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.

Star Wars Radio Drama

Star Wars Radio Drama

I have to admit that, in spite of the hoopla, I have yet to see the new Star Wars movie. I would like to, and feel bad for my son who has already had much of it spoiled, but actually sitting down in a theater for two hours is one step too far right now. It was not always so.

I have cooled on the Star Wars franchise in the last several years, but it remains the fictional world with the strongest hold on me. I couldn’t even count the number of times I’ve been through the movies. Yes, it’s only a rehash of every epic journey trope out there. Yes, it’s only fake deep. Yes, the flaws in the movies (and much of the Expanded Universe) are glaring. Yes, it is, in the final analysis, much less than it could have been. I didn’t see this in my formative years however, so Star Wars was always the ultimate narrative to me, narrowly edging out Middle Earth. (My son is walking an identical path now, one I won’t discourage him from.) Knowing this, my dad gifted me the complete Star Wars Radio Drama for Christmas one year, probably when I was in late high school. All thirteen episodes, roughly 6.5 hours, of expanded Star Wars goodness in audio form.

Now honestly, how many fans out there even knew this existed?

Unfortunately for this Christmas present, who really has time to sit down and listen to radio dramas? I packed the CD set along with me to college, then to Japan and back, but never cracked it open. There just wasn’t an opportunity, or at least I didn’t make one. Once we moved to the States though, I suddenly had a 13+ hour drive to get from my house to see my parents. It was time for the radio program to shine. I took the whole thing down in a single drive across Washington, Oregon, and Idaho; Star Wars was the perfect accompaniment for a solo trip. Now, with my son getting older and the new movie out to drum up enthusiasm, I had the bright idea to pull the CDs out for another pair of car trips. My kids frequently listen to audiobooks as we toodle about, so it was no great stretch to start up a narrative radio recording.

Within moments of the famous fanfare and introduction, my wife asked, “Would someone who hadn’t seen the movie understand what’s going on?” Honestly, I don’t know the answer to that. I think so, but I am hardly one to judge, knowing as I do the first movie forwards and backwards. Still, the producers succeeded against all expectations at creating an aural universe out of an intensely visual film. The mixing crew had access to all of the original sound effects and musical score, plus Luke and C-3PO reprising their roles, facts which undoubtedly helped. All other characters were performed by new voice actors, but after awhile, one ceases to notice.

So, how is the show? I enjoyed it both times. The extra running time required (allowed?) the screenwriters to build out more of the story. We see more of Luke on Tatooine, get the background on how and why Leah is fleeing with the stolen plans, and hear more of Obi-Wan and Luke’s relationship. All of these are glossed over in the movie, so the added information is worth hearing. I think Leah gets the best of the new scenes; she is even more impressive than before. Luke, on the other hand, leaves me lukewarm. (Ha!) Getting to know Biggs before he blows up is fun, but pre-Force Luke is a weenie. The new scenes don’t make him any less of a dweeb. It’s also important to remember that all of this predates the Expanded Universe, and even the pen and paper RPG that served as a sourcebook for all things Star Wars for so long. The radio drama and movie novelizations were the only hidden knowledge available at the time and give a bit more insight into Lucas’ original ideas. That said, the next time I listen, I will skip the first disc entirely. The good stuff starts up with the third episode.

Anyway, yes, give this a listen. It’s perfect for long car drives, more dramatic than audiobooks, appropriate for young fans, and good fun. There’s a bit of cheese, but there always was in Star Wars. I have the Empire Strikes Back radio show on hold at the library, because nothing shuts my son up on long rides like Jedi and storm troopers.

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.

In Conquest Born

In Conquest Born
C.S. Friedman

Perusing the archives here in The Attic, I discovered a shortage in my book diet: a potentially serious deficiency of the 80s. Fortunately for me, C.S. Friedman came through with a book that satisfies several urgent needs: it’s from 1986, it’s by a woman (yay equality), and it comes from the Two Dudes personal library. I have to dig into that once in awhile, or Mrs. Pep casts increasingly baleful glares at the shelves and asks just what on earth I propose to do with all of the books.

In Conquest Born has the feel of a world long in the making, and a story worked out at great length. This being Friedman’s first novel, I imagine she mulled it over for years; this is somewhat backed up by comments I have seen in interviews. While the book is character-centered, it is space opera at heart. This is the rise and fall of galactic empires, war spread over centuries, men and women larger than life, and a battle not just between governments, but between two diametrically opposed philosophies. It’s not bug-eyed alien invader space opera, or sweaty palms while gazing at the armada space opera; it feels like the New Space Opera coming out of the UK recently, though I doubt Friedman had any connection to that at the time. Very much ahead of its time and holds up well thirty years on.

