A CONTEST OF PRINCIPLES (STAR TREK) by Greg Cox

A Contest of Principles
(Star Trek: The Original Series)
By Greg Cox
Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster) — November 2020
ISBN: 9781982134709
— Paperback — 387 pp.


Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise are ordered to the planet Vok, where the government there is holding its first democratic elections after a long period of authoritarian military rule. The Federation has been invited to watch over the elections as non-aligned observers, and ensure that the computer-based voting system proceeds without controversy or tampering. The outcome of the election will have broad repercussions for nearby systems as well. Vok has territorial eyes set on the planet Braco, viewed as their ancestral home. But the nearby planet of Ozalor also contests Braco as their own, and generations of animosity has now built up between the worlds. Adding to the eggshells that the crew of the Enterprise must step among, Ozalor maintains a fiercely isolationist policy, maintaining no diplomatic ties to the Federation, and keeping memory of last encounters turned hostile and deadly.

While Kirk visits Vok with Federation representatives to oversee the election, news of contagious disease outbreak on Braco draws Dr. McCoy, Nurse Chapel and a security guard to that nearby world via shuttle. It’s a trap! (Oh, sorry, that’s Star Wars) Ambushed upon arrival, Dr. McCoy is secreted off Braco by a majordomo to the royal family of Ozalor. The Princess of that planet is afflicted by a mysterious disease and McCoy has been kidnapped to help treat her. Spock meets up with Nurse Chapel and the security officer on Braco to investigate the doctor’s disappearance, but faces resistance from the controlling government there, who is eager to blame a political dissident group on their planet for the kidnapping. On Ozalor, McCoy tries to help his VIP patient,, despite the circumstances of his enlistment, but discovers himself then plunged into the machinations of the royal court.

The older mass-market paperback Star Trek novels stuck to the episodic format of the television series, with one major plot line and setting, plus a lighter, B side-plot somehow worked in. The newer novels have felt more expansive in scope, and A Contest of Principles continues that trend, with Enterprise crew members dealing with situations on not just one alien world, or two, but three. Each setting with its own cast of supporting characters and cultures.

Vok feels akin to present-day Earth, the US more specifically given our own recent election turmoils and polarizing partisanship. Braco bears resemblance to many other alien worlds of Star Trek where political differences have created a break-off group labelled terrorist, and the ruling factions thus increased the militarism of their police and security in response. Braco seems headed down that path of authoritarianism from which Vok is just now trying to move on from. However, whereas Vok directed the militarism externally to their enemies on Ozalor, Braco is now directing its militarism internally upon a population caught in the middle of the Vok-Ozalor feud, and thereby divided. With politics of a feudal monarchy, Ozalor feels the most different, almost like a culture from a fantasy novel. The healer/advisor to the court who is able to treat the Princess’ agony through seeming magic augments this fantasy vibe.

These three settings and the interconnected plot threads of each do work perfectly when writing Star Trek: The Original Series, because of the trio of characters that lead it: Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. This has become the standard to the detriment of what stories could be done with a larger batch of the crew, or a different subset other than that expected trio. For the TV show, the actors playing those characters were the top-billed, indeed the only ones mentioned in the opening credits. But too often the media-tie in creations of Star Trek have then chosen to also just focus on those three.

I do get it, the charisma between the three are a large part of what made The Original Series work, made it beloved. They make a perfect trio, balanced and complimentary to buffer against the harshness or weakness that any of those individuals have on their own. Writers keep returning to Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, because it’s a classic team and it works. But for these newer Star Trek books, I still hope for broadening beyond that easy, familiar setup of the primary three.

A Contest of Principles does put a bit of a spin on the trio in the sense that it is not putting them together to work off one another, but rather separating them and forcing them to manage as their pure, unadulterated selves, each unguided and untempered by their two friends. So while I may wish to see one of the secondary characters featured more than those three, again, at least we can see them manage on their own. On the other hand, Cox did the same recently with The Antares Maelstrom, and it could get old fast.

Cox does a great job writing each of the three leads, effectively capturing their voice and mannerisms. They act exactly as one would expect them to during the period in which the novel is set, the final year of the Enterprise’s original five-year mission under Kirk. They each are given a challenge and setting that most ideally plays off in opposition to their character traits as well. Kirk is a man of action, but is now placed in a role where he is to observe, severely limited in how much action he can take. Spock, of course a Vulcan of logic, is left to deal with a corrupt and illogical security force, and forced to turn to the arts of diplomacy that (at this point in his life at least) lie with his father Sarek, not he the scientist. McCoy is put up against a magician whose powers he can’t quite explain, to cure a disease that is not responding as his medical knowledge suggests it should.

Though this all may not then be particularly original, Cox writes it engagingly well. McCoy and Spock’s chapters I particularly found entertaining. Spock makes acquaintance with an animal/pet that is humorous and endearing. And, who doesn’t enjoy curmudgeon, but gold-hearted, McCoy chew some scenery? I’m less of a Kirk fan, but those who are will surely find familiar joy with his third of the story.

Thankfully this does work for the novel, as other parts of it succeed less well. The new characters are as one-dimensional as primary characters are able to be in media-tie in novels. The stakes can’t really be high for a crew we all know are going to be fine. But, those created just for this could contain greater depth. There isn’t much nuance to those on Braco or Ozalor, and they behave rather stereotypically. The characters on Vok do have far more nuance, to create intrigues of scandal and conspiracies, and something beyond clear-cut heroes/villains in the election. However, that gain becomes hampered by dialogue that can come across as corny. That issue of dialogue also represents the one negative that crept into the otherwise well-written Enterprise characters, with Kirk. I know Kirk has used the term ‘mister’ in his lines on the show (e.g. “you better think twice about that, mister!”) but when written it looks extra silly; Cox employs it often. The start of the novel went slower for me due to the dialogue writing of those secondary characters, but once more of the action started up I was able to get into the story and enjoy this as a decent Trek novel after all.

Recent Star Trek novels have also upped, or expanded, things in the theme department. A Contest of Principles, which takes its title from a quote regarding politics, of course is all about the themes of politics, comparing them across three unique situations/worlds. When I first read the summary of this regarding the elections and a pandemic disease outbreak I wondered how Cox managed to get things so right! The pandemic outbreak angle of course ends up being a lure for McCoy only, but the similarities between the recent US elections that were going on as this book was published in November are likely not coincidence. Many of course saw the capital riots coming – given they were announced and long-stirred-up, of course. I feel as though the situation on Vok wrapped up a bit too easily and neatly for realism, but nonetheless the look into politics there vis-a-vis our reality is a useful endeavor, as are those ‘contests of principles’ explored on the other two planets.

A Contest of Principles is going to work well for any fans of Star Trek, but it’s probably not one I’d strongly recommend for general readers who don’t care about the series. But for the fans of these stories and this crew, let’s just get some more of the other characters, please?


CREATIVE SURGERY by Clelia Farris (Translated by Rachel Cordasco and Jennifer Delare)

Creative Surgery
By Clelia Farris
(Translated from the Italian by Rachel Cordasco and Jennifer Delare)
Rosarium Publishing — September 2020
ISBN: 9781732638839
— Paperback — 172 pp.


Last night I started reading a new ~250 page novel. Even with Food Network on in the background, I plowed through and enjoyed half of it with no challenge. It’s conventional literature with a contemporary setting, straight-forward plot, and an unadorned, conversational voice. What a drastic shift from what I just read prior. Creative Surgery by Clelia Farris may be a slim volume, but the collection of seven short stories packs a density and intensity that demands vigilant attention and careful reading. But, that requirement for focus will be greatly rewarded: with profound and provocative insights into her characters, wonderment at the speculatively imaginative worlds she paints, and dazzlement at the literary finesse she employs to accomplish it all.

