Monday, April 29, 2013

Bargain Bin Spotlight -- Washington's Dirigible

Recently I was in an antique store here in town and came across a 1997 novel which caught my interest, and since it was only a dollar I picked it up. The book is Washington's Dirigible by John Barnes.

The story is told from the point of view of Mark Strang, who was a college professor until he saw his family murdered by the Closers, bad guys from a multitude of timelines who want to impose their will on the multiverse. Strang finds himself recruited by the ATN, a federation of timelines fighting to stop the Closers. He becomes a member of Crux Ops and sent on his first mission to a timeline the ATN has cultivated; you see, instead of raising armies in this war, both sides raise timelines to a certain technological level to be their allies in the war. Strang is transported to an alternate 1775 Boston where he arrives just in time to see another version of himself go on a shooting spree. This evil Mark Strang seems hellbent on wreaking havoc, but why? Fortunately, historical figures like George Washington and John Paul Jones are there to lend a helping hand and shut down the Closers in that timeline.

This book is a real gem. Not only is it dripping with steampunk (which arguably was still in its infancy when this book was written), but the story is gripping as well as funny. Since the story is told from a first-person perspective, we're always inside Strang's head. We not only witness his personal demons--he has to face the evil he could become-- but his sense of humor as well. He frequently delivers hilarious comments on topics ranging from the Closers, to the various time periods he finds himself in, to the numerous close calls he experiences. Also, Barnes dedicates whole passages to the science of airships, steam engines and time travel. He really has everything covered. Finally, the explosive climax brings it all to a satisfying conclusion.

If you ever get a chance, buy this book. You won't regret it. It's selling for literally one cent on Amazon.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Movie Review -- Oblivion

Today I saw Tom Cruise's new movie Oblivion. For those of you who don't know, Cruise plays Jack Harper who, along with his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), is tasked with maintaining security drones on Earth following an alien invasion. However, like any good sci-fi, all is not as it appears, and Harper must figure out what secrets are being kept from him with the help of Beech (Morgan Freeman) and Julia (Olga Kurylenko).

Story-wise, it's somewhat predictable (I had the mystery unraveled early on), although it does throw a few curve balls at us. I found Cruise's character sympathetic and easy to root for, while Freeman comes off as a much older Morpheus from the Matrix (interpret that as you will). The plot doesn't really rev up until close to the end, though. Still, the movie has heart, which is what I like.

Visually, Oblivion is impressive. I especially liked the stylistic use of lighting to sell the concept of an alien Earth. The CG effects are pretty good as well.

So if you're looking for a sci-fi movie that will blow your mind, Oblivion isn't it. Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable popcorn flick with some emotional weight.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Bargain Bin Spotlight -- Godzilla Raids Again

I've decided to do a new feature where I point you towards quality sci-fi experiences for cheap. First up: Godzilla Raids again, the 1955 sequel to Godzilla (or Gojira, if you prefer). The radioactive lizard has returned to once again terrify Japanese citizens, only now he's set his sights on the southwestern city of Osaka. This movie marks the first time Godzilla is pitted against another giant monster, namely Anguirus the spiked dinosaur. Too bad the humans are all out of Oxygen Destroyer; it would have really come in handy.

For me, the charm of Godzilla movies has always been in its hilariously bad (though not at the time) production values. There's a reason these old movies are much more fondly remembered then the 90's American CG Godzilla; watching two guys in rubber suits awkwardly wrestle each other while trampling miniature buildings is as entertaining now as it ever was. While Japanese special effects technology has drastically improved over the years (see Godzilla 2000), it's the old cheesy monster movies I like best.

You can pick this remastered DVD up at Wal-Mart for $5. It's a good deal. PSST--don't forget to watch the bonus documentary about the men inside the suits.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Kindle Spotlight -- Outcasts of East Mars

Today we have a short story by Brett Harte and B.R. Nielson: Outcasts of East Mars. Taking place in 2072 on--naturally--Mars, the story centers around a small group of people who have been deemed undesirable by the city of East Mars and so are forced into Exile. These unwanted examples of humanity include Mr. Rose the gambler, the Mistress, Dear Mother, and Uncle Billies. We are given very little description of these characters, yet you can easily form pictures of them in your mind. They are escorted out of the city at gunpoint and head off on a journey to West Mars where hopefully they will be given a better reception.

