The Hostile Takeover Trilogy

The Hostile Takeover Trilogy
S. Andrew Swann

Challenging times ahead, as we attempt to unpack Andrew Swann’s complicated vision. Nonetheless, I hold fast to my belief that I can safely guide the good ship Two Dudes into port, without running aground on the shoals of literary criticism. Actually, I am more challenged by trying to figure out how this thing made its way onto my official Goodreads Want to Read list. Where did I hear about it? I’m guessing that the Coode Street Podcast is responsible, but it could have been someone’s random post about space opera, somewhere in the wilds of the SF community. I really can’t remember. Whoever it was, thank you for turning me on to something I would never have thought to read.

What is so difficult to assess here? Well, my first reaction when picking this up from the library was, “Holy crap, this is 900 pages long?” I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, considering the “trilogy” part of the title, but it was still intimidating. That is a shallow concern though. A look at this Big Idea, on John Scalzi’s blog, explains a bit more about what gives Hostile Takeover its depth. Swann describes the series as “libertarian-noir space opera,” which is probably the best description anyone will ever find. There’s no shortage of these themes out there in singles or pairs, but this is perhaps the first tripartite combination I have found. Swann says that his main goal was to “write about a realistic anarchy,” which is not necessarily an easy thing to do when one is supposedly trying to “entertain” or “become really famous.”

Of course, the L-word there is going to set off some alarms. Rest assured that this is no paean to Ayn Rand. (Longtime readers will probably have a good idea of just how long I would last with that sort of book.) The book’s main stage, the planet Bakunin, is indeed thoroughly libertarian, with nary a government hand to distort economies, repress freedoms, or do whatever it is governments do when they’re not building roads or amassing armies. Swann won’t be winning any Prometheus Awards with Hostile Takeover though; Bakunin is, by his admission, “more like Somalia with venture capital.” (Again, these quotes are all from the Big Idea.) Sure enough, it’s a strange mix of Gibsonesque cities, hippie communes, rapacious corporations, and plenty more weirdness. The practical result of this dedicated world building is a complex sandbox for his characters to play in, one that will make demands of the reader rather than smooth the way to action set pieces with familiar tropes and easily digested, but generic and forgettable nuggets.

Things don’t stop at Bakunin. As various outside forces converge on the planet in a bid to impose order, broader political currents in the multi-stellar Confederation swirl into view. Swann creates the macro and micro here, with the focus alternating between the details of life on Bakunin and the clash of super powered factions that will alter the fates of entire worlds. It’s almost a waste to spend so much time on a single planet, when there are galaxy-wide economic and racial fault lines to explore, questions of proper governance and Machiavellian scheming on a grand scale to answer, and tantalizing hints of historical secrets and looming revolution to speculate upon. There are also money grubbing religious freaks in power armor, which is probably enough to drop the mic right there.

And yet, this is a closeup, personal story. The noir part of the triangle focuses on a few characters, most of them with dark and mysterious pasts. There is fratricide and unrequited love, orbital bombardment and hacking, and everything in between. I half expected some of these people to break into arias at any moment, considering the operatic pathos on display, especially the pair of brothers. Even when the action moves outward into the Confederation, we still see it from a limited set of eyes, though the sets of eyes generally belong to the powerful. Befitting the political nature of the story, many of the non-Bakunin characters are politicians. Those on the planet are more likely to be the sorts of people one would expect to find in an anarchy: hackers, mercenaries, outcasts, and heretics. There is a certain amount of angst, sometimes enough to overpower the narrative, but this is generally balanced by the overall butt kicking quotient that people deal out.

