Ultimately, I was going to read this book because I was requested to do so and it was in a genre I like. When this book came across my lap, at least, I was in a place where I wasn’t getting enough requests to really put me off the trail. That being said, it’s a dystopian future sci-fi, and I’m ok with that.
This book is billed as inspired by classic sci-fi like Wells’s The Time Machine or Huxley’s Brave New World. I absolutely agree that if you like The Time Machine, this book is probably up your alley. Our Dried Voices takes a similar idea from The Time Machine – i.e. that humanity will collectively devolve into helpless, mindless creatures kept safe by old humanity’s successes – but there’s plenty of new, different ideas that you won’t be bored.
If you’re looking for a more modern comparison, I’d like to point you to Liu’s Three Body Problem. Hickey’s Voices is similar to Three Body in that it’s an extensively explored setting that builds with slow exactitude to its final reveal. Liu’s book is probably 4 times the size of Voices, but there’s a lot of explanatory shpiels that build on each other. It’s got that classic sci-fi “boring” to it that I and many fans of the old stuff enjoy. At times it did get excessively dry, but the book was short enough that it didn’t become too tedious.
Another good point in Voices’ favor is the high-quality editing. Though at times the book did fall into purple prose, the sentence structure, spelling, and logical flow of the book was good. I hate that this is something I have to grade in indie books, but I am happy to say that this one did it right!
The reasons this isn’t five stars, though…
This book, like Brave New World, is what I would call “artsy fartsy”. It has a semi-experimental structure wherein the characters say very little. Without much dialogue, it was hard for me to really get into Sam or Penny as fast as I wanted to. I could see what kind of feeling (a sort of “awakening” where the mains go from ignorant to curious) this sort of narration achieved, but it made it somewhat difficult for me to get into the book. They were inoffensive, perfectly fine characters, though. Penny was never an object, and by the time I figured them out, her role was well defined and well done.
The mystery elements were also not quite up my alley. Some of the mystery was easy enough that I questioned what the main character was thinking, some of it was a stretch even after it was explained, and some of it didn’t make sense how the character put together the clues.
4/5 Discoball Snowcones
The plot was relatively simple, and most of it could be guessed, but that’s not something you really have a problem with in sci-fi. It did build logically, and for that I commend it.
However, I must say that the bulk of the chapters were similar to one-off MacGuyver problems. Some of them – like fixing a bridge – were somewhat interesting, but others – like the “food box” where they collected the humans’ food to fairly redistribute it – was frustrating. Other problems didn’t make so much sense, but they tended to contribute to the overall plot.
As I said in the non-spoilers review, there was a mystery element. In the course of solving problems, the main character Samuel came across messages from a mysterious, possibly villainous, personages. While it was a clever idea, I thought these messages weren’t incorporated very well. They seemed a bit of a nonsense puzzle on top of all the other survival puzzles.
Anyway, the point is if you like classic sci-fi, this might be a pick for you.
It’s time for the last of my indie sci-fi reviews – Dust & Lightning!
Once upon a time in 2020, I made the fateful step of deciding to post a “I will buy and review a book or two from the selection y’all pitch at me” on Twitter. Along with A Choice for Essence, I chose this book.
Steel Reign: The Flight of the Starship Concord Author: Braxton A. Cosby Publication Year: 2020 Amazon Link
One big reason I chose this book is the genre: sci-fi seems to be a bit less common than fantasy among indie books. Beyond that, the blurb on Amazon hints to epic space adventure in a wide world – it seems up my alley at first glance!
I’m quite torn about this book. As an admission, the genre was a parody of sci-fi action, not a serious take. I didn’t expect that from the blurb or most reviews, and I probably wouldn’t have started it if I’d known. So, that caveat out of the way let’s start with the things I liked.
It did pull through with the basic promise of action adventure. Reign – or Cassius, at times – was a hardcore spy who could pull off crazy stunts if he paid for it in joint pain later. His drive was a little difficult to drill down to, but his objective was clear. If you like action comedy like Austin Powers or Tropic Thunder, this is in your wheelhouse.
