Red, Green, and Blue Mars

Red Mars
Green Mars
Blue Mars

Kim Stanley Robinson

This is likely going to be a long post, but the Mars trilogy is a long work.  It is a monumental  treatise and demands a thorough look, as there is much going on in the 2300 or so paperback pages that record the future history of Mars’ colonization.  And future history it is – the Mars trilogy is less of a tightly constructed narrative as a sprawling, all-inclusive study of what our first steps on another planet will look like.  Because I’m considering the trilogy as a whole, and because a worthy response requires addressing specific aspects of the books, this will be a spoilerific review.  I will mark accordingly as we move into more dangerous territory.

To begin, my final word on Red, Green and Blue Mars: read these books.  To the SF fan checking off essential books in the canon: read these books.  To the person interested in the immediate Solar System rather than deep space: read these books.  To the reader interested in the near future of our space efforts: read these books.  I am uncertain how any other writer can approach Mars after Robinson’s work; he casts a daunting shadow.  As more specific details follow, sensitive readers may wish to stop now and go get these books.

As I said at the beginning, these are more future history than novel.  There are characters, stories, action and drama, but the true star of the books is the planet itself.  Mars overshadows each individual; their change through the books is merely a symbol of the planet’s evolution.  Some books use the setting merely as wallpaper, others use the setting to drive the narrative.  There are some books, however, where the setting suffuses the narrative to such a degree that the setting itself becomes a character, complete with its own development.  And what a development it is for Mars: the planet is red, arid and hostile at the beginning.  The end of the third book shows people in shirt sleeves, eating ice cream on the shores of a Martian lake.

Robinson’s careful research and geography make Mars a vibrant place, not just a setting built to the convenience of the plot.  Places and distances are real, people and events are anchored to the geography.  The books gain verisimilitude from the setting, much the way historical fiction roots the reader to places and times that are familiar.  By the end of the books, the reader comes away with a sense of Mars strong enough to evoke déjà vu, if said reader were to actually travel to Mars.  I can easily imagine myself bouncing around there and thinking, “This is where the rebellion started, that is where the space elevator was.”

As befits a history, Robinson tends to go off on a wild hair whenever a topic catches his fancy, be it geology, psychology, political science, aging, physics, or a host of other topics.  Characters info dump wantonly, a great many pages are given over to debates about government or the environment, and the reader is privy to scientific debates that would normally be buried in journals.  What this costs in narrative coherency, it gains in a broad and supportive background for the history.  It also invites periodic skimming, though each reader’s interest will no doubt be caught and lost in different places.

Finally, the characters.  Most novels, especially speculative fiction, are constructed around two or three narrative pillars.  We are asked to go along with these assumptions, sometimes with little or no explanation, because they serve the purpose of the author.  The book would be irrevocably changed without one of the pillars.  In this case, the first pillar is the selection of characters that are initially sent to Mars.  The second pillar is the treatment that Vlad, Ursula and Marina discover partway through the first book that extends life for hundreds of years.  Without the treatment, the stars of Red Mars would be dead, at the latest, by early in the second book.  For whatever reason, however, Robinson elected to keep the same characters around for the whole of the saga, either to ground the story in recognizable people, or to dodge generational issues.  (This is not to say that there aren’t future generations, or that they are marginalized.  There are, and they aren’t, but the First Hundred maintains their prominence over a couple hundred years.)  This also frees Robinson to spend an inordinate amount of time talking about the effects of aging, especially in the last book.  Some may like this, some may not.  My own opinions about the elderly are about what one would expect for a person my age, but these are the choices Robinson made, so I go along with him for the ride.

As for the First Hundred, their initial selection wields a subtle influence over the rest of the book.  One strength of the Mars trilogy, and the result of its historical feel, is the sense of inevitability that pervades the book.  It feels as though, should we make moves towards the Red Planet, the story Robinson tells is exactly what will happen.  This inevitability frustrated me immensely at the end of Red Mars, desiring as I did a completely different outcome and story arc.  It was only late in the second book that I realized that, while the story moves inexorably forward, reality will be different simply because the people that go to Mars will not be the people in the book.  Robinson’s characters are genuinely weird; without them, everything changes.

