Future War Stories

Future War Stories presents a Book Review and Author Interview

Salvage Marines (Nerospace Book 1)

For much of the history of military science fiction literature, publishers were more selective of the stories they released. Consequently, military SF literature was more rare and limited than standard space opera in the mainstream literature market. That has altered in the 21st century with military matters being more at the forefront of current events. This fueled a boom in military sci-fi works, especially on the flooded Amazon’s ebook market. The new found popularity of the genre of military sci-fi has forced creators to dig deeper and forge something new that can set them apart from the herd of military sci-fi works. One of the best ways, besides awesome cover art, is world building. This is where we creators can and do set ourselves apart, and that brings us to Sean Michael Argo’s military science fiction novelSalvage Marines (Necrospace volume one) from Severed Press. There are two very unique elements in his overall excellent military SF novel that set his story apart and it grabbed my attention. I was grateful that Mr. Argo reached out to FWS to review his novel, providing FWS with a copy from his publisher the purpose of this review.

The Setting
Samuel Hyst was born into a very different era than us, and his experiences in the age of the galaxy spanning corporations that rule and control over their “subjects” could only be understood by workers during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age. At the age of eighteen, Samuel graduated from the educational academy in debt on the order of 18 years’ worth. The Grotto Corporation designed their worlds to be an debt-based society, where debt can and does pass on to the next generation. The goal is for the company to own you by never allowing you to exit out of the debt runaround…and you are owned. The slim dark hope for Samuel and his friend Ben was to join a section of the Grotto military: The REAPERS. This is a feature of the age of corporations: open warfare between the companies over resources, given the term “hostile takeover” a whole new meaning. It is here that Samuel and Ben embark on a new life and new dangers as his old life sits at home, waiting for him to come home.

The Spoiler-Free Review of Salvage Marines
Within a few pages, it was immediately apparent to me that Mr. Argo had set up the world of Salvage Marineswith a solid time-honored sci-fi tradition: taking a current social issue and exploring it via the futuristic setting. Mr. Argo used his far-future setting of Salvage Marines to discuss the current issues of debt, military service stress on families, and corporate role in people’s lives and their militarization. As he lays it out in the first page: “it is the age of corporate” and every single character in the book is affected by that fact. From birth to the sweet release of death, you are in debt before your life starts, and this fact controls how you live your life and dominate society. You are evaluated, processed, and assigned with little care to your wants or needs.This twisted sci-fi reality bears elements of a Dickens’ story or share-cropping. I found this spoke to me deeply and it was a refreshing take on how our main character enters into military service over more conventional means. Mr. Argo moves quickly in these open pages to establish the world, our character Samuel, and his link back to his life back on his corporate colony homeworld of Baen 6. When he enlists into the armed force of corporate soldiers that collect resources for Grotto, the REAPERs, it puts a strain on his family, but liberates them from the life-long debt. At first, the connection between Samuel and his family back home is strained, but it is there. However, it drops off as the pages increase. I am not sure if this was a systemic choice or a simple oversight, but either way, it hearkens to the isolation of military service and has the hard lump of reality.
As events transpire, it only services to further separate Samuel from his family, both physically and emotionally, but it increases his bond with his fellow corporate warriors. This again, was a nice touch of reality and honesty that makes the overall concept of Salvage Marines solid and a firm foundation for the other books in the series. Plus, the author keeps the story moving and that could be considered by some to be a fault. I like that the author did not give us a lengthy boot camp scene that some many books and films have done to death. The action shifts from deployment-to-deployment while Samuel and company are in the Grotto Hive Fleet 822, which is realistic to modern account I’ve read of being deployed during wartime. However, this structure does eliminate some character development via behind-the-wire scenes that often pepper this genre. While there is one major after-action scene, I wished for more. The book, because it is part of a series, does suffer from a lack of completion at the end of the book, but if you are hooked, then you are buying the next one. When it comes to one of the iconic factors of any military science fiction book; the combat scenes, Salvage Marines delivers. These are not over-styled 1980’s action hero battles, but brutal, honest engagements with all of the madness and chaos of the battlefield tossed in. In these scenes, characters die, are horribly wounded, and luck is a roll of the celestial D20 dice. At every engagement that Grotto Hive Fleet 822 was involved in, I wondered if one of the characters I cared about was about to die. While it is serious, there are moments of humor, especially when the author references Warhammer 40,000. Overall, Salvage Marines is a solid military science fiction tale that brings some bold concepts to the table encapsulated within a fast-moving setting of future corporate military services and the terrible price of combat.

Interview with Author  Sean-Michael Argo (Conducted on 8/15/2016)

1. What was the genesis behind your novel Salvage Marines?

I have had this story, in one form or another, in my head for a long time, though only in recent years has it transformed from a vague collection of interests, notes, and scraps into a novel series. I find it impossible to enjoy video games, war games, comics, novels, and film without also imagining what kind of story I would tell. You could call that part of my process, to inhale deeply of other works, even if just to get inspired to create my own. The series started to take on a solid shape when I transitioned from a modest filmmaking career to the defense industry, working with a company to provide counter-insurgency training to soldiers soon to go overseas into combat. I found that working alongside soldiers in the conditions and hours we did continued to bring out ideas, whether through conversations with soldiers, or particular actions or events during the training scenarios. I started taking notes, and for several years continued to do so, though it was only recently that I realized I had been slowly building the setting and characters of Necrospace, the fictional universe in which the stories take place. 

2. What made you decide to write in the sub-genre of military science fiction?

I’ve been a fan of military science fiction since a young age, and eventually I decided that I’ve had so much enrichment and entertainment from the genre that it was time I added my own work to the genre. I’ve always had ‘writer’ as one of those ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ answers, and I have been tinkering with a corporate merc story for a long time. I want to say it was when I was fourteen I wrote a single issue comic book script about mercs fighting over a giant planetary terraforming machine, and over the course of the story it achieved sentience and began to defend itself with the re-animated bodies of slain enemies. On top of just having a fan boy vibe from childhood onwards, Military SF in specific is a rather versatile literary playground as far as speculating about what the future might look like, as a writer I get to explore the world even as I create it, and so one could say I’m writing as both an author and a fan. Another, perhaps more commercial reason, is that Military SF is a genre that has readers who are open to new writers. You don’t have to be a household name to attract readers to Military SF books, because they are an aggressive and savvy sort of consumer who is out there looking for good material. As long as you can deliver, the fans of this genre will reward you with their attention, and so success isn’t so much measured in marketing dollars spent, but the work itself. 

