Review: Travel by Bullet by John Scalzi

Review: Travel by Bullet by John ScalziTravel by Bullet (The Dispatcher #3) by John Scalzi
Narrator: Zachary Quinto
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: mystery, science fiction
Series: The Dispatcher #3
Length: 3 hours and 43 minutes
Published by Audible Studios on September 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

The world has changed. Now, when someone is murdered, they almost always come back to life—and there are professionals, called "dispatchers," who kill in order to save lives, to give those near the end a second chance. Tony Valdez is a dispatcher, and he has never been busier.

But for as much as the world has changed, some things have stayed the same. Greed, corruption and avarice are still in full swing. When Tony is called to a Chicago emergency room by an old friend and fellow dispatcher, he is suddenly and unwillingly thrown into a whirlpool of schemes and plots involving billions of dollars, with vast caches of wealth ranging from real estate to cryptocurrency up for grabs.

All Tony wants to do is keep his friend safe. But it’s hard to do when friends keep secrets, enemies offer seductive deals, and nothing is ever what it seems. The world has changed... but the stakes are still life and death.

My Review:

I’ve always assumed that The Dispatcher series was set in a near-future Chicago. It seems like I was half wrong, because the opening of Travel by Bullet makes it very clear that this is an alternate Chicago, but the alterations seem limited to the switch that makes the whole series possible. That 999 out of 1,000 who are murdered don’t actually die.

The Chicago this story takes place in, however, is very much the real city, and very much right now, in a world where the pandemic just happened and we’re or in this case they’re, just getting out from under it. With all the exact same mess and uncertainty lingering in Tony Valdez’ world as there is in this one.

There really is a Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria in Wicker Park. And now I want some. Because there is nothing like a Chicago Deep-Dish Pizza – although when I lived there I usually went to Pizzeria Uno.

But you can taste the pizza as you listen to Zachary Quinto once again describe Tony Valdez’ Chicago as he slips back into the role that he voiced in the first two audio originals in this series, The Dispatcher and Murder by Other Means.

The thing about Tony Valdez’ Chicago, as described in the title of the second story in the series, is that someone who wants to commit a murder DOES need to do it by other means. Because very few people who are murdered directly – so to speak – don’t actually die. They just come back somewhere safe and let the police – or whoever – know whodunnit.

So it has to be done some other way.

But that also means that being dispatched has become a bit of a thrill-ride for the rich and jaded. A thrill-ride that Tony’s fellow dispatcher has conducted on multiple occasions. It’s a well-paid if dubiously legal and ethically questionable job. And Mason Schilling is all about getting paid.

At least until Mason throws himself out of a moving car on the Dan Ryan because he’s in something dirty and deadly up to his neck. And when he asks for Tony to be present for Mason’s own dispatching, he drops Tony into it right along with him.

Leading Tony straight into that world of the rich and jaded, while dodging questions from his friends in the Chicago PD and trying to stay just one step ahead of the folks who’d like to take him for a deadly drive on Ryan the same way they did Mason.

All in pursuit of a MacGuffin that may, or may not (it’s a bit of a Schrödinger’s MacGuffin) hold millions of dollars, or millions of dollars in secrets, or both. Or neither. The truth of which is what Tony has to figure out, one step ahead of pretty much everyone who is chasing after him – even after he travels by bullet.

Escape Rating A: The author of The Dispatcher series is best known for two things, his science fiction and his excellent line in snark. Travel by Bullet, and the entire series so far, has a whole lot more of the latter than the former.

Tony Valdez clearly represents the author’s voice in this series. There’s usually at least one character in any of Scalzi’s stories that reads like it’s his direct representation in the action, and in The Dispatcher it’s definitely Tony.

Not that the entire cast of characters isn’t plenty snarky as the situation requires. Because it generally does in this series.

What this series isn’t, at least in comparison to Redshirts, Old Man’s War or The Collapsing Empire, is all that science fictional. Instead, rather like his Lock In series, The Dispatcher series is a mystery that has been set up by an SFnal concept.

So if you’ve been curious to try Scalzi but don’t read much SF, this series might be a way in. If you’ve stayed away because of the extreme snarkitude, well, this might not be your jam.

But it certainly is mine.

What makes this particular entry in the series so delicious – besides the references to Lou Malnati’s pizza – is that it’s a story about humans behaving very, very badly and we’re inside the head of someone who isn’t afraid to say the terrible parts of that out loud – at least within the confines of his own head.

In other words, it’s fun to see rich people fuck up this badly and get at least some of their just desserts for it. The schadenfreude is strong with this one.

At the same time, we get a peek into the darker side of the more human aspects of Tony’s job. So many people want to do something for their suffering loved ones – especially in the throes of the still simmering pandemic. And Tony, along with all the other dispatchers, is at the front line of telling people that what he’s obligated to do won’t actually help. It’s heartbreaking and it’s real and it’s impossible not to feel for everyone involved.

The SFnal conceit that makes this series work also makes both the mystery and the solution of it intensely convoluted. Which is part of the fun of the whole thing, listening to what’s rattling around in Tony’s head as he tries to figure out what he’s gotten himself into, how deep he’s in it, and just how hard it’s going to be to get out.

It’s a wild ride from beginning to end, told in Zachary Quinto’s perfectly wry and world-weary voice. As with the previous books in the series, there will eventually be a hardcover book from Subterranean Press, but it’s not here yet. Still this was written for audio and it’s the perfect way to experience Tony’s Chicago.

Speaking of which, the author has said that this series is his love letter to Chicago. If you love the city as much as he does – or as much as I do – listening to The Dispatcher series will make you fall in love all over again.

