Throwdown! Two Lady Writers

Trading in Danger
Elizabeth Moon
Primary Inversion
Catherine Asaro

As part of my belated effort to support gender equality in genre fiction, I’ve started seeking out books by female authors that I already knew about, but haven’t yet read. There might end up being enough here to fulfill the Worlds Without End challenge, twelve new female authors during 2013, but I didn’t want to tie myself down to the “new authors” bit. Today’s duo also brings back a post idea I wanted to do more of, but never had the chance: Throwdown! (In fact, this is the first Throwdown! column in 18 months, and just the second I have written.) Our duelists are the first volumes in career-defining series written by women: Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War books and Catherine Asaro’s Skolian Empire Saga. The books have little in common thematically, but have enough outside similarities to make for an intriguing Throwdown!

The largest in-story similarities are of course the female main characters and their military backgrounds. Kylara Vatta is on her way out of the military when we meet her, while Soz Valdoria is a high-ranking veteran. Both fit the Honor Harrington archetype of competent, brave officers with a surfeit of integrity, but a penchant for either taking initiative or going rogue, depending on who is reporting. Both have built their identities around their chosen career as navy space pilots; these identities drive large portions of the plot in each book. The identities in question, of course, are influenced heavily by gender roles, as both stories rely primarily on conflict driven by the fact that the women are, well, women. Society hundreds of years from now may have solved some of our current equality issues, but there are questions that will probably never go away.

The initial divergence comes from real world circumstances surrounding each novel. By the time she published Trading in Danger, Moon had several books to her name. I have nothing here but my own speculation, but Vatta’s War feels like a series that was contracted all at once, with author and/or publisher hoping for something along the lines of Miles Vorkosigan or Honor Harrington. I suspect that Moon knew that other books would follow, so Trading has the luxury of basically just setting everything up. There is a noted lack of urgency throughout, though this is not necessarily a bad thing. Primary Inversion, on the other hand, is Asaro’s first novel. It feels it, too. Inversion is jam packed with detail, world building, characters, action, and science, as though Asaro worried that she’d never get a second chance to say everything in her head. Again, this is not necessarily bad, just different. Despite both being openers for a long series, Moon writes at a relaxed, nearly complacent pace; Asaro is almost frantic in the push to get everything out in the wild.

Things inside the story are different too. While both of the protagonists face challenges related directly to gender, their respective ages and positions are distinct. Kylara is trying to escape the benevolent dictatorship of loving and sheltering parents. Her first recourse was the military, but, losing that option, spends the book attempting to prove her worth as a merchant captain. Soz, on the other hand, is a bit further on in life. She is focused more on problems of family and succession, while the question of marriage rears its ugly head early in the book. For reasons too complicated to go into now, Soz eventually requires a partner, but it must be the right person. Despite being one of the best of an already elite fighting group, we actually end up learning more about her desire for work-life balance than we do her skill at blowing things up. Kylara needs her success to avoid forever being the coddled baby daughter. Soz needs a man, and eventually children, but also needs to be a butt kicking senior officer.

In the end, the core of the differences between the books is found in the genre conventions they elect to follow. Oddly enough, these tend to run in the opposite directions than one might expect. Despite Kylara’s unfortunate expulsion from the navy and the book’s subsequent jaunt through interstellar commerce, Trading is essentially Military SF. Kylara faces and overcomes her challenges with discipline, honor, and grace under fire. There are hints that she is not cut out for business and may one day end up in a mercenary company. Her leadership abilities are highlighted repeatedly. There is very little separating Trading from typical Baen Books fare except some missing right wing boilerplate. (Del Rey published this one, something that surprised me when I checked last night.)

Asaro takes the opposite path. Soz is in the military, Soz stays in the military, most of Soz’s conflicts are rooted in her identity as a high ranking member of the military, but Asaro is writing about interstellar empires, war raging across the galaxy, the destruction of whole planets, emperors and heirs, and love of the most rare and pure form. This is nothing but space opera, and, like Texas, everything is bigger in space opera. The exaggerated size includes feelings, of which there are a metric crap ton. Emotions everywhere, leaking out of the book and sloshing onto the floor. Love of every variety: unrequited, tragic, passionate, lusty, and pure. There are also infodumps of epic proportions, many about math that I will never understand. This is a unique book, coming from a unique person. Asaro’s background as a physics and math PhD gives her Hard SF street cred, while her push for romance and family drama turns this into a bodice-ripper. I’m not sure how I feel about it all, because I am a cold-hearted and emotionless man, but the space battles were pretty cool.

What is my critical reaction to these? Well, I will probably read at least a few more in each series. I am more likely to finish the Vatta books, since MilSF is my go to guilty pleasure. I’m curious where the Skolian books lead, but commentary implies that things drift even further into soap opera territory as the story progresses. If this is the case, I probably won’t finish it, just because I have enough of love and family in real life. Inversion was the more intense, harder to put down of the two, feelings or no, just because of the obvious care Asaro has invested in it. Trading was fun, but shallower. It sounds as though the stakes are higher in later books, so it may gain a bit more gravitas as we go. Both end with qualified recommendations, especially since I am probably one of the least sympathetic readers out there for these sorts of things, though it wouldn’t hurt for prospective readers to know what they’re in for.