Review: The Suns of Scorpio

The Suns Of Scorpio

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A while ago on Fuldapocalypse, I reviewed the first of Kenneth Bulmer’s Dray Prescot “sword and planet” novels, Transit to Scorpio. That was at least somewhat fun. The second novel, The Suns of Scorpio, is less fun and more pretentious. And after only one book, the novelty of the setting has definitely worn off.

The setting is about a continent wide and a millimeter deep. This wouldn’t be such a problem if it was supposed to be mundane (ie, a world with a convenient near-endless supply of mobsters for Mack Bolan to kill) but it’s intended to be “exotic” and “awe-inspiring”. What it comes across as is nothing more than a literary version of the kind of trashy sword and sandal movie you’d see on Mystery Science Theater. By trying to be more than it is, the setting turns into less than it is.

Of course, the setting and concept are all secondary to the execution in this kind of work. And here it fails even more crucially. Bulmer’s prose is ridiculous without being ridiculously fun. To call it purple would be an incredibly horrific understatement. Yet it really isn’t that exciting. It should be, but it isn’t, since Bulmer just overdoes everything. Especially the descriptions.

To top it off, The Suns of Scorpio ends on a cliffhanger that brings the artificiality of the setting to full force. I’ll just say that after reading this, I knew why the sword and planet genre declined so much in popularity.

(As an aside, with 52 entries completed before Bulmer’s death, Dray Prescot is one of those individual series that far outstrips the entire “conventional WWIII” niche in terms of quantity).

Review: Never Die Twice

Never Die Twice

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Mark Jones’ Never Die Twice is the first book in the Reaper Force: Viper series, detailing the adventures of cybernetically enhanced heroine Natalie Nicks. With short chapters and simple prose that reminded me of Sidney Sheldon of all people, it’s not the most technically adept book. Even by cheap thriller standards.

What it is, however, is a fun book. It lands on the sci-fi end of the technothriller spectrum, with a lot of “just barely sorta a little kinda maybe slightly plausible” technology. I’ve used the “homemade apple strudel” analogy before to describe something that you know isn’t the most well constructed, but is still quite enjoyable. And this definitely fits the bill. I mean, the book has a line about pitting humans against grizzly bears in races. Its backstory is basically that of The Bionic Woman. What’s not to like?

Review: Drakon

Drakon

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The fourth book in the Draka series, Drakon is the story of the Draka utterly triumphant, having bioengineered humanity into master and servant subspecies-in one universe, with only the descendants of those who escaped the “Final War” to stand against them. Too bad homo drakenis Gwendolyn Ingolfsson got sucked through a wormhole experiment into the then-present. She plots to take over the world for the Draka, with only a strange cast of people from multiple universes to stop her.

This isn’t really alternate history, even in the most fleeting sense. It’s pure cheesy science fiction, a “fight the Terminator-Predator-Amazon” story. Drakon is as sleazy as it’s cheesy, with Stirling never missing a chance to throw in a lurid detail. And while it works as a turn-your-brain-off “51% book”, there are some legitimate and serious flaws.

First, it doesn’t have, say, Jon Land’s sense of buildup. Too much is revealed too fast, and the residual baggage of the alternate history background burdens it even more. Second, the conclusion is an utter clunker. That is to say, it’s a simultaneously confusing and rushed mess of escalation that ends with a contrivance and ridiculously obvious setup for a sequel that understandably never came. Third, the only interesting character is Ingolfsson herself, and even she could be done a lot better.

Take away the fandom controversy and the legitimately distinct (however dubious) alternate history that made up the first three installments, and all you have is, as I’ve said before, tawdry fiction that, while not unreadable or unenjoyable, wouldn’t really stand out.

Review: The Awakening

The Awakening

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The tenth Survivalist book, The Awakening is when the series changes significantly. Having spent centuries in suspended animation to ride out a world-consuming fire wave underground, the Rourkes now emerge to take stock of the changes and aid the space-launched Eden Project as it prepares to return. John Rourke ages his children by selectively thawing and refreezing them so that they can be the same age as the adults when they wake up, and they emerge into a world where human life still exists.

