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.

The Dark Forest

The Dark Forest
Liu Cixin

The first book I finished at the beginning of 2016 will, unless it is a truly amazing year, be on my Top Ten list at the end of 2016. I rated The Three Body Problem highly; its sequel does virtually everything better. For those not already aware, The Dark Forest is the second book in a translated Chinese trilogy that Tor is publishing. The author, Liu Cixin, has a huge following in China and these seem to be his most popular books. They are a take on the familiar alien invasion trope, but one that is most inventive and unpredictable. The Dark Forest is thorny enough that some readers will probably bounce off of it, but a particular sort will find the book hypnotic.

The action kicks off shortly after the end of the first book, but mostly with new characters. The Trisolaris are coming, leaving their ravaged homeworld with intent to wipe out and displace humanity. Worse, they have the overwhelming technological edge to do it. They have dispatched quantum particles in their vanguard that are capable of simultaneously monitoring everything that happens on the Earth. These particles act as a form of instantaneous communication across the light years, and are also blocking certain avenues of humanity’s scientific research. Plants and double agents in both Earth’s world government and the sects of Trisolari collaborators ensure that most secrets are eventually revealed to all involved parties. We also learn early on that Trisolari forms of communication render them unable to lie, a strange chink in their otherwise impenetrable armor. They are incapable of guile and misdirection, which gives humanity its only chance to resist.

At this point, Liu could have gone in several directions. Things are set up for a very typical “Plucky underdog humans use their wits and emerge the unlikely victors” type of story, or even some sort of epic space battle with the fate of millions on the line. Liu teases both of these, but makes another, unorthodox, choice. This is where he may lose some people, because Liu does not follow the rules of Western novel writing. The book is hardly a taut narrative, it doesn’t conform to the usual three act structure, and he completely ignores injunctions to show not tell. I wonder if this is a reflection of different standards in Eastern literature, though I don’t feel like I can speak authoritatively on this. Rather than tension-filled, lean prose, Liu elects to take a comprehensive look at the Earth as it responds to the Trisolari threat. And by comprehensive, I mean exhaustively so. The plot covers a few hundred years and looks at everything: society, military, economics, religion. There are a few main characters that act as our guides, but they are largely overshadowed by the currents of humanity.

The characters are not three-dimensional and alive in the way we sometimes demand of our fiction, but their role is one of Liu’s most mind-bending creations. Knowing that the Trisolaris are guileless creatures, the UN selects three of the most distinguished thinkers in the world – a scientist, a revolutionary, and a political leader – as well as one Chinese dude that nobody has ever heard of, and names them Wallfacers. The Wallfacers are each to conjure up a plan to stop the Trisolaris, but they are to cloak it in misdirection and lies, obscuring the true projects from anything that would give it away. (That would be pretty much everything.) They are given whatever resources they ask and never required to justify, since nobody can know what exactly they are working at. In response, collaboration forces on Earth name Wallbreakers to devote their lives to revealing the secret plans.

Meanwhile, the Chinese military is taking their own countermeasures, endeavoring to plot four hundred years into the future, somehow guessing at where technology will be, how society will change, and what strategies will emerge. Both storylines move along draped in layers of deception and extrapolation, all while humanity adapts around them. It’s very complex and somewhat unforgiving, dry at times, and difficult to comprehend in its entirety. For me, at least, the wild ideas were enough to power me through the first few hundred pages, but I’m sure others will have trouble. It is worth it to persevere however, as the last quarter of the book offers massive and unrelenting payoff. One scene in particular, wherein a Trisolari probe encounters Earth’s space navy, is brilliant in its austere violence. Those few pages alone are worth the price of admission.

Close behind it is the dark forest analogy that gives the book its title, and the resolution that emerges from it. This is the best rush that SF has to offer. Looking more at the dark forest and the way it powers Liu’s thinking offers further windows into the text.

My former coworker has two degrees in International Relations from Chinese universities. He was telling me recently, from one IR wonk to another, how Realism is all the rage right now among the Chinese political science crowd. Realism, for those who haven’t kept up with other IR related Two Dudes ramblings, is the family of foreign policy theories that describe the world as a zero-sum, amoral, competitive environment wherein each country acts as a discrete unit, in its own self-interest, and in constant conflict with every other country. They are opposed by the Liberal theories, which agree that the world is competitive, but also find patterns of cooperation and interdependence that attenuate the tendency towards open conflict. There are various schools of thought within each, but these are the fundamental battle lines. Liberalism is ascendant in the US and Europe as a result of globalism, intertwined economies, and the reluctance of democracies to go to war with each other. China is a rising power, still fascinated with the possibilities of coercion and violence, and locked in multi-polar struggles with its neighbors for regional dominance. I was not surprised to hear about the philosophical leanings of the intelligentsia.

