19 May 2014

FWS Book Review: THE FIVE: Episode I "Salvation's Curse" by Forrest Parham & H.A.L Wagner

During my reading of this novel, I began to wonder: what is military science fiction? Is it soldiers in spacesuits, blasting Martians with ray-guns? Is it robots waging war for humans because they cannot make the journey themselves? Is it the politics of the future in regards to war and interstellar governments? FWS has been wrestling with that question since the day I founded the blog back in 2010, and this latest book review of FWS allowed me to alter some of my assumptions of the definition of what military science fiction is and the different roads to that genre. Recently, a publisher reached out to FWS for a review of their fusion military science fiction series called THE FIVE, and it was proved to FWS by the publisher. The story of an near future military test program to bring powered armor to a Middle Eastern warzone along with an A.I. and zombie apocalypse themes, in a fusion of the classic themes of military science fiction and dark science fiction. THE FIVE is written by Forrest Parham and H.A.L Wagner and is published by Forker Media of Mayfield Heights, Ohio. The Five is being released in an episodic format with Episode II: Salvation's Reign coming soon to continue the three-part series of the Titanians and their struggle in the apocalypse. As you will see in this interview is the art of Episode I and II are from these talented artists: Tom Wolfe, Rudy Vasquez, Kate Finnegan, and Juan Fernandez. FWS would like to thank Forker Media for the read, and the authors for the interview. Also, I would to extend my apologizes for the amount of time it took to roll this review out.

The Setting of The Five
"The more things change the more they stay the same". In the near future presented by THE FIVE, that should be the motto. Despite being the future, the United States is still involved in the Middle East, there are religious zealots aiming for power, and the map has been altered. In the future as now, the word "jihad", still carries meaning and trouble. This as been the history of that troubled region since the times of Alexander and it seems, it will continue. Around the region of Pakistan and Afghanistan, a new nation has arisen: New Iranistan, and it is the operation area of the military's latest testbed program: The Atlas Project. These high-tech special forces armored encased warfighters are drawn from all over the US Armed Forces, would not be possible without the technical achievements and advancements of the Vyetech Corporation.
Founded by a software genius, who took his profits and formed the industry leaders in technological advancements, A.I. software, and nanotechnology. The company's meteoric rise to the top was done with much cunning and ruthless business practices. No pieces of high-technology is complete in the future world of THE FIVE, without a piece of Vyetech. Two important pieces of Vyetech technology are involved with Atlas Project: the powered armor that the unit, called The Titanians, wears, and the armed unmanned ground bipedal drone, the Striders. Via these creations, Vyetech was able to bring weapons of sci-fi, into the hands of Americans at war. As Rick Deckard said in BLADE RUNNER, "machines, are either a benefit or a hazard", and as the book opens, the most advanced artificial intelligence program on Earth, Artax, that based in Vyetech R&D labs in South America is proven Mr. Deckard correct. Interestingly enough, as FWS was writing this review, a US Predator UAV drone had attacked and killed militants on the Afghan/Pakistan border. It seems, that the authors are envisioning our future.  

The Spoiler-Free Review of The Five
I once asked my wife while watching Will Smith's 2007 I Am Legend, what she would do during a zombie apocalypse? She responded with: "Do I want to survive and live in a world like that?!" To me, that is one of the important questions posed by the two authors, is it better to survival and fight the end of the world as we know it or to die and be at peace? That is one reason that I enjoyed the title, because sometimes, surviving is worse than dying especially the situation that the characters in the book find themselves. Some of the characters that involved in the post-apocalyptic situation have little choice, they are soldiers, and soldiers do their duty and protect their buddies and their nation. I was impressed by the unique setting and the time devoted to establishing the world of THE FIVE, and not just to the uber-cool members of the Atlas Project. Each character is explored in some depth, allowing for a nice foundation to the future installments of the series. One of the characters in Epsiode I was the A.I. computer system known as Artax, and while being molded from The Terminator's SKYNET, it was much more that, but not overplayed like the SKYNET we witness in Terminator: Salvation. It's deal with the Cleric was a interesting angle, and something fresh in the genre.
Besides, the military sci-fi portion of THE FIVE and the uber-cool Titanian team, there are extensive sections that deal wit the Vyetech Corporation, and the very advanced (and superior) Artax computer, along with the human characters within that world. While the scenes with the Titanians are the most exhilarating with badass armor and the heroic battles, some of my favorite scenes concerned the characters involved with the Vyetech Corporation. That demonstrates the angles taken on the central story, and allows the reader a change up from the diet of military science fiction goodness. The episodic format of THE FIVE, does causes some issues in pacing, and informational dumps. While I've always enjoy when an author develops and explains the technology presented. While the design of the Atlas CLASS-I armor is indeed ingenious and well thought, the section that features the armor is very in-depth. While I understand why the authors chose to present the armor this way, it is dense, and if you are not me, and not interested in such things, in can come off as informational dump. This is also true of the Titanian characters themselves, While they are presented with very creative and unique backgrounds that help you understand their motivations in the central story and events, they can be dense and slow the pace However, the pacing picks up during the excellent combat scenes that are expertly written. Manic and bloody, packed with emotions. The combat scenes in THE FIVE rank up there with others I've read in other military sci-fi novels, namely, Armor by John Steakley. Finally, what comes through in the writing, is the intend of the authors to design a world populated with interesting premise and a devotion to developing well-rounded elite military characters that pays honor to the men and women who serve.