This book, if I had to reedit/adapt the Survivalist series, probably wouldn’t even exist at all. I’d probably fold the recovery and the Eden Project return into an epilogue to Book 9 at worst and a few extra chapters at best, and then conclude the series there. But in actual history, the books were selling enough to continue and Ahern finally had the ability to make them more and more science fiction-y.

While the Survivalist series was never a “hard” setting to begin with (after all, the nuclear war caused multiple states to tumble into the ocean), here begins an even more contrived setup. There was an underground shelter. And another underground shelter. And another underground city. And an underwater city! It’s very much like a Bethesda Fallout game where there’s a lot of conveniently working stuff laying around centuries after the war, and it becomes a more obvious author’s toy with each new book after this.

(Later there will be a second timeskip that will obliterate the last traces of any post-apocalyptic residue in the setting, but that’s another story)

The actual book itself is more satisfactory Jerry Ahern action, but this is still the time when the series jumped the shark.

 

A Thousand Words: They Saved Hitler’s Brain

They Saved Hitler’s Brain

This movie is probably best remembered for its title-the originally shipped one the “The Madmen of Mandorus” is not nearly as clear or memorable. In that movie, the Nazis, facing defeat, cut off Hitler’s head while keeping it alive, fly it out of the country, and keep it safe in the fictional Mandorus until they can launch their evil plot to take over the world with poison gas.

Besides the title, there are two more things that make this movie stand out. The first is, of course, the novelty of Hitler’s head in what looks like a glass cake container. The second is what turned it from “The Madmen of Mandorus” to its most famous name.

The movie needed to be lengthened for TV, so an additional, completely unrelated opening act was filmed with UCLA film students. Since pop culture and film technology had changed so much in the few years, it stands out dramatically. All that amounts to in terms of actual plot  is a bunch of people with bad post-Sgt. Pepper Beatles mustaches getting in and out of cars before they all die. Then the actual movie starts, and, barring the Hitler Head, is a conventionally bad B-movie. It’s very stupid all around, but it’s the kind of distinctive “fun-stupid” that’s enjoyably bad.

Review: Deep Blue

Deep Blue

Reading Deep Blue, one of the later John Schettler Kirov books, brought a strange feeling to me.

Reading it, I encountered all of the issues with Homecoming, the previous book in the series I’ve read. And then some. The almost interchangeable battles are over-detailed and underwhelming to an extreme. The plotlines are clunky and shoved together. By all “normal” accounts, I should have been dismissive at best and disliking at worst. But I just wasn’t. As I read through tons of time-travel shenanigans, I felt a sense of “woah. Wow”, for lack of a better phrase.

It hit me when the ship time-warped from the current near-future World War III to another near-future World War III, only with different equipment and different sides. Everything just then clicked suddenly into place.

This is kind of like the later Survivalists-if Ahern had meticulously simmed every clash in Advanced Squad Leader or something like that and recorded the verbatim results in the books. And the time travel isn’t just a small throwaway part-it’s a a big central element, with a huge effort towards enabling this kitchen-sink wargaming. It’s like having a zombie sorceress start a Fuldapocalyptic World War III, and devoting a lot of effort to her, her rivals, and her powers as you move from 1985 to 1988 to 1981 to a 1986 with the YF-17 chosen as the light fighter and the British using a different divisional structure.

I still don’t recommend the actual books, unless you like lots and lots of barely disguised wargaming AARs. But if I had to choose a series with a lot of novelty and effort put into it or a series that just clunks along without any of those, I’m definitely picking the former. The sheer excess of the Kirov series makes it at least interesting.

Review: Cold Allies

Cold Allies

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Patricia Anthony’s debut novel Cold Allies is a distinctive book. But it is not exactly distinctive in a good way.

