Babylon’s Ashes

Babylon’s Ashes

James S.A. Corey

Could it be? Yes! At long last, a book review. Probably best not to expect too many though. Anyway, I waited my turn in line for the newest entry in The Expanse for something like three months, finally got my copy from the library, and just barely finished it. This being book six of, last I heard, nine, it can be problematic to review. I imagine that most people interested in reading this post are already on The Expanse train and immune to spoilers up through book five, but one never knows. Accordingly, I’m going to be somewhat vague on details and talk more about the series as a whole.

This is a rare series that I picked up when it started and have more or less kept pace with over the last six (six!) years. The books are perfectly spaced in that I remember just enough of what happened previously to keep up, but have let most of the details slide back out of my easily addled mind. It is only in times of great concentration that I can think back to Leviathan’s Wake and chart the course that Corey has taken thus far; this leads me to wonder how the series will hold up as a series once it is complete and people are treating it as a relic of the past. To wit, we have followed an unexpectedly winding road from Miller and Holden to an overturned social order in the Solar System.

I don’t know exactly what was in the authors’ heads when they started The Expanse, but to me it seemed a bid to reanimate the corpse of 1970s blockbuster SF, perhaps pithily described as “Niven and Pournelle without the cringey social attitudes.” We may not notice it as much now, but compare the Solar System in those earlier books with so much contemporary SF: no Singularity, no AI, no post-humanism, just a ratty, lived-in world that hearkens back to the first Star Wars movie, or Pournelle’s Co-dominion stories. The Corey team also dispenses with high-falutin literary conventions and po faced Mundane SF, keeping things fun and action-packed even while preaching a diverse, tolerant worldview and poking around Big Questions. It was ambitious, but entertaining. Also quite successful.

Broader themes have stayed constant throughout the series, especially our species’ undying drive to squabble with each other for reasons large and small. The plot focus of individual books lurches wildly though, perhaps betraying the authors’ uncertainty of a final destination or the publishing reality that succumbs to banal economics and constantly moves the goal posts for series. Probably a little of both. Consider: Book One is all protomolecule. Book Two jumps into Solar System politics. Book Three is back to protomolecule. Book Four suddenly veers out into galactic colonization, a move that surprised everyone and led to probably the weakest installment. Books Five and Six whiplash back into Solar System politics, as though both the characters and the authors said, “Wait a minute, we can’t go gallivanting out into the stars with all this unfinished business back here.” Unsurprisingly, these last two books put the series back on track and cemented The Expanse as a must-read contemporary tale.

At the end of Babylon’s Ashes, things feel as though the Solar System plot is settled, or at least as settled as it will be for now. The Expanse has been itching to take up bigger questions teased throughout the series: what is the protomolecule and why is it here? What happened to its makers and is there really something scarier out there? How will humanity handle colonies? If the fourth book was a false start with these, the seventh promises to finally push the series from near-future realism into wild-eyed, galactic wonder. Or at least, I hope so. Clearly, the first push was premature, but with a larger foundation now in place, we can probably expect great things. Certainly I am more interested in those kinds of stories – star-spanning empires, ancient alien races, mysteries spread across galaxies, and I think that’s where the authors always wanted to go. We’ll see if they can pull it off as well as they did near Earth adventure.

Looking at Babylon’s Ashes specifically, I would rate it in the top half of the series. The last two have certainly driven up the intensity level, with the fate of worlds literally at stake. James Holden makes a return to the center in this book, after losing pride of place to his supporting cast earlier. Individual reader feelings about this seem to vary. There is quite a cast though, and we do get into the minds of others, some of whom were dragged back to prominence, others who have gradually carved out their own prominent space in the narrative. I enjoyed Michio Pa in particular, but I’m sure everyone will have a favorite. The plot marches on well, and I think the last two books have done an admirable job of both telling self-contained stories and moving the series forward.

Disengaged from the SFF community right now, I don’t know how people are taking The Expanse politically. Obviously these are fraught times, though only the UK and US seem to have given in wholesale to craziness, and these books are unabashedly progressive in their politics and messaging. I have to think there’s a certain subset of SFF that rages about all the diversity, positivity and understanding towards others, and general non-jerkwaddy thematic content in The Expanse, but maybe they are all too busy defending Trump from his own relentless failures to annoy the rest of us. It should surprise nobody that these books are what they are however. After all, Ty Franck is a protege of GRRM, a vocal partisan for our side, and Dan Abraham builds entire series from principles of political economy. Babylon’s Ashes probably wouldn’t hit as hard if the US elections had gone differently, but here we are, and Corey is making a strong statement.

