Our Hidden Gem for SPSFC 3 is Woe to the Victor

Cover of Nathan H. Green's science fiction novel Woe to the Victor

One of the traditions of the SPSFC is for judging teams to pick their hidden gem, a book that deserved to go further in the contest than it did. For the third SPSFC, which just concluded, our team is choosing Nathan H. Green's Woe to the Victor as our gem.

Woe to the Victor was one of the two semifinalists selected by our team, but it did not advance to the finals -- to our surprise. When we sampled all of the books in our initial allocation, we were high on this novel from the opening chapters.

Green's a corporate lawyer in Canada putting his aerospace engineering degree to use on hard SF.

His book finds humanity on the eve of total annihilation. An invading fleet of Maaravi has completely wiped out the outer colonies and come to Earth for the finishing strike. This is not a fair fight. There's nothing cocky or confident left in our protagonists. The fighter pilot Lewis Black knows that at best all he can accomplish is to buy a few extra minutes so that the humans chosen for colony ships might escape through a Vortex Generator and start over on distant planets to prolong the species. But like everyone else, Black lacks belief his mission will succeed.

Before the war Black had often wondered why soldiers in WW1 had gone over the top of the trenches, knowing they would die, knowing it wouldn't truly make a difference. How they must have felt in the moments before hurling themselves at death. Now he knew.

This fatalism was refreshing. You don't often find a MilSF novel with absolutely no triumphalism. Despite the impossible odds Black soldiers on, as do his fellow pilot Allie Perez and a civilian engineer Natasha Palmer, who is haunted by the failure of Reaper missiles in combat. Earth's greatest weapon became its greatest disappointment when used against the Maaravi. Hundreds of pilots who flew with Black and Perez are dead and Natasha has become the scapegoat. Perez puts a gun to her head when they meet and it becomes clear this is not for show. She has to be talked out of pulling the trigger.

One of the only advantages humans have in the war are the AIs aboard ship. The Maaravi, who are centuries beyond humans technologically, don't use AI because they fear it. There's probably a lesson there.

That was the real problem with humanity allowing itself a Pandora's box, whether it be nuclear weapons, genetic engineering, or AI. It was only a matter of time, be it decades, centuries, or millennia until a situation arose where things were desperate enough to open the box, and pray it could be closed later. ...

With her safeties off, Carol could have full control of the Talon, and of herself, if she wanted it. The final restraints were simply code blocks in the Talon's internal software. Against Carol those software restraints were a joke. He held his breath.

Aberrant code scrolled over the screen.

The lack of AI safeguards plays out in the relationships between Black and Carol, the AI aboard his fighter who is his closest friend, and the AI Arce aboard the SFS Yorktown, whose commander describes her using a contemptible slur and yearns for an excuse to shut her down.

Green does a good job of doling out information on the Maaravi and why they're determined to eradicate humanity. Readers get enough to keep going but remain almost as starved as the protagonists for knowledge that can save the day. By the time you learn the Maaravi's motivation, it has a compelling logic. When you can leave human readers in doubt about whether humans should not be completely wiped off the universe, that's good writing.

The novel could use some polish to fix minor typos and punctuation, though overall it's a pleasure to read. There's a lot of action but what elevates it are the moral dilemmas faced by the characters. As Black, Natasha and Perez improbably survive a series of incredibly dangerous situations, because so many others die they must make decisions that will decide the fate of two species.

The ending is close to perfect, fully realizing the premise that gives the book its title.

There's also a cat.

Our SPSFC 3 Semifinalists

The trophy awarded to the book that won the second SPSFC (Self-Published Science Fiction Competition), Last Gifts of the Universe by Rory August
The SPSFC Trophy

After starting out with an initial allocation of 25-27 books and choosing our top six as quarterfinalists, each team in the SPSFC had the difficult task of picking just two books to advance to the next round.

The voting was close, but two books were the consensus choice of Team ScienceFiction.news to be our semifinalists:

Here are comments made by our judges about Children of the Black:

Richard:

I was hooked on this book from the second paragraph where, describing space travel, W J Long III sums it up perfectly: "And yet, for all its fearsome and unforgiving menace, fragile beings had taken to it. They had made the lifeless vacuum passable, if not pedestrian. In tiny tombs, they reached out across the dark face of oblivion and made it their own. Though it waited endlessly to consume them, they did not fear it. Instead, they respected it." I cannot think of a better description of our fearful and fearless battle to conquer space travel.

