Buying Into M-theory
A LONE FIGURE WALKS THE SAND and ash of an alien world, its many moons casting a star of shadows around her, Joe Occipinti writes in “Ashfallen.”
The opening lines are stark, yet visually stunning. They reel me in.
“Here I am,” Krynna says to the desert, her voice “as skeletal as the air itself,” the words “taken from her lips as if the land starved for them.” The thin wind raises enough ashy sediment to lash her cheeks.
She’s on a mission, this ocean girl, on a world so dry, it may kill her before she finds the enigmatic nomads of Od-Siing. The “League” is on a mission, too: stamp out every one of her kind, and the secrets this girl may uncover.
Fans of Occhipinti already know about The League if they’ve read “Strangers in the Gale (Children of the Three Suns Book 1),” a 2013 semi-finalist in Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Contest.
Occipinti transports readers into a world that is as tangible as it is mystical: the night sky is “far grander and more intricate” than on Krynna’s perpetually cloudy homeland, Ondas. “Here the stars shone blue, yellow, and even deep red. It was all so strange and so beautiful,” but the clear, dry air comes with a price. It’s killing her.
Three suns, three planets, three distinct races of beings who share a common origin. The planets are Uduani, Daalv and Od-Siing. The third sun collapsed and the remaining two are known as “The Twins.”
I love the world building and the mythical tone: “At some point in the vastness of geological time and through the long pull of gravity, silicate dust and other debris had accreted into a small, barely spherical moon.”
In Book One, The League commits genocide on Daalv, the oceanic planet, and enslaves the people of the arid world, Od-Siing. The League learns of documents from an ancient civilization which would reveal that the three peoples of Uduani, Daalv and Od-Siing have a common origin. This is not good. To justify their conquests, the League must keep the ancient lore of a shared humanity top secret.
Daalv is liberated, but the Uduani go on to colonize (and dominate) the planet of Od-Siing. With Book Two, Krynna and others who appeared in the first novel are joined by new characters, including Uduani citizens opposed to The League, more of the Daalv, more nomads of Od-Siing. Krynna is The Chosen One, sent to fire up a rebellion among Od-Siing’s nomads, who have become second-class citizens and servants of the Uduani.
Political turmoil isn’t the half of it: Od-Siing is undergoing a massive geological transformation caused by the extreme elliptical course of its orbit. Powerful volcanic activity may destroy their world, but the nomads will survive in secret caves, if they ever find the documents left by the ancient civilization who built these caves.
Complicated? It’s easier to follow in fictional form, when the story unfolds step by step, one clue unearthed after another.
In “Strangers in the Gale,” young biologist Bernardo comes across an aboriginal girl on a supposedly uninhabited planet. He gets caught up in a secret world of rebellion and espionage, and uncovers a genocidal policy by his government directed against the girl’s culture. The same theme emerges in “Ashfallen.” Krynna is unconscious and half-dead when a nomad and his grandchildren, the twins Durai and Quan, find her and save her life.
For Durai, it’s love at first sight.
We know from the start that Durai’s people thrive in the desert, while Krynna’s require the wet atmosphere of an ocean world. This looks like a most inauspicious beginning for a love story. Fortunately, “Ashfallen” is much more than a love story. No annoying tropes of the romance genre here—though I found myself wishing for this trope: “Oh, it only looked like we died; but hey, we survived, and here we are! Yay!” <sigh> Not in this book.
Hard science fiction can be hard on soft-hearted readers. This may be why the genre has a reputation for flat, 2D characters (no, you won’t find any here). It’s cruel, authors making readers love all these vivid, memorable heroes, then making us see these people die.
So, a fairy tale, this is not. A classic, it is.
Occhipinti takes the main characters from initial distrust to a gradual understanding of each other and the emotional bonds that build between them. Krynna, ocean girl from Daalv, takes forever to realize she loves Durai, a nomad of the arid world Od-Siing. She has so many bigger, more urgent issues to think about than a boy who’s crushing on her. For starters, Krynna is a living legend, the one key to a lost library of knowledge that, when found, could help liberate an entire solar system.