The book is a series of vignettes, almost a short story collection. The structure might be a turn off for those look for chronologically focused arcs, but allows Friedman to catch the grand sweep of history. Because we are looking mostly at the two most influential actors in their respective societies, the only other option would be to write an interminable series; compressing the changes that wash over the empires into a comfortable, bite-sized narrative would rob the book of its grandeur. On the other hand, it does make the book easier to put down. The individual chapters can be compelling, but the long breaks between can dull the momentum at times.

No apologies from the author though. Conquest is a demanding book in many ways, not just the dedication required to plow through the long decades it covers. It is also a dark, almost brooding novel. No clear cut heroes, no shining knights, or cities on the hill. The Azean empire is nominally the good side, but it is uncompromising and weird in all sorts of ways that make contemporary readers uncomfortable. The Braxin empire is much worse however, as though Friedman tried to cook up the most vile culture imaginable for a feminist. Misogyny and cruelty are the very foundation of the empire, about which the reader sees a disturbing amount. (Never gratuitous or gleeful, I should add. Just present.) Anzha and Zatar are the respective representatives of their homelands, though their places within are fraught and convoluted. This is a morally twisted universe and is, at best, a very prickly place to spend five hundred pages.

Of course the best parts for me are the political systems and their interactions. The Braxin empire in particular is train derailment level compelling; so hard to look away from the awful carnage. Beneath the goth horror exterior is a complete societal edifice that has convincingly survived for a few centuries, but is equally convincingly on the brink. Zatar’s quest to preserve the empire through reformation is easily the best part of the book for me. Anzha is a racial outsider in Azean, but forces her way to prominence by sheer, bloody-minded, stubborn brilliance. She is no more likable than Zatar, and while the Azeans are at least not godawful, I wouldn’t want to live there either. They are the only group unified enough to oppose the Braxins though, so we must grudgingly cheer for them and their whacked out eugenics. Miles Vorkosigan fans might see the seeds of his universe, if Lois Bujold were to repaint all of her novels in gray, black, gray, and the colors of torment.

That said, Anzha and Zatar, who despise each other utterly, churn more electricity into their relationship than seventeen romance novel couples combined. “Planet destroying obsession” sounds overly dramatic, but it’s pretty much dead on. “Dear, I hate you so much that I crisped this Earthlike world for your birthday.” “Thank you for the gesture. Here’s a plague.”

It all makes me wonder who the target audience was. Or, for that matter, what the editor thought when he/she picked this up for publication. (I suppose the target audience is me, but how many of me are there?) If forced to sum it up in two words, I have settled on “grimly magnetic.” After about three hundred pages, I couldn’t stop reading. The buildup is very slow, with an extensive foundation that must be laid, but Conquest provides a steady buzz once Anzha and Zatar key in on each other. Yes, it is ethically compromised from start to finish. Yes, the Braxins are disgusting in every way, and yes, there are few if any white hats. On the other hand, the evolution on parallel personal and societal levels is several steps beyond most SF out there. I probably can’t recommend this to everyone, but I thought it was great, so potential readers can make of that what they will.

The Voyage of the Space Beagle

The Voyage of the Space Beagle
A.E. Van Vogt

We’re digging into a big name for Post #2 in the 2015 Vintage Sci-Fi Read-a-thon. I had heard of Van Vogt but not read him, and this year’s round of reading old stuff seems like a good time to get to know the man. Van Vogt has a checkered reputation now in terms of writing quality, though he was once a major voice in the genre and almost single-handedly put Canadian SF on the map. Most reviews now tend to agree that he is scattered and bordering on incomprehensible at times, though they concede that he nails the sense of wonder bit more often than not. My experience with The Voyage of the Space Beagle fits those reactions fairly well. It is a strange mix of nuttiness and cracking storytelling that defies simple categorization.

