For awhile I’ve been meaning to do more book reviews, because I read a lot. Since I’ve seem to have a little bit more time on my hands, I’ve decided to try to make book reviews a semi-regular occurrence (and by that I mean I will do them until something shiny distracts me).
As I was trying to decide which book I should start with, I found that I had a pdf file of something called Off World. I vaguely remembered reading this about a year ago, and it seemed to be a pretty mediocre piece of sci-fi. Since it wasn’t long, I figured this would be a good book to start with.
Oh god, I was so very, very wrong. The reason I couldn’t remember much of Off World is because I repressed how absolutely and utterly horrible it was. And I don’t mean just the writing, but absolutely every aspect of this “book”—plot, characterization, dialogue, pacing—is so incredibly, hilariously bad that by the end I was a drunken, sobbing ball of misery and pain.
I feel the need to add a warning at this point: this post is going to be long and it’s going to be vicious. Also, there is a very good chance that I may use profanity on a number of occasions and that I may resort to drunken blubbering as I beg the pain to stop. And since I’m going to be so mean, I just want to mention that I am a grad student in school studying writing, so I actually know what I’m talking about. Also, I’m a bitter, spiteful, awful person, so together expect some moments of lucid criticism before I devolve into random profanities.
Now that my credentials are established, I will completely undermine them by including texts and IMs I sent my hetero lifemate as I was reading this (example: “Fuck it. Where is that handle of vodka?”). I also sent my hetero lifemate the file so I will be including some of her observations.
The entire “book” is only 153 pages long, and it needed to be at least twice that length. I also have my doubts if the writer, Stephanie Vaughan, had an editor. If she did, she needs to find a new one because this one did an absolutely godawful job: the plot, and I use that word very loosely, is so muddled that it’s practically non-existent; the pacing is absolutely horrendous; the characters are actively unlikable; and the world building is lazy and poor. An editor would step in and make her straighten out the plot, make her work on the pacing, and damn well make her figure out what the hell this future looks like, because I, for one, have no clue.
But I am, of course, leaving out the most important part: all of that was tacked on later to legitimize the massive amounts of porn this woman wrote. There are entire chapters (out of nineteen, including the epilogue) devoted to nothing but explicit sex scenes.
There is room for both sex and plot in a book, but you can’t just throw in sex gratuitously. The sex should either add to the story or to characterization. The porn in Off World is completely gratuitous and is detrimental to both the plot and the pacing. If your book is only 153 pages long, 80 of those should not be devoted to sex, especially when your plot is not strong enough to fill up even those remaining 70 pages.
I do feel a little bad for how mean I’m going to get, because Vaughan sounds like a perfectly nice woman. Just look at her dedication:
“For the two Dans: Dan Wasson, who answered my questions about artificial gravity and everything else I threw at him; and for my son, Daniel Vaughan, whose boundless enthusiasm for all things s.f. was a constant source of inspiration. Thank you both from the bottom of my heart.”
How horrified do you think that both Wasson and her son were to find out that this book was just gay porn? Oh, did I not mention that? Yeah, it is. I think all genres of literature need to have a greater visibility of LGBT characters (a hell of a lot more visibility of diversity, in fact, because Jesus Christ Sci-Fi/Fantasy is white and heterosexual), but I like said above, this is just gratuitous sex that reads more like Vaughan writing out her own ID fantasies.
Normally, I would summarize the plot and discuss some of the specific problems in the book, but since I have no idea what the hell was going on, I’m going to take this thing chapter by chapter. Maybe working together we can all piece together the plot. That also means this entire review is going to be installments because it’s a) super long, and b) if I had to do it all at once I would die from alcohol poisoning, because sweet, sweet liquor is the only thing getting me through this.
I suggest you all have some liquor on hand for this. I know I have my shot glasses lined up. Okay, let’s get started.
In which we meet our heroes and I realize how awful this book is going to get
So we’re first introduced to Caleb (also known as Our Dear Fucking Hero--ODFH for short-- who I want to die in a fire), and he’s getting beat up by some faceless soldiers. It becomes clear-ish that these soldiers have boarded his shuttle. Why? We may never know. Caleb ODFH later says that the ship fired a warning shot over the bow of his shuttle, but I’m not sure why these soldiers bothered with him at all, especially since they suspect him of being a Republic spy.