Review: Star Trek: Picard: No Man’s Land by Kirsten Beyer and Mike Johnson

Review: Star Trek: Picard: No Man’s Land by Kirsten Beyer and Mike JohnsonNo Man's Land (Star Trek: Picard) by Kirsten Beyer, Mike Johnson
Narrator: Michelle Hurd, Jeri Ryan
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera, Star Trek
Length: 1 hour and 39 minutes
Published by Simon Schuster Audio on February 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Discover what happens to Raffi and Seven of Nine following the stunning conclusion to season one of Star Trek: Picard with this audio exclusive, fully dramatized Star Trek adventure featuring the beloved stars of the hit TV series Michelle Hurd and Jeri Ryan.
Star Trek: No Man’s Land picks up right after the action-packed season one conclusion of Star Trek: Picard. While Raffi and Seven of Nine are enjoying some much-needed R&R in Raffi’s remote hideaway, their downtime is interrupted by an urgent cry for help: a distant, beleaguered planet has enlisted the Fenris Rangers to save an embattled evacuation effort. As Raffi and Seven team up to rescue a mysteriously ageless professor whose infinity-shaped talisman has placed him in the deadly sights of a vicious Romulan warlord, they take tentative steps to explore the attraction depicted in the final moments of Picard season one.
Star Trek: No Man’s Land is a rich, fully dramatized Star Trek: Picard adventure as Michelle Hurd and Jeri Ryan pick up their respective characters once more. Written for audio by Kirsten Beyer, a cocreator, writer, and producer on the hit Paramount+ series Star Trek: Picard, and Mike Johnson, a veteran contributor to the Star Trek comic books publishing program, this audio original offers consummate Star Trek storytelling brilliantly reimagined for the audio medium.
In addition to riveting performances from Hurd and Ryan exploring new layers of Raffi and Seven’s relationship, Star Trek: No Man’s Land features a full cast of actors playing all-new characters in the Star Trek: Picard universe, including Fred Tatasciore, Jack Cutmore-Scott, John Kassir, Chris Andrew Ciulla, Lisa Flanagan, Gibson Frazier, Lameece Issaq, Natalie Naudus, Xe Sands, and Emily Woo Zeller, and is presented in a soundscape crackling with exclusive Star Trek sound effects. Drawing listeners into a dramatic, immersive narrative experience that is at once both instantly familiar and spectacularly new, Star Trek: No Man’s Land goes boldly where no audio has gone before as fans new and old clamor to discover what happens next.

My Review:

I picked this up in one of those “Audible Daily Deal” things for $1.99. And it was certainly worth way more than I paid for it. Because this was not quite two hours of Star Trek fun in a week where I seriously needed to go to my happy place – and Star Trek is still very much that place.

Like so many Star Trek: Next Gen episodes – and this certainly does seem a lot like an episode of Picard so that fits – No Man’s Land has an ‘A’ plot and a ‘B’ plot. The A storyline is an action adventure story, with Seven of Nine and the Fenris Rangers racing off to save a hidden Romulan cultural archive from the depredations of one of the mad warlords who rose up after the fall of the Empire.

The B plot, as it so often was in Next Gen, is a character-driven story wrapped around the possible romance that was hinted at between Raffi and Seven of Nine in the closing moments of the final episode of Picard’s first season. The possibility of that relationship is echoed in the A plot by the bitter sweetness of the lifelong love between Seven’s old friend, Professor Gillin and Hellena, the wife he was separated from during the Romulan evacuations so many years ago.

Like so many Trek episodes from ALL of the series, it all begins with an emergency distress call from a far-flung outpost. In this particular case, a far-flung outpost filled with nothing but scholars, historians, scientists and relics – some of which are also among the first three groups. It’s a repository of Romulan culture, desperately saved from the destruction of the Romulan homeworld by the Fenris Rangers, with the cooperation – sometimes – of the original owners and the assistance of the librarians and archivists who gathered the material. It has been protected mostly by its obscurity, but that cloak has been torn away and one of the more implacable Romulan warlords is on his way to either capture or destroy it.

Except, that’s not exactly what happens.

But the distress call interrupted a tender moment between Raffi and Seven, as duty calls one of them, in this case Seven, and drags a bored, unemployed Raffi along in her wake. And that’s where the real fun begins – as it so often does in Trek – with a mission, a barely workable plan, and a character going it on their own without any plan but possibly a death wish.

And underneath it all, an adventure that might blow up in everyone’s faces leading to an ending that no one quite expects.

In other words, a typical day on the bridge of a Federation starship – even if someone has to steal one first!

Escape Rating B: I went into this hoping for a bit of fun, and I certainly got that so I left this story pretty happy with the whole thing. But it listens very much like a cross between an episode of the Star Trek universe as a whole and one of the media tie-in novels that Star Trek birthed in vast quantities.

By that I mean that I was expecting fun but not anything that would seriously affect the main storyline of the show – in this case – Picard. So I was expecting the hints of a romance between Seven and Raffi to be bittersweet at best because even if it does happen eventually it can’t happen here.

And yes, the Romulan warlord is a bit of a screaming cliché – but then most Romulan warlords were screaming clichés. The actual emperors could be very interesting, but the warlord wannabes – not so much.

On the other hand, the exploration of the Fenris Rangers and how they work together and mostly don’t was fascinating. The banter between Starfleet-trained Raffi, over-the-top, walking malaprop Hyro and jack-of-all-trades Deet was frequently hilarious. That trio act provided most of the comic relief in a story that was otherwise pretty damn serious.

Of course I loved the whole idea of the hidden repository. That’s always cool.

But it was the story of Professor Gillin and his lost love that tugged at my heartstrings, and I really liked the way it held up a mirror to the relationship that Raffi and Seven are tentatively reaching towards – and backing off from at the same time.

Because Seven and Raffi just aren’t in the same place. They’re both damaged and grieving and more than a bit lost – but Raffi is at a place where she’s willing to try again and Seven just isn’t there and may never be. Watching them recognize that was sad but also heartfelt.

And it rang so very, very true that Raffi’s love for the Federation was the relationship that she felt the most regret over, that it was the most difficult love of her life for her to completely give it up. Because in a way that’s true for all of us who have been fans over the years and never quite let that love go.

So if Trek is your happy place, or if you just want to dip a bit into that world, or if you’re looking for a bit of distraction from whatever that won’t hurt too much or pull too hard or tax too dearly on your world-weariness of the moment, No Man’s Land is actually a great place to go for a couple of hours.

Review: 1632 by Eric Flint

Review: 1632 by Eric Flint1632 (Ring of Fire #1) by Eric Flint
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, science fiction, time travel
Series: Ring of Fire #1
Pages: 597
Published by Baen Books on 2-1-2000
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

FREEDOM AND JUSTICE -- AMERICAN STYLE 1632 And in northern Germany things couldn't get much worse. Famine. Disease. Religous war laying waste the cities. Only the aristocrats remained relatively unscathed; for the peasants, death was a mercy. 2000 Things are going OK in Grantville, West Virginia, and everybody attending the wedding of Mike Stearn's sister (including the entire local chapter of the United Mine Workers of America, which Mike leads) is having a good time. THEN, EVERYTHING CHANGED.... When the dust settles, Mike leads a group of armed miners to find out what happened and finds the road into town is cut, as with a sword. On the other side, a scene out of Hell: a man nailed to a farmhouse door, his wife and daughter attacked by men in steel vests. Faced with this, Mike and his friends don't have to ask who to shoot. At that moment Freedom and Justice, American style, are introduced to the middle of the Thirty Years' War.

