Short Story Review: IS THIS YOUR DAY TO JOIN THE REVOLUTION? by Genevieve Valentine

SELECTIONS FROM “BRAVE NEW WORLDS”, edited by John Joseph Adams



Here is another happy find from the Baen Free Library, a section of the Baen site where a good number of books is offered for free download, as a way to sample authors and their works.  Selections from Brave New Worlds is a sampler from a larger collection of short stories, this time with a dystopian theme. Not all of them were concerned with ruin and destruction changing society, as is often the case, but they were all quite intriguing in their very different outlook.


This short story was quite intriguing: it depicts an alternate version of our world ruled by an apparently benign totalitarian regime (and how can a totalitarian rule ever be benign?), one where ubiquitous propaganda dictates the citizens’ way of life, of behavior, of thought.

For example, an unspecified event called “the Bang” has allegedly created pockets of an infectious disease against which the government enforces a widespread campaign of prevention, but there are those who claim it’s all a massive hoax to keep people in line. Or couples are formed on the basis of state selection, and their relationship closely monitored to observe anything untoward.  Or again, citizens are constantly instructed to be on the lookout for any “anomalous” behavior, and to report it no matter how trivial it might look, because – as the propaganda says – “What do you know that we should know?”.

For all its outward ordinariness, this is the kind of society that most frightens me, one where people – with the exception of a very few – don’t even realize that they are being controlled, herded and shaped according to someone else’s idea of perfection.  It’s even worse than an open dictatorship, because on the surface people should not have anything to complain about. “Should not” being the key word here…

It might have given me the chills, but I truly appreciated this tale, one I heartily recommend.


My Rating: 


Review: OUTPOST (Donovan Trilogy #1), by W. Michael Gear


The colonization of distant planets is one of my favorite science fiction themes: I’ve always found it fascinating to observe humans react to a new, often hostile environment and having to do it on their own, because any kind of help is millions of miles away.  It hearkens back to the idea of pioneers starting a journey toward the unknown, being aware of the dangers that might face them, but still feeling the need to obey that inescapable drive to move forward, to “see what’s out there“.  One of such stories was the Heorot series by Niven and Pournelle, where the colonists found themselves face to face with terrible predators aptly named ‘grendels’, and I encountered a similar spirit in this novel, which enhanced my enjoyment of this well-crafted book.

Donovan is a lush, Earth-like planet rich in minerals and precious stones, a true paradise for colonists and miners, but it also possesses a dark, ruthless side, because most of its flora and fauna are deadly: in the three decades since planetfall, the first wave of settlers has dwindled down to a few hundred individuals, their life hanging on a precarious balance due in part to the heavy casualties and in part to the lack of supplies, because none of the ships sent with new people and equipment ever made it to Donovan.  Items like antibiotics, for example, have run out, which means that on this planet even a banal infection can kill you.

Still, the Donovanians have learned how to cope with the situation and how to reach a sort of armed truce (where armed is indeed the key word) with the planet and its dangers, and in so doing have developed a streak of stubborn independence.   Enter the Turalon, a new ship sent by the Corporation, the colony’s contractor, whose representative Kalico Aguila is determined to use the mission to further her ambitions: solving the mystery of the lost connection with this potentially lucrative settlement, and bringing it back into the Corporation’s fold, will take her to the top of the corporate food chain.  What Aguila discovers is that travel in space is far more dangerous than one could have imagined, and on top of that the colonists are not ready to hand back the independence they literally bought with their blood.

What passes for government on Donovan is handled by a trio of people, the most notable of them being Talina Perez, a woman toughened by hardship who, like her two other counterparts, has won the respect and faith of the other colonists by showing her aptitude for survival.  It’s therefore not surprising that the arrival of Aguila and her company of marines, led by the veteran Max Taggart, does not shake the community overmuch: the settlers know that before anyone can lay any claim on Donovan, they have to demonstrate their ability to survive it, to move beyond their new-arrival status (defined “soft meat” by the colonists) into the hardened shape that the planet requires.

