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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

In Harm’s Way: Defending the Future, ed. by Mike McPhail

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In Harm’s Way: Defending the Future

 

Edited

by

Mike McPhail

 

(eSpec Books, October 1, 2019, pb, 183 pp.)

 

A Beach on Nellus” by James Chambers
Children of the Last Battle” by Brenda Cooper
Contained Vacuum” by David Sherman (reprint, not reviewed)
The Oath” by Robert Greenberger
Hope’s Children” by Lisanne Norman
Comrades in Arms” by Bud Sparhawk (reprint, not reviewed)
Medicine Man” by Robert E. Waters
Sympathetic” by Eric V. Hardenbrook
No Man Left Behind” by Danielle Ackley-McPhail
Bucket Brigade” by Jeff Young
Slingshot” by Aaron Rosenberg
Something to Live For” by Christopher M. Hiles

Reviewed by Tara Grímravn

When I review a story, my goal is not by any means to tear down or insult the author. It is always with the intent of helping a writer improve and to give readers an honest idea of the highlights and pitfalls of a story. To that end, my review of In Harm’s Way is written with that purpose in mind.

Of the twelve stories offered, two of which are reprints and not reviewed here, only a few are worth the time it took to read them. The rest, including the reprints, are full of bad writing, flawed story logic, terrible grammar and punctuation, and could have used another once-over by a good editor. Unfortunately, if I were to point out every problem in each story, this review would be far longer than it already is, so, for brevity’s sake, I chose to focus on just a few of the issues in each while putting a heavy emphasis on critique in an effort to help reader and writer alike.

A Beach on Nellus” by James Chambers

Working as a Registered Agent for the Cultural Relations Commission of Darinthe, Sarah specializes in difficult assignments. This time, she’s been sent to Nellus, a planet whose surface is 95% covered in ocean water, to recover a kidnapped girl. Nellus, however, is a dangerous place and, after a crash landing, Sarah has to hope that she can survive long enough to find the girl and get them both to safety.

Unfortunately, I had issues with Chambers’ story right out of the gate. The second sentence in the story took me out of the narrative and sent me straight down a rather weird rabbit hole. The protagonist “tongue flicks” the internal sheath of her helmet to turn it on. Aside from the fact that this seems like a really silly way to activate the augmented reality capabilities of your gear, visually speaking I was unable to imagine someone licking their helmet to power it up. As a result, I spent far too long trying to figure out exactly how someone would “tongue flick” the inside of their space helmet, how long a tongue one would need, and just how disgusting the inside of that helmet must be. So, right off the bat, the story failed to hold me. And, unfortunately, that happened more than once.

Although the plot is promising, there are several issues with its logic. In the second paragraph, the protagonist appears to purposely crash her glider. Logically speaking, this action seems antithetical to why she’s here. She is, after all, on a rescue mission. It’s almost as if this specialist put little to no thought or preparation whatsoever into this mission. When it does happen, no explanation is given as to why this is an acceptable loss. Even though she had a ship orbiting the planet, it seems incredibly wasteful to destroy a glider on purpose. Even if resources were plentiful or could be replicated like in Star Trek, it’s a safe assumption that the cost of a glider would be pretty substantial—enough so that they wouldn’t be quite so easily dispensable. And then there’s the issue of who’s going to rescue the rescuer. Granted, this is explained later in the story when Sarah finally finds her target but it’s a little too late for that reveal.

The story as a whole would have benefited greatly from a few more rounds of editing to tighten it up. The writing, unfortunately, is often clumsy and unnecessarily verbose. In the chase scene with the Assassin, for example, the action is poorly described and some aspects of both the action and the plot don’t make sense, including the big reveal at the end.

Children of the Last Battle” by Brenda Cooper

Chiaro and her group of settlers arrived on the planet Fremont hoping to start a new life. Unfortunately, the people already living there didn’t react too kindly to them or their genetic modifications. Not long after, war between the two groups broke out. Now, a year later and hunted to near extinction, Chiaro and her group are forced to leave the only safe space they’ve known for over a year. The majority of the group leave on the skimmer, leaving her and one other injured woman, Ryu, to take care of the children until the others return for them.

