a game to the Dark Fairy Queen, she realizes that the Queen has actually taken her soul and she might die. Events in the game affect real world.

Her father has also been relocated to a very different part of the country and Jennet follows him to Crestview because she has to play again in the experimental game and try to get her soul back. Unfortunately, the Queen declares that Jennet can’t return unless she has a champion with her. So, Jennet goes into the unfamiliar school which has kids from both rich and poor families, and tries to find anyone who is good enough simulator player that he could save her. Luckily for her, Tam Linn attend the same school. Reluctantly at first, Tam agrees to play the experimental game with her, but soon he, too, is enchanted by the Feyland.

Tam Linn comes from a poor broken home. His mother is a drug addict who can’t be relied on and he has a younger brother who needs to be watched constantly. His only refuge from his terrible life is playing simulation games and he’s very very good at it. At first, he resents Jennet’s status but soon he starts to care for her, as well. However, he’s reluctant to show or talk about his life to her which puzzles her.

Tam and Jennet come from very different backgrounds but they have a common love: gaming. Tam can’t rely on his mother and his father is long gone. However, Jennet’s father is around but she doesn’t talk to him because she thinks it’s too difficult. I found this a bit hard to swallow but this is a YA book and if the adults get involved, the youngsters get sidelined. Also, Jennet doesn’t even think about helping Tam with his home situation. Granted, Tam is pretty tight-lipped about it but once Jennet sees his “home” she doesn’t think about helping him, even once.

Oh yeah, Tam and Jennet are definitely forming feelings for each other. Despite Jennet being in trouble, she’s as helpful as she can be in the game and isn’t just a damsel in distress.

I really enjoyed the very dark and moody Feylands with the appearance of a couple of creatures from fairy myths. I also liked the side character Marne, a fat girl who is Tam’s only friend (until Jennet shows up). Tam’s problems with his family were believable, in fact I bought them far better than Jennet’s inability to talk to her father.

The book has a clear resolution. A good read and I enjoyed the mix of SF and fantasy.

Book 4 in the Double Helix Star Trek: the Next Generation series.

Publication year: 1999
Format: print
Page count: 259
Publisher: Pocket Books

Quarantine doesn’t have any of the regular ST:TNG crew. Instead, we got Thomas Riker and some of the crew of Voyager who are still Maquis.

Captain Chakotay and his small crew, including B’Elanna Torres, Tuvok, and Seska, are in the Demilitarized Zone. They’ve stumbled upon the peaceful seeming planet of Helena where most of the people are from mixed races. Helena is suffering from an outbreak of a virulent plague and Chakotay and his crew want to help them. Unfortunately, since the planet is in DMZ, the Federation can’t help and the Cardassians are more likely to destroy the whole population to curb the disease. Still, Chakotay’s crew will try their best.

Thomas Riker is the result of a transporter accident as we saw in the sixth season episode “Second Chances”. He spent eight years trapped in remote science station but was found two years ago (which sets this book after TNG ended and right before Voyager started). He’s tried to make a career in Starfleet but he’s still resentful of his fate and detests his post aboard another Galaxy-class starship. When he gets a chance to change his life, he jumps to it. He decides to transfer to the medical branch where he can still help people. His first job is to shuttle medical supplies to a secret outpost. Unfortunately, the shuttle is hijacked by the Maquis on the way back from the outpost. Riker is reluctant to help them but when he sees that the plague is real and the Federation can’t help, he volunteers.

This time the doctors aren’t the main characters and we don’t see many gruesome sickness scenes as in the previous books. Riker delivers medicine together with young Benzite Ensign Shelzane. They also investigate places, trying to find out who has started the plague. Meanwhile, the Maquis crew has to negotiate with the leaders of the town of Dalgren where the plague hasn’t struck yet. Many of the people of Helena are of mixed races and the colony was started when they fled from persecution to this planet. That’s why B’Elanna is almost forced in the role of a diplomat. The Helenites don’t have any half-Klingon people and are delighted to see B’Elanna, who is half-Klingon and half-human. She’s treated as a celebrity which makes her uncomfortable.

The society on Helena is probably one of the most unique ones I’ve ever seen on Star Trek, even though it does have a clear dark side. The Helenites appreciate genetic uniqueness but they’re bigoted against “unibloods” as they call non-mixed people. Still it was refreshing to see a reversal of the old trope of mixed blooded people always looked down on. They don’t seem to live much in basic families but instead have lots of single parents. Some people have even just donated genetic material and left, letting someone else raise the child. (Granted, we actually see a lot of single parents in Trek but IIRC they’re all widows: Beverly Crusher, Luxwana Troi, Benjamin Sisko, and William Riker’s father.) The people seem very wealthy and happy.

