Fleet of Worlds

Fleet of Worlds
Larry Niven and Edward Lerner

Every once in awhile, I get the urge to revisit Known Space. Larry Niven’s popular future history is the kind of future I want to be reborn in, with its high technology, weird but basically non-threatening aliens, strange worlds, and off-beat humor. I am almost through all of the classic Known Space stories, but I’m a little less excited by some of his newer additions. For whatever reason, Niven seems to have lost a step in the last decade or so. His books aren’t as sharp and there is a sense that he’s coasting a bit on past glories. There’s quite a bit of glory to coast on, but still one hopes for a new milestone, one more shining tale to add to his illustrious library. Perhaps the forthcoming collaboration with Greg Benford? My hopes are up.

Anyway, I approached Fleet of Worlds with some trepidation. The latest Ringworld books have garnered mixed enough reviews that I have stayed away, but his series with Edward Lerner has promise. After all, who can resist a few hundred pages with Pierson’s Puppeteers? The Puppeteers are one of Niven’s finest creations; no matter how bad the book may be, it’s still a deeper look inside the cowardly society of advanced, two-headed herbivores. Fortunately, the book isn’t bad, and it delivers its Puppeteers in spades. (Is anyone really reading this for the humans? I thought not.)

First, a warning for readers. Nobody should start Known Space with Fleet of Worlds. There are plenty of great places to start (N-Space, Ringworld, Protector), but this is definitely not one of them. While it won’t be incomprehensible (I think), most of the enjoyment comes from a working knowledge of Puppeteers and human future history. There are a few easter eggs tucked here and there that Niven aficionados will smile at and the kind of detail and background that only fans will truly appreciate. Likewise, what you see is what you get with Niven. Anyone who doesn’t like him now won’t find reason to change that opinion, while long time fans will come away satisfied.

There are two concurrent plot lines in Fleet of Worlds that will presumably run throughout the series. The first concerns internal Puppeteer politics, opens a large picture window into Puppeteer society, and shows us Nessus before his days harassing Louis Wu. The second follows a hardy band of humans from a heretofore unknown colony that the Puppeteers have indentured for food production. The latter is far less interesting than the former, but I imagine it will have serious repercussions as the books progress. Since this book basically sets the table for 300 pages, I can only assume that the banquet is yet to come. The plot isn’t bad or boring, but it is clearly a bit of groundwork laying in preparation for something much bigger, or at least that is the assumption I have to make based on what I read.

Beyond this, there isn’t much profound analysis waiting to happen. Fleet of Worlds is a fun but non-essential addition to Known Space, written with fans in mind. Later volumes may change my perspective, but so far it is a pleasing diversion. There is a hint of possible greatness to it all, so we will have to see what Niven and Lerner conjure up next.

Rating: A mid-season, mid-table match. Likely to contain some elements of excitement and long-term importance, but probably not something the casual fan will be gripped by.

Usurper of the Sun

Usurper of the Sun
Nojiri Housuke

I am slowly working my way through the Haikasoru catalog, as quickly as the library here adds titles. Their most recent acquisition is Nojiri Housuke’s Usurper of the Sun, an expansion of three earlier short stories. The original short story won a Seiun Award in 2000, the book won a second Seiun in 2002. It is one of the first novels that Haikasoru published, and more to my taste than some of their other titles. Why? Because Usurper is the first full-on Hard SF I have read from Japan. No anime, no otaku, no giant robots, no tentacles, just a bunch of scientists and a big mysterious object. It’s probably not the only Hard SF out from Haikasoru, but it’s the only one I’ve found so far.

Nojiri mixes and matches his science throughout. His BMO is a thin ring that blooms out of Mercury, blocking an increasing amount of Earthbound sunlight on its eventual way to becoming a Dyson sphere. Earth is plunged into a catastrophic freeze as scientists worldwide struggle to figure out why the ring is there, who put it on Mercury on the first place, what it is supposed to do, and how humanity is to survive the seeming assault from the stars. The book touches on astronomy (of course), the nature of AI and consciousness, nanotech, first contact and alien communications, climatology, and a bit of the softer sciences as we watch Earth dismantle itself in panic. I have to confess that some of the discussion of introverted and extroverted consciousness sailed above my head, but I caught just enough for the conclusion to make sense. This is Hard SF, so the science is the focus as much as, or more than, the characters, but that’s kind of a subgenre given at this point.

