Friday, May 31, 2024

Review: Space War epic Alpha Wave

Alpha Wave (The Sleepers War Book 1) 

Blackstone Publishing; 2023. 764pp.

Jonathan Maberry and the late Weston Ochse take the space war epic in new directions - out into the universe and into the heart - in this gripping tale of resistance.   

Some the elements here, like forgotten or cast-aside supersoldiers and a battle that will remind you of the end of Star Wars: A New Hope, are familiar, if very well done. But there are surprise twists every time things start to look familiar, and cutting through it all is the human element that makes this novel something special. When historian Lexie Chow (a historian hero - I'm on board already) and her handful of Resistance fighters steal an old ship and leave occupied Earth on a desperate, longshot effort to find and wake the Sleepers, they know the entire Flock fleet is looking for them. It's not a spoiler to say the cloak of secrecy shrouding their mission is not as seamless as they think, although I guessed wrong about the source of the threat.

The buildup is very solid. In an analogy made explicit later in the book, it's clear from the outset the humans have fallen into a version of the trap Western militaries have faced against Asian enemies. The ability of cultures like the Chinese and Vietnamese to think in multi-generational terms and devalue the individual life has befuddled generals and empires. The Flock is the galactic master of this strategy, and their ability to play the humble and contrite peace-seekers at the right time is one reason countless planets live under the harsh rule of their taloned feet. There's a great deal of history-based wisdom in here about how resistance movements and dominant societies unfold, flavored by Ochese's expertise as a military intelligence expert, but it never slows the storytelling. (I don't know how the author partnership was done, and it's not obvious to me, but it works pretty seamlessly.)  They offer an original, plausibly written version of how FTL travel is done. 

Things really gets going when our heroes find the Sleepers lied to and abandoned long ago. The authors don't just assume the old solders will jump into the new war. They have to deal with the strangeness of their resurrection, the unexpected abilities, the knowledge of their betrayal, and the loss of loved ones, not to mention the mind-blowing (literally) discovery that somehow they've been in unconscious psychic contact with others, inspiring many of the acts of the Resistance. There's a lot of anguish before they decide there really isn't anything else to do except suit up and go back in.

Meanwhile, the Flock are watching, and the only plan with a chance of working is a crazy one requiring even more courage from the human crew of the former historic artifact Tin Man than from the supersoldiers. One of the great ideas here is that the Flock, in studying humans to keep them in line, hasn't come out unchanged. What they have learned from us about emotions has made some Flock leaders MORE dangerous, more capable of strategizing against us, and more willing to take any number of casualties to subjugate, capture, and exploit humans and superhumans. A Flock who takes the charming third name ("battle name") of Hell is especially good at learning from us - and despising us. Lexie and Sleeper leader Jason Horse, long connected in dreams, try to navigate their connection in real life, touchingly so, as Tin Man hurtles toward a destiny that Jason suspects will be very different than a simple space battle. There's another interested party in this war, with the highest, most personal stakes imaginable, and the way Jason interacts with them will rule the fate of all.

The end of this novel sets us up for a future that's more cosmically consequential than even humans vs. the vast Flock Empire.

The characters and technology all work well here, as they do in Maberry's thrillers. The stuff stored for 200 years (except the complex Sleeper capsules, many of which have failed) is a bit too reliable for me sometimes. The Flock is described and developed well even if the translation of their speech feels a little too human. Hearing that humans "can't wipe their own assess" is a bit startling from a homicidal ostrich. A few editing mistakes, like saying "two men" in one scene when one is a woman, slipped through. 

The authors write human interaction, from philosophy to agonizing decisions to unexpected love and sex, in a way that pulls the reader along, not just to see what happens but to see what these people - and near-people - do under unimagined circumstances. 

So sign on to the Tin Man and venture forth on a quest that offers humanity's last hope - and perhaps an undreamed-of future if we live to see it. This is a saga with more greatness ahead.

Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at Website:

Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction.
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Monday, May 13, 2024

Unique book on conservation, A Tale of Two Cranes

 A Talk of Two Cranes: Lessons Learned from 50 Years of the Endangered Species Act 

Prometheus, 2023, 266pp.

Gronewold’s discussion of the 50 years of the EPA is built around the kind of coincidence scientists dream about. Two species, extremely similar to each other AND with very similar conservation stories, in different countries with different approaches to protecting an endangered species.