I ended up enjoying the characters and the setting more than the plot. The book has lots of point-of-view characters from Thomas Riker, B’Elanna, Chakotay, and Tuvok to one person from Helena and a high-ranking Cardassian.

A good, if predictable, addition to the series, and of course leaves the main enemy at large.

The second book in the Eric John Stark sword and planet trilogy.

Impressive cover from Steranko, but Stark is a black man

Publication year: 1974
Format: print
Page count: 184
Publisher: Ballantine Books

In the first book, the Ginger Star, former mercenary Eric John Stark followed his adopted father Simon Ashton to the planet Skaith which is at the fringes of the Galactic Union. The people on the planet don’t allow advanced technology, indeed many of them don’t believe that other planets exist, and so Stark couldn’t bring any with him. The local rulers, who don’t want new people coming to Skaith and giving the local oppressed people any ideas, kidnapped Ashton, and Stark had to fight his way to the Citadel where Ashton was held captive. Along the way, Stark made many enemies and a few allies. Now, Stark has reached Ashton and destroyed the Citadel, but the local rules, called the Lords Protector, have fled and taken some of Stark’s allies captive: the wise woman Gerrith and a wounded warrior Halk. Stark still has the nine huge Northhounds and with them and Ashton he follows the Lords Protector to the sandy but cold desert.

Skaith has ruins of old, fallen civilizations and among them live many unhappy groups of humans. The planet also has near-humans who are apparently the results of genetic engineering long ago. The Wandsmen are the minions of the Lords Protector and rule over everyone. They also want to keep their power and so are enemies of Stark. The Hooded Men are in turn the Wandsmen’s minions intent on keeping their own power. The planet has also winged humans who control the winds, a group of people who live underground, and a couple of people who live in the sea. It also has Runners, people who are mostly skin and bones and apparently nearly mindless, just wanting to hunt and kill.

The book has many big battles. Stark is grim and relentless in chasing his goals. At first, he wants to free his two friends but soon it becomes clear that he will have to plan big if he intends to keep all of them alive. So he does what he must.

Even though the story is set on a planet and the first book had some planetary travel, Stark had to give up all of his advanced tech and the fighting is done hand-to-hand with swords. This gives a very archaic or fantasy feeling to the book.

The fights are written very clearly, and now and then Brackett uses quite poetical language. But this a very harsh book; no humor at all and lot of violence.

My favorite things in the book were the hounds. They live like wolf packs, led by the strongest hound. But they also obey the Wandsmen and can’t hurt them. Stark defeated the previous pack leader and now leads them like a hound. If he is wounded, the next strongest will challenge him. The hounds can send fear telepathically and then bring down their pray, no matter if it’s a man or an animal. Stark survived the fear sent to him because he’s not a civilized man; he was able to reach inside for strength to endure it. The hounds can also communicate with him and some others telepathically.

The female characters are very much sidelined this time. Men decide the fate of their cultures through swords.

The ending gives some closure but it’s clear that the story continues.

The first book in an SF series. Which isn’t mentioned on the book, by the way.

Publication year: 2016
Format: print
Page count: 432
Publisher: Tor

This book is very difficult to review and it wasn’t an easy read, either. It’s complex, very wordy, full of interesting ideas, and frustrating. Mostly it’s written in first person in a deliberately archaic manner by an unreliable narrator who keeps secrets from the reader and more than occasionally addresses the reader directly. It’s also not just influenced by great philosophical and theological thinker but their ideas are talked about in the book, at length. If those are to your taste, you might want to pick it up.

The reader is dropped in the middle of things at first without explanation. But later things are explained, perhaps more than absolutely necessary. The main POV character is a Mycroft Canner, a convict who is now a Servicer, doing penance for his crimes by owning nothing and giving service. In his case, he knows the most important people in this society and while serving them, he gets mixed up in their business, of course. These people aren’t very likable but I guess powerful people rarely are.

The most fascinating, and best, part of the book to me is the society. It’s set in 25th century, during a time when the people of Earth (and on the Moon, yay!) no longer have nation-states. Instead, they have Hives, classes based on what they’re interested in. For example, the Cousins are the care-takers of people. If that’s your passion, you can join the Cousins, no matter where you live. The Utopians are the most advanced scientists who are currently mostly occupied trying to travel to Mars. The Masons, the biggest Hive, are the lawyers and administrators. There are also the Hiveless. Each Hive follows their own laws but there are some laws which are universal. Each Hive also has a different method to choose their leaders. For example, the Masons have an emperor who chooses his follower but the Cousins have a democracy, and the Humanists can vote for anyone they want, not just a guy from a premade list. (Somewhat disappointingly to me, they still choose to vote most for the rich, handsome celebrity who is voted into office time and again.)

