Babylon’s Ashes

Babylon’s Ashes

James S.A. Corey

Could it be? Yes! At long last, a book review. Probably best not to expect too many though. Anyway, I waited my turn in line for the newest entry in The Expanse for something like three months, finally got my copy from the library, and just barely finished it. This being book six of, last I heard, nine, it can be problematic to review. I imagine that most people interested in reading this post are already on The Expanse train and immune to spoilers up through book five, but one never knows. Accordingly, I’m going to be somewhat vague on details and talk more about the series as a whole.

This is a rare series that I picked up when it started and have more or less kept pace with over the last six (six!) years. The books are perfectly spaced in that I remember just enough of what happened previously to keep up, but have let most of the details slide back out of my easily addled mind. It is only in times of great concentration that I can think back to Leviathan’s Wake and chart the course that Corey has taken thus far; this leads me to wonder how the series will hold up as a series once it is complete and people are treating it as a relic of the past. To wit, we have followed an unexpectedly winding road from Miller and Holden to an overturned social order in the Solar System.

I don’t know exactly what was in the authors’ heads when they started The Expanse, but to me it seemed a bid to reanimate the corpse of 1970s blockbuster SF, perhaps pithily described as “Niven and Pournelle without the cringey social attitudes.” We may not notice it as much now, but compare the Solar System in those earlier books with so much contemporary SF: no Singularity, no AI, no post-humanism, just a ratty, lived-in world that hearkens back to the first Star Wars movie, or Pournelle’s Co-dominion stories. The Corey team also dispenses with high-falutin literary conventions and po faced Mundane SF, keeping things fun and action-packed even while preaching a diverse, tolerant worldview and poking around Big Questions. It was ambitious, but entertaining. Also quite successful.

Broader themes have stayed constant throughout the series, especially our species’ undying drive to squabble with each other for reasons large and small. The plot focus of individual books lurches wildly though, perhaps betraying the authors’ uncertainty of a final destination or the publishing reality that succumbs to banal economics and constantly moves the goal posts for series. Probably a little of both. Consider: Book One is all protomolecule. Book Two jumps into Solar System politics. Book Three is back to protomolecule. Book Four suddenly veers out into galactic colonization, a move that surprised everyone and led to probably the weakest installment. Books Five and Six whiplash back into Solar System politics, as though both the characters and the authors said, “Wait a minute, we can’t go gallivanting out into the stars with all this unfinished business back here.” Unsurprisingly, these last two books put the series back on track and cemented The Expanse as a must-read contemporary tale.

At the end of Babylon’s Ashes, things feel as though the Solar System plot is settled, or at least as settled as it will be for now. The Expanse has been itching to take up bigger questions teased throughout the series: what is the protomolecule and why is it here? What happened to its makers and is there really something scarier out there? How will humanity handle colonies? If the fourth book was a false start with these, the seventh promises to finally push the series from near-future realism into wild-eyed, galactic wonder. Or at least, I hope so. Clearly, the first push was premature, but with a larger foundation now in place, we can probably expect great things. Certainly I am more interested in those kinds of stories – star-spanning empires, ancient alien races, mysteries spread across galaxies, and I think that’s where the authors always wanted to go. We’ll see if they can pull it off as well as they did near Earth adventure.

Looking at Babylon’s Ashes specifically, I would rate it in the top half of the series. The last two have certainly driven up the intensity level, with the fate of worlds literally at stake. James Holden makes a return to the center in this book, after losing pride of place to his supporting cast earlier. Individual reader feelings about this seem to vary. There is quite a cast though, and we do get into the minds of others, some of whom were dragged back to prominence, others who have gradually carved out their own prominent space in the narrative. I enjoyed Michio Pa in particular, but I’m sure everyone will have a favorite. The plot marches on well, and I think the last two books have done an admirable job of both telling self-contained stories and moving the series forward.

Disengaged from the SFF community right now, I don’t know how people are taking The Expanse politically. Obviously these are fraught times, though only the UK and US seem to have given in wholesale to craziness, and these books are unabashedly progressive in their politics and messaging. I have to think there’s a certain subset of SFF that rages about all the diversity, positivity and understanding towards others, and general non-jerkwaddy thematic content in The Expanse, but maybe they are all too busy defending Trump from his own relentless failures to annoy the rest of us. It should surprise nobody that these books are what they are however. After all, Ty Franck is a protege of GRRM, a vocal partisan for our side, and Dan Abraham builds entire series from principles of political economy. Babylon’s Ashes probably wouldn’t hit as hard if the US elections had gone differently, but here we are, and Corey is making a strong statement.

Anyway, wrapping up. Who shouldn’t read this book? Neo-Nazis and anyone who hasn’t already read books one through five are the only groups I can think of. I guess non-SF fans can be forgiven for not diving in, but The Expanse is required reading for anyone staying current in the field. It’s a lot to digest if the reader hasn’t been keeping up, but the series is peaking right now and deserves all of the attention it’s getting. Highly recommended.

Norwescon 2017 Report

Norwescon 2017 Report

I am back from my first ever con experience! Many thanks to Mrs. Pep for getting me a full Norwescon membership for Christmas, watching the kids on Friday while I went solo, and agreeing to bring the entire not-very-nerdy family along on the weekend. To my surprise, everyone wants to go back again next year, so the con organizers must have done something right. Some quick background and highlights first, then overall thoughts on the convention.