The title Creative Surgery comes from the final tale printed in this collection (reflected in the cover art), but it can also be taken to apply to what Farris does with genre literature through her writing. She does not settle for one speculative item to focus on, but creates multiple layers of details to combine into one adhesive whole. The opening story of the collection “A Day to Remember” illustrates this in ways better than any generalized attempt could: The story is set in climate change dystopia, where floods have inundated a city and created a patchwork of humanity separated on small makeshift islands of detritus or remnants of buildings still high enough for now to clear the water’s reach. Grafted to this setting is the protagonist Olì, a woman who is an artist with the technology to work on the personal canvas of memory. But she also uses other media for more public display of her art. Already enough in theory to feature in a short story. But not for Farris. Albeit a short story on the longer novelette size, she is able to put a ton more into this one tale: water-bound marauders geared up like sharks, family strifes, class divisions, experimental cooking recipes (cakes with candied clams in the middle – yum!), food-based bartering systems, deadly shifts in temperatures from the climate crisis, orphaned children… Where one might expect these disparate bits to clash like a cat’s head on a tortoise, Farris somehow makes it – the weird absurdities of it all – seem completely natural, surgically placed together into a brief work of literature delving into the theme of human commitments to one another, and the memories we choose to keep or lose of those connections.

Each story within the collection needs to be approached completely anew, readers need to get their bearings on what kind of world they now find themselves thrust into. At times, the answer to this is not fully clear, perhaps, until the end has been reached, meaning that several of the stories benefit from rereading and thought based on the first impressions. There are some small flourishes that Farris returns to within each story to give the reader some soupçon of familiarity, often humorous eccentricities of character’s personalities. One of these is mention of food that the character’s mentioning enjoying (or using as currency), particularly fish and shellfish; not a surprise given Farris’ native Sardinia. Another is misanthropic secondary characters that complain about their no good, bastard, cheat relatives, business partners, or neighbors. The de Sade company shows up mentioned in at least two stories. Though really small details, they nonetheless serve to help anchor the reading experience as something unified between the seven very unique stories.

“Gabola” features a man of that name, who specializes in recreating objects from the ruins of the hills where he lives on the edge of the city. The antiquity thieves that end up unwittingly taking his relatively worthless recreations don’t care for that much. But, what is most concerning for Gabola is that plunder is the only attention that the ruins, and the priceless history contained within them are getting from the community at large. Now, plans to raze the ruins to make room for new buildings are proposed, with only Gabola seeming to care to prevent it. The name Gabola is also a slang term, that from context one gathers means something worthless – junk. Both what Gabola produces, and what he himself represents in the eyes of others that look to progress and not the past. Like the protagonist of the previous story, and many others in this collection, Gabola exists as an outsider, doing his own thing.

Of all the stories, “Gabola”, is perhaps the most difficult to first get one’s bearings. It begins with a third-person passage from the point of view of a thief, and then introduces Gabola in the third person before abruptly switching to first-person. Thereafter first- and third-person portions appear, with occasional second-person declarations from Gabola. It makes for jarring transitions, but I can imagine how this is symbolically consistent with the theme of the story that contrasts Gabola’s point of view of the ruins and history with that of his contemporaries. As much as I found the story interesting, I did feel this one could have been abbreviated while achieving the same impact.

“Secret Enemy” and “Rebecca” both feature characters who are kept prisoner in one way or another. The first of these is the one story I want to go back and read again, as I’m still trying to make sense of it all. In it, a man is kept behind a bathroom mirror (in another room?) to serve as a sort of physician/nutritionist for his captor. Through first person narration he details the interactions with his captor, observations of guests to the house, and the Japanese flower art arrangements he does to pass time. Despite being a prisoner, he comes to realize (and act upon) the power he has over his captor’s health. Whether this man is actually a separate entity or a part of the captor I am still uncertain of, and there are worlds of analysis that still could be done with the brief story.

“Rebecca” is one of my favorite selections from the collection – probably along with the first one “A Day to Remember”. I love the Du Maurier novel, and the Hitchcock adaptation. that form the inspiration for this tale. But I adore Farris’ story not just for drawing from those classics, but making a fabulous story from the characters and themes of Rebecca that works in its own speculative right. This is one where the progression of it – and its ending – really reveal the clever idea behind it all, so I don’t want to spoil that. But it again involves that ‘creative literary’ surgery of Farris’: physics and feminism stitched onto the gothic framework.

Each of the proceeding stories mentioned, along with “Holes” and “The Substance of Ideas”, are translated for this collection from the Italian by Rachel Cordasco. I don’t know Italian to be able to technically comment on the translation details, but the English presented here flows beautifully, even with those jarring moments of shifting voice or perspective in some of Farris’ more complex writing. I should also mention that Rachel is a dear colleague and friend whose Speculative Fiction in Translation site I contribute to. So I probably am biased. Nonetheless, I’ll be honest and say that my one critique with this is that I’d wish for footnotes explaining more about certain passages or translations. “Gabola” is one example that could have benefited. On the other hand, I imagine some readers might find footnotes obtrusively annoying.

I already reviewed both “Holes” and “The Substance of Ideas” on Speculative Fiction in Translation when they were published in short fiction outlets last year. If interested, you could click to read those reviews there and find links to the stories. A new read through them actually led to new insights and appreciations of the stories, again verifying just how well these stories hold up to multiple reads.

Jennifer Delare translated the final story of the collection, the eponymous “Creative Surgery” features a pair of outsider artist-type characters: in this case a creator of animal hybrids or chimeras who can cut, and her assistant, who can join. The story stands apart as going from the speculative edge toward horror, like the Mary Shelley story it uses at least in part as inspiration. It is used though to examine the central themes that pervade several of Farris’ other stories: human interactions and creations of beauty even amid exploitation.

The blurb quote on the cover of Creative Surgery by Cat Rambo is very apt. Firstly in the adjectives she uses to describe the writing. But also apt in that it’s Rambo providing it. The complex, detailed speculative creativity and style of Farris and the voice of her characters actually does remind me of what I’ve read from Rambo. Worlds seeming so bizarre, yet wholly believable. Creative Surgery has already gotten great reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Strange Horizons, and Locus Magazine as well. My voice may not ring as far as those get, but if you happen to hear it, do give this a look. It deserves attention from the SF genre world, as well as any who appreciate literary short fiction in general.


THE ECHO WIFE by Sarah Gailey

The Echo Wife
By Sarah Gailey
Tor Books — February 2021
ISBN: 9781250174666
— Hardcover — 256 pp.


If you haven’t read anything yet about the plot to Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife, you might consider starting it without indulging in any summaries, not even what’s on the cover jacket. And long story short, I strongly recommend The Echo Wife. I received the novel and placed it on the ARC shelf with all the others, entering into my notes for potential review. As time passed I saw more word-of-mouth posts praising the novel; mentions included it being featured on several Best… or Most Anticipated… of 2021 lists, both within the SF genre and pop-culture wide. I still didn’t read what the book was actually about, and as for Sarah Gailey, I couldn’t recall ever reading their work before to know if I would like it. Despite the broad hype (which always makes me leery), I decided to start reading The Echo Wife – probably because specific authors and reviewers I’m fond of also hyped it. I cracked the ARC open and began reading, still without even reading the back cover synopsis, only expecting something SF that somehow involved genetics.

Not until approximately page 50 of the novel does the The Echo Wife fully reveal one of its major themes and plot elements. It takes a few more chapters still for an event to occur that sets the rest of the novel into motion. For certain there are hints to these things earlier in the novel, but Gailey gradually reveals details about their protagonist and the speculative world, details that the synopsis just flat-out states, lessening the reveal.