First, there’s two awkward plots. One plot is the surrealist tale of blue alien orbs that suck people in. The second plot is a sort of “World War III” where an “Arab National Army”, fleeing the drought and famine of an ecologically devastated world, invades Europe. There are (even by technothriller standards) a ton of shallow viewpoint characters who are constantly being shuffled around, taking out what little coherence might have existed.

The war plot is one of those weird cases where one might think the biggest issue would be the book being too political. And yes, a lot of the characters are shallow stereotypes, seemingly contributing to it. But it’s handled just totally matter-of-factly, kind of like Dark Rose or Ian Slater’s USA VS Militia series. For the alien plot, it crosses the line from “surreal” to “pretentious” pretty handily. This book is little but a bizarre novelty.

 

Review: Steel World

Steel World

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For BV Larson’s Steel World, I returned to a familiar place-the land of spacesuit commandos. Almost every single value checks out. Dystopian background? Check. The main character is a super-special spacesuit commando in a super-special spacesuit commando unit (in this case, a secret dirty tricks “Legion”)? Check. The main characters use nothing more than power armor and ray guns that don’t seem to really do much? Check. The tactics are iffy and everyone uses Roman ranks? Check.

The only novel feature, besides the use of “rules of war” that are clearly structured to enable the plot, is revivification. However, in practice all it does is remove tension, best summed up by having people -multiple times at that- want to be “killed” for the sake of convenience.

For all my complaining, Steel World manages to dodge the biggest problem with the subgenre. Its training sequences are not overly long, and I was thankful for that. And for all its issues, it’s still readable and fun as a mindless spacesuit commando novel.

Review: Transit To Scorpio

Transit To Scorpio

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Though published close to fifty years ago, Kenneth Bulmer’s Transit to Scorpio was already almost an anachronism when it was released. Much of what we now know as “science fiction” and “fantasy” was once unified in a type of genre following in the footsteps of the legendary John Carter of Mars, one known as “sword and planet”, involving Earthmen traveling across exotic worlds and fighting with blades.

This book fits that category to a T. 18th century sailor Dray Prescot is transported to the planet Kregen around the star of Antares, where he proceeds to be rejuvenated and made near-immortal, only to be cast loose as he disobeys his masters to aid a beautiful woman, Delia. Cue a book of “planetary romance” (another name for the genre) in every definition of the term.

Transit to Scorpio has a lot of prose that’s sadly familiar even to someone like me who’s only read a bit of the style of the day, being both overwrought and clunky. It also has a plot setup that’s familiar, with almost all of the “science fiction” elements being used to set up the plot and little more. In spite of this, it’s not bad, particularly by the standards of the genre.

Review: The Zone Hard Target

The Zone: Hard Target

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In 1980, Hard Target was released. It was the first book in The Zone series of post-semi-apocalyptic World War III novels. Just that description alone gives the impression of the book being weirdly different. And in many ways, it is.

The background of this book is simple, contrived, and still somewhat novel. Basically, there’s a World War III, but now the fighting is limited to a contaminated zone in Europe, and the westerners have super-hovercraft for some science fiction flair. I was reminded of the Ogre board game/franchise, which has hovercraft and limited conventional nuclear war (it makes sense in context). That came out three years before this book did, and I don’t know how much influence, if any, it had over the writing.

This is a “have your cake and eat it too” kind of book. On one hand, the action is grittier and gorier compared to some other works in the genre, and the target MacGuffin is a tank repair unit and not some kind of superweapon. On the other, it’s still very much a cheap thriller with a premise, like Twilight 2000, that’s pretty much designed to be an adventure-friendly setting.

But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and Hard Target is a good book for what it is. It checks the boxes of what makes a cheap thriller passable, and as obviously contrived as they were, the setting and tone were novel enough to take things up a notch for me.

Another opinion on this book can be found on the excellent Books That Time Forgot blog.