Go to Your Mama: Mothers in Science Fiction

b66d58748dcbc67d0cded34fcf3c5f4dTLDR: It’s Jessica. Jessica is the coolest. Also Zamm, Agent of Vega. The Ripley picture is because there are no satisfactory images of The Lady Jessica.

Moms get the short end of the stick in fiction. Most of them just flat-out get killed in childbirth. Others are unceremoniously forgotten in the hero’s quest to Find Out About My Father, because….

Even if they survive, mothers tend to ignored by characters and story alike because they try to keep their kids from going on adventures, aka safe. (This is probably because mothers invest a hell of a lot of resources into their children and tend to want to collect a return on their investments.) Even if they are strong* characters in their own right/focus stories, once children get involved they tend to get pushed out of focus and not have a lot of impact on the plot or the protagonist. See: Padme Amidala. See also: every mother of a Disney Princess, ever.

* Emotionally resilient, self-motivatated, and, if a main character, actively plot-relevant (this is less important if it’s a side character.) Another important trait is: how cool are they?

Anyhow, when moms are recognized, they’re usually only counted when they assume an action role in the story–AKA, Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor. This is primarily because most people are fake nerds and heretics. It’s also because people like to focus on the fact that Ripley and Sarah Connor’s strength, in-universe, to survive and fight comes from the presence of a child to protect. It ignores the deeper reason that having an external motivation for their actions makes them more active and therefore more interesting characters.

Think about it. Ripley without Newt is a PTSD-riddled civilian tagging along on a military mission. She’s cannon fodder. She’s toast. Without Newt, Ripley doesn’t take as dominant a part in the decision-making and doesn’t survive because Burke forces the issue and everyone gets eaten. With Newt, Ripley has the additional motivation of another person to consider and protect. Ripley has a focus to control and override her impulses to freeze up. Ripley has a strong motivation to get everyone out of there and not stop until they are. Without John Connor, Sarah is the perky blonde who gets killed by the indomitable serial killer. With John Connor (and the fate of the human species, too) as her responsibility, Sarah has a serious motivation and more importantly, she has a reason for doing plot-relevant things. A hero or heroine who does plot-relevant things is a hero/ine doing interesting things.  And not, say, bumbling around an apartment building at night and getting stabbed to death by a bad guy. That is uninteresting.

bef1d0932ad9e3cb8abd91862f572714That all being said, it took me over a month to write this post because I couldn’t think of very many others. No, of course there’s Cordelia Vorkosigan. There’s Amanda Morgan. There’s Scaramouche‘s Comtesse de Ploughastel, but that’s not science fiction, even honorarily. There’s Eden Perdicaris from The Wind and the Lion, and that’s….well, hey, that’s alternate history! It totally counts! There’s…. uh…. Galadriel, whhhhattt, she’s Arwen’s grandma, come on! But most of these characters’ stories don’t focus on the maternal or nurturing relationship between them and their children. That actually seems to be quite rare.

Cordelia Vorkosigan, although an extraordinarily strong protagonist, is not a major character after Miles comes along; she is more prominently a counselor to characters not her own biological son. Moreover, after Cordelia hands over the protagonist mantle to her son, she’s a fairly passive as far as plot-relevance goes. This doesn’t make her a weaker character, just a sidelined one, given that Miles’ focus is on military and political victories, while his mother has a complete disdain for the military and a distinctly apolitical/anti-political stance towards politics of the Barrayaran style. On the other hand, Ekaterin Vorkosigan nee Vorsoisson has a kid, has a close relationship with him, and is an active presence in her opening storylines. So she counts, even if her kid gets promptly sidelined in later books. And as far as action goes, counter-hijacking the doomsday weapon from a group of terrorists and smashing it into the ground until the rubble bounces is a pretty badass start to an awesome career of….being a loyal housewife and Countess and mother to a parcel of other Vorkosiganlings. Pwah. I guess there’s also Alys Vorpatril, but she kind of sucks.

Amanda Morgan is a borderline example, as the majority of her story-time is focused on the ruthless, pragmatic necessities of defending a planet against armed invasion; she has no time or attention for even the birth of her own grandchild. There are, however, hints of the past: she thinks on and deeply regrets the necessity of the strained, strict relationship she had with her own long-dead son….a son who, the text implies, was an unrecognized psychopath only just held to the right side of the law by his controlling mother’s iron will. (Is a good story, everyone should read.)

Family relationships in Tolkien stories aren’t given a huge amount of weight, and those that are are mostly paternal-focused. (Unless your name is Luthien Tinuviel.) That being said, mothers whose presence has a great impact on their children would include Morwen, Idril, Aredhel. And Luthien’s mother, Melian. And Erendis of Numenor, ouch. And Indis, I guess. Actually, come to think of it, Tolkien does do this quite a bit in The Silmarillion, although the narrative conventions and epic scope of that book keeps these relationships out of close focus.

So anyway, finally to the most triumphant example of my thesis: the Lady Jessica, of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Jessica is THE FREAKING COOLEST character in all of science fiction, and this is an opinion I have held since I was thirteen years old. Jessica makes Paul into the hero he is: what she has taught him makes him capable, perceptive, and able to use his powers when he comes into them. Jessica is instrumental to the plot both actively during their escape via the Voice, their initial manipulation of Liet Kynes, and then through the Missionaria Protectiva itself.–to the Bene Gesserit, it is their sister and agent who is the valuable one, not some half-grown boy of dubious potential. And yet through it all, Jessica is still vulnerable and sympathetic and cool. She is admired and respected by other characters, or through her actions and presence instills that respect in them. Also, she gets the last word (literally.)