My Review:

What if? That’s often the central question in science fiction. In the case of alternate history, as 1632 most definitely is, the question is just a bit more specific. What if history went down a different leg of the trousers of time than it did in the world we know?

When this book and this series, 1632, opens, it’s the year 2000 in Grantville, West Virginia. The entire town has turned out, along with quite a few selected and/or important guests, to see Rita Stearns, hometown hero Mike Stearns’ sister, get married to an out-of-towner whose parents most definitely do not approve.

Time and history, at least as far as the residents of Grantville knew it, gets knocked off the rails during the wedding reception, when what they later refer to as “The Ring of Fire” slices a 6 mile wide – and deep – circle in the earth with Grantville at its center, picks up that slice of the just barely 21st century U.S. and switches it with a corresponding slice of earth in the middle of the Holy Roman Empire in 1632 during the height of the mess that history refers to as the Thirty Years’ War.

The story in this book and the series that grew out of it, is not about the aliens. Nor is it about the mechanism of that time travel. It’s about what happens next. In 1632. Where a complete town of 3,000 people with late 20th century ideas and ideals has suddenly dropped into the midst of chaos.

No one even thinks about Star Trek’s Prime Directive. They can’t reverse what happened. They don’t even know how it happened. They can’t leave. And there are far, far too many of them to either hide that they are there or attempt to blend into the local population. Where they are, which turns out to be the middle of the Thuringian Forest, is where they are staying. And where their children, and grandchildren, etc., will be born and raised.

This is the story of who they decide to be and how they decide to make that happen in a world that isn’t ready for either what they think or what they know. They see two options laid out before them. The first is to batten down the hatches and fend off anyone from the outside who tries to get in. The second is to throw open the doors and let everyone in – as long as they are willing to abide by the conditions laid out in documents that won’t be written for another century and a half.

Can the United States of Europe get enough people to accept democracy, civil rights and American-style prosperity fast enough to change enough history to make a new, good life for themselves and everyone willing to join them?

Or will the powers-that-be of 17th century Europe wipe them out and grind them under before they have firm enough ground to stand on?

Escape Rating A: I read 1632 way back when it was originally published in 2000 and absolutely fell in love with it – and several of the subsequent volumes of the Ring of Fire series. The author and originator, Eric Flint, passed away last week and it reminded me just how much I loved this at the time. I decided to see if it held up over the intervening decades – and here we are. The answer is pretty obvious from the rating. I loved it then and I love it still and I’ll probably read more of the series – again or for the first time – as time permits.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have its flaws along with its terrific points – but I still loved it. For one thing, this is very much competence porn. The group of folks who end up as the “Founding Fathers and Mothers” are all utterly excellent at doing the jobs that have been thrust upon them.

Probably more excellent – and more cohesively – than would happen if this were real. Or if it happened now. It did feel like they came together much faster in 2000 than might occur today after the last two decades of extreme political divisiveness in the U.S.

The wedding reception also created a rather convenient excuse for a lot of people to be in this small and already dying town than would have been true on a typical Sunday. It is particularly notable that the only black people in town – a much needed doctor and his paramedic daughter – are only there for the wedding. Otherwise the town would be almost entirely monochromatic.

If there are any LGBTQ+ folks in Grantville – we certainly don’t meet them in this first book. (That being said, this was not atypical of publishing at the time this book came out. The series kept on going, 32 books and counting, with the most recent, 1636: The China Venture, published in 2019. I imagine the books got more diverse in all ways as the series continued, but I can’t prove it from here.)

What fascinated me the first time I read this, and continues to do so, was the history and the directions that the author – and his later collaborators – chose to take that history. Their initial decisions in this first book seem reasonable, especially that all-important decision to gear their technology down to the level of the Industrial Revolution. It’s a level they can reach and maintain with the knowledge they have and the level of technology they can get their neighbors to reach. And it’s still way ahead of where central Europe is when they “landed”.

This book doesn’t so much end as it does lead immediately to the next book in the series, 1633. But it still feels like it stops on a triumphant note. Not because they just won an important military victory – although they certainly did. It’s what that victory is in service of that makes the ending a high note.

First, the victory is a victory of alliance – not of Grantville using its technical superiority to turn itself into a fortress nation. They form an alliance with King Gustav II Adolphus of Sweden, who in the history that was but will not be, a very forward thinking monarch who might have changed real history – if he hadn’t died in late 1632.

Second, the victory on their home ground, protects the most dangerous thing that Grantville brought back with it – the high school library and the students studying at the school. The powers-that-be, including Cardinal Richelieu of France (the villainous mastermind in The Three Musketeers) knew that the knowledge and information that Grantville brought to the 17th century was infinitely more dangerous than any of their weapons – and they wanted it destroyed at all costs.

And I have to admit that that acknowledgement, that libraries are dangerous because they expose people to knowledge and information, warmed the cockles of my librarian’s heart. Because it is and because we are. Not because of any of the specific things that are being protested today, but because libraries open people’s minds to what is possible – and that is what reactionary forces always fear above all else. Libraries, and librarians, teach people to ask questions that no tyrant, whether of government or of thought, wants to answer.

So I had fun. I had a lot of thoughts re-reading this book, but I also had a lot of fun. Even if things were a lot easier than I expect they would have been or should have been, I enjoyed watching these highly competent people doing their best to not just survive but to make a real life for themselves, their neighbors AND their posterity in a place where none of them could ever have expected to be.

I’ll be back – again or for the first time – the next time I need a competence porn pick-me-up or just want to watch a whole bunch of people play silly buggers with history. 1633 here I come!