As I understand it, Norwescon is the largest (and oldest?) convention in the region; I imagine CA has one or two that are bigger, but probably nothing else comparable until the denser parts of the Midwest. The con runs for four days, hosts the Phillip K. Dick Awards, and seems to pull in a few big name guests to go with the already crowded bunch that lives out here. (A surprising number of SFF writers and artists call the Northwest home.) Seattle is already a city well known for letting all types be who they gotta be, so pair that with fandom’s costume tendencies and we get a pretty crazy assortment. I felt wildly under-dressed, with no kilt, no costume, no Victorian Era accessories, and no sword. Oh well.

On my own, I went to a few panels and roamed around a bit; I went home in the evening rather than staying to party. I enjoyed seeing both Django Wexler and Nancy Kress at worldbuilding panels, then watched a presentation about Pluto from three eminent scientists. All were interesting, plus I got to see hitherto unknown authors (Carol Berg and others) and learn about yet more books I must someday read. Saturday was more crowded, mostly with kid friendly stuff. The best hour was probably spent in a small writers’ workshop with Nancy Kress; she was teaching the under 12s the basics of narrative construction. Hopefully my kids finish up the stories they started. After that, we joined in a Frankenstein’s monster activity where the kids dismantled and reassembled stuffed animals, pirate training, a miniature painting session, the costume masquerade, Nerf gun battles, and probably more. Oh, and we watched Ted Sturgeon paint. That was cool. Between those, the art show, and the dealer’s room, we didn’t even have time to hit the open gaming. Sunday was an egg hunt and I sat in on a discussion of vintage gaming.

My single biggest takeaway from the weekend is: Cons are better as a group. I had more fun with the family than I did wandering by myself, though time alone was time spent doing things I wanted without worrying about the kids. Before the internet, cons were probably the best way to see far flung nerd friends and meet new people. I haven’t been very active in the SFF community lately, so I have few friends to search out, nor did I feel like trying to meet new people; this made parts of Friday a little lonely. I’m sure everyone would have been friendly and welcoming had I been outgoing, but I wasn’t up for it. Having the wife and kids around later did away with any such loneliness, though it did occasionally cramp my style. Next year, I will probably run on a similar schedule, but expect the weekend to be the more interesting.

Next takeaway: the wide variety of species in the Nerd Kingdom. I already knew that my slice of dork-dom is highly specialized, but the con just drove that home. SF fans who dig politics and economics are not endangered by any means (especially among authors), but the fact that I would rather analyze the GDP of fictional galactic empires than dress up and carry fake weapons marks me as a peculiar sort. Also, and I say this without judgment, my wife was appalled to read about the 5-2-1 rule that all con goers were asked to follow. (Each day of the con get 5 hrs rest, 2 square meals, and take 1 shower.) “Do these people need to be told this??” I suppose the biggest difference is that my main side gig is being a jazz musician; SF is like a side job to the side job, so I didn’t put nearly as much preparation into the con as many did. Maybe if I wasn’t busy with music I would spend more time with costumes and games. Life is give and take.

I suppose that’s most of my report. We all had a good time, want to go back next year, and might even get a little crazier when we do. The wife, at least, wants to get her hands on a painful looking dress with lots of hoops and ruffles. I was very happy to meet some authors. Maybe next year I will prepare some friends so I have a posse to hang out with; wouldn’t that be something. Anyway, thanks con planners and volunteers, we really enjoyed it.

Favorite Books of 2016

Favorite Books of 2016

I’m on a roll! No telling how long these posts will keep coming, but here’s my Top 10 for 2016. Since I read 33 SFF books, this year’s list is roughly one third of everything. Maybe not the most selective I’ve ever done. Note that some blurbs were lifted whole from a post I put up a month or two ago. Don’t hate me for efficiency.

Uprooted – Naomi Novik
This ticked three boxes for me: Hugo nominee, female author, and somebody new. I loved the book, especially the way her protagonist eschews conflict as a means of resolution. We need more stories where the solution isn’t just to beat up bad guys. I also really liked the main characters, especially the relationship between teacher and student.

Europe in Autumn – Dave Hutchinson
Part near-future thriller, part spy novel, part hard SF, Hutchinson’s book consistently denies convention. Every time I thought I had a handle on things, he’d switch it all up and totally scramble my expectations. This is one of the most creative things I’ve read in years and I can’t wait to read more. Also, the European setting is a nice change from all the America-centric stuff that we get.

The Half-Made World Duology – Felix Gilman
I guess the kids these days call this “Weird West.” It’s sort of China Mieville meets John Wayne, but much better than that sounds on the surface. Gilman’s second book is lighter than the first, which can get pretty heavy at times. Taken together though, this is one of the more inventive creations I’ve seen lately. The Line and The Gun will stick with me.

The Red Trilogy – Linda Nagata
This is hard-hitting, near future military SF that everyone should read. The books are fairly short and go quickly; I tore through all three this year. Nagata combines the action and characters of standard mil SF with the cynicism and vague dystopia of cyberpunk, powering everything with an emerging AI narrative. It’s never quite what I expected, but hits all the satisfying beats of thrillers and hard SF.