In the same mould as Jessica is Delamber from Jack Vance’s The Faceless Man. Delamber is a distinctly more limited character than Jessica, as she is an indentured sex slave in a harshly misogynistic setting. She can only give general guidance to her son–but her warmth and courage prepares him for his heroic path throughout the next two books. As for emotional resilience: Mur/Gastel Etzwane is not her only child, and she refuses to attempt escape with him partly because she wishes to remain behind to protect her daughter; she also faces the loss of rank from “sex slave” to “work slave” and the attempted bullying of the priest-caste men with disdainful equanimity. As for plot relevance, the first book revolves around hero’s efforts to redeem her contract and rescue her (a time-honored SF plot, let us not forget.) Habits learned in the process drive him to eventually take on the responsibilities of leadership and protection for his world. There was no third book, shut up.

With a slight pivot to the least triumphant example: Empress Anais of The Braided Path by Chris Wooding. While this works technically–Anais is a major figure in the plot, is hugely motivated by her daughter and desire to protect her (daughter has magic, girls are not allowed to have magic. Magical girls, in particular, are not allowed to become Empresses. Magical girls are supposed to end up dead)–a) Anais does not interact very much with her daughter, b) Anais ends up dead. Also, c) these books weren’t very good.

My last and other triumphant example is that of Zamm, Agent of Vega (from The Truth About Cushgar) by James H. Schmitz. Zamm is an inverted example: she’s a mother who has lost her family. Zamm subsumes her grief and is firmly controlled by her intelligence and iron will. She uses her pain and longing as a weapon, against others–the (ice-cold manipulative spymaster) Third Co-Ordinator describes her as his “grand champion killer”–and against herself. Throughout the story, Zamm drives herself to look for more clues in her own mind and memories, even when this process could kill her or drive her insane. As for plot relevance, Zamm’s vendetta results in the Confederation winning an entire war…by accident.

And don’t ever try to go up against her with a pirate ship or a gun in your hand.

Anyhow, that’s what I’ve got. Thoughts?

12 Rules for Life: Science-Fiction Solutions to Chaos (repost)

So inspired by (a 12 Rules list which was made by someone who hadn’t very read much science fiction) and the fact that I occasionally remember this is supposed to be an SF book blog, here’s my brilliant, science-fiction infused Antidote To Chaos.

Rule One: Never act incautiously when facing a small wrinkly bald smiling old man!

Hokey religions and ancient prophecies are no match for a good blaster at your side. 

When in doubt, take off and nuke it from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure. 

– Learn the attitude of the knife–of chopping off what’s incomplete and saying ‘Now it’s complete, because it’s ended here.’ 

Good engineers build triple redundancy. 

Do not call up that which you cannot put down. 

Beware of spaceships bearing gifts. 

When you meet anything that’s going to be human and isn’t yet, or used to be human once and isn’t now, or ought to be human and isn’t, keep your eyes on it and feel for your hatchet.” Also alternatively stated: Make ye no truce with Adam-zad! 

If someone asks you for a cracker for their oontatherium…give it to them. 

Evil is treating people like things–including yourself. 

Fuck subtle. 

All things strive. 

Runners up:
“You can’t trust anybody any further than you can throw them and there’s nothing you can do about it, so let’s have a drink.”

– Make ye no truce with Kings!

Readlist: hope springs eternal

A fistful of dynamite

The Ascent of Wonder – SF anthology edited by David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. I remembered this collection as containing some of my favorite stories–as well as quite a few that I just didn’t bother to read. Not sure where it was first acquired…I have a vague memory of the Father of Skaith picking it up at a library sale, or something, many moons ago. I brought it from home to read through again and try to review after stumbling across someone who had read, meticulously reviewed….and absolutely despised it. I will agree with the aforementioned blogger inasmuch as the editors’ notes are actually kind of insufferable. Personally, I simply never read them, but to each their own.

Ti’s Toys – James H. Schmitz – The original collection of stories Baen later re-collected and published as T n’ T: Telzey and Trigger. It’s a little bit interesting from the POV that these stories are all “sequels” set after Telzey and Trigger’s Big Stand-Alone Stories (Lion Game and Legacy)–so both heroines are, in their circles, fairly well known as problem solvers.

So they get handed problems to solve.

– That’s about it for the readlist. My kindle, after many years of faithful service, has finally decided to fritz out: the down key no longer works, or will downshift multiple pages at a time (“How old is that poor baby!?”)

Watchlist: currently, I’m watching youtube paracord whipmaking tutorials….

Review: Beyond Skyline (this movie, seriously)

exeilcptltl51tpmjsjyoooeviI feel like people just really like the idea of Frank Grillo. I mean, he’s a good-looking, charismatic, athletic guy who moves well and acts very naturally when he’s yelling. People like the idea of Frank Grillo being the person who yells at them to keep to the left, hey hey hey I said left! when evacuating a stopped subway train during an alien invasion (or when there’s anarchists attacking), or being the person who takes point during the we-are-slinking-down-a-suspiciously-deserted-street-all-stealthy-like, because, again, he moves well and handles his gun that never runs out of bullets with movie-star-like stylishness. And, mark this: people LOVE Frank Grillo sleeveless, shirtless, in a disheveled and tattered shirt, or in a clinging, wet, easily-seen-through-shirt. And it’s not like the guy doesn’t have range! He gets to whisper-yell encouragement to young kids and frightened women, and yell-coach a pregnant woman through labor (not kidding) even though she’s not due for another six months. WHAT.