Review: Three Miles Down by Harry Turtledove

Review: Three Miles Down by Harry TurtledoveThree Miles Down: A Novel of First Contact in the Tumultuous 1970s by Harry Turtledove
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, science fiction
Pages: 288
Published by Tor Books on July 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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From New York Times bestselling author Harry Turtledove, the modern master of alternate history, a novel of alien contact set in the tumultuous year of the Watergate scandal.
It's 1974, and Jerry Stieglitz is a grad student in marine biology at UCLA with a side gig selling short stories to science fiction magazines, just weeks away from marrying his longtime fiancée. Then his life is upended by grim-faced men from three-letter agencies who want him to join a top-secret "Project Azorian" in the middle of the north Pacific Ocean—and they really don't take "no" for an answer. Further, they're offering enough money to solve all of his immediate problems.
Joining up and swearing to secrecy, what he first learns is that Project Azorian is secretly trying to raise a sunken Russian submarine, while pretending to be harvesting undersea manganese nodules. But the dead Russian sub, while real, turns out to be a cover story as well. What's down on the ocean floor next to it is the thing that killed the sub: an alien spacecraft.
Jerry's a scientist, a longhair, a storyteller, a dreamer. He stands out like a sore thumb on the Glomar Explorer, a ship full of CIA operatives, RAND Corporation eggheads, and roustabout divers. But it turns out that he's the one person in the North Pacific who's truly thought out all the ways that human-alien first contact might go.
And meanwhile, it's still 1974 back on the mainland. Richard Nixon is drinking heavily and talking to the paintings on the White House walls. The USA is changing fast—and who knows what will happen when this story gets out? Three Miles Down is both a fresh and original take on First Contact, and a hugely enjoyable romp through the pop culture, political tumult, and conspiracies-within-conspiracies atmosphere that was 1974.

My Review:

This was fun. Actually, it was considerably more fun than I expected. Although I wasn’t expecting The Hunt for Red October and every UFO story that takes place at Area 51 to have a book baby, either. But they did and this is definitely it.

It’s the summer of 1974 when this story opens, and does it ever feel like it. Watergate was in high gear, but the infamous tapes had not yet been released. Meaning that there was still plenty of room for people to believe that Nixon was being railroaded. There were also plenty of people who just didn’t like “Tricky Dick” and were happy to see him fall from grace – whether he was being railroaded or not.

The Cold War was still lukewarm at this point. It wouldn’t officially end for another decade, so the US and the USSR are still locking horns, but mostly on the diplomatic front. And the US is still stuck in the deeply unpopular and divisive Vietnam War, although there were certainly signs that the government of South Vietnam was teetering and that the US wouldn’t be able to prop it up for much longer.

Jerry Stieglitz was a graduate student at UCLA, very much like the author. But Jerry’s research for his doctorate in marine biology was about whalesong. If he ever managed to finish it. An issue that is even more in doubt after a visit from the CIA with an offer of the kind of money a graduate student can’t afford to turn down to do a job that sounds more like a boondoggle than anything that will advance his research.

It’s also going to be hell on his love life. Jerry and his fiancé Anna have their wedding all planned – and paid for – to take place in just three weeks.

The CIA wants Jerry on a research vessel in the Pacific Ocean starting ASAP. He thinks he’s part of their cover story. That research vessel is carrying some specialized equipment, to let the CIA raise a sunken Russian submarine from the titular “three miles down” under the ocean.

It’s only after Jerry is aboard ship and they’re on their way to the crash site that Jerry learns that he’s been brought aboard, not for the cover his marine biology research provides, but for the twists of mind necessary for his side-gig.

Jerry is a published (although not very much, yet) science fiction writer. Which makes him perfect for the real mission, hidden under the fake mission, concealed by a really thin cover story about mining manganese from the ocean floor.

It’s Jerry’s job to anticipate all the things that might go wrong when the ship brings up its real prize – a UFO that crashed under the waves who knows how and who knows when. All that anyone knows is that the UFO, whether crewed or not, managed to bring down that Russian submarine all by its lonesome.

Whatever is in there, the US wants to nab for itself before the Russians learn the truth about who sunk their nuclear equipped submarine.

Bringing up the UFO is the adventure of a lifetime. What Jerry finds in it will change, not just his life but quite possibly the world. But he doesn’t believe the US should be opening this particular can of worms on its own.

The problem is that if Jerry tells anyone what they found, somebody really will kill him. But they’ll have to catch him first.

Escape Rating A: Three Miles Down is fun on three different levels. First, there’s the obvious, the golly gee-whiz-bang fun of finding that UFO. It’s an edge-of-the-seat adventure that makes the reader feel like they are right there with Jerry and the crew – even if it’s also a boy’s only club. Which, to be fair, it would have been in 1974.

But just the idea of that discovery is fascinating – and all too easy to imagine for anyone who loves science fiction. Which leads directly to that second level. Because the story feels like it’s intended as a love note to the SF genre, particularly as it was at that period. (I was in high school when the book takes place, and I remember reading – or at least thinking about reading – many of the exact same books that Jerry reads on the trip. And the inclusion of real-life science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle in that latter part of the story reads as spot-on.)

And then there’s that third level, when Jerry’s situation goes pear-shaped and he finds himself on the run in the best spy thriller tradition, trying to keep one step ahead of the people who are out to get him. A part of the story that also flips the espionage thriller on its head, as Jerry, an American, is on the run from the CIA so that he can give the secret to America’s enemies. AND HE’S DOING THE RIGHT THING!

Put all those elements together and this story is an absolute blast from beginning to end, with an ending that opens up the possibility for so many wonderful new beginnings. I’d love to know what happens next, because I really enjoyed following Jerry’s “Magic Carpet Ride” of a journey.

Review: A Prayer for the Crown-Shy by Becky Chambers

Review: A Prayer for the Crown-Shy by Becky ChambersA Prayer for the Crown-Shy (Monk & Robot, #2) by Becky Chambers
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, hopepunk, science fiction, solarpunk
Series: Monk & Robot #2
Pages: 160
Published by Tordotcom on July 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

After touring the rural areas of Panga, Sibling Dex (a Tea Monk of some renown) and Mosscap (a robot sent on a quest to determine what humanity really needs) turn their attention to the villages and cities of the little moon they call home.
They hope to find the answers they seek, while making new friends, learning new concepts, and experiencing the entropic nature of the universe.
Becky Chambers's new series continues to ask: in a world where people have what they want, does having more even matter?

My Review:

This book is the prayer, and we are all, all of us who read this marvelous story, the crown-shy.

Crown shyness is a real-world phenomenon. About trees. Which is totally fitting for this story that features two people – even though one of them doesn’t refer to itself as “people” – who are exploring both friendship and all the myriad wonders of their world together.

Some trees spend their early years growing taller as fast as they can, reaching for the open sky and the sun. Then they start growing outwards, filling in branches and creating their part of the canopy of a forest. You’d think that those leaves and branches up in the canopy would overlap with the trees on all sides, creating a barrier between the sun in the sky and the ground far, far below.

