A Band of Interstellar Brothers: The Martian Marauders by Michael D. Smith

Copyright © 2012 by Michael D. Smith
Copyright © 2012 by Michael D. Smith

Ahh, space opera. Is there nothing better than the melodramatic adventures of strapping young heroes as they explore new worlds, face down alien menaces, and rescue damsels in distress?

Well, actually there’s a lot that could be better, especially when you take into account the science behind interstellar travel and modern gender roles… but that’s beside the point. The real point is that today we’re looking at a space opera novel by Michael D. Smith called The Martian Marauders.

In the year 2033, after the devastation of Earth by Xon bombs and the resettlement on Mars, Captain Jack Commer and his brothers crew the spaceship Typhoon for the USSF. After a strange encounter with an alien craft, the Commers find themselves entangled with native Martians, whose existence had been previously unknown, as they rise up against the human occupants of Mars under the command of a traitor named Hergs. Armed with shatterguns and advanced telepathy, the Martians wreak havoc, with only Jack and his brothers on the front lines. The battles that follow test not only the humans’ resistance, but the bonds between Jack’s own brothers.

On the surface, it’s an interesting premise. You’ve got first contact, a post-Earth human civilization adjusting to life on Mars, and the possibility of a colorful main cast in the form of a spaceship crew of brothers. But it’s in the actual details and writing where it falls apart.

As far as characters go, everyone is pretty two-dimensional. Jack Commer is the heroic archetype, Jim Commer is his loyal lieutenant, and John Commer is supposed to be the plucky comic relief (but really he comes off as less “amusing chatterbox” and more “nonstop loudmouth with an obvious fate”). As for side characters, the Generals in this story are all boisterous hardcases, the media consists of privacy-invading journalists whom the main characters uniformly despise, and the villain Hergs is almost bearable as an over-the-top overlord since most space opera villains usually are just that. The Emperor’s Consort, Amav, was the only character I felt some sympathy for since she wasn’t that bad of a caricature and even got a nice heroic moment in the penultimate chapter.

I can forgive the flat characters, but it’s the actual writing that’s troubling. Nearly every single character’s dialogue–when they’re not being a caricature–is pure exposition. People explain things that they would already know to one another, even sometimes going so far as to liberally use the phrase “As you know…” Major revelations and plot developments are just shouted or explained in the middle of action scenes. Even Jack or Jim’s internal monologues are just that: long monologues already going over plot events and details that were established a chapter ago, only with slightly more emotional weight. There’s no time to savor the atmosphere of the Typhoon or the colony on Mars, nor any chance for genuine dialogue to develop our heroes and their personalities. It’s just exposition to drive this story forward to its inevitable conclusion.

On the whole, The Martian Marauders is still a decent attempt at an action-adventure science fiction story. While it can fall flat on dialogue, comedy, and character development, it at least has a lot of passion and occasionally throws in a bit of well-thought-out science. And who knows? As the start of an ongoing Jack Commer series, it may only get better from here.

The Martian Marauders is available for purchase at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Double Dragon Publishing, Sony Reader Store, and Kobo. You can follow Michael D. Smith at his blog, Sortmind.

Bibliography: Smith, Michael D. The Martian Marauders. Ontario: Double Dragon Publishing, 2012.

The Cosmos On Your Computer: Universe Sandbox

The universe is bigger and more beautiful than we can comprehend through the naked eye.  Fortunately, thanks to Dan Dixon and the other creative minds at Giant Army, beholding the majesty of said cosmos is now as simple as clicking your mouse.

Well, maybe not that simple…

Universe Sandbox is an interactive space gravity simulator.  Through various controls, you can simulate planetary motion, the Solar System, and even whole galaxies across time and space at a rate of your choosing.

For the most part, the program is designed for educational purposes and is free for schools to download for their science courses.  That said, the sandbox encourages learning by doing, so you have an absurd amount of control over how you want to run a given simulation.  Want to create your own solar system?  You can do it here.  Want to see what Earth looks like with the rings of Saturn?  You can do that, too.  Want to blow up every moon around Jupiter just for the hell of it?  Well, too bad, because I already beat you to it! (but in my defense, it really is quite beautiful).

Not so mighty now, are you, Jupiter?  Copyright © 2012 by Giant Army.
Not so mighty now, are you, Jupiter? Copyright © 2012 by Giant Army.