To make things even more interesting, one of the new arrivals is a ruthless killer who boarded the Turalon with forged papers, determined to build himself a new life on Donovan – of course on the backs of his hapless victims: he proceeds to find himself a lucrative niche in the colony, doing away with any obstacle with the same ease as other indigenous predators; and as if all the above were not enough to keep readers on the edge of their seat, one of the ships bound toward Donovan, the Freelander, makes its appearance: the same kind of unexplainable anomaly that made the other ships vanish has caused the Freelander to be trapped in a sort of limbo for over a century – the crew and passengers are all dead and in the middle of the officers’ mess-room looms an ominous construct of human bones…

More than the fascinating glimpses of the wondrous, dangerous beasts that prowl the surface, like the reptilian quetzals, or the treacherous flora, like a kind of predatory vine that lashes out when one least expects it, this novel finds its strength in the contrast between the new arrivals, full of notions about how to run things and follow rules, and the settlers, whose experience has taught them the hard way that they had to adapt to the planet, and not the other way around.  The political and economical quandaries faced by Aguila dovetail nicely with the personality clashes between colonists and Corporation people, the latter having a hard time wrapping their minds around the laid-back kind of anarchy that has supplanted any rule still observed by the newcomers, who have not had the opportunity to learn Donovan’s harsh lessons.  One of the best scenes where these differences come to the fore is the failed attempt at a trial in which Talina and her two co-rulers should be the accused and end up being the heroes of the moment, having correctly judged the mood of the audience and the weaknesses of Aguila and her enforcers: there is a delightful balance between drama and humor in this scene that mirrors the novel’s overall mood, and the opposing attitudes between the major players.

As fascinating as the background is, the characters are even more interesting: apart from Talina, who is some ass-kicking woman indeed, one we meet for the first time as she chases a dangerous quetzal, there are her co-rulers Shig and Yvette – the former often relying on some inscrutable Eastern wisdom and the latter on a more practical approach – a triumvirate based on shared experiences and mutual respect. If they remain more or less faithful to themselves in the course of the story, we can see great changes in some of the new arrivals, especially Max “Cap” Taggart and Kalico Aguila.  Taggart, who starts as the epitome of the square-jawed soldier, slowly falls under the spell of Donovan (and Talina’s as well…), for the first time realizing that there is more to life than an existence structured around rules and regulations, that the freedom he enjoys on the planet, despite or maybe because of the dangers he faces, is what he wants and maybe always wanted.  In a sense, Taggart “turns native”, and this causes him no end of grief from his former comrades who are unable to look at Donovan with the same eyes.    Kalico Aguila seems to be the perfect corporate drone, living only for advancement and power, and it will take the hard reality of Donovan and the fear engendered by the returning Freelander to steer her goals in a different way.

As the first book in a trilogy, Outpost does a good work of laying down the premises for the story and manages it while telling a compelling, multi-faceted tale full of twists and turns – some of them quite unexpected, like a development that caught me by surprise toward the end – but it leaves a good number of unanswered questions for the next installments: I can’t wait to see what this dangerous, mysterious planet still has in store for me…


My Rating: 


Review: THE PHOENIX OF KIYMAKO (Book of Never #6), by Ashley Capes

I received this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

Never’s story gains another chapter in his journey of discovery, and change: after the massive revelations of the last two installments, which saw not only Never’s unexpected transformation but also his disillusionment and grief, our hero embarks on a new quest in the search of a sister whose existence he did not suspect until recently, and in so doing takes us to a remote part of the world that is quite different from his usual stomping grounds.

Kiymako is an island far away from the mainland where Never’s previous adventures took place, and it has a decidedly far-Eastern flavor, both in environment and culture: from the plains and mountain ranges of old we are taken to a lush jungle-like territory, where bamboo and rice paddies share space with tropical forests. Thanks to their isolation, the inhabitants have developed a very different culture, one more geared toward mysticism and a heightened sense of spirituality, as testified by the temples dotting the island and the great number of monks that seem to present in every settlement.

This does not mean that our hero faces an easy task, because he soon discovers that the place is rife with plots within plots and that power games are being played at any latitude: as he starts to inquire on the whereabouts of the young woman to whom he might be related, Never must guard his back carefully and be even more wary than usual. Thankfully though, he also manages to make some friends, something that seems to be his true advantage in any situation: for a man who has always lived alone and counted only on himself, he has this uncanny ability to engender friendship and loyalty in the decent people he meets, so that his quest is facilitated by some much-needed allies.