But they don’t. Many species are “crown-shy”, meaning that they somehow know where their limits are and leave just a bit of space, a channel, between where their leaves end and the next tree’s leaves begin. So that the sun does reach the ground to give other denizens of the forest a chance to grow.

The communities in Panga are like that. They grow but so big and no further, so that each village has enough – actually more than enough – to sustain itself and its people. No one needs to want for more.

And that’s what’s at the heart of the Monk & Robot series so far. That question about what do beings want, either as individuals or as a community. What, for that matter, is there to want once society has somehow evolved past our current, endless hunger for more?

The tea-monk Sibling Dex and the robot Mosscap met in the first book in this terrific series, A Psalm for the Well-Built, because they were both asking variations of that question. Sibling Dex had pulled off the beaten path into the woods because they were in the throes of burnout and were asking themselves if what they were doing was what they wanted to do. If their endless journey was all there was or would be to their life.

While Mosscap was asking itself what had happened to the humans after the robots achieved self-awareness and walked away into the depths of the forest. What did humans need? And more specifically, was there anything that robots could do for them or with them?

The first book followed Dex’ journey deep into the wilderness, into Mosscap’s territory, to a remote location that was once sacred to their god and their service as a tea-monk. This second journey goes the other direction, as Dex and Mosscap head towards the City, home of the University and all its scholars, so that Mosscap can ask its questions of the people in Dex’ world who are supposed to have all the answers.

Only to discover that they’ve both already found their destination. And that what they truly need is each other.

Escape Rating A: If you’re looking for a story that will shed some light into the darkness, just as those crown-shy trees let light through to the forest floor, read A Psalm for the Wild-Built and A Prayer for the Crown-Shy. Because they are the purest of hopepunk, and we all need that right now.

This is a book that asks some pretty big questions, and then lets its two protagonists work out the answers for themselves as they travel through a lovely world that may have solved many of the problems we have today but still doesn’t have all the answers.

As Mosscap discovers, the value is in both asking and being asked the questions. The robot started out with “what do humans need?” The answers that it finds surprise it. In a world where striving for more for more’s own sake seems to have been eliminated, what humans need seems to boil down to one of two things.

Either someone needs help with a very specific concrete issue that either they haven’t gotten around to or for which there isn’t anyone local with the right skills or knowledge. Or, the answer is more existential, where the short version is often something like “purpose” or “fulfillment”. The kinds of things that a person needs to determine for themselves.

As does a robot. Mosscap discovers that it has no answer for itself to its own question. It doesn’t know – at least not yet – what it needs or what its fellow robots need. I sincerely hope that the series will continue, and that we’ll get to follow Mosscap and Dex as they hunt for their own answers.

In the end, this book is an antidote to so much that is happening right now in the world. It’s a walk through light and beautiful places, led by two beings who have learned that friendship is the most important journey of all.

Review: You Sexy Thing by Cat Rambo

Review: You Sexy Thing by Cat RamboYou Sexy Thing by Cat Rambo
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Pages: 304
Published by Tor Books on November 16, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Farscape meets The Great British Bake Off in this fantastic space opera You Sexy Thing from former SFWA President, Cat Rambo.
Just when they thought they were out...
TwiceFar station is at the edge of the known universe, and that's just how Niko Larson, former Admiral in the Grand Military of the Hive Mind, likes it.
Retired and finally free of the continual war of conquest, Niko and the remnants of her former unit are content to spend the rest of their days working at the restaurant they built together, The Last Chance.
But, some wars can't ever be escaped, and unlike the Hive Mind, some enemies aren't content to let old soldiers go. Niko and her crew are forced onto a sentient ship convinced that it is being stolen and must survive the machinations of a sadistic pirate king if they even hope to keep the dream of The Last Chance alive.

My Review:

This one gave me an earworm. And as a song from just two years later proclaimed, “It’s my own damn fault.” (I’m also experiencing one of those terrible moments when it slaps you upside the head that the 1970s weren’t 20 or 30 years ago but 40 going on 50 years ago.)

“I believe in miracles” is the first line from a 1975 hit by the British band Hot Chocolate. The title of the song is, you guessed it, “You Sexy Thing”. In this particular story, it’s also the name of a self-aware, sentient, sapient bioship.

A ship that thinks it’s being stolen because of that “I believe in miracles” password, given to retired Admiral Niko Larson by the ship’s once-and-future owner. A man who will hopefully be a bit less of a douchecanoe in his next incarnation.

No, he’s not King Arthur, or any kind of hero whatsoever. He’s just a rich, self-indulgent asshat who has paid for the kind of quasi immortality you can buy in an SFnal universe where cloning and downloading one’s consciousness is a thing. Not a sexy thing, but an expensive thing. The kind of thing that is very do-able with enough money.

Niko and her crew are on the run. Not because they’re criminals, but because TwiceFar Station, where they have been operating The Last Chance Restaurant since they managed to leave the military service of the Holy Hive Mind, has just been destroyed as collateral damage in the neverending game played by a race called the Arranti.

It’s what the Arranti do. And it has set Niko’s plans back by years if not decades as the crew scrambles to grab what they can and get off the station while they can. Along with everyone else who isn’t dead yet.

Once aboard the Thing, things start happening. Or rather, things are revealed. The ship is taking them to a prison planet, where their stories will be officially judged. They’re not actually worried, because they’re telling the truth about how they acquired the ship. Not that they don’t have plenty of secrets – just that THAT isn’t one of them.

But there are plenty of secrets aboard just the same. Secrets that are about to bite Niko and her crew in the ass. Because the hijacked ship is being hijacked again, this time for real. And it’s taking Niko and her crew back to the site of her greatest failure, in the domain of her greatest enemy.

A man with a long reach, and an obsessive desire to make Niko pay for even attempting to “steal” something that he had declared was his. Even if he had to twist it beyond almost all recognition to make it so.

Escape Rating A-: There are two stories aboard the Thing. One is an adrenaline-inducing tale of torture and death with little chance of escape, and the other is a sort of Great British Bake Off in space where everyone aboard has the opportunity to learn to cook – including the ship! – while they all figure out who they want to be – and who they want to be with – when they “grow up”.

Not that they are not all adults – more or less – but as a group of people who have spent most of their adult lives either in military service or on the run or both there haven’t been many opportunities for any of them to figure out what they want in life when they’re not either chasing an impossible goal or running from an enemy.

Or both, all too frequently, both.