The basics: Space Beagle is four interconnected novellas about the titular ship cruising through space and meeting scary aliens. It is exceedingly Golden Age-y: puzzles encountered and solved by competent, rational scientists with a dash or two of action thrown in for good measure. I wouldn’t call this Hard SF, since the science bits aren’t front and center, but it clearly slants towards the problem solvers rather than the swashbucklers. The writing quality is uneven and Van Vogt’s focus is disjointed. At its best though, Space Beagle is tense and engaging. The third story, “Black Destroyer,” apparently served as the model for Ridley Scott’s Alien, and is the clear highlight of the book. Readers in a hurry would do well to check that one out, but probably skim the second and fourth stories.

Beyond questions of good and bad, Space Beagle is interesting for some of the things it has to say about the genre and the community at the time. It is also an unintentionally hilarious reminder of some of the crackpot science we have left behind. (I say that knowing full well that, fifty years from now, people are going to read our books and shake their heads in disbelief at the idiotic crap we’re predicting.) Van Vogt is utterly a man of his time, so readers have to take everything with a few grains of salt. Maybe best to use seasoned salt for good measure, possibly a Cajun mix.

One of the first things I noticed is that not everyone is a white man! Everyone is a man, of course, because who would send a space ship out into the stars for a multi-year voyage with a bunch of women on board? Think of the chaos. However! The historian Dr. Korita is Japanese, very surprising considering these stories were written between 1939 and 1950. Or maybe not so surprising, since at the time, only Japan had risen to challenge the Western European hegemony and were widely considered “honorary white people.” Still, odd to assign the gentle historian to a people that was then busily engaged in blowing the crap out of us in the Pacific. (The others are not described as white, but have names like Grosvenor and Morton.)

Of most interest to me is the message Van Vogt is sending in the book. Each of the four stories is a first contact, and each contact is a deadly threat to the crew. There are a few fallen civilizations, but no friendly aliens, no galactic commonwealth, and no interstellar trade. There is only the vast, dark abyss and some profoundly dangerous critters. It seems more fearsome than I am used to in SF of the era. Plucky humans naturally triumph with teamwork and ingenuity, but but it’s scary out there and most of these aliens are much stronger, smarter, and deadlier than we are.

Much of my amusement at the book came from the parade of pseudoscience nonsense, though Van Vogt would have done better to leave it in the background and focus on the aliens. At one time or another we get psionics (of a sort), hypnotism, something called “cyclic history,” and “Nexialism,” which seems to be VanVogt’s pet project. A major subplot of the book involves Grosvenor (the Nexialist) battling it out with Kent (the hard-nosed, dictatorial chemist) for scientific supremacy. Grosvenor is clearly superior, because Nexialism’s combination of whacko psychology, subliminal learning techniques, and hypnotism has given him holistic knowledge of everything in a way that simple PhD holders will never grasp. Hearing this, it may surprise nobody that Van Vogt was involved in L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics for a time. If nothing else, Space Beagle is a part of the next stage of human progression trope that people seemed to like back in the day.

Anyway, a typical portion of Space Beagle follows a set pattern. Scientists encounter some fearsome looking, clearly dangerous creature. “Let’s take it aboard for study!” Oddly, few if any offer reservations about this. Said creature goes on a rampage in the ship while scientists grimace and mutter. Dr. Korita, after a grueling and intense period of study lasting about five minutes, pronounces which stage of Cyclic History the alien is in. (“Clearly, he is a peasant and only cares about reproduction and territorial expansion.”) This gives Grosvenor, the super genius Nexialist, the clues needed to defeat the creature. His ideas are inevitably one step further than people want to take, so he has to use extraordinary measures to get his point across. (“Let’s fire atomic death rays and hope everyone ducks in time.”) Scientific Man triumphs, rinse and repeat.

At times it was hard to take this seriously. At one point, Grosvenor actually said something to the effect of, “Yes, I can use my superior intellect and powers to take over the entire ship. Fortunately, I have a strict code of ethics which prevents me from hypnotizing the entire crew to do my will, unless I really think it’s necessary.” GREAT, THANK YOU FOR YOUR MORALS, SUPER SCIENCE DUDE. Also, it was not distracting at all that everyone referred to one cat-like creature as “Pussy” and went around shooting guns called “vibrators” and ummm, errr, say, it’s lovely weather we’re having this week, wouldn’t you agree?

The further I get into this review, the sillier things become. I should say that, at the time, I was reading quite credulously and enjoying myself. “Black Destroyer” in particular is a well-crafted bit of SF scariness. On reflection though, I’m starting to see the strings holding up the cardboard planets and plastic rockets, so to speak. Warts aside, Space Beagle is a worthy piece of SF history and fun on its own terms. Probably best not to think too deeply about it though.

