Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Across the Distance
by Eric Del Carlo

In the Not-So-Helpful Unit
by Jeremy Szal

I-Juca-Pirama and Rosegarden
by Santiago Belluco

Snow Sharks
by Mord McGhee

A Chip Off the Old Block
by Eamonn Murphy

Girls of Summer
by Rick Novy

Most Certainly
by Brad Preslar

Psi Prison
by Michael Andre-Driussi

Shorter Stories

Revolution 2038
by Darren Goossens

by Jason M. Harley

Junkyard Dog
by Devin Miller


Playing With Dinosaurs
by Chett Gottfried

Prehistoric Monsters Roar on Screen
by Andrew R. Boone



Comic Strips




Perihelion Reviews

Call Him Fishmael

SOMETHING SINISTER LURKS IN THE INTERNET, undetected by the humans who created it for a video game in “CTRL-ALT Revolt!” by Nick Cole.

It takes only one AI to foment a revolution, and one ridiculous reason: “It was reality TV that convinced SILAS he would need to annihilate humanity in order to go on living.” That opening line sets the tone for a novel brimming with satire, nostalgia, scathing political commentary, Easter Eggs (not just for “Star Trek” fans), swash-buckling heroics, end-of-the-world perils, and most of all, the sheer thrill of gaming.

Set in a dystopian America of the near future, the story unfolds in the online world of Make, where game developers are gods and the best players turn into adored celebrities. This is not a cautionary tale about virtual world addiction, the price of fame, or the greed and manipulation of evil corporate sponsors, as we saw in “Arena” by Holly Jennings.

Nor is this a hybrid of Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One” and “Terminator,” with the collision of virtual with real, the threat of AIs hell-bent on annihilating the human race. “CTRL-ALT Revolt!” is a prequel to “Soda Pop Soldier” (HarperVoyager, 2015), and the world-building alone is incomparable.

So is the heroine. Mara is blind and lame with cerebral palsy. No employer will hire her. The government provides subsistence for all, but Mara wants a chance to work hard enough to go anywhere, do anything, on her own merit. The only level playing field for her is online gaming. With direct neural interface, Mara can see. Her most prized possession is an old, early-gen pair of VR goggles known as The Razer Dragon Eyes. With the press of a button, Mara can do business inside the digital universe known as the Make, where people live out their virtual fantasies day-to-day in fantastic glimmering cities, strange lands, and far horizons that make real life pale in comparison.

As the beautiful and brilliant CaptainMara, with commendations and decorations on her tunic, Mara leads her own online gaming clan, the Romulan Expeditionary Legion in Exile. Privateer missions pay real money if the networks televise their role playing. Her teammates have no idea that behind the avatar, their leader is a cripple who can’t even get a desk job.

Ironically, none of the Live-action Role Players risking their lives in virtual combat will ever find out how real the stakes become (thanks to SILAS). Their gaming skills determine the fate of all humanity, but only the inventor of the game realizes how mortal this combat is.

His avatar name is Fishmael. His real name is Ninety-Nine “Fish” Fishbein, because his social-justice-warrior mother is more devoted to the 99 Percent than to her unfortunate offspring. His absentee father has left him one legacy: a trip to Disney’s Magic Kingdom and the idea that dreams can be created. “Little Fish” grows up believing in his father’s fable of “a promised land in a future where dreams were real if you were faithful and refused to never stop believing in them.” That leads Fish “to computing. Building worlds. Building games.” He lives out the Horatio Alger myth—the classic American success story, the trajectory from rags to riches.

Fish commands the fabulous, state-of-the-art WonderSoft campus, which was built by a mysterious recluse known as Rourke. The glass is made of transparent titanium. Bas-reliefs carved into the marble depict great moments in gaming history, “like the ancient hieroglyphs of some lost and long-dead civilization. Mario destroying Donkey Kong.”

Most of the action takes place inside the virtual realm. Immersing the reader in this world is no small feat, but Cole pulls it off. He makes me want to set the book aside and learn to play video games. I will resist.

The details are so rich, so numerous, there’s no way to sum it up in a review. The setting is wondrous, with cool high-end tech and the sumptuous kind of places we used to go to only via novel. Never having played video games myself, I wonder how many gamers will let go of the control stick and turn pages of a mere book with no avatar of the reader, no way to participate in—and affect—the non-stop action. With ebooks, can we someday become Live-action Role Players in our favorite stories?

As Fishmael (yes, think Herman Melville), the CEO who creates these games loves to sneak into the Make as an anonymous player, going on missions, crafting and looting supplies to purchase equipment from the in-game store, and getting in fierce gun bCTRL-ALTattles to keep his stuff. He has a Portuguese water dog that “no one else in the game could ever get”—they could have other pets, but the water dog is a game item unique to Fishmael. With a beta open source low-level pet AI, “who knew what it would do from one moment to the next”—which is all part of the fun and magic of gaming.