Spoiler alert!

What happens, for example, if Hiroko isn’t this crazy visionary who smuggles a Caribbean anarchist on the ship?  What about Vlad?  Remove him and his treatment and everything changes.  What if Sax and Ann aren’t the OCD people that they are?  What if Frank isn’t pissed all the time?  I think that most of what happens in the trilogy flows from these characters, as most of the pressure points in the plot are tied to one specific character or another.  Hiroko and Coyote may be the most crucial (and the most batty), but it is a team effort.

Spoilers off

As for narrative structure, each of the three books follows roughly the same pattern: several hundred pages of meandering setup, an occasionally arbitrary trigger with 200 or so pages remaining, and finally the resolution of whatever crisis simmered throughout.  There are interludes of action during the long buildups, but this is slow developing stuff.  Anyone looking for excitement or battles will be disappointed, but I doubt that those sorts of people will make it past the cover description anyway.  If I may use an off-kilter simile, the Mars Trilogy is a bit like a good barbecue.  Everything is prepared, seasoned, and cooked low and slow, with the reward for the patient being a great meal.  Just like no right-thinking chef would microwave a rack of ribs, no author could colonize and terraform a planet, lead the colony through self-sufficiency and revolution, create some truly bizarre cults and movements, and finally present this new world without spending considerable time in preparation.  This may not be for everyone, but some people also prefer Jack in the Box to a porterhouse steak.

Some caveats of a slightly spoiler-oriented nature.  Green Mars was my favorite of the books, I think, while Blue Mars was the weakest.  Some reviews I have read rated Red Mars the highest; it may indeed be the best, but it took most of the book to rearrange my preconceptions, limiting my enjoyment a bit.  Not a fault of the book of course, just my own perceptions.  Anyway, to me Blue Mars falters a bit because the focus starts to unravel.  The core of the independence issue is resolved in the second book and, as the characters themselves admit in Blue Mars, the key ideological divide on Mars between Reds and Greens is destined to vanish within a couple of decades.  There are questions remaining, of course, but the narrative arc is on its downward track.

As a result, Blue Mars moves both inward and outward from the center, bringing in new colonies and projects, while focusing on political minutia on Mars.  The colonies are the more interesting of the two, but are dealt with somewhat perfunctorily in service of Martian political narrative.  These side stories seem worth of opening the series out, ala Bova’s Grand Tour, rather than just tossing Mercury and others out the window once they serve their purpose.

Likewise, the politics are interesting and the creation of the Martian government is an absorbing, if time and page-consuming, process.  Some of the politics, however, devolves into personal rivalry between characters of dubious emotional attachment (i.e., I never cared much about Jackie and her brood and never figured out why Nirgal was so attached to her) or generational bickering.  The latter is always vulnerable to further angst about growing old, people fretting about memory, morose musings on death and mortality, and characters the reader might wish silenced getting a chapter or two to pour out their hearts.  Again, some may enjoy these bits (and dislike the parts I found interesting), but this is the sort of writing that resulted in mass skimming.

In the end, however, Mars remains.  Several weeks on, the books stay with me, their images bright in my imagination.  The last, in particular, of people lounging by the lake, enjoying the pleasant weather keeps floating up from my subconscious.  I don’t remember the details of the characters present, their conversations, or why they were even at the lake, but that image, and its illusion of attainability, is still close to the surface.  My disagreements with Robinson’s choices (and I consider them choices, not flaws) fade away, as does my irritation with some of the characters, leaving Mars behind.  The characters have a deep, emotional attachment with the planet, one I presume they share with the author.  The enthusiasm is infectious.

Rating: Franz Beckenbauer, in his pomp.

