John Vassar: Cosmic Intrigue

Another review in my indie author series. I’m dropping the opening blurb henceforth. You’ve read it enough!


Once ravaged by famine, civilization has been rebuilt, partly on a decimated Earth but largely in massive orbiting colonies. United under a single Supreme Council and guided by the recommendations of a collection of machines known as SenANNs (sentient artificial neural networks), the human race at long last isn’t too bad off. But trouble is brewing beneath the surface. The security agency known as Delere Secos appears to have been breached. Two agents have perished under inexplicable circumstances, and now ex-agent Lee Mitchell, forced into retirement years earlier when he appeared to be showing signs of telepathic power, is brought back by the DS director to investigate under a cloak of utmost secrecy. In spite of skills grown rusty with disuse, Mitchell sets out to trace the tenuous leads and begins to unravel the enigma. Dogged by a more skilled agent who doesn’t trust him and connected directly to the SenANNs via an implant, Mitchell is drawn inexorably into a chilling plot concocted by the richest, most brilliant, and most reclusive man alive only to discover that even he is just a player in an intrigue crossing space and time.

Provider Prime: Alien Legacy is an intense, hard-hitting SF novel filled with twists and turns that don’t stop until the very last page. The pacing is about perfect, with the stakes constantly rising. Just when you it think it can’t possibly get any worse, it does, right through the denouement–if it can be called that. The characters are well-drawn and complex, too. The ending put me in mind of another SF novel I read a long, long time ago: Colossus by D. F. Jones.

The writing is solid throughout, although I did find the opening a bit confusing because of the unfamiliar and unexplained terminology being thrown around. If you can get through that, though, the explanations will fall naturally out of the story, and you’ll grow comfortable with it before long. Vassar’s handling of the action is better than his handling of emotional scenes, but there are no significant stumbling blocks. He gets the job done.

A word of warning is in order: some of the material is brutal, involving both physical and psychological torture. It’s not excessively graphic, but Vassar doesn’t pull his punches. Some readers may find certain scenes very disturbing. Nevertheless, the story rates 5 stars and the writing falls on the high side of 4, so I’ll be generous and give this one a 5 overall.

 I recently asked John Vassar about the novel and his writing. Here’s what he said:

The world of Provider Prime and the background for the story are complex. How long did it take you to build this world, and how did you go about it?

First of all, thanks so much for the interview invitation and for taking the time and trouble to review – both very much appreciated. As for creating the world behind Provider Prime, what a good question! I have a vivid imagination and a strong aesthetic sense (my mother and father were both art teachers) which is sometimes at odds with my scientific and engineering-centred education. I decided from the outset that although I wanted Earth in 2203 in my mind’s eye to be visually stunning, it also had to be scientifically feasible. How long did that take? As long as it took to write the book is the truthful answer, because I was still tinkering with the backdrop until the very last word. Even then it carried on throughout the editing process. For instance, I remember making precise calculations based around the global population figures after the Great Famine and working out if the Orbtown Programme (orbital cities) was actually a viable proposition. Luckily for me, it was!

Your choice of the word “complex” is appropriate. In some ways, the technology of 2203 is almost too advanced, the Orbtowns being a good example. Yet, in other areas Earth is still quite “backward.” Still no faster-than- light starships for instance, a common trope in 23rd-century science fiction. The conclusion of the story goes some way, I hope, to explaining those contradictions. As for the alien elements in Provider Prime, I make no excuse for including those. I have no doubt that we are not alone in the universe. To my mind the statistics make it a virtual certainty. What I did try to avoid is the “cardboard cut-out bad guy” approach and to give some depth to the characters on both sides of the confrontation. Maybe that’s my background in acting coming to the fore – looking for genuine motivation. I tried to make each character’s actions truthful.

In terms of how we see Future Earth in the novel, I simply let that unravel during the narrative. It’s mainly from the protagonist Lee Mitchell’s point of view, and I avoided “information dumps” where possible. The disadvantage of that approach is that the terminology, acronyms and jargon are left unexplained for the most part. I’m working on adding the “X-Ray” facility to the Kindle version to help with this! Overall, though, I’m fairly happy with my vision of 2203. It’s neither Dystopian or Utopian. It functions well on most levels and crime is at an all-time low, but as with any society throughout history there are hidden undercurrents.

In the story, the SenANNs undergo a sort of character growth of their own. Do you see them as actually evolving through the story, or are they merely becoming more adept at communicating with humans?

They are very different beings at the end of the story. Their collective intelligence as such has not suddenly increased, but their understanding of the biological mind and its sometimes irrational thought processes has grown immensely. The SenANNs (Sentient Artificial Neural Networks) have always understood that they needed some sort of symbiosis to reach the next level of their evolution. Actually, that transition was not easy to write because as you point out, throughout the book they are learning the nuances of language that we take for granted. I did use that aspect of the SenANNs’ development to introduce a little wry humour here and there.

Had you written anything before Provider Prime?

Yes, but luckily for everyone it will remain unpublished! I wrote a full length SF novel way back in the nineties. I used an Amstrad PCW8256 and floppy discs by the dozen. It did serve one useful purpose though – even though it was so dated in terms of technology it was almost laughable, I did not want to lose it altogether. As I re-typed it into Word from the manuscript I had printed off before Lord Sugar’s masterpiece finally gave up the ghost, I was inspired to write another novel. Provider Prime: Alien Legacy was the result!

What are you currently working on?

At the moment I’m laying out the straw man for the sequel to Provider Prime, which I’m hoping will hit the bookshelves later this year. This will be the second volume in the Alien Legacy trilogy. I’m also working on a series of short stories, the first of which (The Blue Page) is currently being submitted to the online SF magazines. The aim here is to eventually have enough for a stand-alone collection.

What advice to you have for readers or writers?

For readers, I think it’s healthy to step outside the box once in a while and take a chance on something that isn’t in your usual genre. Whenever I’ve done this it has given me new perspectives on my own writing and only occasionally have my preconceptions been accurate.

For writers – where do you start? With the eBook and online publishing revolution there are more opportunities now for new authors but exponentially more competition and a million ways to get ripped off. In the year since I first put Provider Prime on Amazon I’ve realized that there is a whole sub-industry out there geared to making money from indie authors – so please do your research before parting with any hard-earned cash. I think in the end success will depend on your levels of persistence and belief. Don’t give up.

Where can readers find you?

On my websiteFacebookTwitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. Provider Prime: Alien Legacy is available exclusively on Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, and Amazon.uk (including Kindle Unlimited).

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