Nov 27, 2018

 

Author Spotlight - Emma Newman

- About the Author -
Website: www.enewman.co.uk
Twitter: @EmApocalyptic
Genre: Science Fiction, Urban Fantasy, Short Stories

Emma Newman writes dark short stories and science fiction and urban fantasy novels. ‘Between Two Thorns’, the first book in Emma’s Split Worlds urban fantasy series, was shortlisted for the BFS Best Novel and Best Newcomer awards. The fifth and final novel in the series “All Good Things” will be published in 2017. The Split Worlds series is published by Diversion Books.

Emma’s first science-fiction novel, Planetfall, was published by Roc in November 2015. A second standalone novel set in the same universe, called ‘After Atlas’ is available now.

Emma is a professional audio book narrator and also co-writes and hosts the Hugo-nominated and Alfie winning podcast ‘Tea and Jeopardy‘ which involves tea, cake, mild peril and singing chickens. Her hobbies include dressmaking and role playing games.

Emma is represented by Jennifer Udden at the Barry Goldblatt Literary Agency.


- Interviews -
(mybookishways) What made you decide to write a sci-fi novel?
The idea I had and the character I wanted to explore simply fitted better in science-fiction than anything else. I have always loved sci-fi – more than any other genre – but didn’t necessarily plan to write SF. It just evolved that way organically.

(mybookishways) What inspired Planetfall?
It was the character idea that went on to become the protagonist, Ren, that inspired the novel. I had a very firm sense of the struggles she faced in terms of mental illness and that in turn informed many of the world-building decisions about the novel. It was weird – that’s never happened to me before. I crafted the book around her and excavated the rest of the novel more than I’ve experienced with anything else I’ve written.

(mybookishways) Will you tell us more about Ren, and what you think makes her a compelling character?
Ren is the colony’s 3-D printer engineer. She has constructed the houses the colonists live in and is responsible for keeping everything functioning in good order. She also suffers from an anxiety disorder. As for what makes her compelling, I think that’s always hard for the author to say – only the reader can know that, really, as I know her so well I don’t experience the book and her as a character in the same way. But she does have secrets, and the revealing of those secrets – and why she is the way she is – is what I hope will be compelling!

(mybookishways) What supporting characters did you particularly enjoy writing about?
Sung-Soo and Mack. It’s hard to explain why without spoiling the entire book though! I really enjoyed writing Kay too, because she is just lovely.

(unboundworlds) Both of your Planetfall books feature leaders with incredibly magnetic personalities. What inspired these characters? Were you thinking of specific people in history or fiction when you wrote them?
Yes and no. It was a combination of plausibility and drawing from research. In Planetfall, the charismatic leader, Mack, has to have enough presence, gravitas and social skills to hold that colony together for twenty years without the woman who led everyone there. If he didn’t have those qualities, and the manipulation skills he employed on Earth before they left and later in the colony, the story simply wouldn’t make sense. I didn’t have anyone in mind when writing him.

It could be argued that Lee Suh-Mi, the Pathfinder herself who leads everyone to that distant plant must have been charismatic to achieve that. But I saw her as magnetic in a very different way. She has the power of the purest belief in what happened to her, and demonstrable genius, but she doesn’t have the showmanship which Mac has in spades. That’s why she needed him to get the Atlas project off the ground. I find it endlessly frustrating that in today’s media driven society, it isn’t necessarily the best person that gets critical jobs (especially in politics), it’s the ones who can be the most charismatic on screen. I’m not convinced that all of the skills required to be a leader overlap perfectly with the skills required to attain and keep positions of leadership.

(mybookishways) What kind of research did you do for the book?
I read about 3-D printing and where it currently is now so I could play with how it might develop in the future. I consumed a lot of case studies regarding the mental health challenges that Ren has (and drew upon some of my own experiences there too) and I read about the idea of the ‘secondary genome’ too. Planetfall also drew upon a lot of bits and pieces I’ve read over the years and filed away because I found them interesting!

(unboundworlds) From Artificial Personal Assistants and 3-D printed foods, to precise virtual reality reconstructions of crime scenes, the technologies you describe are terrifyingly real and impressive. How did you come up with these advancements? Was there a lot of research involved, or did you already have the concepts vaguely in mind?
I follow real world technological developments with great enthusiasm and have been excited about 3-D printing, synthetic biology and the interface between humanity and AI for many years. All of the tech featured in Planetfall and After Atlas is a result of daydreaming about logical extrapolations from what we already have, right now. For example; people have been 3-D printing food for years. All I did was think about a possible future where that has become so sophisticated and cost effective that it’s effectively become part of our food infrastructure, like microwave ready meals have. There will always be people who will refuse to eat processed food, who will always cook from scratch with fresh ingredients – if they can afford to do so – and so they exist in my books too because I don’t think future technology will be experienced in the same way by everyone.

In Planetfall I had a lot of fun envisaging a technological utopia; a colony that is constructed with sustainability and strict environmental protection rules built in at the very core. There are so many things we could  (and in my opinion should) be doing with new builds in construction today and it makes me so frustrated that so many opportunities are being lost. In Planetfall, I wanted to explore just how wonderful technology – most of which already exists today – could be developed to give us a luxurious standard of living, yet still limit its impact on the environment.

(fantasy-hive) The Planetfall novels feature really interesting speculation about technology like 3D printing and the intrusive social media they have but from a character-based perspective…
For me, like I said, science fiction is all about where you have that meeting between humanity and technology, so unless the story is character driven I don’t feel I’m doing my job. Because if you’re not rooted in the characters, how can you see how that really impacts upon them psychologically? And 3D printing is cool. It is just cool. I was reading about it for years before I started Planetfall. And I got really excited about it. Then I happened to mention it to my uncle who is an engineer, and Ren is an engineer. So every time we went over for family meals I was analysing the way that his brain worked, how he approached problems. So a lot of Ren’s problem solving is based partly on me but partly on my uncle, and I said to him, I’m writing this book, it’s got 3D printing in it, and all this cutting edge stuff going on, and he was like Em, we’ve been doing that for about ten years. We print prototypes all the time and there’s a big thing at work, and I was like, ten years? So it was quite funny. But the thing that is really exciting as well is that there have been so many points since I wrote Planetfall where there’s been an announcement like, the first organ has been printed, and I wrote about that two years ago! And that’s where the geeky bliss comes in. With the neural chip stuff, I’m torn about whether that is plausible or not. And I could spend like an hour being really boring about why I think neural chip technology could on the one hand be very plausible and on the other hand be really ridiculous, so I’m going to stop myself there.

(breakingtheglassslipper) In your Planetfall series, you have gone for quite hard SF ideas alongside religion. Why did you want to explore these two potentially jarring ideologies side by side?
Because they are jarring in my mind! Years ago I heard a scientist on the radio talking about how his study of physics, and (if I recall correctly) astrophysics in particular, was all about understanding what God had done when creating the universe. I remember stopping mid stride, toast half way to my mouth as I crossed the kitchen, staring at the radio. A physicist who saw science as something totally complimentary to his religious faith was not the standard narrative (at least in my experience). It stuck in my brain and then years later, when Planetfall was coalescing in my mind, I wanted to write characters that were both scientists and deeply religious, I guess because I wanted to resolve that cognitive discomfort that existed in my mind because of that snippet of interview.

(fantasy-hive) All three of the Planetfall novels are particularly resonant for readers like myself who suffer from anxiety and depression because of how truthfully they portray that mindset. Which is really nice to see from a representation point of view, but what was it like digging into that to write them?
Awful. I mean, it’s not the kind of thing where you think, oh lovely! I’ll go and remember all those really awful panic attacks I’ve had over the years. I’m being flippant about it now. I’m actually really glad you said that, because that was one of the things that I really wanted to achieve. I’ve always loved science fiction. Science fiction has been my first love since I was nine. I stumbled across Trillions (1973) by Nicholas Fisk in the library. And I adored it and devoured it all the way through my teen years, but I was reading golden age sci fi, and much as I adore it, the representation is not so great. The concepts thrilled me and some of the characters were OK, but I was hungry for psychologically complex characters and a real examination of the intersection between the human experience and technology. And for a lot of my life, the human experience has been of anxiety and periods of depression. And I wanted to put real people into the imaginary worlds, and inevitably that meant drawing upon my own experiences.

So with Planetfall, I don’t have exactly the same anxiety disorder as Ren does, but if there was a Venn diagram of our anxiety disorders there is definitely an overlap. And that overlap, I could draw upon my own experience to make some aspects of hers as authentic as I could write. And that was hard. There would be times when I would write a scene and I’d be shaking afterwards, like my body remembered, even though psychologically I was in a different state. With After Atlas I drew upon my anger and my rage. And that was a lot easier. I have a lot of anger all the time, I’m like the Hulk. I’m constantly raging about something or other, so that was really easy to tap into and almost cathartic.