The League is bent on destroying Krynna’s people. Ancient volcanoes are rumbling. She faces a cataclysm of fire in a foreign land. Hang in there, Durai! When the dust settles (and the ash), Krynna may have time for you. There’s a Book Three in the works.
But before we jump that far ahead, let’s go back to the old nomad and his grandchildren who find the girl who fell from the sky. A surprise raid separates Durai from his heart’s desire, Krynna, and his soul’s other half, his twin sister. The girls flee to a distant asteroid station, and a new cast of characters take the stage. A young prospector has seen the same ancient script that the legendary Krynna is destined to dig up from its hiding place.
The prospector persuades an older woman with an exotic pet to leave town (leave the whole asteroid!) and go on an adventure with him. I love this subplot. The colonel’s exotic animal leads him to a princess, whose usefulness isn’t what one might expect. The Colonel goes into hiding, but not forever, and not without a compelling reason.
So many secrets to uncover, so many characters—speed readers, you’ll have to slow down for this one. Aicobo, a pilgrim and holy man from the ocean world, takes Durai to find his sister and the girl he loves. With Krynna, the nomads seek to uncover a truth so powerful, it could alter the very meaning of existence for the people of the three suns.
In places, the novel may seem more fantasy than science fiction, but Occhipinti keeps a firm grasp on the hard science. Never mind the crystals or the mythical city of the ancients. If you refuse to buy the idea of astrometric algorithms that allow corvettes to speed across the universe on the power of m-currents, you’ll miss out an epic ride.
No fair asking if I “buy” or “understand” M-theory myself. Of course not! My high school algebra classmates were like Mozarts to my Salieri, but even if I don’t get it or can’t articulate it, I enjoy trying.
It’s just out of reach but tantalizingly plausible. A “field of subatomic particles materialized and shaped itself around the ship, propagated by discrete waves of electromagnetically charged ions. The m-field waxed and waned, until finally harmonizing the ship with the gas giant’s cacophony of magnetic voices. It was simply incredulous.”
I may never know if M-theory is credible, but I do know it cannot be “incredulous.” People may be incredulous when seeing an incredible sight, but the sight itself is not capable of credulity. Not to worry: picking words that only sound right is a plague so common, there’s a word for it. Mondegreen. The almost-right word may pull a reader out of a story, momentarily, but most of the time, we hop right back on for the wild ride.
And I love this ride. She “felt the sharp pull of acceleration as a sickening feeling deep in her gut. The tiny moon quickly disappeared from view, lost in the vastness of the Vicani system ... the ship would now align to the stellar-generated ultramagnetic currents that propagated through the solar system like meandering rivers.”
If there’s anything wrong with the science there, I don’t want to hear it. Captain, my captain, take me away!
The cast of characters is as large as the setting. A sense of other peoples, other cultures, runs quietly through the novel, an undercurrent that enriches the tale. In the late 1990s, Occhipinti lived with two different communities in South America, one in the Andes mountains and one in the Chaco Region. His writing style and world-building convey this sense of living in a strange or unfamiliar culture.
“I was deeply moved by the uniqueness and beauty of the landscape and the people there,” Occhipinti emailed me. “In many ways, you could still experience the legacy of colonialism, racism and oppression, things I had studied in college, but this was a new dimension, personal and tactile.”
Occhipinti’s unique prose style conveys that sense of being in another world, encountering foreign peoples. For the most part, simple word choices carry the reader along in a subtle, intuitive way. For me, word choices sometimes get in the way of the story. In Chapter 9 we learn one of the languages in the novel, Singaii, “did not contain much in the way of personal pronouns,” and then it made sense: the author is trying to convey a foreign mindset with his alternatives to pronouns. E.g., Krynna might be referred to as the Daalv, the young Daalv, the tall, slender Daalv; Mariana might be the scientist, or the biologist; Sean is a farmer, a former farmer, or even “the once-agronomist.” There’s the young physicist, the Vicani woman, Jaielle, Baxter, the twin rebels, the old supply chief, the prospector, the Pa-Jsune, and so on.