Now this is understandable, potential readers have to be told something about what this book is about, and even knowing these details, there are still a lot of surprises and discoveries for the rest of the novel until its ending. But, if a reader can be convinced to give this book a try without knowing any details, well, it makes it even all the more a satisfying read. Prior to any plot ‘reveals’, here is what Gailey establishes in the earliest pages of the novel:

The novel begins with genetics researcher Dr. Evelyn Caldwell attending an awards reception/banquet in her honor. Brilliant, but feeling out-of-place in this social setting, Evelyn cooperates in the engagement only because of its necessity for securing continued support for her ground-breaking research in growing human tissues in the lab. While tolerating the spectacle of the present by keeping her eyes on her future plans, Evelyn also reflects upon her past struggles to get here. Throughout professional and personal hurdles, including recent separation from her husband Nathan, Evelyn has persevered, sacrificed, and found success.

Following the reception and rest to recover, Evelyn returns to her life: the laboratory. Fired up to keep things moving forward and squashing all uncertainties or self-doubt that still rear their heads in her psyche, Evelyn gives orders to her lab assistant, the only other person that Evelyn trusts as competent and reliable. About to start on the research, Evelyn’s assistant informs her that she has received a phone message from a woman named Martine. This stops Evelyn with a shock: Martine, the new fiancée of Evelyn’s former husband Nathan, a woman whose existence she has even kept secret from her trusted assistant. Hesitant, Evelyn decides to go meet Martine, where she – and the reader – find their first surprise.

If you happen to still know nothing more of this novel, do consider leaving it at that. The Echo Wife is a speculative fiction thriller that predominantly focuses on themes of women in research and the personal life that a woman is expected to have versus that which they may choose to have. The speculative aspect involves genetics, though do not expect it to be fully fleshed out science. Dr. Caldwell’s award-winning research and techniques are vaguely described in terms of epigenetics and development, but not in believable detail that a biologist could imagine this speculative technology as actually existing. The reader is just asked to accept the science (fiction) as a set up for the social issues and character relationships that lie at the heart of the novel. That seems intentional by Gaiely, and that’s perfectly fine to a reader like me. In fact, a lot of the details in the science are things that Evelyn herself doesn’t at first understand completely, things she’ll have to look into further. The unexpected, seemingly ‘impossible’ aspects of the speculative elements in the novel are thus kind of the point, part of the mystery.

And mystery/crime/thriller is a category that The Echo Wife fits into just as comfortably as science fiction. However, it is not about solving a mystery, nor is it filled with taut action. It’s about how characters deal with secrets, mysteries, and uncertainties; how crimes can be covered up, and with resilience, moved past to still find some sort of success. It’s a psychologically driven thriller around the characters of Evelyn and Martine, women with a shared history, yet very unique. The Echo Wife speaks a lot to the experience of women in science – or professional lives in general. It raises a lot of moral questions, but doesn’t seek to provide trite answers. Again and again Evelyn writes: I am not a monster. The reader is left to conclude the truth to that statement. Gailey writes their characters in ways that blur the lines between hero and victim and villain, and they capture them with prose that never becomes oppressively dark, yet always has a foreboding shadow of secretes and deception lying behind it.

If you have already read other reviews or synopses of The Echo Wife to know more specific details, I’ll go into a few of those things, particularly biology aspects I find interesting as a biologist, here after this Gram negative:

SPOILER OUTER MEMBRANE

SPOILER PEPTIDOGLYCAN (PERIPLASM)

SPOILER CELL MEMBRANE

So, Martine is a clone of Evelyn; after voicing resistance to Nathan’s desires for her, and then being attacked by Nathan, Martine kills Nathan. Evelyn is willing to help, both in physically hiding Nathan’s body in the garden, and supporting Martine, who Nathan has biologically programmed with limitations and kept in ignorance. Bodies in the garden will return in multiple ways before novel’s end.

Gailey handles all of these twists fantastically well, plus others like Evelyn’s betrayal in the lab and Evelyn’s relationship with her parents. All disparate elements filter in for the same theme, the formation of a woman. Who is Evelyn/Martine, and why? How much is her and how much is conditioning and the will of others? Gailey takes this beyond the whole nature/nurture kind of debate when it comes to speculative genetics in a more modern way.

What I mean is: Clones are not a new theme to science fiction. The term ‘clone’ in this context means an organism that is genetically identical. Science fiction has used clones – even furthered to include the copying of memories and experiences. What Gailey does a bit differently here is playing with that term ‘identical’, in ways that more closely match actual biological reality. In that classic SF sense of ‘clone’ Martine isn’t really a clone of Evelyn at all. She is a genetically modified creation built upon an Evelyn template. And really, that is what all human cloning would result in.

After all, all of our cells are clones of each other. They all contain the same DNA (or lose it). Yet one cell can form part of heart tissue, another lung, another a neuron, another a leukocyte, another osteoclast. Very, very different, yet with the same blueprints. And that’s just in one organism through developmental variations in gene expression. Between two that share 100% of the same genetic material there is a complicating factor of epigenetics – changes that occur through DNA modifications, inherited protein structures, inherited microbes, etc.

Somehow, Dr. Evelyn Caldwell has found a way to not just let those processes proceed, that create variability even in a 100% DNA identical genetic clone, but to exert directed changes in them. Moreover, she has somehow found a way to map memories and selectively impart those. Nathan has taken her techniques and purposefully made changes she explicitly set out to not allow in the clones. This creates a lot to ponder regarding bioethics, even if Gailey doesn’t really go that classical direction in their novel.

Instead Gailey takes it to that level of the ethics of Nathan purposefully making an Evelyn replacement adhering to his desires and plans that the actual Evelyn did not make a priority. These physical actions mirror what men (or really spouses or even relationships in general) do to one another in s symbolic sense all the time. Within a relationship, what are the balances between sacrificing versus selfishness? Are professional concerns different from others? And what are the differences between the genders for these decisions/expectations?

With the foundation of speculation around ‘cloning’ Gailey forms all of these questions (and more) through their fascinatingly flawed characters and engaging plot. Whether all, or just some of it, represents a surprise to readers shouldn’t affect one’s overall appreciation of the novel. If you go into this expecting an action-driven SF murder thriller, you might be disappointed, because that’s not what it is. If one lets The Echo Wife speak on its own terms, I believe readers will find it has a lot to say and provide one to consider, and it will entertain. And that is what good speculative fiction and a thriller does.

I’ve now had the chance to also read a short story by Sarah Gailey in the Escape Pod anthology, which I’m reviewing for Skiffy & Fanty. I’ll definitely keep my eyes open for more of their future work, and hopefully have a chance to also read some of that prior.


DEPARTMENT ZERO by Paul Crilley

Department Zero
By Paul Crilley
Pyr Books — January 2017
ISBN: 9781633882010
— Paperback — 320 pp.


For some reason my reading over the last days has featured a good amount of cosmic horror, a sub-genre I don’t dislike, but also don’t gravitate toward. Given this, I thought it might be a good time to feature Paul Crilley’s 2017 novel Department Zero for a review from the backlist. Supernatural horror equal parts cosmic and comic, Department Zero has accurately been compared to the Men in Black series concept, with monsters in place of aliens. But, it also features characterization and motivation in its protagonist that goes beyond what those films attempted, and a multiversed panorama of settings and Lovecraftian creatures.

If you read any of my short fiction reviews, or the one I’ll soon write on Hailey Piper’s The Worm and His Kings, you’ll already know that I haven’t read Lovecraft. And even with the number of cosmic horror stories inspired by his style and creations, I don’t pay attention to, or care, who’s who or what’s what. Department Zero can be enjoyed without knowing anything about Lovecraft’s stories. I imagine it would be even more enriching for fans of the sub-genre who might get references. But, the heart of the story, its humor, and its non-stop moving action persist even if stripped from the cosmic horror particulars.

The protagonist of the novel is Harry Priest, a good-hearted – but generally failing-at-life – guy, whose job is to clean up deaths at crime/accident scenes. Stability at least accompanies this unpleasant occupation, stability that keeps him up with financial responsibilities to his ex-wife and continued visitations with his beloved daughter. No matter what crappy kind of day he has, Harry’s sole priority in life is getting to say goodnight to his daughter with a bedtime story.