The heartwarming parts of this story, the bits about figuring out their places in the universe and with each other, are lovely and sweet and a whole lot of fun. One of the best parts is the way that they all treat the ship as another member of their crew and the Thing gets to experience quite a bit of self-actualization along with everyone else. The ship’s perspectives on events – including their thoughts about their own journey, are terrific. I could have been immersed in those parts of the story forever.

The other part of the narrative is what happens after their arrival in the den of that sadistic pirate. The circumstances were obviously terrible. The reason for all that terribleness was even more terrible. What happens there is yet more terrible again.

The danger there is ramped up to 11 and the torment of envisioning how much worse it’s going to get is even, well, worse. It’s every bit as heartbreaking as the parts of the story about all of them cooking together is heartwarming.

I have to say that something about the villainy of the villain didn’t quite work for me. Not in the sense that I didn’t feel their danger, not even in the sense that I didn’t get his motivations – or not exactly. After all, even villains believe that they are the heroes of their own stories.

He just didn’t feel like a person. He was more of a cartoon villain, a supervillain who was consumed with his revenge obsession. He tipped over the top of the villain scale into bwahaha territory. It’s not that he wasn’t a real threat – because he most definitely was – but that he didn’t feel like a real character.

The ship read as more of a real character than the villain did. Also as more of a real character than the ship Moya does in Farscape, I think because we hear the Thing’s comments directly and not through an interpreter.

In the end, as much as the two parts of this story didn’t quite gel, I did enjoy reading about Niko and her crew and I’m terribly curious about what happens next as they jump out of the frying pan and into the fire yet again. So I’ll be back next summer when their (mis)adventures continue in Devil’s Gun. I have a feeling that’s just what they’re going to find – and that it will probably be aimed straight at them.

Review: The Impossible Us by Sarah Lotz

Review: The Impossible Us by Sarah LotzThe Impossible Us by Sarah Lotz
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Romance, science fiction
Pages: 483
Published by Ace Books on March 22, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

This isn't a love story. This is Impossible.
***
Nick: Failed writer. Failed husband. Dog owner.
Bee: Serial dater. Dress maker. Pringles enthusiast.
One day, their paths cross over a misdirected email. The connection is instant, electric. They feel like they've known each other all their lives.
Nick buys a new suit, gets on a train. Bee steps away from her desk, sets off to meet him under the clock at Euston station.
Think you know how the rest of the story goes? They did too . . .
But this is a story with more twists than most. This is Impossible.

My Review:

Every once in a while, even in real life, someone will text or call a wrong number, and instead of getting a hang-up or a brush-off, a connection gets made. There’s that famous story about the Arizona grandma who texted a complete stranger to come for Thanksgiving dinner in 2016. He not only came for dinner that year, he and his now-wife are still invited and attending that Thanksgiving dinner every November.

But the connection between Bee and Nick, while it still begins with a text to a complete stranger, has much further to travel, even if they don’t realize it at first.

The hook into this story is the witty and emotionally honest banter between Nick and Bee. Both are well into adulthood if not necessarily adulting, they both have serious shit to deal with and both of them, frankly, are clinically depressed in one way or another.

Bee is avoiding relationships by playing spin the one-night-stand roulette wheel on Tinder. She’s self-supporting, her business of re-purposing used wedding dresses is going gangbusters, and she’s completely alone except for her lifelong friend Leila and her upstairs neighbor. It’s an OK life but she’s lonely.

Nick sees himself as a failure – only because he is. His marriage is dying if it isn’t already dead. His career as a novelist produced one self-absorbed book and nothing since. His only real friends turn out to be his dog, Rosie and his stepson Dylan – because his wife is cheating with his other best friend so that relationship is clearly over.

Bee and Nick find each other at a point where they each desperately need a lifeline – and they become that for each other in text after text after text, all day and sometimes all night long.

Until they agree to meet. Under the clock at Euston Station. They both say they’re there, but neither can see the other. And that’s when things go wildly pear-shaped.

Eventually, after railing at each other, cursing at each other, and obsessively reading over their correspondence, they come to the heartbreaking realization that the multiverse is real and that they are not living in the same version of it.

Each of their worlds is the other’s “road not taken”. The worlds aren’t SO different. The divergence isn’t all that far in the past. In Bee’s world Clinton’s two terms were followed by W.’s two terms, then Obama’s two and then, let’s call him The Former Guy.

Nick thought Bee’s reference to The Former Guy as president was a bad joke, because his world split off at the hanging chads in Florida in the 2000 election. Clinton was followed by Gore’s two terms, then Obama’s two terms. His world managed to skip both 9/11 and Brexit. Not that his world is unequivocally better, but it is different in ways that don’t seem too surprising if you remember anything about Al Gore’s political platform.

Accepting that they can’t meet in person, they also decide that the relative closeness of their parallel worlds means that they CAN meet their world’s equivalent of each other. As they discover, however, that just because they can, doesn’t mean they really should.

Escape Rating B: This book is bonkers. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is going to be strictly in the eye of the beholder, and honestly I’m still not sure. It’s a wild ride, but I’m not sure I liked where that ride ended up.

I’m also none too sanguine about labeling this as a romance. An emotional if not physical romance does occur, but there’s no HEA for Bee and Nick. There can’t be and that’s the point of the story. It really is impossible for the two of them to become an “us”.

This is more of a story about that “road not taken”, or an example of the quote from John Greenleaf Whittier, “For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, ‘it might have been’.”

Nick and Bee might have been something special, but once they meet their actual doppelgangers in each other’s realities, I’m not so sure. Or I’m not sure that Nick has it in him to find his own happy ending, Bee, who has better coping skills in the first place (admittedly that’s a REALLY low bar to get over) ends the story with at least the possibility of an HEA somewhere down the road.

(Nick reminded me a bit too much of an old quote from Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.” Nick is firmly stuck in “can’t” to his own and the story’s detriment.)

But this is being marketed as a romance, which is going to lead entirely too many people to pick it up thinking there’s a happy ending, and those readers are going to be seriously disappointed. OTOH, while the SFnal elements are more than enough to push it to SF, the way the doomed romance is centered in the story is going to turn off many of those readers as well. And on my third hand in an alternate universe, although this is SFnal and does center a romance, it doesn’t gel in the right way to make it a science fiction romance, either.

For people who know what they are letting themselves in for, there is plenty of satisfaction to be had on this wild and crazy ride through the multiverse of other worlds, other selves and other lives. Just don’t expect a happy ending.