There's a lot of potential here. The characters come across as pitiable and very human, especially the young females in the story. As they struggle to survive in the harsh Martian environment, you quickly begin to sympathize with them. The story itself is very short (in fact, it may be the shortest thing I've ever reviewed) and lacks polish, but I see in Brett Harte and B.R. Nielson authors that could be great in the future.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Revisiting the Classics -- The Beast Master

Today I'm looking to introduce new readers to Andre Norton's 1959 sci-fi novel The Beast Master (not to be confused with the 1982 movie of the same name or the TV show based on said movie).

The plot centers around Hosteen Storm, a Navajo soldier of the Planetary Confederation. He is a Beast Master, a warrior capable of psychically communicating with his animal team: Baku the eagle, Surra the dune cat, and meercats Ho and Hing. Storm and his furry companions relocate to the frontier planet Arzor (think a planet-wide Arizona) following an interstellar war which left Earth uninhabitable. Officially, Storm has chosen Arzor because of its resemblance to the American Southwest where he is from, but in actuality he has come to kill one Brad Quade. Who is Quade, and why is Storm so intent on his death? To find out, you'll have to read the book (or look it up online, ya lazy bums). Needless to say, not everything goes as planned. Storm is forced to deal with hostile Terrans, hostile natives, and the hostile Xik (the aliens who wrecked Earth). Through it all, he must come to terms with his personal demons and decide what kind of man he really is.

The Beast Master was way ahead of its time. Not only did it feature a minority protagonist, but the hero for the most part forsakes traditional sci-fi weapons like ray guns. Instead, he relies on his mastery of hand-to-hand combat and the efficiency of his animal team, making him a refreshing lead character. Norton did a great job fleshing out this character, making him flawed yet likable. She also paid careful attention to the native Norbies, resulting in deep, believable alien characters.

Bottom line: every serious science fiction fan should read The Beast Master.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Revolution Beyond Time

Here is a preview of my upcoming novel, The Revolution Beyond Time, the third book in my Infini Calendar series.

The year is 1889 (Infini Calendar). 12-year-old Nelly Flowers is traveling with her parents from New York to Wichita to participate in the Land Run. However, things take a frightening turn when their airship is attacked by pirates. As Nelly and her new companions discover, this is only the beginning of an adventure which will determine the future of the entire human race. Note: Sorry for any formatting errors. Blogger doesn't always want to cooperate when pasting from Word.