Usurper differs a bit from other Japanese SF I have read in the general exclusion of Japan. The main character, Aki Shiraishi, is Japanese, but she spends most of her time in California, in Texas, or in space. Her interactions are also primarily with Westerners, so thematically there is very little to differentiate Usurper from any other science fiction. This is not a critique of course, just an observation. In the real world, any large scale space effort would be based in the United States as a matter of economic course, so it is entirely natural that Nojiri’s book would also spend most of its time dealing with the US, the EU, and the UN. There are however two points that stand out, though whether they are intentional or just a product of cultural background noise is not a question I am prepared to answer.

There are two responses to the aliens trying to, er, usurp the sun. Many see it as a preemptive attack on humanity, or at the very least blithely ignorant genocide, and agitate to fight back. Others frame it as a big misunderstanding and push for a peaceful first contact. Even if this is a misunderstanding in the same way that, say, the Great Leap Forward was a multi-million fatality economic misunderstanding, it is obvious that the aliens are so technologically superior that “war” would probably be more like “swatting gnats.” “Not so!” argue the militants. “We could probably get a good lick or two in. Besides, we might as well go down fighting.” The pacifists are not convinced by any of this reasoning and take their own steps towards talking with the aliens. Considering the nationality of the writer, I will give readers exactly one guess as to which countries take each position. Give up? Here’s a hint: George W. Bush had just taken over the White House when Usurper was published. (To be fair, this was pre-9/11, so the Invade Iraq drumbeat had yet to begin. Still, we Americans had been seen as warmongers for many, many years before toppling Saddam.)

The second point could be entirely of my own imagining. Midst the discussion of consciousness, there is a lot about minds focused entirely inward, uncommunicative because they either don’t notice or don’t care about anything outside. I don’t think it spoils anything too much to say that the aliens blocking out the sun’s light are doing so because they feel this way about Earth and its inhabitants (or don’t feel, as the case may be). I wonder if Nojiri isn’t offering subtle commentary about Japan, a nation often accused of being uninterested in the outside world and overly focused on itself. I could be making this up, especially in light of recent domestic media hysteria about Japan’s insularity. Still, this is hardly a new topic and I think there are certainly comparisons that can be made. Japan isn’t actively harming anyone else right now (that I know of), but how much more good could the Japanese be doing if they turned outward a little more and engaged the rest of the world? This was the message that lingered for me after I turned the last page; I probably owe it to myself to dig into some Japanese reviews of the book to see if anyone else thought so. Perhaps this is a project for later.

Beyond these messages, Usurper is pretty typical Hard SF. Lots of science, lots of talking about science, a mix of respect for and distrust of the military, awkward romance, and partially developed characters, usually engaged in science. The reader’s reaction to this book will depend almost entirely on preconceived notions of Hard SF; non-fans will probably want to skip it. Anime fans may come away disappointed unless their minds are open to a little more science than giant robots provide. Those who prefer Clarke, Benford, or Niven will likely enjoy Nojiri’s book more than other, squishier Haikasoru titles. I’m a huge fan of both first contact and big mysterious objects, so I hope that more of this sort makes it into English. I’ll be the first to read and review it when it does.

Rating: The Kashima Antlers. Clinical and efficient, they are Japan’s most successful club team.

The Helix War

The Helix War
Edward Willett

I had not heard of Edward Willett until he started following the Two Dudes Twitter feed. (Considering the amount and content of Two Dudes twittering, being followed by an actual published author is borderline miraculous.) Any author kind enough to pay attention to us, or even pretend to pay attention, is going to get read and reviewed, so the most interesting looking of Willett’s books got tossed on the Must Read Now pile, which is shorter than both the Must Read Soon and Would Like To Read One of These Days piles. Mr. Willett flying under the Two Dudes radar is not an indication of quality or fame; the two halves of The Helix War respectively won and were nominated for Canada’s Prix Aurora Award, which goes to show that we are just not quite omniscient yet. Consequently, one more gap in the Hoover Dam of our knowledge has now been plugged. Thank you, Twitter, for saving the day yet again.

