Friday, April 21, 2017

Colony by Max Florschutz

By Max Florschutz

This review actually has a bit of story. A reader of this series who goes by StellarSeeker recommended it to me and I put it on what is frankly a long and staggering list. To be honest at that point I had forgotten about it and it likely wouldn't have popped up on the rotation anytime soon, but Mr. Florschutz then contacted me and offered me a review copy. Which leads to the disclaimer, Mr. Florschutz did generously provide me a free review copy of this book, for which I thank him. All I can say is I hope you don't take the criticism to hard, fellow viking.

Let me speak a bit about our brave author here, Mr. Florschutz was born in 1986 in the wilds of Alaska and would spend his childhood there. He would attend Brigham Young University Provo and BYU Hawaii taking a break for a two year mission for the Mormon church. He would graduate in 2011, afterward he spent a brief amount of time in the world of video games before returning to his first joy of writing. His first story was One Drink, a modern fantasy story about a private detective who deals in odd events. Colony is his latest work and what we'll be going over today.

Colony takes place in a somewhat grim future. The world is divided between the UN and a collection of Mega-corporations. The UN is corrupt, full of bureaucrats who answer to no one, and uncaring about the plight of the average citizen as it pursues its goals of federalizing the entire world and off planet colonies under a single authority. The MegaCorps aren't any better, being ruthless organizations who chase profit at all cost and constantly work to undermine and outright buy out the few remaining independent nations so as to better exploit their populations and resources without pesky things like laws or civil liberties getting in the way. The history isn't outlined in this book, because well.. the characters have better things to do then sit through history lessons, but we're given enough information to hash out that most of the powerful nation-states like the US, the PRC, etc have either fallen, been co-opted or otherwise rendered irrelevant (Which you kinda need to do to make a setting like this work). The only real hope of living a free life without either a corps or the UN over you is catching a trip off world to the colonies. However, tickets off world are expensive and while you can take your chances by basically taking a free trip, you'll have no control where you'll end up or how you'll be treated at the end of your ride.  There are colony planets worse than Earth out there, which makes this sort of trip a hell of a gamble.

While this is a very Cyberpunk setting Mr. Florschutz has decided to step away a bit from the orthodox setting and experiment a bit, by adding a competing authority in the UN and off world colonies. The majority of the book is set on Pisces, an alien world that was colonized decades ago despite having no land masses, no life, and being completely underwater. Additionally because of the complete lack of anything to break up the weather patterns, massive storms and waves routinely sweep the surface of the planet, so you can forget about living on an artificially created island paradise sipping drinks made with cane sugar and eating vat grown sealife (no native life to fish, sorry). Nope, you get to live in a dome! On the ocean floor! Where you wear power armor style dive suits if you want to go outside! Or drive in badass sci-fi submarines! Wait... That doesn't sound all that bad really... except strangely enough the UN has a massive presence on the world, with a massive submarine fleet and a city-fortress base squatting on the north pole, that is also the only real landing pad on the planet. Having a science fiction setting on another planet and having most of the book take place completely under water isn't done very often and Mr. Florschutz places a decent amount of time and effort into the technology and weapons of this brave new undersea world without diving (har har) into technoporn or technobabble.

I'll admit that while I enjoy a lot of Cyberpunk stories, I often find myself thinking that the conceits that underlie the setting may be getting a bit stale. Like a lot of genre's Cyberpunk often finds itself locked into certain themes, characters, and settings. This is a dangerous thing that can limit a genre and possibly kill it. In a lot of ways this may be because of how influential the people who started the genre back in the 1980s were. A lot of writers who turn to Cyberpunk in my experience work very hard to create the next Neuromancer, which was a great book, and if you ask me a classic, but much like how fantasy needed to step out of Tolkien's shadow (and did so decades ago, even if the general public is only now noticing), Cyberpunk needs to step out of the shadow of Dicken's “Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep” and Gibson's “Sprawl” Trilogy. Thankfully, there are also a lot of writers doing just that. Mr. Florshutlz does use a lot of the themes and ideas of the Cyberpunk genre but plays around a lot with the setting and that helps. Now let me address our characters and our plot.