3. What are some of your favorite military science fiction works and how did they influence you during the development and writing of Salvage Marines?

Some kids grow up pretending to be Batman, others play at being cowboys or cobs and robbers. My little brother and I were Colonial Space Marines pretty much every time we stepped out of the house to go play, with our pulse rifles in hand (made by taking hacksaws and hot glue guns to our conventional water gun toys). Yes, I was likely a bit too young to be watching James Cameron’s ‘Aliens’, but it happened, and the concept of badass future soldiers seized me early. Looking back on it, I may have been working on my ‘mercenary space marines’ projects even all those years ago, as I would tell stories aloud (my brother tolerated it but honestly he just wanted to play already!) about how we were highly paid mercs in power armor fighting for mega-corporations in space. As I got older I certainly spent my fair share of time, money, and energy on playing the miniatures games in the Warhammer 40k setting, and in time discovered (a bit late honestly) the novel Starship Troopers. For me it all goes back to the grunts, especially fromAliens, who I see reflected in the real-life faces of the soldiers I work with. 

4. Your fictional universe is tinted through a Gilded Age/Charles Dickens lens that also spoke to the current situation of most of us drowning in college debt. Was this a take on modern society or does it hearken back to the past such as Medieval Europe and Japan?

That is rather perceptive of you about Dickens, I am happy that tone reads clearly in the work. Just as he wrote from a deeply cynical perspective within the post-industrial revolution world, I am certainly coming from a place of cynicism about our globalist corporate dystopia, though like in Dickens’ work there is dignity somewhere inside that bleak world of mine, and hope too. Medieval Europe and Japan are keen examples also, as I am certainly presenting a world that is ‘corporate feudalism in space’ in a no-holds barred sort of way. I am about to reach my 38th birthday, so at least in the USA my own chronological lifespan has been spent living in a decline, with stagnant wages, lost industry, currency inflation, crushing debt, and on and on. All of that finds its way into my work, because so much of it is something real that I can weave into a science fiction tale to make it more authentic. My story is, in a way, what I see in the world, stripped of all the propaganda and nationalism, the grim bits and the hopeful bits all presented with some Military SF flair. I do my best not to get preachy, both because that sort of thing annoys me as a reader, and also because I am attempting to present a story objectively, a great many shades of grey, and so I do my best not to pass on my value judgement as an author, and leave that for the characters. I believe that capitalism can be a force for freedom just as much as it can be a force for oppression, but Samuel Hyst knows better than I do what it’s like to live under Grotto’s rule, so I let him do the talking, and even he has his worldview shaken up a few times. 

5.One of the things I enjoyed were the little touches, like the recoil dampeners during micro-gravity combat. Why did you decided to develop the world to that level?

When I am deployed for my military work I usually don’t have the time or energy to write, and so I think, I take notes, and I make plans. My goal is authenticity, which might sound silly when talking about space marine pulp noir, and I think the little details can aide in that. As I roll ideas over and over, examining them from several angles, those little details find their way into the story. I also try to think about what future soldiers would have as far as equipment, because I don’t want it to be so futuristic that the story doesn’t have that visceral quality to it, but I also don’t want to gloss over things in pursuit of style over substance. I intentionally try to balance the little details with being carefully vague about the exact science behind how things work, because I am not a scientist, and I’d hate to come up with something so ridiculous that it takes my readers out of the story. The same goes for the military jargon, tactics, etc. 

6. I have to admit that the chapter entitled “Space Hulk” made me smile along with the marines discussing their childhood gaming history. Very Clever. Did you play Games Workshop Space Hulk or 40K as a kid?  

Oh hell yes. I liked the Eldar (basically space elves) because they were the cheapest army to buy, since individual warriors were so powerful and I didn’t have the cash to get into a miniatures arms race with my friends (it happens). I wanted to give a nod to Warhammer 40k, as it certainly has influenced me as an artist, and I loved the Space Hulk game so much that I thought it would be a cool moment for the characters to bond while giving a high five to my influences. 

7. As with Game of Thrones, no one seems safe in your universe. What lead you to this style? One of my favorite characters in the book died and I was shocked. 

I find that the older I get the more I prefer stories that have a credible threat present in them, and so writing (or reading) novels about invincible heroes overcoming impossible odds time and time again just isn’t something I am interested in. I want readers to feel some degree of the intensity of these battle sequences, the raw desperation, the mistakes that can be made, and yes the occasional moments of sheer badassery. So many soldiers I work with talk about losing friends and comrades in the blink of an eye. They are there one moment and gone the next, and there is often no large dramatic moment, they are just dead and the fight goes on. That creates an ever-present threat, a tension, and I wanted that to permeate my story. I want the readers to feel just as unsure as Samuel, to know that safety is not guaranteed. Salvage Marines is a story about desperate people rising to the challenges that life put in front of them, they aren’t super-soldiers, they are just regular grunts trying to survive their tour of duty and make a decent paycheck. They aren’t the best soldiers in the universe, they have second rate equipment, and they are continuously thrown into the hostile unknown. If we don’t know who will make it and who won’t, then the fighting starts to matter in a more personal way. 

8. What made you chose kinetic energy projectile weaponry over directed energy?

I didn’t want the technology to be so advanced that the soldiers could blast each other over tremendous distances. I wanted their armor technology to be sufficient that they’d have to get in closer to do the deed. I am attempting to write with a more “Vietnam era” style of combat tactics, and such tactics require the weapons that make those tactics make sense, and so I went with projectiles instead of laser beams. 

