Category Archives: Science fiction

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,, and (including Kindle Unlimited).

D. J. Cooper: Bite Size Chunks of Science Fiction

Recently I’ve been reading novels by newer, largely unknown indie writers. By way of helping them along, I’ll be introducing some of them here. These authors are up-and-coming, at varying stages in their development as writers. They may not all have the polish of traditionally published authors, but I think they all have potential and deserve encouragement.

Scattered throughout the void, a collection of stations provide services to travelers and host meetings between wealthy executives who wish to avoid scrutiny of their business dealings. Si-Cross Four is one such station, but it’s hardly the place to be. “We were halfway between bigger and better places,” Detective Trackneathan comments. “Bigger to the left, and better to the right!” Track, as everyone calls him, is basically a good cop with a bad mouth. His attitude gets him into trouble time and again, and now he’s been suspended for simply doing his job: in self-defense, he’s shattered a criminal’s jaw, and Authority Four, the local security team, has to pony up for a mechanical replacement. They don’t like that.

Prosthetics are a way of life on Si-Cross Four. Following a biological disaster (referred to as an “outbreak”) some years back, many of its denizens now have mechanical limbs, and thanks to a shortage of funds and materials, many of those limbs are balky. Track’s own knee gives him incessant problems, so he knows what it’s like. Survivors of the original outbreak, gray-skinned and often missing more than one limb, are stigmatized as “Remnants.” Everyone is terrified of a new outbreak, so when a woman drops dead at Track’s door, that’s the first thing they think of. But Track isn’t so sure. Funny things have been going on lately. Remnants are vanishing, he’s being followed, his apartment is being broken into, investigations have been shut down, and he’s bombarded by strange messages that could only have been sent by his dead husband–messages that nobody else sees or hears. Are the decontamination drugs Track is required to take messing with his perception? Is he loosing his mind? Or is something sinister truly afoot? Suspension isn’t going to stop him from getting to the bottom of it. The truth turns out to be far more twisted than he could ever have imagined.

Missing Remnants was written for and is available on Radish, a mobile app that allows downloads to Android and iOS devices. It is not currently available through any other venue. Cooper wrote a couple of previous works that did not find publication, and this one is technically not published yet. She plans to revise and edit it further and either publish it through a traditional publisher or, failing that, go the indie route.

In reviewing it, I’m therefore treating it as an advance review copy (ARC) in which editing is not complete. From that standpoint, I can’t find much at all to pick on. The story is solid, the characters are well-drawn, and the pacing is about perfect. It’s a page-turner for sure. If anything is wrong, it might only be that the world of Si-Cross Four isn’t explored in quite enough detail. This is a short novel, around 47,000 words, partly because of the requirements imposed on authors by Radish. There is room for a lot more. And yet, I hardly noticed this omission while reading. It was only afterward that I started wondering about the nature of these outbreaks, the place of Si-Cross Four in the larger conglomeration of stations, and similar questions. So I don’t feel it’s worth dinging the work much on that account. I’d rate both story and writing on the high side of 4.5 stars, which means a 5 for all intents and purposes. With editing and maybe a bit of expansion, the final product could well be a 5. Great job!

I recently asked D. J. Cooper about the novel and her writing. Here’s what she said:

Detective Trackneathan (Track) seems a bundle of contradictions. He has a volatile exterior that gets him into trouble, yet he fawns over his robotic dog and spends his off-hours fixing disadvantaged people’s artificial limbs. He’s an experienced detective who seems to have the grudging respect of his superiors, yet he often portrays himself in this first-person narrative as a bumbling idiot. How do you see him?

That’s accurate! Track is good at his job but he has a history of cutting corners. The world he inhabits likes things to be done in a certain way, almost to the detriment of the end result. Track likes to find a shortcut. He’s grieving, he’s trying to pretend he’s okay, occasionally he loses his temper and lashes out in situations where tact might be the better option. He’s also carrying a long term injury to his right knee. He’s dealing with physical pain, grief and survivor guilt and sometimes just doesn’t rate himself highly.

I suspect there is a lot more to this world than you’ve told us. Track works for Si-Cross Four Authority, and other Authorities are mentioned. Can you tell us what these other Authorities are and how they are interconnected?

Somewhere in a wide universe, I see a system of space stations used almost like motorway service stations. Each station has a number. In this case, we’re on Si-Cross Four. The security team on the station has the corresponding title Authority Four. I worked in IT for a few years. Each cluster of buildings in London had its own IT department. It made sense for me to assume a similar premise for space stations! They are meeting places where ships can refuel and be repaired, and where executives who want to do deals face to face can avoid their every word being recorded. The word “Authority” is somewhat misleading. They keep the peace on their station and investigate crimes, but they have no say in anything outside of their microcosm. The wider system is overseen by a group no one sees. The people on Si-Cross Four are just there to keep their mouths shut and get on with their jobs.

I understand that Missing Remnants isn’t actually published yet. What plans do you have for it?