The plot goes like this, the MegaCorp SoulComp is one of the most powerful software creators in the known galaxy. Everyone uses their products, including the UN, which uses one of their programs named LockOut to track every piece of gear and every person sent off world and ensure it's arrival across interstellar distances. In the next best thing to real time. It's a piece of software that requires constant updating and maintenance to keep running. As you can imagine, this means a constant stream of tasty tasty contracts loaded with UN money for SoulComp. So when a large chunk of junk code is found that no one understands and no one knows where it came from, the CEO of SoulComp knows he needs to find the guy who was in charge of creating LockOut in the first place, Carlos Rodriguez. There's a problem with that: five years prior Carlos Rodriguez took a ticket on a colony ship for Pisces and fell right off the map. So in the name of profit and sustainable revenue streams he'll gather three special people with the right skills and look out to make a great team of shadowru... I mean edgeru... Troublesho... Wait, *ahem* Independent Consultants, yes that’s it. Their job? Find Carlos Rodriguez and get him or the information needed to solve the puzzle back to SoulComp and keep it quiet. Let's meet them.

Jake Tames is a freelance corporate investigator, if you suspect a manger of fraud or worse embezzlement, you hire him to figure it out. Jake specializes in investigative work and gathering evidence. He’s worked on every continent and sometimes even used his real name. He prefers to work alone however, and rarely trusts his employer, which is a good thing in his line of work. Jake has a lot of character moments in this story which focus a lot on his backstory and dealing with a deep phobia of water... while working on an ocean world where everything is under water. That said, I kinda feel he doesn't get as many awesome moments in this story compared to our next characters but he gets enough that you never ask yourself why he's here.

Anna Nares on the flip side is a professional mercenary from South America, often specializing in bodyguard work. She enlisted in a mercenary company and became an augment: someone's whose strength and speed has been enhanced, allowing them to use the neural skinsuits to the gear's full capability as well has plugging into power armor. While Anna started out as a mercenary, she quit the company after paying back the cost of her augmentation and went freelance, also preferring to work alone. Anna is death running in this story as she tears through all manner of opponents with all manner of weapons. Mr. Florshutz does a good job showcasing how augmentation with training can put someone into a whole new class as Anna is practically a superhero here.

Ray Candy, aka Sweets, is a whitehat hacker. He goes boldly forth into the internet to find security holes in the systems of governments and corporations and shows them where those holes are in exchange for a modest fee. Of course if they won't pay, he'll post that information publically and force them to plug the hole in their security, but for some reason Sweets refuses to consider that blackmail. I mean it's one thing if someone hires you to do this but Sweets and others like him often take it upon themselves to break into systems uninvited, often just to see if they can. Since most of the time they're doing it to power hungry governments and somewhat sinister Megacorps, I'm not really weeping into my coke zero for these people but still, call a spade a spade here. Sweets is the nicest guy on the team and strangely naive for someone who knows that getting caught breaking into the wrong system could get him killed.

Which kinda leads me into my main complaint, our main characters inhabit a decidedly gray moral universe in this setting, every major political and economic power is corrupt and authoritarian. Normal people often find their rights and liberties ignored as being inconvenient and for that matter our main characters make their living in rather shady if not outright illegal ways. Despite this, they often come across as maybe a little too clean. This could be me and my own bias coming into play honestly, as mostly I focus on Anna on this. There are scenes where Anna gets upset at the conduct of other soldiers such as firing into crowds and what not, but to be blunt, Anna... you're a damn mercenary. I was in Iraq and I know perfectly well what modern mercenaries are like. I'm not saying that the US military that I was a part of was a band of perfectly blameless angels but I found private “contractors” to be way looser in their behavior and less caring of the consequences. So Anna's sneering often fell flat, as I find it hard to believe that her mercenary company never performed any equivalent actions. For that matter Jake conducts investigations that often run right up to the edge of the law if not over and doesn't trust his employers over much but still acts surprised when he witnesses their callous if not outright brutal behavior. On the one hand it's nice that they're not burnt out jaded cynics with nothing left for their fellow men, on the other... it seemed a little overdone for me. I also felt that splitting the team so often really hurt the dynamic before it really had a chance to form. I would hope that in any future outings that Sweets would get the chance to spend more time with Anna and Jake.

That said I enjoyed the book, it was good departure from a lot of the stock setting and tropes of Cyberpunk and explored the idea of high tech underwater technology and living which I haven't read a lot of. Mr. Florschutz is also very good at seeding the novel with clues and moderate touches of foreshadowing so that when surprises arise, they feel organic and not out of nowhere. Some of those surprises are foreshadowed a little to heavily, as I found myself figuring out a number of them well before the characters did. There's more I could discuss but I really can't do so without spoilers, so let me just say I liked the reveals quite a bit and I'm very sure I would enjoy any sequels that come out. So all together Colony by Max Florschutz gets a solid B. It's a good book by an author who shows promise I think.  

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen. 

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