The grammar/basic structure was (aside from the experimental, weird numbers that were explained in the preface) decent. Some typos, word repetition, and sentence structure issues were present but were not more jarring than the weird decision regarding numbers (“no one” was “no 1”). The thing I liked best was the descriptions of the future tech and how it worked in-universe. Some of his chemistry and processing knowledge were wonky, but those subjects I’m less expert in seemed fine. The implants, especially, interested me because they weren’t better than natural – just different.
All the elements of a plot were there. The first chapter was very confusing, but it didn’t take long after to get set up and set off on the mission. The steps to the end were clear, and I liked knowing what we were supposed to root for.
But… man… the comedy. It was exactly the kind of comedy I just don’t get, because I had that feeling it should make me laugh. It was so intensely over the top that it had to be intended as funny, but I have a hard time with absurdist or exaggerating humor.
The other primary issue I had with the humor leaked into issues of characters. The intense use of male gaze (wherein the ladies were always described “boobs first”) and sexual jokes were tiresome to me. I suspect the first person narrator’s obsession with judging and gauging women solely by looks – even though the character claims he doesn’t – was meant as parody, but I honestly couldn’t be sure.
Part of what makes me suspicious that the male gaze and objectification were unintended was the poor representation of women. Every single woman was described as having squeezable or large tits, judged for their sexual potential (even the main’s sister!), and never really had a major part in the plot except as love objects or damsels. There was nothing to prove the narrator was delusional or wrong – so the parody angle might not even be good enough to make up for the poorly built female characters. The book passed neither Bechdel nor Mako Mori tests.
So, in the end, I liked the basic ideas of the book, but it had some major issues (that, admittedly, may be 100% in my head). Because of this, I decided that bad and good weighed each other out.
3/5 Discoball Snowcones
The plot was fairly straightforward, which I liked. You knew they had to steal the Concord in order to rescue Reign’s sister, Olia, from slavery. You knew they had to sneak into the Eclipse to find her. The action sequences made sense, and in that manner the book was fine.
I saw the twist – that Giff, the nerdy handler, had betrayed Reign – from pretty much Giff’s appearance in chapter two. He offered “too good to be true” for pretty cheap, so I expected it. However, that also meant the betrayal was set up, so I was fine with the twist. I’d much rather expect a twist than read a twist that comes out of nowhere.
The ending may have set up for additional entries in the series, but it could equally end where it is. Reign got the girl, saved his sister, and gained once and for all the loyalties of his crew (Giff and Stink).
Stick around for Our Dried Souls, a sci fi indie book!
Welcome to a brand new year! We’re starting off the year with a sci-fi indie book month. If you’re a glutton for punishment, you can also check out my 2021 TBR on my Review Archive page.
Steel Reign: The Flight of the Starship Concord – Braxton A. Cosby
This book actually came from a reading suggestion/request on Twitter. Not going to lie, space operas are one of my jams, so I totally bit into the premise of this action adventure. The main character is a mercenary with an epic resume, and it screams action. Though I bought the book when it was relatively new, it has since become quite popular on Amazon and sold very well in the sci-fi category. I’m excited to see what happens! Amazon Link
Our Dried Voices – Greg Hickey
This book came up on my review request page! It’s another sci-fi, but this time in what seems to be a dystopian future. The book seems like it will be similar to or have inspirations from Wells’s Time Machine or other classic sci-fi, and I’m excited to see how the author puts a new twist on these old elements.
Another book that popped up on my review request page, Dust & Lightning is the final sci-fi read of this month. Another space opera, this one promises action as well as a side-romance. The author’s style seems very different from that of Cosby above, so I’m looking forward to checking out another way to do one of my favorite genres.
Toward the end of last year, I started getting a lot more review requests from my review request page. Unfortunately, the spots on my blog for review requests this year are already taken (wow!), so I’m actually going to be a bit more selective as to which books I read and especially picky as to which get a blog post. I regret having to make this decision because one of my favorite books last year came from a request I was skeptical of!
“And I gave the other trophy to that giant spider all over the news.” The interrogator laughed and picked up her cans once more. “I fucking ended the Chimera war. I watched Dr. Kim die. I fucking found the American Chimera who, through no fault of her own, was always destined to throw the planet into chaos, destruction, and doom. And you, you pathetic little worm, think you can make me pay for this miserable canned food?”
The woman shook her head.