We’ve gone this far without ever really mentioning the story. In good noir fashion, things are thoroughly convoluted. It’s clear from the outset that the initial military action is just an opening gambit, but the wheels within wheels extend far beyond what anyone inside the story expects. By the end, it’s not even clear who the prime operative was, which I suppose keeps things all the more amusing. The plot moves at the behest of the political machinations, rather than as any sort of character-driven narrative, but there are nods to agency and the individual. I don’t know that there is a message of any sort buried inside, since this is more of a world building exercise than a compelling peek at the human condition. Characters are there and fleshed out, but I came away with a greater appreciation for the Confederation and how it works. Some people might be turned off by this, but I think they shouldn’t be. Political science and economics are fun.

So to sum up, this is a very long book, or three medium-sized books, that will probably appeal to SF readers like me. Hostile Takeover is not a breezy read, nor is it particularly optimistic or cheery. There’s lots to think about and lots of detail to enjoy. As far as I can tell, Swann remains under the popular radar, but this is worth searching out for those that want some meat in their book diet.


Greg Benford and Larry Niven

Shipstar’s predecessor, Bowl of Heaven, made a big splash upon its release. The thought of an All-Star collaboration between two of Hard SF’s biggest names, and their stated intention to update the venerable Big Mysterious Object trope had certain demographics salivating. BMO’s are admittedly hoary, but they go with Hard SF like sushi and wasabi-infused soy sauce. Now, with the author who really put BMO’s on the map with Ringworld and a highly respected, multi-award winning writer working together on a Big Smart Object, what could possibly go wrong?

Unfortunately, enthusiasm has cooled a bit after the first book. Like a reunion album from some famous 1970s band, many people checked it out, decided that things felt too dated, got nostalgic for the originals, and set Bowl aside. I’m sure there are plenty of readers out there who loved it, but most of the people I talked to were lukewarm. Indeed, the review here was far more positive than most I read. I will be the first to admit Bowl’s flaws, problems that plague most Hard SF no matter the era. The characters were rather flat and the plot was decent, with both relying heavily on the Bowl to carry things off into the sunset. The authors are clearly from another time, lacking the cutting edge verve makes certain recent books so fascinating. Niven in particular has been accused of coasting on past glories, charges that Bowl did little to discourage.

Now, with expectations dampened and people buzzing more about other 2014 releases, Shipstar sails into port. All I can say to those who vowed not to go on is: forget your promises and get this book. Bowl could be a bit of a stage-setting slog, with the trapped humans to explain, the Bowl to introduce, the Folk to show, the conflicts to set up, the information to dump, etc. etc. etc. With Shipstar, the table is set and all that is left to do is bring out the roast beast, light the dessert on fire, and pull the tablecloth out from under the crystal at the end. (This is actually a fairly accurate description of what happens. Trust me.) We still get a few inexplicable moments of leaders musing on leadership and awkward human interactions, but they are overshadowed by the rest. (Greg, what happened? You used to HATE middle management types, now you’re writing effective motivational techniques into your fiction.)

This is still archetypal Hard SF. The humans are moderately engaging, but they mostly serve as an excuse for Science and Aliens. And what aliens they are! One would expect this from Niven, but non-humans steal the show. The Folk are fascinating, and have a pretty mind-boggling history that would be a total spoiler to reveal, so I won’t say anything. The Sil are doughty, the Finger Snakes are hilarious, and the authors pull a few more tricks out that will floor a certain type of reader. They’ve really dug deep into exobiology for this one, with stuff that will surprise even the most grizzled SF veterans. In contrast, Bowl focuses mainly on the Folk, with only hints of what is to come.

The Science bit keeps pace. We all know that the meat of the series will cover the Bowl, its functional basics, its destination and history, and probably a twist or two that will pull the rug out. This it does, in ways I can’t go into here. The Bowl is mind-blowing, but we all knew that before. It has to be, or nobody would write these books. The challenge is to blow minds in original and unexpected ways, and the authors pull this off with aplomb. Again, this is to be expected. Niven knows he has to outdo the Ringworld here, so he goes all in. Benford isn’t about to go down in history as a guy who can’t deliver the science fictional equivalent of meat and potatoes, so he is at his peak. Together, they check all the boxes for BMO’s, but never predictably or conventionally.