Alex Bree:

Military space opera with human genetic testing and alien life form science experiments gone awry. Interesting concept and take on the intersection of alien life form and human genetics, along with the psionic mind-reading powers. Compounding tension and layers upon layers of conflicting motivations and obstacles made this for an interesting read, and full of action. Big universe feel!

David DuBois:

This is a complex space opera that takes place at the end of a thousand-year-long, galaxy-spanning war between the Sabiens and the Beita. A mercenary group called the TaskMasters are assigned to ransack a research base, a last-ditch technology grab "off the books," so as to not harm the truce. What they find has vast implications for the newly formed peace, and key members of the group break off to protect these secrets. ...

I enjoyed this book because it has depth. The world-building is intricate. Every character has a backstory and inner monolog that allows you to understand their motivations and actions. The good guys aren't completely good, and the bad guys aren't completely bad.

Here are comments our judges made about Woe to the Victor.

Alex Bree:

Action-packed military space opera with moral dilemmas, competing goals, and exciting battle scenes. Captain Lewis Black, Lead Engineer on the failed Reaper missile program Natasha Palmer, and Lt. Allie Perez fight to prevent the end of the world. They know their deaths will buy the colonists fleeing the planet only minutes, and yet they are each determined to make those minutes count. Little do the invading Maaravi know, humanity isn't going down without a fight. And then at the end, you question whether humanity even deserves to be saved. The choices, struggles, and mentality of those on Earth facing certain death is thought-provoking. There are poignant nods to WW II warfare and other conflicts where only death was certain, and yet, brave warriors cling to ideas and values greater than themselves. There is a determination and strength constantly present in the atmosphere even in the bleak circumstances.

Richard:

Zipping back and forth in time, Green lays out the battle for human existence through the eyes and actions of a small but significant cast including spacecraft pilots, a civilian munitions expert, a Maaravi prisoner of war, a young girl, an AI and a cat. Green has used his significant writing abilities to weave a believable, though a bit scientifically improbable, storyline out of this diverse cast.

Woe to the Victor is a gripping story with lots of action, believable and interesting characters, and quite a few philosophical and moral questions. ... This is definitely one of the best science fiction books I have read this year.

David DuBois:

In a refreshing take, I think the various artificial intelligences were my favorite characters.

When I first started reading this story, I thought the writing was well done but I found the plot to be a bit depressing. I kept at it and came to enjoy the resolve of the people the story focuses on. Things don't always go as planned, but everyone keeps fighting and finding ways to move forward. This kind of story, with everything going against the protagonist(s), often ends up with the "exploits villain's fatal flaw" ending. This refreshingly was not that. Does the story have a happy ending? I'm not going to say, but I really liked it.

SPSFC 3 Quarterfinalist: Cydonia Rising by Dave Walsh

After three months of reading and two months of revealing our quarterfinalists, Team ScienceFiction.news is ready to close the book on the first stage of the third Self-Published Science Fiction Competition. Our sixth and final quarterfinalist is Cydonia Rising by Dave Walsh.

Science fiction is a broad genre and this contest of self-published authors takes entries across every subgenre. But like the Muppet Sam the Eagle, who titled his most bombastic patriotic number "A Salute to All Countries (But Mostly America)," the SPSFC at times can feel like a salute to all subgenres but mostly space opera.

There's a lot of great space opera in the rankings of the first two SPSFCs, including the first winner Iron Truth by S. A. Tholin. This time around our judges thought Walsh's novel was a worthy example of science fiction at operatic scale we were eager to continue reading.

The first in a sprawling cast of characters we meet are Jace, a widowed space trucker scraping out a living on the fringes, and Kat, a woman he plucks from space who has the bad manners to immediately hold him at gunpoint.

"Okay," he gulped, trying to find a way to either reach for his gun or somehow talk her down. "You were floating with what my ship read to be about one day's left of life support out here in deep space. I was just trying to be a nice guy."

"I've met my share of nice guys." She grabbed a hold of his arm and pushed him face-first against the life pod. Her rough gloved hands were patting him down and his pistol slid from the holster. "This the only weapon you had on you?"

"Yeah," he groaned, his face burning up against the cold life pod. "Can you let me go now?"

Space is enormous but the two discover that they share a common enemy -- her brother Cronus Freeman, the emperor who ascended to the throne of the Andlios Republic over the corpse of their father. He had Jace's wife killed for protesting the repeal of a law protecting the freedom of information.