9. I have always loved cover-art, and the cover-art of Necrospace Book 1 of Salvage Marines is quite arresting. Tell us more about it and the artist

I will get back to you on that, this was an unknown artist from the publisher’s side of the desk.

10. Why did you decided to use mega-galactic spanning corporations instead of an oppressive government to set up human space society?

I wanted the setting to feel familiar, despite the fact that it is science fiction. Planet-spanning corporations already cover the world, many ruling corners of it through a thin veneer of politics and nationalism. That’s not hyperbole, just the world as it is, all I am doing is changing the scale of humanity’s footprint on the face of the universe and pulling away the veneer. In my setting the mega-corporations do not hide their mastery, and warriors wear logos instead of flags. It may be a dystopian setting, but I feel that it is an honest one, and have presented a setting in which characters do not think in terms of patriotism or nation states, human beings (mostly) are valued by what they can do more than who they are (race, gender, age). This is very much a Military SF take on the wars for profit waged in the real world, the struggles between the 99% (peasants) and the 1% (elites), and the human cost of capitalism left unchecked by compassion. Most of the first trilogy deals specifically with Grotto Corporation, which is the most grinding and powerful corporation in the universe, though later in the trilogy and certainly in the expanded universe we are presented with other corporations, some similar and others vastly different, yet each ultimately serving the Bottom Line.

11. Names and how am author chose them always interests me. How and why did you decided on the corporation names, the names of the main characters, and even the locations. For example like Baen 6, Folken, M5597, and Grotto?

Grotto Corporation has been with me since I was a kid, that was the corporation that the characters worked for in the stories I’d tell when my brother and I were playing, and when I wrote my little comic book script. Most all of the rest of it starts out as something akin to ‘word salad’, and I just write down scraps and notes until a name or title comes out of the chaos. If it sounds legit, then I keep it, if not, it goes back in the mix. I didn’t want the names to sound overly ‘scifi’ so kept most of it blended with more traditional names from various existing Earth cultures. 

12. While the REAPERs are the main focus, the Folken mercenary forces were damned interesting. Tell me about what led to their development and are they featured in another novel? 

The Merchants Militant are the sharks of Necrospace, and in my imagination the Folken are the great whites. Of the elite mercs who wage war across the universe the Folken are the biggest and the baddest. A little backstory is that they were founded by a splinter group of Errolite warriors who broke official ties with Augur Corporation and joined the Merchants Militant. While most of the Merchants Militant are more like modern special forces teams, operating in small and somewhat specialized units, the Folken are able to field a fully functional army, in that they have multiple types of soldiers, tanks, ships, artillery, etc, that while rather small is extremely dynamic. We get more into the Merchants Militant in subsequent books, and the Folken certainly re-appear.  

13. The combat scenes were richly developed, what is your approach to writing and developing combat scenes in Salvage Marines?

I spent some time training in stunts and combat choreography when I started in the film industry, and part of that education is learning how to communicate blocking and movement to actors and camera people, both as a choreographer and a writer. When I started doing the military work I was able to be in the thick of combat training scenarios over and over, in addition to directing and working with officers and civilians to ensure maximum training value. As such I’ve been able to witness first-hand the chaotic insanity of combat (at least in training scenarios) and watch how soldiers move, how they speak, hold their weapons, and overall how they fight. I want the combat in my stories to have a realistic quality, even if still in keeping with the more cinematic and dramatic elements of Military SF. Generally I do not plan my combat sequences, instead I come up with the mission, pre-establish the available forces, dispositions, and capabilities. Once I am ready I insert my Reapers and let my fingers type out a natural resolution, adding a little dramatic flair along the way. 


14. Given the brutality of your setting and novel, did you ever feel bad about the situation that you put Samuel into? Did you ever want him to just go home to his wife and child? 


War, especially in its modern form, is without narrative. So many of the soldiers I speak with who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan talk about a feeling of emptiness with regards to what they accomplished over there. In WWII our troops were on a mission to defeat Hitler, and while that alone isn’t much of a narrative, at least they had that context. Our modern military forces just move from briefing to mission to debriefing to rest & refit and then back to briefing for the next mission. They don’t get to see a wider context, and so often do not see much of a point beyond their individual experience. I approach Samuel’s life in the same way, where he is thrown from calamity to calamity, and the real story is his human journey through those myriad adversities. At the end of the day this is a story about people at war, not so much the war itself, and if he just stayed home and stayed at work we wouldn’t have much of a story to tell, or at least not a Military SF one, which is perhaps where Dickens and I part ways, each tell a different tale of similar folk. 

15. What is next for you and your Salvage Marines series?

As of this interview there have been three books published in the Necrospace series, the first being of course Salvage Marines, followed by Dead Worlds, and then Trade War. The audio books are presently being created. These form the core trilogy (the Reaper Cycle if you will) and from there I am writing stand alone novels in an ‘expanded universe’ that continues the overall story, dives into subplots, gives supporting characters their own moment to shine, etc. Presently book four, Ghost Faction, is being prepared for publication, and I am in the process of writing book five right now. I am committed to seven novels at this point, to complete the meta-narrative that I have laid out. After that I will assess where I stand creatively, commercially, and either continue with Necrospace or see what other adventures await, maybe both. I do plan on creating at least one comic book venture in this series, even if just a three issue arc, though that will be more of a late 2017 affair. If any of you Hollywood types want to take this to the screen, I’m right here daydreaming about it! www.necrospace.com

Should You Read Salvage Marines?
Yes! This is a fast paced solid military science fiction book that hits hard with some unique world buildings that is topical today and sets the tone for the rest of theNecrospace series. The action is rough with characters falling in the name of corporate service of Grotto, which makes you wonder…who is next?  I can fully recommend Salvage Marines and I expect great things from Mr. Argo in this genre in the near future.

Here’s the link to the original review/interview and the great blog site Future War Stories.

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Wizards, Jedi Knights, and Superheroes

… and Space Marines?