Anyway, wrapping up. Who shouldn’t read this book? Neo-Nazis and anyone who hasn’t already read books one through five are the only groups I can think of. I guess non-SF fans can be forgiven for not diving in, but The Expanse is required reading for anyone staying current in the field. It’s a lot to digest if the reader hasn’t been keeping up, but the series is peaking right now and deserves all of the attention it’s getting. Highly recommended.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Yes, I realize that I am hopelessly behind the times. No true Star Wars fan should wait to see a long-awaited franchise relaunch until it is in a second-run theater, especially one with fannish children who are getting everything spoiled for them at school. I should probably turn in my nerd card. Credit me with avoiding all discussion of the movie for several months though – I think that is discipline worth admiring. I didn’t even know who Finn and Poe were until last week.

So movies are a bit slow for me right now. (Actually, this has been true for almost a decade.) Another thing that is slow is this blog. After a strong start to the year, I had great confidence for a resurgent 2016. Then I changed jobs. Then my wife changed jobs. Then my band started recording a CD. Then I signed up to coach two sports teams. Things are unhinged right now. My reading numbers are back up, but writing time continues to sink to new lows. Sorry everyone! Life may stabilize by mid-summer. (At which point I start planning a Japan trip, so who knows what excuses I will have then!)

Back to the review. I finally saw SW:TFA in mid-April, which is sad. At least I caught it in a theater though, which is more than can be said for pretty much everything else. Usually I don’t see famous movies until I’m stuck on a plane to Asia. I suppose it is also a broader indication of where Star Wars fits into my life right now. It’s no longer a midnight showing on opening night kind of thing for me, kind of similar to the way I swore off caring deeply about college sports a few years ago. I have too much in my life anymore to invest sizable parts of my psyche in things I have no control over. (Or things I derive no particular benefit from, deep Aggie loyalty notwithstanding.) So while I was intrigued by Disney’s major initiatives, I didn’t fire myself up too much.

My response to the movie? Not bad. Better than the prequels (of course) and pleasantly nostalgic, but nothing to rise above the limitations that Hollywood has chosen to subject itself to. There is plenty to like, but also plenty to criticize. SW:TFA is weakest when it tries to connect itself to the originals, and strongest when it marches off on its own. If Disney and J.J. Abrams had made a clean break with the first trilogy and just started something new, I think the movie would have been much stronger. I can understand why that wasn’t really an option though, so we’re stuck with some awkward ret-conning, weird continuity, and an unbalance between the past and future. Let’s dig into this more.

To be fair, SW:TFA is in a difficult spot. The movie has to reboot the universe, provide some form of closure with the past narrative, introduce new characters and institutions robust enough to support future movies, and do it all in a way that both mollifies old-timey skeptics burned by the prequels and excites the new, Clone Wars watching generation of fans. To make things worse, they chose to operate in the exact time window already covered by what is widely considered to be the best Expanded Universe story arc: Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy. That’s a high bar to clear. It’s all too easy for someone like me to think back to Luke, Mara Jade, and all the fun of those three books while casting a baleful and suspicious eye at Abrams’ submission. (And mine was indeed suspicious. SW:TFA did not get the benefit of the doubt from me. Much as I wanted to be swept away in a glorious return to my youth, I’m too grouchy to let just anything move me.)

The bad, to be begin with. Almost everything bad in this movie relates to the trio of holdovers from the first movies. Leia is now a general in “The Resistance,” which by itself is not a problem. We expect her to be a general, or a senator, or a dictator, or something. This “Resistance” though, what is this crap? The New Republic has had twenty or thirty years to get its crap together, and the best they can come up with is some ragtag group of under-equipped guerrillas to take on The First Order? In that same length of time, the Empire crushed the Old Republic, disbanded the Senate, built the Death Star, and ran wild through the galaxy. I for one am disgusted at the pathetic progress made by this so-called “rebel alliance.” On a practical level, I realize that building institutions after a revolution is usually harder than the revolution itself; the only logical explanation for “The Resistance” is that the rebels failed to create a functioning government in the aftermath of Return of the Jedi, and chaos reigns throughout the galaxy. The movie doesn’t say this though, so we are left wondering what on earth is going on.