As I have come to expect by now, Never’s search is a long theory of discoveries that lead to puzzles to be solved, which in turn help him unearth some new clue that will guide his steps forward: this kind of storytelling will certainly appeal to readers who also enjoy playing games because, as I have noted before, the narrative looks like a series of levels of increased difficulty to be unlocked before Never can move to the next challenge.  Unlike previous stories in his journey, though, there is a difference here: due to the sometimes unpleasant truths he finds, Never becomes progressively disillusioned with his origins, understanding as he does that he, his late brother and now his newfound sister were nothing more than pawns in their father’s far-reaching plans.  And it’s for this very reason that his encounter with innocent Ayuni gives him hope for a better future, and for a family tie that is finally free of ulterior motives.

Unfortunately, the name our protagonist goes under seems to determine his fate and never looks like the final word for every one of his goals, as he’s forced to continue in his quest for the heritage that gave him great powers, but also – as the saying goes – great responsibilities, and also exposes him and all those of his blood to great dangers.

And so the adventures go on…

The Phoenix of Kiymako will be published next June: if you want to get up to date with Never’s previous journeys, HERE is a complete list of the titles.


My Rating: 



Review: EMBERS OF WAR (Embers of War #1), by Gareth L. Powell

When I started reading the synopsis for this novel, as soon as I reached the words “sentient ship” I stopped paying attention to any other detail, since this has been a favorite theme since the times of my long-ago encounter with Anne McCaffrey’s stories, and more recently with the Leviathan Moya of the acclaimed tv show Farscape.  And once I discovered that in Embers of War the ship Trouble Dog is not simply sentient, but enjoys its own first person point of view, I knew I was in for a delightful experience – but I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s proceed with order…

The action takes place in what feels like a distant future, when humanity has been discovered by and welcomed into a sort of galactic federation called the Multiplicity: such enlightened company has not changed humans very much though, and therefore the story opens on the final stages of a brutal conflict between two factions, the Conglomeration and the Outwarders.  The former, knowing the war might go on for a long time with heavy casualties on both sides, decides to strike a massive blow against its opponents and causes the total destruction of a planet covered by a sentient forest, where Outwarder and Conglomeration forces are locked in endless guerrilla skirmishes.

Years later, Captain Sal Konstanz commands a vessel of the House of Reclamation, an organization devoted to the rescue of endangered spacers, and her ship, the Trouble Dog, used to be one of the vessels tasked with the annihilation of Pelapatarn, the planet destroyed in the prologue: the ship, gifted with sentience thanks to a mix of technology and human brain cells, feels the need to atone for its past actions (evidently not subscribing to the easy alibi of “I was just following orders”, as many humans do) and believes that working for  the House of Reclamation is a start to balance the lives lost to wartime destruction.

The House of Reclamation is indeed a fascinating concept, a mix between the Red Cross and the Foreign Legion, where one’s past and previous affiliations cease to matter and the only goal is that to save lives.  For this reason they are not subject to any one planet or system’s laws and they are free agents commanding respect from all factions thanks to their humanitarian goals.   This does not mean, however, that they are immune from dangers, and as the Trouble Dog is called to render aid to a liner that was attacked while exploring a peculiar group of planets called ‘the Gallery’, ship and crew find themselves in the crosshairs from competing factions poised to start another conflict.

Besides Sal Konstanz and her crew – former Outwarder soldier Alva Clay, the alien engineer Nod and the young, inexperienced medic Preston Menderes, who’s been assigned to the Dog after the demise of the previous doctor – the story’s points of view include poet Ona Sudak, a passenger on the attacked liner and also a woman with a dark secret in her past; and Ashton Childe and Laura Petruska, respectively a Conglomeration and Outwarder agent.   Their individual paths converge on the Gallery system, a group of planets that a mysterious alien race carved into bizarre shapes and where a chance find opens a portal toward a distant part of the galaxy and the encounter with an old alien race.

This is a story that moves forward at a very good pace, thanks to the author’s narrative skills in keeping the action rolling, and his choice of alternating between the main points of view while having each of them relate the events in the first person, thus giving a more hands-on perspective to the whole scenario as he builds the individual characters. If there is a common bond between these different individuals (and I count Trouble Dog among them) is the strong need for redemption, or freedom from their inner ghosts – or both: for example, Captain Konstanz’s life is dotted with losses, so that she works to save lives to balance those that were taken from her, and sometimes the struggle becomes so painful that she needs to physically retreat from everything and everyone, to elaborate her pain in solitude.  Ashton Childe is profoundly disillusioned by his life’s choices and believes that his current assignment as a spy and military adviser in a far-off conflict is leading nowhere, crushing him under the weight of uselessness and despair.  Or again young Preston is desperately trying to live up to his father’s standards, and doomed to failure by devastating psychological problems.