The Helix War is actually two books: Marseguro and Terra Insegura. Neither really stands alone however, so it’s best to dive straight into the heftier omnibus volume. Otherwise there is a cliffhanger in one (Marseguro) and things would be utterly incomprehensible in the other (Terra Insegura). I am vaguely curious if the author has optioned this to Hollywood, because aside from their length, these are ready made action SF movie fodder. James Cameron would have a field day, for reasons we will get into later.

First, a brief explanation so the rest of the review makes sense. Earth is ruled by The Body Purified, a fundamentalist, anti-gene modification religion. They are bad. Earth has a few interstellar colonies, one of which is the hidden world of Marseguro. On it dwell the Selkies, a human sub species genetically modified to live in the water. There is also a small community of unmodified humans who are allied with the Selkies and came with them on their panicked flight from Earth. The Body Purified would love nothing more than to eradicate this stain, so by page 100 they have launched an invasion. This sets up a classic “Superior force invades the planet, plucky good guys fight back” trope, which is a pretty foolproof way to set up a fun story. How the reader feels about the course of the story probably depends a great deal on the reader’s opinion of Hollywood fare.

What is it about The Helix War that reminds me of summer blockbusters? Well, shall we begin with the bad guys? The Body Purified is the kind of religious bugaboo that writers of both screenplays and SF love. (Is it just me, or do Canadian writers take a particularly biting tone with US-based religion? Example #1: Robert Sawyer.) El Body isn’t Christian, but it’s all the fundamentalism and intolerance that we rational types love to hate. Loathsome in general, it is none too likable in particular, with the individual characters a rogue’s gallery of mental illnesses. Paranoia, delusional megalomania, and frantic denial are all on the platter, with very few rational bad guys in view. There is even a mad scientist who threatens destruction via super powerful killing device at one point. Good times!

The good guys are given more depth than just “we are honorable and fighting for our homes.” The ocean dwelling Selkies are an interesting creation and well thought out; their unmodified human allies also have complicated enough back stories and development to be engaging. Willett also resists the urge to make anyone a Heinlein-ian superman. Indeed, the audience is bound to spend a certain amount of time yelling, “stop, you fool!” at the screen, rather like we do when the horror movie starlet says something like, “I’ll just go upstairs now and see what that noise was.” The good guys spend the books making the best they can out of a bad situation, screwing up just like any of us would, and trying bravely to do The Right Thing. There are consequences for their actions and the author doesn’t shy away from violence begetting more violence. Everyone spends a fair amount of time hashing out moral dilemmas with each other, usually arriving at the conclusion that we should all be nice to each other. There is a veneer of philosophy to the book, but like the Selkies, it isn’t engineered for deep water.

700 pages seems like a lot, but the narrative moves briskly and cinematically. The camera jumps between multiple viewpoints, giving a clear view of all the action and a summary of what each key player is thinking. After 100 pages or so of school and troubled childhoods, the fun finally begins and never really lets up. Willett tosses in twists fairly regularly, especially in the second book. At one point I started to get whiplash, as the “wait … what?” moments piled up. (I can’t really say much about them in the review, as it would turn into spoiler city. Suffice it to say that pages 400-600 have more twists than a Chubby Checker concert.) Despite my skepticism, things held together. I still wanted to club a couple of the characters for doing clearly bone-headed stuff, but everything seemed to end happily enough.

Thus far, the Hollywood-esque bits of the story are less of a good or bad thing, and mostly just a thing. There were a couple of details that bothered me though. First, the whole thing with the asteroids that brought The Body Purified to power baffled me. I wonder if I missed a paragraph somewhere, because there was something in the resolution that seemed fishy at best and plain impossible at worst, but was never really explained. Second, if people have gone off into space and founded a super secret hidden colony, wouldn’t they, say, put a lock on the door of the emergency phone home beacon? Barring that, one or two surveillance satellites in orbit? It was awfully easy for the bad guys to find Marseguro. (Well, not too easy, but still. “Gee Berle, do you think that somebody, somewhere in the thousands of people here might get angry/crazy/drunk and accidentally/vindictively fire up this here thing that would call the raging, homicidal, religious freaks?” “Nah, let’s just leave it out here where anyone can find it.” “Alright. I won’t bother to conceal the activation code either.”)

