Travel By Bullet returns fans to John Scalzi’s The Dispatcher series following a pandemic that isn’t altogether too dissimilar to the one we’ve experienced in the real world. Unlike the real world, Tony Valdez and other dispatchers like him have had more work than they can handle, as grieving families insist on postponing the inevitable for loved ones hooked up to machines. Unfortunately, resetting only goes so far, and it won’t repair the damage done by the sickness itself. It’s a bleak and depressing scenario we find ourselves experiencing through Tony’s perspective. When a friend is rushed to the hospital, begging Tony to let him die, it triggers a series of events that brings Tony to the attention of wealthy and powerful figures with secrets they’ll do anything to keep under wraps. This installment continues Scalzi’s trend of combining the alternate reality science fiction of The Dispatcher series with an old-fashioned dose of noir that blends perfectly. The overarching mystery is satisfying and sufficiently convoluted, especially impressive considering the relatively short length of the story. I particularly liked the concept behind the title of this installment of the series. The premise of utilizing the reset in that way seems both obvious and strangely horrific. As with the previous two volumes, Zachary Quinto’s narration is superb, lending Tony a uniquely nuanced personality and bringing the other characters (many familiar faces from previous glimpses into the world of The Dispatcher) to life. I hope that Scalzi continues writing these tales and that Quinto continues narrating them because, like Scalzi’s seamless combination of genres, it’s a perfect blend.
Encyclopocalypse Publications has done something fantastic in bringing this classic piece of 1980s animal horror back to life. Capitalizing on the fears of the nuclear age–of science gone wrong–Mark Kendall penned this exciting tale of deadly, swarming flies descending on the unexpecting people of New Mexico. From the moment the truck transporting the load of genetically modified flies crashes until the clamorous conclusion, we witness close-up accounts of people, pets, and livestock as they run afoul of the insect menace. Scientific hubris, myopic politicians, and a wholly unprecedented threat combine to create a perfect storm for the horrors to unfold in the worst way possible. At the core of the story, a mother’s desire for revenge propels us along a reckless path amid the devastating events scattered throughout the tale. New faces appear only to be summarily devoured and left as a bloody pulp by the devouring proboscises of the flies. Sean Duregger is at the top of his narration game, lending each character their own distinctive voice, breathing life into even the most minuscule roles within the story.
S.P. Doyle is a banker, and he’s up to some shenanigans when we first meet him. That much should be expected of anyone disreputable enough to become a banker, especially an ex-junkie. An unexpected promotion provides Doyle with an opportunity to set off on a quixotic mission to do some good with his improved access, seeing himself as a hero who can take down the corrupt institution from the inside. To accomplish his lofty goal, Doyle will need some chemical assistance. Meth, it’s said, is one hell of a drug, but Hex makes meth look positively prosaic by comparison. As Doyle’s consumption becomes increasingly massive, the threads of the conspiracy he believes he’s unraveling within the bank’s records grow more convoluted and seemingly absurd. With Deckard, his pet turtle, as the only voice of reason in Doyle’s life, nothing is stopping the erratic and manic banker from slipping off the rails. Unfortunately for Doyle, the conspiracy he’s stumbled across is far more sinister and far-reaching than even his feverish, drug-addled imagination could conceive. Before long, Doyle’s swept up in a dizzying world of occult forces, reality-bending drugs, insane body modifications, corporate assassins, near-immortal doctors performing unspeakable experiments, and giant gorilla-like monstrosities–referred to as Skullcrackers–who speak with the voices of the dead. What possible chance could Doyle and a small band of resistance fighters have when struggling against such insurmountable odds, at least without making sacrifices that test the limits of what it means to be human? Jeremy Robert Johnson has created a lunatic narrative that defies genre, incorporating elements of horror, science fiction, bizarro, and crime fiction into a captivating melange that’s sure to make any reader feel like they might be on the same drugs as the unlikely hero. The most amazing accomplishment of Johnson’s Skullcrack City is that the diverse threads of this story remain straight and easy to follow, a testament to the author’s extreme skill and attention to detail.