Super Dimension Fortress Macross

Super Dimension Fortress Macross

Before diving into the Macross discussion, I should first offer the requisite anime disclaimer. Not only am I ignorant of anime conventions and clichés, I am also not much of a television viewer, so things that are commonplace in long-running TV series are news to me. Both of these are fundamental to the discussion of Macross, because I am forced to deal with it in terms I am comfortable with, not the terms under which it was created. In some ways this may be unfair. My own ignorance means that I judge the series solely as a work of science fiction, not necessarily in the context that one should examine early 80s TV anime. On the other hand, all I really demand is good storytelling.

Some background for those not up on their anime.  Super Dimension Fortress Macross is the original, 36 episode series in what has become one of three fundamental canons of Japanese SF. (The other two are the Space Battleship Yamato and Mobile Suit Gundam universes.) The intricacies of sub-genre and historical background are best left to more specialized sites, but Macross falls firmly into the Transforming Giant Robots in Space field that Japan seems to dominate. (I have no idea why this is so – nothing in my years in Japan gave me any indication why they should like giant robots so much more than we Westerners.) The background I have read paints a confusing picture of the authors’ intent with Macross; it may have started as a satire, and seems to end as a deconstruction of warlike space opera, though I question if the ambiguity of the storyline is an indication of profundity or just too many cooks in the proverbial kitchen. Finally, some readers of a certain age may recognize Super Dimension Fortress Macross as the first season of Robotech. I am snooty, so I watched the Japanese version.

But I get ahead of myself. I watched all 36 episodes over the course of a couple of months, which adds up to 17+ hours with these characters, minus whatever time I spent fast forwarding through annoying music, clip shows, or the boring romantic bits. I am left with deeply divided opinions on Macross. On the one hand, after 17 hours, I feel an attachment to the world and characters. On the other, there is a lot of stupid crap that goes on in said 17 hours. But on the gripping hand, when Macross really brings it, awesome stuff goes down. Of course, awesomeness and utter banality often clash in the same episode, and even between commercial breaks. Each viewer will have a different tolerance level for this. (My wife hit hers before the first DVD had ended.)

The story. Actually, this can be one of the weakest parts of the experience. I am guessing that insane discontinuity is due to the vagaries of TV production, as accounts elsewhere describe uncertainty if the first episodes would lead to any more, funding problems resulting to new people getting involved part way, and eventual success requiring more tacked on to the end of the series. None of this is conducive to tightly plotted, consistent material. The core of the story is the conflict between Earth and the Zentradi, a race of giant alien invaders. The source of this conflict is poorly spelled out in the beginning and the series leaves very confusing hints about the backstory. I never really figured it out and finally jettisoned the first DVD from memory because it was interfering with my enjoyment of the middle third. Likewise, the final DVD and then some is an extended epilogue meant to tie up loose ends and end the story pleasantly. The resolution of the final conflict hits somewhere around episode 27. The epilogue is completely unnecessary, but by the time I’d made it that far, I figured I might as well see the whole thing through to the end. This despite the fact that the narrative stopped being fun once Earth and the Zentradi finished blowing crap up back in episode 27.

Continuing on the somewhat critical note, I will get my main complaints out of the way here before moving on to positives. This may be par for the course with TV shows, but I found that about one in four episodes was a throwaway. There are at least two clip shows, which I skipped entirely, the first two or three episodes that can be passed up without any lasting harm, and large swathes in the early middle that involve singing, the Miss Macross competition (every bit as horrible as it sounds), lovesick people mooning about, or awkward conversations between people who really should know better than to bulldoze through junior high school mating rituals when there is an alien invasion on.  Suffice it to say that the fast forward button was my friend, as I channeled Monty Python and yelled “Stop that! No singing in my scene!” at the screen.

As mentioned above, the story tends to be a scrambled mess. There is a coherent backstory that emerges late in the series concerning the origins of the Zentradi and Supervision Army, their relationship with humanity, and the resulting power of the Protoculture. This part is pretty cool, but the bits connecting it to the story of the Macross are wildly confusing. (Maybe they aren’t and my brain was melted by the initial exposure to the theme song, but I honestly have no idea why the Zentradi are fighting or how exactly the whole mess started.) The balance of the plot is littered with holes, weirdness, and head slappers, but basically holds together. A lot of the silliness can be placed at the feet of some awfully dumb characters.