I’ll admit that this isn’t so much of a video game as it is a piece of educational software.  It is also only available for Windows PC, limiting its reach to the whole simulator market.  But it is a very innovative piece of software and deserves a look by students and space junkies alike.

Universe Sandbox is available for download on its website and through Steam.

Bibliography: Universe Sandbox.  Designed by Dan Dixon.  Developed by Giant Army.  Windows PC (platform).  Original release date: May 2008.  Stable release date: October 1, 2012.

Flash Fiction: “Fair In Love, But Not In War”

Who says heroes are the only ones allowed to love?  Even scoundrels and scheming aristocrats can have a little affection now and then.

This is a sequel to “Elf War.”  Enjoy.

Fair in Love, But Not In War, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 960

From his private turret, Lord Yori nar Ríogan watched as his forces were slowly routed back to the keep.  His claws raked furious white lines into the stone wall.  It would not do for him, a Lord of Hornworld, to shout bloody murder at these foreigners.

The Earthlings had brought out their most cunning weapons to the fore: handheld mortars, rocket packs, and teleporter beacons.  All the fey lord’s knights had to offer were the bows, swords, and pikes of their ancestors.  Not even the battle magi could compete.  Their spells took too long to construct while Earth’s soldiers rained down fiery death from above or teleported in to kill them point-blank before disappearing again.

“Shing,” Yori muttered.  “What is the hour?”

Behind him, his brown-faced attendant knelt and answered, “It is the sixth hour, milord.”

“And still no word from Lady Moura?”

Shing’s hesitation was all Yori needed, but still he replied, “Not yet, milord.”

Yori bowed his head.  Shameful.  He’d acted shamefully and now he was paying the price.  All this fighting, all these casualties, all this dishonor—all because he’d dared to love the wrong fey.

“I don’t want Mab.  I want you.”

He’d spoken those words to her in the Sacred Grove outside Castle Leirath last summer.  She was quite beautiful under the moonlight: radiant white skin, pure black eyes, pale golden hair.  Every inch a true Lady of Hornworld.

But Moura had looked at him with a contemplative stare.  “Lord Mab is a good match for your sept, Yori.  He’s courageous and handsome.  A gentle lover—”

“Mab nar Tuatha may be all those things, but he’s an idiot!  He’ll do whatever the Erlking asks of him.  He’s no better than a trained wolf.”

“And I have no interest in being your mistress.”

“Then be my true wife,” Yori pleaded.  “I only want what’s best for Sept Ríogan and Sept Leirath.  Our houses are strong, but together, we could be so much stronger!”

“It’s only politics for you, isn’t it?  I know what game you’re playing, Yori.”  Moura’s voice dropped an octave.  “It’s the Earthlings.  You can’t stand their presence on Hornworld.”

She knew him too well—a fact that both infuriated and elated Yori to no end.  “No, I can’t.  I’ve no fear of saying it, either in here or out in the open.  The Erlking is a fool who’s forgotten what happened to my kinsman Finelas.  But I haven’t forgotten.”  He smiled.  “And I know you haven’t either.”

Although her expression never changed, Yori spotted a hint of a blush on the Lady’s cheeks.

“You’re wise and deadly,” he continued.  “There is simply no other Lord or Lady like you.  Yes, I might have wanted you for a political marriage, but now?”  Yori took her hands into his and grinned.  “Now it’s real, my Lady.  As real as the Two Worlds can be.  I’d even let go of my family honor for a chance with you.”

Moura closed her eyes.  “Enough, Yori.  Though you may be flattering and desirable, I simply can’t break my vows.  My sept is in vassalage to Sept Tuatha.  If I give myself to you, our house will be disgraced.  We’d be outlaws.”

Yori gripped her hands to his chest.  “Then let’s be outlaws together, my Lady.”

“You’re intractable.”

“Music to my ears, my Lady…”

The kiss that followed was bittersweet.

The next day, war was declared between Sept Tuatha and Sept Ríogan.

“If she values her sept’s honor, she will not come.”  Yori could not look away from the carnage that the Earthlings and the Knights of Tuatha inflicted on his forces.  “If she really does love me, then perhaps it’s better this way.  Give me a quick death by Lord Mab himself, and she can pay homage to my memory in the Sacred Grove.”

“Milord.”  Shing leapt up from his kneeling position.  “Milord, we will tear down Castle Tuatha before we let that happen!”