A verdict? The Helix War was fun. I laughed, I cried, I was on the edge of my bus seat. It won’t appeal to certain demographics, but would probably be a good SF gateway drug. Readers looking for Hard SF, right wing MilSF, or gritty fantasy where GRRM kills everyone will probably be nonplussed. Someone taking a break between heavier stuff will probably enjoy the quick ride. It’s not Stranger in a Strange Land, but not everything needs to be. I’ll be adding more Edward Willett books to my pile.

Rating: The Spanish National Team pre-2006 or so. Lots of flash and running around, fun to watch, but somewhat lacking in depth.

A Shadow in Summer

A Shadow in Summer
Daniel Abraham

Long ago, I blocked out (but never finished writing) a story where a barely disguised me drove down to see a barely disguised friend, the two quietly broke off their relationship, and the guy meekly drove home without really defending himself or fighting for love. At the time, I scorned that character for being such a pansy. A few years and one nasty breakup later, I thought back on the story and decided that the character was worthy of admiration because he didn’t get worked up over things, accepted the inevitable, and didn’t waste his energy fighting for something so ephemeral as romance. I tell this not to wax poetic about my failed literary ambitions, but because one character in A Shadow in Summer recalled my own creation, bringing him to mind a decade or so since I last considered the guy. In some ways, these two are proxies for the book itself; younger me would probably be infuriated by a tale that declines to stride boldly forward, while an older and mellower me found a lot to like in this unconventional fantasy novel.

This interview is a good place to start. I knew nothing of Daniel Abraham until I read James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes. After that, I knew that he collaborates on blockbuster SF under inexplicable pen names and is part of the Albuquerque writers group in orbit around George R.R. Martin. (I am uncertain why New Mexico, of all places, is a fantasy hotbed. Is it perhaps the green chili cheeseburgers?) Now I know a bit more of his background and what he is trying to accomplish with The Long Price Quartet, of which A Shadow in Summer is the first volume. I was unsurprised to find out that much of what is off-kilter in the book is so by design, as Abraham is purposefully subverting fantasy tropes.

Following are some things I liked about the book. First on the list by a comfortable margin, Shadow is about economics. I realize that this makes me a particularly nefarious kind of nerd, but I really like stories that have a solid political economic base. Abraham’s book is what happens when magic meets Richard Rosecrance’s seminal The Rise of the Trading State. The city of Saraykeht is a trading state, which maintains its position and safety through economic power conferred by magic. The same magic can also protect the city, but its main purpose is to preserve Saraykeht’s competitive advantage in the cotton industry. Galt is a typical military state, maintaining its empire through conquest but dependent on Saraykeht and the other Summer Cities for goods. The core of the story is a Galtic attempt to undermine Saraykeht economically, a much more interesting tale than yet another campaign and siege. This is a forward thinking story, one that couldn’t have been written before contemporary Japan and Germany suggested an alternate path to world domination: buying everything.

Another thing I quite liked is the absence of destiny, prophecy, Chosen Youth, or any such nonsense. There are some people caught helplessly in the middle of the story, a few power players, some unexpected pressure points and pivots, but always, always agency. Each of the central characters chooses a path through the story, often constrained by the situation but never in the service of some overarching, mystical Plan. A couple of younger types come of age, some older characters confront the past, there is love both thwarted and successful. My favorite character, Otah, is mentioned above and acts as a stand in for my own creation, which in turn is a stand in for me. Not to say that Otah is meekly dumped by a woman, just that he has an oblique, idiosyncratic method to his decision making that I identify strongly with.

Finally, I enjoyed the ratio of world building to page count. While it is quite possible that the publisher split the Quartet into four solely to move more copies, Shadow recalls an older style of fantasy storytelling. It is not a long novel, so Abraham is forced to prune extraneous detail and concentrate the most important information into compact and efficient prose. We know from hints and tidbits that there are more Summer Cities, other Empires, and plenty to the world, but we are not party to anything not directly related to the story. We also see how the world works, as Abraham shows rather than tells. For example, The Cities are vaguely Asian, with some groups that resemble Shaolin or Zen in their training, and have a complex social hierarchy that is indicated in part by poses taken and gestures made during conversation. Abraham never explains these poses or describes them, merely states that characters are performing them. He can thus pack several pages of meaning into a short conversation, trusting the astute reader to infer and imagine the rest. 900 page volumes can be entertaining, but there is something to be said for brevity.