Gronewold starts by discussing his time as an environmental reporter (where he says reporting was hindered in 2016-2020, not by the Trump administration, but by editors’ insistence on cramming a Trump angle into every story). He spent extended time in Japan, where he became aware of the story of the Japanese population of the red-crowned crane Grus japonensis (the species also lives on the Asian mainland, where it is under threat) and how closely it paralleled that of the whooping crane (Grus americanus). Both were on the edge of extinction: indeed, most American authors felt the whooper’s disappearance was inevitable. Both are now national symbols of conservation success. What can we learn from this?

Gronewold sets his personal story and professional evaluations in a rich landscape that includes everything from Japanese science fiction poetry to the impacts of World War II.  He goes into the global picture of biodiversity and endangered species, where the whooper and some the other species protected by the US Endangered Species Act (ESA) are lights in a darkening picture. He was surprised when the IUCN declared dragonflies, seemingly ubiquitous, are in a global decline. A study of 362 large carnivores of all types showed exactly 12 were improving in conservation status. 

The ESA, he writes, has had an international impact. Many nations have used it as a model. Japan’s 1992 Act on Conservation of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (ACES) is one example. ACES goes into more detail than ESA about what agency has what responsibilities and how its mandates are executed. Canadian legislation modeled on ESA has also played a vital part io the survival of the two cranes. Different philosophies are in play, though. The ESA solutions focus on habitat preservation above all and will not even consider feeding programs, while the Japanese, in part due to loss of wildlands proportionally greater than the US has suffered, are committed to a long-term program of feeding their cranes in winter. Japanese conservationists are trying to restore bits of marsh in the crane’s habitat in eastern Hokkaido, but major expansions are precluded by the cost of buying and repurposing land. Gronewold discusses the interconnectedness of species and habitat, and how actions taken to benefit one species may damage another’s chances. 

The author muses on de-extinction programs. He says the extinct thylacine might be brought back and supports it, although he admits partly for selfish reasons: he wants to see them. Whether broader de-extinction is desired or possible is left unexplored. 

Gronewold doesn’t attempt definitive answers, but he presents the story of ESA and wildlife conservation, through the lens of these two species, in a way that will make readers think and perhaps even give them hope. 

Friday, May 03, 2024

Extinction, a superb scientific thriller


Douglas Preston 

Extinction. (Forge, 2024)

Wow. This is a terrific thriller, and my favorite of Preston’s solo novels. While I’m a faithful reader of everything by Preston and/or Childs, this might be the most fun I’ve had since it all started with Relic

Preston knows readers will look at his valley of de-extincted Ice Age mammals and think, “Jurassic Park,” so he has fun by having his characters trash the films at every opportunity. While his wealthy entrepreneur and brilliant and slightly mad scientist didn’t bring back any apex predators, the vividly written mammoths, glyptodonts, Irish elk, and others draw a stream of healthy visitors to this beautiful site in Colorado.

The murder of two guests kicks off the thread of an investigation that runs through the book. Agent Cash and Sheriff Colcord conduct a superbly written, suspenseful series of investigations as things get weirder and deaths continue. The company is up to something even stranger than bringing back mammoths, but the investigators don’t know what is or how it’s connected to the murders. A mix of grieving parents, secretive executives, cultists in the forest, and a movie company using mammoths in a Western (go with it) add to the fun and suspense. And when you think you’ve solved the mystery, you haven’t.  

The characters are excellent. Cash is especially notable because most writers would make her Hollywood pretty, not plain and a bit stout. She has a secret past which implies we’ll see her in another book, and I hope so. She and Colcord’s initially prickly partnership changes to professional respect and friendship, not a throwaway sex scene. 

I guessed the first of two twists - that they are breeding Neanderthals. The scientist in chief teaches the surprisingly intelligent “cave men” not just English, but use computers and other modern technology. What could go wrong? How about “everything?” Preston’s take on this subspecies is original and surprising, though the pale skin doesn't mesh with current thought and a super-researcher like Preston has to know this. 

The second twist doesn’t strike until the last chapters, and I didn’t see it coming. I won’t spoil it, but it’s stunning and adds a great deal of emotional weight to the novel. Finally, an Afterword explains the scientific thinking, some of it controversial Preston put into the novel. You’ll be disquieted about both the past and the future. 

There’s not much to nitpick here. All the animals are at the high end of their real-life sizes, but that’s logical if you’re choosing the genes for animals to exhibit. Preston’s ground sloth is too big, though. A “honey wagon” on a movie set is a portable bathroom, not a star’s trailer (unless the character mentioning it is being sarcastic). 

It's a satisfying read in every possible way.  I stayed up late reading this, You will, too. 

Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at Website:

Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction. Your search for the world's new and undiscovered animals begins here!