Karen Memory

Karen Memory
Elizabeth Bear

I have a complicated relationship with Westerns. Raised in the wilds of Eastern Idaho, I grew up with a white-hot loathing for country music, giant belt buckles, and manhood-enhancing pickup trucks. (It wasn’t easy being a jazz musician, soccer player, and Democrat.) Westerns, while not offensive like the above, were still a little too close to the culture I was trying desperately to flee. In Japan however, a certain nostalgia for sagebrush, red rocks, and distant horizons herded me gently in the direction of movies filmed near my homeland and I found myself taking DVDs of Silverado, Unforgiven, or other such cowboy tales home from the video store. I’ve drifted from Westerns again, now that I’m back on the continent and have little time to spare for non-SFF genres, though I did enjoy Armless Maidens of the American West.

As such, I hadn’t really planned to read Elizabeth Bear’s newest novel. She’s on my list of must read authors, since until this point I had only started and abandoned Hammered. (I had it as a MS Reader lit file several laptops back; I think that was the one that still ran Japanese Win 98. Needless to say, the file is long gone.) Still, the plan was to start elsewhere, not on a steampunk Western. Then I heard Bear talk on a podcast, probably Skiffy and Fanty, and she immediately hooked me. Most of the conversation surrounded the political aspects of Karen Memory, about which more later. The clinching factors were a bit less idealistic though: Karen Memory basically takes place in Seattle, and there is a licensed mad scientist guild.

The latter doesn’t play much of a part in the story unfortunately, but its mere existence is enough for me. The former is front and center though, to my great enjoyment. Bear says in the acknowledgments that Rapid City is based on multiple NW locales, but in all the important ways it is Seattle. This makes me inordinately happy, especially as it focuses on Rapid City’s identity on the frontier (staging post for Alaska), the development of what is now the Underground in Pioneer Square, and the complicated racial mix that has always been a part of the area. Pike’s Place Market even makes an appearance or two, though I suppose Bear maintains plausible deniability with that. And even though the author lives on the East Coast, the book felt like a native had written it. I suppose it’s a shallow reason to enjoy a novel, but enjoy it I did. Sue me.

Bear has bigger fish to fry than hippie cities and mad scientists. Her stated aim with the book is to offer a correction to the whitewashed history of the era by opening a window into a more diverse, multicultural Wild West than one sees in John Ford movies. Our viewpoint character, Karen, is a, ahem, seamstress, working in one of the finer houses of, er, seamstressry in Rapid City. She even occasionally sews. The seamstress with a heart of gold is a worn Western trope, but Karen gives us a salty, confident, female perspective. Further, within the first twenty pages, we meet a few blacks, someone from China, Indians of both Native American and South Asian stock, some lesbians, a transgender character, and the johns that love them. (Or some of them – not everyone is a seamstress.) In other words, this book is a Sad Puppy nightmare. Even worse for them, this is a far more accurate picture of the day than we might be used to.

On the literary end, Bear writes an unabashed dimestore pulp. Lots of derring-do, dastardly villains, brave heroes, shocking twists, cliffhangers, and mad capers. She is both subverting and celebrating the genre, taking the best traits of what were often admittedly crappy novels, and replacing the junk with her own invention. The result might best be compared to a Japadog: gourmet hot dogs from Vancouver topped with a variety of Japanese sides. (Super delicious – everyone should try kimchi seaweed dogs at least once.) Karen Memory is hugely entertaining, funny, and thought-provoking. There are literary gags and historical references, frontier politics, power armor, airships, and the lawman Bass Reeves. (Yes, power armor. Just roll with it.)

I will say that Karen is upfront with her opinions, and a certain demographic may disagree with her politics. One might even accuse Bear of activism, which is reasonable, but in a first-person story told from Karen’s perspective, is it so unexpected to see her engaging in proro-feminist debates? Of course for me, arguments about racism and misogyny are perfectly acceptable territory. Times being what they are however, we seem to be fighting a rear-guard action against some awfully prehistoric attitudes, so I find it impossible to overestimate the stupidity of some dark genre alleys. We have yet to find the floor in this discussion. Fortunately for the Glitter and Pan-Asian Cuisine Gang, our books are much wittier than the alternative.

(If that last sentence makes no sense, please read here and here. I hate to tie everything back to this debate, but Bear’s book is yet another attack on Valiant Brad’s position. There’s really no way to ignore that aspect of the novel.)

So yes, if the gentle reader has not yet picked up Karen Memory, I strongly urge him or her to remedy that as quickly as possible. It’s massive fun. Even those turned off by Westerns or steampunk will have a good time with this, since Karen and her crew shine so brightly. There are a few who will be turned off my Karen’s unrepentant progressive views, but, realistically, nobody who thinks like that is going to hang around this blog for very long. The rest of you are almost certain to have a riot.