Like everything I write, I’ll sit on it for while and iron out more kinks. If I fail to find a traditional publisher for it, I’ll buy a cover and do what I did with my first two books: publish ebooks on most of the platforms and paperbacks wherever I can. It is becoming increasingly obvious that I do not have the time in the day to put in all the hours required as an indie author to find promo outlets which work without pushing myself into debt! Missing Remnants is currently only available to read on the Radish Fiction app for iOS and Android. The app is free and you can read the first three chapters of any book for free. Some books are totally free. Other books have a micropayment attached to chapter four onward.

I wish you all the best with that. It’s a wonderful story, so I hope you can find a publisher. In the meantime, what else are you writing?

I started serialising Iridessian Haunts when Radish asked for Halloween stories back in September. It was never featured in any of their collections but I’ve started, so I’ll finish. A team has landed on planet Iridessia. They are there to ascertain its viability for colonisation. Everything seems fine except for some big cats out by the third waterhole. Kanner and Nix are investigating a cave system near their temporary settlement. While they’re in there marveling at the pumpkin-like plants able to grow in a cave (I even mentioned pumpkins!), they see shadowy figures and eventually are possessed by an entity they have not encountered before on any planet. Essentially, Iridessia has everything, water, breathable air, land, ghosts.

When I can think of something interesting to say, I am also writing for Writers can be paid if paying members “clap” their articles and stories. If there is something I need more than time, it’s money.

What advice do you have for writers or readers?

For readers: Jump in and try an indie author. You can read a sample online or download one before having to part with any money. Some indie authors are quite good! If you happened to like what you read, we live for honest reviews. Also if the book was free, the author gets nothing, no royalties, zilch. I’ve heard people say downloading a free book is the same as getting a book out at the library. In the UK we have public lending rights, where libraries pay authors if their books are borrowed. It might not be much, but it is better than nothing. [Dale adds: In the U.S., libraries buy books, and authors get paid for those purchases.]

For writers: Don’t get to the end of writing the book and think you’ve finished. In an ideal world, everyone would be able to pay an editor. At the very least download a free grammar checker for your word processor. Do not hit publish until you know your sentences make sense! If you can get someone to read it for you who won’t automatically agree with everything you write, even better. Nothing should read as if it’s been badly translated from a foreign language. Not that I’m an expert, but I have been known to make sense on occasion. Even then you haven’t finished; you won’t sell anything unless people know about you.

Where can readers find you?

On my blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, SmashwordsAmazon, Radish, and Medium.

William R. Dudley: Planetary Real Estate Noir

Recently I’ve been reading novels by newer, largely unknown indie writers. By way of helping them along, I’ll be introducing some of them here. These authors are up-and-coming, at varying stages in their development as writers. They may not all have the polish of traditionally published authors, but I think they all have potential and deserve encouragement.

Through nuclear war and environmental degradation, Earth has been all but destroyed. Seeking new homes, humanity has taken to the stars using a marvel of engineering: the Janus Gate. Orbiting the sun where the asteroid belt used to be, the Janus Gate’s space-warping black hole and surrounding containment field catapults pilgrims to worlds far beyond our solar system. But Janus is also a colony in its own right, its concentric levels home to a full cross-section of humanity. Here, powerful ultra-conglomerates double as businesses and government, ruthless criminal syndicates run amok, and ordinary people eke out an existence.

In the lawless outer levels of Janus, former security agent turned freelance bounty hunter Calder is offered a fortune to find the missing son of one of the richest and most powerful women alive. Of course he takes the job. But soon he finds himself neck deep in deception, treachery, gangland war, and unspeakable crimes. Death threatens at every turn, but Calder must see the job through, cost notwithstanding.

The Janus Enigma packs suspense and intense action into a gripping tale of survival and intrigue. It’s well written, too. Author William R. Dudley is a former English teacher, journalist, and editor, so he knows his way around words. I did find some of the dialogue near the end a bit wordy, and on occasion I thought a sentence could have been phrased better, but these are minor quibbles. A bit more significantly, I didn’t entirely buy the young computer whiz Umbra’s emotional episode near the end, and I was a bit disturbed that Calder didn’t notice the parallels between certain of his own actions, which he justifies as necessary collateral damage, and the monstrous crimes he uncovers. Some elements of the ending might have been a bit too pat, as well, but to avoid spoilers I won’t go into detail here. Regardless, the story works, and works well.

Fair warning for those who might take issue: this is a violent story liberally sprinkled with hot vengeance and crude language. Personally I would prefer less of all that, but I won’t factor that preference into my rating, since I seem to be in the minority. In terms of both story and writing, The Janus Enigma falls on the high side of 4 stars. If I don’t give it 5, it’s only because of those few small issues I mentioned above. Well done, sir!

I recently asked William R. Dudley about the novel and his writing. Here’s what he said:

You’ve been involved with words for a long time as a teacher and editor, but this is your first novel. Did you do any writing before this, and if not why did you only get started now?