When it comes to the world of books, video games, films, and merchandise we certainly live in what you could call the Golden Age of the Expanded Universe.

The entire premise of the new film Star Wars: Rogue One is predicated on a single line of dialogue from Return of the Jedi – “Many Bothans died to bring us this information.”

And I think that is amazing.

Everywhere you look it’s Marvel Comics, Harry Potter, or something equally vast. You would not believe how many Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Star Wars branded  items are in my house right now. Being an old hand when it comes to fandom myself, there are plenty of Warhammer 40k and World of Darkness novels and games sitting on my various shelves and awaiting me in a few stashed bins. This isn’t a new sort of phenomenon, though I’d say we have firmly moved into territory where ‘expanded universe’ is the standard now for most entertainment.

There is a strong economic incentive to be sure, as a single product like the video game HALO can become a franchise that presents consumers with not only video game sequels but apparel, toys, board games, novels, and movies. In fact there are many video games that are working with this idea, and again it isn’t an old one, it’s just that it has now become the standard operating procedure. Didn’t get enough from the video game? No problem, we have a few novels you can read while you wait for the blockbuster film to hit theaters in the fall. On and on it goes, so shut up and take my money!

The creative incentive cannot be overlooked, and honestly I think this is where the desires of fandom have really blended well with the world of entertainment commerce. As fans we want an immersive experience, and other than we happy few who have been playing Dungeons & Dragons since we could read this wasn’t much of an option for people who had interests outside of Star Wars, comic books, and bad 80’s cartoons. Once we devour what you’d call the ‘core material’ we fans want to start experiencing the world and the characters from a multitude of perspectives, in whatever form those take (novels, films, games, comics, toys, etc). With the long-term franchises, like Star Wars, there’s always the discussion of what is canon and what isn’t, and that’s unavoidable with things like Star Wars, which as undergone so much change. The same could be said for Warhammer and Warhammer 40k, as those creative lines (originally miniatures games that became a full entertainment empire), even if on a smaller scale (ha!).

The franchise and expanded universe that has my engine purring is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe, predominantly because there has been a single creative mind at the helm of the franchise since the beginning. Certainly she has worked with many collaborators through the years, but unlike a film, which is by its nature exceptionally collaborative, the novels (which are the core material) are hers. Much the same could be said of the works of Tolkien and his Middle Earth.

The idea of creating an expanded universe for NECROSPACE is a relatively new one to me, as I had originally intended for Trade War (released this week by Severed Press) to be the third and final novel in a trilogy. As I started work on another story I thought perhaps it would be the start of a new trilogy, also set in Necrospace, though that story went in a different directly entirely. After that I’ve started two different novels, and have many notes for a third, that are unrelated even if somewhat interconnected. There are just so many stories I want to tell in the Necrospace universe that exist outside the tale of Samuel Hyst, for his I believe is done. In some ways deciding to make a Necrospace expanded universe (using the first trilogy as my core material) was something of a survival tactic. I was around 10,000 words into the parallel story of a stranded Augur Corp special operative on a wasteland planet and a Red List mech-warrior trying to stay one step ahead of the law when I realized that it did not belong in the same book as the 15,000 words that followed the Dire Swords mercenaries as they brawled with other contractors over alien WMDs. I’ve got notes at a chapter or so that I originally cut out of Trade War that are likely going to be shaped into a story about the life and times of a Helion battle trooper, as I have used them as antagonists often in Necrospace and its high time we saw the world from their side of the rifle.

It could be awhile before there are any Necrospace video games or comic books, and I do have other genres to explore (as evidenced by how I took a break from space marines and crafted a novelization of Ember Days), but I do want to finish those stories, and I like to believe that there are folks out there who enjoyed the adventures of Samuel Hyst enough that they’ll give a few new protagonists a chance.

In the meantime?

I’m going to finish watching A New Hope with my son… his first time seeing it!

 

 

 

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My Muse is a Battle Tank

Strange things happen on military bases, and no time is more fraught with such oddities as the span of 0300 to 0400. As a defense contractor doing the work I do, my schedule often has me arriving on post just before or during this peculiar time, classically referred to as the ‘witching hour’. Yesterday morning I swear I locked eyes with a nine-legged coyote as it casually crossed in front of my truck’s headlights. While we let that sink in, allow me to paint the background for a moment.
I am involved in training missions, and there are usually any number of soldiers and vehicles spread out across the training area, which is often many hundreds of acres of raw nature with a few dirt roads. I’ve been doing this for several years now, and working this job has provided me with much in the way of inspiration and information for my work as an author. Prior to working for the military I wrote stories more in the vein of horror, adventure, fantasy, and bizzaro fiction. While I still enjoy all of those types of writing, my work took a hard turn towards military science fiction. I found that writing in this genre allowed me to creatively process my relationship with the real-life military industrial complex and my place in it, not to mention the fact that working with the military has provided me with a vast amount of information and experience that can be drawn upon for my fiction. While I take much in the way of creative license when it comes to my writing, as it is science fiction after all, thanks to my work with the military, especially the combat training scenarios for infantry, medics, armor, and intelligence, I am able to layer in enough of the real deal to give my fiction a feel of authenticity.
What this job also offers is continuous moments of inspiration. There are a number of scenes and characters in my Necrospace series that are derived from things I have witness in the training, people I have met in the service, and even the settings in which we train. Since I am drawing upon the modern US military as my source, those influences can be clearly seen in the writing, and that is why despite being a futuristic sort of setting the weapons and tactics have a more contemporary feel to them, even if tinkered with profoundly for the sake of the story.
Well thanks to the witching hour, I have been given inspiration that is going to take me far into the realm of speculative fiction, even if still somewhat grounded in real world military.
This morning I saw a monster, and it demanded its own story.
I was driving down a dark dirt road, looking to raid our range operations warehouse for picket pounders so that our opposition forces troops could build fighting positions for the day’s war. We are the middle of nowhere, and the starlight and my headlights just weren’t sufficiently piercing the gloom. I threw on my brights just as I turned a tight corner, and saw a row of tanks parked on the side of the road. As I drove past the row I saw a monster, doing its best to pretend it was a tank, and I was instantly reminded of how cockroaches either freeze or bolt when you shine a light on them, depending on how close they are to an avenue of escape. This thing was caught in my high beams, and didn’t move. I rolled by slowly and snapped a photo, just to capture the moment in case the thing was gone by the time the sun came up.
I might write this beast into a Necrospace story, or I might add it to the new series that is gaining momentum in my mind, but I know for sure that it will appear one way or the other. Same goes for my new friend with all the appendages.
Where did I get the ideas for a nine-legged coyote and a monster tank you ask?
On dirt roads at three o’clock in the morning.
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Realism in Military Science Fiction