The Time Roads

The Time Roads
Beth Bernobich

I have read, quite inadvertently, a number of polarizing novels lately. Some of them are with aforethought (hello, Joe Abercrombie), but most have seemed innocuous going in. Tor sent me an invitation to download an ARC of The Time Roads a couple of months ago. I don’t normally go for either time travel or steampunk, but the blurb hintedat just enough science fictional nuggets to make it worth checking out. I downloaded accordingly. Then I read a review over at Fantasy Review Barn that made it sound amazing. Then I read some other reviews that made it sound horrible. There’s quite a split in opinions with this one. Not a range, mind you, but a split. I have seen almost no lukewarm reactions.

I suppose in hindsight, this shouldn’t have surprised me. Looking down the list of Stuff Two Dudes Likes, The Time Roads ticks most of the boxes. Science front and center? Check. Needlessly convoluted politics? Check. Challenging narrative structure? Check. Everything just a bit more complex than was probably necessary? Check. There is definitely a certain section of the community that isn’t going to go for this, not when half-insane characters are roaming about and muttering about prime numbers, or the whole point of the book is to maintain the delicate balance of power that, in our continuum, crumbled into World War I. For me? Hypnotic.

Part of the fun is Bernobich’s alternate history. The narrative centers on the kingdom of Eire, which apparently overthrew British rule some time in the past and claimed its place as one of the great world powers. (Anglia was then reduced to the level of rabble rousing possession, one which maintains a steady if muted presence throughout the book.) This is the one of the two biggest divergences that we see, the other of course being time travel. The “time roads” are presented in typical steampunk fashion, with lots of brass knobs, smoke, and men in (I assume) top hats peering through monocles and uttering things like “I say,” or “Zounds!” (It’s a bit more serious than this, with serious repercussions, but we can still have fun with it.) The story itself is told in four interlocking novellas, as the reader watches the science of time travel slowly develop in tandem with Eire’s maneuvering to maintain its position in Age of Empires Europe.

I will confess that I got more out of the politics than the time travel. The latter is, mercifully, strictly science-based and mostly devoid of Marty McFly almost seducing his mom type situations. The former is a brilliant evocation of the age, a period that seems to get glossed over in most history studies. I never really learned much about the Age of Empire in class; we always kind of skipped straight from the American Civil War to WWI, with possibly a mention of railroads or Rutherford B. Hayes along the way. It wasn’t until I got deep into International Relations as a grad student that I really learned about the world of the late 1800s. IR types love the era, since it is the cleanest testing ground for their theories: several countries of more or less equal composition, culture, and strength vying in a closed, zero sum system for superiority. Bernobich doesn’t get too deeply into this sort of thing, but I suspect that she is at least a closet dabbler in IR. Her outlines of the global political situation are dead on, particularly as an Irish (Eire-ish?) protagonist is mucking around in Bosnia trying to prevent an assassination of a certain Eastern European Archduke that we might remember from high school history class.

Mileage, as they say, will vary. I tore through The Time Roads in the first few hours of a trans-Pacific plane ride without pause. It handles the whole time travel thing in a way that is both as confusing as time travel would have to be, but as graceful as possible. I am easily irked by the paradoxes and impossibilities inherent in time travel plots, but Bernobich managed to dodge them. It might be too convoluted for some, but I enjoy books that don’t just assume my intelligence, but actively challenge it. Recommended for those who want their steampunk with a bit more crunch.

Imperial Navy: Stronghold Armada

Imperial Navy: Stronghold Armada 1
Hayashi Jyouji

Today’s post promises to be a one of a kind contribution to the 2013 Science Fiction Experience. The book in question was a revelation for me, something wholly unknown despite my extensive Japan pretensions. Consequently, while I have written about a wide variety of Japanese speculative fiction, this breaks new ground. First, the back story. When a US-based Japanese friend made a holiday trip to see his family, I asked him to pick up a couple of books for me. I didn’t have any specific requests, just the names of some authors I would like to read. One name was Hayashi Jyouji, who has a book or two in English available from Haikasoru. His name pops up as a prominent and prize-winning Japanese Hard SF writer, so I was eager to dig into something beyond the meager English offerings. Little did I know what awaited.

My friend brought me a book by the same Hayashi, but the cover had a picture of a Mitsubishi Zero flying away from an exploding US battleship. “This looks nothing like Hard SF,” I thought. Later research unearthed a particular strain of Japanese alternate history that I had no idea even existed, let alone that it is being written by a Seiun Prize winning author. It turns out that the “Joy Novels Simulation” imprint churns out a bevy of alt history titles wherein Japan wins World War II. One would assume this to be the preserve of the Japanese ultra-nationalist movement, along the lines of those disgusting Kobayashi Motofumi manga that whitewash history and enrage other Asians. In Hayashi’s case however, it seems to be the work of a naval history buff toying with ideas and making a quick buck. Regardless, I had to check this out.

