27 July 2015

FWS Book Review: ENGINES OF EXTINCTION: Episode I " The End & The Means"By Chris Martin (2015)

There is no one rubric to judge military science fiction. At times, it is more apparent with starships, laser blasters, powered armored heroes, and nasty alien bugs bent on killing all humans. Then at other times, an creator will blend the very near future with our world today into a seamless work of military science fiction that is closer to COD: AW, Jack Murphy and Dalton Fury than John Scalzi and myself. With every book review that FWS does, my ideas about what is military sci-fi deepen and gets redefined. The Engines of Extinction series by Chris Martin is such a work that blends both contemporary military fiction, real-world modern warfare, and the possibilities of military sci-fi to a work that pushes the borders and boundaries of the genre. In this installment of the ongoing book review series, we will be reviewing Episode I of Engines of Extinction and discussing the novel with author Chris Martin.

The Setting of Engines of Extinction
The world of EoE is very much set in the playing field of today in the sense of geopolitics, threats, and operations. All of it is here, pocket conflicts, private military companies, off-the-books SMU operations, and the rise of threats in the east. Real-world units like ST6, DELTA, and other OGAs are featured with operations in real-world locations that you hear about from the news. The world of Engines of Extinction is also a planet on the edge of advanced high-level game changing technology like molecular manufacturing, that can be used for the most evil of purposes against the homeland and even the human race. As with novels like this, the heroes are ones from the blackest parts of Special Operations, trained to be the force-of-change, and trained to remain in the shadows.

The Spoiler-Free Review of Engines of Extinction: Episode One
Given that this is a spoiler-free review and it is the first installment of a series, this will shorter than most on FWS Book Reviews.
In Star Wars: Episode I, Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn says "Your focus determines your reality", and the professional life of author/journalist Chris Martin shaped the setting, the focus, the dialog, and the very structure of the world of his story. His focus on penning articles and books on Special Operations units for outlets like SOFREP.com allows him the foundation to craft the world of EoE, and that focus (and knowledge) bleeds through the page (and the screen). For those that have themselves explore the shadowy world of Special Operations and their activities during the GWOT, Chris Martin's words ring with a types of truth and honestly not found in many fictionalized novels of SOF operations, especially in the genre of military science fiction. I am one of those readers that has deeply explored the world of SOF activities in the GWOT, and I cannot name another military sci-fi novel that has "gotten it right" to this degree as seen in EoE. From the dialog, the missions, their culture, and the weaponry, all of it is just spot on, and it only pulls you deeper into the shadowy world of former-CAG operator Jared Baxter. However, Episode One: "The End & Means" does take sometime to settle the reader into the world of EoE, and if you are not committed and engaged, you could simply be turned off by the unconventional structure and style that does open the novelette like an printed-out email. There is also less dialog than in most novels, but this level of narration is normal in most military novels I've read. In place of the words, is visuals, links, informational packets, and a level of embedded features for the novelette that I've not seen before, making EoE Episode One: "The End & Means" an more interactive experienceThis episode is just the lobby in a wider story that will be deliciously complex and hard-edged. In short, commit to the task, and hold on with this read because Engines of Extinction is more more than just a military sci-fi novelette serial, it is also a techo-thriller and a crash-course education on near-future technology that could be a game-charger for our world. I look forward to what the future holds for EoE and Chris Martin.

The Interview with author Chris Martin

1. Tell me about the genesis of Engines of Extinction.
It's a bit convoluted, but the seed of the idea was planted just over a decade ago while driving home to Chicago from San Diego after covering an AMA Supermoto Championship race (I also happen to cover motorsports). I was actually so energized by the idea that it powered the trip home. Stopping only for gas as I went, I continued to iterate the idea the entire way home. Previously, I never really aspired to write fiction, but this particular concept really excited me. Once I made it back to my place (and caught some much needed sleep) I cranked out dozens and dozens of pages of notes.