What About the Hardware: the Armor and the Guns?
Worn by the small team of hand-selected soldiers and sailors of the Titanians is the Atlas CLASS-I combat powered armor developed by the ominous Vyetech Corporation. These are an full-body powered armor suit that was being tested and could have upgraded the human infantry soldiers to the level of such technological advancements as the Strider bipedal UGV drone. The Atlas Program was much more than just powered armor, it was the United States Armed Forces plan to end the war. Both authors forged a number details into the Atlas powered armor, and make the armor just that interesting and well-conceived.  When it comes to the guns, one of the cool elements of any military science fiction tale, THE FIVE doesn't disappoint. Along with next-generation small arms, like the "Grisky" and the .50 "Taipan" pistols, the unit also uses melee weapons of all types, and coupled with the Atlas armor and skill of the operators make for a deadly combination. Along with the armor and guns, we also have vehicles, including a sweet Atlas Program support gear truck and AFV.

The Interview with the Authors: Forrest Parham and H.A.L Wagner (conducted on 4/28/14)

1. Tell FWS about the genesis of the story behind "The Five"

Author Forest Parham

Well, my co-author H.A.L. and I were getting tired of seeing movies, reading books, or playing video games where we said, "Wow! That was great, but (insert several changes we would've made or enhancements we would have added). " My Dad always told me, in life, if I'm going to complain about something enough, maybe I should try to put my money were my mouth is and do something about it. So H.A.L. and I (both avid writers and sci-fi fan) decided then and there to do something about it and write a story that we would love to read ourselves. The problem was, we didn't know which sci-fi genre we wanted to go with...

Author H.A.L Wagner
So, with that desire to create and tell our own story, within days of our discussion, I had written a zombie short story along the with something I've always wanted to see; alcohol-fueled muscle cars. Shorty around the same time, Forrest talked about a vivid dream about powered armored warriors in the jungles of South America fighting unknown assailants. He described it in such detail that I was intrigued and wanted to include it in the zombie world I had stated building. Another big component I wanted to be a part of the story are the vehicles of The Five. We love all things with wheels or treads and it shows in both Ep. I and the soon to be released Ep 2. From the made up high-tech XR495HDASV Gear Truck to Mr. Miller’s 1959 Chevy Impala, vehicles are very important to us and are even more prevalent in Ep.2.

2. Tell us about the episodic format of THE FIVE. Was this shaped by the current state of publishing or did you feel that boo was better if broken up?

The Five: Salvation’s Curse is published by Forker Media. It was during discussions with them to publish that we decided to split the first into two “Episodes”. Originally, it was one long book with an expectation of two more to follow. As you mentioned, the current state of publishing is to hook readers with a series of books. I blame George Lucas for that one, but it is what the public expects. It was pointed out to us that we have the contect to deliver on that expectation so we figured, why not?

3. From the detailed art gracing the cover and some of the interior pages. I gathered the impression that since there was four artist involved in the project, that there was or could be a Salvation’s Curse Graphic Novel or even Light Novel.

Before we started writing this series of books, we decided to build the structure of these books to be as cross-platform as possible. We've seen many books that didn't translate well to movies, many movies that didn't translate well to video games, etcetera. We wanted to make this as easily transferable as possible and one of those platforms we’d love to get into is the graphic novel. With the artwork and the way this book was written, we should be able to do any of the above if/when we’re given or earned that opportunity. The feedback from fans has been an overwhelming demand that we do a graphic novel with Rudy Vasquez illustrating. The original plan was to release some “missing years” stories as graphic novels. At the present, time and money are delaying the project. But fans spread the word to friends and family to buy these books and keep emailing Forker Media and tell them you want to see a graphic novel and it just may materialize.