(hierath) Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m an author, audio book narrator and podcaster. I’m also a dressmaker, avid role player and I wrestle with anxiety. I fangirl about a lot of things, I get angry about a lot of things and I care passionately about a lot of things. I’m just a geek, you know? (*All the best people are…)

(hierath) Your previous Split Worlds Trilogy, published by Angry Robot, were urban fantasy novels, but I understand SF is your first love? How does it feel to write an SF novel after a number of years writing in other genres? What drew you back to writing SF?
It is my first love and it felt wonderful to write in the genre. It also felt a bit scary because when I wrote urban fantasy I was writing blind – I had hardly read anything in that genre and didn’t even appreciate that the Split Worlds would be categorised as UF until after it was picked up! It meant I wrote without putting any additional pressure on myself, I think. In contrast, I felt more embedded in science-fiction and after falling in love with it as a child, I wanted to make my contribution to that genre something I could be proud of.

(hierath) And what was it that made you fall in love with SF in the first place? What made you want to become a writer?
The endless potential and the sense that it could almost be true – or could come true one day. There’s something about going into space that fascinates, thrills and terrifies me. Whether it’s books or films, I naturally gravitate towards science-fiction before any other genre.

As for what made me want to become a writer… well, it simply seems to be the best sum of my parts. I started writing stories when I was 4, so I think it’s something that’s always been in me. Later in life, after forgetting that I used to write (long story) I realised that so much of my constant tension was the unsatisfied need to create worlds and tell stories in them. I was a role player and GM but it wasn’t enough. I discovered that when I sorted out my head enough to be able to get over fear and actually write, I felt about 1000% better.

(fantasy-hive) How is writing an urban fantasy series different from writing speculative fiction?
It’s a lot less scary. I was really scared before writing Planetfall. When I realised that the story that became Planetfall had to be science fiction, I thought, I’m not sure if I can pull this off. I felt the weight of the preceding work. I feel that because science fiction’s a relatively small genre, that even though there are hundreds of sci-fi books, it still feels relatively small and relatively young, and it feels like you’re closer to the dialogue that’s happening within that genre. I was worried that I was going to screw it up, that I was going to get the science wrong, every possible thing. Whereas with urban fantasy, it’s that way because it just is. And the only thing I’d worry about would be if I had a gargoyle on the top of Saint Pancras, whether he could actually see down into this particular street in London, and that is a really nice thing to do. And I did a ton of research for the Split Worlds, all of the world building that went into those books is all based on historical fact, geographical locations. As much as could be true in those books is true. But with Planetfall and After Atlas and Before Mars I felt like I had to be rigorous in a way that I couldn’t be with urban fantasy. There was the pressure of getting the science plausibly correct but also reminding myself that I am not a futurologist, and this is not my job to predict the future and it could still be my version of the future. Once I’d got over that mental hurdle I thought, ok I’m going to have some fun. As long as I know where my starting points are in terms of technology, the way that I extrapolate out to my future, as long as I understand it and I know that every step where I am incorporating some change or introducing a big lie, as long as I know that that is not breaking anything fundamental, that is fine and I will forgive myself. And then I could do it. It’s just a different emphasis.

(mybookishways) Worldbuilding is important in books like Planetfall. What are a few of your favorite sci-fi “worlds?”
I know it sits in the intersection between fantasy and SF, but I love the Dune universe. Also Kim Stanley Robinson’s Accelerando – those hollowed out asteroids delight me on so many levels! The world of ‘The Sparrow’ – both Earth and the alien planet – also fascinated me.

(hierath) What is your favourite part of writing? Which parts do you find easy? Is there any particular aspect of writing that you struggle with, and how have you overcome it?
Just before I start – when the idea is bright and perfect and like a brilliant film in my head with a limitless SFX budget and perfect actors and set designers, I like that bit. But my favourite part is the first draft. I love deep immersion into the world and story, I love the sense of daily progression as the word count ticks upwards and I love seeing what happens in the bits I’m not sure about in the planning. And that feeling when the first draft is done is so sweet.

I have struggled a lot with fear and found strategies to overcome it but there’s far too much for me to be able to sum up without writing a small book! However, I will say that giving myself permission to write total rubbish before I start each writing session is a great help! I’m not fond of editing, as the story has been told and the exciting part is over for me, but I appreciate how important it is so I just suck it up and get on with it.

(breakingtheglassslipper) How do audiobooks deliver a different experience of a book? As a narrator, do you prefer to listen to more books than you read?
An audiobook makes what is usually a two person experience (writer connecting to the reader) into a three person experience, with the added intimacy that hearing someone’s voice can give. That third person can be, at best, an enhancement of the experience; the listener can enjoy the characterisation in voices, different accents, and, where relevant, added emotion in the delivery of the narrative. However, if the voice or delivery is not one that the listener enjoys, the narrator can be a barrier. I confess, I do not listen to audio books! I listen to podcasts, but not as much as I would like. I much prefer to read, probably because I am very fussy about voices and because I would be examining the performance of the narrator far more than if I were not a narrator myself!

(breakingtheglassslipper) You are a prolific writer. What kind of routine do you keep in order to maintain such an output?
I don’t! I juggle writing with being an audio book narrator, a podcaster, a keen LARPer, a dressmaker and having a family, not to mention occasional public events and teaching. No two days are the same. The only thing I can say is that I try my best to allocate blocks of weeks where my priority is getting a first draft written, but even that is proving to be harder and harder as my narration career has been taking off over the last couple of years. I guess that having figured out my process and the optimal conditions for me to write is a huge help, so when I can carve out that time, I put it to good use. I really miss the days when I could block out time more strictly, but I am not going to be ungrateful for the audio book work either!



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Book Review - Planetfall, Planetfall #1 (by Emma Newman)


Title:
Planetfall
Series: Planetfall (book #1)
Author: Emma Newman
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Ace Books / Roc Books
Release Date: November 3rd, 2015
Format: Paperback
Pages: 336




"From the award-nominated author Emma Newman, comes a novel of how one secret withheld to protect humanity’s future might be its undoing…

Renata Ghali believed in Lee Suh-Mi’s vision of a world far beyond Earth, calling to humanity. A planet promising to reveal the truth about our place in the cosmos, untainted by overpopulation, pollution, and war. Ren believed in that vision enough to give up everything to follow Suh-Mi into the unknown.


More than twenty-two years have passed since Ren and the rest of the faithful braved the starry abyss and established a colony at the base of an enigmatic alien structure where Suh-Mi has since resided, alone. All that time, Ren has worked hard as the colony's 3-D printer engineer, creating the tools necessary for human survival in an alien environment, and harboring a devastating secret.


Ren continues to perpetuate the lie forming the foundation of the colony for the good of her fellow colonists, despite the personal cost. Then a stranger appears, far too young to have been part of the first planetfall, a man who bears a remarkable resemblance to Suh-Mi.


The truth Ren has concealed since planetfall can no longer be hidden. And its revelation might tear the colony apart…"

(click to read an excerpt on Tor.com)

- Review -
What Made Me Read It
They had me at colonizing a new planet, with the appeal of a dark mystery surrounding early planetfall.
 

The Plot
Lee Suh-Mi, a self-proclaimed prophet and Pathfinder, believes she has been given the coordinates to God's planet. With the financial help of ringmaster Cillian "Mack" Mackenzie, she leads 1000 believers across the galaxy in search of God, away from a desolated, overcrowded and polluted Earth. On planetfall, the colonists set up their camp around an alien organic structure they promptly name "God's City", while Lee Suh-Mi enters the structure to commune with God.
 

Twenty two years later, the small but stable human colony is still waiting for Lee Suh-Min to return from "God's City".
 

Renata "Ren" Ghali left Earth and her troubled past to follow her lover's vision into the unknown. She's now a visenginer, responsible for the 3D printers that provide the colony with all their basic needs in an environment that's not entirely suited for human life. Ren and Mack are the only ones who know the colony's utopian existence is based on a lie, but they've kept their secrets throughout the years for the good of the colony. Until one day a young man named Sung-Soo arrives at the colony, claiming to be the sole survivor of a group of colonists believed to have crashed during planetfall. He's searching for the truth of what really happened 22 years ago, threatening to unravel the colony's biggest secret and disturb the hard-won balance.
 

The Good
"Planetfall" is a captivating, thought-provoking, character-driven plot with plenty of twists. The world building is complex and intriguing, with believable futuristic technology. But the focus is on the characters, their emotions and motivations, how they adapt to life on a strange new world and cope with past traumas.
 

