For now, at least 🙂 To all of my readers/listeners: THANK YOU To R. C. Bray: Nice work, man.
I suffered a mild shock when I woke up this morning and saw what the sales on the Commune Book One audio book were looking like. To put it in perspective, the audio format has almost completely outsold both the ebook and print versions of the story, which has been available since March of this year. It hasn’t overtaken the other versions just yet but, at this rate, give it a day…
A giant thank you to all my readers as well as R. C. Bray and all of his listeners. I’m well aware that a significant portion of you are coming along on this ride because of him and not me, and that’s totally fine. After having gone through the production process with him, I feel as though this is as much his story as it is mine. This was a team effort all the way.
The audio for the final chapter of book one was delivered for review today. So, at this point, all corrections have been sent back to the producer for touch-up, and then it looks like the mastering/clean-up process begins. Expect a release date on Audible to be announced soon!
On a side note, I’ll say that R. C. Bray has turned in an incredible performance for this story. I felt a little strange enjoying the first listen through as much as I did, having written the book and all (you’re not supposed to enjoy your own work that much, are you?), but god DAMN, guys. He nailed the hell out of this.
I can’t wait for you to hear it.
Author: Stephen Moss
Through the vast expanse of outer space, a malevolent alien species has been watching us, coveting our world, and planning full scale invasion. Their goal is twofold: completely eradicate the human race while preserving our planet in as pristine and undamaged a form as possible. Because of this, their attack must first lead with a clandestine incursion; a small group of specialized agents must infiltrate our society at all levels, positioning themselves such that they can nullify our nuclear weapons capability and, therefore, our ability to destroy our own planet in a futile attempt to resist the coming armada.
Unknown to the aliens, however, is the fact that we know they’re coming, thanks to series protagonist Neil Danielson, who first notices the uncharacteristic behavior of an approaching meteor and begins to investigate.
The series starts out as a game of cat and mouse between a painfully small pocket of human resistance and the first wave of the invasion: seven incredibly advanced robotic agents supported by four all-seeing, all-knowing alien satellites positioned around the globe, all powered by an Artificial Intelligence capable of dredging every inch of our terrestrial and satellite-based communication networks for all data ever transmitted over the Internet. It then evolves into a frantic race: the alien armada will be here in a decade. We have that time to advance our technology to a degree that we have even a tiny hope of standing against them.
I’ve been thinking about doing this one for a long time, now. If I recall correctly, this was the first series that I stumbled across where I downloaded it strictly based on the narrator (R. C. Bray). I saw a bunch of really positive reviews, the author seemed to be a hard sci-fi fan (like yours truly), so I figured I’d give it a go.
Overall, I really loved this series, despite some problems that I’ll get into below. It was all kinds of imaginative and I really respect the amount of work that Moss took upon himself in putting this story together. I need to stress up front that, though there are a large collection of characters in these stories, these aren’t really character driven stories by any stretch of the imagination. There are a few functioning arcs here and there and Danielson, the main character, even has some brief flashes of honest humor in the first book, but my opinion is that you don’t read these looking for terribly deep human interaction.
The main point of these books, to my mind, was to set up this seemingly insurmountable threat to which we would have to respond. The aliens coming to curb stomp us are advanced enough that we as humans could rightly regard them as Space Wizards. Luckily, not all of these aliens are on the same page; some of them aren’t excited about committing genocide against an entire species. Because of this, we humans are given a bit of a leg up/cheat code by our extraterrestrial benefactors; a leg up that unlocks some pretty mind boggling avenues of scientific discovery.
This is the heart of the story and is also one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much, despite its flaws. In essence, the premise is what we as a species need to do to get to a point where we’re capable of defending ourselves against almighty Space Gods. At the start, we’re given access to some very key fundamental technologies that allow us to explode ahead by several decades (if not centuries) and a timeline of ten years to build up our capability. The best estimate is that the invasion force will be here in ten years. Now, what do you do with that?
This series is a love letter to technological innovation and happily satisfies the geek in me.
This is where the series runs into some problems. My understanding is that this was Moss’s first series of books and I’m sorry to say that it shows in his writing. Thankfully for me, Bray’s expert narration was able to save the clunky writing; it seems that he went to great pains to clean things up without actually modifying the narrative. The way he emphasizes certain words over others, mutes the expression of those which would have been better edited out, and flexes his narrative muscles to keep the dialog flowing is a testament to his expertise. Had I attempted the print version of this story, I can’t honestly tell whether I would have finished it or not. I’ll provide a few examples:
The most minor (in my mind) issue in the writing has to do with grammar; these books are positively stacked from floor to ceiling with dangling prepositions (e.g. Where did they come from? versus From where did they come?) When the book is told from a first person narrative, you expect to see this kind of thing; this is simply how people talk and it actually does sound natural. The Fear Saga is told from a third person omniscient perspective, however, which means that you want to have your grammar game on point (if the narrator is omniscient, he/she should know how to structure a sentence as well). My understanding is that there were several other issues in the print version as well having to do with commas and run-on sentences, however these are far less apparent in the audio form. I will note that the first ebook in the series has been flagged on Amazon as having quality issues for both editing and broken links, so take that as you will.