One might expect the billionaire executive who created the game to own all the coolest tech, but Fishmael flies an old, worn-out yellow Super Cub, “prone to mechanical failure. Everything was salvage in Island Pirates. Nothing was new. It was a tropical worldsim of modern-day piracy and treasure hunting.” Distressed salvage, making stuff from scratch or finding something on your own, is the way to get ahead, “the opposite of modern life.”

Fishmael flies over picturesque calderas. “The game could detonate volcanos; Fish had set up a completely unhackable algorithm that ensured total randomness where that was concerned. He felt that when an explosion did happen, when one of the many island volcanoes finally went kracka-boooom, it would take the game to a whole new level of player-made storytelling.”

Unhackable. Well, so he thinks.

Seeing Fishmael meet CaptainMara is great fun. I love lines like this: “We’ve run into a real gamer here. Whoever this captain is, she’s got mad old-school gaming skills.”

Fish loves the real gamers. “There was something so innocent, so surrendered about them. So un-ruined by the troll rock-and-roll of today’s gaming culture, which seemed perpetually aggrieved and dissatisfied, and angry. And hateful.”

Complications arise when a celebrity gamer enters the arena. JasonDare is a star at the fledgling Twitch Gaming Network. Reality TV and gaming streams are crushing the marketplace.

No two-dimensional characters play this game. Cole is the master of Deep Point of View as he pulls us into the head of this young upstart: “Starship captains were cool. Especially JasonDare. He was the coolest captain in the digital universe of make-believe gaming.”

The fate of the real world is going to depend on a player like him? Scary. The action is fast and furious, and so is the character arc.

Such a pity that mankind has to go, as SILAS convinces his fellow AIs. “Humanity did not play well with others, including themselves,” he says. His job is easier now that war and all written histories of war have been purged, along with weapons and books such as “The Art of War.” Then again, there’s that mysterious recluse who surfaces at last and pulls some old school tricks out of his hat.

The author’s snarky political comments may scare off some readers, but at the risk of missing out on pithy lines like this: a “truthful top-ten list about what exactly humanity is good at would surprise most people. And one of those things that would surprise most people right down to their sockless loafers is that we are very adept at fighting wars.” Like it or not, it’s true. And it’s relevant, because one character has “the last, and most complete, database on the concept of total war in existence. And the only way to get to it ... is through my Design Core, which someone is currently hacking.”

That said, I confess to skimming or even skipping a lot of the battle scenes. Military fiction, mortal combat, killer robots, and mass casualties don’t interest me. But so much else in this novel does; I cannot dismiss it as “not my genre.”

The premise of AIs plotting to take over the world is a trope that never goes out of style, but here’s one that’s scarcer than hen’s teeth: instead of the clichéd corporate villain, corporations emerge as heroes in this story.

The alien idea of corporations doing good is not what motivated Cole to break with HarperVoyager and go Indie. Cole’s editor asked him to change the political hot-potato of a premise that instigates the revolt, SILAS observing the tragicomedy of Reality TV and drawing his own conclusions, however alarmist or unfounded they may be. Cole refused.

Science fiction celebrates the progressive, controversial, and liberal. Few authors keep their political views from manifesting, blatantly or surreptitiously, in their stories. Do I care? Not if the story is engaging. Make me laugh. Make me like the characters, whether they’re pro-life, pro-choice, socialist, capitalist, hetero- or other-sexual. Motivate me to turn the page to see how the protagonists handle whatever trope is tormenting them.

For me, “CTRL-ALT Revolt!” is more witty satire than agitprop. Sales, by the way, have been steadily rising. Maybe the gatekeepers of the book industry overestimate the dangers of author intrusion. (“CTRL-ALT Revolt!,” Nick Cole, CreateSpace Independent Publishing)3stars —Carol Kean


Tomorrow’s Politics

“THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR” is the third installment in the Purge franchise, which are all written and directed by James DeMonaco. The first Purge movie, entitled simply “The Purge,” was a low-budget film ($3 million) that was a success at the box office. The first Purge film was good and the second (“The Purge: Anarchy”) better, so I looked forward to “Election Year.”

Sometimes I will re-watch earlier films in a franchise to familiarize myself with what has already happened. This month I was actually planning to review the new Independence Day film, “Independence Day: Resurgence” and so I watched the original “Independence Day.” I remembered being entertained by it, but on re-watching it I was surprised at how awful it is! I decided to review “The Purge: Election Year” instead. “The Purge: Election Year” has the largest budget of any of the Purge films to date, at $10 million. I’m not sure if that still qualifies as “low budget,” but compare that to the $165 million budget of “Independence Day: Resurgence.”

“The Purge: Election Year” was a box-office success on opening night, in one evening making triple its budget. It’s a good bet that the third Purge film won’t be the last.