Our judge Richard offered his five-star recommendation on Goodreads:

Space opera fans, this is a book for you! We have empires, royalty, palace intrigue, multiple planets, worm holes, anti-heroes, strong female characters, space travel, cybernetic implants, and a little romance.

I really enjoyed this book. While space opera is not my "go to" science fiction, the complex action, evolving characters, and complex plot lines made this a very engaging read.

Cover of Dave Walsh's science fiction novel Cydonia Rising

SPSFC 3 Quarterfinalist: Drones by R.J. Haze

After some of our judges read the first 15-20 percent of our 25 books and others read each one in full, Team ScienceFiction.news chose our six quarterfinalists for the third Self-Published Science Fiction Competition.

Four of those quarterfinalists have been announced on this blog in previous posts. The fifth can now be revealed as Drones by R. J. Haze.

The author begins the novel by treating their protagonist like he was Hans Gruber at Nakatomi Plaza:

The world rushes past in a blur. Glass and concrete buildings. Skybridges. People staring, pointing. Gone in a flash. The wind whips my breath away, makes it hard to suck down air. Below, I see the roads and cars and pedestrians all rushing up to meet me as quickly as terminal velocity. Hard to hear anything over the sounds of the wind and my own racing heartbeat, but I hear the alarm. My Personal Device reads my altitude and tells me it's time.

I pull the cord on my parachute and feel the rush as it catches on the air and tugs at me, slowing me down and pulling me upright. I start to drift, letting the chute and the wind take me where it will. The uncertainty is all part of the experience. Not true powerlessness, but then not everyone wants it pure.

James Garrick made the base jump not for thrills but for profit. His job is to experience extreme emotions so they can be harvested from his body and implanted in customers. There's good money in Emotional Transference, but he chose the field because he carries emotions too painful to bear.

A mark of a promising novel is to evoke empathy in the reader. When Garrick explains that by arrangement his harvester also takes away "anything I feel about Summer or Susan or Mars," those nine words establish a poignant connection to a character who wants to be described as emotionless.

Judge D. M. Barnham was "fully immersed" in the story at the 20 percent mark and eager to continue, noting in particular one impressive aspect of Haze's writing:

One thing that popped out straight away and impressed me is that this is written in first person present tense. That's pretty damn hard to pull off and I didn't even realise it at first. It's so naturally written it flows without me noticing and when I did notice I had a 'Wait a minute' moment and had to go back and consciously read the wording. I quite enjoy present tense but I've rarely seen it in novel format. So kudos to the writer.

The central conceit of the novel -- the accumulation and extraction of feelings -- becomes a playground for Haze to explore the inner life and trauma of poor Garrick. Even frequent sex with another fine young Drone is just a business arrangement to create feelings of companionship he wants to shed. "Contentment. Happiness," he thinks in a post-coital moment. "I don't deserve to feel those things, best I give them away as soon as possible."

Cover of R.J. Haze's science fiction novel Drones

SPSFC 3 Quarterfinalist: Children of the Black by W. J. Long III

Writers are often told to begin in the middle of the action. The fourth quarterfinalist chosen by Team ScienceFiction.news for the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition begins after one thousand years of action.

Children of the Black by W. J. Long III takes place at the end of an interstellar war fought longer than any current combatants have been alive. A special ops team is sent on one last mission.

He'd seen the broadcast. The truce was signed. The war was over, and all ships had been officially ordered to withdraw from Sabien territory except theirs. Evidently, some dirty deed was left to do before the smoke cleared and the task fell to them. ...

Claude slung his rifle and slammed his locker door shut. "We really don't need another black op."

"You think I don't know that?" Miranda said. "Morale's low as it is. The last thing anyone needs is a glorified band of mercenaries ruining the truce by sticking their noses where they don't belong."

A weapons research platform on Jaiden III has gone dark. A team of six volunteers has three hours before the Sabiens arrive to grab whatever classified tech they can and get out without endangering the fragile, hard-won peace.

As you might expect, it doesn't go to plan. Exactly how it goes wrong becomes a mystery to unravel because Long jumps ahead in time, as judge David Dubois explains in his GoodReads review.

What they find has vast implications for the newly formed peace, and key members of the group break off to protect these secrets.

The bulk of the story is how these characters reconnect years later, no longer allies but with varying degrees of animosity and grudges to resolve. They meet again on Minerva Prime, where one of our main protagonists has been hiding out, barely getting by, protecting the secrets from the mission years earlier.