“You want to know the worst part?” She tucked the pack of cans under her arm. “I’ve had genetic testing since they cut me up. I didn’t inherit the gene.”
The interrogator took her food out of the warehouse and left.
And I waited. At a time I knew only one soldier was on patrol, I left my door ajar. When he passed, not noticing anything was out of place, I exited after him. I put a Kevlar-gloved hand over his mouth and a knife to his throat. “Do as I say if you want to live.”
Of course he fought. My voice didn’t sound exactly Korean, and it sounded female – something everyone, especially the Koreans, took as a sign of weakness.
I didn’t want to get blood everywhere. I pushed the man into one of the cage doors where a man dying of starvation was kept. The man yelped with delight at the delivery, and he weakly pulled the guard’s hands in through the iron bars. “Give him to me!” he cried. “I saw you give the other man to that family. Give this guard to me, and I won’t tell anyone.”
I took him up on that offer.
I slit the guard’s throat and let the blood leak out onto the floor. Though the jacket had gotten bloody, I took it before it got worse. I removed the belt, pants, and boots, then unlocked the door and kicked the corpse inside the cell. “They’ll kill you for this, you know,” I told the man.
“But I will die with a full stomach,” he replied through flesh-filled mouth. I supposed he was at least right about that.
I took the billy club from the guard and fished around for his taser. I ordered one of my drones to show itself and serve as a distraction, then delved deeper into this cavernous horror.
That’s when I heard her. Fiendish Dr. Kim.
I knew Americans had only seen secondhand propaganda of her, unflattering clips rendered dull and taken from extremely flattering North Korean propaganda films and holos. She didn’t look so young in real life, and she wasn’t nearly as menacing.
In fact, she was as normal as they come. Normal like a certain Dallin Smith in Nevada. Normal like you, even.
She sipped some hot water and pointed to some of the cameras. “A drone? What does that mean for the facility? Please don’t put us on lockdown again – it slows the whole process. I wanted to go home on time this evening.”
The guard tapped the monitor. “It looks like a scout. It’s shown up several days in a row, so they’re probably looking for a way inside.”
“Then don’t open the doors or go after it. Don’t put us on lockdown, please-”
“There’s no reason to be alarmed yet. Tell your people not to start anything new…”
I snuck by them and pried a panel that led to the cool floor beneath their computers. I told my drone not to do anything out of the ordinary until I found my safe, quiet spot where I connected to their computers and began interpreting their security scheme. I downloaded all the research data I could, got all the proof of their governments’ treachery necessary. You’ve seen some of it during the trials, some of it during the signing of the Accords. For two days I lived off emergency rations and data collection, and then I found the controls for lockdown.
I changed the parameters. Open all the cages, close all the exit doors.
Then I called in all my drones and stormed the doors.
Lockdown was called. The ape men, always enraged, stormed out of their cages. I watched on my screen as one ripped even Dr. Kim’s stomach open, then proceeded to kill and eat everything in sight. The family upstairs I had fed the corpse to? Chimera food. The guard? Wasted.
It calmed after several hours of carnage, after most of the ape men had – with no orders and no control collars – resorted to killing each other.
And so I climbed out of the place. Dr. Kim was, somehow, still alive. Perhaps the ape men really did love her, since she hadn’t been fucked to death or eaten. A bloody hand reached up to me. “Help,” she said. “Please, help.”
“You can fucking bleed out for all I care.” I whipped out a knife to cut out her kneecaps as trophies. She didn’t even scream – the cut on her stomach hurt so much more than what I was doing, she probably didn’t even notice. I gave one of those trophies to the president.
That’s why I went to North Korea before the war even started. It’s how I nearly starved while I waited for opportunity to move in. I was the one who eventually found Dr. Kim’s labs near Pyongyang, and I was there during the failed assault. I stayed after, waiting and watching with all the patience I could.
Then, after living off garbage, emergency rations from myself and off corpses, and stolen vegetables for two weeks, some poor Korean sot tried to escape the gulags.
I remember his face, because I watched it through one of my drones. I could zoom in on the gaunt and boney skeleton. Despite his youth he clearly had no teeth.
Instead of shooting him, they released an ape-man chimera. I’d seen plenty of them before – killed my fair share, too – so I knew what was coming. I watched, helpless through the lens of my drone, as he ripped the head off the man, fucked the corpse, and started eating his entrails.