On what he expects to be a routine biohazard removal job, Harry discovers something inexplicably bizarre amid the gory scene, and soon finds himself targeted by unfathomable creatures of nightmare. Harry’s actions at the crime scene draw the attention of one Havelock Graves, a self-absorbed agent for the Interstitial Crime Department (ICD), whose team has been demoted to “Department Zero” in punishment for the botched crime scene that Harry has accidentally disturbed. Harry has now been targeted by an evil cult that thinks he is involved in their multidimensional schemes, forcing Harry to join up as part of Graves’ team to reinstate them to ICD’s good gracious, and to thwart a criminal plan that spans the dimensions. The cult seeks the Spear of Destiny, a tool that can be used to free the cosmic entity/god Cthulhu from his dreamlike stasis.

Department Zero thus represents one huge mashup novel: science fiction, fantasy, gory horror, with a bit of mystery/thriller mixed in, all written with a lighthearted tongue-in-cheek humor from Harry’s point of view. No single one of these elements really works to overtake the rest, and Crilley keeps the engaging plot moving swiftly so that on a whole these disparate genre elements just all add up to a simply entertaining read.

The rapid pace of the novel has some downside to it, in that the reader doesn’t get too much of a chance to breathe or appreciate the multiverse as much as might be possible with more extensive scene-setting. On the other hand, like a good action movie, it keeps readers from worrying too much about the sense or silliness of it all, and simply instead just enjoying the ride. The main moments of ‘down-time’ from the novel’s plot propelling forward in action come from the grounded characterization of Harry Priest’s love for his daughter. Amid all the craziness and fantasy, there is something purely human and ‘realistic’ in his motivations and desires.

I suspect that the most prominent factor to Department Zero that will determine whether a reader likes the novel or decides to put it down unfinished will come down to appreciation of the humor. Some may find it too much, but others will find the quirkiness to hit the spot. It’s hard to predict where potential readers may lie, but if this summary and genre mash-up peaks your interest, it’s a wacky entertainment worth trying out. The blog Books, Bones & Buffy: Adventures in Speculative Fiction has an excerpt available for download, which might help potential readers decide if the novel’s tone is the right fit.

While Department Zero was not a book I was particularly looking for, it was one of those random ARC finds that left me pleased and glad that it found me.


LIGHT OF THE JEDI (Star Wars — The High Republic) by Charles Soule

Light of the Jedi
(Star Wars — The High Republic)
By Charles Soule
Del Rey Books — January 2021
ISBN: 9780593157718
— Hardcover — 380 pp.


Today is John Williams’ birthday, so it seems fitting to review a Star Wars book on it while listening to the soundtrack of The Empire Strikes Back. I’ve managed to keep up with reading almost every canon Star Wars novel released to-date. I just have Zahn’s latest “Thrawn” novel not yet gotten to. So I know that, as the novels of old were, the new canon novels are a mixed bag. Some have been amazing, many have been good to okay, and a few have been disappointments. But as Star Wars, I’ve enjoyed them all.

The Light of the Jedi, first in the new “High Republic” series set generations before events in the Prequel movies, stands among the the best and most satisfying of the canon novels to-date. It features decent characterization, mysteries, and plenty of action. The novel reads like Soule had a blast writing it, and its pacing ranks as some of the most steady that Star Wars fiction has offered.

For any who haven’t already heard about this, or looked into the plot, it takes place at a time of galactic peace and prosperity for the Republic and strong numbers among the Jedi. The pride and ambition of the Republic to improve the lives of planets beyond the galactic core and mid-rim leads to a project to build an outer-rim station staffed by Republic and Jedi representatives that can then be close on-hand to help with strengthening distant ties to the Coruscant capital.

Amid this hopeful time where all confidently assert “We are all the Republic” in patriotic solidarity, a disaster suddenly emerges from Hyperspace. Fragments of a ship destroyed in hyperspace exit out into real space in seemingly random spaces and times, heading uncontrollably, at phenomenal speed, towards populated systems. One fragment crashing into the right planet or moon, could cause the loss of billions of sentient lives.

A concept and technology understood by relatively few, but the utter foundation for the galactic republic to actually be in contact, Hyperspace, is something that everyone relies upon and trusts. Most don’t understand the math or theory, but those who do claim that this kind of accident should not be possible. Yet, the disaster the Republic suddenly faces demonstrates otherwise.

Jedi and Republic forces posted in the outer rim respond to the first ’emergence’ of these fragments, trying to save as many as they can. In the aftermath, all groups begin to try to investigate the nature of the disaster – an accident, or something planned?

In the meantime, a group of outer-rim pirates with a reputation for almost supernatural terror continue their criminal activities while also trying to capitalize on the chaos and uncertainty surrounding these emergences. The group calls themselves the Nihil, and they stand for an almost anarchic freedom from the brand of freedom that the Republic gospel spreads. Though relatively small-time, with activities limited to the outer-rim, they have an edge on their prey, knowledge of transport paths between space that the Republic, and the hyperdrive system, is ignorant.

The investigations of the Jedi and the Republic, while trying to avert further emergence disasters, brings them into direct contact with the activities of the Nihil, as this group of pirates also goes through a transition under its relatively new leadership.

I knew next to nothing of the plot of this book when going into it. I assume like everything Star Wars, this “High Republic” concept is being linked into multiple multimedia formats, but I only read the novels. I also haven’t read much of the older Star Wars “Legends” that were published before, so if this era was covered then, I have no idea if characters reappear now in canon. The only thing I knew about Light of the Jedi beyond its cover was when roughly it took place, and that the new ‘Big Bad’ for the series was apparently marauder pirates.

My first though was: “Pirates? Really? That’s the big threat?” Then: “Well, at least they aren’t doing the big Empire and Sith concept all over again.” When I saw the corny name of the nihilist group, I also thought: “Well, Star Wars was never really about subtlety in names.” I’d still rather them have a different name, but in this novel the Nihil become something far more than marauders, and their mysterious, sinister leader is definitely intriguing. By novel’s end we still have lots of questions as to his history and motivations, and I am definitely intrigued.

With short chapters, Light of the Jedi hops from scene to scene among protagonists and antagonists with seamless flow, revealing twists, turns, and discoveries to characters and readers alike all along the way. Soule makes the enemies interesting, and some of them even sympathetic or at least comprehensible despite the horrors they commit. Meanwhile, he rapidly draws readers into empathetic support of the Jedi and Republic individuals who are trying so hard to preserve life, to keep the light of Republic ideals shining amid threats. It becomes heart-wrenching as characters you like and would love to see develop, in an instant, die.

Soule’s characters all also have a sort of witty charm to them, a light sense of humor or laid-back manner. From the everyday Republic heroes who speak of “those space wizards” to the Jedi on the high council, they all are very human, even the alien species. That is typical Star Wars. What is more uniquely Soule, perhaps, is that even the most stoic and rigid Jedi still have little rebellious or wry streaks to them. Those Jedi who are most outside the mold he seems to have the most love for writing.

Star Wars books aren’t always really science fiction, either. Usually they are more fantasy. Space wizard is a joke, but also kind of serious. Light of the Jedi actually does qualify to me within the speculative science fiction realm, however. The entire plot revolving around the science of how Hyperdrive works – though not explained like an issue of Analog would – gives the novel a decidedly SF feel more than other Star Wars I’ve read. In one of the more interesting scenes, a young man builds a supercomputer by connecting thousands of droids together, for the purposes of trying to analyze the emergences and predict when/where others could occur. The realization of his plans, and what he does to solve problems that arise with it (with the help of those space wizards too) reads just like a little SF short story within this Star Wars whole.