The story is told in the 1st person, from the perspective of the main character Renata (Ren) Gahli. Ren is a fully developed 3-dimentional character - religious, intelligent, incisive and pragmatic, but also deeply flawed, damaged and vulnerable, suffering from anxiety and hoarding disorder, torn between her need to reveal the truth to unburden herself and the need to contain it to maintain the stability of the colony. The author deals with the character's mental issues in a vivid, touching and realistic way that is never patronizing nor trivialized. Ren is a troubled unreliable narrator who keeps secrets from both her community and herself. Through her eyes we get an inside look at her state of mind as the plot moves forward, her fears and struggles when her world is destabilized, allowing us to understand where she comes from and all the twisted logic that guides her actions.
 

The plot unravels slowly through flashbacks and memories, revealing all the secrets and backstory gradually, building up tension until the truth is out. Part mystery, part sci-fi and part spiritual meditation, the book explores themes of guilt, trauma, grief, mental health, religion, manipulation... Ren's mental breakdown is highly believable, gut-wrenching and heartbreaking so it can be disturbing at times, making you feel uncomfortable and ill at ease.
 

The Not So Good
The pace of the plot speeds up considerably once the truth is revealed and ends in an abrupt, anti-climatic and ambiguous way, feeling unfinished and with a few loose treads... then again, and without spoiling the plot too much, "Planetfall" is mainly about one very disturbed character that comes full circle to where her troubles started so maybe it will satisfy some readers.
 

Final Rating
"Planetfall" is a gut-wrenching and heart-breaking, thought-provoking sci-fi psychological thriller. Recommended for those who enjoy stories on colonizing alien planets and/or that deal with mental health issues.
 


About the Author (interviews)


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Nov 23, 2018

 

Book Review - Redshirts: A Novel With Three Codas (by John Scalzi)

Title: Redshirts: A Novel With Three Codas
Series: -
Author: John Scalzi
Genre: Science Fiction, Space Opera, Humor
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: June 5th, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 320


"Ensign Andrew Dahl has just been assigned to the Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456. It’s a prestige posting, and Andrew is thrilled all the more to be assigned to the ship’s Xenobiology laboratory.

Life couldn’t be better…until Andrew begins to pick up on the fact that:
(1) every Away Mission involves some kind of lethal confrontation with alien forces
(2) the ship’s captain, its chief science officer, and the handsome Lieutenant Kerensky always survive these confrontations
(3) at least one low-ranked crew member is, sadly, always killed.

Not surprisingly, a great deal of energy below decks is expended on avoiding, at all costs, being assigned to an Away Mission. Then Andrew stumbles on information that completely transforms his and his colleagues’ understanding of what the starship Intrepid really is… and offers them a crazy, high-risk chance to save their own lives."

(click to read an excerpt on Tor.com)

- Review -
What Made Me Read It
They had me at Star Trek parody.

The Plot
Fresh out of the academy, Ensign Andrew Dahl has been assigned to the starship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union in the year 2456. Thrilled to start on his new duties in the Xenobilogy lab, he soon notices something very odd about the crew of the Intrepid: not only do his shipmates pull a disappearing act around high-ranking officers and go to extremes to avoid being sent on away missions, the same high profile senior officers always come back alive from those missions with barely a scratch while low-ranking crewmen suffer horrific deaths.

After a few close calls, Ensign Dahl joins forces with his fellow graduates Maia Duvall, Jimmy Hanson, Jasper Hester and Finn to solve the mystery of what's really going on aboard the Intrepid. When Officer Jenkins, a conspiracy nutter who hides inside the ship's cargo tunnels, shares his own crazy explanation, it's up to Dahl and his friends to save themselves, escape their fate and get control of their lives back before they become part of the tragic death toll.

The Good
"Redshirts" is a satirical novel meant as an homage to the tv show Star Trek, though it can easily apply to any weekly space opera scif-fi series, playing with the trope  of the poor unknown low-ranking crewmen in a red shirt whose sole purpose is to die a horrible meaningless death to add drama and tension to the plot.

It takes all the expected clichés of the genre - the shady wibbly-wobbly science that defies logic, the plot holes and convenient coincidences that add to a quick and poignant resolution, the magic box that spits out random numbers and colors until it goes "ding" with the right solution just in the nick of time, the starship command center with an innate tendency for erupting in sparks and flames, the dramatic captain who speaks like a Shakespearean actor, black hole alternate realities and time travel shenanigans... - and just pokes fun at it all, though in a respectful and affectionate way that will delight even the hardcore fans.

The main plot is deliberately silly, there are no deep philosophical questions or life-altering revelations. The lower decks characters, which would normally have minor roles in the plot, take center stage in this one but they're intentionally stereotypical with no real substance or development. "Redshirts" is for the most part a quick read, light hearted, heart warming humorous satire with an entertaining purpose and not meant to be taken too seriously.

The novel changes tone in the end with the inclusion of 3 sentimental codas - extra short stories that expand the main story by focusing on seemingly insignificant characters and how the events of the plot affected their lives. Told respectively in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd person, each one deals with the "could-haves" and "might-have-beens" that add some seriousness and somber touching moments to the book.

Final Rating
"Redshirts" is a clever, witty and nostalgic but heart-warming novel, part satire and part sci-fi adventure. Recommended for any Star Trek fan in particular but also anyone who enjoys humorous space opera.


• • • •

- About the Author -
Website: whatever.scalzi.com
Twitter: @scalzi
Genre: Science Fiction & Fantasy, Science, Humor

John Scalzi is best known for writing science fiction, including the New York Times bestseller "Redshirts" which won the Hugo Award for Best Novel. He also writes non-fiction, on subjects ranging from personal finance to astronomy to film, and was the Creative Consultant for the Stargate: Universe television series.

John Scalzi is the author of several SF novels including the bestselling Old Man's War and its sequels and the New York Times bestseller Fuzzy Nation. A winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, Scalzi won the Hugo Award for Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, a collection of essays from his wildly popular blog The Whatever.

He enjoys pie, as should all right thinking people.

He lives in Ohio with his wife and daughter.
(sources: Barnes&Noble, Amazon)


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Nov 21, 2018

 

Book Review - Plum Rains (by Andromeda Romano-Lax)

Title: Plum Rains
Series: -
Author: Andromeda Romano-Lax
Genre: Science Fiction, Historical Fiction, Dystopia
Publisher: Soho Press
Release Date: June 5th, 2018
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 389



"2029: In Japan, a historically mono-cultural nation, childbirth rates are at a critical low and the elderly are living increasingly long lives. This population crisis has precipitated a mass immigration of foreign medical workers from all over Asia—as well as the development of refined artificial intelligence to step in where humans fall short.

In Tokyo, Angelica Navarro, a Filipina nurse who has been working in Japan for the last five years, is the caretaker for Sayoko Itou, an intensely private woman about to turn 100 years old. Angelica is a dedicated nurse, working night and day to keep her paperwork in order, obey the strict labor laws for foreign nationals, study for her ongoing proficiency exams, and most of all keep her demanding client happy. But one day Sayoko receives a present from her son: a cutting-edge robot caretaker that will educate itself to anticipate Sayoko’s every need. Angelica wonders if she is about to be forced out of her much-needed job by an inanimate object—one with a preternatural ability to uncover the most deeply buried secrets of the humans around it. While Angelica is fighting back against the AI with all of her resources, Sayoko is becoming more and more attached to the machine. The old woman is hiding many secrets of her own—and maybe now she’s too old to want to keep them anymore.

In a tour de force tapestry of science fiction and historical fiction, Andromeda Romano-Lax presents a story set in Japan and Taiwan that spans a century of empire, conquest, progress, and destruction. Plum Rains elegantly broaches such important contemporary conversations as immigration, the intersection of labor and technology, the ecological fate of our planet and the future of its children."

(click to read an excerpt on Barnes&Noble)

- Review -
What Made Me Read It
They had me at artificial intelligence in a Japanese setting.

The Plot
In a near future Japan, fertility has fallen drastically due to a poisonous environment while the elderly live increasingly longer lives. Faced with the need to care for their aging population, the Japanese government relies on healthcare immigrant labor and the assistance of AI robotic caretakers.

Sayoko Itou is a centenarian elderly woman. Registered as "old-fashioned" with the Federal Senior Register and the Department of Health, Sayoko resents any kind of technology, even if it puts her life at risk. Stubborn, grumpy, taciturn and socially anxious, she has a secret past she's been forced to hide. She just wants care and acceptance.

Angelica Navarro is a Filipino caregiver, working as a home nurse for Sayoko. With a precarious work visa and mired in debt to the mob loaner Bagasao who funded her move to Japan, Angelica struggles to fit in a society that needs but doesn't welcome foreign workers. She needs the job and security.

Hiro is an advanced AI robot prototype, programmed to learn and grow on his own through interaction with his owners, and assigned as an assistant caretaker to Sayoko as part of an experimental trial program.

Brought together by outside forces, Sayoko discovers in Hiro a confidant and friend with whom she can share her secrets and finally unburden herself from her past. Angelica resents the robot's presence and fears he's there to replace her. All Hiro wants is a purpose.

