War Dogs

War Dogs
Greg Bear

There had better be a sequel for this.

Greg Bear returns from shared universe forays with a military/Hard SF hybrid set on Mars that borrows gleefully from a whole grab bag of classic SF tropes. I had fun with it, but my final verdict will depend largely on where he takes it in the second book, for reasons that will become clear later on. Part of me wants to call this a return to form for the veteran Hard SF writer, but it’s really hard to say what exactly “form” is for Bear. I enjoyed his previous book, Hull Zero Three, though it felt a bit like something he tossed off in a weekend. Lately he is working with Neal Stephenson’s Mongoliad project and has written in the Halo and Foundation franchises. My idea of typical Greg Bear is hopelessly out of date, since I haven’t read his near future stuff and basically only know vintage stuff like Blood Music and Forge of God. Still, this feels like him going back to his 1980s playbook.

My first thought on starting the book was, “I guess it’s time to get in touch with the Inner Heinlein.” It’s all there: the space marines, the power suits, the drop from orbit in the first pages. I’m starting to think that the interstellar infantry thing is like jazz albums with strings – everyone wants to try it once, no matter how often (and how badly) it’s been done in the past. Full disclosure: I generally don’t like jazz albums with strings. It turns out that Greg Bear apparently knows a thing or two about this, as a recent interview shows. He grew up around military types and has certainly dabbled in soldier-type stories before, so this isn’t a complete change of form.

The nods to traditional SF start early with the semi-benevolent aliens who appear suddenly and start doling out both technology and strong policy recommendations. Then, and I’m spoiling nothing here that isn’t on the dust jacket, things quickly move into familiar “superior aliens enlist our help as cannon fodder” territory when they start shipping Earthlings to fight a mysterious enemy on Mars. Bear knows what he’s doing here, not really subverting tropes, but having fun with them. Despite being a military-oriented book, there isn’t much fighting for awhile. We get marines (“Skyrines”) roaming around Mars and nearly suffocating a few times before Bear unveils the real reason for writing the book. A Muskie (original Mars colonist group named for Elon Musk) rescues a gaggle of airless characters and marches them off to a big, secret rock. This is where the fun begins.

We get the bait and switch here, as War Dogs turns into a Big Mysterious Object story. This is good news if you’re me, possibly disappointing for those who came for the explosions. I haven’t said a lot about the plot at this point because at least two thirds of the book is, not necessarily plotless, but utterly opaque. This is a first-person narrative from a grunt who only knows what he needs to know, and who is even more lost once inside the rock structure. Bear plays things close for the entire book though, thus my demand for a quality sequel. (It’s apparently in the works.) He only hints at deeper meanings – what is this giant thing and what is it for? Who are the Antagonists? (The bad aliens.) Why are they fighting? I need to know the answers to these questions.

I expect that the overall reception to War Dogs is mixed. Bear makes demands of the reader without offering much of a payoff. In the absence of a follow up, I can’t give an accurate assessment; things could go south in a hurry, or this could end up being a big deal. My guess is the latter. I enjoyed War Dogs and want to read further, but I won’t be surprised when others are irate.

Throwdown! Two Lady Writers

Trading in Danger
Elizabeth Moon
Primary Inversion
Catherine Asaro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Kambayashi Chohei

I am really behind on this one. I finished Yukikaze back in the spring, but got sidetracked by read-alongs, commitments of one sort or another, gender equality issues, and a touch of real life. There’s six months gone. Further, Yukikaze is one of the first titles published by Japanese pipeline Haikasoru, in 2010, but I didn’t get a copy until an Amazon gift certificate fell into my hands back in March. (No library copies here, which is somewhat inexplicable considering the two massive library systems I have access to, plus a private Japanese collection downtown.) This in turn is a translation of the 2002 revision of the 1984 book, Sento Yosei Yukikaze (戦闘妖精・雪風). It is probably just as well that the English version chopped off the first two words, “battle fairy,” and kept only the name of the aircraft in the title. To sum up, a six month late review of a three year old translation of a twenty year old book. Breaking news this is not.

Kambayashi is a well-regarded, multi-award winning author; Yukikaze is probably his most famous book. It won the Seiun Award for 1984, spawned a sequel (also available from Haikasoru, but as yet unread by either of the Two Dudes), and an anime adaptation. I would not be surprised to find manga, video game, or other spin-offs, but do not currently know of any. It is often ranked on annual lists of the best ever Japanese science fiction and I have seen it recommended several times as a place for Westerners to start with Japan’s non-animated SF.