It's evolved dramatically in the time since, so I don't know how much any of the original notes would still line up, but that was the origin of Engines of Extinction.

Beyond that -- whenever I watch a movie or television show or read a book, I can't help but consider how I might approach things differently -- just mentally work out what my take on a particular concept would be. After a while, I noticed a lot of those thought experiments started to take a very similar shape, even when the base properties were quite different. That basic design played heavily into EoE as it was molded over the years.

2. Why did you choose “Engines of Extinction” as the title?

A very key reason will become plainly evident to the readers as the series develops. But another reason that some may have already picked up on is that it's a nod to the title of K. Eric Drexler's seminal and controversial book about molecular nanotechnology, Engines of Creation (which turns 30 next year!)

3. Given your level of expertise within the shadowy world of Special Operations, did this influence your outlook on writing a military fiction novel? Did it also make the process of writing more difficult or easier, given your knowledge?

Well, whatever level of expertise I may have in that area, I would say most certainly yes and in a huge way. One of my primary goals in creating EoE was to really hit that sweet spot in terms of suspension of disbelief -- at least for me personally. I often find I love sci-fi in concept but only like it in terms of execution, and usually that's because the leaps of logic most stories demand of its audience are just to a bit too great for me navigate comfortably. That also ties back into my earlier answer about considering how I might address those (perceived) shortcomings had I been steering the ship.

Ultimately, I can only really get inside my own head, so effectively, I am creating this for myself while hoping there are like-minded people out there who will also enjoy the ride. I've spent a great deal of effort focused on delivering solid grounding along with a certain level of authenticity, plausibility, and accuracy concerning the sorts of details people can check, that way they'll be more willing to accept the claims they can't.

As far as making the writing more difficult or easier -- I wish I could say it meant I had already done much of the homework ahead of time through my prior nonfiction projects, therefore reducing the amount required for this, but that has most certainly not proven to be the case. In fact, my latest nonfiction book, Modern American Snipers (St. Martin's Press), in large part grew out of the research I had done specifically for Engines of Extinction. I don't know if it's a first, but I can't imagine there have been too many instances of self-published sci-fi series spawning major publisher nonfiction spinoffs!

4. Do you consider Engines of Extinction a military science fiction novel at its heart?

Without a doubt. It is blatantly, unabashedly military science fiction. That will become very evident as the series progresses. Episode I was very much about laying a real-world foundation along with a means and impetus to support the rapid introduction of all varieties of mil sci-fi toys and concepts that will take center stage moving forward. Trust me, there should be much for devoted readers of this website to love in the episodes to come.

5. What is your opinion about the genre of military science fiction?

Love it. Especially now that genuine military development is rapidly encroaching upon -- and in some cases surpassing -- any number of the tropes of the genre, it's an especially fun and exciting arena in which to operate. That's actually a rather significant goal of mine -- to present some real-world advancements as if they were science fiction, and, on the flip-side, portray various fictional advancements as if they already exist. I really hope to blur that line so readers aren't always sure what's legitimately possible today and what's not.

As for my history with military science fiction -- as was the case for so many others -- when I was a kid, ALIENS was a real game changer. All of my friends in my neighborhood were armed with wooden M41A Pulse Rifles. In fact, mine still resides in my office. (And just how awesome is the ALIENS: Colonial Marines Technical Manual, right?)

A significant percentage of my favorite books, television series, movies, and video games could at least loosely be categorized as military science fiction. That's probably been true since elementary school (and maybe even earlier) if you want to include properties like G.I. Joe, Star Wars, The Centurions, and so on. That said, by design, EoE tends to lean more heavily toward nonfiction, at least in terms of direct inspiration.

6. Your novel stands out when it comes to portraying of SOF units and personnel, was this born out of your knowledge or an attempt to “get it right”?