The Good
"Plum Rains" is a mix of historical fiction, science fiction and dystopia, with a focus on contemporary issues. It's not action-packed but a quiet character study about the relationships between an elderly Japanese woman Sayoko, her Filipino home nurse Angelica and the highly evolved but not quite legal AI robot caregiver Hiro. Each alternating chapter is told from Sayoko's and Angelica's perspective, their personal histories and private struggles, while exploring 3 different cultures: the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan.

The characters are complex and fully fleshed out. Through them we get a good sense of the reality they're meant to represent. Sayoko, born a native from a conquered nation, forced to transform herself and hide her past in order to be accepted in the conquering society, now an elderly who struggles to feel relevant and needed. Angelica, with a past of trauma, grief and dire circumstances that force her to work in a foreign country that needs her labor but doesn't welcome her kind, struggling to maintain control over her assets and her life.

Even though it's set in the near future of 2029, the novel explores deep and current themes of environmental disaster and the effects on the economy and welfare of an nation (biological warfare and chemical contamination, abusive exploration of resources and raw materials...), war and all the atrocities perpetrated and later dismissed by conquering nations (colonialism and subjugation of native tribes, force prostitution...), immigration and the struggles of guest workers and the prejudice they face in foreign countries, artificial intelligence and the danger of replacing humans and eliminating jobs, diminishing birthrate and rising longevity. But it's also a story of buried secrets, shame, forgiveness, acceptance, relationships, dependency, connection, loneliness, relevance.

The Not So Good
Personally, "Plum Rains" was a disappointment - too dark and depressing for my taste. I read to escape reality, not to be reminded on every single page of how miserable real life is. I need hopeful, even if unrealistic, bright futures and satisfying resolutions, and the novel provides none. But it's a personal distaste and the sole reason I gave it such a low rating. The novel does possess enough strong points to satisfy most readers, specially those who enjoy real life tales.

Also, fair warning: there's a whole chapter on sexual slavery. If you're sensitive to the subject you might want to skip it.

Final Rating
"Plum Rains" is a dark, thought-provoking mix of historical fiction, science fiction and dystopia, with a focus on immigration policies and human/AI relationship. Recommended for those who enjoy character driven stories that explore the effects of past traumas, buried secrets and cultural pressure.


• • • •

- About the Author -
Website: www.romanolax.com
Twitter: @romanolax
Genre: Historical Fiction

Originally from Chicago and now a resident of Vancouver Island, Canada, Andromeda Romano-Lax worked as a freelance journalist and travel writer before turning to fiction. Her first novel, The Spanish Bow, was translated into eleven languages and was chosen as a New York Times Editors’ Choice, BookSense pick, and one of Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year. Her second novel, The Detour, was internationally published in 2012 and her third novel, Behave, was published in 2016. Her fourth novel, Plum Rains (Soho Press, June 2018), drew inspiration from her family's experience living in rural Taiwan.

Among Andromeda's nonfiction works are a dozen travel and natural history guidebooks to the public lands of Alaska, from Denali National Park to the Tongass National Forest, as well as a travel narrative, Searching for Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez: A Makeshift Expedition Along Baja’s Desert Coast, which was an Audubon Editor’s Choice.  As a freelance writer, she has been published in a wide range of magazines and newspapers, from Seventeen to Steinbeck Studies. She is co-editor of an anthology, Travelers’ Tales Alaska, and her own work has appeared in travel anthologies. She is a recipient of awards and fellowships from the Alaska Council on the Arts, the Marine Biological Laboratory, the National Association for Interpretation, the Alaska Press Club, and the Rasmuson Foundation, which named her an Artist Fellow in 2009. She has also been a member of the Alaska Pilot Project, writing spec tv scripts.

Andromeda co-founded and continues to teach for 49 Writers, a nonprofit organization. She has also taught fiction in the University of Alaska Anchorage low-residency MFA in Creative Writing program and as a freelance book coach. Off the page, Andromeda loves running, sea kayaking, classical cello, learning languages, travel, and cooking.

She currently lives with her family in Ladysmith, British Columbia.
(sources: www.romanolax.com)

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Nov 19, 2018

 

Author Spotlight - Claudia Gray

- About the Author -
Website: www.claudiagray.com
Twitter: @claudiagray
Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction & Fantasy, Romance

Claudia Gray is a pseudonym. I would like to say that I chose another name so that no one would ever learn the links between my shadowy, dramatic past and the explosive secrets revealed through my characters. This would be a lie. In truth, I took a pseudonym simply because I thought it would be fun to choose my own name. (And it is.)

I write novels full-time, absolutely love it, and hope to be able to do this forever. My home is in New Orleans, is more than 100 years old, and is painted purple. In my free time I read, travel, hike, cook and listen to music. You can keep up with my latest releases, thoughts on writing and various pop-culture musings via Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, GoodReads, Instagram or (of course) my own home page.

If you want to contact me, you can email me, but your best bet is probably to Tweet me. I don’t do follows on Twitter, but I follow everyone back on Tumblr, Pinterest and GoodReads.

- Interviews -
(themarysue) What were the creative challenges of being beholden to a larger canon, and writing a smaller part of the overall Star Wars story. Was that something that had benefits as a writer, or challenges to it?
The benefits were that, unlike any other kind of writing, I had basically zero world building to do. You know, if I had a question like ‘hey, what kind of ship would somebody take,’ I would just send an email: ‘hey, what kind of ship would somebody take?’ and a couple of minutes later, ‘it would be this kind of ship!’ I have huge visual dictionaries with pictures of all the things already, so that was a great boon. The difficult thing was that, unlike any other kind of writing, I could be wrong about something, which you’re just not used to. There was one ship I wanted to be somewhere, and they were like ‘no, that ship isn’t there.’ And of course you’re like, ‘well why can’t it be there?’ But it’s not, it’s just not there. It has other things to do, this ship. So you have to work around that kind of thing, that was the difficulty. But I definitely think the ease of not having to work with the worldbuilding way outweighed that.

(themarysue) I didn’t think of that, but of course it makes sense that there are certain elements you just can’t use.
And you’re just not used to that, when you’re working creatively out of your imagination, to someone going ‘no, it’s not that way.’

(hypable) Lost Stars is the first Star Wars novel to be officially categorized as YA — a genre many people don’t really understand. What do you think YA can offer the story of Star Wars?
If you think about it, the original movie really is a young adult story — it’s about a teenager facing adventure and danger on his own for the first time, while learning about his true powers. It’s also the story of a teenager who’s taking on responsibility beyond her years in a battle against absolute evil, by leading a rebellion. Sounds a lot like Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen, right?

The core myths George Lucas pulled from when creating the Star Wars universe, from the work of Joseph Campbell, are very often coming-of-age stories. So I don’t think it’s that YA is offering the story of Star Wars anything new so much as I think the YA elements that have always been in Star Wars are finally being focused on in that light.

(hypable) What was the most exciting part of getting to write in the Star Wars universe? What was the most challenging part?
The most exciting part was getting to create brand-new characters who would get to have their own adventures in this universe. The most challenging part was that I had to make sure my plot lined up with Star Wars canon — and while I knew the major elements, sometimes very small things would catch me off guard! Luckily my editors know to look out for this stuff.

(denofgeek) You’ve talked before about being interested in being able to develop Thane and Ciena’s homeworld. How did that begin?
It came primarily from two things. I knew that if the Imperial character was going to stay sympathetic at all that there had to be a counterbalance. Obviously, they’re going to catch on to that fact that the Empire isn’t everything they thought, and there has to be something that would counterbalance it. Why is she staying? So the idea was that she comes from a culture where [loyalty] matters a lot, where that’s really important, and you see her living that out in other ways. It’s not only about her loyalty to the Empire. You see her working hard to express that loyalty and honor to other people and things in her life, too. So that was the biggest cultural component.

In terms of what it would look like, I just tried to think of something they hadn't shown in Star Wars before. The idea was sort of the Himalayas, some place that was really, truly mountainous. While the culture isn’t actually based on anything in Tibet or Nepal, there were a few things I borrowed, like the sky burial. They actually do that in the Himalayas because you can’t bury people there. You just can’t do it. So I was able to use some elements like that to make it believable and to show that these are people who live at altitude, they’re used to mountains. I wanted them to feel like they came from a place that felt distinctive.

(hypable) How did you create the characters of Thane and Ciena? At what point did they really come alive for you? Was this different from any of your other writing?
Thane and Ciena were themselves very much from the beginning. They were built around two philosophies of life — one cynical, one idealistic — which gave me a strong starting point. Then I got to work on creating Jelucan, their home planet, and its culture, because that would help establish them in more depth. This part of it, honestly, wasn’t different from my original work at all.

When I first took on the project, I’d expected to have a story dictated to me, but instead, my editor really gave me so much creative freedom with both the plot and the characterization.

