Friday, October 8, 2021

"Stowaway" by Z.D. Dean--Fiction Review

Today Obscurists, we’re going on a space adventure with Z.D. Dean’s military Sci-Fi novel “Stowaway.” So you know, pack your good comfortable shoes because it’s a one-way trip.

Z.D. Dean

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review*** 

What I love about this book:

I love military science fiction—just in general—but it’s especially at its best in my opinion when someone familiar with the contemporary armed forces, like someone who served, writes it. Z.D. Dean is such a person, having served in the Army, which I respect and thank him for his service. The depth of his experience comes across in this book, and I feel it enhances the narrative.

Part of the reason I like this subgenre and this book is that it lends itself well to focusing a story to a fine point. Characters with military backgrounds in fiction tend to be to the point, confident, and self-possessed enough to have a plan of action, even if events around them look hopeless. To me, there is something refreshing about characters with those qualities, and they have a momentum to them that is always engaging—even when they’re wrong, they’re at least doing something. Most people outside of the military—I include myself—tend to dither because rarely is discipline demanded of us at such high stakes that death isn’t just possible but likely. So it’s fascinating for me to watch a character in a crisis who might not know exactly what to do but have the training to not let ambiguity paralyze them.

The Sci-Fi technology in “Stowaway” might not be anything that I’ve not encountered before in one form or another in my travels through science fiction. Still, Dean has a genius for the description and innovative applications of that tech. It isn’t just Zade’s weapons that I found interesting in how they’re put together but also his tools. I especially liked that early on, even though Zade has an aptitude for customizing the kit he uses in the field, there are still design shortfalls. Dean shows how the character refines and improves with experience.

What I don’t love about this book:

So at heart, I am an agnostic—bare with me, I’ll get on point soon—to the question of whether or not there is a prime cause, the cause of all the subsequent causes that resulted in our universe. In short, my answer to is there a God is: I don’t know. I don’t think I am capable of ever knowing. What I don’t believe in is religion, anybody’s religion—across the board. At the same time, I respect your right to have it, and in return, please don’t bother me about having your flavor of religion. 

Now that my stances are clear, early in this novel, there is a statement that by no means is direct but seems to suggest that Islam is somehow more incompatible with good world order than literally all the other ones. I can understand why someone who fought in the middle east might think that, and I’ll even grant that there is a robust series of examples to support that idea in the short term of history. In the long view of history, though, there are countless examples of precisely the same sort of fanatical behaviors borne from a genuine belief in all the other major world religions in history. There are significant differences, sure. Those fanatics didn’t have access to planes or high explosives, both being relatively new inventions in human history. Also, unlike today how everything is carefully recorded and cataloged, events in the past didn’t get recorded for historical reasons unless a learned person was handy to literally write it down, and even then, that writing could be burned, and that was an effective form of censorship. But we do know, through robust documentation, that groups such as the Templars absolutely murdered men, women, and children—wholesale—with absolutely no sense of irony in Jesus’s name.

That one throwaway comment is actually my most significant complaint about this book. I believe people of all walks of life are equally capable of being shitty or saintly, and no group is more inherently capable of either than any other group—in the long term—clearly in the short term groups like Nazis were as a group really, really bad. Still, Germans overall aren’t any more vicious or virtuous than any other segment of the human family. 

I’ve read reviews saying there are many plot holes to this novel, and I didn’t find that to be true. I mean, I didn’t buy for a second the reason Zade is stranded because of what essentially is a data loss situation, but other than that, I found the internal logic of the story to be okay.

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

We begin “Stowaway” on Earth with Lt. Zade, an artillery officer in the United States Army currently deployed in Afghanistan. Much like with the rest of the war in Afghanistan, it isn’t going well, bureaucracy is a nightmare, and it feels like leadership doesn’t know what it’s doing. This is especially emphasized in the form of Zade’s current CO, a major who speaks in the third person and is obsessed with the idea of glory—not something conducive to the health of his subordinates.

Zade gets sent out with his platoon to check up on an anomaly. Trucks appear to be up on a cliff, where no trucks should be able to easily get to, and it’s feared that maybe this is some sort of prelude to an ambush of some sort. Once at the site, Zade opts to investigate them himself and discovers that the truck fa├žade is advanced camouflage and is immediately rendered unconscious and abducted by aliens. Explaining that to the authorities later is quite an ordeal for Zade’s baffled platoon.

Later, Zade wakes up in what he at first assumes is an advanced medical facility. He isn’t wrong because it’s actually the sickbay of the alien ship he’d inadvertently discovered and got stuck to the side of when it ascended. He meets the captain, an alien woman named Samix, and the ship’s medical officer, Jorloss. They explain that it wasn’t their intention to abduct him. They’re an exploration vessel and were experiencing technical difficulties when they’d landed on Earth. They were making repairs when Zade stumbled into their camouflage and was nearly baked to death on the side of their ship as they made orbit.

In any case, they had to use their faster-than-light capabilities to warp away from Earth to avoid further damage to their ship and possible detection. They intend to circle back and drop Zade off again after they put down somewhere else to finish repairs. Zade asks if he can join the shore party for the novelty of being the first human to walk around on a planet outside of our solar system, and Samix agrees after he is treated with nanites for his and the crew’s protection. However, there are some problems with hostile native animals once on the planet, and Zade barely manages to rescue the crew. There is more bad news because it turns out that as part of the damage to the ship, the data back to Earth was lost, and Zade is now stranded with Samix and her crew.