The Grace of Kings – Ken Liu
My biggest blog regret of 2016 is not writing about Liu’s opening salvo. It is a brilliant book and packed full of things to talk about, especially in my political wheelhouse. Maybe I’ll get to it this year, or maybe I’ll just roll everything into a discussion of the next book in the series, which glowers at me from the library shelves. It looks heavy.

Gene Mapper – Fujii Taiyo
As I said in an earlier post, this is near the top of my Best Japanese SF list. Flawed, especially in the too-quick ending, but with a great setup and very plausible future. Updated cyberpunk from Japan – basically the best thing ever for me.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant – Seth Dickinson
Brutal, gut-punching book. I love it as an unflinching look at empire and colonialism, but it’s really hard to take that ending. Necessary, I think, but very difficult to read and process. Dickinson absolutely has to come through with the next books in the series to justify what he’s doing. I’m in line for volume two though.

City of Blades – Robert Bennett
City of Stairs was my favorite book from a couple of years ago, so I was excited to read the sequel. Blades didn’t pack quite the punch of the first, but was still one of the best books I’ve seen this year. The broader questions of conquest and empire are still at the center of the story, along with the dead gods and the messed up societies they left behind, all coming together to make these books one of the most intriguing and original series out there.

The Dark Forest – Liu Cixin
I reviewed this early in 2016, one of my last in-depth pieces before getting crushed by life. It definitely has its quirks, and must be taken on its own uncompromising terms, but there are parts that gave me chills. Can’t wait for more!

2016 Stats

2016 Stats

I may not be capable of writing review any more, but I can at least crank out some numbers for the year! I imagine that makes everyone happy. First, let’s review a bit of the blogging disaster that was 2016.

Feb. – Switch jobs, begin a bus commute, optimism abounds for renewed reading and production.
Mar. – Stupidly agree to coach Little League. Stress rises, free time vanishes, the Spring is consumed by a very bad baseball team. (Son was ready to murder certain players by the end. Rough season.)
Aug. – Take a band on tour of Japan, also visit friends and family. Most of summer eaten up in prep. On the bright side, I did meet with blog friend Kamo, of This is How She Fight Start. Great guy and classy host. Amazing two weeks in my second home, disastrous two months for blogging.
Nov. – Wheels come off of 2016 for multiple reasons both public and private.
Dec. – Holidays commence, good bye personal time.

Missing from this year’s numbers are blog stats, because I don’t want to know. Too depressing. I had a rousing 2015, things were starting to take off, a couple of big posts went up that drew serious traffic. Then … crickets. Sorry all. Maybe 2017 will be better. I will say that I am on course to change jobs again, and back to a car commute, so I have doubts about reading numbers. On the other hand, I won’t be looking for work for the first time in several years, so that’s some time back in my evenings. (Mercifully, I should be done job hopping until the 2020s.)


Total: 49 books
Science Fiction – 17
Fantasy – 16
War – 9
Misc – 7

Couple of things to note here. First, I was on pace for 70+, so I’m not sure what happened. Second, this is the most even mix of SF and Fantasy I’ve had in decades. I don’t know if that means anything. Third, as mentioned in an earlier post, I hit a sudden SFF burnout around Thanksgiving, and have been reading war history books.

Women – 11
Men – 22

These numbers are only from SFF – war histories and memoirs are disproportionately male, so I threw those out. Proof once again that, if one isn’t paying attention, it is very easy to ignore the female half of our community. I’m not proud of it, but I have to make a special effort to read many women outside of matriarchs like CJ Cherryh, etc. Hopefully this year I can drag this particular number into balance.

Non-Anglo – 3

I read two Japanese books and one Chinese book, all in translation. (I have a book of Japanese short stories that I am crawling through. Maybe this year I will finally finish it.) I couldn’t decide how to break this down any further – basically everything I read was from the US or British Commonwealth, though several were black, Asian, etc. Some authors I don’t even know, so I decided not to do a racial breakdown. As far as I know, nothing from Europeans, Latin Americans, etc. I would like to branch out again in 2017, but still uncertain what my SFF percentage will be this year.

World War II Reading

Some Random WWII Books

So the unthinkable has happened: after more than a decade of heavy SFF reading, I’ve started to feel like I need a bit of a break. Crazy, right? I suppose it’s natural to want a change of pace, but this came as a complete surprise to me. I’m still hacking through a couple of books – Alastair Reynolds and Nancy Kress are on the In Progress Pile, but for what ever reason, World War II histories have crept into the rotation with increasing frequency. Of course this is primarily a science fiction blog, but I might as well toss a few other topics on here to spice it up a bit.

For reasons that are probably obvious, I tend towards the Pacific War rather than the European front. (For those not familiar, I have family on both sides. My grandpa was in the Marines, while my in-laws were colonists and/or military in Manchuria.) Taking stock of my total reading, things can be divided into three groups: the naval campaigns, the Marine-led island assaults, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I will say a little about each and highlight some favorite books. As a general overview, Ronald Spector’s Eagle Against the Sun seems to be the standard work. I started there and think it’s as good as any to read first.