The review thus far has been somewhat harsh, so now it is time to highlight a few of the reasons why I pushed on to the end (besides having OCD). Despite its failings and incoherence, Macross pulls itself together just often enough for moments of greatness. There were just enough “wow!” moments to pull me through the stupid parts. Several of the characters are engaging and left me cheering as I watched them grow. Two points of the love triangle mature in gratifying ways and manage a far more satisfying relationship than one might expect of a Giant Robot Space War. (The third point, however, remains annoying throughout.) Several of the side characters are also well-portrayed (Claudia, Max, Global, and my favorite: Exedol), though numerous others are nothing but cringe-inducing (the bridge bunnies, Kamjin, and Kaifun, who is the biggest tool ever). Finally, the viewer can never go wrong when, spoiler alert, the Macross literally punches a battleship to death. Spoiler over. Also, Global says, with a completely straight face, “Launch the booby duck.” That won my heart.

It is the overarching theme, however, that keeps coming back to me. I don’t know if it is a result of residual Japanese ambivalence about war and violence or just the producers trying to think of a hook for the show, but the Macross treatment of war is certainly different. The whole series is a 36 episode examination of how to create peace. The Zentradi are the obvious warmongers, but there are hawks among the humans as well. One prominent character is a vocal pacifist. (He is also a moron and probably a caricature of the Japanese Communist Party.) The hero starts out with no use for the military but finds himself joining up in the face of destruction. Attitudes about the military end up deciding the love triangle central to the story. Again, I don’t know how much of the moral complexity in the series is a result of carefully placed symbolism, how much is a reflection of a culture still trying to reconcile its warlike past with its ostensibly pacifist present, and how much is just too many production companies throwing in too many side stories. Japan’s attitude about war and its military is worthy of books, but suffice it to say that watching Macross in its entirety provides the viewer with a good, if confusing, overview.

What really sets Macross apart, however, isn’t the shades of gray. Macross offers a solution, not just questions and compromises. (What one makes of the solution and its implementation is another question entirely.) If humanity is to conquer the enemy and win some sort of peace in the Macross universe, it isn’t through arms, valor, loyalty, democracy, or any such thing. The secret weapon in this story is culture. Culture was denied the Zentradi and Supervision Army and culture is the key to ending conflict. In this case, Culture is represented by music, which is heartening to a jazz musician like me. Less heartening is the fact that the music that can turn the tide of battles is crappy Japanese pop, but the Good Lord giveth and the Good Lord taketh away. To look further though, the weapons that turn the tide are not the new fighters, the neat robots, or the hilariously named “Grand Cannon,” but songs, babies and kissing. I won’t argue that these plot points are handled in subtle, sensitive, or ingenious ways, but many of the “wow!” moments that kept me coming back were related to them in one way or another.

A couple of other random asides before wrapping up. Two main characters, Minmay and Kaifun, are obviously Chinese. While there is an international cast, as it were, I would be very surprised to see any sympathetic Chinese characters in Japanese anime today. Like much anime (I am told), Macross doesn’t pull punches when killing characters. One major death was broadcast several episodes before it happened, but another was totally out of the blue. I can only imagine audience shock at the time. Destruction is also pretty unforgiving – there are a couple of things taken out that I had not expected. Like a lot of things I saw in Japan, romance is handled in the clumsiest way possible. It would be totally unbelievable if I hadn’t seen similar idiocy in real life, but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.

To sum up, Super Dimension Fortress Macross is a bit of a rollercoaster. The gap between sublime and ridiculous is more of a yawning chasm. I feel some attachment to the world and the characters after investing so much time in the series, though I wish that less of that time was spent groaning and hiding my eyes. There is a lot to recommend, not the least of which is the deconstruction of space opera tropes, but I would caution viewers to have the fast forward button at the ready.

Rating: Sounders-Timbers derbies. Inflamed emotion, frantic running and fighting, rabid partisans on both sides, lots of fun to be had, but a suspect product on the pitch.

