Books by Osborn, Stephanie

Osborn, Stephanie. Burnout. Kingsport, TN: Twilight Times Books, 2009. ISBN 978-1-606192-00-9.
At the conclusion of its STS-281 mission, during re-entry across the southern U.S. toward a landing at Kennedy Space Center, space shuttle orbiter Atlantis breaks up. Debris falls in the Gulf of Mexico. There are no survivors. Prior to the disaster Mission Control received no telemetry or communications from the crew indicating any kind of problem. Determination of the probable cause will have to await reconstruction of the orbiter from the recovered debris and analysis of the on-board flight operations recorder if and when it is recovered. Astronaut Emmett “Crash” Murphy, whose friend “Jet” Jackson was commander of the mission, is appointed a member of the investigation, focusing on the entry phase.

Hardly has the investigation begun when Murphy begins to discover that something is seriously amiss. Unexplained damage to the orbiter's structure is discovered and then the person who pointed it out to him is killed in a freak accident and the component disappears from the reconstruction hangar. The autopsies of the crew reveal unexplained discrepancies with their medical records. The recorder's tape of cockpit conversation inexplicably goes blank at the moment the re-entry begins, before any anomaly occurred. As he begins to dig deeper, he becomes the target of forces unknown who appear willing to murder anybody who looks too closely into the details of the tragedy.

This is the starting point for an adventure and mystery which sometimes seems not just like an episode of “The X-Files”, but two or more seasons packed into one novel. We have a radio astronomer tracking down a mysterious signal from the heavens; a shadowy group of fixers pursuing those who ask too many questions or learn too much; Area 51; a vast underground base and tunnel system which has been kept entirely secret; strange goings-on in the New Mexico desert in the summer of 1947; a cabal of senior military officers from around the world, including putative adversaries; Native American and Australian aborigine legends; hot sex scenes; a near-omniscient and -omnipotent Australian spook agency; reverse-engineering captured technologies; secret aerospace craft with “impossible” propulsion technology; and—wait for it— …but you can guess, can't you?

The author is a veteran of more than twenty years in civilian and military space programs, including working as a payload flight controller in Mission Control on shuttle missions. Characters associated with NASA speak in the acronym-laden jargon of their clan, which is explained in a glossary at the end. This was the author's first novel. It was essentially complete when the space shuttle orbiter Columbia was lost in a re-entry accident in 2003 which superficially resembles that which befalls Atlantis here. In the aftermath of the disaster, she decided to put the manuscript aside for a while, eventually finishing it in 2006, with almost no changes due to what had been learned from the Columbia accident investigation. It was finally published in 2009.

Since then she has retired from the space business and published almost two dozen novels, works of nonfiction, and contributions to other works. Her Displaced Detective (January 2015) series is a masterful and highly entertaining addition to the Sherlock Holmes literature. She has become known as a prolific and talented writer, working in multiple genres. Everybody has to start somewhere, and it's not unusual for authors' first outings not to come up to the standard of those written after they hit their stride. That is the case here. Veteran editors, reading a manuscript by a first time author, often counsel, “There's way too much going on here. Focus on one or two central themes and stretch the rest out over your next five or six books.” That was my reaction to this novel. It's not awful, by any means, but it lacks the polish and compelling narrative of her subsequent work.

I read the Kindle edition which, at this writing, is a bargain at less than US$ 1. The production values of the book are mediocre. It looks like a typewritten manuscript turned directly into a book. Body copy is set ragged right, and typewriter conventions are used throughout: straight quote marks instead of opening and closing quotes, two adjacent hyphens instead of em dashes, and four adjacent centred asterisks used as section breaks. I don't know if the typography is improved in the paperback version; I'm not about to spend twenty bucks to find out.