The Atomic Bomb

I actually did most of this reading about seven years ago, for a seminar during grad school. Since it’s been so long, probably better not to say too much and just highlight my favorites. Unless something new and groundbreaking has come out in the last few years, the definitive books on this topic are Downfall by Richard Frank and Racing the Enemy by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa. The former defends the position that the bombs were necessary to end the war, while the latter argues that they were actually deployed to fend off the Soviets, since the early stages of the Cold War were already unfolding. Both are excellent, thought they explicitly oppose each other. Other books are more famous (looking at you, Gar Alperowitz), but the above had the most cutting edge research at the time I read them.

The Navy

After finishing the Spector book, I started into naval history. I am a total sucker for large ships, possibly because I didn’t see the ocean until my senior year of high school. Growing up, I probably never saw anything larger than a motorboat, so battleships and the like are inordinately fascinating.

The Admirals – Walter Borneman

Borneman’s book isn’t focused on the Pacific as much on the Navy in general, but since the Navy played a larger part in the Pacific, that’s where most of the attention ends up. As the title suggests, The Admirals takes a deeper look at personalities than battles. Those looking for blow by blow accounts and tactical analysis won’t be interested, but for me it was a good overview. I’m a Nimitz fan by disposition, for those who were wondering.

Pacific Crucible – Ian Toll

Apparently this is the first of a trilogy by Toll, though I didn’t know that until recently. The first volume covers up through Midway, the battle that really broke the Japanese offensive. I was impressed at Toll’s even-handed approach; he has a good grasp of why the Japanese did what they did, and is, if not sympathetic, at least fair. (Not that Japan should be forgiven for starting the war, nor for the atrocities committed therein, but one can acknowledge their precarious and racially threatened international position.) I’ll have to read further and follow the critical reception, but these books may become the new standard in pop history for the war.

Shattered Sword – Jonathan Parshall

Shattered Sword is probably my favorite in this category. Pacific Crucible recommended the book, and in fact used much of the scholarship found here for its chapters on Midway. Parshall presents mostly original research (I think) breaking down Midway from the Japanese perspective, using many primary sources long unavailable to Westerners. He digs deep into the Japanese operational planning, what went wrong, what was unlucky, what was inherently flawed, and more. It’s very detailed and sympathetic, fascinating reading.

The Marines

I was less interested in this part of the war until I had a chance to watch The Pacific on HBO. The family was all away in Japan, so I mowed through the episodes in about a week, which is probably too short a time to ingest that level of violence and psychological mayhem. Those were some pretty horrifying battles. HBO built the series around two books, plus the more or less public story of a third Marine, so I started there.

Incidentally, my grandpa was lucky to spend the war in Hawaii as a supply officer (or something similar). His number came due in Korea though, so the Marine reading inevitably led me to track down his unit’s records there and read up on them. Yikes. Let’s just say I am lucky to be here.

Helmet for My Pillow – Robert Leckie

Leckie was a Marine during the Guadalcanal, Gloucester, and Peleliu campaigns and the model for one of the main characters in The Pacific. He was a smart-mouth rabble rouser from New Jersey, though the miniseries gives him a sympathetic, humanist side that his own words conceal. If I understand correctly, Helmet For My Pillow was one of the first Marine combat memoirs to come out of WWII and now stands as a classic of the genre. It helps that, in addition to having incredible stories, Leckie was a professional writer. (He started in sports journalism, then published many books.) There is a certain graceful ease in his writing that sets it above many other books of the sort. Whether by his own nature or due to the conventions of the time, this book isn’t as hard-hitting as other combat memoirs. The horrors of war are there, but Leckie doesn’t sound as troubled by them as some of the other veterans.

With the Old Breed – Eugene Sledge

Sledge’s book, another classic, is the basis for the back half of The Pacific. Sledge was worried about missing the war, so he flunked out of officer training and enlisted in the Marines. I have to wonder if he ever had second thoughts. I’m not sure there’s any faster way to die than join a Marine rifle company, especially when one arrives just in time for Peleliu and Okinawa. More than any other author I have read, Sledge is haunted by the waste and futility of war. His book is by far the darkest of the lot, and it’s clear that the scars from the battles, especially Okinawa, have never healed.

Islands of the Damned – R.V. Burgin

Burgin’s book is a companion to With the Old Breed; Burgin was Sledge’s platoon leader. They tell many of the same stories, though Burgin brings a much different perspective. While Sledge’s was an innocence-shattering, psychological ordeal, Burgin took a more workmanlike approach. He was there to do a job and stay alive, not wax philosophical about man’s inhumanity to man. This book seems to have come out as a response to The Pacific, rather than as one of the original WWII memoirs. I would rate it as less essential than the first two, but well worth reading if Old Breed becomes a favorite.

Since I started writing this, I finished another pair of books, as well as an assortment related to the Korean War. I’ll do a follow-up post presently.

Interesting Books So Far

Interesting Books So Far

Life is calming down a bit and it has occurred to me that I might consider reanimating the blog. Things will never return to the two posts per week heyday of a few years ago, but I may be able to scribble on a monthly basis for the time being. (The main lesson of this year, other than the crushing reality of raising children, has been “never coach baseball.” I am still recovering.)