The movie starts like most Frank Grillo movies do, with the backstory and character trappings of our protagonist briskly illustrated by having him roll up to the station and drink something we know is futuristic because it’s sparkly and blue. He’s there to (unwillingly) bail out his son, who needs to be bailed out because this is a third strike and Grillo’s ex-partner doesn’t want to book him if he doesn’t need to. The family relationship has been strained since the wife/mother unit died; but father and son still do share a bond. All of this takes roughly thirteen minutes, and then the aliens start zapping people with blue light and beaming them onto their ship, which is hovering over LA.

(This is where the “Hey hey hey stay on the right!” “Watch the rails!” “I SAID KEEP UP!”) part of Frank Grillo yelling at people comes in, and the gun that never runs out of bullets makes its first appearance shortly after the aliens do. And start ripping people’s brains out. Ugh.

This part lasts until Grillo and the group he is trying to protect (including his mesmerized son), all get beamed into the ship. He happens to escape (no, seriously, how come he’s still got ammo?), and, helped by one of the aliens, bumps into the pregnant woman. She explains that the stolen brains are running the alien….machines…and that the one helping is actually her husband and her child’s father. When the aliens get ahold of children…Such as the one who just arrived…damn that was fast…and the mother dies.

And thus we get, which is also always a thing people like: badass guy protecting a child, because one thing people like is Frank Grillo, minimally shirt-clad, holding a baby. Meanwhile, Son and the Cute train Conductor are somehow not having their brains ripped out, and the mission is on to rescue them.

I am just along for the ride at this point.

There’s a bit of yelling and thrashing around and Son gets his brain ripped out in front of Frank. What the actually meaningful part of this story is right now is a fight between the head alien, and the alien who was the baby’s father, who stayed behind to cover their exit….and had a grenade palmed.

In grand and traditional fashion, one explosive, no matter how tiny, in the right place, is enough to bring the entire ship crashing down. It’s somewhere…tropical…and the locals have by this point apparently figured out that GIANT MOTORCYCLE HELMETS PROTECT YOUR BRAINS. Lol. Also there’s a guy with a flamethrower. He gets a close-up for mysterious reasons.

And then there is an ENTIRELY RANDOM kung fu fight. What?

The plot-relevant part of these guys is that they collect a crystal egg-like thing that fell on the ground. I’m guessing it’s a grenade or a computer or something. Our heroes make it out of the ship, with the visibly-larger baby. Also, it might bear mentioning that Cute Conductor is now also shirtless. Well, in a camisole. Heroes plus baby but soon minus blind guy bump into the motorcycle-helmeted duo. Also, the baby is about two years old now with a nice head of hair.

HEY, THAT’S IKO UWAIS UNDER THE HELMET! (That explains the kung fu, LOL.) THIS MOVIE, SERIOUSLY. You could get an entire TV series out of the plot and genre shifts just this far and we’re only fifty-seven minutes in. (Lol at the motorcycle-helmet girl whaling on Cute Conductor Girl. That’s just unnecessary.) I mean, sheesh, they’re FIGHTING IN A MUD PIT WITH CLINIGING WET RIPPED SHIRTS ON. The guys are, that is. BUT THEN! Other guys arrive, necessitating the guys stopping fighting and joining ranks. Well, that was easy.

HEY I RECOGNIZE THAT GUY HE IS THE OTHER INDONESIAN KUNG FU GUY (and had a flamethrower a few scenes ago.) More to the point, he also has a gun in Frank Grillo’s face. But they get the drop on him and decide to shoot him and then take him along. At this point the kid is about four years old and violence isn’t good for Baby Girl to watch.

And our heroes march through Ankor Wat, or at least a nice CGI version of it to an underground base where they are met by a white guy with a British accent (a chemist by trade), and there is also a dedicated prison space for Other Kung Fu Guy. We are now one hundred and four minutes into the movie. (Wait, hang on, is this Cambodia or Thailand?)

This movie, seriously.

Anyhow, the chemist guy sciences Baby Girl’s blood a little and gets freaked out. This leads to an unconvincing scene where Grank….yeah I’m leaving that typo…explains that SHE IS OUR HOPE! But also she’s running out of blood and her system is shutting down due to the demands of constant growth. Grillo volunteers for the transfusion, since he had stuff happen to him on the alien ship blah blah blah. And Ms. Motorcycle Helmet mellows out a little bit seeing Cute Conductor and Baby Girl cuddling up.

So we cut to…some random woman (who died in the intro) waking up in a hospital bed…

…wait…noooooooooo….she has a wedding ring like the one Grillo has been playing with periodically, around her neck…

No, now I’m really confused.

So cut back to the science guy sciencing a little bit more, blah blah. Did he really just say, “Scientifically speaking”–? Sure did. Heh. And then at minute one hundred and thirteen, it turns out that using Baby Girl’s blood plus one of their canons will free all of the machine-soldier-brains. (“You sure he’s not doing the drugs?”) And thus the world will be saved. Suuuuuuuuuuure, and I believe you guys are going to do that all on your motorcycle-helmeted own, even if you do have a Vietnam-war era base with a punji stick trapdoor.