In a well-crafted space opera setting, the novel does a good job portioning out information so that readers are left hungry for more. Deciding whether to keep reading after the 10- to 15-percent mark was easy for our team of judges.

Cover of W. J. Long III's science fiction novel Children of the Black

SPSFC 3 Quarterfinalist: In the Slip by F. D. Lee

Part of the challenge of being a judge in the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition is to assess novels that aren't a good fit with your own personal taste. Some readers love time-travel stories. Others wish they could go back and undo the decision to read them.

The third quarterfinalist selected by Team ScienceFiction.news in SPSFC 3 is the time-travel novel In the Slip by F. D. Lee, which was recommended even by judges who do not make time for the subgenre.

One of those judges, David Dubois, explained on Goodreads how it won him over:

Time travel has been played out, but this version has specific constraints that make the plot believable. The reveals come in layers, slowly bringing the story elements together in a consistent and interesting way. There are surprising twists and turns that I found unpredictable and exciting (and sometimes weird -- but in a good way).

The world-building, a dystopian future blending environmental issues, class segregation, and hyper-commercialism, is top-notch.

The novel has a world-weary protagonist with a voice distinctly his own from the first sentence: "Want is the greatest crime we ever commit against ourselves, I reckon."

Kong is a Trans-Temporal Copyright Agent working a mission of no particular importance when he sees a man in a bar he feels like he met before, in his own before.

Lee writes:

No one can say I broke the rule when I didn't know this was gonna happen, is what I'm saying.

This is how it is: shit goes south pasttimewise, but the One True Timeline gets restored, and it all comes back to normal, or close enough. But here's the itch: pasttime and presenttime aren't the same thing, not when you live them both, and presenttimewise, here he is. And along with him there's this oddness in my stomach, a sharp softness.

I don't know what's gonna happen.

So, I ain't breaking no rules, I reckon. Just exploring this slip. Yeah. Gathering intel, clocking up new factors, working out new wants. Just so happens some of them are mine.

The book borrows style and cynicism from cyberpunk, deriving gigawatts of irony from how hard Kong works to save the timeline integrity of a future that doesn't sound worth saving.

In the first stage of SPSFC many judges stop reading novels at the 10 or 15 percent mark to give a Yes or No vote on whether to continue. In the Slip is a novel we all wanted to spend more time in.

Cover of F. D. Lee's science fiction novel In The Slip

SPSFC 3 Quarterfinalist: The Widow's Tithe

Twenty five books enter. Six books leave.

The next quarterfinalist selected by Team ScienceFiction.news for the third Self-Published Science Fiction Competition is The Widow's Tithe by T.R. Peers.

In a future even more rotten with social media influencers than the present, Sasha Michaels has 100 million followers and is rocketing towards the top ranks of the entire OmniVerse. She has money, fame and telegenic good looks -- some of which she didn't even have to buy on the operating table. She also has a famous husband, Alex, who undertakes livestreamed special ops missions as a mercenary called a HotDropper. Though their marriage is secretly a sham, the publicity they've achieved is wedded bliss.

The perfect life Sasha has scripted for herself slams into a devastating plot twist during a HotDropper mission to free hostages at a helium mine on the Moon. Alex dies on a live feed in front of millions of viewers.

The next morning Sasha learns the dystopian corporation that invested a fortune in Alex's training has the contractual right to be paid back. Because he slipped the surly bonds of earth and his debts, repayment falls to her. This policy is called the Widow's Tithe.

The lawyers that came with good news never talked about "associates." Associates was a bad-lawyer, don't-blame-me-blame-the-system word. ...

"As you'll see from section 86, when a LifeWise employee dies without outstanding debt to the company in the excess of 20 million NSC, their spouse becomes indentured to the company as per the Revised Corporate Anti-Slavery Code of 2129. You will serve in the Tithed Infantry, under the command of LifeWise TacCom, until such time as the debt is cleared, you die, or you reach the age of 50. Should you reach the age of 50 with the debt still in excess of 20 million, you will be transferred to a rear echelon duty posting until retirement."

The world began to spin around Sasha, and she felt her gorge rising. "I ... what?"

Peers opens the novel with a healthy amount of sex, a dizzying fusillade of jargon and a sly sense of humor reminiscent of John Scalzi's Old Man's War. There are frenetic passages told in screenplay form that depict live broadcasts along with longer passages more traditionally told.

The judges of the team are as eager to see where The Widow's Tithe leads as we are concerned about the debt obligations accrued by matrimony.

Cover of T.R. Peers' science fiction novel The Widow's Tithe