The feedback from fans has been an overwhelming demand that we do a graphic novel with Rudy Vasquez illustrating. The original plan was to release some “missing years” stories as graphic novels. At the present, time and money are delaying the project. But Fans, spread the word to friends and family to buy the book and keep emailing Forker Media and tell them you want to see a graphic novel and it just may materialize...

4. What military sci-fi works or even military fiction, have inspirited you?  Or even video games? Any late night Left 4 Death research sessions?

Wow, what a great question! These are many works of science fiction that have inspirited me throughout my life; movie books, and video games. Star Wars, The Last Starfighter, Star Trek, DUNE, The Terminator, ALIENS, Predator, HALO, yes- Left 4 Dead! Resident Evil, Dawn of the Dead, and even fantasy novels, and D&D that inspired the structure of the Titanian “party” while we created the high-tech team.

Starting with Audie Drennan, I have to say for me than an actual real life warrior was what inspirited me. The most decorated American soldier of WWII, Audie Murphy was a big inspiration to me as well as other veterans in my life such as my grandfather and my uncle. As far as video games, HALO for sure.   

5. Given that THE FIVE is a fusion of several genres, like military sci-fi, zombie apocalypse, and revotl of the computer, what are your favorite works in the genre of zombie and/or cybernetic revolt?

It is our hope that many like us; fans of multiple genres. I think, judging by the success of comicons in the last decades, that this is true. Since I was six years old and saw The Terminator for the first time, I have wanted to see about Kyle Reese and he manged to survive the apocalypse. I mean, Reese was the ultimate soldier, from arriving naked in 1984 to stealing a raincoat and shotgun, to making homemade pipe bombs and defeating a Terminator. By the way, Terminator Salvation was not that movie to me. Our character, Javier, who (spoiler alert!) ends up being a Titanian, embodies that can-do survivalist Renaissance man that Reese epitomized in Terminator. A few different sci-fi movies besides The Terminator with varying genres that appeal the most to me are ALIENS, Mad Max, and Dawn of the Dead which heavily inspired my creativity.

Well, just as the creators of HALO give a hat-tip to ALIENS for the structure of the alien and human architecture and the Predator for the Elites and the other abilities they have, I certainly have to give a hat-tip to the works that inspired me and I thank you greatly for the privilege to do so on your forum.The A.I. from the original Star Trek series, Landru from "Return of the Archons", Battlestar Galactica, The Terminator, The Matrix, Red Dawn, Mad Max, Ironman and the Avengers, Master Chief from Halo, RoboCop, Dawn of the Dead, and, most recently, The Walking Dead. Once the inspiration hit us (back in late 2006), I wanted desperately to see a story that encompassed many aspects of the above mentioned favorites all in one, cohesive plot with original characters, abilities, and a completely original method of world domination!

6. Tell me more about the weapons found in THE FIVE...some were very specific, like the gold-plated 1911.

I love guns, but I’ll let Forrest fill in the rest.

The guns. Well, John Browning's M1911 was something I thought would be great in an apocalypse setting as it has endured the test of time and is still one of the most sought after target guns on the planet. It's one of those goto weapons that would be easy to field strip and find parts for in the suddenly-limited supply setting of the end of the world.
As for the other weapons, my personal favorite is the Grisly. It's picture is on the cover of Ep.1 and is actually a weapon I dreamed up while serving as a Combat Instructor in the Seabees. Though I'm very accustomed to and quite fond of many of the weapons I was issued like the M4 Carbine/M203, Browning Fifty, M60 (now almost cycled out entirely from the U.S. Armed Forces), FN MAG M240, Mossberg 500 series and Rem. 870 shotties, and several other greats that are very near and dear to my heart, the weapon I truly wanted in the field was in my imagination. The Grisly is a 9mm long (or .45 variant) full-auto rifle and a fully automatic, magazine-fed 12 gauge shotgun mounted in an M203 fashion forward of the rifle mechanism! This nasty weapon has five Picatinny rails adorning it for all the "furniture" you can throw at it, a laser that can toggle between green and red (depending on the circumstances you find yourself in), and an optical sight that ties into the Titanians' HUD for target ID and accuracy when using the "smart rounds" in Ep. 2

7. I found the power armored design and the very awesome Strider UGV mech very interesting. Can you tell us more about your inspiration for the armor and the Strider? Any ED-209 in the DNA of the Strider?