And, lucky me, the ape man wouldn’t respond to calls to stop. It wouldn’t return to base.
A soldier, one of the well-fed humans in the DPRK, approached with a gun and a billy club. He hit the ape man on the back and shouted, “Get back inside, you stupid animal!”
The ape men rarely talked. This time, the creature wrapped its hand around the soldier’s little head, and he squished it. Blood popped out between the chimera’s fingers, and it laughed at the feeling before tearing off arms and legs.
Other soldiers who had been keeping watch took out their guns and rushed the ape man. They shouted for it to go back inside, but it was enraged and filled with bloodlust. One man shot it, but this just got the animal further upset.
I didn’t wait. While the door was open behind them, I snuck inside. My drones had already pointed out where the cameras were, so I crept beneath its field of view and remained out of sight.
The hallway inside was covered with rubble from the last attack. Cages on either side held humans, some already dead, some trying to reach into the dead’s cage so they could get a bite of something to eat. Only a couple even looked up at me, and their faces and eyes were so empty that I wonder if they registered what was going on.
The shooting outside stopped, so I took my lockpicking set from my bag and opened the door to a cell with a dead man inside. I stripped off his clothes, placed my bag under the cot, and pushed the bloated corpse to the bars of the cell next to me where a small family of prisoners started ripping him to shreds and eating his raw flesh.
“Blessings to you,” they said. “Thank you so much! May the eternal ruler smile upon you!”
I curled up on the floor and hid my black face when the guards came by. They saw nothing out of the ordinary, probably felt like the corpse I’d fed to the starving family was at least going to some use. I calmed myself with breathing exercises and counted the seconds, minutes, and hours between the shifts and patrols. I obviously wasn’t going to have to worry about getting caught at feeding time.
“I don’t see why that’s important,” the woman said. “Everyone suffered back in the 60’s and 70’s while they were doing all the first sterilizations. Now let me go – I’ll call the cops to come get you if you don’t just put down your items and get out!”
The interrogator clutched the old woman’s collar. “You don’t think I’d sacrificed enough, do you?” She shoved her against the wall. “You’re working in a warehouse, doing a job they could probably get machines to do. I’d be surprised if you have and viable offspring. But you’re ok with that – and you know why? Because at least others like you, other whites, didn’t go under the knife. At least you weren’t like my people, of whom only the luckiest and healthiest few made it through unscathed.”
“I wasn’t trying to be racist! What the hell are you doing!?”
“I’m making you understand, because you’re the last person who’s ever going to care about what I’m saying. So pay attention, ’cause no one else knows what I’m going to tell you next.”
I graduated college in ’67, near the top of my class. I knew judo, aikido, and Brazilian jiu jitsu. I could speak Spanish, French, Korean, and Russian. I joined special forces after that, trained hard, worked hard. I was one of the first soldiers to train with the M3 drone setup, and one of the few able to work through the pain and upgrade to the Mel76. So don’t discount me. Don’t look at this broken old body and think I couldn’t have been the type of person to take out Dr. Kim, that I couldn’t have been the unnamed soldier who found and destroyed the Pyongyang labs.
Because I did, see. I ended the war, even if you didn’t know it was me.
In 2073, I got a mysterious summons I couldn’t ignore. It was from the government, and it seemed urgent but odd. I remember meeting my first boss, in a sitting room in Seattle. It was cold, damp, unhooked from any electronic surveillance. He went through my records – the secret, paper ones, not the electronic stuff everyone has access to. “You know why you’re here, don’t you?”
I nodded. “Yes, sir. My country needs me, sir.”
He opened the manilla folder and drew out a picture. “We have a problem, though.” He dropped the printed photo on the ground.
Moisture from the damp room soaked into the shiny paper, but I could make out the image of my sister on it. She was in bed, happy but tired. It was the picture from when she’d almost had a stroke caused by her sickle cell disease. I held my breath.
“You didn’t report this on your paperwork.”
I clenched my hands tight. My nails bit into my palms, and I bled.
“Regardless of what you choose to do after we leave this room, I can’t overlook your sister’s disease. Your former superior officer couldn’t overlook this. You lied.”