November 2016 Permalink

Osborn, Stephanie. The Case of the Displaced Detective Omnibus. Kingsport, TN: Twilight Times Books, 2013. ASIN B00FOR5LJ4.
This book, available only for the Kindle, collects the first four novels of the author's Displaced Detective series. The individual books included here are The Arrival, At Speed, The Rendlesham Incident, and Endings and Beginnings. Each pair of books, in turn, comprises a single story, the first two The Case of the Displaced Detective and the latter two The Case of the Cosmological Killer. If you read only the first of either pair, it will be obvious that the story has been left in the middle with little resolved. In the trade paperback edition, the four books total more than 1100 pages, so this omnibus edition will keep you busy for a while.

Dr. Skye Chadwick is a hyperspatial physicist and chief scientist of Project Tesseract. Research into the multiverse and brane world solutions of string theory has revealed that our continuum—all of the spacetime we inhabit—is just one of an unknown number adjacent to one another in a higher dimensional membrane (“brane”), and that while every continuum is different, those close to one another in the hyperdimensional space tend to be similar. Project Tesseract, a highly classified military project operating from an underground laboratory in Colorado, is developing hardware based on advanced particle physics which allows passively observing or even interacting with these other continua (or parallel universes).

The researchers are amazed to discover that in some continua characters which are fictional in our world actually exist, much as they were described in literature. Perhaps Heinlein and Borges were right in speculating that fiction exists in parallel universes, and maybe that's where some of authors' ideas come from. In any case, exploration of Continuum 114 has revealed it to be one of those in which Sherlock Holmes is a living, breathing man. Chadwick and her team decide to investigate one of the pivotal and enigmatic episodes in the Holmes literature, the fight at Reichenbach Falls. As Holmes and Moriarty battle, it is apparent that both will fall to their death. Chadwick acts impulsively and pulls Holmes from the brink of the cliff, back through the Tesseract, into our continuum. In an instant, Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective of 1891 London, finds himself in twenty-first century Colorado, where he previously existed only in the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle.

Holmes finds much to adapt to in this often bewildering world, but then he was always a shrewd observer and master of disguise, so few people would be as well equipped. At the same time, the Tesseract project faces a crisis, as a disaster and subsequent investigation reveals the possibility of sabotage and an espionage ring operating within the project. A trusted, outside investigator with no ties to the project is needed, and who better than Holmes, who owes his life to it? With Chadwick at his side, they dig into the mystery surrounding the project.

As they work together, they find themselves increasingly attracted to one another, and Holmes must confront his fear that emotional involvement will impair the logical functioning of his mind upon which his career is founded. Chadwick, learning to become a talented investigator in her own right, fears that a deeper than professional involvement with Holmes will harm her own emerging talents.

I found that this long story started out just fine, and indeed I recommended it to several people after finishing the first of the four novels collected here. To me, it began to run off the rails in the second book and didn't get any better in the remaining two (which begin with Holmes and Chadwick an established detective team, summoned to help with a perplexing mystery in Britain which may have consequences for all of the myriad contunua in the multiverse). The fundamental problem is that these books are trying to do too much all at the same time. They can't decide whether they're science fiction, mystery, detective procedural, or romance, and as they jump back and forth among the genres, so little happens in the ones being neglected at the moment that the parallel story lines develop at a glacial pace. My estimation is that an editor with a sharp red pencil could cut this material by 50–60% and end up with a better book, omitting nothing central to the story and transforming what often seemed a tedious slog into a page-turner.

Sherlock Holmes is truly one of the great timeless characters in literature. He can be dropped into any epoch, any location, and, in this case, anywhere in the multiverse, and rapidly start to get to the bottom of the situation while entertaining the reader looking over his shoulder. There is nothing wrong with the premise of these books and there are interesting ideas and characters in them, but the execution just isn't up to the potential of the concept. The science fiction part sometimes sinks to the techno-babble level of Star Trek (“Higgs boson injection beginning…”). I am no prude, but I found the repeated and explicit sex scenes a bit much (tedious, actually), and they make the books unsuitable for younger readers for whom the original Sherlock Holmes stories are a pure delight. If you're interested in the idea, I'd suggest buying just the first book separately and see how you like it before deciding to proceed, bearing in mind that I found it the best of the four.

January 2015 Permalink