Anyway, one of the soldiers is kicking and hitting him. It immediately becomes clear this guy will be the villain who hates Caleb ODFH for nebulous reasons (unlike the reasons I hate him, which are established in his whiny, bitchy, selfish characterization). The soldiers are speaking Kush, which is some kind of space dialect, I guess.
I have a lot of respect for authors who successfully create their own language, like Tolkien’s Elvish, which has its own grammatical rules and can actually be spoken. Vaughan, however, doesn’t appear to have put the same thought into Kush. For example: “T’laar ishna kunvahdi!”
Wow, that’s a bunch of meaningless sounds! Also, if you’re expecting Vaughan to provide a translation for any of this than you are soundly mistaken.
We still have 150 pages to go, so let’s speed this up. One of the soldiers is slightly nicer and doesn’t actually hit Caleb and gives him water, although he makes no move to stop the abuse. He’s obviously the love interest.
We find out that Caleb was apparently looking for these soldiers and that he read up on outlaw culture, like you do. The soldiers are most definitely ex-military and are wearing some kind of blast shield over their faces. They take their shields off and Caleb sees “sheer masculine perfection in shades of mahogany.”
That is the exact moment when I realize what I had gotten myself into. I bravely resist the tears and go on.
Caleb immediately falls into love/lust/whatever with the man, whose name is Sarhaan. By the end of the book I will want him to also die in a fire.
The scene then abruptly shifts point of view, centering on Sarhaan. This is, unfortunately, a pattern that’s going to continue throughout the rest of the book. Look, multiple povs is a valid technique and can add a lot of depth to your novel. I stopped reading Ted Williams' Otherland series to review Off World, and Williams makes wonderful use of multiple povs. But when you only have 153 pages and nineteen chapters, it’s not a good idea to constantly be switching pov every couple of pages. It’s confusing and adds nothing to the narrative.
We learn the bad soldier is named Dave Bartok, and I foresee him being an asshole for no reason other than Vaughan can’t be bothered to take time away from the porn to establish motivation for her villain.
After shoving Caleb into some kind of brig, Sarhaan then spends some time thinking about the week or so he spent at an elite spa, and we learn that the ozone layer on Earth is gone or something and direct exposure without protective domes means radiation or something. Also, he’s got a real shower with real water in his room. I mention this because it’s going to be important later. And by “important” I mean “porn.”
Also, ten pages in and we reach our first what the fucking fuck moment. Sarhaan and the other soldiers were an elite military unit which put down a rebellion, which wanted to secede from the Republic. Who wanted to secede? I’m glad you asked!
It was the Inuit. No, seriously, the Inuit.
Say it with me: what the fucking fuck?
Why did the Inuit try to secede and why did Sarhaan have to go in and brutally kill them? Well that’s simple: “Sarhaan didn’t need anyone to spell out for him what an Inuit secession would have meant to the government.”
Are you kidding me, Stephanie Vaughan? My god, this is lazy writing. Basically Vaughan couldn’t come up with a reason for this utterly inane decision and hoped if she glossed over it no one would notice. Lazy, lazy writing.
Also, why the hell is it the Inuit? Now at this point I’m getting the distinct impression that the Republic, although it’s never made clear if it’s just the United States or a planet wide government, is supposed to be some sort of ultra right wing government, and anyone not white or heterosexual are killed or treated as second class citizens.
But the Inuit? I will grant that like many aboriginal peoples throughout history the Inuit have been repressed and horribly mistreated to the point of having genocide campaigns taken out against them. At one point, the Inuit had their children taken away to be raised by white families and the Inuit women forcibly sterilized and there was a massive effort to obliterate their entire culture. So, yes, history of horrible oppression and justified anger. But of all the aboriginal tribes of North America, they are perhaps the most peaceful and have no history of violent uprisings
Of course, Vaughan may be implying the Inuit were scapegoats, but you need to make that clear, otherwise it makes no goddamn sense.
Oh, and Sarhaan is definitely a man tortured by his past: “He hadn’t lost track of the body count so much as he’d never tried to keep one in the first place. Sometimes they came to him in his dreams, though. The headless torsos and bits of individuals he’d helped leave this life. Without eyes or mouths, they still somehow managed to convey their sadness. Some had no heads left to shake at him, but he felt the weight of their disapproval just the same.”