For thirty years, my writing was confined to the “everyday” business of scripts, copy etc. for radio and television. My job was all-consuming, leaving little, or no, time for “writing for myself.” On occasion, I did exercise my literary ambitions–chiefly in the form of the libretto for a folk-opera “Going For A Soldier”, which was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe way back in the seventies. As I recall, it got a rave review from The Irish Times. I also managed to find time to write a couple of Christmas pantomimes for an Am-Dram group in Jersey (Channel Islands) where I was working, but, I found work–on call 24/7/365–and trying to maintain some semblance of a family-life more than enough. I retired, gratefully, in 2010 and dedicated myself to doing nothing except cooking, playing golf and relaxing, something I hadn’t been able to do for over thirty years. Eventually, I got the idea to write a novel. I have to admit, I fought against it, big time. Writing is bloody hard work and I reckoned I’d done enough of that, thank you. But, like an itch you have to scratch, the idea grew and grew, until, in the end, I decided to give it a go.

What gave you the idea for The Janus Enigma?

Having decided to have a go at writing a novel, I was at a loss as to what the subject would be. From an early age I’ve loved Sci-Fi. I drank a lot of whisky and jotted down a number of ideas. One of them involved The Man Who Sold Planets. I was intrigued by the idea of real estate becoming more than selling houses and tracts of land. Eventually, this idea became a relatively minor character in The Janus Enigma–Mexican Charlie–but it was enough to set me on the path to creating an environment/world in which someone could actually sell you a planet. Added to this basic idea was my love of first-person noir thrillers: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett etc. The rest, as they say, is history.

I got all the way through the book before realizing I didn’t know protagonist Calder’s first name. I’m terrible with names and thought I’d forgotten it, so I went back through the book but couldn’t find it. Am I missing something?

Sorry you felt it necessary to back-track. I deliberately didn’t give Calder a first name. I feel it adds to the enigmatic nature of the character. Besides, let’s face it, he’s not the most pleasant of characters, so referring to him only by his surname is, perhaps, best. I regard Calder as a flawed “force of nature,” a product of his time and environment and best kept at a distance.

You seemed to be trying to walk a tightrope between Calder’s violent streak, which no doubt arises from his background, and giving him a conscience that prevents him from going too far overboard. Yet sometimes he has to rationalize collateral damage. Without giving anything away, I found it a bit disturbing that those rationalizations were basically the same as those made by one of the key criminals in the story, but Calder didn’t seem to realize it. Could you comment on that?

Wow! When you read, you read. Thank you. I freely admit I struggled with the amoral side to Calder’s character. To be honest, basically, he’s a thug, but a thug with a fairly well-developed, if totally subjective, concept of right and wrong. He will pursue his concept of what is the right thing to do irrespective of the surrounding morality. He’s driven and won’t let anything stand in his way, which is why he has no scruples about killing Rylan Delmonico’s minder, or Azarillo’s guards. If it has to be done, it’s done. He may not feel all that good about it, but, in his mind, the end justifies the means. I actually found it intriguing that, in a way, Calder and the “key criminal” are somewhat similar. I like to think that the climactic confrontation between the two of them raises, in the reader’s mind, the question of whether what the “key criminal” did was justifiable. Calder sees it from his point of view, but is he right?

I see you have a sequel in the works. How far into it are you, and when do you expect to publish it?

The Janus Contract centres on Calder being hunted by the Nemesis Foundation, an organisation of implacable, professional assassins, but just who has hired them to eliminate Calder and how he can manage to stay alive is the big question. The sequel also revisits a key incident in The Janus Enigma and, I hope, provides a big surprise. I’m currently in the final outlining phase. I write my first drafts fairly quickly – 6 to 8 weeks, but then spend months revising, editing and rewriting. I’m hopeful that The Janus Contract will be published around September 2018.

Are you working on anything else?

Come on! I’m seventy years old. I read the obituaries in the newspaper every day and, if I’m not mentioned, I get out of bed and either cook, play golf, potter about my garden, or write. I’m far too old and tired to entertain any thoughts of a “writing career.” I just want to write stories which, I hope, people will enjoy reading. End of.

What advice do you have for writers or readers?

For writers: WRITE! Just get it down. It may be a load of bilge, but, once you have something on paper (or on file) you have a beginning. The actual writing of that first draft is relatively easy. The real work starts when you revisit it to edit, rewrite and revise. That’s when your skill as a writer emerges and you exercise your craft. I revised/edited The Janus Enigma 57 times (I have every iteration – the first 14 are crap!). The best problem to have as a writer is when you revise your work for the umpteenth time and, at the end of it, realise you’ve changed perhaps a dozen words and rephrased a couple of sentences. That’s when you bite the bullet and say “Enough!” Of course, it’s not “finished.” It never will be, but life’s too short…

For readers: if you aren’t hooked by the first ten pages (God, that’s generous) go away. Read something else, play a round of golf, cook a splendid meal, watch TV, go to the theatre, play Skyrim, whatever. Increasingly, the attention span of people is diminishing. God bless Twitter, Facebook, et al. Don’t waste time on struggling through something which doesn’t engage you. There’s more than enough out there which you will find engaging.

Where can readers find you?

I have a website: I don’t do Facebook, Twitter, or any of the so-called “social media”. Essentially, I’m a rather old-fashioned private person. I’ll share my writing with the world, but very little else.