Five By Five
Five By Five is a sci-fi anthology by Aaron Allston, Kevin J. Anderson, Loren L. Coleman, B.V. Larson, and Michael A. Stackpole. Each author contributes one story and together they form a nice eBook packed with action, adventure, and wonderful stories. For this review I’ll cover each story, but not necessarily in the order they appear in the book. In this case, I’m saving the best for last.
First up is “Shores of the Infinite” by Loren L. Coleman. Coleman is not an author I’m familiar with, and this tale is part of The ICAS Files, a series of short stories set in a universe created by Coleman.
It’s a universe at war, with technology-enhanced humans are in a fight for survival against an infestation of bio-enhanced machines. Each side being a dark reflection of the other.
Central to the conflict are the ICAS troopers, aka the Alliance Interservice Duty military. These soldiers are augmented with high-tech weaponry and special armored suits known as Interservice Combat Assault Suits. The capability of thus technology is barely explored in the first published short story, Cold Dead Fingers, and is likely to develop alongside the rest of this new universe as I get into more detailed storytelling.
In “Shores of the Infinite”, readers are introduced to a battle on a far off planet called Rho VII. It’s a place where cyborgs wage war against humans, harvesting them for spare parts. The narrative of the story follows two characters. One of them is Sgt. Marcos Rajas who leads his unit of ICAS troopers into battle against the cybies. It’s through this character that readers get introduced to the technology of the universe. The other character is Tevin, a member of local street gang, and now a survivor. He’s struggling to help out other survivors as well dealing with his own deteriorating situation.
While the story is creative, and I really liked the idea of cyborgs harvesting humans for spare parts, there are a few serious flaws with the story. For one, there’s a lot of confusing jargon. Partly it’s used to make the story feel more military like, but it’s also a matter of all the new technology that’s used. Being just a short story, there’s not enough time to get properly introduced to all the new aspects of the universe and this particular military unit. Another flaw is that the story in itself is incomplete. There’s sort of a beginning and definitely a middle, but there’s no end and no resolution to any of the characters or battles that are setup. It’s more of a window into a larger story that takes place somewhere in the middle. As is, it was the weakest of the stories included in the anthology and the only one I didn’t really like.
Next up is “Out There” by Michael A. Stackpole. For X-Wing fans, this is one story you might want to check out. Mike sets up a galaxy where an alien race named the Qian have reached out to Earth for help in a war against the Zsytzii. A group of starfighter pilots are formed called the Star Tigers. This group of ace pilots get thrown into their first foray of combat and Stackpole slips into prose that’s very reminiscent of the good old X-Wing stories with lots of space combat and dogfights. Instead of X-Wings there are Shrikes, and instead of Wedge there is Captain Greg Allen and Colonel Nick Clark. Woven into the story is a layer of politics and mystery. Captain Allen is the son of the President, but also a person whose recovering from a traumatic injury and possibly not quite himself. Then there is the Qian who harbor intentions that no one is really sure about. While the story lays out some of these ideas and included a full fledged dogfight, it’s very much a setup for a larger story that I hope Stackpole will fully develop. It’s an intriguing story and I’d love to read more.
B.V. Larson’s “The Black Ship” was a surprising jewel in the anthology. Like Coleman, Larson is an author I’m unfamiliar with and I didn’t know what to expect. In his story of pain and triumph, he lays out two separate narratives that later crash together with devastating consequences. On one hand there’s an experimental ship crewed by Mechs. The Mechs are synthetic beings who utilize human brains. The captain of the black ship (as it has no name) is a little unstable and has a habit of terminating his chief engineer for a new one. He utilizes a disconnector device that can shut down any Mech, taking them offline so he can then remove their brain and replace it with a new one. The ship keeps a stockpile of brains on hand in case replacements are needed. The engineer is the primary character in this thread of the story, and it is through their eyes that we experience their fear of being disconnected and struggling to fulfill the wishes of a insane captain.
The other part of the story follows a wanderer on the planet Faust. It’s an extremely harsh planet covered with deadly plant life. Colonized long ago by desperate pioneers, the inhabitants are now a scattered and primitive lot. Few wander outside their strongholds to brave the harsh plant life that populates the landscape. That is except for Gersen. Gersen comes across a pleasant village and a pretty girl. Through twists and turns, the story is part Lost In Space, part Star Trek, and part Twilight Zone. It’s a tale of strangeness and horror on an alien world. I really enjoyed it.
Kevin J. Anderson’s contribution is the story “Comrades In Arms.” Like some of the other stories, it picks up on the common theme of cyborgs. In this case the Earth League is at war with the alien Jaxxon, a group of insectoids who use psychic powers to form objects and weapons. Both sides are fighting over a worthless planet called Fixion. The main character is a soldier who is terribly wounded in combat and is offered the chance to go back as a Deathguard. The Deathguard are cyborg berserkers who are unleashed on the battlefield to wage their own personal wars against the enemy. Yet the enemy becomes a lot less clearly defined when one Deathguard goes haywire and befriends a Jaxxon. Together they embark on an entertaining adventure that spurs on a political subplot. Mixing combat with an exploration of diplomacy and psychology, “Comrades In Arms” was one of the best stories in the anthology.
However it was not the best. That honor goes to Aaron Allston and his novella “Big Plush.” I call it a novella because it felt longer and more fleshed out than the other stories. In it he explores a group of tiny synthetic beings who are determine to assert their independence from their giant overlords: humans. It’s a tale of revolution and personal identification as Bow, the tiny protagonist of the story, deals with issues that could seal the fate of his people. “Big Plush” is an emotionally engaging story with a fascinating setting and intriguing characters. Honestly, the price of the anthology is worth for just this story alone. Combined with all the others, it’s a great deal and well worth purchasing. Easily a five out of five metal bikinis.