The title of this post sounds like a contradiction in terms, and on the surface perhaps the idea of a genetically altered human warrior wielding a heavy plasma cannon against unimaginable horrors from deep space sounds a bit… sci-fi, but come on, plasma cannons!

Well… plasma cannons, awesome though they may be, only get us so far.

Just in case I get too preachy later on, the point I’m attempting to make is that a story has to ring true, even if its about space elves fighting jelly monsters.

The truth of the matter, in my opinion, is that the story is going to be more impactful to the audience if there is a degree of realism, with a specific contemporary sensibility. I’m not talking about making the ‘hard science’ of the afore mentioned plasma cannon sound convincing. I’m not talking about creating an alien/cyborg/mutant/etc enemy that makes sense in light of our current understanding of physiology and biology. All such things are just plot devices and set dressing directly informed by our current scientific knowledge and awareness. Realism when it comes to the technology and biology of a story, explicitly a military science fiction story, is of less consequence than realism relative to the characters themselves.

Perhaps I’m beating a drum that has been well-worn by writers before me, but this it my time, and I’ll take my moment thank you very much.

If a story’s core appeal (or message as it were) is “look at how cool their tech is!” or “gosh this hero is an unstoppable badass!” then once our world develops a similar technology or gets bored with flawless heroes, as an audience, we will not be engaged and that story will likely recede to join the miasma of other genre titles. Not that this is a bad thing, because the world needs pulp, and I’ve certainly contributed my fair share of such (and will be contributing a great deal more), but I’d argue that tech-based-pulp is ultimately destined to be surpassed by our own real-life advances.

The books that really stick with us, in specific regards to military science fiction, are stories like “Forever War” and “Starship Troopers” precisely because they focus on the men and women who live through those stories. Sure the cool ships and equipment those characters interact with are exciting, but what hits you is the characters themselves. This may be an old argument, but it is the human experience, or better yet Personal experience of the story, by the characters, that has the real staying power that transcends the ever-advancing technology of our rapidly evolving modern civilization.

To write military fiction, whether it is historical, contemporary, or science fiction, that ‘rings true’ takes something of an effort on the part of the author, in my opinion. If the author is like myself, and not a legitimate combat veteran, then I think it is important to talk to such people. Even in the most far-fetched science fiction setting, I think that a convincing and accurate portrayal of military personnel is important. Not actually the specific nationality, creed, or equipment, but more the intimate experience of war and the physical and psychological consequences of those experiences.

Truth be told that is an easy gauntlet for me to throw down to my peers, given that I am a military contractor by trade, and so while I am not a combat veteran I spend countless days and weeks in their esteemed company. In fact you could say that much of my work in NECROSPACE is a direct result from transitioning from being an independent filmmaker to being a military contractor. The notions of patriotism and the realities of economics are two powerful forces at work in all such men and women, in my experience, and working alongside them has affected both my writing and my tastes in military science fiction.

I find there to be little value, beyond momentary pulp entertainment (which is still awesome), in bigger-than-life protagonists. There isn’t much to glean from the shallow character arc of “Master Sergeant John Mack” who is the Marty Stu or Mary Stu of the usual genre fare, beyond the mindless fun of reading about a peerless badass of a character overcoming all obstacles against ridiculous odds. I am less interested in the story of a superman in power armor than I am an average soldier with an M4 (or the scifi pulse rifle equivalent). The reason is that I’ve never met super-soldier John Mack in real life, but I’ve meet hundreds of regular people who draw a modest paycheck and carry a rifle.

Realism in our portrayal of the future soldiers in military scifi is about creating protagonist characters who are not perfect warriors. Soldiers who make mistakes, who question their own loyalties and motivations, who can’t help but to bring the horror home with them, are the kinds of characters that I want to read about, and the kinds of character I do my level best to create. Whether they are a ragtag militia of scrappy folk heroes fending off an alien invasion or an elite team of space marines about to drop into hostile cyborg territory, and no matter how far-fetched or fantastical their technology happens to be it is the realism of their humanity that will ultimately engage me as a reader.

Tentacle monsters and plasma cannons are the flashy packaging that will bring me to the table, but the authenticity of the characters is what will make me a fan for life.

Back on the Payroll

I begin all of my books in the Necrospace series with this introduction:

It is the Age of The Corporation.

The common man toils under the watchful eye of the elite and their enforcers. The rules of law have long been replaced by the politics of profit. The dark ages of feudalism have returned with capitalistic ferocity. There is no peace among the stars of mapped space and business is booming.

The first three books in the series are what I’ve taken to calling “The Reaper Cycle”, and they follow the life story of a man named Samuel Hyst as he goes from new recruit fresh from boot camp to hardened veteran on the fringes of space. Samuel, or Prybar as his comrades call him, hails from Grotto Corporation, an authoritarian society that tends to grind its citizens between the gears of the military/industrial complex.

Now that we have completed our first foray into the vast setting, it is time to begin another journey, and even now I am hard at work on the first installment of the next cycle.

The new trilogy, which I am dubbing “The Swarm Cycle”, will pick up where we left off in the former storyline, near the end of the first Ellisian War. I said first, because there is too much wealth yet to be plundered from the new worlds and the Anointed Actuaries will not let any amount of carnage stand between them and the Bottom Line. This time we will be traveling with the space marines and mech warriors of Helion Corporation, a fierce socialist empire that rivals Grotto in size and ambition, as they struggle against a voracious new enemy that emerges from the darkness of space.