Engines of Light

Engines of Light
–          Cosmonaut Keep
–          Dark Light
–          Engine City

Ken MacLeod

Somewhere down the line, I wonder if a publisher will release an omnibus volume of these. None of the Engines of Light books is longer than 300 pages, so with a bit of editing, this could easily be condensed into one 600-700 page volume. I suppose if wouldn’t have made as much cash for Tor, but seems more sensible. This may seem like an odd place to start a review, but it is the logical terminus of my reaction to the series.

MacLeod is well known for taking a political approach to his books, and Engines doesn’t disappoint in that regard. Or perhaps it does, depending on one’s point of view. Within the greater universe, The Second Sphere, MacLeod introduces a future Earth and three extra-solar worlds. The former is more or less recognizable, the latter involving several different races and thousands of years of backstory. In each case save one, some sort of political conflict or revolution is at the heart of the story, even if this conflict is not the most important thing going on in the metastory. How the reader feels about this will likely be a direct reflection of how much said reader enjoys watching Marxists, anarchists, libertarians, etc. split hairs with each other.

Slogans and protests don’t, however, obscure MacLeod’s world building. The Second Sphere is a fascinating version of the Elder Races guiding/protecting/oppressing upstart Earthlings trope. The three worlds he creates, Mingalay, Croatan, and Nova Babylon have whole, functioning cultures, economies, and governments, with the relationships between races and factions logical and coherent. Metastory aside, these worlds are interesting places to spend a few hours, even if MacLeod keeps blowing them up with People’s Republics of Whatever.

But this is where my issues with the books start to creep in. MacLeod suffers a bit from George Lucas Syndrome, where a mind bending universe and grand, all-consuming conflict are subordinated to smaller, shallower narratives. Here is The Second Sphere, nearly omnipotent beings may or may not be plotting the destruction, or at least culling, of humanity, giant sentient squids are piloting FTL starships, fuzzy orange spider monkeys are bouncing happily through the galaxy, killer asteroids and/or interstellar warfare may or may not be imminent, and we spend most of our time reading about factional disputes in a couple of planetary governments. When I let myself flow with the stories, I was caught up in the action and enjoyed the twists and turns. But anytime I stepped back, I wanted MacLeod to zoom out a bit and show me the real story. Everything kind of comes to a head at the end of the trilogy. I’ll save spoilers for the comments, but I was left cold with the resolution of all big questions and the way MacLeod felt obligated to wrap everything up.

Combined with a first book that basically felt like he was setting the stage for the rest of the series without telling much of a compelling (or possibly relevant) story, I come back to my original reaction. Chop off half of the first book, lose a few pages of political wrangling throughout, and rethink the ending, and we have an engaging, longer, standalone novel. As it is, Engines of Light was enjoyable, but won’t rank in my Top Space Opera Ever list.

Rating: Tottenham Hotspur. Spurs put a good product on the field every year, have passionate supporters, and occasionally succeed. Usually though, they are overshadowed by other London clubs and fall down at key moments.

Podcasts

For anyone paying attention: Pep and I will start doing weekly podcasts here within a couple weeks discussing all things fantasy, sci-fi, and football.  There might even be some Jazz talk in there somewhere if we’re feeling spicy.

We’re continuing to work on the general layout and aesthetics of the site. E-mail addresses and such for the blog will be up sooner or later.