Finally, I should say a word or two about Ye Olde Sense of Wonder. The authors know what is required of this sort of book. They know we’re here to be wowed, and they come through. Not just with the Bowl though, they pull that trick we see in all the best SF, one that defines SF as a genre apart from other fiction. Benford and Niven wrote a book that keeps unfolding new secrets that continually expand the horizons of the story and its universe. This is something I see more in SF than anywhere else, the way that one revelation doesn’t just propel the plot, but opens new existential and physical possibilities. A fact is unveiled that changes not just our perception of a character or situation, but the way the universe is put together. Shipstar has these moments every 50 pages or so. New information comes to light, and suddenly everything means something different. It is 400 pages of, “Wow, that thing there is really cool. Wait, if A does this, that means that B is possible, which in turn makes C suddenly important, and hang on, what do you mean there are dinosaurs?”

If it’s not clear yet, I will summarize in fewer words. Everything in this book except the humans gets wilder and crazier on a straight line projection; I enjoyed every minute. Yes, it’s a throwback. With the exception of a nod here and there to climate change and environmentalism, this is 1970s, Big Idea science fiction, where massive engineering works cruise the galaxy and plucky humans figure things out. It is the epitome of meat and potatoes SF, but made with grass fed, gourmet meat and locally grown, organic Yukon gold spuds. It may not redefine the genre, but it is probably the peak of a particular, fundamental subsection of SF. Recommended for everyone that likes gargantuan, mysterious artifacts. (Yes, even for those who didn’t like Bowl of Heaven.)

The Pilgrims

The Pilgrims
Will Elliot

I should confess that, while I’m not much of an art person, the cover for The Pilgrims totally sold me on the book. When Tor sent an email offering review copies of a few books, I was skeptical of picking up another fantasy. (I’m trying to keep a more manageable TBR pile for the F end of SFF.) Then I saw the cover, with a stunning white castle towering over the landscape, and knew I’d have to read this one just to see if the book lived up to the artwork.

To be honest, I normally wouldn’t write a post about The Pilgrims until I was further into the series. By itself, the book doesn’t lend itself to any sort of assessment. The first book in a new series usually concerns itself mainly with world building and character introduction, but authors generally try to create and wrap up some sort of narrative arc, even if the point of the initial story is to lead into the bigger, series-spanning plot. The Pilgrims doesn’t act like the first book of a series, more like the first part of the first book of a series. It ends without any resolution whatsoever. I can’t even call it a cliffhanger, more of just an abrupt stop. Needless to say, this is not conducive to pithy and incisive commentary. I did, however, request this review copy with a promise to write about it, so write I will! (Great sighs of relief echo throughout Tor headquarters at this announcement.)

Let’s start with things I enjoyed about the book. Elliot’s world building starts off conventional, but rapidly goes in unexpected directions. Yes, there are the usual evil wizards to slay, naughty emperors, lithe maidens with bows, and mercenaries with tormented pasts, but they are operating in a world that hints of greater depth. The secret history with dragons is neat if not wholly original, the political relationships between various cities show promise, and certain stranger aspects of the world may blossom into something truly unique in later volumes. I have high hopes. I am also intrigued by Elliot’s magic system. No more flowing, white beards and pointy hats, these mages have curly horns and chew on dirt and shrubs to reduce the heat buildup caused by excessive magic use. (I guess they haven’t learned about heat sinks or fins to increase radiating surface area.) Fun stuff. Nothing like a shaggy, ram-headed beast trailing smoke as he flies across the sky.

For things I’m less crazy about, the bit about people from our world dropping into fantasy land tops the list. That’s not a plot device I get excited about anymore, since it was beaten to death back in the 80s. The characters, to their credit, are self-aware enough to see what’s going on; one is convinced he’s going to save the day, even though absolutely nothing about him makes me think that he can. I would like to see an author drop people from our world into a kingdom in crisis, then have them fail, or just be irrelevant. Much more entertaining than the usual. Elliot is just vague enough about things to keep me guessing though, so there is hope for an amusing twist later in the series.