An enemy for whom profit means nothing.

 

Catch up on The Reaper Cycle and then get ready for the swarm!

Marine Cadets Wanted

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REAPER– Resource Exploration And Procurement Engineer Regiment

Welcome Citizen, to a new life of adventure, including meal plan and hazard pay! Because Grotto Corporation is heavily invested in exploration and military ventures there is always a place for stalwart citizens, twenty-five standard years or younger, willing to risk life and limb for incredible wages and a sense of accomplishment.

As a REAPER, your primary function will be to serve as foot soldiers and salvage specialists for militarized expeditions into regions of both mapped and unmapped space in search of raw materials ready to be exploited.

To claim or re-claim machinery, equipment, and building materials from former battlefields, space hulks, and otherwise abandoned facilities.

Base wages for training and transit time are nearly twice that of the average workforce assignment, and all recovery and combat duties come with additional hazard bonuses.

See your local recruiter for details.

Sign up today!

Warlords of the Wasteland

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Life in the Zone is usually either brutal and short or excruciating and seemingly endless, which is why the only folks who venture there are fueled by insanity, desperation, greed, or some combination of the three. By and large the human population of the known world sticks to the civilized parts of the wasteland, border towns and frontier settlements and the like, which these days takes up more and more space on the map, even if travel between all these places is still as dangerous as it ever was. The thing is that we are enjoying a bit of a post-apocalyptic Golden Age, where a person can actually live a full life, even if its a hard and dirty one that could end bad at any moment. You can actually die of old age now, and that used to be a myth about the old world told around campfires and burn barrels. Not too long ago, maybe just a generation or two, there wasn’t even a notion of the Zone, it was all just the wasteland.

The time of the warlords.

In those days of fire and blood you were either a marauder or a victim, and there wasn’t much wiggle room in between. This was a time when the chaos of the apocalypse was still fresh, and the survivors of that global Collapse were thrust into a harsh ruin of a world that they’d had a hand in making. It was total madness, but out of that storm rose individuals who were something more than common marauders, and they certainly weren’t victims. Their presence had a kind of magnetism to it, and people started banding together around these larger than life individuals who refused to be anywhere but at the top of the food chain. These individuals were fueled by ego, courage, and probably a big dose of insanity, but they persevered. As the groups following these individuals grew in size a sort of culture rose up around the men and women at the center of the storm, each culture just as radical and unique as the person it was founded on. So was born the warlords of the wasteland. They had names like Slab Dragon, Immortan Joe, Raven Ripsaw, and King Stitch, just to name some of the more famous warlords that still echo in our oral history. They built empires out of the ashes of the old world, more often than not with big guns and fast cars.

The brutal order they imposed upon their little corners of the wasteland yielded a stability, even if ultraviolent and bizarre, that brought humanity back from the brink. Immortan Joe provided water and protection from the other scary people of the wasteland, but he demanded blind obedience and the occasional harem girl. Raven Ripsaw’s people always had more food and fuel than they could possibly need, but if you didn’t pray to the unexploded Atomic God she insisted on having at the center of her camp then you’d find yourself flayed and left for the buzzards. Scary as all of this was, people could actually live a life, such as it was, and our population started making a comeback. You could actually say that they saved civilization simply by being the bloody evil bastards that they were. Enjoy civilization? Hug a warlord. Well, maybe don’t, the few I’ve seen in the Zone wear alot of spikes.

On a long enough timeline all tyrannical dynasties get their comeuppance, because you can’t rule people with fear and violence forever. Eventually someone else will come along and offer the people an alternative way of life, and have the bullets and badassery to back it up. The trick, for all of us walking the dust today, is to remember that the “better life” gets built on top of the orderly foundation laid down by the very warlords that were cast down. So next time you’re getting tossed out of town by the local constable for being too drunk and too disorderly, try to be thankful that we have things like towns and constables and whiskey, because without the warlords everywhere would be the Zone and we’d all still be living on our own and trying to avoid having marauders peel our faces off.

Booze Magick

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“With the holiday season upon us I reckon all folk, decent or wicked, will be tipping back some of the creature. Now whether that’s to fuel some heavy duty Mythos stompin’ mojo or just to handle talking to your in-laws about politics depends on how you’ve lived your life up to this point, but either way you’re fightin’ the good fight. Here’s a handy dandy reference from my Necronomicon Cookbook for what kinds of booze will yield what kinds of power, and consequences. Happy Holidays and stay sane(ish) out there!” — Clifford Bartlett  

POWER IN THE SPIRITS

Elements of Earth

Gin – Health and Vitality spells – also useful as a combination ingredient for other elixirs oriented towards the maintenance, healing, and armoring of the body. Can also be spit or finger drawn onto associated symbolic or practical items such as body armor, first aid materials, or seatbelts. Been shot, cut, bruised, stabbed, or otherwise mauled? Want to protect yourself from it in the first place? Pour some gin on the rocks or mix up a refreshing cocktail.

Beer, Wine, and Mead – Family and Community are the areas of spell work that these spirits lend themselves towards. Each is made with time, care, and attention, all carrying the flavor and mojo of the land and the people that crafted them. Hence, again, the push towards only using micro-brew beer, mead, and the more intimately created wines. It’s easy to buy the cheap stuff, but you get what you pay for my friend. This is the ‘from my table to yours’ kind of boozing and should be approached in this way as much as possible. I know it might feel like you’re being a hipster about it, but they’re onto something, and that something has power.

Element of Water

Rum – Gaining Favor or Commerce oriented spells, especially when one is attempting to engage in bribery, coercion, or barter. Useful in creating offerings to spirits of idea, element, or place. Need to pull some ‘smooth operator’ moves with the locals? Think you might need to bribe your way out of a prison cell, or call on the aid of a friendly spirit? Grab a bottle of rum and be generous with the portions, for yourself and your ‘friends’.