(denofgeek) Another character that really struck fans was the Alderaanian Nash Windrider. Did you know he would choose to stay with the Empire after the destruction of his planet when you developed an Alderaanian character?
That was his idea from the beginning, that somebody that we cared about was going to have to not only stay with the Empire but become full-hearted [Imperial]. The idea is how many compromises do you make, and how does it change you? You had to see somebody make that whole trip to the point where they’re beyond rationality or their own morality. They've completely gone over to that. I knew it had to be somebody you liked and you thought a lot of and emotionally wanted better things for. So that was the idea for Nash from the get-go. I gave him the name Windrider because that’s the most like Skywalker, a little subtle signal that this is a heroic character. At least that was my idea. I have no idea if it actually worked.

(denofgeek) This book is dark. It deals with some abuse and emotional trauma. Why was it thematically important to add these elements?
For Thane’s father, the core of [Thane] is that he is fairly cynical about things. He’s not somebody who believes in a lot. While this is certainly not universally true by any measure, one reason that might be so is a very early realization that people who are supposed to be looking out for you aren’t looking out for you. So that was one of the big foundational things for him, is that he has no reason to invest in the idea of loving authority for its own sake, believing in it, putting faith in it. He doesn’t have friends.

Ciena has a wonderful relationship with her parents and all her life has been taught about loyalty. She’s going to see that in a fundamentally different way. That was the primary reason for that. I also didn’t want it to feel like their lives started the day they got into the [Imperial] academy. They should have lives and personalities rooted before that.

(hypable) Lost Stars deals deeply with issues of justice and tyranny, and how good people can serve evil causes. Was this theme something you had in mind from the beginning, or did it develop as the story evolved? Did it ever manifest in ways that were surprising or unexpected?
The concept of the book, as it was first put to me, was “childhood friends turned young people in love, but the idealist joins the Rebellion and the cynic joins the Empire.” Immediately I said I wanted the idealist to be the one who became an Imperial officer, and the cynic to be the Rebel. That let me dig into why good people could find themselves in the service of evil, and even why someone might be a part of the Rebellion without really believing in their philosophy. So dealing with those questions was absolutely one of my goals for the book from the very beginning.

(hypable) And what is your all-time favorite Star Wars moment?
I never asked myself this and am stunned to realize the answer is, “the garbage compactor scene.” It’s just so great how they’re all completely thrown for a loop, and how Han and Leia go from shouting at each other to desperately working together within moments, and at the end, they hug like they’ve known each other for years instead of five minutes! Meanwhile Luke’s getting crammed down under all that stuff, shouting at the droids.

This is of course a prime piece of evidence for my theory that the entire Star Wars trilogy is fundamentally about RD2D saving the day. All our characters would be dead about eight times over if not for Artoo.

(themarysue) How did you first get interested in sci fi, as a fan or as a writer?
Oh, as a fan. I was 7 when Star Wars came out, are you kidding me? It warped me for life. No, I’ve had a long, long career of fangirling, I’ve loved everything from The X Files through to Supergirl, everything. Have written so much fanfiction. So, so much fanfiction. And I still do when I have time, which isn’t as much anymore. But I do still do that, so it was inevitable that it would eventually catch up professionally.

(themarysue) I imagine that having a background in fan fiction was helpful for working in this preexisting world. Was that the case at all?
Yes, not so much in specifically writing, but in terms of getting used to playing with a universe that already exists, and all the what if questions you naturally ask yourself if you’re a fanfic writer, even before you start writing fanfic. You start writing fanfic because you are this kind of fan, because you’re like what if this happened, what if this happened, how would they think about it. So, that mindset is definitely one I have exercised at length. That part came very naturally.

(denofgeek) What is it about science fiction that really appeals to you and encourages you to write so many stories within the genre?
If you’re a real geek can you ever really answer that question? For some reason, you know, I think at the core of all of us who are lifelong fanboys or fangirls you just feel like reality could be so much more interesting than it is. Even if you’re leading a really interesting life you’re always like, “But- but- but.”

I love asking ‘What if?” and imagining all the different ways something could play out.

(nerdophiles) What are some of the particular challenges that go into writing about science fiction?
It’s harder – because I’ve also written some paranormal books – when it’s science fiction or science fantasy because science is just not as malleable as magic. When you’re writing fantasy or magic you can really come up with different sort of exceptions and this and that. I didn’t realize how easy that was until I started working on the Firebird series. You have to obey to some sort of internal laws that feel like real science even if it isn’t. That, I think, is the tougher part of writing science fiction.

(nerdophiles) A lot of the work that you have been doing and that you are doing – especially with Star Wars – is very focused on science fiction. Have you experienced challenges in writing sci-fi as a female author?
I have been extraordinarily lucky in that I have not so much. I think the thing I was most worried about was the reaction to Lost Stars but, again, enough readers gave it a chance and people and enjoyed it and so the blowback I maybe expected from telling that love story never came to pass. People have been by and large really great and supportive online.

(themarysue) As a woman in sci fi, have you ever felt like your gender influenced the kind of jobs you were given or the way people perceived your writing?
I have not, because up until now, everything that I have done has been Young Adult. And that is a place where there are many, many female writers, where the audience still skews, generally speaking, maybe not as much as people perceive it, but still skews more female, so that’s never been an issue. I did wonder a little bit how people would take to Star Wars Lost Stars with it being a love story, but the reader reactions have been wonderful. A lot of guys gave that book a fair shot, and wound up enjoying it, and were not in the least bit slow to go ‘hey, I had this one idea about this book, but I was wrong, and I really enjoyed it because of x and y.’ So no, I’ve had a very charmed existence so far as a woman on the Internet. We’ll see how long it lasts!

(nerdophiles) You tend to write about a lot of strong, female protagonists in your own work. Do feel any pressure or obligation when it comes to creating those characters?
It doesn’t feel that different to me but I try to be careful in how I write things just so people don’t take it the wrong way. There’s a scene in Lost Stars where Ciena is being bullied and Thane stands up for her. There was a point where my editor was worried about the boy coming to save the girl and I had to be like, “No, no, it’s because there’s six of them and one of her. It’s not because she’s a girl. It’s because she’s severely outnumbered.” So I made sure to reword some of that to make it clearer. Ciena is by no means defenseless she’s just really disadvantaged in that scene.

(nerdophiles) Do you ever worry about including romantic elements to your science fiction novels and how that may be received?
No, not too much. I feel like what’s right for the story is what’s right for the story and if that’s a really big epic romance like it is in Lost Stars – and it’s organic to the kind of story that’s being told – I think people will respond to that. I never want to shoehorn something in because I think that’s what sets people on edge. But I don’t feel any particular need to particularly dwell on it or steer clear of it in any case.

The thing I wanted to do with Lost Stars that I thought was important was that [the romance] couldn’t be a distraction from the war it had to illustrate the war. Like, you see the great big battles and you see the galaxy pulling apart but here’s what it does to just two people. Like, look and see what it does to just two people.

If you just make romance a part of what’s going on then it works. You know, people didn’t really respond well to Anakin and Padme but they love Han and Leia.

(themarysue) When you approach writing a YA book as opposed to an Adult book, do you have to put yourself in a different mindset for the different genres, or does that just happen organically as a result of the story?
I think the difference is, once the story is Young Adult, that’s going to flow very naturally. One thing I say a lot, and I really believe it, is that no one has ever fully recovered from being sixteen. The experience you have then just shape you so much emotionally, that I feel like you can get in touch with that pretty deeply. So if you have a YA story that is about coming of age, sort of having to step forward and take responsibility, and to find yourself for the first time, because up until this point in life, probably your parents or your caretaker or your school or whatever, that has defined you. As long as your story is rooted in that, I feel like that is very natural. It doesn’t feel different at all.


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Book Review - Star Wars: Lost Stars (by Claudia Gray)

Title: Lost Stars
Series: Star Wars (Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens)
Author: Claudia Gray
Genre: Science Fiction, Space Opera, Young Adult, Media Tie-In
Publisher: Disney Lucasfilm Press
Release Date: September 4th, 2015
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 551


"The reign of the Galactic Empire has reached the Outer Rim planet of Jelucan, where aristocratic Thane Kyrell and rural villager Ciena Ree bond over their love of flying. Enrolling at the Imperial Academy is nothing less than a dream come true for both of them. But Thane sours on the dream when he sees firsthand the horrific tactics the Empire uses to maintain its ironclad rule.

Bitter and disillusioned, he joins the fledgling Rebellion--putting Ciena in an unbearable position between her loyalty to the Empire and her love for the man she's known since childhood.

Now on opposite sides of the war, will these friends turned foes ever find a way to be together, or will duty tear them--and the galaxy--apart?"

(click to read an excerpt on Barnes&Noble)

- Review -
What Made Me Read It
As a long time fan of the Star Wars franchise it was pretty much a given.

