Where can you go to find the best of the best in MilSF? For great MilSF short stories by the top authors of today, look no further than the anthology So It Begins (Book Two in the Defending the Future Series) edited by Mike McPhail, who just happens to have an entry in this collection himself, the inimitable and way cool offering “Cling Peaches.”. There are sixteen short stories in the anthology, if you include the superlative “Surrender Or Die,” a bonus story by David Sherman, written by fifteen authors. Charles E. Gannon has two stories in So It Begins (as I’ll call the anthology from here on out through this review), both very good ones, “Recidivism,” which opens the book, and “To Spec.” One of the features I really like about the anthology is that there is a section called Author Bios at the end of the book, before the Bonus Content story, so you can read about the authors and what they’ve written and learn more about them if you’re unfamiliar with them.
I can’t get super in-depth and give a detailed analysis of each of the short stories unless I make this review prohibitively long, but I truly enjoyed reading each of the MilSF short stories in the anthology, so I will mention at least a little bit about a few of the tales, to give you a taste of the literary banquet you have in store for yourselves when you read this collection. I’ve briefly mentioned four already, and in just one paragraph, so I’m doing fairly well…except for this expository paragraph, anyway. But, there’s “brief” mentions of short stories, and then there’s brief mentions-which means nothing, except that I’m going to go back to the four I’ve already mentioned, write a few more sentences about each, then cover a few of the other tales.
MilSF novels and stories with lots of blood, guts, and action are kickass, and I generally rank ones with tons of these three elements in them as my faves. But, I likes me a good story that zigs when you think it should zag, or funny or quirky ones, also. That’s why “Cling Peaches,” is one of my favorite tales in the anthology. The title alone made me wonder what in the world it could be about and made me want to read it. Then, the search by the two main characters of the story, Chief Engineer William Donovich and a tech called Patterson for an alien stowaway who has a liking for cling peaches in heavy syrup, was tense and at times humorous and held my rapt attention throughout its entirety.
Charles E. Gannon’s two short stories were also impressive. “Recidivism,” is a gem about Dan, “a data entry clerk with no reasonable hope for advancement,” who in his doctoral proposal dared to suggest that aliens might one day try to take over his planet and possibly even sterilize its inhabitants, should they not cooperate peacefully. Nobody believes him, until one day when…. “To Spec,” Gannon’s second tale, involves a soldier in the ExoAtmospheric Corps who guards a Big Secret without knowing what it is, and he’s eaten up with curiosity to find out what it is he’s risking his life for. He starts putting two and two together, and…well, math was never my strong suit, but I know that, in this case, “two and two,” add up to a great story about one of the many ways that could potentially spell Doomsday: CME, or: “A coronal mass ejection.”
David Sherman is another of today’s top MilSF authors. He also writes MilFantasy novels, like his brilliant DemonTech series. “Surrender Or Die,” is a DemonTech adventure in which a land called “The Easterlies,” is under invasion by the dreaded Jokapkul people, whose ships have “closed in on Handor’s Bay.” If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of just exactly what “DemonTech,” means, it’s that various types of trained demons are used for warfare purposes, like to power weapons. Some are used to heal people, or to make them invisible. One example of this in “Surrender Or Die,” is an imbaluris, about “the size of a large owl,” that is “used as a messenger.” “Surrender Or Die,” is a cool addition to the DemonTech canon.
“The Last Report of Unit Twenty-Two,” by John C. Wright is the second story of the anthology. Wright is the husband of another fantastic author, L. Jagi Lamplighter (Wright). Both write awesome works of fantasy and MilSF that I highly recommend. Unit Twenty-Two is a sentient robot whose job is to mine ore from asteroids. He has a brain that is very human-like, and though he’s been mining ore dutifully for years, he gets it into his head through picking up transmissions of commercials that there is more to life than mining. Unit Twenty-Two wants to somehow travel to Earth and spend the rest of his days there-to him, it’d be like Heaven. How he gets there and what happens to him when he does makes for a great addition to this anthology.