Still, the most interesting character remains that of Trouble Dog, formerly a Conglomeration ship of the Carnivore class (interesting denomination, this one…) and part of a pack of similar ships built for speedy ruthlessness of action: witnessing the destruction of Pelapatarn and its living forest, knowing that in the massacre uncounted lives were lost, besides the age-old sentient trees, changed its attitude – or probably the growing and learning human brain cells implanted in its systems realized the full consequences of the Carnivores’ strike, and reeled from it in horror.  Nonetheless, despite having now dedicated itself to saving lives instead of taking them, Trouble Dog perceives that its feral instincts are not vanquished, but simply dormant, ready to be awakened in defense of its crew and the people it rescues: I loved how the Dog acknowledges its dual personality, the streak of ingrained violence existing alongside more noble feelings, and how it manages to make them work for the good of the crew through a very creative application of computerized logic.

The ship’s twofold nature is also a good mirror for the story itself: on one side we have action scenes and a plot whose tension grows with the turning of each page as the characters converge toward a well-crafted peak of confrontation and discovery; on the other we are made privy to many inner struggles to protect the life choices they made without jeopardizing the nobler pursuits of their new existence.  The result is a captivating story led by interesting characters, and two of them stand out for very different reasons: one is the alien engineer Nod, whose extreme focus on his job and his spiritual goals make him probably the most stable personality aboard the Trouble Dog, and whose manner of speech – or rather, thought – is a delightful combination of single-minded innocence and affectionate mocking of his human companions’ perceived quirks.  The other is the poet Ona Sudak: even before discovering what lies in her more than checkered past, I could not relate to her because she seemed too detached, too coldly calculating to really make a favorable impression on me; and as the story progressed, I found that I ultimately disliked her.

In the end, Embers of War is revealed as an introduction to a more complex plot, one that will develop over the next books in the series: here we are given glimpses of an age-old alien mystery and of the way it might impact on the present – and very volatile – situation.  Consider me quite intrigued and firmly on board for the rest of the journey…


My Rating: 


Short Story Review: Selection from BRAVE NEW WORLDS, Edited by John Joseph Adams

Here is another happy find from the Baen Free Library, a section of the Baen site where a good number of books is offered for free download, as a way to sample authors and their works.  Selections from Brave New Worlds is a sampler from a larger collection of short stories, this time with a dystopian theme. Not all of them were concerned with ruin and destruction changing society, as is often the case, but they were all quite intriguing in their very different outlook.

AMARYLLIS, by Carrie Vaughn

As the editor writes in the introduction, a dystopia is not necessarily a synonym for “post-apocalyptic” and it does not necessarily depict a bleak scenario.  This is particularly true for Amaryllis, since here the end-of-the-world-as-we know-it has already happened, and is something that belongs to the past.  Society has adapted to the new living conditions, and found new ways to carry on and move forward – there is no tragedy to deal with, but this does not mean that things are easy…

The titular Amaryllis is one of several fishing boats, tasked with the job of providing fish for the coastal community where the crews live: after the upheavals that changed the world, a new way of life has taken hold, one where checks and balances rule every human action, to avoid upsetting the eco-system and falling into the same mistakes of the past.  For this reason, each fishing boat is assigned a quota that must not be exceeded – “take what you need, and no more”, this is the golden rule that regulates all activities. Including reproduction.

In this new world, families are not necessarily formed through blood ties, but rather built on commonality of interest, and Marie – the owner and skipper of Amaryllys, has built her small family group around it and turned it into a thriving reality despite the big stigma hanging over her, since her mother’s pregnancy was not sanctioned by the community and it caused the disbanding of the family group.  When the latest addition to Marie’s clan, Nina, starts expressing the desire to have a baby, the skipper must face some difficult decisions…

I liked this short story very much, because it manages to convey poignancy without need to delve into tragedy and turmoil. Still the message is a fascinating one: how much control over our lives, our legacy to the future, are we ready to leave in the hands of the law? Even though these laws have been drafted to protect humanity from its past mistakes?   Carrie Vaughn’s reply to the question is a fascinating and delightful one, indeed.