It is difficult to dig too deeply into the plot here without spoiling much of the fun. The following, however, is clear at the outset: Aliens called “JAM” have invaded the Earth through a portal over Antarctica. The combined Terran military beat them back through the portal to a world called “Faery,” where the two sides are locked in a violent stalemate. JAM are being held at bay, but humanity is unable to push them any further. (I have no idea what JAM stands for, the Japanese is equally vague, and I am just assuming it means Jerkface Alien Menace.) Faery has enough messed up flora and fauna that ground troops are an impossibility; everything is fought in the air. Fukai Rei is attached to a special air force division whose sole responsibility is to record everything that happens in every battle and return the data to headquarters. His airplane is called Yukikaze.

Things unfold through sequential short stories, all but a couple told from Rei’s point of view. While each is a discreet event, and frequently not connected to the others in any obvious way, they should be read in order. Kambayashi is covertly sketching out an arc for three agents: Rei, Yukikaze, and JAM. It really wouldn’t do to say much beyond this, save that things don’t end up where one might expect. In fact, very little of the book follows expectations. Everything about Yukikaze screams Military SF, what with the alien invasions, semi-sentient fighting machines, and elite warriors, until one starts reading. Rei’s role demands a cold distance, a mindset that prevents insanity in a job that usually means watching passively as fellow soldiers die. Kambayashi mimics this in his writing, with a sterile, deadpan delivery.

I don’t totally know what to make of the book. If there is a Message buried in there somewhere, I missed it. I detected no gripping narrative either; there is action to be sure, but somehow it is not pulse-pounding. The conflict with JAM reminds me a bit of the Cold War, which had ramped up again when Kambayashi wrote Yukikaze. The war between two more or less equal forces, carried on far from the everyday view of squabbling humanity, has certain analogues to the proxy wars fought in otherwise inconsequential places like Angola or Nicaragua. There is no pacifist agenda here though, somewhat surprising for a Japanese book about war, just a dispassionate look at what might happen as increasingly sophisticated weapons fight each other. In fact, this has the feel of a scientific experiment about it, with all superfluous variables removed. Kambyashi might be testing his ideas of AI and humanity under pressure in an otherwise perfectly controlled environment.

I suspect that I am making Yukikaze sound less interesting than it actually is. The superficially dry prose conceals much more than I expected, driving a subtle but comprehensive evolution throughout the story. It is rather like listening to Minimalist classical music, wherein the observer starts in one place and, without realizing it, is deposited someplace completely different at the end. If there is anything “Japanese” about Kambayashi’s writing, it would be this restraint, though I am not so heavy-handed as to compare the book to a Zen garden or bonsai tree. (The Japanese have no more monopoly on restraint or subtlety than we Americans do to fatty food. Exhibit A: Morning Musume.) It’s a fascinating trip though, with details, unexpected turns, and subtle insights growing up organically from the story’s foundation.

One has to take Yukikaze on its own terms, but I give the book a strong recommendation. It is another essential part of the Japanese SF canon, so there’s that. It’s also a unique creation, something that I can’t easily draw comparisons to. The closest tale that comes to mind is The Sky Crawlers, also an oddly disconnected look at Japanese air forces. Either of the above are reason enough to give it a shot, together they make a compelling case for universal consumption. I am eager to see what others thing about it.

Rating: Claudio Ranieri, a stoic, restrained manager who found great success with Juventus. (No relation between Italian match fixing and Kambayashi Chohei though.)

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.

The Myriad

The Myriad
R.M. Meluch

I found about about The Myriad the old fashioned way, from an ad in the back of another DAW book. It had a blurb that promised guilty space opera goodness and was enough to rope me into a library request. Hard to imagine that back before the interwebs made SF fandom so much easier, this, author acknowledgments, and the Science Fiction Book Club were all we had. (I suppose some people subscribed to magazines, but I was stretching the allowance with Boy’s Life already.) That said, I can’t remember the last time this sort of analog advertising convinced me, so maybe I should ping DAW on Twitter to let them know that it still works.

The first thing to think about with The Myriad is the nature of storytelling twists. In some cases (The Sixth Sense), the twist turns the narrative on its head, but in a way that illuminates the hidden corners of the story and makes the audience say, “Oh! Now I understand!” In others (Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons, though this is hardly the book’s only fault), it undercuts the story, chopping it off at its narrative knees and leaving the reader wondering why anything that came before even mattered. Pretty much any story that ends with, “And it was all a dream!” falls into this category. I mention this first because The Myriad has to stand or fall entirely on its last chapter, no matter the quality of everything that comes before. More on this to follow.