Chapter I: A New Journey Begins

New York City, April 15, 1889 (Infini Calendar), 10:00 a.m.
            Nelly Flowers accompanied her parents through the Buroker Building’s eighty-sixth floor. They checked in at the observation deck and then got into a special elevator which they rode to the massive building’s 102nd floor.
            “Say goodbye to New York,” George Flowers said as they rode up. “And good riddance.” Nelly’s father was a middle-aged man with tiny spectacles and an equally small mustache on his upper lip. His face could be described as slightly rotund but not exactly fat. He was a little overweight but overall not in bad health. Also, he wore a nondescript business suit and tie.
            “I just hope we’re making the right decision,” Margaret Flowers said. Nelly’s mother had light brown hair with a hint of blonde, pinned up in the back of her head. She wore a simple white dress, and although she was starting to get wrinkles, no one would describe her as an old woman. To Nelly, she was the epitome of beauty.
            “We both agreed: a new start is just what this family needs,” George said. Up until recently, he had been a banker, but economic difficulties caused him to be laid off. Because of this, he had become, in his own words, “dissatisfied with this whole blamed city.” In short: he no longer liked living in New York, and wanted a change. So now they were all going to some place called the Unassigned Lands to race for a new home. Nelly didn’t really understand why she had to go—she wasn’t a particularly fast runner—but she trusted her parents’ judgment.
            At the 102nd their tickets were checked at a pair of doors which led outside to the observation deck. Once outside, Nelly felt the wind ruffle her short auburn curls and she took in the magnificent view of New York City. Although metal railings lined the observation deck, she had no problem seeing the metropolis below them. All manner of buildings spread out below them; offices, factories, banks, restaurants and clubs were just some of the structures which made up New York.
            But it wasn’t just buildings that made the view so amazing. Countless airships filled the skies above the city. Speaking of airships—there was one docked at the observation deck, ready to take them to their new home. This one—a polished brown model—was one solid cylindrical piece, unlike the primitive vessels of the previous century which required a balloon for lift. No, the airships of today had much more sophisticated engines.
            The Flowers family carefully ascended the ramp of the Manhattan Dream and entered the cabin. Each section of the ship had two rows of seats. The Flowers found theirs in the middle of the vessel. George and Margaret’s seats were on the left, while Nelly sat across from them on the right in an aisle chair.
            As soon as she had her seat belt buckled, Nelly removed from her bag her most cherished possession. It was a book entitled The Amazing Story of Jeanne de Fleur. The book was about Nelly’s great-grandmother and France’s greatest hero. Jeanne had been a noblewoman who later become a knight and served the king and queen. In a tragic twist, however, they were all betrayed by bad guys. Jeanne was crushed, but persevered and managed to beat them with the help of her friends. Later, she came to America, saved the world, returned to France and fought the injustice of Napoleon Bonaparte. Finally, fifty years ago her family immigrated to New York. Nelly never got tired of reading about it, and had finished the book several times.
            A thought suddenly occurred to her. “These airships are safe, right?”
            “Of course,” her mother replied. “It’s not like the old days, when these things crashed all the time.”
            An alarm went off inside her. “Crashed?”
            “Don’t scare the girl, Margaret. This is the safest way to travel.”
            Nelly said, “I dunno if I can do this.”
            Fortunately, her father knew how to calm her. “You know, your great-grandmother flew in the first airships ever built, and she never got scared. Don’t you want to be brave like her?”
            “Of course!”
            He then said, “So how would Jeanne de Fleur handle this situation?”
            Nelly thrust her index finger forward. “She’d say, ‘Celeste—fire up the engine! We’re going to stop Robespierre! Full speed ahead!’”
            George smiled. “Atta girl!”
            Nelly was now sufficiently psyched up to go ahead with this trip.
            An elderly gentleman came down the aisle. He looked to be in his sixties, with a neatly trimmed grey beard, but he was physically fit. He wore a dark brown business suit similar to the one her father was wearing, although this man had a bowler hat atop his head.
            He stopped next to Nelly. “Excuse me. Do you mind if I get through? This is my seat,” he said very politely.
            “Oh! Yes,” Nelly replied. She scrunched into her seat so he could to his window seat. She noticed he was carrying a fancy wooden cane. Something about it seemed peculiar, but she couldn’t put her finger on it.
            “Thank you, young lady,” he said.
            “You’re welcome, Mr…”
            “Lazarus,” he said. “Michael Lazarus.”
            “That’s an interesting name,” George said.
            Margaret asked, “Are you from New York.”
            Michael shook his head. “Actually, I’m from Illinois.”
            “I visited there once,” George said. “Nice place.”
            Michael, smiling, said, “I like to think so.”
            A slightly tinny voice from the front of the cabin said, “This is your captain speaking. Today’s flight will take us from New York to Wichita, with a layover in Chicago. Flight time will be…”
            Nelly said, “Where’s Wichita?”
            “Kansas,” her mother replied.
            “Is that where the race is gonna be at?”
            “No,” George said. “The race will be in the stretch of land between Kansas and Texas. Right now it doesn’t really have a proper name, so they call it the Unassigned Lands.”
            Nelly turned to Michael Lazarus. “Are you going to be running in the race?”
            “As a matter of fact, I am. But I’m going to be using a horse.”
            “Isn’t that cheating?”
            Michael laughed, as did Nelly’s parents. “With that much land to cross, we can’t go on foot. So we’re also going to be using horses,” George explained.
            Nelly was glad. She thought she’d have to pump her legs all across the Unassigned Lands.
            “At this time I must ask you all to fasten your seatbelts for departure.”
            A loud whine could be heard as the airship started up, followed by a rumbling. The Manhattan Dream slowly lifted off the observation deck and sailed into the New York sky.
            Nelly looked out the window as the buildings flew past them, slowly at first and then with gradually more speed. She silently said goodbye to her life in the big city, and tried to imagine what lay ahead.
            She honestly had no idea.