Yori turned on his servant with a vicious snarl.  “Give it up, boy!  We’ve lost!  Are you really such a fool that you can’t see it?  We played the game and we lost.”

When his servant failed to answer, Yori felt his anger fade into resignation.  He retracted his claws and said, “Go to your kin and tell them to lay down their arms.  Accept the Erlking’s justice like a true fey.”

Young Shing looked like a whipped pup, but he managed to whisper, “Go with honor, milord.”

Yori nodded his thanks and dismissed him with a wave of his hand.  He turned back to the turret window as Shing fled the room.

Beyond the viridian battlefield now soaked with blood and ash was the Royal River.  To the east lay snow-capped mountains.  To the west were the crimson forests that separated Sept Ríogan from Sept Leirath.  Yori could see now why the fey called their lands “Our Garden.”  He wondered if it would be just as beautiful in death, or if the legends about the Gray Mists were true.

In the distance, trumpets blared.  At first Yori thought it was the signal of surrender.  But when he looked back at the battlefield, his breath caught in his throat.

New banners were emerging from the northwest.  Knights, pikers, and hydra-riders were charging the Earth troops with green and white banners.

The colors of Sept Leirath.

Tears blurred Yori’s vision of the battle.  When he heard a whisper of movement behind him, he turned and saw a pale yellow butterfly enter the turret room.  The butterfly exploded in a shower of light and smoke, which took on the silhouette of a full-grown fey.

And there she was.

They rushed toward one another.  Their lips met just as the armies outside clashed anew.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Flash Fiction: “Foreign Exchange”

It’s always nice to see new places, meet new people.  Just first make sure the atmosphere isn’t poisonous and the people aren’t well-camouflaged predators, and you’ll be fine.

This is a prequel to “The Doctor and the Druid.”  Enjoy.

Foreign Exchange, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 684

Are you sure this will work?” Kumiko cried.  Her channel was buzzing erratically from the other end of the swirling Celestial Gate.

Shevaun lifted her datapad to double-check her equations.  Then she smiled and tapped her headset.  “If it doesn’t, I’ve already written my apology to the Council.  Get ready!”

The fey’s reply was an anxious squeak.  Shevaun grinned and clipped the datapad onto her belt.  When she looked back at the team of engineers and physicists behind the double-thick glass, she gave them a thumbs-in.

“Transfer procedure is now live,” Kyle reported over the intercom.  “Gate force is twenty-nine thaums and rising.”

Shevaun stared into the Gate.  The swirling green vortex was familiar now; she’d been terrified at her first encounter as a grad student.  But now her jumpsuit was tight and her research gloves fit perfectly.  There was nothing to fear except a failed experiment.

“Okay,” she said into her headset.  “Kumiko?”

Going in three!” the fey answered.  “Two… one…!

Shevaun ran into the Gate and dove headfirst into the vortex—


fading green dissolving

nothing left of her now

pure disembodied conscious terror


here was something

here she was yes still here still here

her name

her name was—


When she came out the other side of the Gate, she fell onto her hands and knees.  Deliriously happy, she pat herself down.  Her body was intact.  She remembered her name, her past, and her purpose.

Her name was Shevaun.  She was a physicist employed by the Transdimensional Alliance.  And she had just performed the first simultaneous exchange of two individuals through the Gate.

Shevaun tapped her headset.  “This is Shevaun, checking in.  I’ve made it through to the other side.”

She took in her new surroundings.  Hornworld was beautiful.  Massive crimson trees towering like the skyscrapers in New York.  The planet’s rings crisscrossing the azure sky, creating an impressive series of rainbows.  Airships and balloons further ahead, forming lines of traffic from the great city Alfheim.

She felt great here.  She wished she could never leave.  But there were more important matters to attend to.  Shevaun tapped her headset again.  “Control, you there?  What’s Kumiko’s status?”

There was a burst of static.  Then Kyle’s voice came over.  “She’s not doing too well, Shev.  Are you feeling any side effects from the Gate transfer?”

Shevaun unhooked her datapad and activated the biomedical suite.  She waited for her suit’s built-in sensors to get a full-body reading and checked the results.  “No, I feel fine.  Why?”

Kumiko’s developed massive lung trauma,” Kyle reported.  “I think we didn’t account for the effect of Earth air on fey physiologyOr it’s a side effect of the exchange.  Are you sure you’re all right?”