I don’t think I could’ve reasonably asked or expected more from Light of the Jedi than it delivered. I really look forward to the next book that Soule writes. (Maybe) unfortunately, the next book in the “High Republic” series will be by a different author, and Soule seems to have mostly been on the comic book front. But we will hear more from him in novels. Regardless, I am still looking forward to the follow-up novel in this storyline, with another author then I’m unfamiliar with. Claudia Gray also has a “High Republic” YA novel, coming, and I can’t imagine anything but loving that, as all her other canon work has been phenomenal.

It’s nice having a Star Wars novel set so apart from the film main line. My biggest disappointment with the canon novels has been that while they tell stories from the larger universe, those still could’ve been better connected to the actual films taking place around the same times. Particularly this is true for any of the novels taking place around the sequel trilogy. They all faltered by not being able to connect in any substantive way. With “High Republic” the only connection I had was with the mentions of beloved Yoda. Otherwise, it was a lovely playing field to allow actual new and unique stories in the expanded Star Wars universe. I still wouldn’t mind some Yoda action in there 😀


THE DARK VEIL (STAR TREK — PICARD) by James Swallow

The Dark Veil
By James Swallow
Gallery Books — January 2021
ISBN: 9781982154066
— Hardcover — 336 pp.


Good, mediocre, or even bad, I always enjoy reading media tie-in novels for properties I love. They are comfort reads, familiar and undemanding even after a long stressful day. I’ve lately been both (re)/reading the older Star Trek novels while as keeping up with the new releases. The newer ones definitely are more consistently higher in quality, but even among them The Dark Veil stands out as stellar. Among the best Trek novels I’ve read, it also makes a highly satisfying science fiction story on its own.

Branded as the second novel within the Star Trek: Picard series, The Dark Veil follows soon after the events in Una McCormack’s The Last Best Hope, and serves as a continued prequel to the CBS All-Access Picard series. Despite its appellation, The Dark Veil includes only two brief scenes with former Admiral Jean-Luc Picard. Instead, it focuses on Captain William Riker, counselor/diplomatic liaison Commander Deanna Troi, and their young son Thad, aboard the USS Titan. However, the novel chronicles an incident in their lives that impacts events seen in the television series, particularly the “Nepenthe” episode where Riker and Troi appear with daughter Kestra, still mourning the loss of their son Thad. Moreover, the plot and themes of The Dark Veil echo those brought to the fore of the Picard series: the Romulans and the eminent destruction of their homeworld star, the Zhat Vash, and the potential threat or fear of artificial life.

In its setting on the USS Titan and featuring that crew, The Dark Veil also represents a new novel in the Star Trek: Titan series, shifted now into the new ‘canon’. It remains to be seen how The Next Generation of series of novels could possibly be forced into the new canon timelines. I imagine that this now contains some retcons compared to what was in the original Titan series of books. Now, I haven’t yet read the Titan series, so I’m not sure how this compares or alters, but I believe The Dark Veil does use many of the characters first written from that series of novels.

Following the AI-led insurrection/destruction on Mars, the Federation has banned further research into, or development of, artificial sentient life. To the disappointment of hopeful idealists like Picard and Riker, they have withdrawn active support for the evacuation of Romulan citizens and turned insular. Among the instability and rising authoritarianism of multiple powers within the Alpha Quadrant, the unaligned and reclusively secret Jazari choose to convert their entire planet to a large vessel that will take them away from an area where they no longer feel safe or welcome. The handful of Jazari serving in Starfleet resign their commission and Starfleet (via the USS Titan) is chosen by the Jazari to transport the last remaining expats back to their now-converted home world to join the others for departure.

With the Jazari world near the Neutral Zone, the Titan notes a Romulan warbird maneuvering nearby, watching and making itself known. As the Jazari make their final preparations and the Titan is about to depart, a horrible accident occurs that threatens the Jazari and all of nearby space. While trying to save lives and avert disaster the USS Titan takes significant damage, and the Romulan ship arrives. To their surprise, the Romulan Commander offers assistance to the Titan and the Jazari.

Aboard the Romulan warbird, an agent of the Tal Shiar makes her displeasure for his act of altruism known to the Commander. Aboard the Jazari ship, the reptilian-appearing species debates what to do about the humans and Romulans who have now helped save them. Their Code demands offering support in return, but an important secret they hold also demands the continued limited contact of their reclusiveness from the humans and Romulans alike.

“Doing the right thing” exists as the central concept of the The Dark Veil. Characters from all sides repeatedly espouse this as a guiding principle. The Jazari take each step with the morally ‘right’ thing in mind for the safety of their species, but also taking into account the welfare of others. Similarly, the crew of the Titan – and the Federation as a whole, debate what the ‘right’ amount of engagement should be with a culture that asks to keep to itself and seems intent on abandoning their home, and another that is just as secretive, but also more of a threat, whose home is about to be taken from them. Now that the Federation has turned their back on the Romulans, what is the right thing for Riker and his crew to do? The Romulan Tal Shiar agent will do the right thing for what the spy organization envisions the Empire to require, but as a fanatical member of the Zhat Vash, that ‘right’ course of action for the Empire may, or may not, align with what she sees as best for all of organic life, faced a perceived AI-driven extinction. For the Romulan Commander, he will do his duty to what is right for Romulan Empire, but also sees a responsibility to help any and all life. For all the divisions between Romulans and the species of the Federation, he also sees commonality and like Riker, hope.

Amid all the action and intrigue born of these competing viewpoints and hidden secrets, brilliant and precocious young Thad becomes gravelly injured. His only hope of survival might come from the advanced technology of the Jazari, that they remain hesitant to share. Moreover, their treatment is not without risks, forcing the Jazari, Troi, and Riker to face difficult decisions of what is right for saving Thad. These scenes with Thad are bittersweet, knowing from the Picard TV series what ultimately happens to the boy, and the events here help explain some of what the show only vaguely mentioned.

Swallow does a fantastic job of balancing all of the elements of The Dark Veil together into an entertaining and even profound Star Trek adventure. I had high expectations for this novel based on how much I enjoyed the other Star Trek novel by Swallow that I’ve read: Day of the Vipers, the first in the Terok Nor trilogy. There too he writes excellent characterization combined with deeper themes and entertaining action. Even with those expectations, I remained impressed here. Swallow writes points of view from each of the three sides that seem realistic, that readers can empathize with. Even with the crazed fanaticism of the novel’s villain. Further, he nails the voices of Riker and Troi alike, using them both to the best they’ve ever been.

The novel is bookended with a Romulan tribunal questioning Riker, the Romulan Commander, and the Tal Shiar/Zhat Vash member. At first I wasn’t sure about this structure, but the end made it worthwhile, with a surprise guest appearance that worked very well tying in events of Star Trek movies with the TV series and novels.

And that reminds me of another aspect of this that I had wanted to bring up. I am in the camp that thinks that most of the Star Trek: The Next Generation movies are pretty awful. Insurrection was largely forgettable, and I wish I could forget Nemesis. Likewise, the first season of Picard was disappointing overall. While it had some highlights, most of it went in directions I found both overused and too dystopia-ridden. The ending was awful and contrived. Somehow, Swallow took elements from, and references to, these things that I didn’t really like much, and did take them in interesting ways, rather than making them worse. He maintains a dark ‘edge’ here that the newer Trek has gone toward, but kept it more consistent with the optimism of the past.

The Dark Veil succeeds in all aspects more than The Last Best Hope, which was already a very good novel. If you are a fan of Picard already and read media tie-ins, I imagine this is already on your radar. But if you are not either of those things, but like Star Trek, I still recommend this. If by some miracle you are reading this, but are an utter stranger to Picard – or even Start Trek, I would still say this is worth reading for a SF fan. Familiarity with the universe and characters is certainly a bonus, but it wouldn’t be essential. It may even work as an entry.

I won’t be reviewing the older Trek I re/read, but look here for reviews of future new novels out from Gallery Books – all but Discovery for now, as I still haven’t watched that.