* * *

Chicago, Illinois, April 15, 1889 (Infini Calendar), 10:15 a.m.
            The telegram read as follows:




            She folded the paper and put it in her pocket.
            She smiled. Everything was lining up perfectly. There hadn’t been any changes to the airship schedule, so all she had to do was wait for the vessel to arrive and board it. Then, she just needed to stick close to the target and hope the rats came for their cheese.

Chapter II: The Hostile Sky

Chicago, Illinois, April 15, 1889 (Infini Calendar), 12:10 p.m.
            The Manhattan Pride landed on the observation deck of the fiftieth floor of the Adina Building in Chicago. Every major city had a structure for airship docking, and Chicago was no exception.
            Most of the passengers took this opportunity to disembark and stretch their legs before the final journey to Wichita. Some got food from various vendors on the fortieth floor after taking the elevator down, while others simply explored while waiting for the Manhattan Pride to finish refueling.
            Nelly and her parents sat down at a table in the fortieth floor’s atrium, surrounded by food vendors hawking various dishes from their carts. George had gotten some meat loaf, Margaret a salad, and Nelly a slice of pizza (it was Chicago, after all). George sat across from Nelly, and Margaret sat to Nelly’s right.
            They had scarcely sat down when a young woman (perhaps twice as old as Nelly) with short black hair approached their table. She wore a dark brown duster coat with matching cowboy hat, black pants and a grey buttoned-up shirt. Nelly thought the masculine outfit was unsuited for such a pretty woman. “Excuse me,” she said with an accent Nelly didn’t recognize. “Are you waiting for the Manhattan Pride to depart?”
            “Yes, young lady, we are,” George replied.
            “Can you show me where it is when you go back? I have a ticket but I’m afraid I’m not familiar with this building.”
            George smiled and said, “Sure, no problem.”
            The mystery woman smiled too, but it was the smile of a snake, Nelly thought. She was sure this person was up to something.
            The cowgirl sat down at a table a few feet behind Nelly. The twelve-year-old whispered to her father, “Watch your wallet around her.”
            George laughed. “Will do.”
            Margaret whispered, “What was that accent?”
            “I think it’s Austrian,” George said. “I worked with a man in New York who was from Austria.”
            “Do you think she’s a Ranger?” Margaret said.
            “I doubt it. I didn’t see a badge on her.”
            Michael Lazarus came over and sat at a table a few feet behind Margaret. “Hello again, folks.”
            “Hello,” Nelly said. George and Margaret also greeted him.
            Michael began eating a baked potato. “They certainly have good food here in the Windy City.”
            “That they do,” George agreed.
            “Mr. Lazarus,” Nelly said, “why are you going to the Unassigned Lands? Did you lose your job too?”
            “You could say that,” Michael replied cryptically.
            George finished the last bite of his meatloaf. “What kind of work did you do?”
            Michael was silent for a moment. Finally he said, “Management.”
            “In New York?” George said.
            “Here and there.”
            “Huh.” Nelly’s father was obviously put off by the other man’s way of dodging the question of what exactly he had done for a living.
            “Are you going to become a rancher once you’ve staked a claim in the Territory?” Margaret said.
            “Perhaps. All I know is, I won’t be in management anymore, and that suits me just fine.”
            The PA system in the building suddenly came to life. “All passengers on the Manhattan Pride, please return to the airship for final departure to Wichita.”
            “That’s us,” George said.
            “Nelly, you didn’t eat the crust on your pizza,” Margaret chided.
            “I don’t like the crust.”
            “That’s no excuse. George, tell her to finish her crust.”
            “Finish your crust.”
            Nelly stuffed the remaining food into her mouth. It wasn’t very lady-like, but she didn’t have time to practice proper etiquette.
            The cowgirl joined them. “Good—now you can show me where to go.”
            George motioned for her to follow. “Right this way, young lady.”
            “Much appreciated.” She was all smiles, but Nelly didn’t like her. Ever since she had arrived, Nelly couldn’t shake the feeling this strange woman had had her eyes on the pre-teen. Of course, why that would be, Nelly had no idea.
            The flowers, Michael Lazarus and the cowgirl went back to the Manhattan Pride. The latter checked in at the gate under the name Cherry Bishop.
            “Are you also looking to stake a claim, Ms. Bishop?” George asked as they walked up the ramp to board the airship.
            “Oh, no; I’m here on official government business?”
            “You work for the government?”
            “That’s right.”
            Michael asked, “Are you in law enforcement? Judging by your outfit—”
            She cut him off. “I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to say what exactly I do.” She game him a sly look. “You are in the same position, I think.”
            He seemed to be caught off-guard by her comment. “Me? I’m retired.”
            Cherry Bishop said something under her breath. No one else seemed to hear it, and even Nelly wasn’t quite sure what she said. But it sounded like “We’ll see about that.”
            They returned to their seats, and Cherry Bishop found hers, coincidentally, directly behind Nelly. The twelve-year-old was uneasy at having the mystery woman so close to her for the duration of the flight, but there was nothing she could do about it but sit there.

