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.

Throwdown! Singularity Sky vs. Lord of Light

Singularity Sky
Charles Stross
Lord of Light
Roger Zelazny

I have mentioned before that I often, through the blindest of coincidence, read books in quick succession that inexplicably share themes, despite a superficial lack of any similarity. This happens enough that I am inaugurating a brand new, irregular column called “Throwdown!” where I combine the books into one improbable review. As part of the fun is my stumbling on these crazy connections, “Throwdown!” is by necessity an unplanned, whenever it pops up kind of post. This time I’m tossing one of SF’s hottest newer voices in the ring with an acknowledged master of the art, as Charles Stross and Roger Zelazny pick apart anti-technological authoritarianism.

These two may not seem like a natural pairing. I’m sure Stross has read Lord of Light at some point, as it is widely hailed as a classic of speculative fiction, but I would not place him in the Zelazny clan were I to create SF geneologies. Stross is Hard SF, with a smidgen of zany space opera, while Zelazny is, well, Zelazny. He’s kind of his own subgenre, where New Wave meets The Sixties and casually subverts the hazy border of science fiction and fantasy. Nobody was more surprised than I when both sets of characters started arguing about the exact same things, setting up a bizarre dialogue across several decades and subgenres.

I read Singularity Sky first, so it gets to fire the opening salvo. Stross is one of those authors that exploded on the scene during the ten year break I took from SF. (High school, college, and living out of the country always conspire against reading for pleasure.) I’ve been racing to catch up since discovering him a year ago, reading things in random order as I come across them in the library. He is part of the UK Invasion that occasionally leaves me despairing that US science fiction is going the way of US manufacturing. We may have to institute non-tariff barriers lest the brilliance across the pond do the same thing to our once proud SF industry that the Japanese did to our TV sector. Sky is apparently his first published novel, but I saw little of the awkward rough edges that often populate debuts. Stross is nothing if not confident; fortunately his books live up to the bravado.

Like Vernor Vinge, his literary godfather, Stross is deeply concerned with the Singularity, that moment when either a) technological change reaches critical mass and blows far beyond what society is prepared for, b) the emergence of AI, or c) some combination of the two. In Sky‘s case, the Singularity happened once on Earth, which triggered the events that set the stage for the book, and then another Singularity happens on a distant colony planet and triggers the events recorded in the book. Said events are intensely political, because every political system we have ever tried is built on an economy with scarcity at the heart of it. The Singularity ushers in a post-scarcity economy, which explodes whatever political system is in place. Where Stross crosses the streams with Zelazny is in his target society.

The New Republic is an authoritarian semi-empire encompassing several worlds, within which there are strict rules on technological advance. Innovation breeds instability, which in turn threatens the ruling elite, so technology is carefully controlled and suppressed with the aid of a reactionary religion. The Festival, about which the less explained the less spoiled, stumbles upon a backwater Republic world, drops a rain of mobile phones on the unsuspecting populace, and unleashes a technological fever dream on feudalists and their Marxist antagonists. As the New Republic Navy scrambles to regain control, a pair of observers/agents from post-Singularity Earth tag along for the ride and attempt to influence the outcome. Throughout, the characters argue over stability, suppression, and control versus innovation, opportunity, and entropy.

Lord of Light is a very different animal. Hugo winner, respected classic, and genre bending product of the Sixties, this book has probably never been paired with a Charles Stross work before. Zelazny being what he is, I’m certain that there have been theses written about him in general and this book in particular. I doubt that I have anything new to add to a critical discussion whose page count must run to several multiples of the original book. I grabbed it on the same day as Sky during a trip to an unfamiliar library branch in town, deciding that it was high time I put another notch in the Hugo Winner tally; I even read them back to back. I almost fell out of my bus seat when, in the middle of a wild story about men who have taken on the identity of Hindu gods and oppress the colonists they delivered to a planet far from Earth, a character who had chosen to re-enact the founding of Buddhism starts debating with Brahma whether or not to encourage technical development among the plebes.

It goes without saying, or at least it should, that the authors come down on the side of Science. No gazing fondly into the mists of time for Stross or Zelazny, it’s full speed ahead with industrial revolution and goodbye (eventually) to cholera. Stross in particular is honest about the human cost of development, because there is always a cost, but neither of them see any romance in peasants grubbing around in the dirt when technology could provide them with machines, soap, sandwich presses, and other trappings of civilization. This is an obvious clue to those who can’t decide if Lord of Light is fantasy or science fiction, as few self-respecting fantasy authors would be so gleeful about leaving gallant knights, fair maidens, swords, and serfdom behind.

Aside from this shared theme, there is little tying the two books together. Stross writes a brash, fast-paced tale with a solid base of both science and political economy, plus a whiff of Iain M. Banks nuttiness. Zelazny is the poet laureate of SF, somehow packing enough story, humanity, barely hinted at history, and philosophy to last at least a trilogy, all in the word count that some authors spend in their introductory chapters. He accomplishes, without ever seeming to try, the level of literary depth that so many other fantasy authors reach for, but ultimately fall short of. They strive in rather obvious fashion to Say Something, while Zelazy gives the impression that he tossed off the chapter before breakfast. This is all important, because, as any artist knows, it is the illusion of effortlessness that elevates a work to greatness. His book is full of the Sixties, with its anti-authority tropes, pacifist moments, and the mysteries of both India and Buddhism, while Stross is plugged into the latest debates about AI, economics, and the limits of empire. In spite of this, both arrive at the same conclusion, finding consensus in a conversation they might not even realize they were engaged in. Onward, indeed, to sandwich presses.

Rating: Continuing with the Old Meets New theme, Maradona coaching the Argentine National Team, perhaps? But without the cocaine, frenetic emoting, arguments with the media, or a be-suited Slip’N’Slide maneuver after a critical goal.