THE HUNT FOR FOXP5: A GENOMIC MYSTERY NOVEL by Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer

The Hunt for FOXP5: A Genomic Mystery Novel
By Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer
Springer Publishing — May 2016
ISBN: 9783319289601
— Paperback — 251 pp.


Writing balanced science fiction can be a real challenge, particularly if an author is trying to keep the science 100% accurate and the speculation 100% plausible. At least, it’s hard for me to find ‘hard SF’ that I enjoy. Some may be fine with a work from the sub-genre even if it has little literary merit going for it, or a lack of thematic depth beyond the scientific concepts. The science alone isn’t entertaining and interesting enough for me – especially when it is the fields of science that seem to dominate that label ‘hard’: technology, physics, and astronomy.

“Hard” SF featuring biology definitely exists, though it is more rare, I feel, to find stories where the amount of biological science/speculation in the story equals other elements like plot and character. When I have seen it (for example with Peter Watts) I still don’t end up enjoying the work as much as other books that put less emphasis on the science. I guess I just always want more of the literary or entertainment than the science fact and education in my fiction.

I still look for potential reads in the sub-genre though, especially when it falls in my field of biology, and I was intrigued when I found biology-related titles in the “Science and Fiction” series from Springer, which publishes novels written by scientists about their field. One of these, The Hunt for FOXP5: A Genomic Mystery Novel by Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer turned out to be one of the most successful merging of science and fiction that I’ve read, a story that could easily have been serialized to acclaim in Analog Magazine. The creation of the novel comes through the combination of Kaufman (a writer and translator) and Deamer (a research professor in Biomolecular Engineering at UC Santa Cruz)

After the mysterious death of her husband, genetics researcher Dr. Michelle Murphy is left to raise her adoptive daughter Avalon, a brilliant eight-year-old they had adopted from Kazakhstan. Dr. Murphy receives an invitation from a prestigious Kazakh scientist Dr. Akenov to attend and present her research at a genetics conference in Kazakhstan, and invites her to bring along her adoptive daughter as an opportunity for Avalon to learn more about her proud homeland, so unlike what the film Borat portrays. Dr. Murphy’s skepticism regarding the timing and motivation of the invitation become confirmed with a visit from the CIA. They inform Dr. Murphy that Dr. Akenov is on their radar as potentially being involved in the development of a biological weapon. While they warn Dr. Murphy and express fear for both her safety and Avalon’s, they also hope that Dr. Murphy’s attendance to the conference will give them an opportunity to use her as an information-gathering spy.

Agreeing, and still taking Avalon with despite the risks, Dr. Murphy and her daughter arrive in Kazakhstan. There, they gradually unravel links between Dr. Murphy’s research into the FOX family of genes, the death of her husband, Avalon’s heritage, and Akenov’s plans. The story combines anthropology, biology, politics, and national identity into what could be best called a scientific thriller, despite the use of the term ‘mystery’ in the novel’s subtitle.

The FOXP5 of the title refers to a fictional allele (flavor of gene) in the very real family of FOX genes. The FOX family of genes encode proteins that bind to DNA and act as transcription factors, that is to say they regulate when and how genes are expressed. First discovered and researched in the model fruit fly organism (Drosophila), these genes are conserved throughout vertebrates, including humans. One member of the family, FOXP2, is responsible in bird species for controlling the development of call mimicry, and in humans that same gene plays a role in the development of speech and language. As I understand it, scientists believe that mutations in FOXP2 may have contributed to the evolution of modern H. sapiens from ancestral populations through additional abilities of language, and thereby culture, that these mutant alleles permitted. The Hunt for FOXP5 speculates additional FOX mutant alleles occurring and what the implications of that could be if selected for in the human population. A section in the back of the book following the story highlights the science behind the fiction of this novel, presumably primarily by Deamer.

Some might find it surprising that Dr. Murphy agrees to go to the conference despite the dangers admitted by the CIA. Even moreover, how could she possibly also still take her daughter? I actually didn’t find this too implausible. Scientists can be stubborn, and everything about Dr. Murphy and Avalon point to them as not backing away from threats, responsibilities, or opportunities to do good. Showing maturity well behind her age (for reasons we eventually see) Avalon is likewise someone that Dr. Murphy is not going to shelter away, though she will take all precautions she can.

The plot and action of the novel stay engaging throughout, as one would expect from a thriller. The writing is by no means fancy or awe inspiring, rather by-the-book and generally unadorned. I would have loved it to be a little deeper and more interesting in its language (especially given the scientific concepts of language featured here), but I see this as no different from best-selling thriller novels. Similarly, Akenov and his grand plot reveal to be cartoonish and silly from the perspective of scientific speculation realism – but again, this seems to me no different than what large selling thrillers typically are.

Meaning, if you like political thrillers with a good dose of science and aren’t particular about them being works of art, this is a book you might find very entertaining and worth a read. That kind of thriller can go either way for me, sometimes I find them too silly, or too badly written in language. For me this kept those at an acceptable/adequate level. What really brought the novel slightly higher for me to enjoy more than, say, the average thriller are two factors: the protagonists and the setting.

Kazakhstan provides an excellent unique element to The Hunt for FOXP5 to set it apart from competing thrillers that may stick with the usual US – enemy relations. (To clarify, while Akenov, a Kazakh is the villain, he’s not really acting on behalf of his government per se.) Kaufman, who has previously worked in Kazakhstan contributed this aspect, I would assume, and it allows for details for readers to discover that decorate and enrich the plot and science backbone of the novel.

Dr. Michelle Murphy and Avalon also make fantastic protagonists. It is nice having two female stars being both heroes in a political action thriller AND brilliant scientific minds at the same time. Young women who might think that science or global affairs isn’t something they could be involved in would find inspiration in this.

This review comes long after the initial publication of the novel, which I regret. I didn’t like a previous novel from this Science and Fiction series, so I didn’t rush to read this one as quickly as otherwise. But now finally the review. I hope it encourages some who have an interest in genetics and/or thrillers to find a copy of this.


INTERFERENCE by Sue Burke

Interference
(Semiosis Book 2)
By Sue Burke
Tor Books — October 2019
ISBN: 9781250317841
— Hardcover — 320 pp.


One truth being demonstrated by the current global climate is that societies are always at risk for instability. This represents not just a facet of political, cultural constructs, but an inherent aspect of ecology, of biology. Through life, individuals increase in number, coming together into populations. Growing populations of one species associate with growing populations of other species. Limited space and resources breed competition both within and between the groups. Coexistence toward a common purpose only becomes possible through sacrifices in each group and a sharing of resources in ways that minimize the effects of competition. In biology that common purpose is a self-centered organismal drive to reproduce and pass on one’s own particular genetic makeup. Paradoxically, the greatest chance for attaining that selfish goal amid competing individuals and groups becomes through some measure of balance with others. Of cooperation.

But, that balanced cooperation is a tenuous balance. Whether biologically or socially, the scale may be tipped by resurgences in selfish natures that overcome rational regard for a bigger long-term picture of success. Sue Burke’s phenomenal Semiosis series is a fictionalized version of such concepts on both the level of ‘artificial’ societies of intelligent creatures and of natural biology. The novels recognize that the two levels are, in fact, intertwined.

The first novel in the series, Semiosis, chronicles the establishment of a human colony on a planet that the colonists name Pax. Fleeing conflicts and devastations on Earth, the humans arrive in the hopes of setting up a society founded on principals of cooperation and care. However, complications during their dangerous interstellar journey actually force them to land on an unintended destination, leaving them with the challenge of establishing Pax in a completely unknown land with limited resources.

Burke reveals the human developments on Pax in Semiosis through a broad sweep of time across generations, structuring her novel into relatively long chapters told from the unique point-of-view of one particular member of the Pax colonists and their descendants (mostly). Each chapter then provides a time jump, with some overlap of characters and societal memory that allow the reader to easily track the development of the human Pax culture. While some have criticized this structure, I found it essential and fascinating for the character-driven story.