Anyway, with my current job cursing me with a thrice weekly bus commute across a lake, I have been able to put away quite a few more books. Writing about all of them is completely beyond me though, so I’d like to mention a few that have stood out this year. A few more will hopefully be covered individually, so this is not a comprehensive list of my favorites for the year. Please think of it as a list of books that deserve wider conversation, but didn’t spark a 1200 word essay.

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai – Brad Beaulieu

Doorstop followup to the impressive Lays of Anuskaya series, this is even more ambitious. I enjoy the fact that Beaulieu avoids both traditional epic fantasy cliché and grimdark convention in his meticulously constructed, wildly original worlds. He also manages to balance questions of representation and hierarchy, ie strong women, rulers and oppressed, and racial issues, with the demands of narrative, so things never sound preachy or hectoring. Twelve Kings reminds me a bit of Steven Erikson, but with the gonzo dial turned back down to maybe six or seven.

Wolfhound Century – Peter Higgins

This is, um, fantastical police procedural stuff in an alternate, Stalinist world. Gorky Park with aliens, monsters, terrorists, political machinations, cops, and I don’t even know what else. It’s as grim and violent as one would expect of the setting, and quite unlike anything else I have read recently. I will be continuing the series sometime in the next few months.

City of Blades – Robert Bennett

City of Stairs was my favorite book from a couple of years ago, so I was excited to read the sequel. Blades didn’t pack quite the punch of the first, but was still one of the best books I’ve seen this year. The broader questions of conquest and empire are still at the center of the story, along with the dead gods and the messed up societies they left behind, all coming together to make these books one of the most intriguing and original series out there.

Burndive – Karin Lowachee

The followup to Warchild isn’t quite as intense, but that’s probably just as well. (Less child abuse is generally ok with me.) It’s still a tense, claustrophobic novel in the style of CJ Cherryh that would be well served by a third book. I suppose the same realities that keep Lowachee from cranking out annual best sellers apply here, but I wish they didn’t. I’d gladly read more from her.

Gene Mapper – Fujii Taiyo

Halfway through, I was ready to declare this my favorite Japanese SF book. Fujii updates cyberpunk with biochem, substituting computer hacking with GMO sabotage. The main character uses upgraded CSS to put the aesthetic finishing touches on rice genomes and must investigate when someone cracks the design to threaten the rice crop. Smart, post-climate change futures, cutting edge gene science, eco-terrorism, and more keep things entertaining. The book is short, and suffers for it I think. I had to knock some points off for the rushed and pat ending, but for the most part, it’s an on-point, near future tech thriller. One of my top three or four Haikasoru books.

Sorceress and the Cygnet – Patricia McKillup

Anything Patricia McKillup writes is a treat. I love them all.

The Half-Made World / Rise of Ransom City – Felix Gilman

I guess the kids these days call this “Weird West.” It’s sort of China Mieville meets John Wayne, but much better than that sounds on the surface. Gilman’s second book is lighter than the first, which can get pretty heavy at times. Taken together though, this is one of the more inventive creations I’ve seen lately. The Line and The Gun will stick with me.

The Red Trilogy – Linda Nagata

This is hard-hitting, near future military SF that everyone should read. The books are fairly short and go quickly; I tore through all three this year. (The last two in quick succession, something I rarely do.) Nagata combines the action and characters of standard mil SF with the cynicism and vague dystopia of cyberpunk, powering everything with an emerging AI narrative. It’s never quite what I expected, but hits all the satisfying beats of thrillers and hard SF.

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

I’m late to the party with Ernest Cline, but finally got to his popular debut. Entertaining, feel good stuff. While I am a touch too young to get all of it, and woefully ignorant of much pop culture of any era. I still enjoyed everything. Most of the early computer games, D&D, etc. was right up my alley of course. There is only a modest level of suspense, since obviously the hero is going to conquer everything, but I was still happy to see things move inevitably to the joyous conclusion.

The Confusion – Neal Stephenson

I picked this for the flight to Japan last month, knowing that I wouldn’t get through it otherwise. I love Stephenson’s books, but how many of us really have time to push through 900 pages? Or wrist strength, for that matter. These heavy tomes are why I read ebooks. Anyway, it goes without saying that this is brilliant and madcap. Stephenson’s unruly band of misfits stomps its way through the beginnings of the modern economy, which somehow manages to be the actual theme of approximately 3000 pages of madness that pretends to be about wars, pirates, kings, and crazy people. I most enjoyed the hidalgo with Tourette’s Syndrome, but your mileage may vary. There is certainly enough to go around.

Life Update

Hello Out There,

Two Dudes in an Attic is not dead, nor will I kill it any time soon. I understand that posts are scarce and I am nearly invisible right now, but don’t give up hope. I did not realize how much time a Little League team would eat up; fortunately for all of us, Spring Soccer is nothing more than Sunday games. My new job is relatively calm, but because I passed my old one on to my wife, I am still her unpaid trainer after hours. One band is in the middle of recording a CD and another is booking an August tour in Japan. As a result of all of this, I have almost no time to write witty and insightful science fictional essays. Please forgive.

Also, as any parent out there knows, May is basically the apocalypse. We’re just happy if the children are wearing pants to school at this point.