Han Solo also disgusts me a bit. I suppose it’s plausible that he and Leia would have problems, but I just don’t see him as the kind of guy that would give up, pull out of the Republic, and go back to smuggling. I thought the point of the original trilogy was to show his true heroic identity; SW:TFA seems to undermine that entire narrative. Everyone makes the best of the hand dealt by the script, and Han is, as usual, the star of the show. That said, he loses the Millennium Falcon? I don’t think so. Make him a crap dad and husband if you must, but there is no way in seven frozen layers of Hell that he misplaces his ship.

Finally, Luke. All I can say is this: The Luke Skywalker who obliterates Jabba the Hutt’s organization, who beats down Darth Vader in a controlled rage, and who stands in front of the Emperor and all but spits in his dessicated face would never pack it in just because one apprentice turned to the Dark Side in a fit of adolescent spite. Whatever toilet bowl the New Republic finds itself swimming in, I cannot accept a Luke Skywalker who runs away. Part Two has a lot of explaining to do.

Most of the good is in the new characters. I’m not yet emotionally invested in anyone, but I do think it’s great that the protagonists are a black ex-stormtrooper and a very capable female Jedi. (Jedi to be, at least.) I’m sure there are cold, economic reasons for these choices, but putting minorities and women in the lead roles and giving those children in the audience someone they can identify with is exactly the sort of thing a can’t-miss-franchise like Star Wars should be doing. Finn stands on his own and avoids the black dude sidekick and/or black dude who needlessly dies tropes, while Rey is the kind of competent, strong woman that I can show my kids. Both of them have full agency, a complete slate of strengths and weaknesses, moments to help and be helped, and rounded personalities. More of this please, Hollywood. My daughter doesn’t care much about Star Wars, but if she did, she would have Rey in her life to love and emulate. (The same goes for minorities and Finn I hope, but I am less qualified to comment on that.)

I will also give SW:TFA credit for hitting most of the right emotional notes. Whatever issues I may have with things, the writers and director are impeccable with references to the past stories, little visual cues that fans will love (Rey lives in a toppled AT-AT!), and dramatic moments of nostalgia. Cold and cynical I may be, but it was all too easy to get sucked back in to the Star Wars magic. Abrams and crew managed this far better than the prequels ever did. In fact, something else went over better than ever: the dialogue. I never thought I would say this, but the dialogue in a Star Wars movie was memorable and snappy. Not since the opening scenes of Return of the Jedi have I been able to listen to people talk without cringing. The banter and jokes build up a well of goodwill that some of the more outlandish plot beats require. (I will call out two things: the stormtroopers who slink quietly away during Kylo Ren’s meltdown were brilliant. Second, it’s amazing to finally have Han Solo and Chewbacca going back and forth with the kind of witty lines they always deserved.)

Conclusions? Glad I saw it, will probably watch again some time, but didn’t change my life. I don’t think Star Wars will ever mean as much to me as it once did, age and experience have seen to that, so this and following films are probably doomed to be adequate. On a grand grading scale of Star Wars, this one probably slots into 3rd or 4 thplace, about on par with Return of the Jedi or Revenge of the Sith. Too many holes to be great, but not unwatchable like certain other of the films. I could ask for more, but it didn’t leave me in a rage. At least there is no Jar-Jar.

We Who Are About To

We Who Are About To
Joanna Russ

I natter on quite a bit these days about gender stuff and other equality-based issues, hoping (fruitlessly?) that I don’t maroon myself in The Land of White Mansplaining. It was hardly my intent when I started the blog, but somewhere along the way this became part of the Two Dudes Party Line. Now, under the tyranny of my own editing, I am forced to meekly toe said line. Anyway, with Vintage SF Month in full swing, it is time to remedy a major hole in my SFF experience: foundational works of gender and cultural activism. I decided to grab either James Tiptree, Jr. or Joanna Russ for this, choosing We Who Are About To because I became convinced somehow that it was a military SF story with a pro-woman perspective. I may be confusing the book with something else.

Disclaimers first. There are many more lucid deconstructions of this book out there, written by people a) smarter than me b) more involved in activism or c) both. I am going to skate lightly across the surface in a bid to introduce and/or showcase the work, leaving the literary heavy lifting to those more qualified and less tired than I am. If this sort of thing tickles the Gentle Reader’s fancy, please use this post as a jumping off point. Engagement in the comments is also welcome; I shall endeavor to keep up.