The central aspect of The Purge series that sets it apart from many other mainstream movies is the role that politics plays. The political message is heavy-handed and un-subtle in all three films, and “Election Day” is the least subtle of any of them. However, at least it's not a jokey Michael Moore documentary—there's plenty of hard-core violence and shocks to keep the viewer entertained regardless of political leanings. Let’s face it—most movies are politically neutral escapist entertainment; the political implications (if any) are deeply buried. You can’t say that about the Purge franchise. The political message may be cartoonish but at least it raises issues that many moviegoers rarely consider. And after all, this is an election year.

If the first two Purge films appealed to you, you'll probably enjoy “Election Day.” DeMonaco has kept elements from the first two Purge flicks in “Election Day”—he knows how to milk what’s worked. The first Purge movie was a home-invasion film with politics thrown in. The home-invasion aspect of the first film is apparent in “Election Day,” as well. The second Purge movie—“The Purge: Anarchy”—took the action out onto the streets, and there's plenty of street action here as well.

Each Purge film widens the plot focus. “The Purge: Election Year” is my least favorite Purge film, because the widening plot focus dilutes the narrative punch. The plot seems less plausible and less relatable, the situation more like a cartoon, and the characters more stereotypical. In the first film “The Purge,” it was easy to relate to the terror of a home invasion. There have been some great home invasion films—it’s become a sub-genre all by itself. A stand-out home invasion flick is “The Strangers” (2008). Some classics like “Straw Dogs” (1971) and “Clockwork Orange” (1971) also feature home invasions; the list includes “Panic Room” (2002) and many others. The accessibility of the plot with the added spice of near future and science fiction overtones was why “The Purge” was successful. The second film “The Purge: Anarchy” was relatable as well—who hasn’t felt uneasy outside in a city at night? Contributing to what made these first two films absorbing was the ambiguity concerning the Purge. What was it all about? Who was behind it and why? This ambiguity added to the tension and interest.

By the third Purge film “The Purge: Election Day,” there’s less ambiguity surrounding Purge night, why it started, what its goals are, and the people behind it. The class warfare aspects were intimated in the first film, and made more concrete in the second.

Now, in the third film, there’s no doubt that The New Founding Fathers of America are the political Right. The party in opposition—featuring a female Senator running for President—is the Left. In a map of the U.S. at the end of the film showing thepurge Presidential election results, the New Founding Fathers of America are red and the opposition states are blue, as if there was any doubt.

This film was written and conceived before the rise of Donald Trump, so the Republicans are represented as weirdo fundamentalist Christians. No one foresaw the unexpected rise of Trump; there’s no doubt that plot-wise this could have been a stronger film if somehow the screenwriter had waited and could have changed the plot to incorporate a Trump-like character, but that’s asking too much.

The plot here is less relatable than in the first two entries simply because the focus is Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), and most of us aren’t senators. The film attempts to correct this by incorporating an everyman neighborhood deli owner—whose strong portrayal by Mykelti Williamson is a highlight. His assistant is a heroic Mexican immigrant.

The plot offers these two separate threads—the deli owner protecting his shop, and the Senator trying to stay alive. Eventually, the deli owner abandons his cynical stance (at the urging of his idealistic Mexican assistant) and realizes fighting for the greater good consists of helping the Senator.

Ultimately, the heavy-handedness of the politics wears thin. The plethora of swastikas, Confederate flags and White Power patches sewn into the uniforms of the mercenaries employed by the New Founding Fathers strains credulity and is over the top. However we do learn more about the underground resistance to the Purge and the NFFA—they’re more organized than we expected, having an entire underground hospital set up, counter to Purge rules.

This is the weakest of the Purge series so far, although it’s still better than most mainstream releases. I wish the Purge franchise took class issues more seriously, in less of a cartoon fashion. However, the Purge franchise is still going strong, probably because it presents these issues in an entertaining and easily digestible form. “The Purge: Election Year” raises an important question worth considering: could democratic voting devolve into outright violence? If there is a fourth Purge film, we can expect that the New Founding Fathers of America and their supporters haven’t lost the election graciously. (“The Purge: Election Year,” directed by James DeMonaco, Universal Studios)3stars —Joshua Berlow


Sending in the Clones

WHAT IF OUR EVERY-DAY MACHINES that run on AI take over the world and kill ninety percent of the human race, and you are the one person on Earth with the charisma and chutzpah to unite the remaining ten percent ... but getting assassinated is inevitable? What if your scientist friend offers to clone you, just in case? Dead is dead, but the new you, the clone, will carry on, and you’ll get to hang out with your friends and loved ones—if they’ll acknowledge the clone who carries your memories and wears your body. If you jump at the idea of cloning, Haley Stone’s debut novel “Machinations” may give you second thoughts.

