Paizo’s Fantasy Space Setting: Starfinder!

Starfinder seems to be a bit like Warhammer 40,000, in which a fantasy world is advanced to a more highly technological society, as opposed to taking fantasy into space, but it sounds like a great deal of fun!  Check it out by clicking on the link on the image (courtesy Paizo).

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Book Review: Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

Starship TroopersStarship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read for the Space Opera 2016 Reading Challenge and the 12 Awards in 12 Months Reading Challenge.

This is one of Heinlein’s most controversial novels. Along with Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, this is the novel that invented the space marine and military science fiction. If you look around you can see its influence in so many works of sci-fi that it’s become a trope: Halo, Warhammer 40000, Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, even Mechwarrior. Master Chief and the Spartans wear Heinlein’s Mobile Infantry suits.

The first thing I will tell you is this: do you remember the big-budget film made a few years back with Denise Richards playing Carmen Ibanez? Yeah, well; don’t waste your time. The director admitted to having only read the first couple of pages and it shows. If you’re going to claim that a movie is an adaptation of a famous novel, then tell the story the novel tells, dammit! Don’t slap a famous name on it, borrow a couple of character names, and then claim you’ve made an adaptation. How people get away with this without lawsuits I will never know. It was such a far cry from the actual novel that I don’t know why they bothered to connect it at all. Grrrrrr!

Okay, now that I have gotten that out of my system: Starship Troopers is controversial because it has a reputation as being an ode to fascism. Having re-read it now for the first time since I was a pre-teen, I think that this reputation must be due to one of two things: either people do not understand the novel, or people do not understand what fascism is. I am willing to concede the latter after overhearing some man confirm his wife’s belief, when they were passing through the biography section in the bookstore where I work, that Stalin was “Hitler’s right hand man.” A similar confusion has occurred here: if anything, the philosophy outlined by the characters in Starship Troopers is an extreme of communism, which, of course, is fascism’s polar opposite.

I can see how someone who didn’t read it thoughtfully might have gotten this idea. In the society of Starship Troopers, only citizens have the right to vote, and the only way to become a citizen is to offer two years of service (more if required) to the state. This service is up to the state’s discretion, with some weight given to a person’s preferences. And it doesn’t necessarily mean military service; you might be a bureaucrat in an office. But Juan Rico (whose native tongue is Tagalog; how director Paul Verhoeven and scriptwriter Edward Neumeier got their Aryan Nation Nazi fantasy out of a cast of Filipino and Hispanic characters I will never know) is assigned to the Mobile Infantry; space marines.

The Mobile Infantry is a brutal place, where occasionally bones are broken and people are even killed as a normal part of basic training. However, you can leave at any time, and the only penalty for leaving is that you aren’t allowed to come back and you won’t ever be given the right to vote. In one passage, one of the instructors informs Rico that this is so that only those who really give a damn about duty to others before themselves will actually make it through, and so that only those who are willing to defend that at any cost make it. It sounds like a “the few, the proud” speech, so I suppose you could take that as fascism if you weren’t paying attention. Except that it’s really the extreme of socialism; though of course, in the spirit of the time, it denounces Communism as being more suited to the evolution of the insectoid species the human characters are fighting against.

You see, fascism is all about a “superior” elite distinguishing themselves from common people and thus, proving their “right to rule” over everyone else, applying Darwin’s theories to social behaviour. Socialism is about believing that the group is more important than any one individual; which, in its extremes (such as Communist Russia) can be brutal, compassionless and dehumanizing. In this case, the welfare of the group must be more important to a person than their own life or limb, and this is the qualifier for the right to vote. I’m not sure this is a bad idea. Wouldn’t it be great if only those who have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are not interested in selfish motives could have a voice in politics? Of course I can’t think of any real-life way to establish this without creating the very “elitist” class that it would be intended to avoid, but this is a novel, and who is to say that the society of the future looks anything like the society we have now?