“Because I don’t carry the gene,” I said. “I don’t have the symptoms associated with being a carrier.”
“Then why didn’t you just get a genetic test and prove it?”
“I can’t afford an NIH verification. Not on a soldier’s stipend, sir.” I held myself still, straight. “I am one of the most fit individuals to come through my class. My scores prove it – I have a 3. A high, unchallengeable 3.”
The man picked up the picture and waved it in the air to dry it. “But you have a sister with sickle cell anemia. That puts you on the do not breed list, you understand?”
“I understand,” I said, “But I do not agree. I’m saving the money for NIH Gene Approval and gamete cleansing, and I’ve refrained from reproducing while I focus on my work. My genes are superior, and I should be allowed to reproduce for the future of our nation.”
The man sighed. “The problem isn’t that your genes are good or not, not anymore. The problem is you lied on all your applications for the past decade, and we can’t just let that go.” He handed me a slip of paper and a lighter with precious flammable fluid in it.
I read the preamble, gasped when I saw it was from the CIA. I’m not supposed to let that slip – not now, not ever – but the world is falling to crap now. As it damn well deserves.
I sparked the lighter’s flame and burned the sheet as it instructed. “I’m not going to let you cut out my ovaries.”
“If you don’t accept the position,” the man said, “You will lose your food rations and spend all your savings on paying for the rations you’ve already cheated from the government. This is a bad situation to be in.”
The ashes fell to the damp floor, and I handed the lighter back, empty. I scratched the place where my M3 drone connectivity suite interfaced with my brain. “The Mel76 isn’t well tested.”
“Look,” the man said, “Everyone’s seen your record. You’re fantastic, unbeatable. But you lied, and we can’t just sweep that under the rug. The CIA stepped in because we can’t afford to lose you.” He held out a hand to shake, to seal the deal. I wasn’t aware at the time, but a lot of deals with the shadowy side of governments aren’t made on paper. “Take the Mel76 and hormone therapy. A job like this isn’t given to just anyone, and you don’t have a better option.”
I nodded and took his hand. “I want some of my eggs frozen. I will have children later, you understand?”
“Yes. We can do that for you.”
And so I accepted. They took a part of my body, a part of me, and replaced it with injections of chemicals and hormones. It took a while to get used to, but in the end I can’t complain about my performance. I can complain that they never froze my eggs, but what the hell – I never married. I never had time.
And, now, the world is going to end. I won’t have to die with the knowledge I created someone just to watch them suffer.
The interrogator put a six pack of canned beans-and-rice and a gallon of water on the checkout counter. The warehouse was nearly empty, mostly operated by machines packing goods for shipping to other retailers and point-of-service delivery, but a couple locals wandered the shelves of reusable boxes, looking for something to buy. The shop’s robot maintenance workers sat around, waiting for a hydraulic valve to pop or a wire to short.
On a large TV in the break room, the BBC interview played. The ticker scrolled horrible news on the bottom of the screen: details about crashing stocks, American war mobilization, and nuclear holocaust survival tips. “Nuclear apocalypse…hmph. Kids stuff,” the interrogator puffed. She pulled a magazine chip from the grimy rack and tossed it onto the checkout. “Ready, computer.”
The computer scanned the checkout lane. “Your total comes to $57.41. I am sorry, but I am currently unable to connect to purchasing software at this time. Reconnecting.”
The interrogator’s head turned back to the TV. The sound from the set didn’t penetrate the glass walls, but she didn’t think it had to. The DOW had dropped several thousand points in the past hour, the dollar was weakening fast, and the British pound was surprisingly the strongest currency available.
The interrogator lifted a hand to the back of her neck. She scratched at something just above the hairline.
“I’m sorry,” the computer interrupted. “I am unable to connect to purchasing software at this time. I currently accept cash only.”
The interrogator picked up her goods. “When was the last time you saw cash?”
The computer didn’t understand. “Would you like to pay with cash? Ok. Please insert cash into slot.” The machine rumbled, ready to accept input.
The interrogator picked up the beans and water, leaving the magazine behind on the checkout counter She went toward the exit, goods in hand.
As she crossed the threshold out the door,, an elderly woman sitting on a ratty stool asked, “Are you going to pay for that?” She adjusted the way her fluorescent safety vest sat around her waist, loosened the band.