Beyond that, the only serious knock on the book is the way it finishes. The plot arcs in one direction for most of the book, then lurches suddenly in a new one about 40 pages from the end, then everything just sort of stops. I am baffled what might happen next. This is nothing that ruins the book for me, but I might caution people to hold off reading until the second volume is out. I expect that it will make more sense then, but would have preferred a smoother transition.

In spite of our boring heroes and the confusing final act, I will be reading the next book as soon as it is available. It’s possible that things could backslide into mediocrity, but I think Elliot is going to come through with exciting stuff. He’d better, since he has this brilliant cover image to live up to.

Toshokan Senso (Library Wars)

Toshokan Senso (Library Wars)
Arikawa Hiro

Before all else, I should note that this is a DNF for me. (Did Not Finish) My wife, on the other hand, not only finished, but promptly put the sequel on hold at the library. For some, this is probably all you need to know. For the rest, I will explain. I will refrain from going into too much detail for two reasons. First, this is exactly the sort of book that Haikasoru would translate and publish, since it would no doubt subsidize a couple of more obscure productions. Second, I imagine that certain spin-offs are out in the wild with, at the very least, fan subs available. There may be commercial translations as well; I haven’t looked. Regardless, for those who are interested, I’m pretty sure there’s some English out there.

Some background: Arikawa Hiro is a primarily a writer of mysteries, light romance, and other books allegedly aimed for the female market, or so says the Japanese Wikipedia. As far as I can tell, Toshokan Senso is her first foray into science fiction, though it appears to have comprised a great deal of her recent output. The first volume of Toshokan Senso was published in early 2006; by 2008, the four-volume series won itself a Seiun Award. Manga adaptations followed, then an anime series and live action movie. For whatever reason, Arikawa managed to create a major franchise that attracts both SF types and the shojo manga demographic. (Shojo manga are the romance comics aimed at adolescent girls.) Whatever else I thought about the book, I have to give Japan credit for not pigeonholing its genre authors.

In Arikawa’s Japan, conservative government types have promulgated the Media Improvement Laws, granting broad and arbitrary censorship powers to the Media Improvement Committee. These laws passed with a minimum of public fuss, both because they were cloaked in the usual “protect the childrens” rhetoric and because the Japanese public rarely makes a fuss about anything. Sharp-eyed activists saw the way the wind was blowing and responded with a series of measures granting the library system extraordinary responsibilities to protect free speech. Within a few years, conflict between the two got out of hand and both sides militarized. The heroes of the series are members of library special forces teams, equally adept at blowing crap up and using the Dewey Decimal System.

This is more strangely plausible than one might think. In fact, Japan-based readers probably have little trouble imaging something this bizarre going down with the current Prime Minister running the show. (In fact, we should probably just silence the author now, before the ruling party gets any more good ideas.) Weird as it may seem, the plot setup had nothing to do with me putting the book down. To be honest, I am sorely tempted to put the anime on in the background, just to see what Arikawa does with it all.

So why did I stop? Three reasons. First, and smallest, is the writing quality. My Japanese isn’t good enough to notice the subtleties, but I can tell some differences in prose. Toshokan Senso was a weird mash up of high school girl and legalese, neither of which felt natural to me. (My wife had similar complaints.) I have little patience for teen speak in English, and even less in Japanese. Second, and considerably bigger, is the lengthy training sequence that starts the book. I don’t know how this happened, but kids going to school has quietly moved into #3 on my list of hated tropes. (Long time readers will know that time travel and psionics occupy the top spots.) For whatever reason, possibly related to grad school burnout, I really don’t want to read about adolescents going to school. This is rather irrational and eliminates various popular novels, but I make no apologies. 100 pages of education is about 80 too many.