One reason I avoid fantasy as a genre is the made-up names and unfamiliar syntax. Sometimes it’s easy to follow. Other times, I’m shaking my fist at Double Dragon’s editors, who let slide sentences like this: “The much broader man picked the thin scientist up and twirled her around.”
But don’t let that stop you from experiencing an epic tale told with passion and authenticity. “My experiences in South America so touched my imagination that I chose to express my experience by writing a science fiction novel,” Occhipinti states. “One of the reasons I am an avid fan of the genre is because it allows us to envision human potential in wonderfully liberating ways.”
Like the earlier “Strangers in the Gale,” this novel shows how humans in a conquered and marginalized culture can endure, rise above adversity, and forge common bonds.
Now there’s a theme that never goes out of style. (“Ashfallen,” Joseph Occhipinti, Double Dragon eBooks) —Carol Kean
Greek Tragedy Over Saturn
GETTING “SPACED” USED TO MEAN something fairly harmless and fun, but science fiction authors have turned it into a death sentence more certain, more horrifying, than walking the plank. Great adventure stories used to deliver protagonists who’d survive getting planked. How last-century. Two novels in a row, I’ve witnessed spaceship doors open only to have perfectly good people sucked into the icy vacuum of the universe. Oh, I’ve complained. Why invent these memorable characters and go to great lengths to bring them to life and get me to care about them, only to make me see them getting flushed into eternity? It happens in Joe Occhipinti’s “Ashfallen.” It happens in Rhett Bruno’s “From Ice to Ashes.”
Bruno apparently took it to heart last year when I said “Titanborn” reads like a Greek Tragedy.
“Hah!” he tweeted. “Science fiction Greek Tragedy. It's my specialty!”
“Science fiction noir at its finest!” is what David Simpson, author of the Post-Human series, called that novel. Call it what you will; just keep me away from any more compelling and magnificent stories from an award-winning Random House novelist who has a career as a professional architect and a misleadingly wholesome, boyish author photo.
“From Ice to Ashes,” the rallying cry of Titan’s martyrs and revolutionaries, is a dead giveaway of a title, if ever I saw one. Nobody’s compelling me to get clobbered watching more beloved characters suffer and die in another brutal Bruno novel.
“There will be some bittersweet endings one day though, I promise,” Bruno tweeted.
Bittersweet, not happy ending? Sorry. My heels dug deeper into terra firma. And yet, like a lemming to the sea, heeding some literary Pied Piper, despite the title with its Biblical reminder of ashes to ashes, dust to dust, I started reading “From Ice to Ashes.”
Murder, blood, bodies twitching in the throes of death, in the very first paragraph? And I kept reading this because ... why?
There’s the taut pull that Bruno’s prose exerts on our emotions, but I hate that about him. Hate it, hate it, hate it. And yet I cannot avert my gaze. The world-building is spectacular. So what? Lots of novels offer that—without the anguish of meeting lovable mute Gareth, his tongue “sliced off at the back of his throat by the Earther captain.” Dexter, the villain in the wheelchair, had both legs crushed by machinery, which is all in a day’s work for too many Ringers amid the clamor of welding torches and raucous machine belts. Those who aren’t dying of off-worlder germs are snorting synth drugs. What reader wants to invest hours of her life in this world?
The genius of the novel is that Bruno’s characters feel absolutely real. Once he launches into a tale, the story moves along at a thriller's pace, yet our involvement with his characters just deepens. What happened to the cardboard cutouts and 2D characters that allow fans of violent thriller genres to regard this stuff as escapism?
Bruno gives us a sympathetic collection of ruffians, revolutionaries, hit-men, idealists, screw-ups, lost souls, and damaged human beings. They suffer the consequences of fragile alliances, loving those who can’t love in return, putting career before family, risking lives to save the world. How can we help but love them, flawed and human as we are?