Ancillary Sword

Ancillary Sword
Ann Leckie

While of course I envy new SF sensation Ann Leckie, in a few ways, I kinda don’t. When one’s debut novel drops, lights the community on fire, and sweeps the awards, there is a certain pressure for an equally amazing follow up. I would be very nervous writing under those conditions. Leckie holds up however, and delivers a second book that is either one step better than the first, or just a step behind, depending on one’s taste in SF. What’s different and why does it matter? Read on.

I am not the first to point out that Ancillary Sword is a more restrained, quiet novel than Ancillary Justice. I won’t be the last either, so we’ll hopefully move past that quickly to something more interesting. It is true though, and must be said, or nothing that follows will seem at all relevant. Breq and crew are confined to a single system, most of it on a space station, with no galactic gadding about. There is an explosion and a gun shot, but it is almost entirely a character and societal study. It is, I suppose, an archetypal middle book: Leckie is giving more depth to the people and places in her universe and setting up bigger conflicts, but saving the fireworks for later. Sword is just as “good” as Justice, but is far more sedate and introverted.

What else is different? The biggest change besides the action is the thematic focus. While it seems that Leckie didn’t intend for gender and pronouns to take over the conversation surrounding Justice, the decision to make “she” and “her” the defaults, while giving Breq all sorts of trouble figuring out which is which combined to overwhelm anything else the book examined. Not so in Sword. Part of this is because we know it’s coming and won’t be shocked a second time, but there are narrative reasons as well. Breq is surrounded this time by Radchaai for whom gender is a non-issue, so they’re all glossing over it together. Everyone is still a she, but this fact doesn’t really call attention to itself. I know several readers who never got past the gender thing in Justice who might enjoy Sword more, simply for this reason.

I may be in the minority, but I stopped noticing all the she’s during Justice, distracted as I was with other shiny things that come to the fore now, as gender fades a bit into the background. I think it is these other ideas that Leckie really meant to explore with the series. Sword looks deeper into empire and its effects on a society, both the conquering and conquered. The central arguments driving the galactic conflict are whether or not the Radch should continue to expand and what to do with the conquered planets. Frequent readers will know how this sort of debate warms the deepest cockles of my cold, political science heart.

As an added bonus, the Radch is a brilliant creation. Somehow avoiding infodumps and “as you know Bob,” Leckie paints a galactic empire with stunning subtlety. A highly ritualized culture, polytheistic with an undercurrent of Confucianism, the Radch echoes East Asia, while its militarism and treatment of the conquered bring to mind a galaxy-spanning Rome. Breq navigates the complicated social hierarchies, exposes the political fault lines, and participates in the day to day observances of the empire to a degree that it feels like I have read textbooks about everything. At the same time, Breq gives an unflinching window into her own life experience as a ship AI trapped in a human body. Leckie’s characters are sympathetic, but they never let us forget how totally alien this universe is. The Radch amazes on almost every page as a future history worthy of many more stories than I imagine Leckie will write in it.

For me, and I doubt I’m the only one, the first book was more engaging. Sword is one of the best books of the year, but I gravitate naturally towards the balls to the wall, dangling over the cutting edge, pushing the boundaries whirlwind of Justice more than the stately character piece that is Sword. Most of the reviews I have seen say exactly the opposite, that the measured pace and deep characterization attracted them more to the second book. I suspect that the community will split neatly down the middle on this question, with opinions saying more about the reader than the novel. I do think that readers who bounced off the first, especially with the gender bits, would find it worth the time to try out the second book. If the wild audacity of Justice doesn’t wind one’s personal clock like it did mine, the people and places in Sword may instead. The Radch is setting up to be one of the great future histories in the genre anyway, so it’s no doubt advised to keep oneself aware of its goings on.

By now, I’m convinced that Leckie can do no wrong, and I can’t wait for the next story.

Series Continuations

Series Continuations

Offered as a counterpoint to last week’s post, I will now congratulate myself for striding boldly through a few of my to-complete series. Not as many as I would like, but I am slowly checking off a small selection of reading goals.

Starship (Mike Resnick) – All five volumes of this one done! It was alright. I think the series peaks in book two or three; after that, both the author and the main character realize that they have painted themselves into corners and things go downhill a bit. There are hilarious moments, a few bits of worthwhile SF insight, and some good characters. The narration is breezy and fun, though very rarely does anything actually challenge the hero. It would be nice if there was some way to take all of the good parts of this series and pair them with a story that isn’t outlandish, since the continuing pointlessness of the hero’s quest cuts this one off at the knees. These should probably be read after an extended period of grimdark, in case an antidote is needed.