Again, this story has issues from the start. The first few paragraphs are very hard to read. There were just too many names, traits, and relationships introduced all at once, making it hard to keep track of what was going on in the beginning. Once past this, though, the story wasn’t too bad at all, even though there are a few aspects that don’t quite make sense. For example, an arrow to the gut wouldn’t result in immediate death. Elinia would have been alive for a bit after that since, depending on where it entered, it can take up to 12 hours for someone to die. Even if it hit a major vital organ or artery, it would take a few minutes for death to occur and it’s doubtful that a child with such a wound would be silent. Also, did the part of her group going out to fight just abandon them on the planet in the end or was that the plan? David’s plan of action wasn’t at all explained well. When they first decide to leave the cave, the impression is that they are going out to fight and want to get the children and the injured Chiaro and Ryu to a location that they could easily return to retrieve them later, but that doesn’t appear to be what happened. As for setting, that too left a lot to be desired. I am calling Fremont a planet but that’s never explicitly stated. It could be a province or a continent or a city. Given the rockets at the end, it being a planet seems a safe enough assumption but it was difficult to get a feel for where I was in this story.

The Oath” by Robert Greenberger

Surgical nurse Jasmine Yue lives on Quatrième, the fourth human colony established on an alien world. Although they had thought the prior inhabitants had long since gone, it became clear this wasn’t the case when attacks by alien spacecraft began. While assisting Chief Medical Officer Dr. Naccarato, Yue learns that one of these craft has gone down not far from their clinic and that she and her coworkers would be working on the alien bodies.

Like the previous stories, this one, too, has several problems. To start, one very off-putting thing for readers is when writers use acronyms without any explanation of what they mean. As a writer, you don’t want your readers to have to stop and do research on something like this because it takes them out of the world. It breaks the illusion which could have otherwise been maintained if the acronym had just been spelled out. For example, in the case of Greenberger’s story, not every reader is going to know that CMO stands for Chief Medical Officer. On top of this, there’s a general lack of editing. There are a lot of poorly constructed sentences, some with words used incorrectly. Consider, for example, the sentence “Mitterance arrived to collect and label each item, beginning the various devices required to study and attempt to understand their patient.” Does this mean he’s turning on the devices, in which case “beginning” is an odd word choice, or is it meant to say that he brought the devices with him (as in “…bringing the various devices required to…”)? In other places, punctuation is very obviously missing. And, too, the physical descriptions of humans and aliens alike are clunky and read like a bullet-list or mini info dump. There are far better ways of letting readers know what a character looks like. One best practice is usually sprinkling a few details in throughout the narrative and letting readers’ imaginations do the rest of the work.

As for the protagonist, Yue is a little bland. There’s not a lot of emotion going on there. She doesn’t feel strongly about anything one way or the other and comes off as forgettable. For example, her reaction to the alien bodies being wheeled into the Emergency Room was stunted and off. She had just been talking with another doctor about the fact that they’d be examining any aliens retrieved from the crash, yet she seems disinterestedly surprised when they bring one in and that those interacting with it might need disinfecting. With that last bit, from a logical standpoint, it would seem as though a nurse would fully understand the need for disinfection. Of course, it isn’t explained whether this process was part of everyday protocol, which would have helped clarify her reaction, but it would also make sense that it would be a requirement in an Emergency Room on an alien planet. Alien microbes would certainly be of concern, especially in a hospital setting where people might have open wounds or weakened immune systems. Yue’s wondering why this was necessary is out of character for a nurse.

Hope’s Children” by Lisanne Norman

Cassie is a human girl living in a village controlled by the Vess, an alien species that enslaves human adults. Since children are the only ones allowed to travel per Vess law because of a belief in the sanctity of childhood, she’s frequently allowed to leave, often to meet with members of a resistance unit for special training. When a shuttle is shot down in Vess territory, Cassie and the other children are given the order to find it before the Vess can.