The original colonists and their first descendants learn about their new habitat as any intelligent organism would: observation, trial-and-error, and attempts at controlled study. They arrive to a planet covered already with lush life, including plant, animal, and bacterial. (I don’t recall fungus, protists, or archaea specifically named, but I could be wrong, and I assume they too are there?) Though the life on Pax elicits visual familiarity to the colonists compared to Terrestrial species, it also clearly is different in bizarre, unpredictable, and – at times deadly – ways.

Semiosis really should be read prior to its sequel Interference, and I highly recommend you do so if you haven’t yet. However, it isn’t a particular spoiler to summarize some details of the first novel that are present in its promotion or reviews in general. The colonists discover that the species of Pax demonstrate unique characteristics both cellularly and behaviorally compared to those of Earth. The plants particularly demonstrate signs of intelligence beyond those of Terrestrial origin. Gradually, through the generations the colonists discover that one of the plant species, that they name rainbow bamboo, has intelligence and sentience to a degree that permits communication. The plant, in turn, recognizes the potential benefit the new human arrivals could bring to its biological success and makes efforts to ensure their survival. Eventually the plant takes a name, Stevland, in honor of one of the original colonists and becomes an integral part of the new Pax society. Eventually he also gets his own point-of-view chapter(s).

Through those first generations on Pax the colonists and Stevland must learn the process of cooperation for the needs of mutual survivorship and success among the other species of Pax, and also another potential alien threat. After their arrival, the humans discover beautiful architectural remnants of another civilization amid the jungle-like vegetation that surrounds their first settlement. Dubbing the creators of these ruins ‘the Glassmakers’, they wonder where they all went. As they learn communication with Stevland they learn more about these aliens – also colonists to the planet. Eventually, the Pax colony is faced with the return of these Glassmakers and the threat they may bring.

Interference continues the story of Pax’s development in a time after the climax of Semisois. Like the first novel, Interference consists of relatively long chapters from the point-of-view of different central characters. However, it differs in that the time-scale is far less epic. Instead the novel focuses on one particular time period and converging events that threaten the colony’s continued existence as a cooperative between humans, Stevland, Glassmakers, and surrounding native species.

However, before getting to Pax, the first chapter of Interference starts us back on Earth. Amid rapidly changing political situations on Earth and intra-system colonies, a group of individuals is chosen for a mission to seek out the Pax colony and reinitiate contact with any who have survived. Here then arrives the first ‘interference’ of this sequel: a group of Earthlings arriving into the ecosystem of the Pax community. Though humans biologically make up a part of that community, they are certainly no longer of Earth in culture. How will the Earthlings want to interact with their human counterparts? What will they make of Stevland or the Glassmakers. Likewise, how will those non-human parts of the Paxian community take the new human arrivals? Not only do readers get to see these questions unfold from the point-of-view on those on Pax, we also get point-of-view chapters from those coming from Earth, a mixed population themselves of factions and motivations.

Before these Earth representatives arrive, Stevland becomes concerned about another form of ‘interference’ building on Pax itself. Fires seem to be breaking out on the edge of the territory that his roots and associated biological network run. Land-coral attacks from the plains beyond are on the rise. At Stevland’s urging, the ruling council of Pax sends a party out to investigate what the threat may be.

The arrival of the humans from Earth largely puts a pause on this second plot concern, until the final pages as that land coral threat looms more large. In the meantime, members of the Earth and Pax communities wrestle with changes that their introduction brings, and secrets that they withhold from one another before trust can be established. The technology that the Earthlings bring also provides Stevland with new possibilities, including the discovery of other rainbow bamboo life on a separate continent of the planet. Stevland is not alone. Moreover, some of the newly arrived humans intend to return to Earth, giving Stevland the opportunity to spread his genes to another world.

Interference thereby continues themes of Semiosis, broadening first contact situations and raising the question again of who is ‘native’ or ‘invasive’ in biological communities. Who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad’. Is it a problem for one species to make use of another for selfish reasons if that also provides some benefit to the other? Is Stevland an alien plant that will slowly take over worlds like in Little Shop of Horrors, or is it a relationship that actually will help humanity build itself up from internal squabbles into a stable (at least temporarily) community?

Burke’s choice to stick with the structure of Semiosis, but compressing the timescale of the novel, produces one giant chapter that dominates the bulk of the text. The flow of Interference comparably suffers, and so does the character development. Burke now tries to follow many characters and viewpoints within one time period, rather than focusing on one per temporal episode. We’re with a given character in Interference longer, but know them no better than the one who just had one chapter in Semiosis.

The separate, but intersecting, potential threats to Pax in Interference could have been better developed across the novel (especially the coral threat and its investigation) by making the book slightly longer. The ending felt a little rushed, especially with it also ushering more questions/possibilities for a future in the final chapter and epilogue.

When I first read Interference, all material I could find on it indicated that it was intended as a duology, and readers commented how this seemed odd given some thing were left unresolved, and that Interference ‘felt’ very much like a middle novel of a trilogy. I agreed somewhat, though felt uts resolution was fine, as the future of any community is always precarious and may go for the good or for the bad in terms of a particular species. Stories never end, after all, and the next chapter doesn’t HAVE to be told. Star Wars should have certainly taught us that by now. But, I now see that another book is planned by Burke for the future, and the series is now indicated as a trilogy on Goodreads. Whether this is a response to reader/authorial/editorial interest in another novel or not, I have no idea. But I do welcome it.

Even though I find more fault in Interference than I did in Semiosis in terms of its structure, it remains a strong example of biological speculation and first contact science fiction. One of the delights of this second volume is the chance to get to know the Glassmakers more before expanding the scope of Pax and Stevland’s reach even more. There may be faults in the biology at times in the Semiosis series, and writing for humans from a hypothetical alien intelligence point of view will always be fraught with some degree of anthropomorphism. But, it still provides a solidly imaginative narrative that entertains while also educating about broad ecological principles and addressing themes of life, politics, and society.

More on the Semiosis series can be found at Burke’s website. The third novel, Usurpation, is not planned for until 2024. Until then, Tor Books is releasing an unrelated novel by Burke this year, Immunity Index. Given that I’m a microbiologist I’m very excited to read this one, though I fear I might be harsher in reactions than I was to transgressions of botany in the Semiosis series! Regardless, I hope to have a review of Immunity Index out to coincide with its release in May.


THE DARK ABOVE by Jeremy Finley

The Dark Above
(William Chance & Lynn Roseworth Book 2)
By Jeremy Finley
St. Martin’s Press — July 2019
ISBN: 9781250147288
324 Pages — Hardcover


Sequel to “The Darkest Time of Night”, “The Dark Above” continues to answer questions from the first book while expanding the cast of characters and venturing further into the SF/paranormal. I wouldn’t recommend starting here if you haven’t read Finley’s debut novel. However, the two novels make for a satisfying whole and quick enough read, so starting now wouldn’t require much commitment beyond the norm.

For those who haven’t read “The Darkest Time of Night”, it begins with the disappearance of William, the seven-year-old grandson of a US Senator and his wife Lynn. With William at the time of his disappearance is his brother, who now in shock only speaks four words of what occurred in the woods between their house and their grandparent’s: “The lights took him.”

These words, along with circumstances and location of William’s vanishing lead Lynn to bittersweet and fearful memories from her past – taboos from her childhood growing up beside the woods, and work she did as a young wife as secretary for a secretive professor in the astronomy department at the University of Illinois. A past where she became involved with a group investigating reports of UFOs and alien abductions, stories that time and again spoke of beams of light.