The book itself threatens space opera, what with the man eating space bugs and all, but settles more firmly into military SF territory. These aren’t mutually exclusive of course, and the book hints at enough subgenres to call itself whatever it wants. Still, if forced under pain of xeno-bug digestion to choose, MilSF it is. One viewpoint character is the dashing ship’s captain, a bold and cheerful leader who just happens to be amazing at captainly duties. He is also handy with a sword, which certain plot details cause to be necessary. Another character is the loyal, competent, and somewhat dense sergeant whose job it is to ride herd on the jolly band of marines. We’ve already met the space bugs, but the other troupe of bad guys is a neo-Roman Empire, complete with Latin, legions, and martial glory. The League of Earth Nations (eat that UN!) politicians are smarmy and spineless. There is valor, loyalty, and discipline; all the book needs now is a grave commander who mourns the fine young men and women he sends to their fiery deaths in his vast battlefleet to hit all of the requisite MilSF notes.

Did I mention that the crew are all Americans, protecting US interests in space because the League of Earth Nations is lily livered? And yet, for every Pournelle-esque “What the world needs now is an enlightened despot” moment, there is a sidelong wink that pricks the overinflated balloon of jingoism. Meluch plays coy with the politics, but seems too self-aware to sell out completely to the Baen Books crowd. This is without getting into the bizarre Romans, who apparently arose from a secret society that survived both the barbarians at the gates in 476 A.D. and two subsequent millenia. We don’t see much of the Romans, save for one Augustus, who has mental superpowers and is forwarded to the hero’s ship to assist with the war against the ravening space bugs. He is for me the most interesting character by a large margin. Besides his genetically enhanced intellect, he hates the Americans and tweaks them whenever possible, but is also dutiful and has a heart of, if not gold, then maybe nice bronze. He is also handy with a sword, which is convenient when the space bugs are boarding the ship and have to be beaten off with cutlasses. Yes, this book is just as strange as it sounds.

One final point before moving on. I was surprised that most of the reviews I checked of The Myriad had nothing to say about one of the female characters, including a couple of reviewers that really have no excuse for glossing over it. Meluch treats one of the women, the “morale officer” of the squad if you will, horribly. At one point, putting her in danger of being molested by an alien, the men say something like, “Well, she puts out for everyone else, so what’s one more? I’m sure she’ll like it in the end.” Egad. This wouldn’t be as shocking if the book didn’t basically condone this attitude. If a male author were to write this, it would be decried. It may be though that because Meluch’s first name appears to be Rebecca, this sort of thing is alright. I have no idea, but it was every bit as icky as an Anne McCaffery dragon lady being forcibly taken by whatever dragon rider was lucky enough to see his trusty steed chase down the queen.

Anyway, philosophical quibbles aside, the book holds together far better than it should. The characters are engaging, the plot moves along rapidly, and actual Science even pops its head in from time to time. There are a couple of “wait … what?” moments, but nothing too egregious. If I were to start this review by saying, “American marines and Romans fighting xenocidal space bugs with swords – it works,” my loyal readers would probably try to lock me up. But …. it works. Right up until it doesn’t.

Several things I’ve read say that The Myriad really can’t be appreciated until one reads the second book. After that, the whacko twist at the end of The Myriad makes total sense and is actually brilliant. This may be so. Unfortunately, I have to deal with the book on its own, and I wanted to toss it out the bus window. Meluch let her characters paint themselves into several corners, but this was not the resolution I was looking for. Maybe I’ll change my mind after reading the next book, because I will eventually read the next book, but for now I reserve the right to feel a bit cheated. Still, like an LA Lakers victory, eventually the foul taste wears off and we only remember the good times. I’ll be sure to read and review the next book, leaving this for now with a conditional recommendation.

Rating: Chelsea-Liverpool, 2008 Champions League at Anfield. Liverpool dominates and seems intent on their second straight CL final before inexplicably heading in an own goal in extra time. They have never been the same.

