Review: Hangfire

Hangfire

Sadly, Hangfire has to rank as one of the lower entries in the wildly uneven Starfist series. The basic premise-intrigue on a world that’s a combination 1950s Cuba and Westworld-style historical theme parks-is good. Unfortunately, this just makes the rest of the story worse.

Who and What

To infiltrate a mobster-ruled resort world of debauchery named “Havanagas” (I told you it was based on 1950s Cuba), the government turns to… MARINES, of course. Also, there’s intrigue on a colony world as aliens invade it.

The relative cohesion of Steel Gauntlet is lost, and the group of tangled, clunky subplots I’ve seen in worse Starfist books are in full force.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

There are a few infodumps here, but not that many. The problem is that the potentially interesting focus (The Space 1950s Cuba) gets sidelined.

Zombie Sorceresses

Hard to judge, save for all the MARINE contrivances.

Tank Booms

There really isn’t much action involving the MARINES. This is a shame because the chance to throw them into a Murderworld-style deathtrap amusement park would be amazing. Instead there’s intrigue that isn’t too well-written, a tiny bit of action, and an arena scene that is ridiculously foreshadowed. The barely related alien invasion is nowhere near as good, so of course it takes up a big chunk of the book.

The Only Score That Really Matters

While I’ve read worse Starfist books, this seems disappointing as well as bad. What should be a romp through Mobster Murderworld ends up treating that tamely while devoting a ton of time and space to uninteresting aliens invading an uninteresting world and fighting uninteresting battles to set up an uninteresting arc.

It’s a shame.

Review: Fire Ant

Fire Ant

Jonathan Brazee has been prolific with his books, and so, not knowing where to start at first, I decided to simply jump into one of several. Fire Ant, telling the story of a woman explorer pilot turned fighter pilot in the far future, is an excellent sci-fi thriller tale.

Who and What

The story follows the saga of a pilot who has the long name of “Floribeth Salinas O’Shea Dalisay” but is thankfully just called “Beth” for most of the book. A corporate exploration pilot, Beth finds aliens, escapes from them, and gets sucked into the military as a fighter pilot, facing even more action.

It’s a simple plot but an effective one. Likewise, the characters, including Beth herself, are simple but as effective as they need to be for the sake of the story.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

Unfortunately, there are a few too many infodumps. Some are forgivable in terms of defining the mechanics of the universe, but some are less so. None are that bad, but it could have used a little more showing and a little less telling.

Zombie Sorceresses

This is the kind of book for whom the “zombie sorceress” scale isn’t that suitable. Enough contrivances to set up a science fiction tale are there, simple as that.

Tank Booms

The action here is crisp and involved. Moreover, Brazee manages a balancing act of keeping the tale mostly “soft” in science fiction terms without going all the way to “historical but with blaster rays”. It’s an impressive accomplishment.

The Only Score That Really Matters

If you want starfighter action that pushes a little, you can’t go wrong with Fire Ant. I certainly enjoyed it.

Review: Steel Gauntlet

Steel Gauntlet

Steel Gauntlet is Starfist at its most cheesy ridiculous. Take the MARINE FIGHTING MAN bias and add a bunch of other hangups and you get this book.

Who and What

So, the MARINES are sent to deal with a power struggle where Space Corporate Saddam Stand-In Marston St. Cyr has rebuilt an army of ancient, previously forgotten vehicles called “tanks” and used them to seize total control of a resource-rich world. Once they get past the weasely politicians and non-MARINES, the MARINES have to fight a giant tank army. And I use the term “tank army” literally.

You have the MARINES, the non-MARINE weasels, the puppy cute space pet-kicking (literally) supervillain, the damsel in distress.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

There are more than a few infodumps here, and not just of the “MARINES awesome, other branches bad” variety. The infodumps about the past of armored warfare in-universe are particularly cringeworthy-especially since I detected an author rant at more than one point.