Anyhow, our peaceful interlude is interrupted by brain-stealing aliens attacking the girls. Ms. Motorcycle Helmet runs into a minefield, drawing the brainstealing thing after her….but steps on something that goes click. It blows her up and destroys the Stealer. Cute Conductor flees back to base, horrified (and we get some more Reassuring Frank Grillo action, also getting Baby Girl somewhere safe. D’awww, he gives her a headbutt.)

But then (have I mentioned we are one hundred and nineteen minutes into this movie?) the Indothaibodians prepare to DEFEND THE BASE while Grillo heads out with the magical blood syringe to rescue the brainwashed (literally? Ew) machines. (“Fucking Americans.” Hah.)

The aliens start to move down into the underground base (which has been lavishly booby-trapped) while Grillo slinks around topside, action-movie-star-style. He makes it back up to the ship, but the civilians are forced to also flee the safety of the base. But it’s OK, because Iko Uwais launches a grenade at the glowing blue thingy and it blows up. BUT IT’S NOT OKAY BECAUSE THE ALIEN LEADER IS ACTUALLY THERE IN HIS ALIEN GIANT MECHA SUIT OH NOES.

I think that’s about as much as I’m going to be bothered with. They’re fighting in the ruins of Ankor Wat and then the good mecha piloted by the Son who’s been rescued by the power of seeing his dad’s wedding ring shows up and lets just say Ankor Wat is going to be a little bit more ruined than it was before. Baby Girl arms the torpedo canon and then it gets fired off by Son and the alien machines’ eyes turn from blue (evil) to red (good). The family unit reforms….they’re gonna name Baby Girl after Grank’s dead wife Rose…and…

Cut to the woman from the beginning….Rose, all grown up, I assume…and despite the fact that she’s dressed in street clothes….look, SERIOUSLY, YOU GUYS COULDN’T HAVE STUCK HER IN A BODYSUIT OR SOMETHING? HELLO SHE IS A SEMIALIEN WEAPON IN COMMAND OF A SHIP ABOUT TO TAKE THE WAR TO THE ENEMY WHY IS SHE DRESSED UP LIKE SHE JUST HIT FOREVER 21? She gets hailed with “Captain on deck!” YEAH RIGHT but whatever because they’re taking the fight to THEM NOW.


(Things blowing up spacey)

Hah, there’s a blooper reel over the credits.

Overall, I feel a sense of impatience and pity for this movie. It tries so hard, and it has such energy and promise, and Iko Uwais fighting alien soldiers with dual knives and no sleeves and Frank Grillo fighting alien soldiers a tight wet shirt, and whatshisface, the other Indonesian guy, fighting alien soldiers with a machete and no shirt, and yet still it falls so short. I think it honestly could have worked really well as a series. With this budget (…per episode…) and cast, and enough time to flesh everyone out and make us care that Motorcycle Helmet Girl just got blown up and her chemist boyfriend is sad? With more time to watch Frank Grillo running around yelling at people? With a little more explanation of what the heck Baby Girl is? And then at least half an episode to follow up on the whole we-are-taking-the-fight-back-to-them? Absolutely this could have been a masterpiece. As it is, though…

Rated: This movie, seriously.

“Add title”

Some have broken the bounds of the narrow land

Laid open the book of dreams

Drawn doorways in the sand 

walked through Shadow to the many worlds

With fellowship and dread companions

From the last castle to the Gaean Reach

strangers and pilgrims in a strange land, 

progressing, our destination universe.

The farthest star but a mote in God's eye.

When the world turned upside down,

through a splinter in the mind's eye, recall

who goes there, out of the dark?

A star rider on a steel horse, 

a rite of passage through abyss of wonder,

shelters of stone to the starpilot's grave. // clan of cave bear to the lioness rampant

I saw the doors of his mouth open

and the lamps of his eyes shine.

A final rose bloom for Ecclesiastes,

and no night, ever, without stars.

What's it like out there -- Skagganauk, or the space beyond,

the birthplace of creation, or the crossroads of time?

There is time enough for love. 

Soul music in a minor key, sung by no woman born

In a many-colored land: red, blue, and green.

East of Eden, children of the mind await their childhood's end.

The player of games is gonna roll the bones.

Computers don't argue, the right to arm bears is in the bone

Equal rites are observed,

And no man sayeth call him lord.

There are Skylarks three in an alien sky;

from homely house to lonely mountain 

the long patrol guards moss and flower;

a stainless steel rat runs for president (to hell and back).

Sheep are electric. The horse and his boy

dream of dancing mountains.

All cats are gray, walking between the walls

To say nothing of the dog

that bays with five mouths

the fool moon.

Creatures there are of light and darkness:

When true night falls on the borders of infinity

two suns setting cast slithering shadows

across the long tomorrow. 

Ancient, my enemy, the old gods waken. 

Alas, Babylon! The city and the stars!

Wolves across the border

A feral darkness, the darkness that comes before,

Beyond the black river. 

I will fear no evil, 

not the hills of the dead nor the black god's kiss,

the wings in the night, or the red nails' gleam;

Daemon, sidhe-devil, or devil in iron

or the nine billion names of God,

for the stars are also fire

and the stars


Soldier, ask not 

of unfinished tales or a dry, quiet war.