Keeping Bruno’s cast of heroes, villains, and in-betweens straight is a challenge, what with the similar names: Dexter the villain, Desmond the annoying coworker, Maya the assassin, Mazura, the hacker—and lover of Malcom in Book One. With so many rebels, terrorists, subplots and even worlds, it’s hard to do justice to a plot summary. Yet for all the disparate elements, Bruno achieves a oneness of tone, structure, and movement. His work possesses mythic elements, along with an understated, unconventional love story for the modern, tormented soul.
I was so mad at him for it, I dropped “From Ice to Ashes” cold. Happy endings exist, and I’d find ’em! My Kindle is packed with titles like “Capturing the Cyborg’s Heart,” “Love in Space,” “Alien Bride,” and—uh, hey, I was afflicted with existential angst and despair, thanks to Rhett Bruno. What can I say?
Sadly, I couldn’t swallow the cure. Not with lines like “my heart jumped into my throat, happy and eager to mate for life” with a scaly man who has six-pack abs and dragon wings. Okay, back to Bruno, especially on hearing that “Titanborn” won another award, not from tragedy-loving, classics-pushing professors, but from regular book buyers who launched Bruno to the top of the annual Preditors & Editors Readers Poll (for “Titanborn,” 2016).
The backstory would be worthy of a prequel, but we already know the ending.
“Titanborn” opens with a ruthless anti-hero, Malcolm Graves, chasing down the leader of some rightly disgruntled miners, and witnessing their incredible resolution to die rather than concede to corporate demands. It’s just one scene of many that a reader can never un-see. By the end of the novel, Malcolm finally starts questioning orders. His creed was simple: do what he’s told, no questions asked, and collect his pay. For thirty years he’s killed whoever he was hired to, until some of those Ringers start tugging not just the readers’ heartstrings, but his as well.
We will not discuss the ending of that novel.
I thought “Ice to Ashes” was a sequel, but instead, it’s more like an overlap. The first-person narrator is eighteen-year-old Kale, who'll do anything to protect his dear, long-suffering, quarantined mother, even give up his life of crime. But crime is about the only way he'll ever come up with the credits to pay her medical bills.
Time after time, de ja vous turned into “aha!” when I realized I was reading about the same thing that happened in “Titanborn,” but from a different point of view. Certain people from that novel would make a sneaky cameo, like the Q-zone doctor we recognize as Malcolm’s daughter even though we never see the name Aria. We even recognize Malcolm and Zaff, when Kale watches a grainy newsfeed in the aftermath of his unfortunate new role as a rebel. A reporter tells the story of Ringers attempting to crash a gas harvester loaded with flammable gases into Pervenio Station—but an unidentified Collector “heroically” thwarted the attack and managed to detain surviving crew members. The reader sees through Kale’s eyes a pair of men in Pervenio armor: one a middle-aged Earther with graying hair, the other tall and young, with a strange yellow-colored lens apparatus stretching over his right eye. They barely attract Kale’s notice or interest. But we notice. We remember.
When Cora is taken prisoner, we hustle back to the previous book to re-read that scene from Malcom’s point of view. Clever, if you like Easter Egg hunts. Maddening, if you hate yourself for loving characters who face only bad choices or worse choices, and no matter what, they’ll unleash terrible consequences.
Our hero Kale turns out to be more than he appears to be, and much more than he ever could have imagined himself to be. It’s worthy of the “Star Wars” theme music, except for the part where we realize we read about Kale’s father in “Titanborn” without having any clue as to his true identity. Oh, the timing, the what-ifs, the Greek tragedy of it all!
One of the motifs, the haunting Greek chorus, is that back story. In what would be twenty years from our time, a visionary thinker, say, a better version of Elon Musk, learns a meteorite is heading toward Earth. The visionary Darian Trass builds a space ship and plans a colony on Titan. Only the most qualified humans are allotted a place in the limited space of the ship. A statue on Titan commemorates the great man on his final day on Earth, standing beside a little girl as they point toward the sky. All Ringers (so called for Saturn’s rings) know the story: Trass sacrifices his position on his ship so that the girl can go, even though she doesn’t meet the requirements. He could sacrifice any of the other three thousand passengers—“He could’ve been king of Titan if he’d wanted. Instead, his line merely became one of the many families that helped establish The Ring in the centuries that followed.”
