Dull Thud

Yes, it’s time for another Oblong Book Review, brought to you by Mr. Grumpy, Inc. This month the local science fiction book club decided to read Lightning Strike by Catherine Osaro. I had never read any of her work. She’s prolific. She seems to be with Baen Books, one of the big NY SF imprints, but as far as one can determine from the front matter, Lightning Strike is self-published, so it’s in a bit of a gray area. Should Mr. Grumpy treat it gently, as being just another bit of unimportant self-published cow plop, or should he address it as the early work of a significant author, who if she were smart would have known that this early work ought to be suppressed, not served up to her unsuspecting fans?

A question for the ages. For the ages of 8 to 12, I suppose.

The best that can be said about Lightning Strike is that it’s a smooth read. The prose is very adequate. It’s not a long book, and packs in a fair amount of action. The cultural background on the life of a young Mexican woman in L.A. is, as far as an old white guy can guess, realistic. If you read uncritically, with your analytical faculties shut down (or undeveloped), you may enjoy it.

Tina is coming home, late at night, from her job as a waitress. Walking the dark streets between the bus stop and her cramped and run-down apartment, she encounters a tall stranger. And fifteen minutes later, she and the tall stranger are sitting on a doorstep, in the dark, late at night, on a deserted street, making out.

As it turns out, there’s a science fiction reason why they’re instantly attracted to one another. There’s a telepathy thing happening. But the reader doesn’t know that yet. No, what we have in the opening is purely a wish fulfillment fantasy. Girl (she’s only 17) meets the man of her dreams. Within 24 hours they’re in the sack, and she’s no longer a virgin.

The street hunk (his name is Althor) soon protects her from being gang-raped, and in the process he gets shot. They steal a police car and flee, taking refuge in — are you ready? — a dorm room at Cal Tech. Two or three days later, without benefit of medical attention, Althor is fine.

The SF part is, Althor is from outer space. He’s the pilot of a tiny interstellar fighter. He has landed in L.A. and then sent his ship back up into orbit, on auto-pilot. And why has he landed in L.A. in the middle of the night? Because he’s headed to Washington, D.C., where his mother is being received at the White House, but for some unexplained reason he didn’t want to land in D.C.

This is the point at which the novel collapses into cow plop. How did he plan to get from L.A. to D.C.? We don’t know. Asaro doesn’t bother trying to explain it. She has her street hunk from outer space, and by golly she’s going to hop into the sack with him. (Yes, metaphorically.)

But wait — it gets worse. Althor has somehow blundered into an alternate universe. The Earth on which he has landed is not the Earth where his mother is being received at the White House. This Earth is at an earlier point in its history — 1987, to be precise. Interstellar travel is unknown. Yet he is weirdly unconcerned about this huge space-time cock-up.

The manner in which he was catapulted into an alternate universe is never explained. At the end of the book, somehow his fighter ship is able to return to his own universe, again without a word of explanation. No reputable author from the golden age of science fiction would have stumbled like this. They would have added a paragraph of hand-waving to provide some sort of flimsy but plausible explanation.

Althor is human, but he’s also sort of a cyborg. Because of this, his character undergoes odd shifts, so we never get a solid feeling of who he is as a person. Tina’s character is well developed, but Althor remains just an anonymous hunk. He’s in regular telepathic contact with his orbiting ship thanks to his cyborg features. However, his ability to command the ship from down on the planet is strangely attenuated, basically so the author can put him in a situation where he’s helpless.

The ship (it’s called a Jag) is soon spotted in orbit because its cloaking mechanism has malfunctioned, again for no reason that Asaro bothers to explain. It is then captured, in orbit, loaded into the Challenger space shuttle, and brought down to Earth. It is sequestered at an Air Force base not far from L.A. Scientists are brought in to study it.

The idea that a 1987-era Challenger was capable of matching orbit with an unidentified flying object, or that ground control would even decide to do so when the object wasn’t doing anything, is ridiculous. The idea that the Challenger had a big enough cargo bay to accommodate an entire fighter ship, compact though it may be, is even worse. But Asaro had to get that dang Jag down to the ground in order to make her story line work, so that’s how she did it. We never see this process; it’s all off-stage. When we finally see the Jag, it’s in a hangar in a well-guarded Air Force base.

And yet, Tina’s undergrad friends at Cal Tech are able to penetrate the security of the base, using forged badges, without the slightest difficulty. In real life they would never have made it past the front gate, but that injection of reality would have popped Asaro’s sad little balloon.

And then there’s a big shootout at the hangar, with the military police on one side and a tall, hunky, unarmed space guy on the other, and the space guy wins. He manages to get Tina and her friends into the ship and slams the airlock door.

Okay, lots of action novels have fight scenes that are just as unrealistic. Maybe we should give Asaro a pass on that one. But wait, there’s more. When they get into the Jag, there are notebooks and stuff scattered around. The scientists have been studying the Jag, and in the process have damaged its systems.

How did they get through the airlock? Did it have a doorknob? No explanation. And how could they possibly have damaged the software systems of an AI whose user interface they don’t understand, whose systems are several hundred years more advanced than their technology, and which is sentient and probably wouldn’t like being meddled with? Wouldn’t a fighter plane from the distant future have security systems designed to prevent unauthorized meddling? D’ya think?

The Jag has trouble taking off, but is soon able to do so. When it takes off, there’s acceleration. It is using rocket engines, and has to taxi on a runway. Rocket engines! Aerodynamic wings! This is an interstellar space ship from the distant future. Also, it’s tiny. Where is the rocket fuel stored? Please, don’t ask.

Well, they make it up to orbit, but now the U.S. and other nations are firing missiles at them. Never mind that ICBMs in 1987 were never engineered to reach orbit, nor to target orbiting objects. The Jag is still suffering from malfunctions, and Althor’s mind-link with it isn’t working well either. So — are you ready for this? — Tina establishes a mind-link with the Jag and instructs it how to repair its advanced cloaking system. She uses a childish metaphor about plastering cracks, because of course she’s capable of nothing else. She has not the faintest idea in the world how the Jag’s systems work.

In spite of which, the Jag figures out how to fix itself based on Tina’s suggestion. The missiles can’t see the Jag any more, and it’s time for the happy ending. Althor and Tina fly off to another star, covering several light-years in less than no time. Althor asks Tina to marry him.

Earlier — you’ll remember that first sex scene — Althor has been hopelessly chagrined to learn that Tina is only 17. He has just had sex with an under-age girl, and he’s an honorable guy. The problem here is, he grew up on a different planet, one whose years were almost certainly a different length. For all we know, on his planet the age of consent is 11 or 23. Sure, he could perform mental arithmetic to figure out how many 24-hour days there are in 18 Earth years compared to the 27- (or whatever) hour days on his home world. But we never see him doing the math. He is instantly aware that he has transgressed a taboo.

And yet, at the end of the book, she’s still 17 and thus still under the age of consent, but he has no problem asking her to marry him. The earlier problem, when he was so upset, was a fake problem. Like most of the other problems in this novel, it was inserted simply to give readers a little thrill. The whole plot is a confabulation of fakery. It’s cardboard.

If I were a successful SF author whose work was being published by Baen Books, I would not want this piece of self-published tripe anywhere near my Amazon books page. I would want to hide it. Make it go away. The fact that Asaro chose to revise and republish it (padding it out, in the process, by adding a whole lot of irrelevant back-story about Tina’s early life) tells me everything I need to know about her judgment as a mature and successful author.

The covers of her Baen novels are pretty awful too. Nothin’ to see here, folks. Move along.

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