Take iron counsel of the cold equations.

Till we have faces, lest the long night fall,

Raise the sword of Rhiannon

Set a fire upon the deep.

More than honor, we few,

Wee free men, the high crusade,

Seek Armageddon inheritance

In the service of the sword. 

Sleeper, awaken! from this alien shore

To your scattered bodies go

A citizen of the galaxy

and not this pale blue dot

Bid farewell again to the cool, green hills of earth

I have space suit and I will travel

The stars are my destination 

These stars are already ours.

Her Brother’s Keeper – Mike Kupari (repost review)

51f83jc4-flHer Brother’s Keeper by Mike Kupari of Correia-and-Kupari mil-thrillers is a 2016 Baen SF novel, and that’s about the aptest way to describe it that I know.

Where it’s good, it’s…well, it’s Baen. There’s a tough, Honor Harrington / Heris Serrano-esque ship captain, a weaselly but ultimately honorable aristocrat, an extremely intelligent and extremely socially inept xenoarchaeologist who might be about to stumble over the discovery of the millennia–if it doesn’t get sold on the black market first–there’s a spooky ghost ship interlude that hits every AARGH GUYS GET OUT OF THERE button there is, there’s ground and space action, some perfunctory romance, a couple of heartwarming reunions, and a happy part-1 ending.

On the other hand, where it’s bad, it’s eyerollingly bad. Look, we get it, you love the great state of Texas, good for you. Now shut up. And take that hat off, you look STOOPID with it over your space helmet.

What really knocks any chance this book might have of moving past its flaws is the fact that a) its tone isn’t SF, and b) its overall writing style isn’t SF. What do I mean by this? That this book could have had the word “-space” excised from all scenes and been set on present-day Earth with no change in tone or format. There’s no sense of vaster scope. There’s no iota of widened imagination.

There’s no sense of wonder.

So, starting at the beginning:

Captain Catherine Blackwood returns to her ancestral home at her estranged father’s request. Her feckless younger brother, the heir and the child actually valued by their family, is being held for ransom on the furthest human world, Zanzibar. Her father will spare no expense–even though it would be more cost-effective just to have another son (lol)–to get him back. Captain Blackwood’s light patrol ship is highly trained and professional, but understaffed for what might turn out to be a military operation instead of just a straight prisoner exchange, so a stopover at the Lone Star System AKA Planet Texas (sheesh) collects some hired muscle: hero named Marcus, who also is blandly muscular enough to be played by Mark Wahlberg; sidekick with a sexbot, sniper girl, some other people, and Marcus Wahlberg’s teenage daughter, who needs to get off planet after punching a drugged-up rodeo queen who poisoned her barrel-racing horse Sparkles. I’m not making that up.

OK, well, whatever.

So they set off. Meanwhile, in captivity, feckless brother Cecil and his two sidekicks are being forced to excavate space-archaeological sites for the ruthless but not very interesting warlord Aristotle Lang. Aristotle Lang plans to Take Over The World with the money he will earn selling them on the black market. We are told that this is a bad thing, but he’s such a nonentity in this book it’s open to interpretation. I mean, really, who cares if a place like Zanzibar gets taken over by a warlord? Can he at least make the space shuttles run on time?

Despite the lack of a solid antagonist, this book is actually at its strongest when dealing with the Zanzibar-archaeology plot. There’s some kind of mysterioust secret about the planet Zanzibar which our heroes are on the cusp of discovering. Who were the humanoids who inhabited it millions of years before? How were they able to produce sophisticated technology despite their Bronze Age cultural level? Why did the obligatory-bug alien war go to such lengths to keep the planet intact when they happily used mass drivers on all other human settlements?

Why was was Zanzibar once sterilized down to the molecules of the planetary crust–and how?

Replace “aliens” with “unknown civilization, possibly Atlantis,” and “sterilized” with “volcano,” etc, etc–and you get a perfectly decent current thriller that would entertain on an airplane flight and probably be useful afterwards, if you’re traveling somewhere with no free toilet paper.

Unfortunately, Mike Kupari chose to make this book Science Fiction with a capital SF, but he doesn’t have the imagination or the writing ability to answer the questions he raises, make his heroes interesting, make his antagonists threatening, make his worlds alien, or his spaceships memorable.

Even more unfortunately, this particular plot made me compare this book to another with a very similar plot: Edmund Hamilton’s The Closed Worlds (Starwolf #2). Feckless younger sibling + treasure hunt on an unwelcoming and deadly alien planet + mercenaries…except that Hamilton added: Way Cool Stuff, Big Ideas, Big Scenes, Big Reveals, Scary Villains, Memorable Characters. Morgan Chane would kick the snot out of Marky Mark, laugh while doing so, and have pointed words about Planet Texas vis-a-vis Varna.

In Hamilton’s book, the unwelcoming nature of the alien planet is shown by clear, forceful action on the part of characters with a motivation to act in the way they do: Helmer, who dies as he lives–trying to protect his people from something that destroys the strong and makes the weak vile. Its dangers are even more vividly drawn out with the flitting, white-bodied, laughing, mouthless nanes (brrrrr).

In Kupari’s…Zanzibar is just kinda there. There’s no way of distinguishing the planet from any other by any kind of scene or scenery. Aristotle Lang is just kind of there, devoid of any personality save a vague, theatrical, villainous menace. He doesn’t actually twirl a moustache while threatening the helpless academics. That would be absurd. But it would probably have helped.