In terms of plot and story arc, Norman’s story was alright. That being said, it had its fair share of issues. The beginning, for instance, was confusing. While every writer has their style and each story has its demands, using snippets of dialogue as a hook tends to disorient the reader if there’s no context given in the text immediately following it. It just ends up being confusing. Now, if it’s woven into the opening paragraphs with some exposition to explain it, then it works but that’s not the case here. There’s very little context to either support the dialogue-based hook or orient the reader. Granted, it’s sort of hinted that this is part of something Cassie has experienced or is perhaps dreaming about but its efficacy is diminished by the fact that that hint is so vague. I understand that it was meant to function as a means foreshadowing or possibly to set up the conflict but it didn’t work. The context doesn’t become clear until several pages in thanks to other flashbacks. A similar problem with context appears when Cassie is talking to the Interpreter in front of the Vess. She acknowledges that the Interpreter didn’t tell her the truth about what the alien said and then a few sentences later, she hears a voice in her head. At first glance, it would seem that this might be what the Vess had told the interpreter, that maybe it was a telepathic communication (which might provide an explanation for the pain Cassie felt) but it later is revealed it’s just a flashback. Which begs the question as to why that particular memory causes her physical pain. That was never addressed. In short, it would have been more effective to let the later flashbacks fill in necessary information (of which they do a good job) and simply start with Cassie waking in the bush, which brings me to the next issue.

Within the first couple of paragraphs, there are a few beats of action missing and some rather confusing imagery. Details are important and things like the following stick out to me because these are the kind of things I think through very thoroughly as I write. In one sentence, Cassie is pushing her way through dense thorn bushes (possibly a single thorn bush) while holding her pack as a shield. In the next two immediate sentences, she’s rubbing her hands and “grabbing up her pack.” Based on the previous information given, she was still pushing through the thorn bushes and using her pack to protect herself, so when did she set it down or even break free of the thorn bushes? None of that is mentioned before she’s picking it up off the ground and continuing along an apparently thorn-free path to her village.

Of course, it’s not certain whether it’s a single thorn bush or a hedge of bushes, which is where the confusing imagery comes in. The issue here is that bushes, like trees, have trunks with thick (or dense) branches that are often low to the ground. So, when Cassie is “curled into a ball at the heart of a dense bush,” it seems odd that it would be a single plant or that she would have to push her way through it on her knees, when she really could only be curled around its trunk beneath the branches unless the bush was bowl-shaped or the branches are sparse at the center and thicken at the outer edges. These are small details but ones necessary for readers to visualize the scene.

The operation of the Vess’ sensors posed another problem. If the sensors gave a mature person an electrical shock to stop the heart, how does it differentiate between a child and an adult? Why can children pass them with nothing more than a faint tingle? Based on the description, electricity is passing through Cassie in a way that’s akin to touching a Tesla coil. But electrical current is electrical current and watts remain the same no matter what they’re coursing through. There are a number of factors that determine whether someone gets burned, killed, shocked, or just buzzed. So how do the sensors tell the difference between who gets killed and who gets to pass? Is there a Vess controlling every sensor at all times and they make the call to kill or not kill? This seems unlikely due to the sheer number of sensors throughout the woods and the description of Cassie’s experiences with them.

Medicine Man” by Robert E. Waters

Captain Victorio Nantan is in charge of a squadron of fighter pilots called the Devil Dancers. A holy man among his tribe, he sees a vision in which his lover and subordinate, Blue Bird, dies after being shot down by alien ships. After an unsuccessful attempt to have her barred from participating in Operation Gold Javelin, Victorio decides to let her fly in a different position. Unfortunately, his vision comes nearly true when she’s gravely injured during the fight. To save her life, Victorio takes her to Earth to see a medicine man who might be the only one who can help her.

Waters’ story was one that I thoroughly enjoyed. The twist at the end was unexpected and the Native American cultural aspects were a nice change, especially since the focus was mostly on the rituals and beliefs of Victorio’s people and not the war with the Gulo. It was quite refreshing.