September 3, 2034 (omigosh, that’s in our lifetime!), is the day the Meteorite wipes out nearly all of humanity from the universe. “Titanborn” opens with a band of rebels plotting a terrorist attack during the commotion of “M-Day,” favorite holiday of Earthers whose ancestors survived the Meteorite.
Ringers, on the other hand, celebrate Trass Day, the date his chosen ones first touched down on Titan, November 10, 2036. These dates could make a person nervous. Let us remember, though: Bruno is an architect, not a scientist, not a prophet. Twenty years from now, if any meteors head our way, we’ll have implemented plans to divert objects threatening to smash into us. At least, I hope we do.
While billions drown or burn or get crushed, and animals are hardest hit by the Meteorite, humans don’t go extinct after all. Survivors “rebuilt their world, all while seeking new ones so that Armageddon could never happen again. They spread from Earth to Mars, to the asteroid belt, and then beyond.” They reached Titan, where Trass’ people have established a new human civilization. “It was supposed to be an incredible moment of unity after centuries apart, but with the Earthers came all the sicknesses our immune systems had forgotten about” since the annals of pre-Meteorite Earth. Thousands upon thousands of Ringers died off; the Earthers established “order” with quarantines (Q-zones) and separated living areas before more of their kind overran Titan.
One post-apocalypse group believes the Meteorite served as a cosmic punishment for our transgressions. Others abandon faith in some form of higher power and cling instead to tangible things, like power and wealth. Corporations rebuild Earth, colonize Mars, mine asteroids, and recreate all the old problems of greed, exploitation, and suffering, even as Big Government controls all aspects of human society to ensure “Never Again” will humans face extinction. Never will they see the irony of sacrificing innocent people for the alleged good of others, namely, their own self-serving interests.
The Titan-born have evolved into tall, thin, pale humans, adapted to extreme cold and low gravity. Ringers, ever in fear of infection from off-worlders, wear masks and gloves as they slave away in noodle factories, mines, and gas harvesters, scary old space ships that extract precious gases from Saturn’s rings. Life is cruel. And cold. Evil lurks in the very language and the corporate names. Pervenio. Vento. The Collectors and Bounty Hunters they hire.
Somehow, I actually hoped things would go better in the second novel, but consider what sells: “Game of Thrones” and “Outlanders”—the books, the TV shows—deliver nothing but suffering, conflict, violence, and loss of loved ones, scene after scene. So, it should come as no surprise when I scream “Bruno did it again!” I feel like Charlie Brown running after Lucy’s football. Where are the triumphant scenes of victory and glory, the soaring notes and roaring fanfare that underscore all the “Star Wars” soundtracks by John Williams?
Okay, maybe it’s a little gratifying when our hero, Kale Drayton, spaces one of the villains, who “couldn’t even scream as Titan’s cold embrace greeted him ... I could hear the thud of his body falling forward into the hatch. A swipe across the controls signaled the airlock to repressurize, and the inner seal slid back,” (and I won’t say whose!) “frozen body fell through. His head and torso cracked into so many pieces they looked like one of Saturn’s ice rings wrapping ...” Well, you need to read the whole scene, the whole book, to really feel the impact.
All right. Fine. Never mind that Bruno has no compunction about killing his characters. (In lurid detail.) This guy knows how to write. If only he wrote badly, I could ignore him, but no, he’s a master at world building, character development, and the art of storytelling.
“From Ice to Ashes” is as every bit as Biblical as the title threatens. Tragedy, noir, ethical action saga, “just fiction, honey.” Whatever it is, Bruno spins it with consummate skill. (Dismissing anything as “just” fiction, i.e., “not real,” only inflames rather than consoles me, but I’ll save that rant for another day.)
If only he wrote badly, I could ignore him. (“From Ice to Ashes,” Rhett C. Bruno, Random House Publishing Group/Hydra) —Carol Kean