The Third Lynx (Timothy Zahn) – Volume Two of the Quadrail books picks up right after the first ends. I like the world that Zahn creates, with the FTL train system and cool aliens. Lynx is very much a middle book though. With the Bad Guy revealed, the mystery loses some of its fun, and the absence of pace found in a final book means that this one somewhat lukewarm. Most of the plot beats are crime fic staples – “Yer off the case, Compton!” – leaving things almost wholly reliant on the setting for any sort of variety. I’ll keep reading for now and hope Zahn puts enough surprises in later books to keep me engaged.

Deepsix, Chindi (Jack McDevitt) – McDevitt is the Honda Accord of science fiction – sturdy, reliable, and never getting the attention of flashier models. I’m now three books into the Academy series, one of his two essential sequences. (The other is Alex Benedict.) Neither of these books really carries on the main arc from the first book, instead spending time with the central character and exploring McDevitt’s universe. I preferred Chindi, with the galactic gallivanting and escalating sense of wonder, but both books are typically solid McDevitt. I suppose he’s technically Hard SF, though there is a sympathetic, human core in each of his novels that make them warmer than much of the usual “white engineers solving problems” stereotype. I will say that I’m looking forward to book four, when the galactic menace from Engines of God returns.

The Neutronium Alchemist (Peter Hamilton) – One might wonder how much over the top Hamilton can get with this series. After all, the first book involved marauding Satanists, the dead coming back to possess living bodies, galactic empires on the brink, mass murderers, and gargantuan, sentient habitats. I expected the author to hold the line, but not to escalate. Then Al Capone returned with a fireball-shooting tommy gun. Don’t get me wrong, The Night’s Dawn trilogy is rampant fun. It’s not at all what I expected, completely subverts the invading alien menace trope, and kicks out a steady stream of memorable scenes and characters. It also out-pulps the pulps, just barely staying on this side of absurdity. Hamilton is also one of the few authors I know that says, “Here we are on page 2000 of a series; it’s time to add some new plot lines!” Utterly fearless, and he’s never met a background detail he didn’t like. I’ll have to wrap this up sooner rather than later, since there’s no way to keep everything straight in my brain with a long layoff.

Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice
Ann Leckie

In a year somewhat lacking in prominent SF titles (at least to my eyes), Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice seems to have made the biggest splash. I’m probably missing several other exciting developments, but so far the press for Leckie has far outshone any other release that I have seen. (I admit that this could be more of a reflection on me than the state of the genre, but last year seemed to have one huge book after another coming out. This year, not so much.) As the reviews piled up, I quickly moved Ancillary Justice to the front of the line, knowing that this is a book I could not afford to miss out on.

If this is the very first review of Ancillary that the gentle reader has found, said reader would be better served starting off elsewhere. I’m going to give a quick assessment of the book, followed by a deeper look at random topics that appealed to me. I have no plans of summarizing the plot or giving any other such de riguer information; this essay is a mostly spoiler-free investigation of the meta-textual questions Leckie raises, rather than a proper “book review.” The fact that I’m going to devote the rest of the word count to this sort of thing should signal my overall rating of the book. In short, I am not yet ready to crown Ancillary as the best book of the year, but I do believe that it’s the best 2013 book that I’ve read so far.

The first thing that jumps out, and the first thing that almost everyone talks about, is Leckie’s oddball way of playing with gender. I have seen a few different interpretations of this, with corresponding reactions. Most of these cluster around a LeGuin-ian statement of gender ideals, ala The Left Hand of Darkness, or some sort of clarion call for gender blindness and/or equality. As one might imagine, not everyone is totally cool with this approach, though it’s not always those I expect that were put off by the perceived ax-grinding. I saw things a bit differently. From the very first pages, Breq is clearly unable to process gender and makes constant errors. Breq (and I can’t use a pronoun here, because I have no idea which is appropriate) bemoans these mix-ups in the narrative and is all to aware of her (his?) mistakes. I enjoyed watching the mess, especially when characters take offense at being mistaken for the other gender. Breq’s ongoing frustration amused me greatly. (“This person seemed to have both biological features and apparel choices denoting ‘female,’ but I may have been wrong.”)