As I said, my expectations when picking up We Who Are About To involved some combination of MilSF and feminism. I have no idea why I thought this, because, while there is feminism a-plenty, I found nary a mention of power armor or space battles. Oh well. Instead, transgressive trope busting ahoy. Russ takes on a popular story from days gone by: plucky humans crash land on an uninhabited but strangely livable planet and make a go of it. However, instead of having her people rise to the challenge, tap hitherto unknown reservoirs of creativity and talent, and beat back the frontier ala Little House on the Prairie, Russ decides to unleash The Lord of the Flies and basic laws of planetary biology. We have two choices at this point: read on and be shocked by the bracing, unforgiving story, or laugh at all the poor dorks as everything unravels. Regular readers can probably guess where I went when these two paths diverged in the yellow wood.

Russ has a lot to say about how close we are to savagery, how many men reflexively treat women, what defines a life worth having, and the limits of personal freedom. Our narrator prefers to have her right to die peacefully pried from her cold, dead hand, and doesn’t play well with others. Russ’ chosen protagonist is, shall we say, of the unreliable persuasion, but we automatically cheer for her because she’s the viewpoint character and the others are fools. Her fellow castaways are ready to start up a human breeding program before luxuries like a food supply are settled, basically becoming caricatures of Campbellian Boys Be Ambitious types. The narrator is suspicious not just because she opposes a baby boom, but is also some sort of religious weirdo, probably a drug addict, and is an all around disagreeable type. Still, it is decided that she must bear children, by force if necessary.

If all of this stuff is taken completely seriously, We Who is a bracing and cynical look at humanity. It’s also really hilarious, if one’s humor turns toward the darkness a bit. I fear the author would not be amused watching me chuckle my way through the mayhem. That’s fine though, she was apparently a University of Washington Husky at some point, so we are family, and family forgives these sorts of trespasses and indignities.

I should probably wrap up this inappropriately irreverent look at a classic of New Wave SF. My advice concerning it: Definitely read We Who Are About To. It is an exquisitely crafted jewel of a story, where every word is packed with dense meaning that leaves a much heavier impact than one would expect from such a slim volume. Readers in the right frame of mind will have their view of SF altered, likely as not to emerge from the experience with everything around them tilted a bit into a new perspective. It’s also very short, so even people who will just end up puzzled and/or angry won’t have put too much time into the effort. I’m glad I picked it up and fully plan to read more of Russ and her contemporaries. One word to the wise: skip the Samuel Delaney forward until after reading the book. He spoils everything.

Interstellar Patrol

Interstellar Patrol I-II
Christopher Anvil

Baen Books is mostly known as a purveyor of right-wing military SF, and with good reason, but this reputation obscures a much broader menu of genre offerings. Among Baen’s saving graces are the reprints they churn out of yesteryear’s mid-list, often with Eric Flint at the editorial helm. Thanks to Baen and Flint, intrepid readers can easily acquire near complete bibliographies of authors like Keith Laumer, Murray Leinster, James Schmitz, etc. In this case, I’ve finally plowed through the entirety of the Interstellar Patrol series, all 1500+ pages. Vintage SF Month seems like the best time to talk about it.

Anvil is the consummate Campbellian, with compact stories about competent Anglo-Saxons solving problems. The Interstellar Patrol defends freedom and right across the galaxy by outwitting dastardly villains, generally by being smarter and/or technically superior to the bad guys. Violence is rarely the answer for Anvil’s heroes; victory goes to those who can reason, not blast, their way to a solution. The Patrol in this series recruits a group of resourceful con-men, subverting their wiles and using them for good. The results are usually logically convoluted, lightly funny, and always entertaining. For my money, Anvil is one of the best places to start with Golden Age SF, warts and all.

There are flaws there for the picking of course. The future is nothing but white dudes named John or Harold, the women are suitably obedient (but at least they are there, unlike colored folk), and various governments are basically the 1950s transported into space. This is pretty much a given with Campbell however, so I guess it is up to us as readers to resolve our own attitudes to the era. With Anvil however, glimmers of hope do emerge. The women are not always completely hopeless, and he keeps up a wry, self-aware meta-commentary suggesting that, deep down, he’s fully cognizant of some of the absurdity. I could be projecting, but to me much of the humor in these books stems from Anvil poking fun at SF conventions. He never rises fully above them though, more’s the pity. There’s a line at the end of Anvil’s SF Encyclopedia entry briefly mourning the author’s seeming contentment at Campbell’s restrictions, since he seems capable of much more. I agree whole-heartedly.