Another passage which might support the fascism theory is in support of spanking a child and of corporal punishment, which are accepted parts of this future society. This is not a popular idea in our time, but do remember that this book was written in 1959. Keeping that in mind, the fact that Heinlein includes female pilots and ship’s crews in his future military is impressive, based in the idea that, on average, women have faster reflexes and reaction times and, on average, men are physically stronger. There are always exceptions of course, and Heinlein’s military allows for them, but Carmenica (not even just Carmen, for crying out loud!) Ibanez becomes a pilot and not a trooper. Since women were denied the right to join the Apollo missions a decade later, this is downright revolutionarily feminist in 1959. And Heinlein’s women are no less brave and heroic than their male counterparts. The pilot of Rico’s ship flies directly into an overwhelmed fire zone to do a pickup, and then makes an impossible landing, giving Rico hell for risking all their lives by delaying the pickup all the while.

Now that I’m done arguing against the critics, I’ll address the book itself. Heinlein starts in media res and the rest of the book is excellently paced between philosophy and action. You never find out who won the war, or whether or not Rico even lived through the experience, but that’s not what the story is about. It’s about a boy growing up by finding himself in the military and creating an identity for himself as a soldier. It’s an old story; one not currently popular, but one that’s nonetheless true for many people and has been for centuries.

It’s worth contrasting Paul Mandela’s experience in The Forever War with Juan Rico’s experience. Both books have a lot of valuable things to say about war. In The Forever War, Mandela is drafted into a war he doesn’t understand or believe in, and he finds the space marines to be an alienating, dehumanizing experience of horror and misery. In Starship Troopers, Rico volunteers during peacetime, before the war begins, and he finds himself and his personal identity as a soldier, putting his life on the line for the sake of others, and it fits him well. If you’ve known any soldiers, you know that one of the ways they see themselves is as sheepdogs, who protect the flock from the wolves. It may well have been Heinlein who gave us this reference. Starship Troopers was once on the U.S. Marines’ recommended reading list, only recently replaced by Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.

And speaking of Ender’s Game: the alien Bugs that Heinlein’s troopers are fighting are incomprehensible to human beings, and were probably Bugs in order to make them incomprehensible, because the plot isn’t really about them. Humanity and the Bugs are competing for the same ecological niche; and in Heinlein’s novel, this competition is what creates the conditions for war in the first place; population pressure. It’s suggested that the technology might be available to just outright destroy the Bug planets, but they don’t do that because “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” The idea is to force the other side to do what they want; destroying them isn’t going to do that. More than a little, Ender’s Game was an answer to Starship Troopers, in which Card suggests that humanity, if it possesses the technology to commit genocide, will do so; and that this is wrong because all life is precious, even those of Bugs. And that, too, is something important to be said about war.

A lot to think about in a little 208 page novel! But I suppose that’s why it won the 1960 Hugo award and is considered one of the defining books of science fiction. I chewed through it quickly and would have done it even faster if I hadn’t been spending those four days mostly driving. I’m sure I’ll read it again, maybe with a completely different viewpoint. But in any case, it’s certainly food for thought, and is definitely a must-read for anyone with even a casual interest in science fiction.

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Video: Okanagan Library Summer Reading Challenge Update August 20 #ORL

Update on my Vernon Library Summer Reading Challenge and my Worlds Without End reading challenges, including a short review of “Earth Abides” by George R. Stewart and of “The Mauritius Command” by Patrick O’Brian. Also, what to expect in the next couple of weeks and the rest of my reading list for the challenge!

Source: Video: Okanagan Library Summer Reading Challenge Update August 20 #ORL

Book Review: Gateway by Frederik Pohl

Gateway (Heechee Saga, #1)Gateway by Frederik Pohl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yes, I really did devour this book in a single day. Part of the reason is that I was down with a cold, so really couldn’t do anything else and thus had the time to do so, to be fair; but mostly it was because I thought this was an amazing book and once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down.

