Reviewer Steve Moore: Steve is a full-time writer and ex-scientist. Besides his many technical publications, he has written six sci-fi thrillers (one a novel for young adults), many short stories, and frequent comments on writing and the digital revolution in publishing. His interests also include physics, mathematics, genetics, robotics, forensics, and scientific ethics. Follow Here for his WEBSITE.
Author: D. A. Karr
Captain (“Cap”) John Garrick is a “time enforcer,” i.e. macho military man—a headstrong and violent officer who questions chain-of-command so much he’d be court-martialed in any real army. He and his chosen band of ruffians are out to save Earth’s timelines from forces even more lethal than he is. Garrick is also a genius, having created A.L.I.S. (Artificial Life Intelligence System), an AI hologram who somehow miraculously morphs into a female super-being (read that acronym as “Alice”). Garrick and pals work for N.S.T.E.A. (National Space Time [sic] Enforcement Agency, but why am I always thinking of instant iced tea?), supposedly representing order in this violent hodge-podge of disconnected timelines, whereas Ramsey, the ex-VP of the U.S. (the country no longer exists—so what’s the N in N.S.T.E.A.?), and the ruthless warlord Menser are the bad guys, but Garrick even has doubts about N.S.T.E.A. and his immediate superior, Captain Becker, the commander of the Phoenix, a battle cruiser that jumps around timelines (I’m never quite sure whether it’s Becker or Garrick’s ship, though).
first thought this was a space comedy but then concluded the author
wants me to take her seriously. There are some good ideas here, but
the prose is badly written. In particular, there’s no mystery
writing at all—the author’s claim doesn’t make it so because
the whole story is very predictable. We could categorize this as
military sci-fi or space opera, but the author’s only nod to the
history of those subgenres is via her mention of the Star Trek
franchise (rabid fans might object to my calling it military sci-fi
or space opera, but it is—maybe Garrick is modeled after the brash
While the original Star Trek episodes from the sixties were entertaining, mostly because many were based on original and well-written sci-fi short stories (the same can be said about Twilight Zone episodes), this novel is more like a bad computer game—even later incarnations of Star Trek are better, as bad as they were. Scenes roll by (“Weapons stations propagated out of the grated deck like giant mushrooms shielded by electronic panels…”), trite dialog that tries to sound militaristic but numbs the mind (“…You have full sanction with my permission”?), and 2D characters based on perceived but incorrect military stereotypes insult good fighting men and women everywhere (“He hadn’t seen action in a long time and it was in his blood to kill” and “I shoot first and ask later”).
Back to good military sci-fi. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War sets the bar for the entire subgenre. Based on that writer’s experience in Vietnam, the reader can experience the blood and guts of futuristic warfare. Another icon is Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers; unlike the xenophobic sturm und drang Nth Reich portrayal in the silly movie version, a campy insult to intelligent moviegoers, Heinlein’s novel is more about the personal battle scars of a futuristic warrior (Heinlein also had military experience and was a 1929 U.S. Naval Academy graduate). I’m more of a pacifist, but I have battle scenes in my own sci-fi too. You don’t have to like war to portray it well—you only have to understand it. This sci-fi novel doesn’t do either well. It lampoons it. It’s funny, but it isn’t a comedy.
Good sci-fi, even military sci-fi or space opera, also has to be a reasonable extrapolation of current science and technology. If it isn’t, it runs the risk of just becoming weird, far-out fantasy, like the Star Wars franchise. The laws of physics for known phenomena can’t be changed willy-nilly when extrapolating to the future—that’s not an extrapolation; it’s a contradiction of what’s known. I thought Vernor Vinge’s variable speed-of-light was bad. Here we have pulsars attached to space-time battle cruisers. If you break the connection, you have a black hole. Huh? Fusion electon-emission rifle? Other details will insult avid sci-fi readers too. Imagination is fine; impossible science isn’t. Extrapolations have to seem reasonable. The author says she researched her background material? Beyond a list of buzz-words cobbled together, I doubt it.
Maybe the problem here is that there are too many things going on, including mutating definitions of standard sci-fi terminology. Terms like rifts, wormholes, holograms, AI, and so forth are bandied about, often incorrectly. Space travel, time travel, the changing tilt of the Earth’s axis, ill-defined villains and power structures (is N.S.T.E.A. good or bad?—I still didn’t have the answer by the end of the book), cyborgs who really aren’t cyborgs and become androids (does the author understand the meaning and origins of the terms?), and so forth, create a series of hurdles most readers won’t want to jump over. I stuck it out to the bitter end, though, mentally editing as I read to preserve my sanity. Like I said, there are some good ideas, but maybe too many and not presented well. Tis a pity.
Editing is an issue for this novel. The author thanks her editor. I wouldn’t have, because the editor did her no favors. Standard dialog conventions aren’t followed, POVs jump all over, words are used incorrectly, and singular-v.-plural and tense clashes abound. (“Grids, lines, and sign waves….” “Garrick asked, ‘Okay what’s the rules?’” “They’re gone, their gone.” “…like a chess master calculating his component.”) Maybe the author just thinks all the rules should be broken, though, so let’s consider some other elements of style. There’s no back story and no narrative—the usual world-building present in good sci-fi is absent. I have no idea why some cities exist only at certain times. I’m sure the author does, but she doesn’t communicate it. She should read classic sci-fi more, to see how it’s correctly done. The Goldilocks Principle is essential—not too much narrative but just enough. There is none here and, if I get lost at times, I guarantee other readers will too. From my own experience, avid sci-fi readers are some of the most critical readers on the planet—does this author realize that?
The important lesson here? Bad sci-fi from video games and Hollywood isn’t representative of good sci-fi. There are no psychological probes into her characters’ minds—the reader has to try to deduce their doubts, emotions, and motivations from their actions (I’m discounting the plethora of –ly adjectives in the dialog because they did little to enlighten me). The author focuses far too much on the visual because she doesn’t realize that those probes are essential in all good fiction. I’ll admit the illustrations are a treat—I think multimedia is the future of ebook publishing—but good sci-fi writing shares all the characteristics of good fiction writing, not those of screenplays for gamers and movie-goers’ consumption. Star Trek, especially the newer versions of the franchise, for example, isn’t a role model for good sci-fi—not even close! Neither is Star Wars, which is closer to J. K. Rowling’s fantasy fiction than Joe Haldeman’s military sci-fi.
This isn’t the first novel by this author. I’m surprised, because it seems like a first effort. Most first novels should be trashed. I can’t see much to save here either. It’s true that nowadays anyone can release a novel, but not everyone should do so—or, at least, not everyone should bludgeon an unsuspecting public with a badly written piece of fiction. That might appear harsh, but I honestly searched for redeeming qualities in this novel because I found the blurb interesting. Meta-Theorem: Not everyone can write good sci-fi. First Corollary to Meta-Theorem: Screen plays don’t directly translate into good fiction. Second Corollary to Meta-Theorem: Not everyone should try to write sci-fi, independently of the origins for the ideas. A few good ideas aren’t enough to produce an entertaining sci-fi yarn. I wish Ms. Karr luck in the future. Maybe her other books are better. Maybe her new books will be too. I only have one sample, after all. This one might be the bad apple falling from the tree.