The last couple hundred pages of book two are stories set in the same universe, but not involving the Interstellar Patrol. All follow the usual pattern of smart men solving problems, and many deal with the challenges of colonizing hostile planets. In these, another Campbellian trope rises from the deep like be-tentacled Cthulhu. Invariably, the heroes of these stories are rugged individualists who have thrown off the effeminate shackles of civilization and stride boldly through the landscape, chopping their own wood and whatnot. This self-actualization through mortal danger and/or physical labor isn’t exactly dead now, but I have to think it’s a dated way of visualizing planetary colonization. Or maybe not, considering the mad success of The Martian. At least he is dealing more or less realistically with the environment though, rather than romping about in shorts and a t-shirt while battling with man-eating creatures. The stories are entertaining though, since Anvil maintains a sardonic distance throughout and many a stupid person earns his deserved demise.

I would tell the curious reader to start his or her Anvil exploration with Pandora’s Legions, then pick up the first volume of Interstellar Patrol stories. Volume Two is more for completists, as I find the stories to have a diminishing rate of return. They’re all of consistent quality though, so no loss for the reading, even if ambition is somewhat lacking.

Dreamships

Dreamships
Melissa Scott

For me, Melissa Scott falls into that awkward hole of the 1990s mid-list. Too recent to be classic, too old to be a hot fandom topic, she joins far too many others from the era that I haven’t read. Fortunately, Ms. Scott’s name bubbled up in one or another genre conversation, probably Coode Street again, and I got her on to my TBR pile before she was swept away by the swift current of new releases and hot takes. Dreamships arrived from the library in late summer, as a thin and unintimidating volume of about 300 pages. “Should be a quick one,” thought I, but was woefully wrong. Scott writes dense, efficient prose and packs a great deal into not so many words.

The story is ostensibly about a spaceship crew that goes to find a rogue AI programmer, but is really about privilege and hierarchy in a dizzyingly complex society. I am always both excited and disheartened reading older SF – happy to see that we’ve been digging into socially progressive ideas for so long, but distressed that we are still fighting the same battles. Dreamships is no exception. It reads like a precursor to contemporary iconoclasts like Kameron Hurley or Stephanie Saulter, bridging the temporal gap between them and more historical voices like Delaney, Tiptree, and Russ. There are also hints of Swann’s Hostile Takeover Trilogy in particular, and cyberpunk in general, though there is a certain voice that identifies everything as “1990s SF.” I wish I could pin down what it is, but I can’t. Still, something about the book is very obviously from that era. Maybe it’s the tech, or maybe it’s the Gibson-esque, corporately dystopic setting. It may go down as one of cyberpunk’s last stands, before the dot-com boom and standard genre development swallowed the movement up into the mainstream.

It’s difficult to summarize exactly what is going on, but there are overlapping, even conflicting, dialogues occurring in the book over who should have what rights. Two ruling groups claim the planet involved, one governmental and the other corporate, each with its privileged and oppressed factions. On top of this, people are arguing over AI rights and development, unable to resolve the lines that an AI needs to cross to be considered “human,” or even if such a thing is possible. What we get are lines of attack and defense similar to contemporary real life, as we try to sort out gender, racial, and class equality. Rights themselves are not finite, but the time and resources we can spend on the fight are; none of us can advocate for every cause. Characters in the book confront this same problem.

Other things surprised me a bit as well. The viewpoint character is female, and is the ideal of the archetype in terms of strength, agency, and role. Indeed, things are split fairly evenly along male and female lines with no sense that this is anything but perfectly normal. Likewise, every relationship spelled out in the book is same-sex, again with the characters treating this as completely acceptable, even obvious. I recognize the value in portraying the struggles these groups have now, but also appreciate storytellers who present our ideals as attainable to the point that they are run of the mill for characters.