Thanks, I appreciate you saying that. And I'd say equal parts of both. The granular details matter to me -- it's the kind of stuff I find extremely interesting. Hopefully it adds a sense of authenticity. I sort of figured it would be an area where the series could really stand out from the crowd, so I'm glad to hear you feel that it does.

7. The physical layout of the novel itself is unique, unconventional, and unlike any other novel I’ve read.  Why did you design the novel this way? Was everything created for the novel?

It was never intended to be a conventional novel, even from the very beginning. However its shape did change pretty radically over the years. At one point, I envisioned it as a really text-and-document-heavy comic book/graphic novel. I guess, format-wise, it might not have been that far off what Jonathan Hickman might have produced back in the day, although I was not aware of his work at the time. In that guise, every single image of the comic would have been "captured" in some manner -- security camera footage, satellite imagery, etc. And I planned on doing everything myself, but eventually the project became paralyzed simply due to how massive it would have been to attempt to complete by one person. And even if that wasn't a problem, the format still didn't ideally lend itself toward relaying the depth of detail I wanted to convey.

Somehow, the current email format grew out of that original idea. I can't remember exactly how or when it hit me, but when it did, I immediately knew the series would become a reality.

At that point, I realized I wanted to partner with a professional artist to really maximize the quality. I started researching artists heavily and assembled a long wishlist of talented individuals, anyone of whom I would have been thrilled to work with to bring EoE to life. I assumed I'd have to work my way well down that list before I found a taker, but fortunately, the search started and ended with the #1 name on the list: Ben Mauro. Readers might be familiar with his design work from Chappie, Elysium, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, The Hobbit, Lucy, Man of Steel, Dr0ne, etc.

And yes, everything in Episode I was created specifically for the series, and let me assure you, "you ain't seen nothing yet". That was a very small tease of the sort of work that will be featured going forward. We're really going to elevate the production values from here on out and really show off Ben's talents.

I also play a number of roles in the series' creation beyond the writing. For example, I do the bulk of the work designing and creating documents, logos, etc. Going back to the comic book idea -- even as recently as college I considered pursuing a career as a comic book artist, so I have some ability in that area as well. What Ben is capable of is very different from that and well beyond my capabilities, but having some artistic background myself is pretty helpful, I think. If I'm having difficultly adequately explaining a particular idea to him, I can simply sketch it out, which streamlines the process. That's pretty rare though, because for the most part, I prefer to stay out of his way. He needs to know certain things so the designs fit the fiction, but beyond that, I want to unleash his creativity and sensibilities.

8. I am always curious about why authors chose names for organization and characters. What made you chose InPraxis, Jared Baxter and some of the codenames for the team members?

Again, Episode I was a small tease. The number of characters and organizations really opens up from Episode II on. The majority of the names, codenames, and acronyms of importance have at least some meaning attached to them, rather than just being slapped together. Some are clues, some are Easter eggs, and some are simply inside references or jokes. A number of them refer to historical analogues and things along those lines, while others foreshadow what's to come. And some even have multiple connections -- for example, a surface-level reference that will be explicitly addressed in the text along with a deeper one that is there for readers to discover (or not) for themselves.

As for the less important names -- especially when they really start to add up -- you just come up with them any way you can. I try to avoid making them sound too "constructed." Fictional characters often have names that are meant to sound cool or dashing or devious, or whatever, and as a result, they end up sounding like something from a soap opera. As in the real world, ultimately, the character will give its name a feel, not the other way around. If you think about it, "Michael Jordan" and "Jason Bourne" are both rather mundane names in a vacuum.
I don't want to spoil too many of the meanings behind the names just yet, but we have a massive series bible, lots of concept art, etc. Once the entire series has been published, if there's any interest in that sort of material, I may release it in some form or another. And if it comes to that, I'll open up about all of those sorts of hidden details.
But just to hit on a couple you mentioned… While Baxter's codename ("Greyhound") has a back story (or two -- it depends who you ask), he was originally supposed to be Jared "Taxman" Baxter… right up until I saw the first episode of True Detective and had my stomach churn when I discovered that Matthew McConaughey's Rusty Cohle character had already laid claim to that nickname.
As for "InPraxis Solutions," I'll lay that one open because there's not a ton of depth there. It's just supposed to reflect the sort of buzzword-laden, meaningless names that defense contractors like to utilize in order to mask the true nature of their work. It's basically a fictional equivalent of names like Xe Services LLC/Academi, DynCorp International, G4S Risk Management, and so on. The word praxis means "practical application of a theory," and I ran with that. InPraxis like "in practice." To grab a couple more off the top of my head, examples like "Synergism Logistics" or "DeepDive Innovations" would have worked as well. (That is if they don't actually exist. I didn't bother to Google check them