The basic plot, in case you missed it from other reviews: near Venus and Mercury, in a perpendicular orbit to the elliptic, is an asteroid covered with ships created by an ancient alien race that they call the Henchee (though they don’t tell you where the name comes from). It was discovered when alien ruins, created before we climbed down from the trees, were found on Venus, and one of the ships was found there. The person who found it accidentally piloted it to the asteroid base, where he eventually died of dehydration and starvation, or would have if he hadn’t blown himself up in an attempt to alert Earth as to where he was. This sets the tone for the casual acquaintance with death that is part of the mood and setting of the novel.

Now the asteroid, called Gateway, is inhabited by a gold-rush style community of “prospectors.” Each of these ships seems to be capable of going to a location pre-set by the Henchee with some sort of FTL drive, and returning via an automatic piloting system. But no one understands exactly how to set that location. No one knows how long each trip is going to take, and no one knows how long it’s going to take to get back, so you might starve to death on the trip. A system of drawing lots to suicide and even survival cannibalism has been worked out by the prospectors. Because the Henchee systems seem to be integrated you can’t remove any of the Henchee equipment without destroying the ships, so you must cram human survival gear in next to all of the equipment. The ships are able to support one, three, or five people with extreme difficulty and in close enough quarters to literally be in each others’ armpits. The Henchee may have had some other way of picking up nourishment on the way; humans do not.

Even if you do survive the trip that way, because the Henchee built all this stuff maybe millions of years ago, whatever it was that was in the location they went to that they were interested in might be gone. Planets might have been eaten by suns going supernova. Stars might be white dwarves by now. You might end up literally in the middle of nowhere, or you might end up in the cornea of a star or cooked by coming out too close to a blue star by radiation. The risks and the odds are astronomical. There are many, many ways to die, many of them indicated by “mission reports” that Pohl includes intermingled in the text, along with classified ads, letters home, and various other dribs and drabs that give you a really clear picture of prospector life and the surrounding community that has developed. As an aside, some reviewers have been critical of what they see as trademark 1970s liberalism in the society so described, but I think those reviewers probably haven’t read as much as I have about frontier towns and communities that grow up around other dangerous professions, such as soldiering. It seems pretty typical of such communities to me. Not a lot of children present, sex and drugs (at least soft ones) available everywhere, and some really great intellectual and artistic stuff going on alongside all that.

So why would anyone do this? For the same reason people left everything to follow the gold rush; the potential for the big payoff. If you find something of scientific value on your mission, they pay you a science bonus in the millions of dollars. They pay you a multi-million dollar danger bonus if you survive something extremely dangerous. They pay you royalties in the thousands if your discovery can be used by future generations (such as discovering a new world full of Henchee ruins, or a faster route to something of significance.) In order to get this, you’re basically owned by the Gateway Corporation until you do. You don’t have to leave on missions once you get to Gateway, but there’s a life support systems tax and everything, as it often is in frontier gold rush towns, is extremely expensive, so you either get a shoveling-shit kind of job for a subsistence existence or you dare the runs.

And why would you go there and take this risk? Because society is basically a corporatist, overpopulated dystopia, in which there are so many people competing for so few resources that oil shale must be mined to grow food in bacterial and mold cultures. That’s where our protagonist, Robinette Broadhead, comes from, one of these food mines. His father was killed in a mining accident when he was young and his mother died of lung cancer from exposure to mining chemicals; she might have lived, but she didn’t tell Bob that she was sick because he had suffered a psychotic episode and was undergoing psychiatric care, and she didn’t have the money to pay for treatment for both of them. In many ways this is a 1970s sci-fi trope — overpopulation causing widespread famine — but Pohl treats it as an impetus for the story and not the story point itself, and honestly, with the risk of climate change and current economics, it’s not an unrealistic view of the future, I’m sorry to say.

The story is told in the form of flashbacks that come from Bob seeking psychiatric treatment after he has struck it rich at Gateway and returned to Earth, where he now lives a multi-millionaire’s lifestyle. He’s suffering from severe PTSD and is trying to get his life back in order.