Basically, tanks never tried to counter increasingly penetrative ATGMs through indirect means (active protection systems, jammers, or just better tactics), instead plopping armor on until the “M1D7” reached 360 tons, twice as much as the infamously unworkable Maus. It could barely move and the “Straight Arrow” anti-tank thingies smashed it anyway. Although in what I hope was a typo, the “Straight Arrow’s” stated penetration value is equal or less than second-tier Cold War ATGMs like the Dragon and Metis.

So tanks went bye-bye, until now. Now having to face “new” tanks, these centuries-old weapons (which are infodumped as having a guidance system, but are treated as ordinary bazookas in-practice) are reverse-engineered, so it’s like fighting people wearing armor with reverse-engineered big muskets.

Zombie Sorceresses

Well, the contrivances run very high here. The MARINE FIGHTING MEN have to face challenges, but the enemy has to behave in a way that doesn’t actually diminish the MARINE FIGHTING MEN. There’s a lot of “Oh look how much danger they’re in” statements that don’t sound credible, to put it mildly.

Tank Booms

There are lots of tanks booming. Their guns boom, and they boom when they explode. In the category of literal tank booms, this book has even Team Yankee or Tin Soldiers beat.

The action is not bad, but most of the first three-quarters of the book involve MARINE FIGHTING MEN destroying unsupported tank formations. The enemy artillery is stuff mounted on tanks, the enemy “infantry” is mentioned as dismounted tank crewmen (who still fall victim to our heroes as easily as their rides do), and the enemy tanks are prey for the MARINES. There’s a ridiculous “copy an amphibious landing with hovercraft” scene at the start which just seems redundant given that they’re landing from space.

The gap between theoretical and actually perceived danger is very big in this book. There’s lots of “Oh no, the undersupported MARINES are facing enemy reinforcements” statements, but almost every battle is just them hitting badly-handled tank-pure formations and wrecking them.

Then (after yet another swipe at the non-MARINE branches), the final act consists of a cloak and dagger plot and chasing Space Corporate Saddam Stand-In Marston St. Cyr himself through the mining tunnels. Here it declines a bit, as the axe-grinding combat gives way to simply decent-ish cheap thriller action.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This is one of the highlights of the Starfist series. Seeing MARINES battle a strawman distorted tank force makes for a delightfully laughable tale. The tropes tip over into unintentional cheesy fun, and the book is all the better for it, helped by better fundamentals than the Starfist series sometimes has.

It moves so far so earnestly that I somehow enjoy it.

 

Review: Issue In Doubt

Issue In Doubt

Issue in Doubt can be considered a spiritual sequel to the Starfist books, written by the same author. As a result, it shares most of the strengths and weaknesses of them.

Who and What

Well, the story is boilerplate alien invasion of a colony world and military response. The characters are in three categories. The alien hordes, the MARINES who do heroic MARINE things, and the inept weasels in politics or branches that aren’t MARINES.

I’m already used to this from Starfist. I was expecting this. That doesn’t make it any better, but it does make it less surprising.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

I counted several infodumps that fit this category exactly-a description of unit force structure that turned out to be utterly irrelevant, and another that was just barely on task.

Zombie Sorceresses

The category doesn’t exactly gel here. Being a science fiction story and a “Soft” one at that (I’ll just say the spaceship ‘physics’ described are more Star Wars than Kerbal Space Program) means the “plausibility” part isn’t there the way it is for a more grounded technothriller.

But if I had to list one obvious zombie sorceress contrivance, it’s the way every non-MARINE branch is obviously and ridiculously set up to fail. It gets annoying and seems counterproductive. The MARINES look worse instead of better if they’re compared to such contrived losers.

Tank Booms

If I had to describe the action in two words, it’d be “good enough”. It’s not spectacular or even above-average, but it’s not dull or bad. The anachronistic “Vietnam with space suits” technology and the MARINE FIGHTING INFANTRY bias drags it down a little, but it remains a readable cheap thriller.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Compared to the Starfist books I’ve read, this is firmly in the middle. It inherits the background snarky goofiness of the setting, but falls into the “decent cheap thriller” category, rather than reaching the over-the-top crazy high or just bad lows of some other Starfist books.

Unstructured Review: Armor

Armor

To go back to military science fiction, John Steakley’s Armor is one of those cult classics. It’s exactly the type of book that Spacebattles would like, and it’s where I found out about it. So I got it, and I read it, and it’s really two books.