Sympathetic” by Eric V. Hardenbrook

War is raging on Earth between the Liberty Earthers (L.E.) and the United Global Forces (U.G.F.). Jo Hovan is a U.G.F. Sympathy Nurse, someone who can pull the pain from a wounded solider until they can get proper medical care. She’s assigned to assist Trio Commander Felix Harris. While trying to drive the enemy forces from a collection of buildings, she and a few of her fellow troops are pinned down by artillery fire. When Harris gives an order that would almost certainly get them all killed, it becomes clear that he’s no longer fit for command and Jo has to find a way to relieve him of his duty.

Hardenbrook’s story was another of the few good stories in this anthology. The writing was tight, the action made sense and proceeded at an appropriate pace, and it was a genuinely good plot with a unique twist. I quite liked it.

No Man Left Behind” by Danielle Ackley-McPhail

Captured by the enemy, Sergeant Justin Krougliak of the Allied Forces is now forced to work for the Dominion, thanks to a poison-injecting shackle around his wrist. After untold days of toiling in menial labor around the Dominion camp, the lieutenant finally decides it’s time to put Krougliak’s demolition skills to good use against his own team.

From start to finish, questionable grammar and punctuation aside, the writing in this story is completely unpolished. It reads like a very rough first draft riddled with poorly thought-out sentences, awkward exposition, and clumsy internal dialogue.

There are also odd insertions of explanatory text that just seem out of place as if editing notes had been accidentally included. For example, when Krougliak is woken by the lieutenant in the first paragraph, there’s a sentence in parentheses that doesn’t need to be and, arguably, really isn’t necessary in general. We were just told it was a Dominion officer standing over him; we don’t need to know how Krougliak knew. From a reader’s point of view, it’s a safe assumption that he’d seen a Dominion officer enough times in his military career to be able to recognize one, even if he or she wasn’t wearing any rank insignia.

Bucket Brigade” by Jeff Young

The ship that Sasha, Urias, and Conroy were on has been shot down by enemy fire. The remainder of the crew dead, the three have no choice but to walk the 38 klicks back to the base, carrying the frozen heads of their crewmates back with them so they can be revived via cloning. Shortly after leaving the crash site, it becomes clear that the enemy has figured out where they are and the trio has to find a creative way to evade their pursuers.

Like many of the stories in this book, this one, too, could have done with another editing pass prior to publishing. While the plot is quite intriguing, the execution is only so-so. There are several clunky language issues present throughout the narrative, which took me out of the story. For example, the sentence “a jet of inky blood jetted out obscuring his view” is problematic because of the echoed use of “jet.” Otherwise, it’s a decent tale with a really good arc.

Slingshot” by Aaron Rosenberg

Emergency medical crew Callie, Django, Bev, and Heaven are aboard a slingshot, a small projectile-like ship without navigation capabilities, and preparing for launch. Their destination is the Quantum Four, an explorer class starship in orbit above Earth where a case of the bubonic plague has broken out. Just as they’re about to take off, however, a trio of hijackers complicates things a bit.

Rosenberg’s story was short, well-written, and quite humorous. The hijackers get their just desserts at the end, which was very satisfying.

Something to Live For” by Christopher M. Hiles

Chief David Sternbach is the head of the medical team on a space station. His position is considered “mission-critical” but, for the most part, he only sees patients with minor ailments. That is until he’s sent on a secret mission to Phobos to retrieve a woman with highly classified information. When he gets there, he finds his target beaten severely and left for dead. Now, he’s got to keep her alive and out of enemy hands until their transport arrives.

This was a pretty solid story. Given the title, it was refreshing that it didn’t end up being a worn-out love story where the hero falls for the one he’s meant to protect, as so often happens in these things. Instead, the target, Janet, isn’t conscious for the story, making it more about one orphan (Sternbach) rescuing another (a little girl called JD). The action was well-paced and it held my interest pretty well throughout.