Review: Acadie by Dave Hutchinson

Review: Acadie by Dave HutchinsonAcadie by Dave Hutchinson
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Pages: 112
Published by Tordotcom on September 5, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The first humans still hunt their children across the stars. Dave Hutchinson brings far future science fiction on a grand scale in Acadie.
The Colony left Earth to find their utopia--a home on a new planet where their leader could fully explore the colonists' genetic potential, unfettered by their homeworld's restrictions. They settled a new paradise, and have been evolving and adapting for centuries.
Earth has other plans.
The original humans have been tracking their descendants across the stars, bent on their annihilation. They won't stop until the new humans have been destroyed, their experimentation wiped out of the human gene pool.
Can't anyone let go of a grudge anymore?

My Review:

“I think, therefore I am,” or so goes the quote from French philosopher René Descartes. But Descartes lived in the 17th century, well before the popularity of science fiction. In Acadie, the quote needs to be a question, “I think, therefore I am, what?”

Duke Faraday thinks that he is the president of a renegade colony of genetic researchers and tinkerers who made him president because he wanted the job the least. And he knows he’s pissed off because his admin/majordomo/minder has just woken him up too damned early on his day off because there’s a crisis.

And his desk is where the buck stops. Even if his so-called desk is generally parked in a bar – and there are no bucks of any kind on The Colony. (Unless the scientists who really run things have genetically engineered something since he went to bed the night before.)

The Colony is filled with a bunch of renegade scientists who are still paranoid about the Earth that they escaped from five centuries before. They left with a ship full of kidnapped colonists, an overabundance of genius and a complete lack of willingness to stop experimenting with the human genome – and any other they can get their gloved hands on – no matter how many people, organizations, and even governments tell them “no”.

So when a trigger-happy pilot brings down what is obviously a probe from the Earth they left behind, it’s all-hands-on-deck to bug out before Earth returns to take whatever fancy tech their geniuses have invented and bring home any survivors from that original hijacking back for trial.

Everyone gets away except for Duke and his “Dirty Dozen” of advisors who are left to look after the last of the technology clean-up. They are sitting ducks for the next Earth probe that comes along, and come along it does.

Duke thinks he’s holding the line against a rapacious colonization agency that likes to cut corners and doesn’t care how much collateral damage it does along the way. After all, that’s how he ended up in the Colony in the first place.

But the pilot of the probe has a different idea about his mission, and Duke’s, altogether. An idea that just might turn Duke’s entire universe on its head – or bust his wide open.

Escape Rating A-: At first, the tone of Acadie and its protagonist reminded me more than a bit of Heinlein by way of Scalzi. The way that the entire Colony pulled itself together to escape the threat had some of the feel of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, although I should have been thinking more of The Man Who Sold the Moon, which is as much of a hint as I’m giving.

I also can’t help but think that Duke Faraday and John Perry (Old Man’s War) would have had a lot to talk about in that bar, possibly along with Fergus Fergusson from Finder.

The Colony as a form of government, a working utopia, an escape hatch, all of the above, seems like a fascinating place. The idea that the person elected president is the one who wants it the least honestly seems like an idea that might have merit and broader application. (And also adds to that Heinlein-like feeling. I keep thinking that sounds like something he would have said, but I can’t find a citation so maybe not.)

That the real powers-that-be are the scientists, possibly even the mad scientists, who escaped from Earth’s laws and proceeded to write their own and the human genome at the same time certainly does make the story interesting. And picturesque, as the scientists, called ‘The Writers’ because they rewrite the genome seemingly at a whim, often mine popular culture through the ages for their material and their whimsy.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, the habitats that the Colony uses are one of the very few, if not the ONLY, beneficial uses of that plague of the South, kudzu, that has ever appeared in fiction.

So the story hums along, seemingly about a plucky band of scientists and other colonists doing their best to stay out of the clutches of the evil – or at least benighted – bureaucrats from Earth. We’re rooting for them and we’re sure they’ve found the right answers.

They are too.

But at the end, the whole story turns itself upside down, twists itself inside out, and spits the reader out of the book kicking and screaming, wondering what the hell went wrong. And it’s upsetting and glorious all at the same time.

(Reviewer’s Note: I’m on the horns of a dilemma here because of the brevity of the story versus the price of the book. On the one hand, this is only 112 pages. It’s a novella. On the other hand, the kindle version is $7.99 which is a bit much for the length. And on the third hand, because of that kick in the pants ending, I’m not sure this actually should have been longer. If Amazon is still selling used copies of the paperback at $1.50 that might be a better bet or at least a better cost/benefit ratio. YMMV)

Review: Ogres by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Review: Ogres by Adrian TchaikovskyOgres by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, fantasy, science fiction
Pages: 144
Published by Solaris on March 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A bleak glimpse of a world of savage tyrants, from award-winning author Adrian Tchaikovsky in a beautiful signed, limited-edition hardcover.
Ogres are bigger than you.Ogres are stronger than you.Ogres rule the world.
It’s always idyllic in the village until the landlord comes to call.
Because the landlord is an Ogre. And Ogres rule the world, with their size and strength and appetites. It’s always been that way. It’s the natural order of the world. And they only eat people sometimes.
But when the headman’s son, Torquell, dares lift his hand against the landlord’s son, he sets himself on a path to learn the terrible truth about the Ogres, and about the dark sciences that ensured their rule.

My Review:

When I first saw the cover for Ogres, the image reminded me an awful lot of Mr. Hyde – as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. So I went looking for popular images and the resemblance is a bit uncanny – except for that helicopter in the background of the book’s cover.

Now that I’ve read Ogres, I’ve come to the conclusion that the image is kind of a tease – or a spoiler. Perhaps a bit of both. Because Ogres is very much a “we have met the enemy and he is us” kind of story, complete with that same AHA! moment in Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, that the monster perceived as being “the other” is really the self within. Or in this case a possible self that can be released under the right – or wrong circumstances.

As we experience this tale through the eyes of Torquell, the spoiled son of the village headman who both envies and resents the wealthy and all-powerful ogres, this seems like a rather typical hero’s journey. Torquell manages to kill one of the supposedly unbeatable ogres who rule his world and everyone is punished for it.

Evil overlords are the same all over.

But that’s when the story starts turning a corner into “Come to the dark side, we have cookies.” Literally. The ogre who “owns” Torquell starts feeding him the same food that the ogres eat – and he becomes bigger, stronger and more aggressive – just like they are.

Those cookies are baked – not just with ingredients that are forbidden to the downtrodden serfs – but with fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. An evil that Torquell recognizes when he tastes it – even as he plots to steal the knowledge of the ogres for himself.