Hull Zero Three

Hull Zero Three
Greg Bear

Hull Zero Three mines familiar territory: the mysterious, derelict spacecraft plot. There are no surprises in the path the story takes, with characters waking up from hibernation unsure of where they are, what is happening, or why everything is trying to kill them. The surprises instead come in the slow revelation of the ship’s mysteries, which Bear handles with grace and creativity. I happen to be a fan of derelict spaceship tales, so this was right up my alley. Reviews on Amazon were mixed, with several lukewarm comments, but I tore through the book with great satisfaction. The end lost a little momentum, especially with a strangely placed epilogue that feels like an editor demanded it, but overall I give it high marks.
This being a fairly run of the mill abandoned spaceship story, most plot revelations here are either spoilerific or unnecessary. Some people wake up, have adventures in a hostile and mysterious star-faring craft, endure a twist near the end (that isn’t too twisty), and finally understand the mysteries. Bear fills his ship with bizarre creatures and an even more bizarre premise, overpowering the clichéd story arc with all kinds of unexpected detail. I enjoyed the scene where they steal a drink from a zero-gee river racing to power nuclear reactors, I like the way the characters, who are created to be archetypes inside the story, grow into both their roles and their humanity, and I like the claustrophobic feeling of an empty Star Destroyer spiced with a dash of Space Hulk.
Short review for a short book. The conclusion? Hull Zero Three is worth the couple of hours that it takes to read it.
Rating: Futsal. Shorter and faster than football, and almost as fun.

DarkAngel

Dark Angel
Meredith Ann Pierce
(reviewed by Jose)

Part of being in the book business means that I’m generally kept fairly aware of what is selling and what is not. I have to say, with some dismay, that the majority of fantasy that I see anymore is published by Luna press or TOR. For those of you unaware, Luna is a press that specializes primarily in “alternative romance.” This catch-all term describes romance that involves vampires, werewolves, space ships, and all of the other abominations that the recent Twilight and/or Harry Potter craze have infected the modern fantasy scene with.[1] The relative boom in Luna’s success over the last few years has not gone unnoticed, and major publishers have started picking up startling quantities of both “alternative romance” and young adult fiction that revolves around the same topics, if somewhat censored.

Dark Angel, oh, excuse me, DarkAngel, is very much in the style of this young adult fiction. It is a fantastic account of some young girl who becomes enraptured with a “vampyre” and all of the zany and somewhat cringe-worthy adventures this leads her on. The prose reminds me very much of a failed Patricia McKillup. There is a serious attempt to lend a certain dreamlike and airy quality to the entire story, but rather than coming off as charming and elegant, the author often falls into the trap of overly obfuscating prose and general inability to form a coherent point. And while, as I will elaborate on further, this seems to be a conscious choice of the genre as a whole, it leaves the entire thing feeling rather empty. I struggled to remember characters once they weren’t on the page, and there seems to be no attempt from Pierce to actually make sure you’re keeping track of who’s important and who’s not. (Which is because no one is, except the main character and the vampyre. Doting ahoy.) There’s not really anything of substance to the plot, and it probably can be read in a short afternoon or over a couple lunch breaks.

I’ll be the first to say that two paragraphs is completely insufficient for what attempts to be a formal conversation or commentary on a piece of “literature” [2]. This is systemic to the genre. Reviews panning the stuff struggle to walk the fine line between beating a dead horse or writing a single paragraph that implies the authors need to go take a damn creative writing class. So rather than try and walk that line, I want to try to analyze the reason that the line exists in the first place.

Vacuity tends to make things very difficult to criticize. It’s why until someone sat down and took the ninety minutes necessary to coherently ream the entirety of the Star Wars prequels, most audience goers were left with a vague sense that they had been cheated and that the movie sucked, but were hard-pressed to point at anything in particular when challenged. The key, of course, is that there is nothing to actually point at. I’m going to elaborate on three of many specific decisions [some in more detail than others] that create this effect.

1.) Self-Inserts. The bane of any good reviewer, especially one that is read by large swaths of people, is that s/he is typically under some level of pressure from his editors to avoid anything that can be construed as libel. This practically means that generally anything even resembling an ad hominem attack is flatly off the table. This is a problem.

The main character in this wonderful little pile of crap is named Aeriel. Lets run-down the check list: Aeriel is clumsy. Aeriel is constantly reminded of her much better looking and grateful mistress. Aeriel is shy. Aeriel is also, obviously, exactly what some dark vampire needs to redeem his soul, and, because of all of this, she will become the prettiest flower in the flower patch with her dark and brooding lover. [3] Here is a picture of Meredith Ann Pierce. She is not ugly, nor is she particularly attractive. She plays the harp and lives in the woods in south Florida. She went to normal schools, and enjoys normal activities. She has been a reasonably successful author, and probably isn’t that bad of a musician. In short, there is really nothing special about her. She’s altogether quite ordinary.