Both sports seasons come to an end in mid-June, so, even though I practice baseball/soccer daily with my son, multiple hours each week will soon be available. My wife will eventually know more about her job than I do. (Mine may in turn get busier, but shouldn’t be out of control.) The CD will move into post-production and the tour is almost completely planned, with nothing left but the day dreaming. In other words, the Dudes should be up and running again soon. Thanks for checking up once in awhile.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Yes, I realize that I am hopelessly behind the times. No true Star Wars fan should wait to see a long-awaited franchise relaunch until it is in a second-run theater, especially one with fannish children who are getting everything spoiled for them at school. I should probably turn in my nerd card. Credit me with avoiding all discussion of the movie for several months though – I think that is discipline worth admiring. I didn’t even know who Finn and Poe were until last week.

So movies are a bit slow for me right now. (Actually, this has been true for almost a decade.) Another thing that is slow is this blog. After a strong start to the year, I had great confidence for a resurgent 2016. Then I changed jobs. Then my wife changed jobs. Then my band started recording a CD. Then I signed up to coach two sports teams. Things are unhinged right now. My reading numbers are back up, but writing time continues to sink to new lows. Sorry everyone! Life may stabilize by mid-summer. (At which point I start planning a Japan trip, so who knows what excuses I will have then!)

Back to the review. I finally saw SW:TFA in mid-April, which is sad. At least I caught it in a theater though, which is more than can be said for pretty much everything else. Usually I don’t see famous movies until I’m stuck on a plane to Asia. I suppose it is also a broader indication of where Star Wars fits into my life right now. It’s no longer a midnight showing on opening night kind of thing for me, kind of similar to the way I swore off caring deeply about college sports a few years ago. I have too much in my life anymore to invest sizable parts of my psyche in things I have no control over. (Or things I derive no particular benefit from, deep Aggie loyalty notwithstanding.) So while I was intrigued by Disney’s major initiatives, I didn’t fire myself up too much.

My response to the movie? Not bad. Better than the prequels (of course) and pleasantly nostalgic, but nothing to rise above the limitations that Hollywood has chosen to subject itself to. There is plenty to like, but also plenty to criticize. SW:TFA is weakest when it tries to connect itself to the originals, and strongest when it marches off on its own. If Disney and J.J. Abrams had made a clean break with the first trilogy and just started something new, I think the movie would have been much stronger. I can understand why that wasn’t really an option though, so we’re stuck with some awkward ret-conning, weird continuity, and an unbalance between the past and future. Let’s dig into this more.

To be fair, SW:TFA is in a difficult spot. The movie has to reboot the universe, provide some form of closure with the past narrative, introduce new characters and institutions robust enough to support future movies, and do it all in a way that both mollifies old-timey skeptics burned by the prequels and excites the new, Clone Wars watching generation of fans. To make things worse, they chose to operate in the exact time window already covered by what is widely considered to be the best Expanded Universe story arc: Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy. That’s a high bar to clear. It’s all too easy for someone like me to think back to Luke, Mara Jade, and all the fun of those three books while casting a baleful and suspicious eye at Abrams’ submission. (And mine was indeed suspicious. SW:TFA did not get the benefit of the doubt from me. Much as I wanted to be swept away in a glorious return to my youth, I’m too grouchy to let just anything move me.)

The bad, to be begin with. Almost everything bad in this movie relates to the trio of holdovers from the first movies. Leia is now a general in “The Resistance,” which by itself is not a problem. We expect her to be a general, or a senator, or a dictator, or something. This “Resistance” though, what is this crap? The New Republic has had twenty or thirty years to get its crap together, and the best they can come up with is some ragtag group of under-equipped guerrillas to take on The First Order? In that same length of time, the Empire crushed the Old Republic, disbanded the Senate, built the Death Star, and ran wild through the galaxy. I for one am disgusted at the pathetic progress made by this so-called “rebel alliance.” On a practical level, I realize that building institutions after a revolution is usually harder than the revolution itself; the only logical explanation for “The Resistance” is that the rebels failed to create a functioning government in the aftermath of Return of the Jedi, and chaos reigns throughout the galaxy. The movie doesn’t say this though, so we are left wondering what on earth is going on.

Han Solo also disgusts me a bit. I suppose it’s plausible that he and Leia would have problems, but I just don’t see him as the kind of guy that would give up, pull out of the Republic, and go back to smuggling. I thought the point of the original trilogy was to show his true heroic identity; SW:TFA seems to undermine that entire narrative. Everyone makes the best of the hand dealt by the script, and Han is, as usual, the star of the show. That said, he loses the Millennium Falcon? I don’t think so. Make him a crap dad and husband if you must, but there is no way in seven frozen layers of Hell that he misplaces his ship.

Finally, Luke. All I can say is this: The Luke Skywalker who obliterates Jabba the Hutt’s organization, who beats down Darth Vader in a controlled rage, and who stands in front of the Emperor and all but spits in his dessicated face would never pack it in just because one apprentice turned to the Dark Side in a fit of adolescent spite. Whatever toilet bowl the New Republic finds itself swimming in, I cannot accept a Luke Skywalker who runs away. Part Two has a lot of explaining to do.