The Plot
Eight years after Emperor Palpatine established the Galactic Empire, the mountain planet of Jelucan in the Outer Rim is the latest to align itself with the growing Empire. Thane Kyrell comes from an aristocratic Jelucani family while Ciena Ree was born in a proud yet rustic tribe. Despite their cultural and social differences, both children bond over their shared dream of attending an Imperial military academy and becoming pilots for the Empire.

After honing their skills over the years, Thanos and Ciena are admitted to the Royal Imperial Academy on Coruscant and quickly prove their worth. Ciena becomes an officer aboard Darth Vader's Star Destroyer Devastator while Thanos is assigned to the Death Star.

But the destruction of Alderaan and all the atrocities committed by the Empire drive a disillusioned Thane to desertion. He doesn't believe in the Rebellion, seeing the rebels as the terrorists the Empire makes them out to be. However he does believe in destroying the Empire, ridding the galaxy of its oppressive rule, and the Rebel Alliance is a way to achieve that goal.

Ciena is not one to break an oath and her unquestioned belief in the law and order promised by the Emperor himself impels her to continue serving the Empire. Her heart is torn by Thane's defection but she finds a way to protect him by declaring his death so he won't be hunted down. All that changes when Thane joins the Rebellion and both find themselves on opposite sides of a war that will determine the fate of the galaxy and their relationship.

The Good
"Lost Stars" takes place over the course of several years, between the end of the Clone Wars depicted in the movie Revenge of the Sith and the Battle of Jakku, one year after the events of Return of the Jedi. It follows the lives of two childhood friends, Thanos Kyrell and Ciena Ree, from their years under the Imperial rule on their home planet of Jelucan, their time at the Royal Imperial Academy on Coruscant, their rise through the ranks of the Imperial Navy and the impact of the Galactic Civil War. The novel provides a fresh perspective from the inside of the Empire, through the eyes of these two characters who grew up believing in the Imperial propaganda and ended up on opposite sides of the war. As readers we get to re-experience major events from the Original Trilogy like the destruction of Alderaan and the Battles of Yavin, Hoth and Endor as witnessed from the side of the so called bad guys.

The novel is compelling, well-crafted and well-paced. It's thought-provoking but also action packed, humorous and emotional, with believable multi-dimensional characters. The author does a really good job developing the two main characters - their thoughts and emotions, beliefs and doubts, points of view and allegiances, how they grow and are shaped as individuals through time and war. Ciena is a strong female protagonist with her own dreams, goals and motivations, a strong sense of honor and duty, loyalty and self-discipline - traits that compel her to remain in the service of a corrupt system. Thane is a cynical, disillusioned and bitter character, who doubts authority after a childhood of abuse by his father and witnessing the atrocities condoned by the Empire - he doesn't really believe in the Rebellion Alliance, it's just the lesser of two evils.

"Lost Stars" may be labeled as Young Adult but it explores deep and mature themes of honor and loyalty, friendship and love, betrayal, justice and revenge. The line between good and evil is blurred and the author successfully tackles the moral ambiguity of two opposite sides that believe their own cause is just. The Empire is still depicted as utterly corrupt and oppressive, but also made of individuals who still believe in its proclaimed principles of law and order, who just want to do their jobs believing they're fighting for the right cause and a brighter future, who mourn for friends and family killed in combat. The Rebel Alliance may have a higher moral ground but it's capable of as much needless violence as the Empire, resorting to questionable means to achieve their goals and easily coming across as a group of terrorists bent on destroying society (explored in greater detail in the movie Rogue One and its companion books, mainly through Saw Gerrera's militia The Partisans).

The Not So Good
As a Young Adult novel, "Lost Stars" has the expected romantic element between the two characters. It grows over time and integrates seamlessly with themes of friendship, loyalty and duty in a way that feels natural, which is a notch above the usual instalove, but the typical budding angsty puppy love is still present. Fortunately the major focus of the plot is on the moral and ethical dilemmas faced by the main characters so I was able to ignore the romantic aspect and still give the novel a high rating. But, this is a personal quirk of mine, I really have no patience whatsoever for romance. If it's your thing, then you will probably enjoy how it was handled in the book.

Final Rating
"Lost Stars" is a strong, compelling and thought-provoking space opera novel, set in the Star Wars universe and easily one of the best novels released in the new canon. It captures perfectly the aesthetic, drama and epic scope of the original franchise, while expanding the universe with new characters and locations. Recommended for Star Wars fans in particular but also suited for anyone who enjoys science fiction and space opera novels.


About the Author (interviews)

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Nov 16, 2018

 

Short Stories - The Last Garden, by Jack Skillingstead

Lightspeed Magazine is a science fiction and fantasy magazine. Each monthly issue includes eight science fiction and fantasy short stories, author interviews and Q&As, book and TV/movie reviews - all of which are available online for free. The ebook edition includes extra novellas and novel excerpts.

"The Last Garden" short story was published on Lightspeed Magazine issue #81, February 2017 (click on the link to read all the online features). Biological and nuclear warfare has caused the extinction of all life on Earth, all that remains are drones and still-active weapons systems. Casey Stillman was orbiting the Earth when the end came, and even though the last communications received told all spacecraft not to return, she was forced to land in order to resupply. Now she's the last woman on Earth, watched over by the Surrogate, an advanced AI robot determined to protect her. Casey has a plan - go to Doomsday Vault where human embryos are stored and resurrect the human race. Despite Surrogate's insistence that they've all been destroyed as well, Casey is determined to follow through with her plan, if only she can survive the defensive mechanisms. A dark tale packed with action and entertaining banter between Casey and the Surrogate.



- The Last Garden -
by Jack Skillingstead
(Reprinted by permission of the author)

The Surrogate walked past Casey’s window. She watched its shadow slip across the shade, then she stood and zipped up her flight suit. This was the day. No matter what.

The doorbell rang.

It was polite, the Surrogate. It had manners. It rang the doorbell. It said please and thank you. It had saved Casey’s life, twice, and the first time she had been grateful.

Casey bit her lip hard enough to hurt. The pain helped her focus on her mission. Because sometimes she didn’t believe in it. Sometimes she was weak and disloyal to her own kind. That was understandable, considering her own kind, the human race, on Earth at least, was an extinct species. What was there to be loyal to?

The embryos. The cloned embryos in cryostasis.

Her mother.

Twenty-six months ago, Casey and her nine crewmates had watched helplessly from orbit while a plague wiped out humanity with the brutal efficiency of a worldwide tsunami. The final message sent from Washington to all orbiting spacecraft said simply, “Don’t come down.” But Casey and her crew had no choice. Without re-supply vehicles, they couldn’t remain in space. Meanwhile, arguments raged on the Lunar colony, which was self-sustaining. Those in favor of staying put seemed to be winning. Then all communication coming from the Moon ceased.

The polite Surrogate rang the bell again. It claimed to worry about her, like a parent. But it couldn’t really be worried about her.

The Surrogate was a machine, a top-secret military-grade AI, from when there had been both a military and anything secret.

Casey stood in the entry, arms folded, feet planted on the vinyl floor. Military housing, drab and cheap. When she was a child in Virginia, Casey had lived with her mother in a big house with white columns in front. She remembered her mother pulling her down the dappled sidewalk in a red wagon, remembered the sound of the hard rubber wheels rolling on pavement. It was funny how that memory stood out but later ones had folded away into the dark. It was like peering down a long tube to a vision drenched in sunlight.

The knob turned, encountered the lock, turned harder until the lock broke and the door splintered away from the jamb.

The Surrogate had a paint-can head, eyes that glowed blue, and a slot mouth. The sturdy torso contained the power source. A flexible spine, like a length of knuckled bike chain, attached the torso to a pair of ingeniously swiveling hips. The legs were like attenuated cages made from carbon rods.

When Casey and her crewmates descended from orbit in two vehicles, automated defenses had immediately attacked them, destroying one vehicle outright and severely damaging the other. Casey managed a hard landing in the high desert of New Mexico near Tourangeau Air Base. Only Casey survived. Pinned inside the wreckage, her leg broken, she had expected to die of plague. The microbes, however, had all perished as soon as no humans were left to host them, and Casey had returned to consciousness and a world of bright pain in time to see the robot Surrogate peel away a flange of the damaged hull and reach for her.

Now Casey had let the Surrogate break open the door of the house. She hoped the destruction would make her angry at the robot, instead of frightened by what she was planning. She needed the anger.

“You didn’t answer, Casey Stillman,” the Surrogate said. “Our agreement was that you would answer.”

“I know that.” Casey’s voice broke. She wiped her eyes roughly. It was the stupid door, wood splintered and hanging there on bent hinges, like a memory of things unbroken that were now broken forever. Instead of producing anger, it lifted the cover off a deep well of sadness. For months after the crash, she had combed the internet and the airwaves, desperate for contact. But if anyone had survived, they were unable to communicate. During those same months, the Surrogate had nursed Casey, waited on and bonded with her—as it was programmed to do.