In Hamilton’s book, there’s a reveal of the great mystery of the Closed Worlds–and it’s a reveal that’s worth the wait.

In Kupari’s….it’s Sufficiently Advanced Aliens, but, eh, it’s okay, they’re gone now.

I could go on in this vein for a while, but I think that that’s sufficient.

Rated: I think I’m going to go read Starwolf over again.

Crouching Puppies, Hidden Dragon

Baen Books, one of the few traditional publishing companies that actually publishes decent old-school scifi, is under attack. The ostensible reason is that the forum (Baen’s Bar) might be a dangerous hub of insurrectionist incitement. Because nerds, knowing how to use protractors and speak Klingon are going to be that much more dangerous than ordinary people. 

David Weber comments: 

Baen Books is frequently characterized as a “right wing publisher.” That’s as stupid as the notion that the Barflies are plotting a violent coup. Baen Books doesn’t care what the political orientation of its writers — or their fiction — may be as long as the stories are good, as long as they engage and entertain the reader, and as long as there is a market for them. If Baen has a deep bench of conservative readers, that’s because so many other publishers are avoiding the kinds of stories they want to read and Baen is filling that void. Well, that of the fact that Baen Books tries really hard to publish GOOD stories that reasonably attract readers on their merits, as well. But Baen publishes conservatives, libertarians, socialists, and everything in between.

Why? Why pick on the nerds? Why try to take one source of joy or a simple place of relaxation away from people? 

Because they hate you. They hate themselves. They are in constant pain, constant fear, and they want power, not to escape it, not to free themselves, but to freely inflict this same fear and pain and hatred on others. I can know this, but I even so I don’t really understand it.

They’re coming for us. They really, truly are.

[Edited to add: the second link is to monsterhunternation’s discussion of the situation. Stay out of the comment section, because Puppy-style drama shows up very, very fast.]

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars – Christopher Paolini – Review

tosleepcover-reducedFirst things first: I liked this book, I didn’t like Eragon that much, Paolini the teenage, homeschooled, best-selling author was nevertheless a childhood hero of mine, and I have a slight fever that might be influencing my judgment.

I liked this book–but every point in its favor also has a counterpoint in its disfavor. Well, except this one: it’s science fiction. And the cover is blue. I like blue.

It’s got spaceship battles. But hardly any radio chatter. I mean, come on, that’s sixty percent of the fun of reading about space battles! Admittedly, this one is pure personal preference. I’m not great at visualizing most authors’ descriptions of space battles, especially fleet-level ones, so having narrator/s talk through what’s going on, with appropriate reactions, helps me. On the whole, the fight scenes were solid, although my personal favorite was the ground fight on planet Bughunt.

It’s a long book: my hardback copy checks in at 825 pages, not counting about sixty-odd more of appendices and made-up vocabulary. And, you know, it’s been a long, long time anybody has had the stones to write and publish a long-ass, stand-alone story in a single volume. Some even go so far as to think that fans wouldn’t stand for such a thing. If for no other reason, it’s immensely satisfying to get to an exciting action scene or a dramatic reveal and then realize that you still have two-thirds of the book, a good several hours’ more reading, to go. And, mercifully and intelligently, this book escaped the editors who would have doubtless preferred to break it into multiple pieces. This book doesn’t have enough story for a series or even, God forbid, a trilogy.

So in almost direct contradiction to my previous statements, I’m going to say: either that this book has enough story for two books, and should have been split roughly in half, right after the twisty reveal on Bughunt; or that about a hundred pages should have been trimmed off of what we got instead. Not even with huge changes to the pacing or with the destruction of individual scenes–I just think that a general tightening up would be an improvement.

It’s got a diverse cast of characters, which term I use in a literal and non-derogatory sense of the word: a large chunk of the cast is female, our POV is female, planetary cultures, skin tones, and religions are present), and a certain amount of time is devoted to fleshing them out and our heroine making personal connections with them. (In the case of at least one religion, it’s via a headbutt, but…) It also has a solidly-written, single-viewpoint protagonist. It also allows its characters to die or be killed.

Problem is, it takes several cycles and reiterations on the theme for the cast to actually settle out, and then once it has established that people can die for the sake of the plot, carefully neuters the threat by not letting it happen again, at least to any of the main characters. While there are at least two main characters who do get badly wounded, their survival is at no point actually uncertain–even when this requires the sudden existence of otherwise-unknown abilities. Deaths or otherwise-debilitating injuries are restricted to military minor characters or civilians. And, large as this cast is, upping the ante on action scenes and increasing tension/pressure on the characters in-universe by letting someone actually die (not to mention the opportunity of trimming some of the dialogue), would not have hurt.

It’s got alien species who are passably alien. Actually, I don’t have much of a counterpoint to add to this one, except that this is where some of the time trimmed by killing off, say, Sparrow or Nielson, could have been added back in. It’s also one of the points in which having a single narrator POV hinders the effort to show-not-tell. Yes, we do see that the Wraunaui / Jellies / graspers have a distinct viewpoint that diverges from Kira’s. No, we do not get to see anybody other than Kira’s take–that there has to be an overarching unifying force in place or else humans and Wranaui Will Not Get Along–on this subject, and Kira isn’t exactly the most politically astute person in the solar system.