And now, in the “Not really a minus but definitely something I thought about” category, Shadow is very much fantasy in the David Brin definition of the word. (ie, looking back to a Golden Age rather than pressing forward into a Bright Future.) Magic is, of course, fading and kids these days just can’t conjure like they used to. Why is it that magic always has to be fading? Why can’t magic be constant, or possibly even getting better? What real life analog is there for magic constantly going away? (Someone might try to toss peak oil out there, or the loss of manufacturing sectors, but these are apples to oranges comparisons, not the least because “magic” is not a tangible substance made from decomposed dinosaur bones. On second thought, that’s a great premise for a novel.) There is also an obligatory scene where a character thinks back to the previous empire, where the ruler was strong and wise, the men good looking, and the children all above average. Midst all of the other trope subversion, I wonder why Abraham decided to keep this one.

A Shadow in Summer isn’t for anyone who requires Dark Lords and farmboys of royal lineage, nor fans of prancing woodlands elves and magical weapons of antiquity. It is not a thinly disguised Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Instead, Shadow is intelligent and ambiguous, without being depressing. Recommended for discerning fans of challenging fantasy who aren’t afraid to leave a few cliches behind.

Rating: Ruud Van Nistelrooy, a legendary goal poacher with a great name. He was efficient and predatory, lacking in wasteful flourish and a reliable source for goals.

Moldy Fantasy: The World of Tiers

The World of Tiers
Phillip Jose Farmer

When presented with the opportunity to read vintage, hardbound fantasy with gloriously impractical Boris Vallejo covers, I can think of few reasons to say no. Just such a chance awaited me at a recent library book sale, as all of the recent, popular books had long disappeared by the time I got there. All that remained were obscure titles published long ago by forgotten presses, likely unread since the Gerald Ford administration. I took one look at the impossibly muscled and very naked, but battle axe wielding warrior and maiden on the front of The World of Tiers and knew that we were destined to meet at that sale. As an added bonus, the author is none other than Phillip Jose Farmer, of whom I had heard much but not yet read. This, dear reader, is what Moldy Fantasy is all about.

The first cycle of The World of Tiers comprises five books, which were later gathered into the two volume compendium that I read. Between the cover art, the publication date, and the first chapter, Tiers gives every indication of being pulpy low fantasy. I fully expected Robert Wolff, our erstwhile hero, to be tramping around a clone of Barsoom or Gor. There is a surfeit of mighty thews, but Farmer also commits world building. We end up with something a bit more sophisticated and, dare I say, scientific than one initially expects. This is appropriate, seeing as how he wrote a foreword, but Tiers feels like low fantasy filtered through Roger Zelazny. The five books split neatly into two narrative arcs. Books one and two are collected into Volume One and feature Wolff, the Earthman who stumbles into the Tiers. The remaining three make up Volume Two and follow Wolff’s guide from the first book, Kickaha. Mr. K comes close to stealing the show in that book, something that Farmer was no doubt aware of. He rewards the nominal sidekick with a bigger part to play in the later books; this is probably a good call. Kickaha is impetuous and bold, Wolff, while admirable, is a bit square.

As for Farmer’s world building, what starts as typical low fantasy quickly spirals into something much weirder. Farmer’s “Lords,” powerful, godlike, humanoid beings, create their own pocket universes. Wolff tumbles into the Lord Jadawin’s universe, which is arranged in tiers. Books One and Three take place in this universe, Four is on Earth, and numbers Two and Five are in other Lord’s universes. Jadawin’s is the most fun because each tier is a completely different environment. There are Native American levels, High Middle Age levels, classical urban levels, and of course the Lord’s fortress. This allows for varied storytelling and a veritable cast of thousands. The other universes are less ambitious, but still mind blowing. Earth is, well, early 1970s Earth. It is perhaps no surprise that the fourth book was the least interesting. With all the talk of pocket universes, impossibly advanced technology, and occasional beam weapons, Tiers is clearly science fiction. Still, a lot of the action takes place in fantasy-like environments with swords and bows, plus there are those naked axe wielders on the covers, so we’ll just keep this in the Moldy Fantasy category for now. It is quite like McCafferey or Zelazny though, in the way that the story wanders in and out of genre.

