Review: Technokill

Technokill

The novel Technokill is easily the worst Starfist novel I’ve personally read. Back a few Thanksgivings ago, I had to pass the time and chose this book, which had been sitting unread on my shelf until then. Welp.

Who and What

This is the story of MARINES, bird-aliens, and criminals selling forbidden weapons to the bird-aliens. It’s long. It’s dull. It has weaving, tangled subplots. It has descriptions of twisted fetishes of various characters that feel like they’re as long as the few “battles”.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

This isn’t that much worse than the rest of Starfist, at least.

Zombie Sorceresses

At least nothing beyond the normal Starfist MARINES in Space Vietnam with a few gadgets contrivances.

Tank Booms

Ok, so at the height of this book, the MARINES face the challenge of (hold on to your seat belts) bird-aliens with these. And not some futuristic equivalent, the description is very close to the actual takedown .22 survival rifle. Even the (literal) tank army in Steel Gauntlet was better and more intimidating. The battle isn’t even that well-written and has no gimmick to make it better than it would seem. Then there’s an afterthought (literal) spacesuit commando scene that’s equally underwhelming, even by the series’ standards.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This is the low point of the Starfist series for me. It’s mostly just dull, and not in a good way. The low-powered opponent is only slightly amusing and doesn’t make up for the bad fundamentals.

 

Unstructured Review: The Valor Series

Valor Series

One of my first “get me through a vacation” books was an omnibus containing the first two volumes of Tanya Huff’s Valor series of military sci-fi. At the time, I was impressed by how an author who was clearly new to the genre could write something well. Now, some time later, I’m even more impressed. Other authors of either fantasy or (surprisingly) contemporary action have stumbled, in my opinion, when they turned to the difficult genre of military science fiction. Huff, for the most part, did not.

Oh, it has its pitfalls. Some of the prose is a little “flowery fantasy”-esque, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a line in one of the later books that about how drones were obsolete compared to a “good pair of eyes” because they kept getting shot down (when the alternative is losing those eyes). But those are tiny compared to the advantages.

Heroine Torin Kerr is a good enough protagonist, especially by the standards of the genre. Huff tends to keep her in smaller, fantasy adventure party sized engagements that she’s comfortable with and work very well. And the series takes out a lot of the “brown M&Ms” that plague the ‘spacesuit commando’ subgenre (that I groan at but still somehow read and like anyway). For instance, while other, worse military sci-fi books have the main character promoted ridiculously high ridiculously fast, Kerr starts as a staff sergeant and ends the series as a… gunnery sergeant.

For these reasons I recommend the Valor book. Sure they’re lightweight, but they’re lightweight in a good, solid way.

 

Review: Scorpion’s Fury

Scorpion’s Fury

I decided to take a chance on more obscure military sci-fi and Scorpion’s Fury was one of my picks. I was not disappointed.

Who and What

The book tells the story of a giant scorpion-like mech dragged into action and the recruited ne’er do wells crewing it. They fight aliens in their giant mech alongside other giant mechs.

This had some of the technical boxes of the “spacesuit commando” annoyance checked. Semi-dystopian background, basic alien enemies, etc… But it was averted through two things. The first was lulls in the action that gave time to build up the characters in a badly needed way. The second was giant mechs stomping about instead of just tissue paper power armor.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

This does have its share of explanations. Thankfully most of them seem very relevant and not just detail done for the sake of detail.

Zombie Sorceresses

Besides just the sci-fi universe contrivances, the biggest I thought of was “why give misfits in relics such a prominent role.” I understood the literary reason and it wasn’t a big deal, but still.

Tank Booms

This was definitely the highlight of the book. It takes a giant scorpion-mech stomping around and makes it (and its crew) simultaneously fun, aggressive, vulnerable, and strong.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Do the words “giant scorpion mech” appeal to you? Then you’ll like this book.

 

Unstructured Review: Marines Crimson Worlds

Marines: Crimson Worlds

So, as part of my holiday book odyssey, I devoured a huge quantity of trashy military science fiction novels. And Jay Allan’s Marines: Crimson Worlds kind of fit the bill for what I got too much of. If Starfist was “mainstream military sci-fi cliche bingo” this was “self-published military sci-fi cliche bingo”. If not worse. Marines Crimson Worlds is the sort of book I derogatorily call “spacesuit commando”, and after reading just a few of these I got a very clear guideline for how a lot of these (I must be fair and say not all) went.

Now it’s important not to overstate. This kind of book is the literary equivalent of a Nissan Versa or Mitsubishi Mirage. So comparing this to the classic writers like Heinlein or Haldeman is totally unfair. Even comparing it to (early) Tom Clancy is unfair. No, this is best compared to the Mack Bolan-spinoff style ‘contemporary’ action. And it still falls short. Part of it is combining an infodump-heavy format with a first-person view, but that’s not all of it. If I had to boil it down to two points, I’d say these have:

  • Excessive training sequences. This I can pin on Heinlein and people who didn’t get that the training was, for better or worse, the actual point of Starship Troopers. Cheap trashy military sci-fi tends to involve excessive training sequences in ways that cheap trashy contemporary thrillers don’t. This is a self-imposed higher bar to clear.
  • Bad antagonists. How can you get worse than the cackling supervillains of cheap thrillers? Answer: Popup targets with no reason for existing save to provide something for the heroes to fire at. I’d compare it to video games, except most video games have better and more-developed opponents. Marines: Crimson Worlds is particularly bad because the opponents are other humans and not even “generic aliens out to kill everything”.

Marines: Crimson Worlds has all this and even more of the tropes I’ve noticed. Some vague dystopian background, the main character being a super special champion who gets promoted ridiculously high ridiculously fast, and action that falls into the “military sci-fi pit” of neither being grounded nor over-the-top (this is a particular problem with ‘spacesuit commando’ novels where the only real gimmick is power armor that doesn’t seem to do anything) and thus appearing merely dull. The supporting characters in Marines: Crimson Worlds are, for the most part, nothing but blank names.

While I’ve spent the last five paragraphs slamming the novel, I’ll say that it at least worked as a mindless time-passer. But only that, and I’d in most cases prefer a contemporary action novel for the same purpose.

Unstructured Review: X-Wing Series

As a kid, I inherited (and read) a lot of my family’s old Star Wars novels. The most relevant to Fuldapocalypse and most fun are the X-Wing novels by Michael A. Stackpole and the late Aaron Allston. For books that are both movie tie-ins and video game tie-ins at the same time, they’re actually really good.

Especially Allston’s. The Wraith Squadron series are a combination Dirty Dozen and fighter story (and yes, fighter pilots somehow turn into effective commando-spies. But this is Star Wars), and manage a degree of emotional height (Allston’s not afraid to kill off developed sympathetic characters) and comedy (such as someone having to fly into battle with a giant stuffed Ewok in his lap-long story) without feeling jarring at all.

Stackpole’s books are more formulaic, less daring, and he has the tendency to take game mechanics a little too literally, but they’re still solid and still better-scaled than a lot of the other Star Wars books of the time period (which have all the antagonist problems of 1990s technothrillers and then some).

Technothriller authors could do worse than read these. They’re good examples of how you can manage a decent-sized cast and medium-scope story, and they’re fun.

 

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!