It’s got a competently written, sympathetic and understandable, proactive and heroic POV lead. Kira, our heroine, loses, struggles, strives, suffers, and, ultimately, wins. It’s hard to ask for more. Kira is an active, uh, actor in the plot, decides what she will and will not do, and then goes out and does it. More than even this, Kira’s a good person. She has been taken and torture-interrogated by the military; presently, the ship blows up, leaving her in a working shuttle. Kira immediately begins to search for survivors. She accidentally stabs somone….and feels immediate remorse, guilt, a sense of personal responsibility and failure, and later takes the opportunity to ask as to his wellbeing.

On the other hand, there is also a certain amount of Protagonist Syndrome: the heroine is the only person with the plan, only the heroine’s plan will work, only the heroine’s presence guarantees relevance, and nobody else has got a clue. This type of hero works best in a shorter novel with less plot, but to their immense credit, Paolini (and Kira) almost manage to pull it off. I’d hesitate to say that an improvement could be made by splitting the narrative POV between several characters, because that’s a tool that in fast-moving action, or stories with major twists, that very quickly becomes tiresome, and also because I may be alone in thinking that the trope of “the protagonist, only, ever, does the important things” is overused and annoying.

Closely related to this: human antagonists who aren’t completely incompetent dumbasses. They’re only mostly incompetent dumbasses. Mind you, allowing people other than the protagonist to be proactive would have helped….

Oh: and (SPOILER) I will give it this as well. Unlike some authors who write their protagonists ascending to a higher plane of being / physically and mentally tranformed into a new state while losing their old bodies (such as John C Wright or Jack Chalker), Paolini allows the protagonist–you know, the person whom we have followed, sympathized and identified with for the length of the novel–to retain their own personality, identity, and human traits (all things that we liked) afterwards. The ascended Kira, although enormously powerful and distinctly different, still is recognizably herself; there is no sense of horror or loss of humanity, or (in my case), annoyance that the protagonist I’ve followed through the length of this book is now effectively dead. Indeed, the overall impression is that now she’s going to be ready for even more awesome feats in even more dangerous, further-flung adventures. And that takes discipline as well as skill. Chalker would have dove head-first into the loss-of-personality angle and you know that weird sex stuff would have been involved, somehow; while Wright would cheerfully destroy the audience’s rapport with a character if it meant being able to create another disembodied parahuman intelligence of pure logic and rationality (that is also Catholic). My hat’s off to Paolini: he upgraded his character but retained what made her likable and left the door open for a sequel.

So what’s the plot about, anyhow? Start with Alien/Aliens, throw the Venom suit in there from Spider-man, swing over to Prometheus, add Firefly, and I guess Star Trek. Very small trace elements of Starship Troopers kind of exist, but they’re folded into the Aliens melange to begin with. There are a couple of switch-ups which keep things interesting, a few battles, some character reveals and some plot threads that aren’t immediately followed up but which provide background texture. Some tropes even get played with in unexpected ways, such as: the Hive (or the Swarm, in this case) will be completely defeated if only the Queen (or the supreme leader) is killed. Bog-standard bug-hunt procedures, except that the people who suggest it are the swarm-members themselves, who would quite like a revolution but are genetically programmed to be unable to defy their overlord directly.

So, yeah. I liked it, there is room for improvement, and if, in the course of the next few years Paolini publishes another novel, I will check that one out, too.

(The prevailing sentiment in the Amazon 1-star reviews is that this book isn’t suitable for homeschoolers. Speak for yourselves, snowflakes.)

Rated: man still dreams of the stars!

Red Rising – Pierce Brown – Book Review

red-risingSo I distinctly remember when I first read this book–it was in 2016, just before I went back to school. Lucky thing for me, too, because I was up all fricking night reading it, and who needs a brain for office work? For an exile from the stars, this was a blast from the past. It has–and revels in–an old-fashioned sense of grandeur and scale; it consciously leans into the pageantry of planetary romance, of decadent empires, mighty warlords, grovelling slaves, passing through the fire, children becoming adults, and the excesses of cruelty, loyalty, and courage that are used to create the next generation of warriors, leaders, servitors–and tyrants.

TLDR: It’s like Ender’s Game, but *hardcore*.

Plot: Sixteen year old Darrow of Lykos thinks he has it made. He’s a Helldiver–the most prestigious and dangerous jobs in the mining business–he’s married to the lovely yet rebellious red-haired Eo, and he’s just managed to raise their unit’s production of Helium-3 to the point where they are all but sure to get the Laurel, a generous bonus of supplies shipped in at great expense to their tiny, underground Martian colony all the way from Earth.

Except that in short order, Darrow’s world is destroyed. The Laurel is given to a different unit (unjustly); he and his wife are flogged for leaving their unit area–and then, at the command of the Governor of Mars, Augustus au Nero himself, Eo is executed for, well, being rebellious. Darrow soon follows her, but is saved by a mysterious terrorist group called the Sons of Ares. And a new world opens up to him instead. Mars is not a new-fledged, struggling colony–it’s a prosperous world which found it more profitable to keep its economic producers (the miners) in complete ignorance of the fact. More, Mars is only a part of the solar Empire; Man has terraformed and colonized almost every part of the solar system. That is, some men have.