Most of the good is in the new characters. I’m not yet emotionally invested in anyone, but I do think it’s great that the protagonists are a black ex-stormtrooper and a very capable female Jedi. (Jedi to be, at least.) I’m sure there are cold, economic reasons for these choices, but putting minorities and women in the lead roles and giving those children in the audience someone they can identify with is exactly the sort of thing a can’t-miss-franchise like Star Wars should be doing. Finn stands on his own and avoids the black dude sidekick and/or black dude who needlessly dies tropes, while Rey is the kind of competent, strong woman that I can show my kids. Both of them have full agency, a complete slate of strengths and weaknesses, moments to help and be helped, and rounded personalities. More of this please, Hollywood. My daughter doesn’t care much about Star Wars, but if she did, she would have Rey in her life to love and emulate. (The same goes for minorities and Finn I hope, but I am less qualified to comment on that.)

I will also give SW:TFA credit for hitting most of the right emotional notes. Whatever issues I may have with things, the writers and director are impeccable with references to the past stories, little visual cues that fans will love (Rey lives in a toppled AT-AT!), and dramatic moments of nostalgia. Cold and cynical I may be, but it was all too easy to get sucked back in to the Star Wars magic. Abrams and crew managed this far better than the prequels ever did. In fact, something else went over better than ever: the dialogue. I never thought I would say this, but the dialogue in a Star Wars movie was memorable and snappy. Not since the opening scenes of Return of the Jedi have I been able to listen to people talk without cringing. The banter and jokes build up a well of goodwill that some of the more outlandish plot beats require. (I will call out two things: the stormtroopers who slink quietly away during Kylo Ren’s meltdown were brilliant. Second, it’s amazing to finally have Han Solo and Chewbacca going back and forth with the kind of witty lines they always deserved.)

Conclusions? Glad I saw it, will probably watch again some time, but didn’t change my life. I don’t think Star Wars will ever mean as much to me as it once did, age and experience have seen to that, so this and following films are probably doomed to be adequate. On a grand grading scale of Star Wars, this one probably slots into 3rd or 4 thplace, about on par with Return of the Jedi or Revenge of the Sith. Too many holes to be great, but not unwatchable like certain other of the films. I could ask for more, but it didn’t leave me in a rage. At least there is no Jar-Jar.

Star Wars Radio Drama

Star Wars Radio Drama

I have to admit that, in spite of the hoopla, I have yet to see the new Star Wars movie. I would like to, and feel bad for my son who has already had much of it spoiled, but actually sitting down in a theater for two hours is one step too far right now. It was not always so.

I have cooled on the Star Wars franchise in the last several years, but it remains the fictional world with the strongest hold on me. I couldn’t even count the number of times I’ve been through the movies. Yes, it’s only a rehash of every epic journey trope out there. Yes, it’s only fake deep. Yes, the flaws in the movies (and much of the Expanded Universe) are glaring. Yes, it is, in the final analysis, much less than it could have been. I didn’t see this in my formative years however, so Star Wars was always the ultimate narrative to me, narrowly edging out Middle Earth. (My son is walking an identical path now, one I won’t discourage him from.) Knowing this, my dad gifted me the complete Star Wars Radio Drama for Christmas one year, probably when I was in late high school. All thirteen episodes, roughly 6.5 hours, of expanded Star Wars goodness in audio form.

Now honestly, how many fans out there even knew this existed?

Unfortunately for this Christmas present, who really has time to sit down and listen to radio dramas? I packed the CD set along with me to college, then to Japan and back, but never cracked it open. There just wasn’t an opportunity, or at least I didn’t make one. Once we moved to the States though, I suddenly had a 13+ hour drive to get from my house to see my parents. It was time for the radio program to shine. I took the whole thing down in a single drive across Washington, Oregon, and Idaho; Star Wars was the perfect accompaniment for a solo trip. Now, with my son getting older and the new movie out to drum up enthusiasm, I had the bright idea to pull the CDs out for another pair of car trips. My kids frequently listen to audiobooks as we toodle about, so it was no great stretch to start up a narrative radio recording.

Within moments of the famous fanfare and introduction, my wife asked, “Would someone who hadn’t seen the movie understand what’s going on?” Honestly, I don’t know the answer to that. I think so, but I am hardly one to judge, knowing as I do the first movie forwards and backwards. Still, the producers succeeded against all expectations at creating an aural universe out of an intensely visual film. The mixing crew had access to all of the original sound effects and musical score, plus Luke and C-3PO reprising their roles, facts which undoubtedly helped. All other characters were performed by new voice actors, but after awhile, one ceases to notice.

So, how is the show? I enjoyed it both times. The extra running time required (allowed?) the screenwriters to build out more of the story. We see more of Luke on Tatooine, get the background on how and why Leah is fleeing with the stolen plans, and hear more of Obi-Wan and Luke’s relationship. All of these are glossed over in the movie, so the added information is worth hearing. I think Leah gets the best of the new scenes; she is even more impressive than before. Luke, on the other hand, leaves me lukewarm. (Ha!) Getting to know Biggs before he blows up is fun, but pre-Force Luke is a weenie. The new scenes don’t make him any less of a dweeb. It’s also important to remember that all of this predates the Expanded Universe, and even the pen and paper RPG that served as a sourcebook for all things Star Wars for so long. The radio drama and movie novelizations were the only hidden knowledge available at the time and give a bit more insight into Lucas’ original ideas. That said, the next time I listen, I will skip the first disc entirely. The good stuff starts up with the third episode.