Shevaun was getting worried now.  She frantically looked over her med-scan results.  “I seem to be fine, just fine!  Do you want me to come back through?”

No, stay where you are.  We need all the readings we can get about your end of the Gate.”

“Okay, but—”  Shevaun couldn’t finish that statement.  That dazzling feeling in her chest was overpowering now.  She coughed and wiped her mouth.  “Hold on, Control.  I’m… I’ve got symptoms of my own.”

Feeling nauseousBlurred visionConstant coughing?”

Shevaun dropped back onto her hands and knees, hacking up whatever was in her lungs.  She squeezed her eyes shut.  It was too bright now.  Too bright and sharp.

Okay, we’re sending over an extraction team.”  Kyle sounded like he was barely holding back his panic.  “There’s an oxygen imbalance between the Two Worlds.  Just stay calm and wait for the team.  Do you copy, Shev?”

Shevaun couldn’t answer him; she was coughing and retching too much to speak.  Her head was killing her.  It was easier to lie flat on the ground as the nausea continued to build.

But she fought through the sickness for one last glimpse.  One tiny glimpse through narrowed eyes of Hornworld and its rugged beauty.  She had a feeling this image would be the last thing she’d ever get to see of the other side of the Gate.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Captain’s Chair, Captain’s Scars: Star Trek Into Darkness

Copyright © 2013 by Paramount Pictures.
Copyright © 2013 by Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions.

J.J. Abrams–who revitalized the Star Trek franchise and is expected to do the same with Star Wars in a few years–has come back with a sequel for the new voyages of the Starship Enterprise.  A tale of terror, broken faith, and desperate courage called Star Trek Into Darkness.

After a violation of the Prime Directive, James T. Kirk (played by Chris Pine) temporarily loses command of the Enterprise.  However, the emergence of a rogue agent named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) spreads chaos through Starfleet as he attempts to take revenge for a betrayal committed against him and his crew.  With allies like Spock (Zachary Quinto), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), and the alluring Dr. Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) at his side, Kirk will go from one end of the galaxy to the other to pursue Harrison and bring him to justice.  Yet this road leads to a tangled web of intrigue at the heart of the Federation, forcing Kirk to choose between his loyalty to Starfleet and his loyalty to the people under his command.

At the heart of this film is Kirk’s relationship with Spock, both on a personal and allegorical level.  Kirk is constantly getting into trouble for attempting to rescue his friends from danger and abandon Starfleet regulations in the name of doing what’s right; Spock would rather follow the rules and keep his cool than put others in jeopardy.  However, it’s deeper than that.  This film essentially is about desperation and putting your faith in your ideals and in your crew to the test.

Copyright © 2013 by Paramount Pictures.
Copyright © 2013 by Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions.

But to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t watching this film for Kirk and Spock, though their story arc was well-written and nicely acted out.  For me, the absolute highlight is Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, whose true identity may surprise you (if you wish to avoid spoilers, do not click on the link).  He is an interesting blend of superhuman feats and cold intelligence that masks a deep-rooted savagery.  Even though he’s supposed to be the main villain, there’s something fascinating about watching Harrison in fights.  He’s arrogant because of his augmented genetics and yet loyal to his crew.  He has Kirk’s passion, Spock’s intellect, and absolutely no conscience.

Unlike the first Abrams-directed Star Trek film, Into Darkness has a lot more action, about half of which works nicely in 3-D.  In fact, the quiet and dramatic moments are surprisingly rare, and even then, they don’t always feature dialogue.  But the action is the raison d’être for this movie.  The best parts include the firefight on Kronos, the battle with the USS Vengeance, and the epic brawl near the end in San Francisco.  The stakes are higher than they were in the first film, but it’s not a bad form of sequel escalation.

It’s hard for me to say if I like this film as much as the first film of the Star Trek reboot series.  It’s like the producers were just remaking Wrath of Khan with less talking and more space battles.  It’s typical high-action melodrama, but it’s still fun high-action melodrama.

Star Trek Into Darkness is currently in theaters, and available through Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions.

Bibliography: Star Trek Into Darkness.  Directed by J.J. Abrams.  Produced by J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci.  Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof.  Perf. Chris Pine, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachary Quinto, John Cho, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, Alice Eve, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, and Anton Yelchin.  Bad Robot Productions, K/O Paper Products, Skydance Productions.  Paramount Pictures.  US release date: May 16, 2013.