Towards the end of The Dark Forest, Liu explains the galaxy and its denizens as a dark forest. It is a chilling and utterly convincing picture of extraterrestrial society; one it seems must inevitably be true. Those few pages of the book are among the most poetic and most frightening. Again, worth the price of admission right there. I was completely swept up while reading it, but on reflection, realized that he was basically summarizing Offensive Realism, a particularly aggressive and pessimistic view of the world. (Read John Mearsheimer for gothic and depressingly elegant deconstructions of any hope one might have of world peace.) Further, the “chains of suspicion” that drive the power of the dark forest analogy are none other than John Hertz’s Security Dilemma. The fingerprints of classical Realist thinkers are all over this book.

An understanding of the poly sci underpinnings here is not necessary for enjoyment, in part because Liu’s resolution to the issues he posits is fascinating and original. Seeing the world building in this way puts Liu’s book in its cultural context however, and also gives one a variety of angles from which to contest his conception of extraterrestrial power relations. (For further counterpoint, read Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series. He addresses similar issues, though in a more rollicking format. Scalzi comes from the Western tradition that I would argue has moved past Realism, as the US has moved beyond the strictures of a classical anarchic system.) Do I disagree with Liu? Not entirely. Just as nuclear weapons changed international relations, the ability to drop rocks down the gravity wells of fragile inhabited planets alters the balance of power yet again. He may very well be right, and Star Trek may simply be a naïve pipe dream.

This then is the middle book of Liu’s trilogy. His agenda is every bit as uncompromising and dense as his plotting, but both are meticulous and expansive. It is no breezy read, but rewarding and challenging. I think it’s a better work than Three Body Problem and can’t wait to read the conclusion.

2015 Reading Stats

2015 Reading Stats

It was a dire year bookwise at Two Dudes. Posting and reading numbers are way down, but a new job next week promises to restore some numbers for 2016. For now at least – I don’t plan to keep my new commute for any longer than necessary.

Total books read in 2015: 28
This is my lowest number since grad school. Oh well.

Genre breakdown:
SF: 19
Fantasy: 8
Other: 1
Once again, I thought that Fantasy had crept up on the SF numbers, and once again it hasn’t. I wonder why I think that I read so much fantasy now, when clearly I don’t. That single Other was a delightful football hooligan memoir.

White Patriarchy breakdown (SFF Only):
Men: 15
Women: 10
Both: 1
Not too bad this year, though I was on track for a dismal ratio until I went on a late summer tear.

Languages:
English: 27
Japanese: 1
Translations: 2
Look for Japanese to pick up a bit this year, as bus time increases. I had one each of Chinese and Japanese in translation; that number should also tick upwards, especially as I’ve already read another Lui Cixin book.

ARCs: 3
Fewer ARCs came in last year, no doubt a partial result of fading blog numbers. I barely read the ones that did come, and purposefully didn’t request very many.

Total posts on Two Dudes in 2014: 35
Like reading, writing took a hit. Evenings filled up with family-related stuff, and much of what free time I had went into reading. Movies and gaming are even sadder right now. I will probably be writing more this year; I already had a relatively bountiful January.

Category breakdown:
Reviews: 23
Commentary: 6
Interviews/Guest Posts: 1
Misc.: 5
Commentary took off this year, mostly in a series of Hugo/Sad Puppy response essays. Some of them have to rank with my best work on here. I would love to get more research paper-esque posting going, but it’s hard to cook up topics and then find the time to write decently about them.

Review Genre breakdown:
SF: 16
Fantasy: 7

White Patriarchy breakdown:
Men: 13
Women: 6
Both: 1
Japan: 2
China: 1
This is calculated by the main topic of the post, i.e. author gender/ethnicity, essay subject, etc. Posts lacking an identifying characteristic (announcements, genre-wide topics, etc.) are excluded from the count. I feel like I could add the Sad Puppy posts in there somewhere since all of them are about diversity, but I’m not sure exactly how I want to count that.

Popular Stuff:

Unsurprisingly, the 2015 Hugo Imbroglio post and KIC 8462852 were my most read of the year. The first was picked up by noted genre curator Paul Weimer, leading to a crushing amount of views and comments. That is probably the blog’s finest hour so far. The second was lucky timing – scientists announced that they may have found artificial structures out there, and I happened to crank out a summary before almost anyone else. Oodles of random people found the post on search engines and dropped in, probably never to return.

Favorites of 2015

Favorite Books of 2015

Obligatory beginning/end of year posting time! As reading cratered to an all-time low this year, I’ve slashed the numbers on my year-end list to reflect that. No sense choosing a top twenty and only having to exclude a few. These aren’t really “best” or even “favorite” so much as, “books that stuck in my brain.” I read several things that I really enjoyed, but they kind of flowed through me like a warm river, leaving only the vaguest memories. The following have taken up residence in my SFF memory banks, even if I may not fight and die for them..

1. Ancillary Mercy – Ann Leckie
No surprises here! Everyone around me knows how much I love these books. Leckie finished things off brilliantly.