I’ve seen more than one review that describes Bob as a “whiner” or an “asshole.” I think that these reviewers don’t understand PTSD. Pohl’s depiction of the disorder, which I happen to know a great deal about both from research and experience, is spot on. A person acquires PTSD not necessarily from experiencing a dangerous situation (though certainly they can,) but also from living with fear for a very long time. Children with abusive parents acquire it because they never know when they’re going to be attacked next, as do abused spouses (both male and female,) and soldiers acquire it because they never know when the next assault is going to come.

Bob expresses much of his post-traumatic stress in the form of suppressed rage. Perhaps other reviewers haven’t realized it but his trauma began long before Gateway; it began in the dangerous mines, where he grew up knowing that his father was killed by an accident and knowing his mother died of chemical exposure; and the same would inevitably be his fate if he remained, but he had nowhere else to go. That, I think, certainly qualifies as a trauma-inducing situation. So when he won the lottery, and it was enough to take him to Gateway, he went.

But this was just going from the frying pan into the fire. Many people are driven by desperate poverty into, say, the military, even though they’d rather not do it; or more commonly, petty crime with considerable risk (like gangs or the drug scene). And if anyone says they had a choice not to do that, I say that such a person has never experienced that kind of desperate, crippling poverty. I have, and there have been times in my life when I have seriously considered such things.

Bob spends a lot time dithering on Gateway before taking his first run. Many people see that as cowardice, and he describes it as such when he is in therapy, but Bob is an unreliable narrator suffering from a great deal of survivor’s guilt and self-loathing. Since one of the first things he experienced was the smell of cooked bodies when a cleaning crew opened up an ill-fated returned ship, I think it’s rational fear. He didn’t want to risk his life like that, but he felt he had no choice if he wanted to live. Scary stuff and I would hope the reader would imagine oneself in that situation. Unless you’ve been faced with the choice of such odds, I don’t think you have any idea how you’d react. I think that people who failed to empathize with Bob’s plight probably spend too much time playing video games. He’s a normal guy, an anti-hero, not an action hero.

A spoiler follows:

(view spoiler)

Now many people will instantly condemn Bob because he hit a woman who was his girlfriend. That makes him an abuser. Yes, it does. But I also think this has to do with a lack of understanding about PTSD and a lack of understanding of Bob’s situation. Bob ended up breaking up with his first girlfriend because he was too scared to go on that first mission. So the million-dollar payoff could have been his, and then he would be out of this situation in which he must risk his life and live with fear as a constant companion. Or he might be dead. His current girlfriend also avoided going out on runs due to fear. So there was a lot of misplaced self-loathing involved in the situation, and when Bob struck her, he was really striking himself. It doesn’t make it okay, but it does make it *understandable.* He would not be the first person suffering from PTSD to do something similar. (hide spoiler)]

There is also a brief exploration of LGBTQ themes in this book, in that slightly-awkward way that the 1970s has of presenting LGBTQ characters. Gay and lesbian characters are presented as a matter of course in the people that the protagonist encounters, and Bob himself has a brief fling with a character who identifies as bisexual. But Bob struggles with that and feels a certain degree of shame and embarrassment about it in therapy, and there’s also a suggestion (subtle, but there) that Bob’s brief homosexual fling has something to do with his psychological issues. This is a problematic element that you find in 1970s fiction, representing the prejudices of the time. But it’s possible that someone who is unaware of the prejudices of the time might not even notice this issue.

After that, Bob tears off on a spree of self-destruction, and this eventually culminates in a really terrible situation which he survives. I won’t spoil it for you because this is the climax of the book we’re talking about, but if you could survive such a horror without having nightmares you either fail to grasp the horror of it, or you’re a sociopath.