Because I consumed these stories in audio format, an issue that truly did stand out for me was the author’s overuse of pet phrases. Such things bug the hell out of me both as a reader and a writer; I’m always on the lookout to eradicate such things in my own books.
Stephen Moss absolutely loves the hell out of the word “proverbial”. Good god, you guys, does he ever. He loves it so much that he even uses it in inappropriate situations where words like “literal” or even “figurative” would suit far better. Even worse, he seems to insist on using the incorrect “proverbiably” rather than “proverbially”, a reality that Bray suffers through dutifully as he reads the story. The first time I listened to the series, I wondered in shock if it was just Bray mispronouncing the word. When it happened over and over again, I realized the man was doing his job and reading the text faithfully as it was written. On subsequent readings (yes, I have indeed listened to the series more than once, I actually enjoyed it that much), I inwardly cringe along with the narrator each time he hits one of these doozies.
Another example would be Moss’s love of the phrase or formula, “He did X, such was the Y of his Z.” Just replace X, Y, and Z with appropriate adjectives and verbs as needed:
- “He would not falter, such was the strength of his resolve.”
- “She felt total adoration, such was the intensity of his regard.”
- “He rolled his eyes yet again, such was the repetition of the formula’s usage.”
You get the idea.
Apart from the above, it just seems to me that the stories would have benefited either from a few more rounds of editing or at least another set of eyes. Certain phrases or passages of dialog stumble all over themselves and clearly stand out as a first draft attempt that just didn’t get cleaned up later on. One specific phrase that stands out occurs either towards the end of the second book or at the beginning of the third book. I don’t remember exactly who was speaking but the structure was so damned jarring that it was burned into my brain:
“…you will be being monitored…”
Holy crap, right? That is exactly the kind of thing that you write on your first pass where you’re just trying to get the whole damned thing on paper. At some point, though, you read back through what you’ve done and pick stuff like that out for correction. You at least get a couple of friends to page through your work and let you know that you’re doing things like that.
This is the kind of thing where R. C. Bray’s skills really come in and save the day. The first time I encountered the above phrase, I actually had to stop and replay it to confirm that I’d actually heard what I thought I heard. Bray’s delivery on stuff like this is outstanding; he actually picked one of the forms of “be” to gloss over in the reading and focused on emphasizing the other slightly more than necessary, the overall effect being that you as the listener only really hear one of them. At first I thought I was only attributing skill where none actually existed but, having listened to this series at least three times now, I have to believe that R. C. Bray is doing it on purpose. It’s just too consistent to not be intentional.
One of the things that fans of the series criticize heavily is the arc of Neil Danielson, what he does by the end of the series, and what happens to him as a result; a series of events that I won’t spoil here. Unfortunately, those fans are wrong.
Moss was doing a very specific thing with this character and, whether readers want to agree with the outcome or not, it was well done, for the most part. Danielson has an actual arc, each point along the way is properly setup, and the payoff at the end is well earned. Whether you as the reader are happy with the outcome is a different story; Moss is exploring a what-if scenario, not engaging in wish fulfillment. I salute him for having the balls to do what he did instead of trying to make everyone happy, which must inevitably fail despite the best of intentions.
On the other hand, many of the characters in this story end up being interchangeable, with the exception of a few notable extremes. Certain characters truly stand out with defined personalities, however this is due to the fact that their personalities develop to a point a little north of over the top. I’m looking at you, Ayala. Many characters feel as though they lack nuance in presentation, both in their actions and their speech patterns. A perfect example are the two agents John and Quavoce who, apart from the fact that they do different things in the books, refer to different backstories, and are given different accents by the narrator, have very little to make them unique from each other. Their speech patterns are essentially the same as well as their mannerisms. Without the assistance of the writer/narrator to tell you who is who (by use of names or backstory tidbits), these agents are essentially interchangeable.
Real people have ways of speaking that are unique to them. They have phrases and placeholders that they tend to rely on that are unique. In these books, all of the characters use the same phrases, structure their sentences in similar fashion, and so on. It’s a shame, too, because that lack of characterization tends to flatten out the character arcs presented to the reader and creates a feeling of interchangeability that hinders your ability to connect emotionally with the characters.