I haven’t read, or even looked for, a definitive answer from Leckie. I suspect that the intentional blurring of lines is meant to break down the reader’s perceptions of gender stereotypes and cause a small ruckus. It works – in many cases I have no idea if someone is male or female. The point is, I suppose, that it doesn’t, and shouldn’t, matter. There is more to it in my view though. Breq is not “human,” Breq is a ship. Further, Breq is a ship that was created by a society, the Radchaai, that uses gender neutral language. Of course, these are all choices made by the author with full awareness of what is going on, but I see the perpetual confusion as a reminder that Breq is not like us. The first person narration naturally leads the reader to identify with Breq, but the fact remains, Breq is a wholly alien creation. Without jarring reminders to the contrary, like someone being unable to correctly say “he” and “she,” I think we become too sympathetic, forgetting that Breq is a thoroughly unreliable narrator.

This is also key to what I think is the central focus of the book: identity. More specifically, identity in a post-human, post-Singularity world. Leckie never jumps out and says what side she’s on, but I see Ancillary as yet another brick in the wall of post-human extrapolation. (Stross, Egan, Vinge, Schroeder, etc.) Breq is easy to like, with her (his?) righteously indignant quest, super-human coolness, love of music, and strangely altruistic mindset, but (s)he is not us. Breq used to be a gigantic ship, with her (his?) consciousness potentially spread through hundreds of “ancillaries,” human bodies whose brains are wholly inhabited by her. Breq has been a part of the ongoing Radchaai expansion, party to atrocities that would likely drive us mad with PTST. She also, and this may only appeal to me, uses the ancillaries to sing in antiphonal choirs. I would totally do this, if I were a sentient starship with a few hundred corpsicles are my disposal. I digress.

Breq’s erstwhile antagonist is the Lord of the Radch, who also has a plethora of bodies at his/her disposal. At the heart of the plot is the question of these bodies’ identities. Never mind pointing out that, even with endearing quirks, Breq is not very much like anyone we know; how are all of these bodies supposed to remain the same person, when they are all out there having different experiences, occasionally getting cut off from the main hive mind, having to form opinions and take initiative, and other such crises that will never bedevil us single-consciousness types. Indeed, the phrase “I’ve half a mind to…” takes on a whole new meaning when half of one’s mind is literally an independent entity.

This is just scratching the surface. Even the characters that are a neat match of one brain – one body have their own identity questions, be it waking up after a 1000 year sleep, or just taking sides in convoluted political questions. I am having a hard enough time summarizing this in a way that makes a scant minimum of sense; I can barely imagine Leckie creating, plotting, and writing the whole thing. It is borderline miraculous that it works, and works so well. Yes, Ancillary demands a certain amount of faith and effort from the reader, but the dividends more than compensate.

The other main vector of Ancillary Justice is colonialism. Breq is not coy with the side effects of the Radch’s perpetual expansion, both on the conquered and the conqueror. She is open about the cost paid by the subjugated planets, but does offer the usual “benefits of civilization” defense that colonialists use. (To be completely fair, there are sometimes technological, political, and economic benefits in colonialism, especially when the stronger side is nominally benevolent. It probably isn’t the dominant society’s right to determine the final cost-benefit analysis, though that is what usually happens.) At the same time, Breq is a window into an increasingly fractured empire, one where some of the leadership is concerned about the economic and emotional addiction to expansion. The conflict underlying the main plot line is the political maneuvering between these camps, with all of the fallout through a spectrum of empire-wide policies.

So this is a book that takes a crack at serious psychological and political issues, attempts a new way of dealing with post-humans and story telling, and puts it all in a New Space Opera setting that will please lovers of galactic empires everywhere. The comparison might seem odd (or elitist), but as I read the book, Carl Vine’s First Piano Sonata played in my head. Like Ancillary, the sonata appeared almost out of nowhere and set its genre on fire with the uncanny way it summed up the major threads of contemporary classical music, fusing them into a bright path leading into the future. If the others out there excited about Ancillary are anything like me, they see Ann Leckie hinting at where SF might go next. The book reminds me, more in its position in the discourse than the details of the story, of Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief, which also emerged rather suddenly and turned science fiction on its head for a time. Exhilarating stuff.

That, in a large nutshell, is my basic reaction. Not everyone likes Ancillary Justice, just like not everyone likes Carl Vine. I do though, and will push it on everyone I meet.