There is a danger inherent in these Moldy Fantasy posts of the commentary foundering on the rocks of contextual ignorance. A gaggle of writers were active at the time – Bradbury, Ellison, Lieber, Vance to name a few – that I haven’t read sufficiently to highlight the dialogue occurring between them. I am just familiar enough to see that Farmer is part of the conversation without being able to follow all sides, so there are no doubt all sorts of little asides and influences that are going over my head. There’s really no way to fix this, except to read more moldy fantasy, so we’ll have to leave Farmer relatively unexamined for now.

Taken by themselves however, the Tiers novels hold up. There is a bit of residual sexism, despite what appear to be Farmer’s honest efforts to avoid it, and certain moments of plot convenience that are probably more a function of word count than narrative skill. Some parts of the series work better for me (Jadawin’s realm in its entirety) than others (Earth, long stretches in less interesting universes), but I imagine that individual mileage will vary. The books are far more creative and entertaining than I expected, so credit to the author for taking me by surprise. Farmer is from a different era, which may leave fans of contemporary fantasy cold; pace and style have changed drastically. Still, The World of Tiers is worth seeking out. Come for the naked axe warriors, stay for the crazy pocket universes.

Rating: Sven Goran-Eriksson. Like Kickaha, the dour Swede’s travels have covered the globe and taken him to far and obscure corners, to mixed results.

City of Pearl

City of Pearl
Karen Traviss

I hadn’t heard of City of Pearl until reading an article somewhere, possibly io9, about military science fiction. I am uncertain why this was on there, as it is not really MilSF despite the presence of a few marines. Still, new books are new books, so I gave it a shot. I know nothing of the genesis of this book, but it is a powerful debut, all the more so for its understated tone and grounded narrative. Traviss has a solid journalist’s resume, so it’s not like she is an amateur trying her hand; her background quietly fills the corners of the story and gives it gravity. She also perpetrates a pet peeve of mine, superfluous apostrophe usage in planet or race name, but I will forgive it just this once.

Let’s get the obligatory stuff out of the way first, before moving on to what really interests me. City of Pearl rewards the reader who digs into its complexity. Instead of Good Guys and Bad Guys, there are complicated people with multi-layered relationships and incompatible goals. There are several distinct groups, whether it be entire species, tribes within a species, or alliances across racial lines, each with its own worldview that may or may not conflict with others. There are aliens who are close enough to humans to elicit understanding, but distinct in ways that challenge characters and readers. There are big ideas like Science, Capitalism, and The Environment that tend to work at cross purposes, though conflict need not be inevitable. In other words, if we swap out the distant planet and a couple of alien races, we’re left with something that looks very much like Earth, circa Right Now.

All of this is outlined in direct, economical prose. Traviss allows herself lyrical moments once in a while, but this is primarily a “just the facts, ma’am” style that reflects well on her journalism background. She has also apparently spent enough time as a foreign correspondent, possibly embedded with troops or police, to give the writing its proper weight and verisimilitude. I appreciate verbal virtuosity as much as the next guy, but faithful readers will know that I like my writing no-nonsense and spare.

Now for the fun stuff! City of Pearl, more than any book I’ve read since Pohl and Kornbluth’s Search the Sky (and for very different reasons), has the potential to offend pretty much everyone. To begin with, if there are any Bad Guys to be found, none other than the scientists take the role. At best, they are proxies for the corporations, but at worst they are jealous, enthno-centric, arrogant, and reckless. They chafe under the restrictions placed on them as visitors, have little respect for the military and police forces that nominally head the mission, and even less for the natives. Rare is the science fiction novel that has readers cheering when a non-mad scientist gets what’s coming to him or her, but here we are.

The scientists were a bit of a surprise, but I was most taken aback by some conversations between Aras, the alien protector of the planet Wess’ej, and Shan, the policewoman leading the human expedition there. Aras and his race, the Wess’har, are utilitarianism taken to its logical conclusion. If someone is causing problems, remove the problems at the root, usually by killing that someone. Punishment is swift and automatic. If an entire city is the problem, firebomb the city and liquidate the survivors. “Humans,” says Aras, “Have too many rights and not enough responsibilities.” (Somewhere, Jerry Pournelle is reading this chapter and nodding vigorously.) In the context of the story, it is hard not to agree with him until one remembers what exactly those rights include. I know better than to assume that Traviss agrees with her characters, but the presentation and framing of this idea is certainly enough to trouble lovers of freedom and democracy on any part of the political spectrum.