9. I was deeply impressed by the insight to the near future of technology, and it made me wonder about the future of human beings on the battlefield. Do you think that technology will render humans obsolete?
I hate to do this again, but that is a topic that will be addressed in a major way as the series develops, so I don't want to spoil too much.

But separate from the story itself, I'll say I think that sort of extreme case is probably still a rather long way off -- far enough at least that accurate predictions are pretty much impossible to make at this point. However, unmanned systems already constitute a major aspect of the USA's global military activities, and they will only become increasingly more important as time marches on. As a result, there may be a gradual, nearly invisible transformation to that state (or something resembling it).

Just think -- the fact that the United States has flying robots that routinely rain down death on the other side of the planet barely even merits a mention in the newspaper these days. The future is rendered mundane really quick after it finally hits and becomes ubiquitous. Consider smartphones and the internet…These are borderline sci-fi crazy innovations that my 15-year-old self would hardly believe could possibly exist, but already they are viewed as boring goods and services that we take for granted. Boring goods and services our grandmothers take for granted!

Anyway, back to the question, I think where things get really interesting is the big push is to make these unmanned systems more and more autonomous. Right now, the major limitations are of a technical nature. But when that's no longer the case, how will we proceed? Where will the line be drawn?

10. This novel paints a picture of how different the next big war could be. Was this novel written as a warning?

That wasn't the primary goal, at least not the way it is with something like Ghost Fleet. However, if Engines of Extinction makes people think about these sorts of things, that's great. And I do think there will be more in later episodes that could get people to reconsider how the future of military and intelligence activities could take shape strategically, tactically, and technologically.

However, my biggest motivation is simply to tell a really cool story about the sort of things I find interesting. And upping the plausibility and believability is the way I am hoping to achieve that. It's only natural that attempt makes it pretty closely tied to real-world trends, at least in some respects.

11. What do you hope that the reader will take away from Engine of Extinction?

I'm hoping readers will find themselves immersed in this sprawling present-day science fiction thriller and allow them to feel like it could actually be real, even when it slams up against the boundaries of feasibility. It hits on quite a few topics regarding technology, politics, psychology, and the nature of perpetual shadow wars, but really, I just hope readers are entertained.

Like I said earlier, I'm merely attempting to write the perfect fiction to suit my own particular tastes and sensibilities, but I really hope others dig it too.

12. Why did you choose to release Engines of Extinction as a serial?

Hmm… It just always has been. I guess it goes back to its comic book roots. Additionally, the format allows me the room to pull off some tricks that wouldn't otherwise be possible. For example, the story starts off discussing events that took place in the recent past, but it will eventually catch up to the present -- and our narrator's understanding of events shifts as that happens. At a certain point, he's not sure what's going to happen next and discovering things out only shortly before you do.