My Rating: 


Review: ONE WAY, by S.J. Morden

I received this book from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. My thanks to both of them for the opportunity to read this story.

Mars has always been identified as the next frontier for space exploration, and in recent years the interest toward the red planet increased exponentially, with the probability of a manned mission drawing closer and closer.  It’s no surprise then that genre literature turned again its focus on the colonization of Mars as humanity’s next step toward building a new home away from our birthplace: One Way is one such story, and since it’s based on Mars it does of course address the vital theme of survival in a hostile environment, but it adds an interesting premise and twist.

It’s no secret that a manned mission toward another planet, and the construction of a scientific and residential base there, require not only careful planning and anticipating any kind of danger the astronauts might face, but also a huge budget that must provide for anything the exploring team might need to survive and thrive. One Way postulates that NASA would sub-contract the actual building of the base to Xenosystems Operations, a private corporation whose CEOs decide that the best way to make the operation profitable while keeping the costs down would be to send convicts to Mars as a workforce. Enter our main character, Frank Kittridge, sentenced to life imprisonment for murder: Frank, like the other six convicts who will constitute his team, is given a choice between languishing in prison until he dies or doing something constructive with his time – once on Mars he will still be a prisoner (after all, where would he escape to?), but he will get the opportunity of redeeming himself through work.

The group of detainees is put through some training (I’ll come back to this in a short while) and sent to Mars in suspended animation together with a guard who will supervise their work.  Once reached their destination, though, the work gang discovers that not all the necessary supplies are there, and that they have to face a few dangerous treks across the Martial soil to retrieve them, and what they have does not exactly respect the required quality standards.  Which is not at all surprising when any kind of Evil Corporation is involved…   That’s not their biggest problem anyway, because one by one the convicts start dying in freak accidents, and it soon becomes clear that there is a killer in their midst, bent on eliminating them one by one.

As far as premises go, this is an intriguing one – even though it would have been preferable if the theme of the killer eliminating the inmates one by one had come as a surprise and not as a blurb revelation – but unfortunately it did not prevent me from being somewhat disappointed with the overall story, or the characterization.

For starters, Frank and his companions are given only a very basic training in the kind of challenges they will face once on Mars, or in the way they must operate the equipment: granted, their mission is on a restricted budget, and we learn from the memos interspersed between chapters that XO is trying to cut every possible corner, but still it seems counter-productive to send insufficiently trained people in a situation where the slightest mistake, or lack of proper knowledge, can kill them.   It’s clear they are expendable, and no one can ignore this simple fact – not even the convicts themselves – but still they are being sent to build a base where astronauts and scientists (people that certainly are considered more valuable) will need to live, and survive: if the “cannon fodder” is unable to provide a safe environment for the second wave of colonists, what will the outcome be?  It made little sense to me that NASA would rely so heavily – and blindly! – on such a crooked arrangement without checking regularly on their progress…

Once the dead bodies start to pile up, there is no surprise in discovering that they are not accidents (we were informed of this from the very start, remember?), so there is no room for doubt, since the first tragic “accident”, that something is indeed afoot, and that one of the other seven people on Mars must be responsible – except for Frank, of course, because the story is told from his point of view, and we know he’s not the murderer. In my opinion, this choice further detracts from the building of suspense, because we readers know that our p.o.v. character was not involved in any of the deaths: observing the events from a remote perspective, or turning Frank into an unreliable narrator, would have increased the tension and made the murder mystery less predictable.

The characters – with the exception of Frank, who enjoys a little more depth than the others – range from the bland to the stereotype, without reaching any greater definition, and ultimately look like mere props set there to move the story along: we have the sharp-tongued doctor with a dark shadow over her past, who is far more caring than her acerbic demeanor shows; there is the young tech wiz who can do miracles with a keyboard and couple of power cords; the big man covered in threatening tattoos who is revealed as the gentlest soul on the planet; and so on…  And then there is Brack, the guard sent to keep the convicts in line: there could be no more obtusely mean creature in the whole Solar System, and he’s such a distillate of the worst one could find among prison guards and/or drill sergeants, that he ends up being a caricature rather than a character.