The robot fitted the split doorjamb together. “I will repair this.”

“Don’t bother.”

“Then I will help you move to a new house.”

“I don’t want a new house.” She stood as straight as she could. “I’m flying out to the Doomsday Vault, and you can’t stop me trying. I want you to lower the shield.”

If the Surrogate could have sighed, this is when it would have done so. “As we’ve discussed,” it said, “the embryos will not have survived.”

“You can’t stop me trying.”

“I have never stopped you. You have stopped yourself. Before this, your mission was the gun.”

“Will you not talk about the gun?”

“It concerns me.”

“You can’t be concerned about anything. You’re a machine.”

“I am an empathic Surrogate.”

“If you won’t lower the force shield, I swear I’ll crash into it on purpose and die. I know you don’t want that.”

Almost a minute passed. From the robot came only a sound like a flywheel flutter, or humming bird wings. “Here is my analysis,” the Surrogate said.

“Spare me.”

“The embryo clones preserved in cryostasis once represented your desire for restoration. But now they represent your desire to stop living. They are like the gun.”

“You are so full of shit.”

“My casing is filled with many things, but excrement is not among them.”

Casey rolled her eyes. “I wish you wouldn’t try and be funny.”

“Apologies. Our relationship has caused a symbiotic evolution of my algorithms. It is by design.”

“This isn’t a relationship,” Casey said. “And the embryo clones are not like the gun.” After the Surrogate came upon Casey fooling around with a pistol and her soft palate, the robot had gathered all the loose weapons on the base and locked them in the armory.

“They beckon, like the gun, and promise the same conclusion. Leaving the protection of this base for a hopeless goal is irrational. It is suicide.”

“It isn’t, but even if it were, it would be none of your business.”

“It’s wiser, and safer, to await the Moonites.”

Casey snorted. She had long given up on a rescue mission from the Lunar colony, though the Surrogate continued to flog the possibility, probably as a strategy to mollify her. But Casey knew they would never come. The Surrogate referred to that certainty as Casey’s “attitude.”

“I’m going to try,” Casey said, “whether you turn the shield off or not.”

“My algorithms will not allow me to restrain you. But if you are determined, then I will come with you.”

“No.”

“Otherwise I won’t disable the force shield.”

“I already told you, I’ll fly into it. I’ll gun myself.”

“If you truly want to save the embryos, you will let me accompany you. Otherwise you admit your mission is a gun and not what you claim it is.”

“I don’t have to make deals with you.” Casey pushed past the Surrogate and strode out to the street. She stopped and closed her eyes, took a deep breath.

“Well, come on,” she said.

• • • •

Shattered aircraft hangers gaped like broken shells. Black furrows crisscrossed the runways. Wreckage smeared across the tarmac in rusty debris fields. The plague came and was assumed to be an act of biological warfare. Someone in the US, or China, or India, or Iran, or Russia unleashed the first retaliatory assault. The reactive response spread like the plague had spread. The world became a gun aimed at itself, which kept on firing even after there were no humans left to pull the trigger.

Ironically, in the last days, CDC scientists determined that the plague itself had not been an act of war. Microbes had filtered into the atmosphere, where they thrived, located human hosts, and proliferated throughout the population. Where the plague failed to kill, the weapon response from every country in the world had succeeded. The shield over Tourangeau Airbase should have protected it, as should have the shields over the White House, Norad, and other critical places. All the shields had gone down under cyber attacks as vicious as the hardware ones. The Surrogate, however, had figured out the code to reactivate the one at Tourangeau, and now the AI controlled it.

Some air vehicles at Tourangeau Air Base had gone undamaged. A wasp with a long stinger was painted on the nose of the electric VTOL. Casey hauled herself up to the canopy and claimed the forward seat. The Surrogate installed itself behind her. Casey buckled up and began her pre-flight check. But when she attempted to move the control surfaces, ailerons, rudder, and elevators—her side stick and pedals resisted her. “Are you doing that?”

“I will fly us out,” the Surrogate replied.

Casey craned her head around, awkward in the snug helmet. “You just open the shield, like we agreed.”

“The moment this air vehicle passes beyond the shield it will be attacked by weapons still in terrestrial orbit as well as the automated weapons still operating on the ground. I have downloaded complete specs and will fly.”

Casey wrenched at the control stick. “Let me fly my own goddamn ship.”

The Surrogate went quiet. Hummingbird wings fluttered.

Casey closed her eyes, let her fury subside to the point where she could speak without shouting. “You think you can fly better than I can?”

“I do not doubt your skill. But I can predict the assault and react with greater efficiency.”

Casey tapped her fingers on her thighs. She knew the Surrogate was right. The Surrogate was always right. It was one of the most infuriating things about it (a trait the robot shared with Casey’s mother). Rudimentary AIs directed the orbital and ground-based automated weapons. Some of the weapons were “ours,” some “theirs,” some “who knows.” And yes, it was probably beyond Casey’s skill set to evade them all.

“You’ll give me control once we clear the attack?” Casey said.

“There will be other attacks.”

“You will give me control.” Not a question this time.

“Very well.”

“Then let’s go.”

The instrument panel and heads-up display came alive. Powerful GE engines spun up. The ship rose vertically. At two hundred feet, the nose pitched down and they powered towards the invisible shield.

Beyond the shield, buried in a Doomsday Vault under the Sangre de Cristo mountains, lay the frozen embryos cloned from some of the greatest scientists and leaders on Earth, including Casey’s mother. They were the seeds of humanity’s future.

And Casey was the last garden.

They sped toward the shield. Casey blinked sweat out of her eyes. “The shield’s off, right?”

“No need. We can pass through unaffected from this side.”

“What? You never told me you could do that! You mean I could have—No wonder you wanted to come. You tricked me.”

“There will be a bump.”

The ship accelerated to full power, crushing Casey in her seat. If there was a bump, she didn’t feel it. The airframe was already shuddering. And then they were through and pitching steeply upward while rolling left. The sky flashed white and blue with energy bursts. The ship rocked wildly.

“Shoot back!” Casey yelled.

Instead, the Surrogate throttled down and deployed speed-breaks, which threw Casey against her restraints. If the Surrogate hadn’t reacted with inhuman speed and precision, the VTOL would have been destroyed. They skated across the sky, wing tips banked steeply. Then they were clear, rolling right and gaining altitude, finally leveling out.

“Okay,” Casey said, “hand it over.”

“I am adjusting the vector,” the Surrogate said. “Destination in six minutes.”

“Give me control!”

“There will be other attacks.”

“You shouldn’t even be here. You lied to me about the shield.”

Casey seized the side stick and pressed her feet to the rudder pedals, fighting the Surrogate for control. She hadn’t realized the robot could lie. That made it almost human. A warning light flickered, and something streaked up from the desert. The Surrogate wrenched the ship over, but the projectile clipped the starboard wing, and the ship barreled out of control. Sky and Earth swapped relative positions. Casey grasped the stick in a death grip. Despite that, the Surrogate established a semblance of stable, albeit inverted flight, rolled again for straight and level, and compensated for the loss of starboard thrust.

“Casey Stillman, let go, please.”

Casey released her grip and watched the displays. Hydraulic pressure dropped steadily on the starboard wing. The strike had severed a line. Worse, battery levels had plummeted, an emergency reflected in the off-key whine of the big electric turbine on the port side.

The ship wallowed toward the ground.

“We’re going to crash!” Casey’s heart was racing.

“I am managing it.”

The remains of a town passed below them. The VTOL, rocking and swaying under depleted power, traveled another mile. A landing pad came into view. The Surrogate angled them toward it, dumping two hundred feet of altitude before rearing back and engaging sputtering vertical thrust. The ship teetered on the edge. Casey tensed her body for impact. In the next moment the undercarriage absorbed the bone-rattling jolt of touchdown. Casey looked up. They had landed fifty yards short of the pad.

The instrument panel displayed the red lines of overtaxed and underpowered systems, and then the display went dark.

Casey popped the canopy. “Don’t say it.”

“Don’t say what?”

“That if I’d kept my hands off the controls we wouldn’t have been hit.”

The Surrogate reverted to hummingbird wings.

Casey unbuckled her restraints and turned around, kneeling on her seat. The Surrogate’s blank face regarded her. “Damn it. Not saying anything is the same as saying it.”

“I could have avoided the attack, yes.”

“I knew you couldn’t resist rubbing it in.”

She climbed down to inspect the damage. Hydraulic fluid dripped on Casey’s boot. A piece of the starboard wing’s trailing edge was missing, a ragged bite taken by the projectile. If the VTOL had been running on jet fuel instead of electricity, it would have exploded. As it was, shrapnel had penetrated the fuselage and damaged the battery array. Maybe the Surrogate could repair the wing, but without power, they were stranded. “I will effect repairs,” the Surrogate said.

