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Channel Zilch
Doug Sharp
Panverse Publishing, 276 pages

Channel Zilch
Doug Sharp
Doug Sharp writes computer games. He lives in a remote lakeshore cabin in Wisconsin with two horrible dogs. He taught himself programming with Apple IIs borrowed from school as a 5th-grade teacher in the late 70s. He wrote two hit games in the mid-80s: ChipWits and Cinemaware's The King of Chicago.

Doug Sharp Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Dave Truesdale

Dough Sharp's debut novel Channel Zilch asks the reader to ride along, seatbelt firmly buckled, as he spins the story of one of the most audacious, brassy capers in history -- the theft of the space shuttle Enterprise from under NASA's nose -- as but the starting point of his high-tech, action-packed thriller.

NASA fired astronaut Mick Oolfson following an unauthorized flying stunt he pulled during the landing of his (soon to be) last shuttle flight. Mick now fertilizes crop fields with cow manure from his old DC-3, barely keeping the wolf from the door and his plane flying. Enter one Manuel Chin, fabulously wealthy businessman with global contacts, who convinces Mick (with a ton of money) to pilot a spacecraft into orbit where Chin and his beautiful daughter Heloise (nicknamed appropriately "Hel") will launch an orbiting television station devoted to a special brand of Reality TV, the Channel Zilch of the title.

An astronaut at heart and wishing nothing more than the opportunity to get into space once again, Mick's antennae go up when his questions about the kind of craft he is to pilot, the type of rockets to be used, and more specific technical questions are either dismissed or evaded by Manuel Chin. More doubtful than ever as to this foolish enterprise, Mick is nevertheless willing to go along for the ride until Chin's money runs out and he has been paid handsomely for his time. Everything changes, however, when Mick sets eyes on Chin's lovely, eccentric daughter Hel, who turns out to be the brains of the outfit. Brilliant as she is sexy, Hel knows more about experimental computer systems, virtual reality and nano-tech engineering than almost anyone on the planet. Despite his misgivings, and Hel's obvious dismissal of him as an ignorant rocket jockey good for only one thing, Mick is in with both feet almost before he knows it. There's no going back. This could very well be his only chance to pilot a ship into space again, and he figures he has nothing much to lose.

The first real fly in the ointment comes when Mick learns that both Chin and Hel haven't been fully truthful about their secret and much grander agenda which entails -- just for starters and to Mick's utter disbelief -- the theft of the Enterprise.

Channel Zilch's story then, is concerned with this improbably ballsy theft, getting the Enterprise aboard a Turkish fishing barge, across the Atlantic, through the Straits of Gibralter and across the Mediterranean and to a secret dock (Chin has lots of wealthy friends around the globe), where it is then transported over land to the Russian spaceport of Baikonur. As one instantly realizes while shaking one's head at the utter insanity of this harebrained scheme, it is far from easy. It is, however, amazing what an unlimited money supply can buy: schematics of the Shuttle and the facility where it is being hangared, security schedules, information through bribes, high-tech security blocking devices, a Turkish transport barge, a small fleet of fishing boats to camouflage the Shuttle once unloaded from said Turkish barge, the security of an enclosed shipping dock on the east coast of the Mediterranean (and out of U.S. jurisdiction) whose owner is paid in thousands of classic Rock & Roll albums worth a fortune -- and who happens to be a Star Trek fan for all the right reasons. Money can buy much.

But not the loyalty of Russian mobsters whose own interests threaten to ruin the first flight of the Enterprise in favor of their own bizarre agenda -- and a rival group of even nastier mobsters who run the same game on the Russian mobsters, scuttling their plans for the shuttle and surprising all concerned as but yet another player in this high stakes game. Before long it becomes impossible to know which team anyone is playing for (for some have switched sides, or have they?) and even more head-spinning for Mick, Manuel Chin, Hel, and their trusted shuttle mechanic to make sense out of anything. They have been taken prisoner and cloistered in a shack in the Russian wilderness, they have been tortured, their carefully laid plans are in disarray, their lives are in danger, it all seems more than hopeless, and even the Enterprise has been hijacked and is no longer under their control.

Since this is the first book in a projected trilogy, it would be giving too much away to reveal whether all of the obstacles the author puts in the way of our intrepid enterpreneurs are overcome (and there are some real doozies) and whether the Enterprise is indeed launched, and even if it is just who might be aboard. It is more than enough for this first book that Sharp has the reader thoroughly hooked from the very beginning with the eye-rolling concept itself, and how he ingeniously plots his way through the series of adventures he sets for Mick, Chin, and Hel, overcoming at every turn the reader's incredulity that such a feat as stealing a space shuttle would have a snowball's chance in hell of succeeding. There were several instances, for example, where I thought to myself, "Naw this wouldn't work," there's too many types of security for them not to be seen: spy satellites, drones perhaps, the full power of the military for them to pull this off. But as if Sharp was reading my mind, not a few paragraphs later he would answer my specific questions, snuffing the flame of my doubts. It was as if he were telepathic, playing a mind-reading game with the reader and always one step ahead.

Sharp's dialogue is glib, whip-smart and moves, almost -- dare I say -- Zelazny-esque to some degree but with sharper corners, making this high energy joyride of a novel almost impossible to put down.

Toss in one of the most interesting characters I've come across in a long time in the creation of Chin's daughter Hel -- whose backstory is as tragic (and as chilling) as they come and forms a large part of her ice cold, calculating outlook on life -- but who has nevertheless developed an eccentric bedroom game known as the algebra of sex as a supporting element to her belief that she can force a Singularity into existence and bend it to her will (which is not revealed until deep into the book), and before long you realize the mere theft of the never-before-flown Enterprise is but the first small step in the much larger scheme to which Chin and Hel are devoting their resources and lives. Channel Zilch is but the prelude, the overture to the symphony to follow in the next books (overall title: the Hel's Bet trilogy).

Panverse publisher Dario Ciriello arrived on the scene in 2009 with Panverse One, an anthology featuring five novellas, and followed it with a pair of succeeding volumes. Each garnered high praise, several stories were nominated for awards, and one even copped a Sidewise Award for Best Alternate History. Quite a successful track record in such a brief period of time. Now Ciriello has returned, turning his keen editorial eye and considerable talents to the novel, with the same (and now expected) professional quality. Channel Zilch goes on sale September 8th, 2013 and I recommend it to anyone interested in seat-of-the-pants, high-tech SF thrillers with more than its share of attitude, intriguing, eccentric characters, and a smoldering Sense of Wonder bubbling under the surface of every page.

The only downside to Channel Zilch was that it left me abruptly hanging, heart racing, unaware that I'd been holding my breath. I'm now frustrated in having to wait for the second volume next year, where the scope expands off-Earth and into space, and we will hopefully learn more of the scary Singularity Hel is creating and to what ultimate purpose.

[Both author and publisher will be donating a portion of their royalty/profit from this novel to the Central Pain Syndrome Foundation (CPSF).]

Copyright © 2013 by Dave Truesdale

Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award four times, and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and for several years wrote an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Now retired, he keeps close company with his SF/F library, the coffeepot, and old movie channels on TV. He lives in Kansas City, MO.

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