Third, largest, and perhaps least forgivable in this enlightened age, Toshokan Senso failed to hold my interest because it is a romance. Rather than science fiction with romantic trappings, it’s an unabashed shojo manga that just happens to be vaguely science fictional. This is why my wife ate it up, despite some obvious flaws, and my interest died like a fly ball on the warning track of literature. She has little use for SF, and I couldn’t care less about love. Certain of my friends are fans of both and will probably love the series, but I just couldn’t hack it.

To be totally fair to the book, I probably would have finished it in English. I’m curious enough about big titles in Japan, and intrigued enough by the library army that part of me wants to power through the annoyances and finish the book. In Japanese though, it’s just a bit too much. My reading time has been cut in half since winter and I don’t have time for books that are merely intriguing, all the more so when they take three times as long as English novels. Still, I wanted to highlight this, both because of Arikawa’s popularity and because it’s something non-Japanese speakers can probably dabble in.

Inversions Part Two

Inversions Part Two

Iain M. Banks

Well, I was going to switch gears from Part One and write a conventional review of this particular Culture episode, but then Kamo went hog wild in this insightful post. Now I feel peer pressure to respond. Those jumping into the conversation here would enjoy things more if they, at the very least, read Kamo’s musings. My comments will be both a reaction to them and a continuation of my previous writing. (Spoilers galore though, so maybe best to skip this if one hasn’t read Inversions and plans to soon.)

Of greatest interest to me are the pairs of parallel stories. One set comprises DeWar and Vosill as they attempt to nudge their respective host societies toward The Future. (Or not, in some cases.) The other set traces a pair of Culture denizens as they argue over ethics, then looks at what sort of agents they become for the Culture. (To clarify, I also think that DeWar has gone rogue, but I’m pretty sure he was SC at some point. It’s an open question if he followed Vosill here on his own or they were assigned together. I don’t have a feeling either way and am curious what others think.) I suppose it goes without saying that there are various “inversions” as we muddle along.

In his storytelling, DeWar never says which of the younger pair favors the more cynical, aggressive world view, but I think most would agree that it is DeWar himself. This means that Vosill is the idealist, the one who wants to avoid doing harm for any reason at all, and who carries the banner for naïve hope. Odd then, that many years on, DeWar sits primarily in paralyzed inaction while Vosill carries out a one-woman crusade against cruelty, inequality, and feudalism by, among other things, lying, cheating, and assassinating. It sounds as though DeWar has left a pile of corpses in his wake, but in the text at least, Vosill is by far the more deadly.

She is also far more active, directly challenging the hidebound, lobbying blatantly for progressive causes, and removing the obstacles to a better world by force when necessary. DeWar on the other hand, our erstwhile “gotta break a few eggs” type, seems content to moon about, valiantly protecting a dictator who grows less and less likeable, and pining for a concubine. One could be charitable and suggest that DeWar has hooked his horse to the wrong chariot and is doing what he can by influencing the young prince, but I think that gives him too much credit. From the looks of things, there are plenty of other monarchs out there that need guarding, and plenty of young princes to tell parables to. His inaction is puzzling, especially as I don’t see his relationship with Perrund (the aforementioned concubine) as being fervent enough to keep him around. (At least, not at the beginning of things.)

What messages are we to take from all of this? Is it kosher to wax an occasional noble, if he is sufficiently icky? Is there honor in Duty, no matter the wider context? Should we draw the line before or after raining fire from the skies on backwards societies? I have no idea how to answer these. Banks makes some uncomfortable suggestions in Inversions, indeed any of his books, that force an engaged reader to confront difficult questions.

These are my reactions for now. It’s possible that I will read other posts and be inspired to write more, but for now I may have interrogated things enough. What I really need is another soccer metaphor, but all I can think of right now is coaches from more developed soccer traditions parachuting in to help lesser nations achieve World Cup dreams. If it were Coach Vosill, I wonder if there would be a mysterious trail of dead football officials and aging players in her wake.