I think I’ll cut it off there. I could go on but what this really comes down to is that Stephen Moss is a talented science fiction writer with a hell of an imagination but with little literary polish. My recommendation to him would be to keep at it because his stories are still engaging despite their flaws and he’s certainly built up a hell of a fan base, yet if he continues to add to his writer’s toolbox and focuses on perfecting the craft of his writing, my humble opinion is that his stories would improve be leaps and bounds.
And, because this is a Science Fiction story and Moss cites hard sci-fi as an influence, I’m going to take a minute to critique this aspect of the Fear Saga.
Over all, the science in these stories is really good. It’s all grounded in just enough reality that it feels plausible while still jumping far enough ahead into the futuristic that the reader absolutely will experience a sense of wonder as the scientists in these books learn to crawl, walk, run, and finally fly. It is apparent in the reading of these works that Moss put a lot of time into researching the various scientific fields that he explores and even adapted a lot of his findings into some very creative (and fun) areas.
I will take issue, however, with two basic points of physics.
First, the aliens approach interplanetary speeds just shy of the speed of light through the use of gravity wells. More specifically, then have the ability to transport their space craft into what I’ll call no-space, or at least a sub-dimension, wherein their mass doesn’t interact with objects in our primary dimension and yet is still effected by the gravity of said objects. In other words, they go to a dimension where their ship can pass through a planet, however the gravity of that planet still attracts their ship in this sub-dimension, so they fall towards the planet’s center.
Okay, cool, except for the fact that they continue to accelerate after they pass the planet’s center. The idea is that they ramp their speed up to near-light by chaining a series of these bodies together; planets, stars, etc. This has a cumulative effect, you see, and they just keep getting faster as they pass through each body.
The problem is that gravity pulls towards the center. If they went to a sub-dimension where they were pulled into the center of a planet’s gravity well, they would instantly begin to slow down as they passed that center point. Eventually, forward momentum would be completely exhausted and they would reverse direction back towards the center. Think of a pendulum that loses momentum on each swing until, being overcome by the pull of gravity, it hangs motionless.
So that doesn’t work.
The other issue I had was with the descent of the space station elevator cable. I haven’t done the math on this, so I don’t actually know if I’m one hundred percent correct but my gut tells me I am. They have a space station in orbit around the planet which they want to tether to the ground through the use of an incredibly long cable. The cable is made of alien wizard technology, so we can assume it is strong enough to handle the load. The cable is so long (over 20,000 miles) and its weight so prodigious that it cannot be lifted up to meet the station. It must instead by lowered from the station down to the earth.
Now, I’m not gonna lie, this is one of the cooler scenes in the books and I enjoyed the hell out of it. Even so, a little voice in the back of my brain kept insisting that the cable’s mass would eventually pull the space station down to earth as soon as it had enough chance to be effected by the planet’s gravity. Essentially, the more it was lowered, the heavier it would have gotten, until the combined weight of the meter thick, 20,000 mile cable yanked the counterweight station out of the sky. I suppose you could counteract this pulling action by having the counterweight extend out from the Earth as the bottom portion of the cable was lowered, using the cable’s own inertia to counteract the pull of gravity. You certainly couldn’t do it with a stationary counterweight and some reverse-thrusters; we simply don’t have anything that hauls that kind of ass, even in these stories. And if I recall correctly, reverse-thrusters are the solution in this story. It’s a minor point, really, but the rest of the science elements of the book were so damned fun and also so well done that little items like this really stand out by contrast.
As noted previously, R. C. Bray’s expert narration does a lot to cover over many of the literary and grammatical shortcomings in the series. He uses just about every trick and technique at his disposal (developed over a considerably successful career) to put the best face that he can on Moss’s work, and the reader’s ability to enjoy the story is greatly enhanced for his efforts.
My advice to any prospective readers would be to go get the audible version, especially if you find textual errors to be visually distracting.
If you are a science fiction fan, I really hope that this review doesn’t put you off checking out this series. I heartily recommend it to anyone who enjoys good, hard science fiction as well as alien invasion stories that are smartly conceived (as opposed to the usual Roland Emmerich dreck). For all of the flaws I’ve listed above, I’d happily shelf this series right alongside some of the other greats like The Andromeda Strain and Footfall (both of which had plenty of their own issues, by the way).
Stephen Moss has spoken of a probable fourth book in the series, Fear’s Orphans, and I for one hope he goes after it. Additionally, I look forward to seeing what he chooses to explore in other universes. The guy is definitely a diamond in the rough but his storytelling succeeds despite those rough edges. With a little polish, I foresee some amazing work in his future.