I remember, a long time ago, when I was first introduced to this sort of “alternative romance” drivel, I had picked up a Catherine Asaro book because it had a picture of a neat spaceship. I was not totally disappointed (it was one of her earlier books, apparently she’s gotten much much worse,) it indeed had a cool spaceship. It had lots of battles and explosions. It had quantum phasing missles slamming into space stations the size of planets and lots and lots of talk about klein bottles. It was pretty cool. [4] Unfortunately, it also had a main character who was achingly special, despite the fact that she was totally ordinary on Earth. I can distinctly remember at the ripe old age of fourteen that it was perfectly obvious, down to the way the girl was described as looking and acting, that Asaro was definitely inserting herself into the shoes of the main character.

I’m not trying to argue that Pierce is creating a fantasy for herself where she is swept off her feet by a dark and brooding lover. Rather, I’m saying that this yearning (which, to be fair, all of us kind of have) to be special or better is the creative impulse which drives the main connection within the plot. It leads to an unacceptable connection between the author and her characters. She becomes invested–unwilling to let bad things ultimately happen and tell a story–and rather gives the reader a sort of twisted bastardization of a morality play. The bad guys get what’s coming to them, the good guys get everything they want, and Aeriel is undoubtedly the primary force for redemption and butterflies and sparkles.

This makes it incredibly hard to attack the plot and conflict as anything other than absent. You can’t point at particular struggles that the characters have because they really aren’t there. The vampyre screams about how awful he is and how much he wants Aeriel to go away, and Aeriel dotes after him like a good princess.

2.) Bad Prose. At one point, Pierce describes a persons’ eyes as “mocking-merry.” What in the world is mocking-merry? Is it gleeful sadism? Is it a friendly jab? Is it hidden resentment? WHAT IN THE HELL DOES MOCKING-MERRY MEAN, AND WHY DOES IT MAKE ME SO ANGRY? [5]

3.) Superficial Othering. This is slightly more complex, so bear with me. One of the tropes, especially of “alternative romance,” is the overwhelming attempt to beat you over the head with the supernatural, or “otherliness,” of whatever it is that the author is trying to do it to. Typically this is done through small tropes that you may not even think of. Misspelling words as “vampyre” instead of “vampire,” or “magick” instead of “magic” all serve to try and disassociate the author’s creation from the other tropes that you’ve read about. Done properly, this effect can be very powerful. It allows the other to create a powerful sense of humanization and redemption–as the thing we establish as the “other” slowly comes more and more to resemble a complex individual. Done poorly, it allows the author to hide her static character behind it’s otherness, because goddamn it, it’s not human, so why does it have to act like one?

All of these combine to create a veritable moving target of literature. On one hand, there’s something disturbingly wrong with the story, but instead of being able to point to any one particular thing, all we’re left with is a vague sense of vacuity. The words seem to mean nothing, the relationships between the characters are meaningless, because the author has already made it quite clear that she is uninterested in them acting like humans. And, perhaps most damningly, the plot is already quite clear from the very second that our glorious author becomes too connected with the redemption of her characters.

Stepping back, one might think it silly to even take the time to write this review. It’s been done to death, and people have been doing it far better than I for a long time. Twilight is here to stay until something else gets big, and even then, the damage will have probably been done. I only mention this book because it was written in 1984– a veritable pioneer of the genre before it was cool.

I need a drink.

Rating: Blackburn v. Stoke, both coached by clones of Sam Allardyce.

[1] I’m not saying that these things weren’t there before. Vampire fantasy has been around for some time with authors like Brian Lumley. The difference is that vampires were definitely not all sparkles and happiness. Conversely, the books had vague tones of satanism, sadism, and a fairly heavy element either of redemption or despair. They were also often quite gory.