* * *

At around 1:30 p.m., the captain informed everyone they were now above Missouri and would arrive on time in Wichita.
            However, in the cockpit the co-pilot, Mike Falksen, suddenly said, “There’s an unidentified airship heading towards us.”
            That was never something a pilot wanted to hear. “They’re not transmitting an ID signal?”
            “No. Nothing.”
            He looked at the radar screen. The unknown vessel was about the same size as them, and approaching on an intercept course.
            He tried hailing them on his headset. “This is Captain Reynolds of the Manhattan Pride. Please identify yourself. Over.” Several moments passed in silence. Captain Reynolds repeated his request, but to no avail.
            “You think they’re pirates?”  Falksen asked.
            “Could be.”
            Ever since airships became had become mainstream, pirates had been using them to commit heinous crimes. Fortunately, commercial vessels were usually sufficiently equipped to deal with airborne villainy.
            “Should we increase speed?”
            “Do it.”

* * *

Nelly was thrust into her seat as the Manhattan Pride suddenly accelerated. “What’s going on?” she yelled.
            “It’s probably nothing,” George said, although he didn’t sound very convinced. “They probably just want to make sure we get to Wichita on time.”
            “This is your captain speaking. A minor problem has forced us to pick up speed briefly. There is nothing to worry about.”
            Margaret said, “See? Everything’s fine.”
           Nelly may have been just a kid, but she wasn’t buying it. She turned to Michael Lazarus and asked him, “What do you think is going on?”
            He shrugged. “It’s probably just what the pilot said. I wouldn’t worry.”


“It’s no good! At this rate, they’ll catch up to us in a few minutes,” Falksen said.
            Captain Reynolds was beginning to sweat. “These guys are fast for pirates. All right, tell Gunnery to get ready for some action.”
            Falksen nodded. He tuned his headset so he could speak with Gunnery below deck. “Guys, we’ve got an unknown airship inbound. Probably hostile. Gear up.”
            “Roger. What’s the ETA?
            “A few minutes at most. You’d better hurry.”

* * *

Below the passengers, on a separate deck, not quite big enough to stand up straight in, was Gunnery. The men down here were busy setting up the weapons needed to defend the airship: Gatling guns. The four chain-fed monsters had to be unboxed and put together only when the need arose, as it was dangerous having them prepped and loaded during flight.
            Once the Gatling guns were assembled, the barrels of each one were inserted into matching holes in the walls. This allowed the guns to fire outside without compromising the air pressure inside the ship. The holes had gears which allowed the former to rotate with the barrel.
            Soon the ammo was loaded and the guns were ready to go.