Una McCormack brings a new voice to the Firefly series of novels. She seamlessly slips into the supplemental literature with Carnival just as effectively as those previously written by James Lovegrove and Tim Lebbon. McCormack’s foray into the Firefly universe introduces us to a future analog of Las Vegas in Neapolis, an oasis of luxury and fortune in the middle of the desolate, desert world of Bethel. Hired for a legitimate security job, Mal and the crew are expected to escort a shipment of valuable minerals to the dock where they’re to be loaded up and shipped off-world. As one should expect, things don’t go according to plan, and the shipment is hijacked. We’re treated to numerous, more intimate stories within the larger tale of Carnival, as small groups of Serenity’s crew experience adventures, both exciting and illuminating. Readers are likely thrilled to learn more about Simon’s life before he rescued River from The Alliance, exploring some of his time studying to be a surgeon. We also witness more of Shepherd Book’s secret talents from the past he prefers to keep shrouded in mystery. There’s high stakes gambling, human trafficking, political and social upheaval, and all the wit and charm you’d expect from the Firefly characters getting mixed up in these things. James Anderson Foster again brings the narrative to life with his excellent grasp of the nuance and cadence of the characters. I’d be hard-pressed to listen to a Firefly audiobook that wasn’t narrated by Foster unless it had the full-cast providing their character narrations, but he’s the next best thing.
The Dark Country collects sixteen short stories from Dennis Etchison’s career, some particularly short, and all of them brimming with imagination. Unfortunately, many of the stories in this collection end without any conclusion, needlessly terminating in cliff-hangers that left me less than satisfied. The style of writing and the quality of the storytelling were both great. It was the lack of any real ending to many of the stories that limited my enjoyment at times. In most cases, I take the time to provide some manner of synopsis for each story included in a collection like this, but I will instead focus on a few of the stories that stood out to me as being the best of those included. In all honesty, some of the more surreal and peculiar tales would be impossible to review without giving everything away. It Only Comes Out At Night is an excellent way to kick off the collection, as we join a husband and wife on a road trip through the desert. A lonely rest area is transformed into a sinister and horrific place where unknown threats lurk and unwary travelers might never leave. Etchison captures the eeriness and isolation of late-night travel on empty stretches of highway, as well as the almost sinister ambiance of those out-of-the-way oases we find ourselves stopping at against our better judgment. Whether it’s because we’re exhausted, we require fuel, or we’re desperately in need of a restroom, long-distance travel has forced all of us to stop at one of those rest areas or convenience stores arising seemingly from nothing as they appear in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately for the couple at the center of Etchison’s tale, this rest area might live up to those nightmare scenarios we imagine. The cruel and monstrous twist awaiting readers at the end of The Pitch is both darkly comedic and altogether too plausible. A random gentleman offers to perform the sales pitch for a variety of kitchen gadgets in a shopping center, displaying the ease with which any slicing and dicing needs might be completed, with a special focus on the safety mechanisms. Buyer beware. Always check your purchases before use. The Late Shift builds an atmosphere of mystery and confusion as two young men stop at an all-night convenience store where they swear they recognize the attendant behind the counter. Something isn’t right, and their attempts to uncover the truth might just provide an unsettling first-hand understanding of why overnight workers seem a little unusual. Finally, the collection closes with The Dark Country, a story of a Mexican vacation and horrible mistakes made in response to a series of thefts. This final story showcases both the inherent bigotry of the Americans and the in-group vs. out-group thinking that emerges within the collected tourists as they begin perceiving the locals as predatory outsiders. The various narrators brought different qualities to light within the stories they performed. It seems as if some thought went into the distribution of stories, to pair each tale with the voice best suited for the narrative in question.