That’s right, these poor people were brutally murdered and yet all they can do is muster up faint disapproval at Sarhaan like he’s a child who got a C on his report card. He is so tortured by what he’s done he will only mention it once more in passing and then never ever thinks about the murders again. Our hero, everybody
The chapter ends with Sarhaan jerking off and imagining it’s Caleb doing it. This will be a trend that will be repeated in later chapters until you want to hit your head against the wall until you fall unconscious.
Text Message of the chapter: Apparently there was a great big Inuit uprising of aught 6 they had to take care of.
In which our heroes eat dinner and want to bone one another
So nothing really happens in this chapter, which will be a trend that lasts for the entire book. When it opens, Caleb ODFH is chilling out in an impromptu brig, thinking that his plan to find the violent soldiers isn’t working out like he thought. I’m not sure what he thought was going to happen, but being suspected as a Republican Spy (oh, yeah, Vaughan uses Republic and Republican interchangeably, even though they’re not) did not figure into his scheming.
Sarhaan shows up and they go to eat. Wow, this is just riveting. In the mess hall, they meet other crew members/soldiers/bit players, including Sandy D’abu, Jake Naslund, and someone named Kai Xuwich for no reason. Don’t worry about trying to tell them apart—none of them are given personalities.
In a conversation with Sandy D’abu, we learn Caleb ODFH worked in the diplomatic crops at the main consulate in New Atlanta. You would think this would be important later, but no. Apparently in his job of reading reports and looking for patterns and that’s when he discovered the murders.
This chapter starts the unfortunate trend of Vaughan ending almost every chapter with a bit of dialogue that is supposed to be DUN DUN DUN but leaves me going, “And?”
DUN DUN DUN ending: “It was the murders, of course.”
In which there is some back story, our heroes still want to bone each other, and I need a drink
We’re back to Caleb ODFH’s pov. I was not kidding about it changing every couple of pages.
So apparently there was a bunch of murders in Cuba and Hispaniola. So, are they part of the Republic? It’s never clear what the political landscape is of the future, just that the Republic exists and everyone hates homosexuals. I think Vaughan may be taking the brave stance that homophobia and discrimination is wrong. Bravo, Vaughan.
Anyway, we learn that Sarhaan’s unit are the suspected murderers. I don’t care.
Bartok shows up to be an asshole and menace Caleb, who responds by being a fainting Southern Belle. I continue to not find him likeable. Sarhaan proves he’s the hero by making Bartok go away and saying that Bartok can’t torture Caleb for information.
Because of the constant threat of Bartok kidnapping Caleb and torturing him, despite the fact he’s on the same fucking ship as Sarhaan and the other interchangeable soldiers, Sarhaan cannot guarantee Caleb’s safety. I’m just going to go out on a limb and say these are the worse soldiers ever. I’m amazed the Inuits didn’t just wait until they had died from exposure.
Since Sarhaan has absolutely no control over anyone on the ship, Caleb has to sleep in Sarhaan’s room for protection. Of course he does.
We’re back to Sarhaan’s pov and we learn that Caleb ODFH was spurred to hunt down the suspected murderers because his best friend Daphne was murdered. That’s right, folks, the only woman in the entire book was killed before the events take place and is only mentioned when ODFH needs to be all angsty and emo.
Oh, don’t think we’ll get anything like touching flashbacks or Daphne being given a personality (she’s described as “Funny girl. Great sense of humor. We could talk about anything.” My god, it’s like I knew her personally!) to show how her death was tragic and cruel, because that would be interesting and good writing.
Also, Sarhaan thinks Caleb is shiny and sparkly. I briefly consider the possibility that this is a crossover with Twilight and Caleb is a Meyer vampire. I then wonder how long it would take to drink myself to death.
Moving on, Daphne was apparently a “forensics geek” and was looking into the murders of the prostitutes. Of course it would be prostitutes. Anyone else think Vaughan had a checklist next to her while she was writing this: “futuristic oppressive homosexual killing government? Check. Tragically haunted super soldier? Check. Murdered prostitutes no one cares about? Check. Tragically murdered fag hag? Check!”