13. The scene about when a CAG operator leaves and joins an PMC strikes me as very realistic. Where did the inspiration come from for that scene?
The particulars of the scene just naturally grew out of the story. But as to why I centered the story around an ex-Unit operator who had put in his time as a OGA contractor, well, it's because I find it interesting that the actions of individuals (sometimes the exact same actions conducted by the exact same individuals) can be met by wildly divergent reactions depending on how they are presented. For example, if a CIA operative did X in Pakistan, it may be reported as heroic. However, if the same thing was done by a Blackwater contractor, it might be reported as a scandal. The thing most people don't realize is, at least in some cases, the Blackwater contractor is the CIA operative. And I guess that is its own story. During my research for some earlier nonfiction projects, I was able to piece together specific examples of this, and it wasn't really an understood or reported phenomena at the time.
Also, I took note of the very different attitudes with which the general public and media view military contractors compared to how actual operators felt about them. In the field, special operators, CIA staffers, and contractors are often blended together in small teams. And if a contractor happens to be the most senior, experienced, and/or respected member of a team, they are treated as such when it comes time to dole out authority and responsibility. That's just something I don't think most people understand very well. So for that reason, I wanted to give Jared Baxter that sort of background so that I could delve into those topics.
And there are some other fairly major reasons that will become more obvious as the story unfolds (sorry, I did it again!).

14. Your book may contain one of the best explanations of why Special Operations members join the ranks of the Private Military Companies. It was also interesting to read the defense of this trend, instead of normal tar-and-feather indictment of the PMCs. Were you attempting to tell that angle of the operator's post-military life or to enlighten the reader on a different POV on the PMC?

I do my best to put myself in Baxter's headspace. And like you, he's picked up on that standard tar-and-feather indictment of PMCs. Indeed, he's extremely sensitive to it. That sort of coverage greatly oversimplifies a nuanced issue that is in no way black-and-white and largely misunderstood. Not to mention, the default line of thinking vilifies not only his efforts, but those of his friends and comrades who he considers to be some of the most genuine patriots to exist -- people who have risked so much in defense of their nation. From his point of view, it's insulting and he just can't help but go off on a tangent when it's really not central to the message he's attempting to deliver.

I'm not Jared Baxter. We don't 100% agree on everything, but parts of me are definitely in him. And while Baxter has a stronger opinion on the topic at hand, in this particular case, we were pretty unified in wanting to enlighten the reader so they'd at least understand his perspective.

15. Is Jared Baxter based on a real member of CAG or DEVGRU?

"All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental." That's what I'm supposed to say here, right?

Okay, with that out of the way, to be honest, Jared Baxter has been inspired by a variety of people, including both fictional characters and real people (historical and contemporary). The same is true of a number of the characters.

But yes, there are some aspects of Baxter that have been inspired by actual Unit operators.

16. What is the future of the series and will there be any more military sci-fi projects in your future?

Right now we are working hard behind the scenes to prepare Episodes II-VI. The original plan was to release them all monthly like a comic book series, but it quickly became evident that was going to prove nearly impossible, especially considering the extremely ambitious plans we have for the visuals. So we had to shift gears a little bit.

Once the entire series is completed and good to go, we'll relaunch it and put them out at pretty brisk pace -- mostly likely biweekly or one episode every three weeks. The exact schedule is still to be decided at this point. But all of the release dates will be set in stone once we relaunch, so stay tuned for updates regarding that at www.enginesofextinction.com.

Beyond that, I really, really hope to continue working in this universe. I already have two future EoE projects mapped out to follow up the initial series -- projects I would like to release concurrently. Both are considerably different in terms of format compared to the current series (and one another). However, whether they prove viable or not really depends on the success of the initial six-episode offering and the existence of readers out there who want more Engines of Extinction. Fingers crossed.

Be Sure to Pickup a Copy of EoE: Episode One!

Check Out Chris Martin's Work on SOFREP.com:

Next Time on FWS...
Mildly Military is one of the pandemic trope-plague that sweeps across the genre of military science fiction, and even I am guilty of using this trope. In the next FWS blogpost, we will be looking at the widespread military sci-fi trope of "mildly military" and some prime examples. May the Lords of Kobol have mercy on me for this one

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