It should have been a better world. Adam Levine was dead. The oligarchy and patriarchy of the old world order were dismantled by revolutionaries. Direct democracy had replaced the corrupt justice system, allowing all citizens to participate as members of the jury of peers. Unfortunately, the future envisioned in Lucy Leitner’s Outrage Level 10 is not the utopia the people believe it to be. Alex Malone is a throwback, a former enforcer on the ice with a history of drug abuse and brain damage as mementos of the days when hockey was still a sport. As with all violent and destructive forms of competition, hockey is no more. Malone’s former career has become a ridiculed and maligned memory of the brutality and uncivilized nature of the world before the revolution. There aren’t many options available to someone with Malone’s history, so he becomes a cop, a member of another institution with a tainted history of violence and cruelty, extant in this future America as little more than glorified meter maids and health inspectors. When Malone’s psychiatrist injects him with a potential cure for his brain damage, Alex initially seems happier, and his memories appear to be returning. But are they his memories? What unfolds from there is a high-intensity mystery, as Alex and his unlikely partners in crime seek to unravel a sinister plot that strikes at the very heart of the nation and threatens to display the utopian society for the savage and superficial dystopia it is. Leitner does an excellent job of sharing this cautionary tale of a revolution compromised by not only the flawed and dangerous men guiding it but also by a society engrossed in social media and an unwillingness to recognize the lack of justice associated with the court of public opinion as a substitute for legitimate courtrooms. Differences of opinion are escalated to the point of being perceived as assaults, and “cancel culture” truly becomes a thing as citizens sentence one another to death for crimes against their fragile sensibilities. Reading Outrage Level 10 reminded me of the way Lenin–and later Stalin–essentially took the reigns of the revolution’s government apparatus and steered the force it gifted them toward their political opponents and enemies of the state who did nothing more than offer dissenting opinions. In all respects, it applies here in America just as effectively. There’s a worthwhile message to be found in these pages, that the revolution doesn’t end when the old structures are taken away. A constant state of vigilance is required to keep the new structures honest and focused on the goals of the revolutionaries.
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Jack Williamson managed to craft a different sort of werewolf tale with Darker Than You Think, creating whole new mythology along the way and tethering it all with the cutting-edge science–and pseudoscience–available at the time the story was written. It’s a strange thing that more writers didn’t take his lead and incorporate elements of this mythology in novels written since the 1940s. The narrative follows Will Barbee, a reporter with close ties to members of a concluded expedition into the Gobi desert. On scene when the leader of the expedition experiences a sudden, suspicious death just as he’s preparing to make a grave announcement regarding their discoveries, Barbee doggedly pursues the story he knows is there. What follows is a disorienting melange of waking life and dreams, the questionable nature of reality, and the blurred line where fact meets fiction. At its core, Darker Than You Think is a tale of a millennia-long conflict between human beings and a close relative hiding in plain sight while preying on humanity. Centuries before, humankind had thought they won the war; but a rising tide of Homo lycanthropus has been utilizing advances in scientific understanding to build their numbers and grow in strength. Awaiting the emergence of the Child of Night who will lead them to a golden age for their kind, the lycanthropes have only one thing to fear, an ancient weapon humanity can use against them, recovered on the expedition to the deserts of Mongolia. A race against time ensues as Will Barbee, led by the enchanting April Bell, struggles to discover the nature of this weapon and neutralize the threat it poses. The pulpy writing style of the times is a refreshing transition from modern literature. Though the identity of the Child of Night was so predictable that any discerning reader will have it figured out shortly after the mystery is proposed, the story is still an enjoyable one. Will Barbee comes across as almost painfully stupid at times, and his denial of what he’s experienced is stretched far beyond what should be credible for even the most disoriented and frightened individual. Jim Meskimen’s narration is perfectly suited for a book written in the 1940s, sounding almost like the narrator of the radio dramas popular at the time. He captures the feel of the times in a way a lot of narrators might struggle to embody.