The first “book”, the story of Felix, is a tour de force. Unashamedly wearing its inspiration from Heinlein’s Starship Troopers on its sleeve, the Felix section starts with one of the greatest openings I’ve read, an excellent set piece of frenzied, futuristic violence. It lags only a little in the later Felix portions (in no small part because the opening is hard to top), but remains an effective tale of action.

The second “book”, the story of Jack Crow, is a far slower and far less interesting portion. While Jack Crow’s story would not be the absolute worst tale by itself and I can see why Steakley wrote it, it pales in comparison to Felix’s. At times it descended into outright annoyance, because I wanted to return to the amazing part and not the iffy part.

Still, even with the Jack Crow interlude, Armor deserves its prominent place in the history of military science fiction. It’s well worth a read and the opening is simply fantastic.

This is the last Fuldapocalypse review of 2018. Happy New Year to all readers!

Unstructured Review: Starfist

Starfist

Ah, Starfist. I’ve wanted to do a piece on this series for a loooooong time. It is a series that deserves to be criticized, but with playful slaps instead of vicious claws. Starfist is something. That something is “military sci-fi cliche bingo”.

  • First is the technology, which is the height of “Vietnam but with a coating of laser and a gimmick or two”. It uses advanced technology neither in semi-realistic fashion (IE, drones, AI, etc…) or over-the-top fashion (giant mechs, etc…)
  • Then there’s the tone of the writing, which manages to be some of the most “MARINES!” type of prose I’ve ever encountered. I’ve read plenty of books by other veterans, and most don’t have a tone as “RAR! We’re MARINES, you know!” as this.
  • Then there’s the bias (to put it mildly) of the authors towards the MARINE FIGHTING MAN. It gets really, really, really bad.

That’s the baseline, which is enough to give this series a review. However, there’s something else that’s both a problem and an opportunity for giving individual books specific reviews. That would be the great inconsistency of the series. The prose is never truly bad by itself, and they never feel too long.

However, even in the small sample size I’ve personally read, the series has zigzagged from “Decent time-passing cheap thriller” to “laughably enjoyable thanks to the ridiculous yet self-serious action” to just plain bad. One thing that doesn’t help this is the tendency of the books to have long, barely connected subplots. Still, I can’t be mad at Starfist, for it is quite simply something, if only something that becomes so cliche it stands out.

Unstructured Review: Exultant

If The Big One was a miss I heard of from Spacebattles, Stephen Baxter’s Exultant was a clear hit. It’s the first military science fiction I’ve found fit to review on Fuldapocalypse, and it’s a bit of an oddball, both by the standards of its author and of the genre. But it’s a good oddball.

Stephen Baxter is usually a big-scope, big picture truly speculative science fiction writer, one who talks about exotic universal processes and has no time for heroic spacemen fighting aliens who look like humans in bad costumes. Baxter’s aliens are truly, massively alien. He also uses time travel in his big “Xeelee sequence”, of which Exultant is a part. This allows a semi-kinda-a-little-plausible form of FTL travel and also spares the need to worry about strict continuity between books (if something changed, well, a time traveler did it).

Exultant is a bit of a mishmash. Part of it is an exploration of alien and extranormal societies, biologies, and universal engineering. Part of it, though, is a conventional tale. Humans have regressed over thousands of years into a society built entirely around a sort of galaxy-scaled trench warfare as they battle the almost godlike Xeelee, an utterly alien race of invisible space-time defects completely integrated with their maple-seed like ships. One fighter pilot has managed the impossible-capture a Xeelee ship intact-and now must battle his own bureaucracy as a chance to end the war finally emerges.

Baxter manages this very well. While there’s speculative infodumps galore, the military part manages to break from the typical military sci-fi “current or recent past with a coating of laser” in both directions. On one hand, there’s time machine computers and deliberately “groundhog-daying” information back to the past. On the other, the actual fighting is deliberately reminiscent of the worst of World War I. Exultant juggles all this without really managing to drop anything, and I recommend it because of this.