Unlike past reviews, I will neither translate any of this, nor will I give a detailed summary. I assume that nobody else is going to read it, so I will let the spoilers fly, but the bulk of my post will be my reactions to the book instead of a blow by blow account. In part this is because the Japanese was exceedingly difficult. I never really learned how to say, “Inform the Admiral that our 9 inch guns sank the enemy’s heavy cruiser under the capable direction of Gunnery Chief Suzuki.” This stuff isn’t in the text books. Because I am lazy, I didn’t look up many unknown words, instead piecing together what I could from context and bravely powering on. There was probably a lot that I missed, but I just didn’t care enough to figure out every word. It doesn’t help that Hayashi’s writing is as dry as toast and full of random infodumps.

The book is episodic anyway, lending itself to quick summary. There is a brief prologue wherein American airplanes are chewed up in an attack against the dug in Japanese. It is very exciting. Leaping back in time after that, we meet one Niiyama, who is herding Japanese civilians to safety amidst a Chinese counterattack. His quick thinking and heroics save most of the civilians, but at the cost of his own life. This is also a particularly dramatic and visceral bit. We then head back to Japan, where Niiyama’s brother is tasked with improving various processes and technologies within the Japanese Navy, in response to his brother’s death and in preparation for the imminent war with the US. The story follows this Niiyama through the rest of the book, with brief interludes to check in on his American counterpart, Woodlark. There is another piece in China, where something similar happens to the surviving Niiyama, but he leads the men out of the worst. Then a jaunt to the Malay peninsula where bases are under construction, before a look at the naval engagement there that saw the British ships Repulse and Prince of Wales sunk. Finally, Niiyama is off to Papua New Guinea and the Battle of the Coral Sea. The book ends at the close of this battle, with three more volumes to follow.

Up until the last chapter, things more or less follow history. I have no idea if the China parts have any basis in fact, but it would not surprise me if they did. The two British ships were indeed sunk off the Malay coast by the very ships that Niiyama is involved with. It isn’t until the Coral Sea, in the final chapter, that we find the counter-factual pivot upon which the alternate history is built. In reality, the Japanese lost the light carrier Shoho, while the carrier Shokaku was heavily damaged. The US lost the carrier Lexington and some smaller ships. In the book however, the Shoho takes dramatic but ultimately superficial damage, with an explosion failing to ignite the fuel supply. The rest plays out historically, with the US fleet withdrawing after heavy losses. It appears that in later books, the continued existence of the Shoho allows the Japanese to complete “Project MO,” the invasion of Port Moresby that would have given them a Guinean base on Australia’s door step. Presumably this enables the Japanese to both invade Australia and beat the US off in the critical battle at Midway. From there, I guess Japan somehow wins the war. I’m curious, but probably not curious enough to brave the rest of the series.

Assessing Stronghold Armada proved difficult. I must admit that, while I know a great deal about the politico-economic roots of the conflict, and have read extensively about the atomic bomb, none of my studies gave more than a cursory look at the actual Pacific War. I was forced to conduct exhaustive research to prepare for this post, which consisted of reading one book and watching an old documentary series on Netflix. Without this, I would never have spotted the truth and fiction in the narrative. I remain skeptical, however, about the plausibility of Hayashi’s vision. As an amusing exercise, it works quite well; but the realities underpinning the war loom too large for a single carrier to have much of an effect.

It is true that many of the key battles in the Pacific were won by the side that made fewer mistakes (especially Leyte), or were decided almost purely by luck. Even so, simply winning more engagements would only have prolonged the inevitable for Japan, a feeling shared by prominent Japanese planners long before the Pearl Harbor decision was made. Most rational observers agree that it was quite foolhardy for Japan to pick a fight with a country that not only had an industrial and population base orders of magnitude larger than its own, but also supplied a majority of the most critical resources for war. The outcome of the war was effectively decided in the late 1930s, when the US cut off exports of oil and iron to the Japanese. Once the US was fully engaged, none of the Axis powers could resist the pure industrial might.

Japan’s only hope, well recognized by its military, was to grind up as many American men as possible in delaying actions, hoping that the supposed moral weakness of the decadent West would cave to Japan’s glorious fighting spirit. Sadly for Japan, the Pearl Harbor treachery, treatment of POWs, and general fanatical conduct on the battlefield undercut any chance they may have had, instead galvanizing the US to fiery effort. Add to this some tactical errors and a code system thoroughly broken by the Americans, and the final result was never truly in doubt. This is a lot of momentum for Hayashi to overcome.

This sort of historical inevitability never stopped the Civil War reimaginers though, so I cannot fault Hayashi’s intellectual exercise. I am sorely tempted to keep reading, but I will have to wait until my Japanese reading speed picks up. The book was interesting, especially the ways Hayashi glides over Japan’s uglier conduct in favor of a blander focus on military honor. In some ways, I am more interested in his readership than the books themselves, but that will have to be a research project for another day. For now, we’ll file this under “Stuff I Never Expected to Read” and get back to exploding spaceships.