The Reality Dysfunction

The Reality Dysfunction (Night’s Dawn #1)
Peter F. Hamilton

Peter Hamilton is the Tad Williams of science fiction. I could dig into a comparison of how their early, defining series set high standards for working strictly within the tradition, but I think I will stick with saying that both are graduates cum laud from the Victor Hugo School of Concise Writing. (Alas for Hamilton however, he gets no credit for the origins of the Furry movement. That honor is Williams’ alone.) I am about 15 years late on this, but I finally started into The Night’s Dawn Trilogy. After reading 1100 trade paperback pages and still just one third of the way in, I am prepared to say that this is long. At current pace, I will finish the next two volumes sometime in 2015.

There will be some mild spoilers below, but nothing too egregious. Still, anyone planning on reading this for the first time and hoping to avoid anything that might interfere with maximum surprise may want to stop here. It’s kind of hard to know where spoilers begin though, considering that “the plot” takes maybe 500 pages to kick in. I have read the first books in Hamilton’s Commonwealth universe (Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained), so I had an inkling of what was coming. Every story has a back story, and every character has a past that can be traced back over generations. Let no reader accuse Hamilton of not being thorough – I know more about some of these fictional people than I do friends and neighbors in real life. Whether or not this is a good thing remains an open question.

Long time readers will know my preference for concise, just-the-facts-ma’am prose, but will also know that I am wildly indulgent of authors like Iain Banks and Kim Stanley Robinson. I’m not sure why the minutia of 2312, for example, fascinates me, while I find myself tapping an impatient foot and urging Hamilton to get on with it, but that is what sometimes happens. I can’t complain too much though, since the world building is flawless and the back stories entertaining. On the other hand, it’s not something I see myself rereading, just because the time commitment is overwhelming. (I remember reading some reviews on Amazon where people talked about how they reacted to plot points the third or fourth time through. I was aghast. Who has time for multiple trips through 3500 pages?) Anyway, I’m not prepared to say that it’s a good or bad thing, but potential readers should probably be aware of the slog ahead.

In hindsight, the most amusing part of Night’s Dawn is the way Hamilton keeps things firmly in the pulp tradition. He has updated the specifics, with anti-matter replacing ray guns and biotech in place of cardboard spaceships hung from strings midst a bad starscape. The prose is also several notches above the average dime store serial, as one would expect from a production as serious as this. Thematically however, Huge Gernsback would feel right at home. In fact, I wish I could have seen Hamilton’s brainstorming sessions for this one. “Bad guys… hmm, alien bugs have been done to death, Von Neumann machines are passe, what should I do? I know! How about THE DEAD!!! And how do we get deceased souls out of Purgatory? Eureka! Satan worshipers! This is gonna be great.”

So, yes, these are both plot points at the core of the trilogy. It’s utterly goofy, but it works. (At least, it does so far. I could see this spinning wildly off the rails, but suspect that Hamilton holds things together.) In true pulp fashion though, we have brave and competent heroes, scantily clad maidens, mustachio-twirling villains, wide-scale pathos, doomed love, and plenty of tough people coming through in the cliff hanging clutch. We also have hundreds of pages about characters whose only reason for existing is to later suffer horrible fates, all of which would have been on the cutting room floor until Niven and Pournelle unleashed doorstop space opera on the unsuspecting world, back in the late 1970s.

I’m making it sound like Night’s Dawn is 3000 pages of Ming the Merciless, something that is not fair at all to the author. He’s working within the idiom, but going very much his own way and operating at a high level. Things are very complex – in Reality Dysfunction alone there are three bad guys (or sets of bad guys), one galactic confederation with numerous independent entities, an extinct race from the distant past, a confident riff on Bruce Sterling’s Mechanist-Shaper dichotomy, an array of planets and stations, each with its own tech level and politics, and the customary Cast of Thousands. I periodically wished Hamilton would stop rooting around in everyone’s past and just blow up a few spaceships, but once the action finally gets in gear, the book hurtles madly. If the next two books keep up the pace at the end of the first, I will be both impressed and exhausted.

So this is an incomplete view of things, covering as it does but one third of the proceedings. I’ve tried to give my perspective of the book in terms of its place in the science fiction meta-dialogue, since I don’t feel right marching into plot analysis and that sort of thing. Later posts will dig more deeply into these aspects of the story, but I have to finish them first. Readers can expect the next installment within the next two years. It might take me that long.

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.