2. The House of Shattered Wings – Aliette de Bodard
Gothic urban fantasy about fallen angels wouldn’t normally be in my wheelhouse. Aliette de Bodard, on the other hand, turns everything she touches to gold. Who wins? Find out when I get around to reviewing this one.

3. Aurora – Kim Stanley Robinson
KSR is probably my favorite SF author right now, and arguably the greatest living. Best to just refer everyone to my post about Aurora, or I will natter on for hours.

4. Karen Memory – Elizabeth Bear
Here’s another surprise. Steampunk Western is also not my thing, but this is hilarious, archly political, and set in the best city in the world not named Kyoto.

5. The Goblin Emperor – Katherine Addison
Addison’s book barely makes the cut, as it was one of the first couple I read in 2015. It’s lovely, charming, hopeful, and a bunch of other things I don’t normally read.

6. The Three-Body Problem – Liu Cixin
I owe myself dinner for correctly predicting Liu’s Hugo victory. Thanks, Puppies! If they are good for nothing else in this world (and they probably aren’t), they at least bollixed things up enough that we got to give the Hugo to a sprawling Chinese Hard SF novel. Spoiler alert – volume two is even better.

Runners up: The Bonehunters (Steven Erikson), In Conquest Born (C.S. Friedman), Nemesis Games (James S.A. Corey), Thirteen (Richard Morgan), The Red: First Light (Linda Nagata)

We Who Are About To

We Who Are About To
Joanna Russ

I natter on quite a bit these days about gender stuff and other equality-based issues, hoping (fruitlessly?) that I don’t maroon myself in The Land of White Mansplaining. It was hardly my intent when I started the blog, but somewhere along the way this became part of the Two Dudes Party Line. Now, under the tyranny of my own editing, I am forced to meekly toe said line. Anyway, with Vintage SF Month in full swing, it is time to remedy a major hole in my SFF experience: foundational works of gender and cultural activism. I decided to grab either James Tiptree, Jr. or Joanna Russ for this, choosing We Who Are About To because I became convinced somehow that it was a military SF story with a pro-woman perspective. I may be confusing the book with something else.

Disclaimers first. There are many more lucid deconstructions of this book out there, written by people a) smarter than me b) more involved in activism or c) both. I am going to skate lightly across the surface in a bid to introduce and/or showcase the work, leaving the literary heavy lifting to those more qualified and less tired than I am. If this sort of thing tickles the Gentle Reader’s fancy, please use this post as a jumping off point. Engagement in the comments is also welcome; I shall endeavor to keep up.

As I said, my expectations when picking up We Who Are About To involved some combination of MilSF and feminism. I have no idea why I thought this, because, while there is feminism a-plenty, I found nary a mention of power armor or space battles. Oh well. Instead, transgressive trope busting ahoy. Russ takes on a popular story from days gone by: plucky humans crash land on an uninhabited but strangely livable planet and make a go of it. However, instead of having her people rise to the challenge, tap hitherto unknown reservoirs of creativity and talent, and beat back the frontier ala Little House on the Prairie, Russ decides to unleash The Lord of the Flies and basic laws of planetary biology. We have two choices at this point: read on and be shocked by the bracing, unforgiving story, or laugh at all the poor dorks as everything unravels. Regular readers can probably guess where I went when these two paths diverged in the yellow wood.

Russ has a lot to say about how close we are to savagery, how many men reflexively treat women, what defines a life worth having, and the limits of personal freedom. Our narrator prefers to have her right to die peacefully pried from her cold, dead hand, and doesn’t play well with others. Russ’ chosen protagonist is, shall we say, of the unreliable persuasion, but we automatically cheer for her because she’s the viewpoint character and the others are fools. Her fellow castaways are ready to start up a human breeding program before luxuries like a food supply are settled, basically becoming caricatures of Campbellian Boys Be Ambitious types. The narrator is suspicious not just because she opposes a baby boom, but is also some sort of religious weirdo, probably a drug addict, and is an all around disagreeable type. Still, it is decided that she must bear children, by force if necessary.

If all of this stuff is taken completely seriously, We Who is a bracing and cynical look at humanity. It’s also really hilarious, if one’s humor turns toward the darkness a bit. I fear the author would not be amused watching me chuckle my way through the mayhem. That’s fine though, she was apparently a University of Washington Husky at some point, so we are family, and family forgives these sorts of trespasses and indignities.

I should probably wrap up this inappropriately irreverent look at a classic of New Wave SF. My advice concerning it: Definitely read We Who Are About To. It is an exquisitely crafted jewel of a story, where every word is packed with dense meaning that leaves a much heavier impact than one would expect from such a slim volume. Readers in the right frame of mind will have their view of SF altered, likely as not to emerge from the experience with everything around them tilted a bit into a new perspective. It’s also very short, so even people who will just end up puzzled and/or angry won’t have put too much time into the effort. I’m glad I picked it up and fully plan to read more of Russ and her contemporaries. One word to the wise: skip the Samuel Delaney forward until after reading the book. He spoils everything.