Despite these misgivings, I kept on reading because One Way is still an entertaining story once the Inner Critic is temporarily moved aside, and the final section of the novel finally gains the momentum and the thrill that it sorely needed, closing with an open ending that could go either way and that opens the door to a sequel.   Is it enough to motivate me to look for it?  Maybe.  I would not mind visiting Mars again and seeing what happens next…


My Rating: 


Short Story Review: MARTIAN BLOOD, by Allen M. Steele


MARTIAN BLOOD, by Allen Steele

(click on the link to read the story online)


Mars is still a planet shrouded in mystery despite the numerous unmanned probes that have explored its terrain and examined its soil: being the almost-habitable planet closest to Earth, it has fired the imagination of both scientists and writers, the former picturing the possibilities of colonization and of establishing there a new home for humanity; the latter conjuring up a wide variety of scenarios, from lost civilizations sprawling across the planet to merciless invasions, and so on.

This short story takes a different approach, postulating that Mars has been colonized by Earth people and shortly turned into a sort of tourist trap, complete with fake “Martian experience” guided tours, lavish hotels and casinos – think of Las Vegas on the Red Planet…  In this scenario, one where Mars is habitable and its surface dotted with water courses – quite unlike well-established reality – the original Martians have decided to remove themselves from interaction with the invading humans, avoiding contact as much as possible, and in those cases only with a few selected individuals.  The comparison with America’s Indian tribes comes of course to mind very easily…

Jim Ramsey is Mars born, the son of colonists from the first wave of settlers, and thanks to his extensive knowledge of the territory  he works as a guide for tourists: at the start of this story, he welcomes his new client, Dr. al-Baz, a University of Arizona professor who came to Mars to prove an intriguing theory about the genetic link between Martian aborigines and Earth people.  As one of the few people who can safely approach the shatan (the name Martians use for themselves), Jim will have to convince them to donate some blood to test al-Baz’s hypothesis.

From this point on, the story moves over quite unexpected territory, and toward an equally unexpected ending: I will say no more, because it must be enjoyed free of preconceptions, and save its surprise until the very end.

My Rating: 


Review: HEAD ON (Lock In #2), by John Scalzi

I received this novel from the publisher through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for the opportunity to read this work.

Readers of my blog will know by now that John Scalzi is one of those authors whose books I grab almost without looking at the back cover blurb, and this was no exception, especially considering that I enjoyed its predecessor Lock In very much. Once more I found myself caught in a captivating story that expands on the previously established background: for those who have not read Lock In and the prequel novella Unlocked, Scalzi postulates that a particularly virulent strain of flu sweeps around the world killing many and leaving a percentage of the survivors locked in their own bodies – brains alive and functioning, but unable to move or to communicate with the outside world.  Haden’s Syndrome (so called from the USA First Lady, probably the most notorious victim of the virus) spurs the international community to find a way to bring the people afflicted back into contact with the rest of the world: first a neural net is devised that allows Hadens to communicate with each other in the virtual space of the Agora, then a sort of robotic, remotely controlled body (or threep) is implemented to grant them mobility and the possibility to interact with non-Hadens, leading as normal a life as possible.

Like its predecessor, Head On focuses of Chris Shane, a Haden and an FBI agent, paired with the more experienced detective Vann: after reading the first book, I discovered from online discussions that John Scalzi had left out on purpose any indication about Shane’s gender, to stress how it doesn’t necessarily define a character, or what they can do. To say the truth, while reading Lock In I thought about Chris as male for no other reason that it made sense to pair a younger, inexperienced male rookie agent with a more seasoned, more pragmatic female partner like Vann, but on hindsight I realized that it didn’t make that much of a difference in their working and interpersonal dynamic.  With this new novel I was ready to see how the lack of information on Chris’ gender would play in my perception of the story, and after a while I realized that it worked no matter what, that I cared only about Chris’ journey as the current investigation developed, and that was all that truly counted in the end.

The action starts some time after the events depicted in the previous book, and it does indeed begin with a tragic occurrence: a well-known sports player dies in mysterious circumstances during an important match, and the fact that the event is being aired and the players’ vital statistics uploaded for everyone to see, gives the start to a veritable avalanche of outlandish speculation. The match was no ordinary sports event, since it concerned Hilketa, a cross between rugby and the most ferocious gladiatorial games – a sport played by Hadens with their threeps, and one that is acquiring more and more attention not only from the Haden community, but also from the non-afflicted public and players, with increasing talk about including non-Hadens in threeps as Hilketa players.  The threeps are an important part of the game itself, since the physical damage incurred by the participants is heavy, and because one of the rules requires that a player be labeled as “goat”, and their head forcibly detached from the body so that it can be used as a score-signing part by the opponent team – clearly not something one could do with a flesh-and-blood individual.    When Duane Chapman, the rising star of the Boston Bays, loses his threep’s head for the third time in the same game, it becomes quickly clear that something is wrong with his physical body, and once he falls prey to seizures, death ensues in a matter of minutes.