What will really steam the Baen Books reading portion of SF-dom though, is the Wess’har approach to the environment. They are organic, vegan farmers who build underground rather than disturb the natural landscape. The humans that live on Wess’ej are, by necessity, the same; the antagonists are those that try to dominate and/or eat the environment rather than coexisting with it. Again, readers should avoid conflating story elements with an author’s opinion, but from her comfortable and detailed descriptions of the vegan farming and food preparation process, one can’t help but assume a certain level of familiarity. Of course, people who lambaste Wall-E for its liberal, environmental agenda aren’t going to parse City of Pearl too carefully, so expect this one to end up on Eric Cantor’s Poop List.

So now that most Republicans, the ACLU, and a set of humorless scientists are offended, what are the rest of us to think? One group of readers who will, I think, be happy is SF’s female half. I am hardly the one to judge this sort of thing, but Traviss puts her women front and center, challenges them equally with her men, and gives them the freedom to address the issues at hand in their own ways. I am not generally interested in or sensitive to female problems, but Traviss’ deft portrayal kept me engaged. She dealt with emotions in a much more natural way than many SF authors. (Considering the archetypal SF author, that should surprise nobody.)

Condensing all of the above into a pithy summation, City of Pearl is a complicated, philosophical novel that asks hard questions, doesn’t shy away from the answers, and is more than happy to irk the reader in the process. If its boldness wasn’t matched by quality and creativity, Traviss would just be shrill. It is though, and she isn’t, and City of Pearl is a must read for SF fans with a brain. (That would be most of us.)

Rating: Sam Allardyce. Not that he cares about vegans, organic farming, or complicated alien politics, but Aras would appreciate Big Sam’s brutally pragmatic approach to football.

Topic: Asteroid Mining

Topic: Asteroid Mining

In honor of the new Planetary Resources venture, Two Dudes is happy to present a reading list of asteroid mining related science fiction, all vetted by our demanding Standards Committee after careful examination of the manuscripts in our undisclosed, hermetically sealed, rare book viewing facility.

Greg Benford – Dark Sanctuary
I found this story on Lightspeed‘s webpage, though it appears to have been published originally in Omni. Asteroid mining isn’t the point of the story, but it takes place in the Belt and is infused with the Belter mentality. I read this right before Leviathan Wakes arrived, so they are a bit tangled up in my head.

 C.J. Cherryh – Heavy Time
Also published as part of Devil to the Belt, Heavy Time is typical Cherryh: tense and claustrophobic, with complicated and not always likable characters. It concerns a murder mystery in the asteroids with far reaching political ramifications. This is the first book (chronologically) in the Alliance Union universe.

James S.A. Corey – Leviathan Wakes
Hollywood-esque Solar System based space opera that blew onto the scene in 2011. A sequel is slated for this summer. All of the main characters are denizens of the asteroids in one form or another; the Belt is the backdrop for the action, if not the focus of it.

Larry Niven – Chronologically early Known Space
That’s kind of a broad category, but the pre-Man-Kzin Wars era, seen though books like Protector and a whole pile of short stories, forms a semi-stable basis for most contemporary portrayals of life in the asteroids. Niven coined the term “Belter,” and his conception of the Belt as a vaguely anarchic, high tech frontier is widely appropriated. Per the Incomplete Known Space Concordance, Niven borrowed some of his ideas from even earlier SF, but his has become the de facto standard.

Bruce Sterling – Schismatrix Plus
I had to include this, even though the asteroid civilization is a wee bit different from the others. To be honest, the whole book is a wee bit different from pretty much anything else in existence, but that’s kind of what one has to expect with Sterling involved. Never a dull moment.

Ben Bova – The Precipice
I put this last because I haven’t read it yet, just have a copy at home. It’s Ben Bova though, so I feel fairly confident in assuming that it is a competent, well-crafted novel that fills out his Grand Tour universe well, but is unlikely to rise above “pretty good” in anyone’s estimation. For whatever reason, Bova is the Volvo of science fiction: reliable, sturdy, guaranteed to last, but somehow lacking whatever sparkle it is that makes things really stand out.