That could have been the end of the story. But it’s not – and that’s what made it so much more fascinating than the all-too-typical hero’s journey it set out to be.

Escape Rating A-: That’s where this story, which up until this point has read as a fantasy, flips one of its switches and turns into science fiction. Because the ogres are Mr. Hyde, who once hid inside the more mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll. All it takes is a bit of genetic engineering – and a whole lot of generations to bake the system in place.

Then, just as the reader thinks they know where the story is finally going – a second switch is flipped. A switch that makes you rethink everything that came before. Because this IS a hero’s journey after all – just not the hero the reader thought it was. Not at all.

What made this story so compelling is that as much as I totally saw the first twist coming a mile away – I didn’t see the second one at all until it happened. Torquell is led very carefully along the path to discover the truth about the ogres, so once he starts learning about the history of his world that truth becomes obvious fairly quickly.

But that’s where things get interesting. Because then it starts to look a lot like a power corrupts tale, as Torquell is seduced by the equivalent of the dark side of the force that governs his world. Torquell rises – and then Torquell falls – but the story still manages to have a triumphant ending. Just not the one the reader thought they were going to get.

I usually say that books like this walk like a duck and quack like a duck because they read like fantasy right up until the point where we learn that they were science fiction all along. In the end, this one walked like a duck and quacked like a duck but somehow managed to be a platypus. It wasn’t what I expected, then it wasn’t what I expected again, and at the very end managed to surprise me yet one more time. That’s a lot of surprising plot twists to pack into one novella!

Review: The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi

Review: The Kaiju Preservation Society by John ScalziThe Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure, science fiction
Pages: 272
Published by Tor Books on March 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The Kaiju Preservation Society is John Scalzi's first standalone adventure since the conclusion of his New York Times bestselling Interdependency trilogy.
When COVID-19 sweeps through New York City, Jamie Gray is stuck as a dead-end driver for food delivery apps. That is, until Jamie makes a delivery to an old acquaintance, Tom, who works at what he calls "an animal rights organization." Tom's team needs a last-minute grunt to handle things on their next field visit. Jamie, eager to do anything, immediately signs on.
What Tom doesn't tell Jamie is that the animals his team cares for are not here on Earth. Not our Earth, at at least. In an alternate dimension, massive dinosaur-like creatures named Kaiju roam a warm and human-free world. They're the universe's largest and most dangerous panda and they're in trouble.
It's not just the Kaiju Preservation Society that's found its way to the alternate world. Others have, too--and their carelessness could cause millions back on our Earth to die.

My Review:

It feels like this is the first thing I’ve read that actually deals head-on with life during the COVID pandemic. Plenty of things talk around it, and often those were written about the plague before it ACTUALLY happened, but The Kaiju Preservation Society just slams right into it.

It also feels like this is going to be one of the archetypes for how it gets dealt with in fiction, because this book is just plain damn funny. Even if, or especially because, much of the humor is gallows humor because there was an actual gallows looming over everything as lives, careers, hopes and dreams died with abandon – and sometimes abandonment – during those strange, unreal years.

So it’s entirely fitting that this is a story about giving not just the pandemic but the whole, entire Earth the middle finger and sloping off to a place that no one ever imagined existed. No matter how much we were ALL looking for a complete escape just like this at the time.

With or without Godzilla. Because that’s what a kaiju is, a Godzilla-type monster that occasionally slips between the cracks of the multiverse to terrorize our version of Earth.

But Jamie Gray, who gets fired from his fairly cushy job as an executive for a meal delivery service start up JUST as the country in locking down, then becomes a desperate “deliverator” for the company that fired him, lucks into the experience of a lifetime when his very last customer offers him a job at the mysterious “KPS” because the person on their crew who does heavy lifting is unavailable at the absolutely last minute.

Jamie’s in. He’s been down and out for six months, running through his savings, keeping his best friends from becoming homeless because their jobs have dried up too, and he’s at the end of all his ropes. KPS, whatever and wherever it is, has to be better than what he’s doing now. And the money is fantastic.

So, it turns out, is the experience.

Escape Rating A-: The Kaiju Preservation Society reads like vintage Scalzi of the Old Man’s War and Redshirts variety. The message sneaks up on the reader, much as it does in Old Man’s War, but it’s not quite as deep, while the snark-o-matic is dialed all the way up as it is in Redshirts.

So it’s light if not fluffy and not so much a laugh riot as filled with nerdy jokes, rueful chuckles and occasional outright guffaws from beginning to end. And not dissimilar to the author’s actual voice if one has ever seen him in person. (Scalzi read a bit of KPS on the recent JoCo Cruise and let’s just say that the man doesn’t have to act AT ALL to be the voice of Jamie Gray.)

While the pandemic provides the perfect excuse for Jamie Gray to sign up for a 6 month tour with KPS, as it turns out on Kaiju Earth, it’s his experiences once he steps through the portal in remote, chilly Labrador to the steamy jungle of an alternate Earth where one of the big extinction events just didn’t happen and kaiju evolved to be the apex predator that give the story its heart, its snark and its lesson.

It doesn’t matter how much bigger and more badass the monsters actually are, humans are always the most truly monstrous thing we ever encounter.

But first we get the joy and camaraderie of a whole bunch of very smart, very savvy, very geeky and extremely nerdy people having the absolute time of their lives doing really cool science in this most alien of places that is surprisingly close to home.

The feel of this part of the story, the sheer joy of doing stuff that literally no one has ever done before surrounded by people who are just as into it as you are reminds me a lot of Dan Koboldt’s Domesticating Dragons – and not just for the dragon/kaiju connection. But the love of doing science and breaking new ground and having great colleagues all in it together is very similar, so if you’re looking for another taste of this kind of SF try that.

Yes, there’s a bit of Jurassic Park in this. That’s kind of a “well, duh” comment after all. But the story is a lot more like The Rogue Retrieval (also by Koboldt) and S.M. Stirling’s Conquistador, in that someone with more power than sense, ethics or morals finds a gateway or portal to a place that already exists – and then invades with the hope of conquering it with as much firepower as they can muster.

In all of these portal stories the central problem is kind of the same, in that whenever we humans find someplace new we bring ourselves – which is about the worst thing we could do anywhere to anything. That the author manages to circle that all the way back to the very beginning of this story – all the way back to that start up and the very asshole who fired him was just plain epic. With a heaping helping of utterly marvelous schadenfreude and revenge slathered on top.

And that was just delicious.