Starting much like a conventional crime mystery / political thriller, “The Darkest Time of Night” soon reveals conspiracies and sci-fi elements strongly reminiscent of the The X-Files, a relation that the novel even references. “The Dark Above” continues that trend, with development of the SF themes into a further paranormal realm. In publicity and reviews, some have also referenced Stranger Things for comparison to this series. Yet, similarities to that more recent show go no further than use of ‘government conspiracy’ and characters with powers. Both also were in The X-Files though, and the tone of these novels remain closer to that than any of the real themes/setting of Stranger Things.

“The Dark Above” begins years following William’s recovery by his grandmother Lynn and her friend Roxy at the close of the first book. Now grown up, William still struggles to come to grips with his experiences, the missing memories, and the guarded, public revelations his grandmother has made amid remaining secrets and uncertainties. Failing to return to college, William has run off to escape media attention and find some distance from his family. But, he finds himself unable to run from nightmares, and knowing the dangers he represents according to what Lynn has learned.

Events soon expose William back to the world and into the sights of media, hostile government agents, UFO/alien conspiracy believers, and the clandestine group that his grandmother once worked for long ago. Other select individuals returned by the aliens begin to show signs of activation, unleashing global calamities. As William flees danger and tries to discern who he can trust, his connections to the others who have been changed by the aliens grows stronger, leading them together.

In the meantime, Lynn and Roxy want to find and help William, but Lynn’s daugher (William’s aunt), who has taken her father’s seat in the Senate places her in uneasy alliance with the government agencies who want to control William at any cost.

“The Dark Above” thus ends up reading like a Koontz-like thriller with fast moving action and intrigue alternating between the points-of-view of William, his grandmother, and his aunt. A key strength of the first novel was featuring a pair of elderly women as the main protagonists. While they are not lost here, the dominance of William in this half of the story removes that. Nonetheless, change can be nice, and the switch to a grown up William helps keep the schtick of Lynn/Roxy from getting worn.

The twists and turns as multiple groups hunt William works well, with him not clear if any of them are telling him the truth, lies, or somewhere in between. Things begin to slow, however, as William discovers the group that controlled Lynn’s work in the past. In one chapter, through a series of letters in the group’s possession, both William and the reader learn the facts behind the past, going back to his great-grandparents and Lynn’s childhood that briefly appeared in the prologue to the first book.

“The Dark Above” thus fills all the unresolved questions set up from the start of the book, and while it’s ending implies that more books could follow, it still nicely wraps the series up to satisfaction as a cohesive pair. I enjoyed, but didn’t particularly love “The Darkest Time of Night”. With the expanded cast and increased action/pace of “The Dark Above”, I actually prefer the sequel a little more. However, these novels really sit best together as a sum greater than their isolated parts.

The science part of the SF in the second novel becomes utterly ridiculous, so much that it might be better to call this fantasy with aliens. I was able to just suspend disbelief and enjoy the silliness of the plot and the attempts to ‘explain’ things paranormal by throwing in nonsensical statements about DNA and genetics. Partially this is because I’m used to doing this already as a fan of The X-Files. It’s also because there are other aspects to the novel I appreciate, such as its turn toward the apocalyptic genre, where the key people returned by the aliens serve as symbolic Four Horsemen.

Together, “The Darkest Time of Night” and “The Dark Above” end up being an amalgam of popcorn genres, from drive-in ’50’s UFO flicks to Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Fans of these kinds of genre elements looking for a thriller with some engaging characters and surprises – even amid the very cliched realm of UFO/alien lit – should enjoy these.


LAST ONES LEFT ALIVE by Sarah Davis-Goff

Last Ones Left Alive
By Sarah Davis-Goff
Flatiron Books — January 2019
ISBN: 9781250235220
288 Pages — Hardback


A friend and I have a disagreement each time The Road comes up in conversation. I find the novel overly sparse and dull, and its literary accolades frustrate me given that genre has done the same themes well for years (albeit also poorly). My friend explains that both the novel and movie resonate with him as a father, and I concede that’s a connection I wouldn’t have.

Last Ones Left Alive represents an opposite of The Road in a couple of respects. Davis-Goff employs a feminist focus where McCarthy wrote of masculinity, and she reverses the parent-child relationship and point-of-view so that it is the younger generation bearing the responsibility of care. For whatever reasons, although being male myself, I found Last Ones Left Alive‘s take on the post-apocalyptic setting and characters for more relatable and interesting.

Orpen has grown up living in relative isolation on an island off the coast of Ireland with her mother, Mam, and Mam’s partner Maeve. There are no reasons to travel off the island, and many reasons not to. Civilization has collapsed and zombie-like monsters called skrake prowl about, savage remnants of what used to be human. Mam and Maeve have raised Orpen to defend herself, but also to be extremely wary of both the unnatural skrake and natural dangers, including what the human male could present to a young woman.

Orpen has had no choice but to leave the island in search of survivors on the mainland, in the fabled Phoenix City, a bastion of peace protected by a class of warrior women called Banshees. As the novel begins, Orpen trudges on blistered feet, pushing Maeve in a wheel barrow, a dog at their side:

Around us the landscape changes constantly. The road shifts beneath me, twists and slopes, and every time I look up, the world presents me with something new and I feel fresh too. Despite myself, despite everything. The world ended a long time ago, but it is still beautiful.

We are moving.

Looking at her lying slumped in the barrow makes my chest feel like it’s collapsing in on itself. She is so small- “scrawny” is the word. She never used to be small. I look away, and twenty paces later I’m at it again, watching the closed-up face with the sweaty sheen.

We move. We rest again. The dog beside us, the nails on his paws clacking against the road. I can feel the hesitation off him. He’s asking me do I know what I’m doing and don’t I want to go home.

I do, I tell him. But I can’t.

Maeve’s lined skin is being burned by the sun underneath its grayness. I take off my hat and put it on her lightly, so most of her face is in shadow. I can pretend she’s asleep. I stop again and rearrange her so she’s facing forward, facing into whatever’s coming at us. She’d feel better that way. I feel better. Maeve wasn’t one for looking too often at me anyway, unless for a fight.

I’ve a new pain, then, the sun pounding down on one stop at the top of my forehead.

We move. My fear so big, so palpable, that it could be an animal walking beside us. I try to make friends with it.

pp. 2 – 3

Davis-Goff’s writing thus moves fluidly, a mixture of hopeful, imaginative descriptions punctuated with short, hard truths. She gives Orpen a voice of utter exhaustion, yet propped up from despair through resilience. Through the clouds of melancholy and fear poke shines of her faith and wonderment.

A short novel, Last Ones Left Alive has the feel of a perfect novella, though I don’t know its word count for where it technically falls. The pace starts off wonderfully, immersing the reader in Orpen’s world amid a struggle to figure out precisely what is going on. After a short time, action breaks out, and soon Orpen meets other humans. Things slow after the initial start, as Davis-Goff takes us both deeper into Orpen’s character and provides flashbacks into her life before on the island with Mam and Maeve. Falling onto the literary side of things, the novel is never really about action, and the skrake play minor roles in comparison to the focus on Orpen’s maturation and discoveries.

Last Ones Left Alive is a coming-of-age tale about a young girl’s self realization, but also evolving from what she has internalized from parental instruction to form her own perceptions of the world in its beauties and dangers. Her guardians and protectors lost, she rapidly learns to be this herself, for self and others.

Only one male character appears in Last Ones Left Alive, one of the people Orpen encounters while on her journey to Phoenix City. Based on what she has been taught of men, she nearly kills the man upon meeting him in order to protect herself, little different from if she ran into a skrake. However, the behaviors of the man soon show her the faultiness of a simple anti-male perspective. Unlike skrake, humanity is complex.

The novel ends with many questions unresolved, several possible futures for the fate of Orpen, secondary characters, and the role of the Banshees. While I was happy with the ending, I imagine some readers wanting more closure and answers could be disappointed. I do not know if a sequel is planned, but one could easily work. Though satisfied with where things sit, I would certainly not turn down more.