I am also forced to appreciate the era in which these are presented. Sometimes it seems like feminist SF, diverse SF, or LBGT-friendly SF is new and shiny, something we should be proud of ourselves for thinking up. Then I read back and find out that, hey, people were saying this exact same thing twenty, forty years ago and more. Perhaps we should back pat less, and fight more, since it seems like not enough progress is being made. (Has there been a stronger backlash recently, or am I just more conscious of it? I feel like the US-based Culture Wars that flared up post-Obama are a driver here, but maybe I am naïve and it was this bad in the early 2000s as well.) The fight is real, and we can’t let up. We owe it to those like Scott, who came before us and did their part.

Er, back to the book review. As I said earlier, Dreamships is dense and demanding. I expected to blow through this much quicker than I did, not knowing the meaty goodness in store. I will be reading more Scott books as I find them and urge others do the same. This one is recommended for those who like a more challenging read, especially one that digs into thorny social issues. Also AI development! Lots of Turing tests here to go with some hacking and anarchic mischief, so maybe something for everyone.

Ancillary Mercy

Ancillary Mercy
Ann Leckie

There is really only one question to ask about Ancillary Mercy: “Should I read this book?” The answer, without exception, is yes. This is all the reader needs to know about Leckie’s concluding Raadch novel, but ending the review here is perhaps a bit too easy. Though I will press on and say more, the gentle reader in a hurry can skip to the end, buy/borrow a copy, and wrap up arguably the biggest SF series of recent years. (Realistically, only The Expanse is close in terms of consistent delivery and related buzz. That’s, like, just my opinion, man, so feel free to disagree.)

For those living in a cave since 2013, Ancillary Mercy is volume three of the series that started with Hugo/Nebula/more winner Ancillary Justice and continued with last year’s award nominated Ancillary Sword. (Each of the titles is a play on starship classifications in the book, though one could also draw various symbolic connections to the plot, if one is so inclined.) I fully expect Mercy to at least join the others on end of the year lists, if not walk home with another Hugo. It may also win over doubters, since I know that many people bounced off of the first book. Mercy is the most accessible of the three, though only if one is moving through the series. It is not a stand alone by any definition.

Things pick up directly after the events of Ancillary Sword. Breq, our favorite starship-turned-human, is helping put things back together after everything went sideways in the Athoek system. Anaander Miaanai is still fighting a galactic civil war with herself, and nobody knows what’s going on with the Presger. (The last is an alien race that is both wholly inscrutable and wholly capable of squashing the entirety of the Raadch empire with barely a second thought.) The plot proceeds as it logically must, though somehow I still found myself surprised at things despite the inevitability in hindsight. I was probably not alone with some worries about this, as Leckie’s move from galactic adventure to small-scale political maneuvering caught me off guard in Sword. She again declines to pan back out to an empire-level panorama, but this is probably for the best. Breq was never about sweeping narrative momentum anyway. She would be the first to scoff at any grandiose assumptions, never having planned on anything greater than a small, personal revenge.

Yes, she. I know some readers were irked by Leckie’s insistence in using unconventional pronouns in Ancillary Justice, some to the point of taking over the entire conversation about the book. Mercy continues the pattern, though because this is in Raadch space, Breq is now just following that society’s convention. If any of my readers out there are so grumpy about adding an “s” to the beginning of third-person, singular pronouns that they can’t make it through the book, I will give them a grudging pass. Still though, it’s really not that big of a deal. If we can accept sentient spaceships, all-powerful aliens, faster than light travel, and AI’s that take over hundreds of bodies simultaneously and force them to sing antiphonal choir ditties, but then can’t deal with a society that defaults to feminine pronouns, I venture to say that the problem lies not with the author, but with the reader. Yes, I’m probably preaching to the (antiphonal) choir here at Two Dudes, but the subject annoys.

So, the book and why it is awesome. Oddly enough, Mercy is the most conventional in the series. Ancillary Justice took a lot of chances and, I think, moved the genre ahead. The daring bits weren’t the parts that generated the most focus, however, as the thematic focus of the books seemed to overshadow the technical and narrative experimentation. Conversations surrounding gender, consciousness, and imperialism are all fascinating, but not necessarily cutting edge. Gender especially has been going on for several decades now, but still seems to generate all the controversy. Hidden behind this, Leckie was toying with unconventional narratives, Breq’s parallel identities, ways of portraying multiple viewpoints simultaneously, and notions of who can be a narrator. I appreciate the bold thematic material, but for me the real excitement was under the hood.

