Building Harlequin’s Moon

Building Harlequin’s Moon
Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper

I would not normally have read this book. Much as I love Larry Niven, I am skeptical of his later books, especially those co-written with authors I have never heard of. Knowing nothing of Building Harlequin’s Moon, I heard Brenda Cooper on a recent Skiffy and Fanty podcast saying very interesting and intelligent things. Part way through she mentioned collaborating with Larry Niven, and, since I have been seeking out female authors anyway, decided that I should look into this further. Cooper’s comments on a number of issues were enough to overcome any suspicions.

I don’t have any proof of this, but I suspect that Cooper did most of the grunt work and Niven was the idea man. I’m pretty sure that Niven wrote the prologue, wherein the planetary engineer Gabriel builds and hibernates his way through 60,000 years of comet and moon smashing to create a semi-livable habitat orbiting a super-massive gas giant called Harlequin. Big time Hard SF ideas here, and very fun. The rest of the book is more of a character-based societal study, as Gabriel and his fellow starship crew members try to figure out how to handle the indentured colony they put on Harlequin’s moon Selene, while the Moonborn stumble towards some sort of independence under the reluctance of a biologist named Rachel. The initial combination of teen protagonists and political narrative struck me as Cooper’s contribution, since it didn’t feel like most Niven I have read. The big picture and the science did, but not the people.

Oddly, the very first lesson I learned from Harlequin is that I should probably never read a YA novel again. No doubt there are many good ones out there and I am doing myself a disservice, but teens irritate me. (I’m sure this has nothing to do with my tween daughter, my forced re-introduction to pop music and/or teen culture through her, or the face melting crap she watches on TV. Nothing at all.) The initial chapters of Harlequin pack in enough angst, awkward romance, and adolescent scheming that I almost gave up there. Fortunately for all involved, I didn’t, but I think this colored my view of the rest of the novel, which does move into more grownup territory after the first big twist. Again, nothing wrong with YA stuff, just not something I can tolerate at this point in my life.

The rest of the book left me with mixed feelings. On one hand, Selene is a fascinating place that I would gladly read more about. Niven is no stranger to mind blowing feats of engineering and Selene will stand proudly next to anything in Known Space or the Co-Dominion. On the other hand, the whole political situation felt simplistic to me, with the Earthborn attitudes towards the Moonborn only partially grounded in fictional reality. Cooper (I assume) gives just enough of a backstory to make things plausible, but enough to be entirely convincing. While I am well aware that people acting like dirtbags requires little or no motivation, there are a few missing stations on the railroad from fleeing Earth to enslaving ones progeny. But on the gripping hand, when everything reached a lengthy and satisfying climax, I felt attached to the protagonists and empathized with them far more than I expected to. I don’t think this was purely emotional manipulation.

I have purposely avoided reading other reviews at time of writing, since I want to puzzle this one out on my own. I’m curious what people have to say about Harelquin though. It’s an uneasy mix of Niven’s brand of Hard SF, YA emotions, and the colonialism and equality topics bubbling so freely through the genre right now. Chapters swing from Ringworld-esque engineering escapades to scenes of struggle that one might find in Stephanie Saulter’s searing Gemsigns. The characters argue about planetary biology or AI consciousness, then wing off into … whatever kids these days are reading. Longing somethingerother, angst mumble mumble, feelings. Pep the stone hearted, recovering political scientist didn’t always know how to handle this. (Spoiler alert: the big ideas were the best part.) I’m almost certain that I can find reviews that say exactly the opposite: “Loved the characters and romance, didn’t get the science-y bits,” or “Such an inspiring tale of freedom, but could do without the weepy stuff.” I suppose the Sad Puppies would get sick of all the prominent women and the equality hand wringing, but salute Niven’s good old fashioned setting. This even as they grumble about the lack of competent white men saving the day.

Actually, I think the biggest hints that Cooper did a lot of the character work are the frequent scenes of Gabriel mansplaining things and getting tied in knots by the women.

To the book’s credit, it took enough twisty, scenic paths on its way to the inevitable conclusion that I was never sure where things would end up. Cooper and Niven wrap up the story in pretty much the only way they could have, but they still kept me off balance. As with almost everything else, the positives outweigh the negatives in the end, even if I needed some extra convincing. While admitting that my criteria can be obscure, I’m not going to give Harlequin my highest praise. It was a little too naïve for my taste, though the characters and authors managed to dodge the worst pitfalls – this could have been much worse. As I said earlier though, I was locked in for the last hundred pages and feel a surprising connection to Rachel, Gabriel, and a few others. That will push things over the last hurdle to “recommended” status.

Bonus points to everyone out there who catches the obscure Niven reference in this review.

Rating: Southampton. Flawed but charming, this mid-table club wins over neutrals with infectious enthusiasm, even if they won’t ever bring home the championship. And you thought I’d given up on footie nods.

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Starborne

Starborne
Robert Silverberg

Short post this week due to craziness in The Attic. Also sun, which in these parts is cause for celebration. It’s like Venus in that one depressing Bradbury story kids always have to read, but we don’t lock anyone in closets here when the rain stops. Fortunately, Starborne is the perfect subject for a short essay, since it is a minor work and doesn’t really inspire lengthy rambling.