So Daphne worked at the lab where the dead prostitutes ended up and Daphne looked into it. Apparently all the poor dead prostitutes (and the number of them keeps changing, anywhere from hundreds to dozens) had a similar kind of wound.
At this point I feel the need to include my dear Hetero lifemate’s comments here.
“Caleb shivered a little. “‘Daphne noticed that most of the people murdered had a similar kind of wound.’
“‘You cold? Want a blanket or something?’
Seriously, hetero lifemate.
Sarhaan, brilliant man that he is, observes that if the prostitute killing were the work of a serial killer all the wounds would be identical. Caleb answers that Daphne died before she could prove anything.
Oh, before I forget, there’s all these little hints about some secret pertaining to Sarhaan and other soldiers: Sarhaan was an army brat and never mentions his father, and Caleb says that Sarhaan is military and all that goes with it. Let me guess, they were genetically engineered. Remind me to be shocked when this is revealed later.
DUN DUN DUN ending: “She was mugged [Caleb said]. They said she must have fought back, because whoever did it beat her up pretty bad. Beat her to death.”
In which Caleb and Sarhaan still want to bone one another, Sarhaan takes a shower and jerks off, and I make a run to the liquor store
Sarhaan gives Caleb a beer, which he gets shitfaced on. Oh come on, ODFH is that much of a delicate flower that one beer gets him drunk? I hate him.
We’re back in Caleb’s pov and Caleb thinks about Daphne in the most generic way possible: “The past came filtering back to Cal, memories of Daphne and him at different ages. God, he missed her.”
Seriously, Vaughan, if you want me to care about these characters you have to take time to make them real people, and that includes giving Daphne a personality and showing how close she and Caleb were instead of just telling us.
Caleb completely forgets about poor dead Daphne as Sarhaan starts drinking and Caleb completely lusts after him. We learn Caleb comes from a family with money, Sarhaan was an army brat and was poor as a kid and that Vaughan needs to work on her descriptions.
As my hetero lifemate observed:
“‘Those lips. What must they taste like? Slick. Chilly and wet.’
“That is NOT a taste.”
Indeed, hetero lifemate, indeed.
Caleb is all ogling Sarhaan and we learn that his name is just shortened from an African one and that Caleb has been flying shuttles since he was a kid. This has no bearing on the plot at all, but I guess this is supposed to act as our heroes getting know one another. I continue to not care.
Since he’s so drunk, Caleb ends up falling asleep. When he wakes up Sarhaan is in the shower and Caleb can see him masturbating. Okay, this is something else that isn’t made clear, but is the shower just in the corner of the room? I’m assuming there’s not an attached bathroom, but there’s no curtain or stall? You just shower in an exposed corner like in a prison, I guess.
Vaughan then shows her skills as a writer and pulls out this little gem: “ebony cock.”
This marks the start of my descent into alcoholism. Between shots, I write a reminder to go to the liquor store later.
We then cut to Sarhaan’s pov for no other reason than to get a long drawn out fantasy of him fucking Caleb. I do five shots in a row.
Once done, he goes to wake up Caleb, who either fell back asleep during Sarhaan’s jerk off session or is pretending to be asleep or it’s the next morning, I don’t really know. Anyway, Sarhaan tells Caleb to shower, Caleb starts blushing because that would mean getting naked in front of Sarhaan, Sarhaan won’t leave the room because of the constant threat of torture, and as Caleb starts to freak out Sarhaan reveals that he knows Caleb is gay.
Text message of the chapter: Also, I’ve taken to cleaning my apartment to avoid reading this book.
DUN DUN DUN ending: “Don’t worry, kid --I can keep a secret. I won’t tell anyone that you’re gay.”
In which Caleb showers, he and Sarhaan kiss, there’s an explosion, and I cuddle my brand new delicious bottle of tequila.
We’re back to Caleb’s pov, and he’s freaking out. Apparently on Republic/an Earth you can be put to death for being gay. You’re subtly as a writer amazes me, Vaughan.
Sarhaan tells him that being gay is only illegal on Earth and I wonder what the hell the government structure is. So the Republic only rules on Earth, so it’s a planet wide government? In the text, there’s allusion to Cuba and Hispaniola, but are they part of the Republic? We know Alaska is because those pesky Inuits tried to secede, so is it only North America that’s the Republic?