Zade agrees to join Samix’s crew as their security officer because he really doesn’t have much in terms of other options, and they could really use his help because it turns out that they’re woefully underprepared to deal with hostile encounters. This is the first deep-space exploration ship in a long, long time crewed by people who have been at peace for a long, long time.

As part of the crew, Zade pulls his weight on a series of missions protecting his new crewmates. A budding romance builds between him and the captain, and he forms friendships with the other crew members—except for the ship’s AI, which tries to kill him and nearly succeeds before it’s reset and is more friendly the second go around.

Eventually, though, Samix decides to return the ship to home space, concluding that they just aren’t outfitted or prepared enough to continue their dangerous exploration mission. She then reveals to Zade that there is a rival galactic civilization out there, who are way less altruistic, and Earth is in between the two competing powers. Zade, understandably, feels betrayed that his homeworld was left to die and basically without so much as a warning. He decides that he’ll go his own way when they make port and try to make his own way back home.

Samix gives him a substantial amount of money and lets him go, but her father has other ideas. He’s apparently the equivalent of a President or a King, and he regards Zade as a spy. Samix’s father even goes so far that he doesn’t care if he has to have his men beat Zade to death to get the information out of him. Horrified, Samix confronts her father, revealing the truth that Zade is innocent, and if it wasn’t for him, she and her crew would be dead.

As an apology, they heal Zade up with some fancy new nanites, give him a junk starship, and a firm warning to clear out soon because he’s still not welcome.


“Stowaway” is excellent escapist fiction. Zade literally escapes his life to go on exciting space adventures, and if that doesn’t appeal to you, then I’ve no idea why you might be reading this book. Dean has written an entertaining book in all of its constituent parts—from the plot, pacing, tone, and character development. While it does not truly innovate or experiment as a book, it avoids staleness because Dean, like his main character, is like a good engineer working with what is known. He’s managed to create something with enough of its own character to be entertaining.

I appreciated that every character got their moments and even went beyond themselves at times to transcend their typical roles. He even strikes a balance fairly well that no one, even Zade, becomes a complete Mary Sue who can do no wrong—though to be fair, an inordinate amount of solutions come from Zade. After all, Zade is the least advanced among the crew with the least amount of experience with futuristic tech. But it’s a minor blemish because Zade is shone as having flaws and shortcomings just like all the other character’s in Dean’s universe—and sometimes, despite being the main character, he’s just wrong. I think that’s something authors can forget to do in their stories, making their characters unrelatable. That never becomes a problem for me in this story.

The only two things that caused my suspension of disbelief to snap were two things. 

First, the whole reason Zade is stranded is that the navigation data back to Earth was loaded on a probe, AND NOWHERE ELSE, is lost because the probe was destroyed. I get that navigational data between the literal billions of stars typically found in a galaxy would be complex. Still, Dean goes out of his way to show more than once in this story that these Aliens have data storage capabilities that are orders of magnitude better than what we currently have today because, of course, they would. We have data storage technology orders of magnitude better than the ‘90s, and I can remember the ‘90s quite well. It’s just inconceivable that society thousands of years ahead of us technology-wise wouldn’t have hit on the strategy of multiple redundant backups partitioned into different systems.

This leads me to my second failure to suspend my disbelief—the incredibly negligent amount of under-preparedness by the alien explorers before setting out on their once-in-a-generation mission of exploration. I understand Dean’s subtextual argument that these people face a hostile universe so poorly because they haven’t had to deal with it because their home star systems have been at peace for generations. It makes sense—to a point. The idea that each crew member was so vital to the point of being irreplaceable because no one is cross-trained to perform any task outside of their specialty is beyond madness, though. It doesn’t even make sense from an engineering standpoint, which these people are shown to be excellent engineers. A system or crew built around a feature that is a single-point failure—is bad. An entire ship and crew composed of nothing but single-point failures—is terrible.

Parting thoughts:

I think my love for this subgenre of science fiction was honed by my love of Jack Campbell’s “The Lost Fleet” series. Like Dean, Campbell, or John G. Hemry, his actual name, served in the armed forces. Unlike Dean, Hemry was a Naval officer—still though, I found in his work that it was informed by his military career, which enhanced his stories, like Dean.

In both men’s stories, both Navy and Army, I’ve gotten the impression that bureaucracy and ambitious but ultimately short-sighted officers are a problem in both services—to say the least. There seem to be those who genuinely want to serve because of an earnest belief that they’re doing something worthwhile for their country. And then there are those who don’t care one jot about that and are only angling for that next promotion, no matter who gets hurt—with everything in-between those two extremes.

It’s a troubling notion—but considering that in the civilian world, I’ve seen precisely the same sorts of behavior, it makes me wonder why I ever found it surprising in the first place. My intuition is it’s because we’re so used to mythologizing our modern-day warriors so much that we forget that they’re all just people like everyone else at the end of the day. I suspect that this impulse also feeds into why we are sometimes so terrible at supporting them after their military service. We say thank you, and we appreciate their service—like I did at the beginning of this—but there are still a lot of homeless veterans out there. If my grandfather’s experience with the VA is any indication, that’s also not great—and there is a lot of mental and physical illness not being addressed.

If we hold to this myth of; why would such strong, self-possessed, reliable men and women ever possibly need help? Then many people will continue suffering. A country is more than the land represented on a map. It is a people who have agreed to work, live, and cohere together. If we cannot be bothered to take care of those who served what they believe was for our collective good—then we are shameful. No one who has served should go hungry, live on the street, or be sick and not be treated. It is literally the least thing we owe them as a nation.

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