James Daniel Ross is the well-known author of the Radiation Angels series of books, and “The Nature of Mercy,” is from the Chronicles of the Radiation Angels. I liked it from its vivid opening sentence on: “It was as cold as seven dead men, buried deep and long.” At first, it seemed to me to be a tale about a father taking his son out on a hunting trip on the planet Ozmandius in the middle of winter, a sort of “coming-of-age,” story. What it became is something else; it’s a story of a boy who definitely has to grow up way too fast, and his father, who is trying to get to a reinforced bunker with his son to make a final stand against robots who have gotten religion, and who have gone all Old Testament on the entire human population of Ozmandius. They were programmed by the humans to be without sin, but unfortunately, they also lack any sense of mercy. Great story; I’ll definitely want to read more from Ross in the future.
I gotta mention the short story “Clean Sweeps,” by Jonathan Maberry-besides being a fine story, for those who might not have ever heard of Maberry, he’s the author of the awesome zombie novel Patient Zero, and a great novel I reviewed elsewhere, The Dragon Factory, about DNA manipulation, mad scientists, and Doomsday diseases being released globally in an effort to genetically cleanse the world. Good stuff….. “Clean Sweeps,” illustrates that the media and the military don’t always mix well, kind of like oil and water in that regard. Or, really, they mix all too well sometimes, but occasionally at a high cost in human lives.
The narrator is a sergeant in the Free-Ops, and he has a reporter (Tennet) embedded in his unit. They are on a raid of a factory that allegedly has been manufacturing and selling arms illegally to space pirates. Thing is, they got the wrong intel, and the people working at the factory are civilians and are not making illegal weapons. The whole operation has been set up by people in command above the narrator, for the publicity, and the report won’t mention that the factory really was legit, manned by civilians.
I’ll briefly say a couple of things about two more short stories in the anthology, “First Line,” by Danielle Ackley-McPhail, the wife of Mike McPhail and a very talented author herself; and “Everything’s Better With Monkeys,” by C.J. Henderson the author of the Piers Knight series of novels, like Brooklyn Knight and Central Park Knight. “First Line,” is a short story of devotion carried to the extreme, of Lieutenant Sheila “Trey” Tremaine, “an officer assigned to the 428th Special Ops unit, MOS: demolitions specialist.” When an enemy round takes her down and “kills” her, at the last moment she agrees to have her memories implanted into a mechanical demolitions unit. She’s told that if she agrees, her experience and training will get passed on that way, and though she’ll lose knowledge of her personality, she can still be able to make a contribution. But, she doesn’t forget about her past life and who she is, at all….
“Everything’s Better With Monkeys,” is a neat light-hearted tale that is also one of my favorites in a collection of truly great tales. C.J. wrote a short story, “Shore Leave,” in the first Defending the Future anthology, Breach the Hull, featuring the same two main characters, Chief Gunnery Officer Rockland Vespucci (Rocky) and Machinist First Mate Li Qui Kon (Noodles). The serve aboard the Roosevelt, and generally unintentionally manage to screw things up and get into trouble. In this short story, though, they figure out how to get through to globular-shaped aliens on a distant planet who, four hundred years into the future, through communicating via song-and-dance. Well, Noodles does-Rocky is pretty pitiful at both-but, they manage to save the day in a very enjoyable story.
So It Begins is a Must-Read for anyone who loves MilSF. The short stories I didn’t mention, “War Movies,” by James Chambers; “Junked,” by Andy Remic; “Gunnery Sergeant,” by Jeffrey Lyman; “Grendel,” by Jack Campbell; “The Glass Box,” by Bud Sparhawk; and, last but not least, “Looking For a Good Time,” by Tony Ruggiero, are also awesome, and I apologize to the authors for not mentioning them in more detail here, but I fear I’m already writing a rather lengthy review. That I didn’t cover them more in-depth is no reflection on their over-all superb quality-there are just no clunkers at all in So It Begins, which makes it difficult to do justice to the anthology as a whole. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who loves SF, especially MilSF.