How could the damage inflicted on the threep have repercussions on Chapman’s body is the first question facing the investigative team, and as Shane and Vann launch into their inquiry they discover several layers of financial and political implications underlying the structure of the Hilketa sports league, and here I must stress how John Scalzi managed to keep my attention focused on a topic that would normally not interest me, to put it mildly.  I’m not a fan of spectator sports, and often think that the hype surrounding sport events sounds somewhat exaggerated and the emphasis of commentators quite over the top, even though I acknowledge the fact that my lack of interest might play a major part in that assessment: with Head On, though, the background theme did not bother me at all, and I found any mention of Hilketa and its surrounding apparatus quite interesting, which means that the author was able to draw me in despite my issues. Well done indeed…

The most interesting part of the story, however, is the one concerned with Hadens, especially in the way they are still adapting to a continuously evolving society that has partly lost the connection with the emotional impact of their tragedy – as it happens with many instances when they become a common fact of life.  In a way, Hadens and their threeps are now an almost mundane fact of life, and the positive side of this is that there is no more question of their acceptance; on the other hand, however, this has led to the withdrawal of a good portion of government funding for afflicted people, so that many of them face economic difficulties in the maintenance of expensive threeps and in the much more costly maintenance of their immobile bodies, that still need to be cared for.  It struck me deeply to see how the threeps, while affording Hadens the chance of interacting normally with the rest of humanity, have in some way robbed the syndrome’s victims of the recognition of their basic helplessness, of their continued need for specialized medical care.

And that’s not all, because aside from ordinary and extraordinary ‘creature comforts’, so to speak, the needs of Hadens concern human companionship too, something that is denied their paralyzed bodies as well as their threep “vehicles”: there is a moment where Shane’s parents are talking with their offspring through the threep, while at the same time Chris’ mother busies herself with some hair trimming on the actual, paralyzed body, as a way of still connecting physically with her child.  In this instance Chris comments about the need for human touch that Hadens experience, the necessity to still feel connected, feel part of their families and of the outside world.  It’s a very moving moment, one where we are brought to realize, once again, how our perceptions might lead us astray and rob us, and others, of some essential connection with our fellow humans, especially when they suffer from some kind of affliction.

There are many, many layers to this story underlying the surface of the investigation on the player’s death, and they are all intriguing and thought-provoking, which is something I’ve come to expect from a Scalzi novel, and once more I was not disappointed. The pace was brisk, the humor well-balanced, the characters believable: one could not really ask for more.   Highly recommended.

My Rating: 


Short Story Review: TETHERS, by William Ledbetter

The Baen Free Library is a section of the Baen site where a good number of books is offered for free download, as a way to sample authors and their works.  During one of my visits, I discovered the existence of a series of short stories collections, grouped by year of publication: as it often happens, anthologies can be mixed bags, but I found a few stories that truly caught my attention: in my next posts dedicated to shorter works I will review the ones that I liked most in this collection from the best of 2016.


Anyone who appreciated the magnificently tense Gravity will find themselves at home in this short story about people working in the depths of space and having to face a dangerous, life-threatening situation: astronauts Hartmann and Sievert are conducting some EVA repairs when Sievert, a swashbuckling loudmouth more interested in personal records than safety protocols, causes a catastrophic accident that could cost them both their lives, and Hartmann must resort to every single bit of training and ingenuity to ensure their survival.

What’s interesting here is that Hartmann comes from farmer stock, and his present situation is interspersed with recollections from the past, especially of his father, a man who had, and still has, a great influence on Hartmann’s way of thinking and on the kind of person he is: even in space, even in the midst of huge technical advancements, being a decent individual does carry its weight, and that consideration becomes quite pivotal once the two astronauts’ circumstances appear quite dire.

Unlike other similar stories about the dangers of living and working in space, this one does not offer a comforting scenario of cooperation and selflessness: on the contrary it adds to the mix the darkest leanings of human nature, and the effects they can have even on the more honorable of characters, so that Tethers becomes a truly breathless reading experience.

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