The second and third books of the series are much more conventional. Breq is a single entity now, though Sword toyed with her relationship to and use of Ship to monitor multiple scenes. By Mercy, Breq is (unconsciously?) becoming more human and slowly embracing the limitations of a single body. There is almost no jumping around in time, limited location hopping (and reasonable explanations when it does happen), and a fairly mainstream story arc. The same themes apply, but without the technical experimentation the book is much more straightforward. It’s hardly boring or predictable though. I think readers who bounced off the complexity of Justice may want to check back in and see how Mercy works for them, as it provides all the crunchy ideas without the avant garde narrative. (I prefer the full range of craziness, but recognize that my tolerance for such is higher than some.)

I will admit that this series did not go where I expected it to. Leckie had the opportunity after Justice to open things out, letting Breq romp around the Raadch empire, joining forces with other ships, and fighting hordes of Anaander clones while the author pushed further and further out with multiple viewpoint techniques and decomposition of consciousness. Instead, she pulls back, sends Breq to a backwater, and maintains a careful pace of etiquette and manners. Mercy ramps things up a little, but only a little. The action is still confined to the Athoek system, Breq remains a singular personage, and the political theory is kept to a simmer. There is more with aliens this time, a bit more action, and bit more humor. AI gets its turn under the microscope as well, as Leckie (finally?) takes on a more direct interrogation of AI’s place in the Raadch empire. All in all, the arc remains a sort of space opera in miniature.

In the absence of authorial explanation, I wonder if the gradually narrowing focus isn’t all about Breq’s redemption. This didn’t occur to me until several weeks after I finished Mercy, because Breq is not a character obviously in need of redemption. Plenty of other characters are, but Breq comes across as supremely confident, totally under control of both situations and emotions, and utterly unconcerned with final outcomes. Breq is also the narrator, so naturally she is going to favor these sorts of reactions from people, but Breq is clearly superior in many ways to the mere humans around. And yet behind the curtain, the reader can see hints of turmoil. This is most obvious as Breq wrestles with how to handle the AIs and their emergence as equal voices, but I think I see it elsewhere too – notably Breq’s slow transformation into something resembling a human.

At one point in the book, the station’s security chief confronts Breq in the middle of a protest and asks for advice. Breq basically says, “Yes, I’ve been in these situations before, but you really don’t want to respond the way I did.” This is a one-off, and serves a far different narrative purpose, but it has started to feel like Breq’s summation of the entire book. As Justice of Toren, Breq subdued more than her share of rebellious planets and had no qualms doing so. Indeed, she is probably responsible for more war crimes than any of us really want to think about, no matter the motivation and final result of Raadch assimilation. (Whole ‘nother kettle of fish there, but not one that Leckie dodges either.) Now in Mercy, Breq is back in a similar pickle, with a restive system, a civil war on, and any number of ways to save personal skin and/or build a comfortable power base. Breq in the books that I planned on reading would just be out kicking butt and singing songs, but Breq in the actual trilogy may just be saving her own soul. Did Leckie plan this? I have no idea. She may read this paragraph and think I’m a loon. Still, I see a partially redeemed Breq at the end of things and wonder if this wasn’t the point all along.

Time to come up for air. There’s much more to say about Ancillary Mercy, but I may have to leave other questions for another post. If this wasn’t the best book I read in 2015, it will only because the standard has been so high this year. It will be on my Hugo ballot (assuming I can root around for that forty bucks somewhere) and the top of my recommended SF reading list. I’m very excited to reread the whole thing some years hence and relive all the fun.

Thirteen

Thirteen
Richard Morgan

I sometimes ask myself where cyberpunk went. Science fiction as a whole long since absorbed both the subversive attacks and the near-future tech tropes into its Borg-like mass, but once in a long while, true cyberpunk still leaps out of the shadows. (Japan seems to maintain a steady export business: Mardock Scramble, Ghost in the Shell, etc.) Until he got sidetracked into grimdark fantasy, Richard Morgan made aggressive claims to the contemporary cyberpunk throne, with Thirteen his strongest appeal. Morgan has said in interviews that he will be returning to SF soon, to which I say, “Huzzah.” He burns with the rage of a much younger idealist, writing in worlds that descend directly from 1980s-era Gibson or Sterling. It warms my Max Headroom influenced heart.