Falkenberg’s Legion

Falkenberg’s Legion (The Prince)
Jerry Pournelle and S.M. Stirling

My introduction to Jerry Pournelle came through his frequent collaborations with Larry Niven. (Niven, of course, was my Hard SF gateway drug.) The public library had only the Janissaries books, so I missed out on John Falkenberg in my impressionable youth. Many years later, that name came up frequently in discussions of essential military SF, so I set out to read about him. This is somewhat easier said than done, since the Falkenberg books have been published as short stories, short novels, longer novels, compilations, and compilations of compilations. Baen Books has combined everything into The Prince, which is probably the best way to go about things, but I read the books as four novels. Pournelle alone wrote the older stuff, S.M. Stirling joined him for the two Sparta novels later on.

The Falkenberg stories are Mil SF in the style of David Drake or Gordon Dickson, but form a bridge to the more politically incendiary books by Heinlein and the Baen Books crowd. Like Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers, Pournelle is sympathetic to the grunt’s cause and the realities of being a pawn when diplomacy is carried on by other means. His soldiers are much less concerned with Honor and Valour, and more worried about not being killed in gruesome fashion. But while Drake and Dickson tend to leave things with the soldiers, Pournelle addresses bigger political questions as well. While he is more subtle than, say, David Weber or John Ringo, some of his philosophy is every bit as disturbing as Starship Troopers at its loopiest. Indeed, I have seen him inaccurately called “fascist” and “Right-wing” in various forums. First off, who hasn’t been called fascist recently? Second, he is not Right-wing in the contemporary sense. (Aggressive, Libertarian Christianity.)  Instead, Pournelle is a throwback to the less well known H. Beam Piper; readers of Space Viking will recognize many of the same ideas about government and democracy.

As a pacifist and progressive liberal, I find that Pournelle’s politics aren’t always palatable, nor his solutions to problems the solutions that I would pursue. He takes a pretty dim view of democracy, which I am sympathetic to for wholly different reasons, and an overly optimistic view of monarchy. The recurring theme in the series is democracy being compromised by selfish or evil men, then unable to save itself because of the inherent weakness of democratic institutions. Again, this is a reasonable fear, but Pournelle is quick to dispatch the enemies of freedom in paroxysms of violence. Falkenberg is his avenging angel of freedom initially, and the torch is passed to Prince Lysander in the Sparta books. In all cases, the good guys win when someone finally realizes that sometimes we must unshackle ourselves from the demands of democracy and open up a proverbial can on the bad guys.

Herein lie the differences with both the current crop of angry Mil SF and with my worldview. A typical politician for John Ringo (in what little I have read) is venal, self-serving, and blind to reality. Dadgum pansy gubmint commies get in the way, regulate everything, and (in SF at least) get us all killed by aliens. (Come to think of it, a hilarious Tea Party sign would be something like “Big Govt. allows the Posleen to eat children.”) Pournelle’s politicians, on the other hand, are generally committed to protecting democracy and the people, but are so hamstrung by their dedication to justice, peace, or some other ideal that the bad guys slice and dice freely. Pournelle (and Piper, and Heinlein) disturbs me because, like his politicians, I am none too eager to toss our scruples in the bin and lower ourselves to the bad guy’s level. If we fight brutality with brutality and injustice with injustice, we are no better than the enemies we face. And that is where we all just agree to disagree, and also why I don’t read much John Ringo.

Now for some fun. The Co-Dominium is one of my favorite future histories. It’s nowhere I want to live, but world is carefully reasoned and very compelling. Readers born in the 1990s will probably be nothing but baffled with all the Cold War imagery, but those of us old enough to remember will find it chilling. The atmosphere of corruption and degeneration oozes off the pages. The idea of the US and USSR gradually becoming each other is not unique to Falkenberg, but I can easily imagine an early 1970s Pournelle looking at the Soviets on one side, and Nixon and Kissinger on the other, and being thoroughly gloomy. As the action moves into the second half and a new set of characters takes over on a new world, I found myself a little less interested. I’m uncertain how much of my dissatisfaction is a general reflection of the second half, or if I’m just clinging adolescently to heroes from the first stories. I will confess to enjoying the Falkenberg parts of the book more than the battle for Sparta, but I’m not entirely sure why.

I have a lot of books on the burner right now, leaving me jumping from series to series, trying to sample as much as possible and coming back later to pick up the sequels to the books I liked the most. Once I started Falkenberg, though, I read it straight through. Rarely do I stick with one series, or even one author, for four books in a row. Of course, anyone reading The Prince will just barrel through, so maybe my experience is less than indicative. Still, they are good books. Pournelle is under appreciated outside of the Mil SF crowd and should be read more widely. Inside the Mil SF world, John Falkenberg is up there with Alois Hammer, the Dorsai crowd, and all the faceless Starship Troopers that Heinlein feeds to bugs in The Pantheon of Influential Old Stuff.