[2] Seriously, I’m at a loss to try and say much more about it. The story is simple and handled poorly, there are large elements of deus ex machina at work through-out the entire interaction of the primary characters, and said characters are wood cut-outs with a little bit of glitter strewn on them for good measure. Aeriel pines after her black clad DarkAngel, and he radiates ANGSSTTT like any good teenager It, ultimately, is trying to be a story of redemption, but when all you want to do is club the person that’s supposedly getting redeemed into a fine mist, it sort of loses any effect it might have.

[3] Admittedly, this is only book one of a trilogy. This does not happen in this book, but if you want me to read the other two, I’m going to have to be bribed.

[4] There were a few moments that my thirteen year old mind had just started to grasp, but I generally plowed through them with my mind off. Gratuitous space sex is the easiest type of sex to ignore.

[5] Rant aside: prose that means nothing means there’s nothing to criticize.

Redliners

Redliners
David Drake

I was reading this on my laptop while riding the bus to work.  A guy sat down next to me, looked at my screen and said, “That’s not sci-fi.  That’s Vietnam.”  Indeed, indeed.  There are a number of interviews with Drake on the web, all of them touch on Vietnam, and all of them are interesting reading.  I don’t know what went down during his Vietnam years, but according to him, it’s still right there with him 40 years later.  None of this is meant as criticism.  In fact, Drake is one of those authors (see James Ellroy) at his best when treading the edge of madness.  There is a big difference in books before and after Redliners, but more on that later.

Despite my fellow commuter’s comments, Redliners is not directly Vietnam.  The army people are dropped into an unknown jungle where everything is trying to kill them, yes, but that is about where the similarity ends.  It’s more about the aftermath of Vietnam, or any war, and what to do with all of these people that scrambled themselves psychologically in the name of freedom or democracy or The Fatherland or whatever.  In this case, the soldiers work through their demons by battling real-life demons; Drake and his fellow vets faced their demons in the US, where people were angry at the military, angry at the government, angry at the returning soldiers, but everyone had to stay civil and not actually blow up buildings.  I’m not sure which is more difficult.

On to the story.  The plot is fairly straightforward.  A bunch of soldiers on the brink are assigned to guard a new colony. Things don’t go as expected, violence ensues, a lot of things blow up.  Drake is a complicated literary guy, and I say that without sarcasm, so this had to be an intentional decision.  Some of his other novels are dense retellings of classical literature or complicated alternate history, but Redliners feels more like a story that a grunt would tell.  Their officers don’t let them in on the big picture, so why should they tell us?  So things move in a fairly straight line from beginning to end, as the nearly crazed soldiers try to protect a gaggle of civilians from The Forest Jungle Planet of Death.  Whether or not they succeed is never really the issue.  Rather, how the civilians and military interact, how they adapt to the hostile environment and each other, and whether or not any redemption is to be had for people like these are the questions that Drake chooses to address.  That he does it with a lot of explosions and violence is part of the fun.  Drake gives his own perspective on why and how the book was written here.

Promised broader repercussions: by his own admission, something in Drake unclenched itself when he finished this book.  Whatever turmoil it was that provided his muse may have resolved itself somewhat.  I don’t doubt that his ghosts still trouble him, but it sounds like they may not be as immediate as they were before.  As for Drake’s writing, I won’t say that it is weaker now, but something is missing from his newer books.  Some of it is no doubt a conscious decision to focus more on a couple of long running and happier series, but the newer stuff I’ve read lacks that whiff of danger.  Reading Drake has always been a brush with demons and madness; not just on the battlefield, but all of the emotional carnage that goes with it.  The demons are further away now. This is probably good for some people, but I kind of miss it.

To sum up, Redliners is an important book.  I’m not a vet, will never touch the military or violence as a willing participant, and have no real idea what this kind of life is about.  However, Redliners matters to Drake, apparently it matters to other vets, and is a relatively transparent window into a warrior’s soul.  It’s a good read to be sure, and a seminal bit of military sci-fi, but it also puts the author’s soul on stage.  Reading Redliners is having a front row seat to watch Drake battle for, and presumably win, his soul.

Rating: A Boca Juniors – River Plate match in Buenos Aires. Wild times to be sure, and something is almost guaranteed to end up on fire, but best enjoyed from a safe distance.