And there’s no governing system off planet? Our dear heroes are out past Mars, so is space sort of like international waters? Is it the neutral zone from Star Trek? This is what I mean about poor world building. I can understand that this isn’t the focus of the novel, the romance and fucking between Caleb and Sarhaan is, but there you can find ways to work in this necessary information so that it enriches the plot. Or, in this case, use it actually come up with a plot.
The simple rule that governs the gay/straight situation in the Republic is simply summed up thusly: “What happened off-world, stays off-world.”
And we reach our second what the fucking fuck moment.
First of all, I am so goddamn sick of the whole Vegas slogan, but this book takes place supposedly in the future, so why the hell is that phrase still around? Now in 2009, it’s thankfully on its way out, so there’s no reason to have it still hanging around in, what I assume, is a couple hundred years.
Slang changes constantly, so there should be new phrases that Sarhaan and Caleb use. This brings me back to the poor world building. Language is just as important as political structures and technology. Take Tad Willams’ Otherland series (I am using this as an example because I’m reading it so it’s fresh in my mind). The series takes place in the near future, about 80 some years, and besides carefully laying out the virtual network and the laws that govern it, Williams has developed new slang and syntax that people use (example: “chance not,” “scans majorly” “that locks” etc.). Williams works in the new slang in a way that allows the reader to pick up the meaning immediately without him have to explicitly define it.
It’s little details like this that add depth to your world. Now let me do another shot and we’ll get back to the book.
Okay, so, Caleb gets undressed, soaps up with this blue stuff, gets an erection and jerks off in front of Sarhaan. God, this is like the eightieth masturbation scene in four pages. Afterwards, Sarhaan says Caleb’s name, causing him to slip in surprise and land on his ass while hitting his head on the shower wall. Of course. Jesus.
Sarhaan asks him if he’s okay and they end up kissing, like you do. During my seventh shot of liquor of the evening, Naslund, one of the interchangeable soldiers, says that Sarhaan is needed on the bridge because they’ve got company.
Just like that we switch to Sarhaan pov, and Sarhaan’s frustrated because he can’t fuck Caleb, and also, Caleb has “big, brown eyes watch[ing] him from behind a fringe of damp hair.” Caleb is a puppy. A puppy I want to die in a fire.
On the bridge, it’s revealed there’s no command structure but Sarhaan is the defacto leader and Kai Xuwicha is his XO.
More names of crew members are thrown out, but they have no speaking role so there’s no point in trying to remember who they are. Turns out there might be a Republican Gunship, and I wonder again what the fuck the Republic is and what power they have. I expect no answers from Vaughan so I ask my tequila. It doesn’t know either, but at least it will never hurt me.
My hetero lifemate contributed this: “Republican gun ship approaching! Watch it General Cheney is on board sir! He aims to kill. Is anyone wearing anything quail-like? Anyone? Oh for god’s sake Harry take off that fucking quail hat. It looks terrible and its going to get us killed.”
Only the tequila and my hetero lifemate love me.
Apparently the engines on the ship are broken and that they took over Caleb’s shuttle for replacement parts, I guess. Andrei Tischenkian is the engineer with a “Musckovian” accent. So he’s Chekov? He and Jake Naslund are best buddies, but don’t get too attached because he dies in two pages (SPOILER!).
Sarhaan and Caleb go down to help Andrei with…something. I wasn’t paying attention to the techno babble as I was mourning the last of my tequila. Sandy D’Abu says they think the gunship found them because Caleb’s a spy. Sarhaan is all pissy because he wants to do Caleb, and when they get down to the engine there’s an explosion and this chapter mercifully ends.
DUN DUN DUN ending: “Locating it, Andrei brought it slowly into proximity of whatever he was holding and the room exploded in a flash of light.” Actually, that’s a pretty good way to end a chapter. If I was sober I might appreciate it more.
Still with me so far? Good for you! I’m taking a break to go detox and actually read some good science-fiction before my brain dribbles out my ears. Part 2 should be posted in the next couple of days as soon as I can stop sobbing for the pain to stop. That and I need to replenish my alcohol cabinet. Delicious, delicious booze.