* * *

They all saw it about the same time: A beast of an airship, vermillion, with bulky engines on either side roaring to catch up with their prey. Plastered on its hull was a black skull, cracking and about to fall apart. The pirates’ emblem.
            “Dear Lord,” Margaret whispered. The other passengers echoed her fear.
            Nelly sat agape, unable to take her eyes on this vessel that hovered menacingly out the window to her right. “What’s going on?” she asked, unable to contain the alarm that was running rampant inside her. “Are we going to be robbed?”
            “I-It’ll be fine. These passenger ships have enough firepower to fight off pirates,” George said.
            As if to back up his words, a thunderous roar erupted below their feet. A blistering shower of bright metal exploded from the Manhattan Pride, its target the enemy airship.
            Her father came alive with equal force. “Ha! I told you. Those pirates don’t stand a chance.”
            But Michael Lazarus said, “No.”
            “What?” Nelly replied. She didn’t know what he was trying to say.
            However, within moments the source of his disappointment became painfully obvious. Except for chipped paint, the pirates’ airship appeared undamaged. “That’s impossible,” George gasped.
            “Believe it,” Michael said. “That’s an irodium hull.”
            “It can’t be! Only military vessels are allowed to use irodium.”
            “Those Gatling guns can fire off a thousand rounds a minute, and that airship out there simply shrugged it off. It’s irodium.”
            “What’s going to happen to us?” Nelly repeated, louder this time. She got out of her seat and buried herself in her mother’s arms.
            “Everything’s going to be fine,” Margaret said. “We won’t let anything happen to you.”
            A stewardess walked down the aisle. “Everyone, please remain in your seats.”
            Margaret said, “That’s a good idea, Nelly. We’ve got to buckle you back in.”
            “I want to stay with you!”
            Her mother nodded. “And you will. We’ll be right here with you.”
            No sooner had Nelly gotten her seat belt back on then the Manhattan Pride suddenly banked left. Margaret lost her balance and fell sideways, but George managed to catch her, and she was able to get secured back into her own seat.
            “This is certainly a bumpy ride!” Cherry Bishop said cheerfully. What’s wrong with her? Nelly asked herself. We might all die up here and she actually seems happy about it! Nelly, however, did not voice these thoughts, because the stress caused words to fail her.
            The airship climbed higher into the air for what seemed like minutes, and then dove sharply, and then banked right, all in an attempt to shake off their pursuers. It was all for nothing, however; the mystery airship stayed with them no matter what they did. Nelly, meanwhile, felt increasingly nauseous with every maneuver and change in acceleration.
            Michael Lazarus put a hand on her head. “Are you all right, child?”
            No, she wasn’t. She was scared out of her mind and sweating profusely. However, she knew she had to be strong like Jeanne de Fleur. “I-I’ll be fine,” she managed to say.
            There was an abrupt impact as something struck the hull. “What was that?” Margaret said.

* * *

“Docking clamps,” Captain Reynolds said. “They’re going to board us now.”
            “Helm’s not responding,” Falksen said.
            “Magnetic interference from the docking clamps. Just enough to keep us from moving around. Auto-pilot will still work.”
            “These guys are well-equipped for pirates. Only the military is supposed to have that kind of tech.”
            Reynolds sighed. “Lock the door.”
            “But sir—the passengers…!”
            “Are on their own. We don’t have any weapons in here. The idea is to stop the pirates before they come aboard, and clearly that’s failed.”
            But Falksen wasn’t so easily discouraged. “There must be something we can do!”
            Reynolds lit a cigarette and took a nice, long drag. “You want to go out there and fight them with no guns, be my guest. For all intents and purposes, this vessel is theirs now. Anything we try would only endanger the passengers further.”
            The co-pilot clearly wanted to argue further, but he knew Reynolds was right. The captain could see it in his eyes. So Falksen locked the cockpit door, and fell into his chair to await whatever fate had in store for them.