The interrogator stopped at the door, looked at the 6-pack of rice-and-beans in one hand, a gallon of distilled water in the other. She lifted her head, then looked to the person who’d stopped her. “What’s the point?”
“I mean, you can’t just steal that, ma’am-”
“Money’s going to be worthless in about three hours. Maybe less. Your identity’s probably already stolen, and the modern industrial complex is about to collapse. You’re stupid if you don’t just run back in there and take everything you can for yourself. Haven’t you seen the news?”
The woman nodded. “The chimera, you mean?”
“Well,” the lady said, “You still can’t just steal it. It doesn’t belong to you.”
The interrogator’s brows furrowed. She stood, loomed, over the older white lady and her curly gray hair. His lips trembled with anger. “I deserve what I want. Do you even know what I’ve done for this country? What I’ve sacrificed?”
The woman shook her head fearfully.
“Wrong. You do know what I’ve done, and you owe me more than you could have ever repaid. You just didn’t realize it was me who made it happen.” She dropped the case of beans onto a nearby table. “Let me put things right for you.”
Janie, still at the bottom of the stairs, tapped the interrogator’s shoulders. “Well, I reckon Dani’s right you did free us. I still don’t know why, though. Ain’t nothin’ in this for you, and neither of us would’ve made it out if you hadn’t decided to do the jailbreak.” A tear welled in her eye, then ran down her cheek. “You think you could get Brett out? Get him to Britain with us?”
The interrogator swallowed. “I liked Brett better than you. The only reason you’re here and he’s not is because you had the know how to get out. He didn’t.”
Janie’s expression softened. “So he’s not getting out, is he? They’re going to kill him, aren’t they?”
“Just get on the plane,” the interrogator ordered. “I gave you what I could. Be thankful for that instead.”
Janie’s face turned into a scowl. “Don’t expect thanks from me. You don’t get credit for solving problems I know you helped make in the first place.” She turned to the plane, entered the door, and walked with Dani into the back.
The engines got a little lowder, and Rebecca looked at her watch. “This is your last chance, you know,” she said. “Regulations gave us a tiny window to takeoff, so I can’t hold the plane any longer.”
“I know,” the interrogator said. She shook Crowe’s hand. “You just prepare your bank account for that billion dollar annuity, ok?”
Crowe bit her lip and wrung her hand from the interrogator’s grasp. She hustled up a couple steps and into the plane. Tarmac workers pushed the staircase away from the door, but Crowe turned to look back. “You’ve been a real sport with this, you know – so I thought it only fair to tell you not to try too hard with the blackmail, ok?”
The interrogator’s hair rustled in the engines’ wind. “What? Why?”
“Look, the timing of this flight isn’t an accident.” Crowe bit her lip, then sighed, though the sound was lost behind the roar of the engines. “What’s the point of an annuity that big? Easier for your agents to just come in and kill everyone involved. No, I took the lump sum from the BBC and Al Jazeera. We’ll be flying toward Asia, and when this plane’s out of range of the American missile defense system, that interview airs worldwide.”
The interrogator rushed to the plane. “What!? That wasn’t the deal!” She jumped, her fingers finding hold on the bottom of the plane door.
Rebecca closed the door a bit, clamping it on the interrogator’s fingers and forcing her to let go. “You could have come with us – but dear, what did you expect? The existence of that video made me, you, and everyone on this plane and in this building a liability. Your crazy government thought it was acceptable to abduct thousands of people in order to keep this under wraps – they’re willing to do anything.”
“You’ll start a war! A war no one can win!”
She opened the door slightly to yell out, “This war was started as soon as your crazy scientists made your chimera. Whether I broke the story or someone else did, it was destined to happen. Now I suggest you back up – this plane’s going to take off, and it won’t care if you’re in the way or not.”
Rebecca Crowe slammed the door to the plane shut.
The interrogator, holding her bleeding fingers, looked longingly at the revving engines, felt the air being sucked into the jets, the heat from the burning fuel. She ran out of the line of fire to where a man with lamps waved the pilot to a safe takeoff. She put a bleeding hand up to the place on her arm where a needlestick drive sat under her skin, irritating and raw.