Darrow is a Red: one of the mining caste. His overseers are Grays. The feared and dreaded soldiers are Obsidians. Pinks are bred for pleasure and Blues for engineers. The world is strictly divided between Colors, but on the top are the Golds. These are men and women born, engineered, educated, shaped, and molded to be the rulers of a society that stretches from Venus to Pluto and beyond.

The Sons of Ares want Darrow to become a Gold. Specifically, they want him to join the Institute, the highest of the highest…institutions…that produces the actual leaders of their Society. This is the place where the future admirals, governors, administrators, and generals go….and where they send their children. Including the children of Augustus au Nero.

(And yes, indeed, it is a strange plan that requires extensive surgery and biomodification carefully noted by the author; and on re-read, the fact that Darrow can go from a hardscrabble pseudocolonist to hitting the 99th percentile in the intake exams does strain credulity a little. On the other hand, part of this book’s charm is the fact that Darrow is an Awesome Hero in an old-fashioned way: the story follows him because he’s the best there is. Now, he’s not a Gary Stu because we see him suffer, make mistakes, work hard, trust the wrong people, and fall on his face–but overall, he’s the hero because he does incredible, impossible things and because he does incredible things he’s a hero. I like heroes. I think everybody does.)

Anyhow, exactly what the Insitute is and does is kept intensely secret, although you’d think that the casualty rates would offer a clue. Basically, several hundred picked cadets in several groups are dropped on a planet with a varying amount of resources and left to battle it out amongst themselves. House Artemis, for example, gets horses. House Ceres gets a castle with beehives, fields, defensible walls, and bread ovens. Darrow is a member of House Ares. They have weapons, but no home base; the ability to hunt for meat but not to bake bread or store it; and they have….personnel issues.

As I said, Ender’s Game–but with graphic violence and without adult supervision. Or–as it finally turns out–worse than that: the Proctors who are supposed to be supervising and maintaining their Houses have been taking bribes and playing politics. So no matter how brilliant Darrow is, becoming an accepted leader, gathering strong allies, uniting the Houses, taking over the gameboard, he will not be allowed to become First. That prize has been reserved for another. –For The Jackal: the son of Nero au Augustus….the man who killed Darrow’s wife.

The drama, it is evident, no? The book leans heavily into it, too, with Darrow brooding on and emphasizing to himself and the reader the epic scope of the battle he is fighting: the courage, the malice, the terrible power (institutional, societal, and personal) of the enemies he engages. This is cleverer than it sounds, because, as he struggles and ultimately triumphs, the stakes have been laid to raise underdog-hero Darrow to the same larger-than-life level as the men and women who unironically name themselves after the gods of old Olympus.

Image via red-rising.fandom.com/wiki/Darrow_O’Lykos

This book apparently didn’t make too much of a splash, coming out as it did at the tail end of the YA-novel bubble. (Although there is a sequel series I have thus far declined to read; it looks depressing.) I think there are a few other factors in play: namely, that this is a military scifi (not amenable to the interests of Twilight-loving YA consumers); that it has a heroic male protagonist who undergoes a rite of passage (thus not conducive to the agendas of YA publishers); that it’s competently written and has a distinct authorial style (complete anathema to the YA genre.)

I’m pretty out of touch with current scifi scene, but Mil-SF doesn’t seem to be a very popular publishing choice any more, let alone old-school space opera, let alone pseudo-planetary romances. Sweeping vistas, unexplored frontiers, and larger-than-life characters aren’t fashionable anymore. Male protagonists–even more so, a male who was actually if briefly married–are even stranger. But my greatest liking for this series comes from the last two points: that Darrow is heroic, and that these books are pretty darned well written. But in the interets of time I’ll limit my gushing.

Darrow is a hero because he has a good heart and a good goal and the former mostly prevents the latter from overwhelming him; because he uplifts (or at least tries to) others; and because he feels regret and guilt about the deaths he has caused. Equally importantly, he’s the protagonist–the guy who tells the story, and from whose point of view we follow events–and: he has an active role in shaping events in the story, and he’s cool and does cool things successfully.

The book is well-written. It is. It has a distinct narrative voice–short, rhythmic sentences, first-person narration, present tense–that takes a minute to get used to and then becomes invisible. Mostly though, it’s the worldbuilding that’s impressive, and here’s how.

The concept of the Institute is kind of stupid, but it’s what Pierce Brown wanted to read and so had to write….but he took the time and put in the effort to design a society that legitimately would believe dropping its future leaders on a planet to fight it out with their bare hands is a winning move, and then he portrayed that society faithfully and worked within the boundaries he’d set for himself. The idea of turning a Red miner from a low-gravity planet into a Gold, basically an entirely different human subspecies, is likewise kind of ludicrous; but Brown walks the reader through the process from bone regeneration to eye replacements without skimming over details (although I submit that the sleep-learning was a cheat). He’s thought long and hard about how his universe works, and the verisimilitude, even when not flaunted front and center, shows through the cracks.

Lastly, because I’m running out of time at this point: his characters are good. Darrow’s emphasis on the vividest traits of each person he meets works for the best, because it means that each person has some memorability. Better yet, almost everybody has a distinct and strong personality. Pax is boisterous. Sevro is gross and boisterous. Mustang is idealistic. The Jackal is calm and scary. Antonia is a bitch. Fitchner is getting too old for this sh*t.

But mostly I like Sevro. Wild-haired savage sidekicks are the best.

Rated: Rise