One question should be briefly addressed before digging into the really nerdy stuff. Thirteen‘s title in the UK is Black Man; the decision to change the name in the US has come under some fire. Given that Morgan’s protagonist is black, and that Thirteen/Black Man digs deeply into issues of discrimination, there is a certain whiff of cowardly marketing to the new title. However, in addition to being black, the hero, Carl, is a GMO from a frightening group known as “Thirteens.” His skin color is sometimes an issue, but the primary reason he is persecuted is his genetic modification. If the publisher is trying to highlight the real discrimination in the book, Thirteen is the more accurate title. I do think that the decision had much more to do with trying to avoid controversy in the racially charged US, but I also think that the US title is probably a better reflection of the story. Reasonable minds may differ.

Back to the fun stuff. Morgan builds his story on two assumptions. First, the US has divided into what might be seen as its natural political geography: the West Coast, the Northeast and Upper Midwest, and everything else. That everything else is referred to as Jesusland and not painted in the most flattering light, while the NE and West Coast are basically what we would expect those places to turn into, at least in a vaguely dystopic and cyberpunky future. Second, Morgan has a particular sociological theory at the base of things, one that postulates human societies gradually moving from a male structure (violence, hunting, hierarchy based on raw strength, competition) to a female structure (cultivation, cooperation, compromise). The males who can’t function in this new world are weeding themselves out by doing stupid things like extreme sports, carrying loaded guns to Home Depot and shooting themselves in the butt, flocking to military and para-military groups, and generally finding ways to bow to evolutionary pressure as the traditional feudal patriarch drifts into genetic obsolescence. (One of those things was in the real news, not the book, but fits well.)

The above is pretty heavy philosophizing. Fortunately for the reader, most of what actually happens in Thirteen is super tough people beating the crap out of each other, usually with vivid descriptions of traumatized internal organs or detached, airborne limbs. Morgan is quite the most gleefully violent of the cyberpunks. Thirteens were originally created to be remorseless super soldiers, something that sounds great to governments until they suddenly have an excess of death machines just sitting around with no appreciable job skills beyond mayhem. After some retrenchment by the powers that be, Carl gets a job hunting down his fellow GMOs to either ship them off to Mars, incarcerate them in a remote camp, or dispose of them. Shades of Blade Runner. Actually, now that we bring up that iconic film, there is another bit that invites comparison. For whatever unknown reason, thirteens are probably the chattiest bunch of superkillers ever put to page. Anyone who enjoyed the last scenes of Blade Runner and their long soliloquies will love Thirteen. Not content with merely shooting and beating each other, thirteens love sitting around talking about who is superior, usually as someone lies dying on the floor.

Anyway, Carl’s job lands him in the middle of a serial killer plot, wherein he hunts down a Thirteen who is in turn hunting others. In standard cyberpunk noir fashion, we meet cops (from both coasts), hookers, gangsters, hackers, and assorted corrupt government types as Carl travels the world and unravels the convoluted mystery. These are all the plot beats deprived cyberpunks like me have been missing, but updated with the politics and economics of the new millennium. Morgan gives more depth to the story with the philosophical bantering and social commentary, so readers can engage at any level: flying heads, near-future grit, or populist anger.

A certain demographic may prove unable to enjoy just the flying heads. Morgan is not coy with his politics and is especially condescending to Jesusland and its denizens. Many Two Dudes readers probably share the Dudes’ opinions of the American South, its political and religious situation, and its racial history; these people will merely smile and nod as Carl carves a swath of destruction through Florida. Others will no doubt get up in arms about Socialism, social justice, or some other bugbear and fling their copies across their double-wide trailers. The gentle reader should consider himself/herself warned, but also advised that skipping out on Thirteen means missing a big pile of fun. A pile of fun, even, with mirrorshades on.

Morgan is not subtle, but he is entertaining and kinetic. With one intentional exception, Thirteen hurtles along at breakneck speed, leaving carnage and metaphysics in its wake. The book is like Carl: tough, takes no prisoners, and delights in confrontation. This is cyberpunk shorn of Gibson’s sardonic veneer, Sterling’s sinister weirdness, or Rucker’s Muppets-on-LSD lunacy, leaving the flaming core of rage at The Man and the revolution it engenders. The violence and the politics mean it might not be for everyone (hi, mom), but Thirteen is hypnotic and compelling.