“What about—”

“The repair procedure will render me helpless. So you will get your opportunity to pilot us back to base. You will have to manually deactivate the barrier. I will provide instructions. Don’t do it too soon, or the weapons will gain access ahead of you. Don’t wait too long, or you may misjudge the approach and destroy us.”

“How long will repairs take?”

“Estimated three hours.”

“I’ll be back by then.”

“Don’t go, please.”

From the stowage compartment Casey retrieved a pulse rifle, a sidearm, and a flashlight.

“Without me, your survival is questionable,” the Surrogate said.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

But the robot was already dismantling the starboard aileron assembly.

• • • •

Casey hiked up the steep terrain to the blast-door. She stayed off the road, using the trees for cover. Her boots swished in the undergrowth. She held her rifle at the ready, knowing it wouldn’t do her much good if weapons attacked her. Once upon a time, her mother had given her a tour of the Doomsday Vault. Casey had only gone because it was so rare that her mother invited her anywhere. “You’re so busy with your career,” she told Casey, neatly reversing the situation. Casey hadn’t been the one “too busy” for her mother.

Standing before the cryostasis capsules, Casey’s own lifelong position as a daughter-in-stasis did not fail to ring ironic bells. As an Important Person, one of the world’s top researchers in genetic engineering, Casey’s mother had spent most of Casey’s childhood somewhere outside Casey’s childhood. Maybe that’s why the little-red-wagon memory was so important.

At first glance the blast-door appeared intact, a slab of thick steel recessed under a brow of granite. Casey studied it from the trees. Something wasn’t right. Finally, Casey bit down hard on her lip, burst out of the trees, and ran to the door. Nothing attempted to stop her. In a moment, she understood why. From the trees, she hadn’t seen that the door’s magnetic locks had failed, probably as a result of the cyber attack two years ago. A narrow gap presented itself. She hooked her fingers around the edge, and hauled on the door until the gap widened sufficiently for her to squeeze through.

Inside, daylight fell in dusty shafts from the shattered ceiling.

Daylight.

High above, where Casey had been unable to see it, an explosive discharge had ripped open the mountain. Just as the Surrogate had assured her, the weapons had long ago destroyed the Doomsday Vault. Casey’s hope vanished like the mirage it had always been, something to crawl towards in a desert of regret and loneliness. For years, Casey had imagined the cloned embryos, tiny quick-frozen shrimp sealed in cryogenic capsules, buried deep behind impenetrable walls. She had imagined her mother.

Casey unclipped the flashlight from her belt, found stairs, and descended to the cryo vault. She had to be sure. Twenty minutes later, she was.

The embryos were all dead.

Her mother was dead. Again. Of course, it wouldn’t have been her mother, just her genetic potential, her familiar features. Casey would have nurtured the potential in her own virgin womb, would have raised the child behind the force shield, and perhaps she would even have sat with her and told her a fairy tale about the Moonites coming back to Earth.

Casey sat on an iron beam that had partially melted and crashed down. Alone in the dark, she felt the weight of her life, like the weight of the mountain. What else had she expected? The Surrogate had been right, again. The cryo vault was another gun, a thin excuse for a suicide mission. Casey wiped her eyes and stood up. How could a robot know her better than she knew herself? In symbiosis, its algorithms had deciphered the mystery of Casey’s own secret intentions.

She began climbing stairs.

• • • •

The Surrogate had cannibalized itself to repair the ship. Hollow rods from its legs completed the broken linkages in the starboard aileron assembly. Unused rods and couplings lay in the wing’s shadow, like discarded turkey bones. The hydraulic line had been welded, but what good would that do without fluid in the reservoir?

Using only its arms, the Surrogate had pulled itself back to the cockpit, where it sat bolt upright in the pilot’s seat, strapped in place.

“Okay,” Casey said. “You were right about the cryo vault. Satisfied?”

The Surrogate did not reply.

Casey hauled herself up to the cockpit. The Surrogate had patched a line from its own body and drained itself of fluid, giving the wing reservoir a blood transfusion. A thin cable led from the Surrogate’s chest through a new hole in the firewall to the batteries. Casey toggled the power on. Battery levels jumped to ninety-six percent. But the surrogate was inert. Even the hummingbird was still.

A different emotion supplanted all the others roiling inside Casey, an emotion she had once felt acutely and then spent years suppressing.

Grief.

“You goddam piece of junk,” she said, not meaning it.

Without the Surrogate, there was only Casey’s voice left in the world.

A tablet device lay on the tandem seat. Words displayed on the screen, instructions on transmitting a number sequence. Casey picked up the tablet, which was the key to unlocking the shield. She climbed into her seat, buckled her restraints, and waited for anger to muscle aside the grief of loneliness; then she spun up the engines, lifted away, and swung towards home base.

The first attack came almost immediately. Projectiles streaked up from the desert. Casey rolled left, rolled right, then plunged for the desert scrub, leveling out at fifty feet. A warning light flashed. Out of the clouds, a glittering swarm came at her.

Casey punched the throttle. The electric power plants whined like things about to burst apart. A burning odor filled the cockpit. The Surrogate rattled and bounced on the cable, the ship violently sucking the last kilowatt from its chest. The base lay dead ahead. So did the shield.

Heat rays crossed her flight path. Casey banked onto her wingtip and veered between them, flying with the skill of unconscious desperation, proving she did want to live. The maneuver drew the attack swarm into the rays. Fireballs burst like red kernels all around her. Casey tapped in the key code and transmitted it to the shield. She squeezed shut her eyes as the VTOL streaked over the border, the force shield rising automatically behind her. Rays, projectiles, and swarms burst spectacularly against it.

On the ground, Casey threw open the canopy. Sweating profusely inside her flight suit, she reached over the seat to unbuckle the robot, but the straps had melted into its frame. She used her knife to cut them away. The Surrogate’s metal body remained searingly hot. Casey ran to the nearest intact hangar and returned with a chain-fall and a rolling cart. She pulled on big silver oven-mitt-looking asbestos gloves and used the chain-fall to hoist the Surrogate out of the cockpit and lower it onto the cart.

• • • •

Restoring the Surrogate’s mobility proved impossible. Casey had left the turkey bone parts behind, and she wasn’t a mechanic, anyway. Replenishing the robot’s power seemed at least worth a try. Casey rolled the Surrogate to the fusion generator building, which powered the force shield and everything else on the base. She rigged a connection between the generator and the Surrogate, and then she waited. After three days the Surrogate showed no signs of life, or whatever it was that animated the AI. After a week she stopped checking on it.

Without the Surrogate’s voice, the base became a tomb in which Casey wept and talked to herself and then stopped talking. She wandered the streets she had always wandered, while inside she unraveled in loneliness. Some nights she stood at the perimeter, almost wishing the weapons assault would resume—and this time be successful. She toyed with the idea of lowering the shield, but she was past that.

At night, stars encrusted the New Mexico sky, a bed of diamonds to hold the yellow rind of the moon. Suddenly Casey’s attention quickened. A point of light sped silently across the sky. She sat forward, making the chair creak. But it was only a weather sat, remnant of the conquered human race, not a humanitarian mission from Luna. She stood up and walked through the broken door into her house.

• • • •

After a month’s absence, she returned to the generator building. It had taken that long to believe again in the possibility of hope. She dragged her feet the whole way, indulged detours, pretended she wasn’t hoping, and finally approached the door. Something rapped against it from the other side. Casey stopped—then ran the rest of the way. When she wrenched open the door, the legless Surrogate lay on the floor, one arm raised.

“You were gone a long time, Casey Stillman,” it said. “I was worried.”

She swallowed. “I’m here now.”

• • • •

Casey took the Surrogate with her when she went to the warehouse for supplies. MREs lasted forever and there were enough of them to feed a thousand soldiers for a year. She placed the Surrogate’s torso and paint-can head on the cart and pulled it behind her, the way Casey’s mother had pulled her in the red wagon. The sound of the wheels was like a memory echoing up a long tunnel. Casey looked over her shoulder. The Surrogate’s blue eyes watched her.

“They’re really coming, aren’t they,” Casey said. “The Moonites.”

“Yes,” the head in the wagon replied.

The Surrogate was always right. 


• • • •

- About the Author -
Website: www.jackskillingstead.com
Twitter: @JSkillingstead

Since 2003 Jack Skillingstead has sold more than forty stories to markets including Asimov's, Clarkesworld, F&SF, and Lightspeed, as well as various Year's Best volumes and original anthologies. In 2004 he was a finalist for the Sturgeon Award and in 2013 his novel Life on The Preservation was a finalist for the PKD Award. The Chaos Function, a science fiction thriller, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / John Joseph Adams books in March 2019. 

Jack has taught writing classes onboard ship in the Bahamas and in Seattle for Clarion West's one-day workshop series. He lives in Seattle with his wife, writer Nancy Kress.

You can find more of his work here: www.jackskillingstead.com/bibliography-itsoa

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