Review: The Big Shutdown by John M. Whalen

The Big Shutdown by John M. Whalen is a fun read that will remind readers just why pulp fiction, westerns, and ray guns belong together.

Sometimes fandom just needs to go back to the roots of what started it all to fully understand what makes their interest so compelling. Sometimes we get so drawn into the new additions to our culture that we tend to forget about the ideals that created it. What does all of this cryptic innuendo mean?

big shutdown 2Recently published in November 2015 from Flying W Press (original 2010 publication was titled Jack Brand from Pill Hill Press), The Big Shutdown by John M. Whalen takes fandom back to its roots with raw action and a comforting sense of direction. With a fast paced collection of harsh adventures in the guise of the old west, but with the flair and unpredictability of a space drama, readers are in for a rootin’ tootin’ fun ride.

Tulon is an oil rich planet that once thrived in the Earth’s dependency in fossil fuels. But when the discovery of an alternative fuel source brings an end to the symbiotic relationship of the two planets, the necessity of keeping Tulon inhabited is no longer important to humanity. The “gradual transition” from Earth’s fossil fuel dependency has come to be known as the Big Shutdown by those who are left on Tulon to pick up the pieces of humanity and try to survive.

Now, society has taken a dark step back and Tulon is a planet engulfed in vast badlands resembling the American old west where bad people with bad intentions control life. The technology of weapons is the only thing that separates this world from the violent chaos of the past.

In the middle of this is Jack Brand, the legendary former member of the Tulon Central Security Force. Long ago, his tactical unit which included his sister Theresa was overpowered by the Wilkerson gang. Believed to be dead along with the rest of his squad, Brand is left behind after the nomadic gang kidnapped his sister and disappeared amongst the thousands of families, gangs and tribes across the land.

The stories in this collection follows the heroic and often chaotic adventures of Jack Brand. Though he had long quit the Security Force to pursue his sister’s abductors, his skilled reputation gives the character the intimidating confidence in the face of enemies’ readers have come to expect from a hero. But his flaws and vulnerability is what gives the character believability. He is a real badass, a man’s man whose moral center teeters on the edge of right and wrong. But he’s not perfect. And if you look close, you might even see a hint of compassion. He doesn’t always make the right decisions, which often leads to a good beating or some other form of gratuitous pain. And this is when the character truly becomes real.

As a fan of the genre, these stories bring back fond memories of how my early interests in pulp literature began. British author Terry Harknett began a pulp western series (61 books) titled Edge back in the early 70’s under the pen name George G. Gilman. My father was enthralled by the series and I couldn’t help but want to see what all the fuss was about. Like Whalen’s character Jack Brand, Gilman’s anti-hero Josiah “Edge” Hedges was a former Civil War Army Captain out to avenge the death of his brother. Both the Edge and Brand characters are prime examples of how violence in horrific literary settings and the graphic macabre imagery utilized for authenticity is a necessary emotional evil when done correctly.

There are twelve short Brand stories in The Big Shutdown. First appearing in one of the earlier issues of the online magazine Ray Gun Revival and continued in many others over the years, the stories have the same appeal that many of the classic pulp western works have, but with just enough SF freshness to keep readers captivated.

All of the stories are stand alone shorts, but the author has skilfully edited them for continuity so that they can be read like chapters of an epic journey. Unlike many collections of linked short stories, this overall collection does end with a resolution. But don’t fret, the Tulon world is big enough for many more adventures if Whalen ever wishes to go back.

In addition to the Jack Brand adventures, Whalen includes a bonus short story that also takes place in the Tulon universe about “Raygun for Hire” hero Frank Carson who is hired to take famous author James Joyce Jameson to a space pirate’s secret hideout to research his latest book. Fitting in nicely with the other stories, “Where the Space Pirates Are” also appeared here at Amazing Stories.

The Big Shutdown by John M. Whalen is a fun read that will remind readers just why pulp fiction, westerns, and ray guns belong together. All of that violence and SF gadgetry is nothing without a good story and a strong character to keep you wanting more. In the case of Jack Brand stories, you will be asking for more.

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