The genetics of The Five's Striders can be traced to a long line of ancestors. I've always been fascinated by biped mechs, be they manned or unmanned. For me, this goes all the way back to the two-legged AT-ST in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The ED-209 of RoboCop followed by the Cain cyborg/mech of RoboCop 2 certainly took that to a new level of terror. Battletech and Mechwarrior along with the more recent additions of the Mantis in Halo 4 and the new Titanfall power armor/mecha have made the bipedal mech a staple of military science fiction. 
When H.A.L. and I wrote these A.I.-controlled mechs into the story back in early 2007, I couldn't imagine having an apocalypse without them! Our one stipulation was to make them more terrifying than the ones that had come before and, once you see what the Artax avatar Strider did to a terrorist in Ep.1, you'll see that I think we did a pretty good job of illustrating the chilling ruthlessness an emotionless killer mech can inspire! 
The powered armor and cyborgs are two of those sci-fi staples, as well. I read your blogpost about powered armor and your classification process and I have to say, you nailed it! I'll even add cyborgs to the list, for me, as I believe some of the armored-up ones inspire similar feelings of "God Mode" in us. RoboCop, The Vindicator, Ironman, and HALO's Master Chief along with several others have established (in my mind, at least) a vision of wearing a suit of armor that makes basically an ordinary person into a superhuman. You don't have to be born with super powers; through willpower and humanity's technological innovations, one can become more than what nature intended. The descriptions early on in Ep.1 of the Atlas Armor powered suits was quite in-depth and geared toward some of the more hard science fiction fans among us. From the cooling systems, the HUD, the electro-active polymers and micro-hydraulic muscle strands to the kinetic and impact generators that (once charged by the impact of bullets or fists) can make the Titanian go into a brief overload/berserk mode, these suits can certainly stand toe-to-toe with some of the best powered armor suits already on the military sci-fi market. I've always wondered what a power armored warrior would be like placed into a zombie apocalypse. Further, being a member of a military team, I wondered what a team of power armored warriors could do if they found themselves in such a world.
Enter The Five, Salvation's Curse!

8. The character of Cyrus Webb and Trevor Alvarado were just as detailed as the Titanian team members, leading me to believe that they are based on real individuals.

Cyrus Webb and even William Blackburn (the current CEO of Vyetech) are ripped from the headlines of crony capitalist CEO’s that seem to be dominating our "ruling class". Trevor is loosely based on a highly intelligent friend of ours that has continued to inspire us to carry on no matter what. Though this person is no longer into computers he continues, through his own innovations and efforts, to produce some really amazing stuff.

Cyrus, Javier, Trevor, Audie, Jarrell, Darius, and a few others have attributes that some of our closest friends possess. In fact, it is my hope that many of our readers can relate in some way to these characters. I hope they find something, or many things, that they have in common personality-wise or even a character trait they aspire to have some day that makes them really relate to these guys (and gals in Ep. 2).

9. What caused you to create the nation of New Iranistan?

The Middle East has been a turbulent and ever changing place since the beginning of time. It stood to reason, to us, that at some point in the future the nations there will change again. It also gives a sense to the readers that some time has passed; this is the near future and this isn't a present-day conflict.

10. I found the prime plot of the super-computer AI Artax shaping the plague that would wipe out humanity original, and a fusion between the zombie and robot apocalypse genres. So, is Salvation's Curse more robot apocalypse or Zombie apocalypse?

That is the beauty of what we have created. There's no separating the two apocalypses. The way I can best describe it is like asking a couple with a biological child whose child it is when it is genetically both of theirs. So you can’t have one without the other. This apocalypse is a true blend of the organic and inorganic.

I agree with H.A.L.'s assessment but I'd like to expand a little on it. In this story we can't have one without the other. The A.I. apocalypse caused the zombie apocalypse. That's a unique twist in and of itself but it gets even better when you realize that this A.I., Artax, didn't wait until he had an army of robots to strike. He was prescient enough and smart enough to see the writing on the wall and he struck with the only real tool he had: an aging genetic engineer with memory loss that was working on an extremely contagious "cure" for mortality. A cure that, if guided by the malevolent A.I., could be turned into a plague...
So, if I had to label the dominance of one cataclysm or the other, I couldn't- it would be a true 50/50 mix when Ep. 1 Salvation's Curse, Ep.2 Salvation's Reign, and the final episode are looked at as a whole. Ep. 1 is more A.I. heavy, Ep. 2 is more zombie heavy, and Ep. 3 culminates into a viscous all-out, no holds barred battle for survival.

11. The leader of the Titanians, Audie Drennan was a bittersweet character, especially his point-of-view on the end of their field assignment and the prospect of going home. Was this inspirited by military members you've known?