My ebook copy of Starborne was the free book of the month some time ago in Phoenix Picks, after which it languished on my Kindle until the last Japan trip forced me to read some of the backlog. It is also my first Silverberg, which, considering his stature in the field, is rather unfortunate. Something more impressive might have been nice. I have other books lying around, but never got to them; so it goes. Starborne is a contemplative book, low on drama and action, though fun in its own way.

The pace of the book syncs to the Japanese game of go, the favorite pastime on a ship full of people sent out from Earth to find a new planet to colonize. They maintain contact with Earth through a telepathic connection between two blind twins, one each on the ship and on Earth. What tension there is in the book comes when this connection attenuates, with nary an explosion or laser gun to be found. There are bits of planetary exploration, but those aren’t really the point of the book. Instead it’s more of a meditation on humanity and how we might push ourselves to a higher state.

Just as entertaining as the book are the reviews on Goodreads, most from disgruntled Hard SF fans complaining about one or another bit of flawed science and grumping at the total lack of engineering feats. There are also disapproving mentions of the free-love, lounge around in bathhouses ethos that pervades the ship that are good for a chuckle. I’m guessing that the space battle and/or alien invasion types didn’t make it past the first chapter. I wouldn’t recommend this to them anyway; it’s only for those seeking a more relaxing and philosophical read. Philosophical might be a strong word – it’s not hugely deep or profound, but I would put it a step above navel gazing.

A final observation before I send this out in the series of tubes that comprises the internet. I read this and Van Vogt’s Voyage of the Space Beagle within a month or two of each other; they are now hopelessly tangled up in my head. Not that they have anything in common beyond a voyaging spaceship, but my memories swing wildly between pulp action and restrained character emoting, wacky pseudoscience and metaphysical murmuring. Both authors would probably be appalled to hear this, but what can I do?

Sky Coyote

Sky Coyote
Kage Baker

I have two primary goals for this year’s reading: First, to finish more series than I start. Second, to maintain a diverse, well-balanced selection of authors. I realized about one third of the way through 2015 that I was failing on the second. Knowing that it was time to dilute the pale sausage fest a bit, I set about looking for a book in series, written by a woman. A lower severed head count was also on the wish list. Who should come to mind but Kage Baker, a name that appears on both the 2013 and 2014 favorite reads lists. I started her Company series last year, so Sky Coyote counts towards my first goal as well as diversifying my reading.

For those not familiar with Baker’s Company, here’s an executive summary. The whole series is about time travel and the Dr. Zeus company that discovered it. (Ha – get it? The Company!) Baker keeps her time travel under tight restriction, increasing palatability for me but not totally avoiding paradox and confusion. She is such a fun writer though that I will read anything she puts out, even topics I am normally leery of. Anyway, Dr. Zeus can send people back in time, but not into the future. They have also discovered immortality mechanisms, but those can only be put into the very young. Thus, they have sent people back in time, pulled out children that were about to die horribly, made them immortal, tested them for aptitude, and created an undying cadre to work their way to the year 2355, when apparently we all reach nirvana or something. Baker’s books follow various of the characters through history.

Sky Coyote is the second Company book. Our guide this time is the Facilitator, Joseph. Facilitators are Baker’s answer to Iain M. Banks’ Special Circumstances; to wit, the men and women who do the dirty work as Dr. Zeus tries to navigate its way through human history. We meet Joseph in the first Company book, but he is a supporting character to the biologist Mendoza. This time, Mendoza plays second fiddle. This is probably a wise choice, as Joseph is wise, weary, and witty, while Mendoza is mostly just angry. Joseph’s purpose is twofold: he narrates the actual story at hand and introduces the overarching plot that will presumably carry through later books. Baker’s dual approach here is not entirely effective, as reader satisfaction will depend more on the context they approach the book than is usually the case.

Sky Coyote is a surprisingly placid book. Joseph’s mission to a group of Native Americans involves little drama, the wider plot arc is outlined but not dug into, and nobody gets too excited about anything. Mostly. This appears to have irked some readers, but hit close to the target for me. I was ready for a smoother ride, though I can understand wanting a bit more out of Baker. This is very much a middle book whose purpose is less to tell a story than to build the foundation for everything to come. As Lady Holiday says in The Great Muppet Caper, “Oh, it’s plot exposition. It has to go somewhere.”

One other part of the book has generated negative reactions: the Native Americans in question. They talk a lot like modern day capitalists, which throws some people out of the narrative. This particular tribe (fictional I imagine) is targeted by the Company for exactly this reason; they have a surprisingly advanced economy for the era. Still, I was also surprised a bit by their behavior. While I think it is reasonable to question this without expecting some sort of “How, white man” trope, I have also stopped expecting everything pre-Adam Smith to be primitive. The world has seen a great many accelerated ideas in societies that we would least expect, so I don’t think it’s wholly implausible for a group of Native Americans to develop complex trade routes, credit systems, and price management schemes. It did take a few pages for the shock of the hedge fund manager dialogue to wear off, but I wasn’t bothered after that.

So the book kind of comes and goes, without an emotional wallop or extended incidences of pulse pounding. I naturally assumed that I would be a debonair Facilitator were Dr. Zeus to get ahold of me, though instead of using my jaded optimism to navigate the wilds of history, I would probably just be an extra nerdy musicologist. If so, I would fit in well with the rest of the story. I will probably double check the potential reader’s expectations before recommending Sky Coyote, and I expect that my reactions will change as I read further in the series, but for those who don’t need action on every page, this is a pleasant entry in Baker’s signature series.