Elements of Earth and Water

Vodka – Relentlessness and Cold Courage are the flavors of this spirit, and the spells cast with it reflect its intractable nature. When you need to imbue yourself with the power to carry on no matter what the odds, no matter the pain, no matter the cost. When you must be brave, but near callous in your courageousness. Do you need to be the Terminator? Are you going to have to fight through a wall of pain and suffering only to find more of the same on the other side? Throw together a vodka martini or just take a pull straight from the bottle.

Element of Air

Absinthe – Divination spells, out of body Astral Travel. Consume prior to workings, or incorporate anointing or dipping the finger to draw symbols. You wanna read your future or take a spiritual walkabout? Get a few sugar cubes and drink up.

Element of Fire

Tequila – Mastery of the Present Moment kind of spells, the sort of spells that give you an edge when you need to be at the apex of the perfect union of luck, timing, and daring. Do you need to have your own heist movie? Comprised of a complex series of perfectly executed bold moves that all come together in a web of amazing success, all done with a non-existent margin of error? Do you need to ‘do it now’ and make it ‘epic’? Then have yourself a few tequila shooters, a tequila sunrise, or maybe a margarita on the rocks and make some amazing shit happen, Right Now. Remember, though, that hangovers are a bitch, and in this game coming up snake eyes means you die bloody. This is the all-or-nothing-right-fucking-now spirit.

Elements of Fire and Air

Whiskey – Defiance and Paradox. This spirit is the power behind spells that push you towards heights not typically possible even as the spirit itself drags you down. You are made stronger and weaker, sharper in some ways and yet blunted in other ways. This liquor is all about changing the way things are, but at a cost, and it’s always temporary. Are you keenly aware of the fact that you are facing down the most ancient of evils and you are but a simple man of no special significance? It doesn’t matter once you pound half  a pint of whiskey. You’ll fight and die like an 80’s action hero. Up is down and down is up, above is below and below is above, but only so long as you walk the line. When you sober up it’s all going to just be a jumble of broken glass and spent brass, but goddamn, when you’re in the hurricane of a whiskey drunk it is sublime.

Down to Ride

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I have heard it said that “cautious optimism” is something of a mental illness out here in the Zone, considering all the misery and danger that get heaped on every poor soul still breathing. Most folks suffer from this illness from time to time, usually when they’ve got full bellies, a decent place to sleep, and maybe somebody else to cozy up with until morning. Generally these fits of madness don’t last long, because sooner or later you’ll be hungry again, far from shelter, and on your own. That’s when you’ll return to a more sane and nihilistic outlook, where survival is the only thing. You’ll remember that the world ain’t getting better at all, it’s still the same hazardous ruin of a place as it ever was. It’s a vicious cycle of perspective and most of us are stuck in it, soaring with the highs of safety and abundance while riding out the lows of danger and scarcity, our states of mind pretty much dependent upon what we think we have.

I heard someone say once that a wastelander’s fate was to endure life in the constant grip of paranoia and hardship, towards no purpose but survival. Pretty dark stuff, and likely whoever said that had probably experienced the unique sensation of waking up from a restful slumber to the harsh reality of being slowly digested by a sentient cactus. That sort of thing can give a person the bleaker sort of outlook on life, the end of optimism, bottle caps having two sides and whatnot. At least that’s how I felt when it happened to me, like it would anyone else, then again, there’s always the exception to the rule, and that exception is Bart Rover.

As you are laying there, with your arms bound up in thorny pedals, watching your right leg dissolve thanks to the secretions seeping onto it from the cactus blossoms poised above your body, there’s a moment where one might insist that yes, optimism is for crazy people. To hear Bart tell it, the sight of his flesh slowly melting off the bone gave him a sudden and deep appreciation for the tenacity of life. In this scorched turd of a world here was a life form that had not just adapted, but found a way to thrive. As he looked up from his mess of a leg Bart could see that the endless barren miles of desert were obscured by dozens of large cactus plants that seemingly had appeared overnight. Needless to say it was something of a chilling sight.

Bart had been attempting to cross a particularly rugged part of the Zone on his range cycle, which wasn’t much more than a glorified dirt bike with a few pieces of armor over the gears and an extended rack for additional saddlebags. There was a salvage job waiting for him in a border settlement called Crystal Lake, which overlooked a deep and dry lakebed of the same name. Apparently some Prospector was crewing up and looking for a driver who could handle a wind skiff, presumably so that they could sail out into the lakebed and scrap one of the many beached ships from the old world. The silt was easily ten to twenty feet deep in most places, so skilled drivers who could pilot the skiffs were in high demand.

According to Bart he actually grew up in Crystal Lake, and before leaving town to explore his better fortunes he’d been quite the skiffer. Crystal Lake was deep Zone, and the border settlement was generally pretty isolated because of how long it took to get there from just about anywhere, and only a few dozen folk were ever living there at one time. If you were coming from the metropoli, or even frontier towns like Pump Station 8 or Tannerville, you had to take a long broken road, left over from the ancient world, which ran in a wide arc around the desert flats. That road, its name forgotten, connected many frontier towns and specifically the metropolis of New Anchor, which for all intents and purposes was on the other side of the world. Anybody who didn’t want to spend the better part of several weeks pushing their way across that lonely road, not to mention surviving the likely predations of banditos, mutants, dieselpunk gangs, or worse, had to move across the Zone’s brutal desert.

Our man Bart Rover didn’t get his last name for nothing, and figured he could make the run on his range cycle, packing light and watching his fuel expenditure. The first two days went without a hitch, just mile after sun-baked mile of flat desert floor and the occasional rock or tumbleweed. On the third night, just thirty or so miles out from Crystal Lake, Bart was too tired to keep driving, so he made camp. Which brings us to the part where he awoke to discover that overnight dozens of giant cactus predators had crept up on him and were in the process of liquefying his body and drinking him right up. There he was, in mortal peril, and he found himself overcome with how totally relentless and badass these plants had become. They weren’t the usual water-starved and sedentary plants he’d seen plenty of times in the wasteland, these cacti were healthy, hearty, and had progressed beyond meager survival. They were flourishing, I recall was the word he used, and in that moment he saw how a wastelander could truly live, assuming he didn’t die messy and end up cactus food.