Anyway, yes, give this a listen. It’s perfect for long car drives, more dramatic than audiobooks, appropriate for young fans, and good fun. There’s a bit of cheese, but there always was in Star Wars. I have the Empire Strikes Back radio show on hold at the library, because nothing shuts my son up on long rides like Jedi and storm troopers.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant

The Traitor Baru Cormorant
Seth Dickinson

Holy cats. That was quite the experience, and one of the banner novels of 2015. I suspect that it is too polarizing for major award consideration, but I’m not sure any release generated more conversation among a certain kind of genre fan. And by “certain kind,” I mean the type of reader who gets excited about stories of accountants managing fictional empires. Yes, that would be me. In my defense, authors like Dan Abraham and K.J. Parker have been doing just fine with long division fantasy for several years now, so clearly it is a viable thing. We even have tradition on our side – no less a warhorse than Ivanhoe includes a crucial scene wherein a character teaches another about double entry bookkeeping. This is all important and fascinating stuff. Really.

Our titular hero, Baru Cormorant, is a math whiz who becomes a top accountant for The Empire of Masks. Naturally, the novel is thus absorbed with the question of cost: the literal costs of empire and rebellion, and the figurative costs of power, ambition, and assimilation. Baru’s tropical home is absorbed by The Masquerade when she is very young, but Baru is noticed early on for her developing intellect and is swept into The Masquerade’s vast schooling network to train as a future bureaucrat. The Empire is a meritocracy, of course, with Imperial positions open to all qualified candidates, regardless of racial and ethnic background. Schooling is a part of the benevolent face put on by the Empire (masks have many meanings here), one that includes technology (sanitation and hygiene in particular), economic rationalization, and stability. This undeniably positive face cloaks policies of rigid order, eugenics, strict moral behavior, and other Big Brother-y horrors.

The other main question the book poses is that of change, and how to drive it. I found this particularly relevant as, at the time of writing, we are still in the middle of candidate nomination battles for the 2016 U.S. Presidential election Dickinson asks, through Baru and her frenemy Tain Hu, whether change is best provoked from a position of power inside an institution, or through bottom up rebellion from the outside. In the fight on the Democratic side, one voice (Hillary Clinton) is advocating gradual change from within, while another (Bernie Sanders) preaches grassroots revolution. Both of them, and in turn the majority of the Democratic Party, want similar outcomes, but have stark disagreements about the mechanisms required for change. (Don’t listen to arguments over policy outcomes – this is essentially a debate over methods.) Baru has sworn an oath of vengeance against The Masquerade for conquering her homeland and, in the process, killing family and friends. Tain Hu is a noblewoman in the territory Baru oversees, with a constant stream of plots and conspiracies designed to evict The Masquerade. The two argue throughout the book over method – who is more likely to see victory over the common enemy. Dickinson provides few easy answers as conflict develops, then rages.

We see the world almost entirely through Baru’s eyes. She is, spoiler alert, a traitor. Traitor to what, though? We know from the first that she is plotting to betray the empire that has developed and promoted her. She must bury her loyalties deep however, because any hint of her real motivation will cost her the power she craves (also likely resulting in her unpleasant death). Baru’s secrets force her onto pathways that make her complicit with all of the imperialism that she claims to hate. Further, the power she gains can be used for self-aggrandizement or to assist her ultimate goal, but these are the same things, right? And all of the horrible things she either does directly, or cause through economic policy, these are in the service of a greater good. Of course they are. Personal power and advancement are necessary to eventually free her people, and the ugly side of colonialism is an unfortunate but necessary side effect. The ends obviously justify the means, so Baru is in no way a traitor to herself, or those around her. Of course not. When she gazes into the abyss of her own soul, Baru can naturally feel at peace with what she is doing. She is indeed a serene creation throughout.

There is no getting around the brutality of Dickinson’s book. Not just in descriptive violence, though there is that, but in the damage done to relationships, to cultures, and to souls. Colonialism and empire are popular topics right now in the genre, and Dickinson wades in with a sword in both hands. At what cost civilization? At what cost rebellion? The Masquerade is unquestionably evil, sewers and vaccinations notwithstanding, but how much is Baru willing to pay to fight them? And how far are we willing to let her go before we turn on her? The book’s coda is a gut punch, one that I should have seen coming but chose not to, though really it’s the only way this story can resolve itself. History is clear that when empires are on the march, there are few happy endings. I have to keep reading this series to see what happens, to see if Baru’s sacrifices ultimately have meaning. There is plenty more to talk about, notably the homophobic strain in the empire and its effects. I’m a little less qualified to talk about that though, and will stick with politics for now.

This ended up being more of a dry, academic look at Baru Cormorant that doesn’t do justice to the visceral magnetism of the book. The is one that really grabs life by the lips and yanks; a story that stays in one’s mind like a recalcitrant splinter that won’t be dislodged. Plenty of crunchy stuff in there to engage the brain, but also an icy, slowly closing fist that won’t let the reader disengage. It’s not pretty, but it’s impossible to turn away from. Dickinson writes deeply frightening, probing stuff; necessary reading right now if we are to really confront the realities of our world order. I would recommend chasing Baru Cormorant with something light and fluffy though – it’s not healthy to be heavy all the time.