Yes, the attitude of Audie Drennan after the war ended (spoiler alert!) and the Titanians were disbanded is based on some of the soldiers and sailors that I knew, including myself. Though almost every soldier looks forward to going home or getting a civilian job, for some of us, all we knew or were really, really good at was our military profession. The thought of the likelihood of not being able to use the skills we've honed to a fighting edge is daunting, even depressing at times. Most of us go home and integrate back into society. But, some of the purest Greek Spartan-like of us wonder if we'll ever fit into such a "soft" existence of civilian life. Audie, who has no home to go to anymore and who believes to his core that he was born to be a warrior, would prefer to live in a constant conflict until he dies, at which point he hopes an eternal heaven or hell afterlife awaits him where he can fight until the end of time. Normalcy is the only thing that actually brings fear into his hardened heart.

12. The Titanian team is composed of various members that belong to different branches of the armed forces. Was this due to the rise in Joint Special Operations Taskforces, like the famous TF121 and TF Black?

Yes, the Titanian team was designed to be a joint service team due to what we believe to be the future of our Armed Forces. Even during my time in the Navy, I worked with members of the Army, Air Force, and Marines on a pretty consistent basis. I believe it to be a trend that's not likely to cease any time soon. Another reason for this cross-service membership was because, at that point in the story, all of the branches had been suffering great losses. When the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided it was time to slow the bleeding and even turn the tide of the war, it was decided on by all of them. They chose to have prototypes created to spec and tested by members of each branch (the three branches most heavily-involved in land combat) as a prelude to full power armored battalions upon successful completion of the field tests. The design was so successful and circumstances fell into the laps of the Atlas Armored Titanians so fast, that the war ended before full implementation could occur. Political pressure at home as well as a concerted effort by Artax was placed on the Joint Chiefs to get living humans out of harm's way so plans were simultaneously being drawn up to replace the Titanians altogether with the A.I. controlled Striders, leaving only a handful nearly-perfected prototypes on the entire face of the planet.

13. What is the future of THE FIVE?

Ep. 2 Salvation's Reign is scheduled to be released in a month or so. After that we have an action-packed conclusion to the trilogy and three more episodes planned. The world we have constructed is vast and we have many characters we think need a voice- even a Strider will have its own story. Which entertainment platforms these exciting and unique stories will be told on is still up in the air. We already have plans for some animated shorts as well as graphic novels and continued illustrated novels, as well.

14. Are you working on another writing project?

We are constantly writing. I have other projects already out and more soon to come. The next collaboration is a crime fiction novel set in the lives of Florida natives, Drake and Gunner. They are PI’s and bounty hunters with highly varied skill sets. The characters are loosely based on exaggerated character traits of ourselves with careers both of us have entertained doing at some point in our lives. The plan is that I write one from the first person point of view of Drake and Forrest writes the next from Gunner’s POV. Should be fun.

We also have a working outline of a fallen angel story that is nothing like any I have ever seen or heard about! A whole society of extra-dimensional demons, spirits, and even techno-geeks that have learned to use their creations to see these "greater beings" for what they are and join forces with the angel to fight off the coming biblical apocalypse. It's full of heavenly politics and Man on Fire-like revenge plots. I can't wait to delve further into it, but right now my passion lies in The Five and the adventures they are going to have living in an A.I. dominated zombie apocalypse!

Should You Read The Five: Episode I: Salvation's Curse?
One of the words I use a great deal in my own life and on FWS is: interesting. I love things that spark my attention and imagination, and this novel was one of those things. While I am not much of a reader of horror or even many of the recent Zombie Apocalypse novels (yes, I did read World War Z like everyone else.), THE FIVE was unique take on the popular genre and peaked my interest throughout the read. It also helped that the authors fused the zombie storyline with hard-edged future military technology, special operations, and current computer culture to give the book a nice complex and leveled approach to the themes that populate the novel. The authors experience with the military and their studies of history pay off with a dense story that presented with an easy readable format. At the end, the best endorsement I can make for THE FIVE, is that you want to read more of the story of Titanians, Artax, and Trevor Alvarado. Interesting indeed.


The Five's Amazon Page:

Barnes&Noble's The Five Page:

Publisher Forker Media website:

Author H.A.L Wagner's Blog:

Next Time on FWS...
In keeping with the military/horror/dark science fiction theme, FWS is going to discuss one of the primary tools of any good apocalypse: the shotgun. Need to kill something up close and personal in a sci-fi movie or video game? Try a shotgun! Nothing says, fucking kill it, like blasting it with a shotgun to the face! In the next installment of FWS Armory blogpost serial, we will be discussing the iconic shotgun and its role in science fiction and the military. Time to get your boomsticks and your bubblegum, because it is ass kicking time!

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