Something I should have said about Bart at the beginning was that he’s not only one of the nicest people I know, but he’s also one of the most dangerous. That guy could kill a room full of people with his hands tied behind his back and his eyes closed. Not because he has more guns and hustle than the next guy, but because he’s got patience and the will to do what needs to be done. He and the cactus have that in common. Instead of thrashing about and getting more wounded by the thorns, further sapping his strength, which is what most of us would do, Bart just laid there nice and calm. He watched as more and more of the cactus closed in on him, and still he waited. His leg was in pain, but more that dull achy kind and not the stinging white-hot pain you’d imagine, must have been something in the goo coming from the blossoms that was numbing him.

The thing is that Bart had nearly lost his right foot in a pretty nasty auto collision, the bone was sheered in half at a sharp angle, though enough meat had hung on that he’d been able to keep the foot. Now wasteland medicine being what it is, the bone never quite re-attached all the way, even though his muscle and skin grew back over the wound like it should have. He had trouble putting much weight on it, and walked with a cane, but he got around ok. As he waited more and more of his leg was dissolved until finally all the flesh connecting his leg to his foot had fallen away. That’s when Bart made his move, and yanked hard with his leg, detaching himself from the sticky mess that used to be his foot. Now Bart had a gleaming white bone spike that he used to slice and stab at the cactus. I’m not making this up, I swear. It didn’t take long for him to be covered in the pulp and juices of the nearest cacti, and pretty soon the rest of them started backing off. They’re predators after all, not fighters, and they weren’t about to risk getting wounded and losing precious fluids and vitality. Bart knew that they’d just hang back until he was weak enough to be overtaken again, and he wasn’t about to give them that chance.

Bart reached Crystal Lake not long after, leaving the cacti in the dust, having jammed his stump into the gas pedal so he could keep the engine going, all the while still marveling at their adaptive advantages. If a dumbass plant could find a way to thrive out here, then dammit he could to. He’d had enough of just surviving, and to hear him tell it that’s what got him started on the bus.

The bus is the thing isn’t it?

I figured you’d recognize that particular tall tale. Yessir the Bart Rover of this story is The Rover you’ve heard about, maybe seen in the distance, the crazy old bastard who drives the armored bus across the Zone. When Bart got to Crystal Lake he wasn’t about to let a liquefied leg stop him, and so he bartered his way into a leg-rig that would let him use his bone peg to pilot the skiff, and he took the Prospector’s salvage job. They got lucky out there on the dead lake, and instead of suffocating in ten foot deep silt drifts or falling victim to wind stalkers they found a ship that hadn’t been picked over yet. I don’t know what they found, Bart never told me, but whatever they scored was prize enough that he was able to buy a mountain of parts and several junkers which he cobbled together to make that armored bus of his.

Bart figured that if the folks of the wasteland were gonna thrive one of the first steps would be reliable public transportation. So he started making passenger runs, starting with Crystal Lake to Tannerville, then as word spread he started moving bodies from Pump Station 8, and these days you can ride all the way out to New Anchor. It’s dangerous work, sure as sure, considering that he’ll give a seat to anyone who can pay the fare, but somehow it works. Ask most anyone and they’d say that trying to operate a public bus in the Zone is closer to having a death wish than a grand idea about making life a little bit better in the wasteland. People often place bets on how long the Rover will last until someone takes him out, but the thing is, despite the occasional marauder gang or bandito that tries and dies, it’s actually a pretty safe way to travel. All things considered, the Rover is, in his own small way, making wastelanders more connected to each other. He and his bus are bridging that gap of distance and danger as they ferry people away from trouble they might not have otherwise been able to escape or towards opportunities they might not otherwise have been able to seek.

Cautious optimism is most definitely a mental illness, and when things are at their worst may we all be gifted with such madness.

*More like this available in Wasteland Survival Guide

Once Upon a Time… in the Zone

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Wastelanders are a lot like throwbacks to ancient times, in that our tradition is an oral one. No you pervert, not that, I mean “oral tradition”, in that we are tellers of stories. The Art of Storytelling is something that most all people who live our kind of life have some skill with, even the most odious scavenger has enough awareness to tell you what nefarious deeds he was up to last week. According to Julie stories are our primary method of culture transmission, for those of us with a less fancy vocabulary storytelling is our way of getting information and entertainment at the same time. Wherever two or more people are gathered, and they aren’t busy trying to kill each other at that particular moment, then stories get told. Whether you’re taking a load off around a campfire, bellying up to the bar, or just riding shotgun, its just what you do. All we are is stories.

After Julie and I started printing and circulating the WASTELAND SURVIVAL GUIDE folks reacted, most of em liked what we had to say, the rest just laughed or put a bounty on my head just to be assholes, and only a handful tried to kill me outright.

After awhile folks started seeking me out if they laid eyes on my sorry self in one place or another. I’d get a few free drinks and people would tell me their stories, and pretty soon I started to realize I should start writing them down. The problem with an oral tradition is that if everyone who knows the story dies or disappears, then that story is gone forever, and folks die or disappear in the Zone all the time. So Julie got it in her head that I should re-tell her the stories and we’d write them down, print em up so that they wouldn’t be lost if me or the storyteller took a dirt nap. Over the next couple of months I’m going to be posting up a collection of the craziest and weirdest stories I’ve heard out there, some of them are my own, most of them were told to me by the people who lived through them. Its presented in my words, cuz dammit I’m the one telling the story, so its got my own twist and sizzle, but all in all these are the stories as they were told to me, and most of them, especially the weirder ones, I know to be true.

So be sure to check back here at least once a week and warm your hands or char some zone meat at the burn barrel while I tell you a tale, in the meantime, check out the Wasteland Survival Guide and get yourself prepared for the strangest of futures.