Following the great violence in the Church War, organized religions is illegal and even talking about religious ideas in groups of more than three is illegal. However, each person is assigned a sensayer, a priest and a philosopher, with whom they can talk about religious ideas. Sensayer is trained to know all religions, history, and philosophy. Also, biological sexuality has been suppressed. Even though English is still the universal language (but not the only one, people speak French, Japanese, Latin, and other languages) he and she are forbidden because they are too sexually titillating and explicit. So, they is used as a singular. Except that Mycroft uses he and she because he uses archaic language. But he doesn’t use them as a biological differentiator but according to the female and male personality traits of the person he’s describing. Clothing it also gender neutral. Fascinating stuff! (and yeah, I’m a Finn and we don’t use gendered pronouns so it’s not a new idea to me but very interesting to see in English which is so very centered on gender. What about languages with female, male, and neuter pronoun? Would the neuter be used there?)

Oh, the plot. We are introduced to Bridger, a 13-year-old boy who can make things come alive with a touch. More a fantasy concept than scifi. Mycroft and some of his friends are trying very hard to keep Bridger a secret from everyone else and especially from the very powerful people. Also, there’s a burglary which involves a list of names and that becomes more and more important.

I also loved the concept of bash’ which has substituted a family. Essentially, it’s a group of people (usually 2-8 adults) living together and kids are raised in these bash’es. But the adults aren’t all necessarily involved with each other – they can be just very good friends or even siblings. But they could be parents and grandparents, too. Oh, and people from different Hives can live in the same bash’.

Unfortunately, no book is without some flaws. This one felt too long and I wasn’t really interested in all of revelations, especially later in the book. And the setting is much more interesting that the plots. It also doesn’t have a proper ending, just an end.

The first book in an SF trilogy.

Publication year: 2016
Format: Audio
Running time: 10 hours and 52 minutes
Narrator: Emily Woo Zeller

Captain Kel Cheris is a young infantry captain in service to the galactic Hexarchate. She finds a way to win in a difficult situation but it’s disgraced for it, because she used an unorthodox, almost heretical, methods. Right at the start we see the Kel in action, using formations which are the most important strategy elements. Afterwards, Cheris thinks that she’s going to be dismissed but instead she’s invited to a group which is thinking of ways to retake the Fortress of Scattered Needles which the heretics have taken. Apparently, the only way to storm it is a siege and it should be led by general Shuos Jedao who hasn’t been defeated in battle yet. Except that Jedao died three hundred years ago, after murdering his whole army. But the Hexarchate have preserved his mind digitally and it’s possible to download it to the mind of a volunteer. Cheris volunteers. The general isn’t what she expected. He’s mostly rational, or at least pretends to be, but he’s of course very manipulative.

The Fortress is tactically very important. If Cheris and Jedao can’t get it back, their whole society might collapse.

This was not an easy to book to get into. The reader is thrown in the middle of a battle into a very complex society and the author doesn’t explain much. Also, Cheris isn’t the only POV character. Most likely, the different POVs are differentiated better in the print book, but sometimes in the audio book they aren’t so clear when my attention wanders. There are also stuff, especially the physics and mathematics, which I didn’t get. I need to relisten the whole thing before getting the next book. Or maybe read it as a print book. The unfamiliar names were also tough in audio.

But once I got over the huge learning curve, the book was fascinating. I really enjoyed both Cheris and Jedao and their conversations were great. The siege is quite slow but I didn’t mind that. Cheris has seen raised from a child to be obedient, loyal, and conform. Jedao is from a time before Kel soldiers were raised like that. Yeah, their first names are also the name of the social group they belong to.

The Hexarchate is also a fascinating society despite being a very oppressive one, too. It’s based on a calendar which everyone has to follow, including feast days and remembrance days with different rituals, like ritual torture of prisoners or private meditation. The calendar makes possible to use what is called “exotic physics” which are used as weapons and can also affect local environment. If a certain number of the people don’t follow the calendar, the exotic physics don’t work. So, these people, called heretics, are persecuted mercilessly.

Men and women serve in the military without any comment. None of them are really described much, neither are the ships (called moths) or the fortresses, nor, indeed much at all.

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