The Foreword provided by Patrick C. Harrison III accurately captures the most impactful component of Chris Miller’s stories collected in Shattered Skies, suspense. There is an underlying sense of suspense to these tales, sometimes bordering on dread and other times sweeping the reader away with excitement, but ever-present just the same. Combining that anticipation and tension with masterful storytelling, Miller has assembled an amazing cross-section of what he’s capable of as a writer. Instead of delving into each of the stories, as I often do, I’m choosing to focus on the handful that left the most lasting impression on me. This is not to say that anything is lacking in the others, just that I’m going to be spoiling things in small ways, and I’d prefer to avoid doing so with everything in this collection. Kicking everything off with 10-35 At First United Bank, Miller thrusts readers into an all-too-plausible sort of horror as an elderly bank security guard finds himself caught up in circumstances he can’t control as he desperately tries to save the lives of those he loves. The bank heist trope receives a refreshingly sincere treatment that’s sure to be heartbreaking for readers. Behind Blue Eyes was a story I’d already thoroughly enjoyed when I read And Hell Followed, an anthology of the end times. Miller’s portrait of a world going progressively more mad with each pressure wave of the horns blasting to signify the end is something that propels us toward a conclusion that feels simultaneously unfair and fitting. This one is a story of guilt and remorse over the way little things can have a profound and lasting impact on our lives, amplified in the recollection. An attempt to relax with a house full of family transforms into a confrontation with a looming and mysterious terror enveloping the protagonist’s world in Horror On Lonesome Lane. Discovering what awaits on the other side has rarely seemed this awful and sinister. Road Kill Gods provides us with a glimpse into what might be required of us to hold nature at bay as we carelessly and callously slaughter our way through our lives. Unwilling to accept the price to be paid, will our protagonist release a wave of horror upon the whole world? As a child, there was no one in my family with whom I spent more of my time than my grandfather. In my case, it was my maternal grandfather rather than my paternal, but that doesn’t change the way Miller devastated me when I was reading Farewell. I was lucky enough to be in my 20s before my maternal grandfather passed away, and I can only imagine how much worse it would’ve been if he’d gone when I was much younger. Farewell is a touching and heartbreaking story, but it’s also a story of how tragedy can sometimes bring families closer and establish new roles for us as we seek to fill the void left in someone’s absence. A Magnificent View brings us back to the same event from Behind Blue Eyes, or a similar enough event that we can assume they might be the same. Forced to witness the world collapsing into chaos from miles above the surface, a lone astronaut measures his life by oxygen percentage, knowing that he might still be the last survivor of the human race when all is said and done. Wrapping up this collection with the M. Ennenbach co-authored Neon Sky was an excellent choice. We experience another story that, at its core, is about family and the risks we’ll take to save them. We’re gifted with another tale of a heist gone wrong, this one in a near-future cyberpunk dystopia. Fast-paced and endlessly exciting, Neon Sky is a fascinating juxtaposition from the somber tone of 10-35 At First United Bank. Miller and Ennenbach deliver a thrill ride populated by police drones, horrifying machines that keep the city functioning, an army of mafia killers, hackers, and confusing firearms.
Shattered Skies is a finalist on the ballot for the 2022 Splatterpunk Awards to take place at KillerCon Austin in August of 2022.
Most of my exposure to Alastair Reynolds has been in the form of grand, far-future space operas. Reynolds’s work appeals to me, in large part, because it’s typically heavy on the darker aspects of human nature–as well as the incomprehensible or frequently sinister nature of other intelligences humanity encounters amongst the stars. Of course, there’s also the necessary focus on the uncaring and hazardous nature of the universe itself. While Permafrost takes place on Earth, in our not-too-distant future, it’s imbued with that theme of humanity struggling against forces of a universe that is indifferent to our survival. Only a couple of decades from where we find ourselves today, an unexpected global catastrophe begins. As insect, plant, and other animal life dies off, we find the remaining human population facing imminent starvation and dwindling numbers. The only solution is to find a way to make small changes in the past that will allow the humans of 2080 to implement their only chance of saving the human life that remains. Unfortunately, we can’t send anything like a human being into the past. However, scientists have discovered a way to tether two consciousnesses separated by half a century or more via a neural interface grown from nanoscale machines transported back in time. By sending pilots–individuals who will assume control of an unwilling and presumably unwitting subject–downstream and into these hosts, the Permafrost project hopes to salvage the only thing that can save the future. The unlikely protagonist of Valentina was a surprising choice, an elderly woman and mathematician, the daughter of a mathematician who specialized in paradox and the potential for time travel. Chosen as the first pilot sent back, Valentina soon discovers unanticipated consequences of assuming control of a host. More than that, Valentina learns the chilling truth that there might be forces further upstream, unexpected foes who might not want them to succeed in their mission. The final scene of this novella is positively heartbreaking but totally in line with the sort of ending one might expect from Reynolds. Natasha Soudek’s narration is perfect for both Valentina and Tatiana, capturing the differences between the two characters with effective nuance. She successfully managed to tackle the other characters no less effectively.