Rating: The Magnificent Magyars. A Cold War relic, Hungary’s early 1950’s football team was the best in the world. Look it up.

Mobile Suit Gundam

Mobile Suit Gundam

I am finally getting to the last of Japan’s Big Three SF Anime. (The other two are Super Dimension Fortress Macross and Space Battleship Yamato. Say what you will about the Japanese, but they sure like long, descriptive titles that may or may not make any sense.) Gundam is probably the definitive science fiction experience in Japan; it is comparable to Star Wars or Star Trek here. One can watch Gundam movies (possibly based on Gundam comics or books) while building plastic models from the show, then re-enact the whole thing in a video game, and finally tell friends about it later at a Gundam convention. There is even an anime series called Gunpla Builders that tells stories about, I kid you not, kids who build Gundam models and enter them in competitions. The original series came out in the late 1970s, the current series gets its next scheduled theatrical release in November of this year. It’s pretty much impossible to understand Japanese SF without confronting the Gundam behemoth at some point.
The best news? Many (but probably not all) of the Gundam stories are worth experiencing. On the surface, there aren’t many things sillier than gigantic robots piloted by angsty teenagers, flying through space and whacking things with glowing swords. And yet, somehow Tomino Yoshiyuki, the Gundam mastermind, pulls it off. It probably helps that he appears to be manic depressive and uses these stories to confront his personal demons. In Tomino’s hands, what should be moronic, adolescent fantasy turns into a dark meditation on the confluence of war, violence, and growing up. There are also giant fighting robots, crap blowing up, and occasional gratuitous shower scenes. (Note: the robots do not, repeat not, transform in this series. They only bash things and fly.)
The Gundam universe is a somewhat near-future creation, where humanity is split between Earth and several orbiting space habitats. The Earth-bound folk are The Federation, while the break-away orbitals are part of the Principality of Zeon. In the original series, Zeon are the rebel scum and the Federation are scrappy and decent. These roles are fluid though, with the sides trading white and black hats depending on the creator’s mood at the time. This being a Japanese story, there are multiple factions within each side, and ever-shifting degrees of good and evil. Char, the chief antagonist, is the epitome of this. He fights for the bad guys, but is operating for his own mysterious purposes in ways that both harm and help the heroes. He is also much cooler than the whiny protagonist and more sympathetic than any of the truly evil bad guys. Char and his clones play a major role in the Gundam universe, but now is hardly the time to delve into what has become a complex and detailed mythology.
Mobile Suit Gundam crashes merrily along a cliché ridden path. The hero is young and must come of age. (He’s also a dork for the first two thirds of the story and I had no compelling reason not to wish for his horrible death.) He literally falls into the cockpit of a Gundam (the giant robot) and demonstrates almost supernatural gifts for piloting it. Everyone is shocked, though if they had any idea they were in an anime TV series, they would immediately realize that of course the hero can drive the robot. After all, he used to bulls-eye wamp rats back home in Beggars Canyon, and they’re not much bigger than two meters. Whoops! Wrong dork who comes of age. Fortunately for all involved, the hero doesn’t find true love this time around. This is Japan, so most love is either tragic, unrequited, poorly executed, or some combination of the above. (A reflection of real life??) Again, there is no way this should work. And yet! I enjoyed it and plan on watching more.
Gundam benefits this time from finding a length sweet spot. I have complained in other reviews that Yamato was too short to engage and Macross needed to lose about one fourth of its episodes. Gundam clocks in at about nine hours across three DVDs; Tomino condensed the 30+ episode series and is, according to something I read somewhere, happiest with this length. I concur – three DVDs forces the editor to cut out clip shows, side stories, and other narrative fat, but allows enough room to build a convincing world and facilitate a rapport between audience and character.
I realize that in this review I have spent more time talking about the world, mythology and context of Gundam than I have the actual series. This may be appropriate, as a friend of mine explained to me that Mobile Suit Gundam is basically Tomino’s world building exercise, and that the story really gets going in the second series. This may be true. The first series is interesting, I’m glad I watched it, and I plan on watching more, but I think it leaves plenty of potential untapped. I consider it to be must-see anime for anyone who is serious about understanding Japanese SF or who just likes big robots, but suspect that Gundam’s best days are waiting for me on a different set of DVDs.
Rating: Pre-season friendlies. Fun to watch, full of useful scouting material, and an endless source of gossip and speculation, but not to be confused with the meat of the regular season.