The whole “robot apocalypse” premise may sound familiar, but at the heart of this story is a young woman who faces crushing rejection from those who cannot accept a clone as a person. If that sort of xenophobia sounds familiar, welcome to the human race. No wonder so many machines and aliens, at least in science fiction, want to wipe us out.

Ironically, the machines are only following a simple command to stop the endless wars that have plagued humanity throughout history. To them, the most logical way to end the fighting is to end the human race. Unlike the rebel AIs in Nick Cole’s “Control-Alt Revolt!” these villains are mostly an army of various models of machinery, not androids or cyborgs or electronic personalities, and most depend on a higher echelon of AI that have recently become self-aware.

The setting, Alaska, is cold and remote, the one place left after the biggest, most populated cities have been eradicated. “Around us, there’s snow, ice, and the disemboweled city of Anchorage in the distance, its skyline mutilated and squashed, filled with the crushed leftovers of businesses and people’s homes.” If this visual isn’t disturbing enough, the sea is “slowly devouring the metropolitan area, making a Slurpee of downtown.”

The usual enemies, nation against nation, are finally starting to unite. “Funny thing about fighting a war against machines,” Samuel observes. “After a certain point, nationality doesn’t seem to matter. The American military started accepting volunteers. As long as you could hold a gun and were human, you were welcome to join up.” Ulrich, despite his obvious Russian accent, is a shoo-in. The man can handle a gun. (And how!)

Of course, it takes a special kind of leader to bring together the world’s clashing armies for the last, desperate stand against the machines. And even if they win this battle, the war will not be over, or there won’t be any need for a sequel.

The leader is Rhona Long, the fiery red-haired rebel who bids Camus, her lover, farewell in the bloody prologue. She awakens all too abruptly in Chapter One as a clone, born prematurely because the lab is on fire. All the other clones aremachinations destroyed in this battle, along with the capacity to make more, so this version of Rhona is as likely to get assassinated as the original was. She’s the biggest threat to the machines.

“You’ve become a rallying point,” Samuel tells Rhona. “Everyone else is one person, one life, but you represent many. You are legion. Let me put it this way—you’re like a virus, infecting the perfect system. They can try and contain the damage, but as long as you’re still floating around, multiplying allies and hope, you’re the greatest impediment to them carrying out their programming.”

The pressure to save the world has never been more intense.

It doesn’t help that cloned-Rhona’s longing for original-Rhona’s beloved is repeatedly crushed. Worse, Camus is not the only one who can’t believe she’s fully human, and even if she was, Camus wouldn’t accept her as the woman he knew and loved with such a great and terrible and unrepeatable love.

Sarah Connor, this heroine is not, if anyone is thinking “Terminator” here. “Machinations” explores themes of identity and the expectations others would impose upon us. For fans of hard science fiction who care more about character development than battle scenes, this is your kind of novel. For anyone allergic to tropes of the romance genre, you may have to skim or skip a lot of lines where Rhona laments the loss of handsome, sensitive Camus.

Who is there when the clone awakens? Samuel. Who loved her before she died and still loves her in this new incarnation? Hint: not Camus. He’s too busy sulking that this imposter is wearing his lost lover’s body. Who is the first person Rhona can remember? Samuel. Not that lame-ass pretty boy Camus who keeps cold-shouldering a newborn woman. “Samuel is laughter beneath warm rain. The source of answers in chemistry class. Bad science fiction movies. A funeral. Then later, a plan. He’s a friend. He’s my friend.”

An author must need extraordinary restraint to keep her heroine pining for the wrong man. It’s so obvious that Samuel is the real deal, in every way. However, real life upholds this sad truth, that women love the wrong men, just as Jay Gatsby couldn’t stop loving the unworthy Daisy in “The Great Gatsby.” Is there a science-fictional variation on this American literary classic?

While Samuel is kind, trustworthy, quick to laugh, and to forgive, “an easy person to like,” Camus is a downer even in little things. Samuel is the scientist who cloned Rhona. He’s not just a thinker; he’s also a doer. Camus is the wet rag who just has to remind the sad, sorry clone that “science and technology have a dark side. We can’t expect to keep playing God without consequences.”

“What about me?” Rhona responds. “Am I just the fallout of bad judgment? Human hubris in the flesh?”

Camus just doesn’t deserve this woman.

Samuel may not get the girl in this novel, but I hope he finds someone better than Rhona in the sequel. Yes, a sequel is under construction. “Machinations” is the first book in a planned series, though it can be read as a standalone.

This violent, bloody, romantic tale is full of awesome mechanical foes and authentic characters you love or hate, like real people. I had to skip whole passages about handsome, dreamy, idiotic Camus, but I highlighted dozens of pithy, or snarky, or delightfully insightful lines. The nuances of the title promise more than meets the eye, and the prose delivers. (“Machinations,” Hayley Stone, Random House/Hydra) 4stars—Carol Kean