Gripping, moving, outstanding sci-fi novel about the risks of discovery, the bravery of humanity, and about ordinary people doing the best (and sometimes less than the best) they can in terrible situations. It won pretty much every award available in science fiction there is and it deserves it. Seriously, read it.

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Book Review: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

Gentleman Jole and the Red QueenGentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book that is probably written mostly for the fans of the Vorkosigan Saga. But that doesn’t mean that other people wouldn’t find it interesting and thought-provoking also. Let’s start by clarifying — this book is primarily a planetary romance; that is to say that it is a science fiction story that takes place on a single planet and that centers around a particular relationship’s development. It’s also a story about retirement, and about learning who you are in retirement. It’s also a story about a grown-up child learning that his parents are real human beings. It’s also a story about parenthood, and legacies, and about giving love its due while there’s still time to do it; after all, nobody ever said on their deathbeds, “I wish I’d spent more time working.”

So, speaking strictly of Lois McMaster Bujold’s writing, as one of my favourite authors, I would say it’s typically complex, typically character-driven, and typically human. It does what a good science fiction book is supposed to do; considers how technology might change and challenge the human condition.

It is not a space opera, not unless you take it in the wider context of the whole saga. It is not an intergalactic spy novel. It is most definitely more literary fiction/romance novel than science fiction action/adventure. Lovers of action need not apply.

That said, I liked it very much because it quite neatly tied up a lot of loose ends in the saga and established the legacies of characters I have come to care about very much over the years.

I would have read this book regardless of what was in it because I am a dedicated fan of the Vorkosigan Saga, but I selected this book as part of two reading challenges I am doing. One was a Space Opera challenge (https://www.worldswithoutend.com/roll…), and the other is an LGBTQ Speculative Fiction challenge (https://www.worldswithoutend.com/roll…). For that reason I will address the LGBTQ elements specifically. SPOILERS follow!

(view spoiler)

Some critics and reviewers have expressed their unhappiness with what they see as “shoehorning past history” in creating the discreet, behind-the-scenes relationship that the entire novel’s premise rest upon, but I think that’s really just a reluctance to admit that Aral’s character has always been bisexual, though expressions of that were obviously limited in the political climate of socially-backwards Barrayar. I think that this has always been going on and that Bujold had it in the back of her mind from the beginning, as one of those salient details the writer always knows about, but the reader might not; especially since our viewpoint character through most of the series has been Miles Vorkosigan, Cordelia’s and Aral’s son, who was being kept deliberately out of the loop for a number of reasons; the homophobic society, the political ramifications of what might be seen to the very traditional Vor as “adultery,” and even the very normal awkwardness from discussing one’s personal and sexual life with one’s adult children (which might rightfully be considered none of their business). I love this aspect because it also shows that Miles, for all his cleverness, is not infallible, especially when it comes to his deliberate personal blind spots.

I like the idea of this relationship very much. Bujold treats both LGBTQ relationships and polyamorous relationships as something unconventional but no more complicated than many other relationships might be. As a polyamorous bisexual person myself, I laughed aloud when Cordelia lamented how complicated all the SCHEDULING had been! That made me wonder if she’s been there, or if she just happens to be really good friends with someone who has.

Another central piece of the plot is that some of Cordelia’s ova and Aral’s sperm has been saved, and enough of it is viable that not only can Cordelia choose to start some new sisters for Miles, even at the age of 76 thanks to uterine replicators, but enough enucleated ova of Cordelia’s have also survived (that is, ova with no cellular nucleus) that it is possible for the scientists of the time to meld DNA from Aral’s and Jole’s sperm (taking an X chromosome from one and a Y chromosome from the other) and create a child who is, in a way, born of all three of them. The dilemma as to whether Jole, at the age of fifty, will do this or follow the path of his military career, is part of the central conflict of the novel. (hide spoiler)]

I want to address this for a minute, because the technology to do all of this is not some invention of the far future. This will be possible within a decade. Uterine replicators are currently being tested on animal fetuses. And the sort of technology that combines an X chromosome from one donor and a Y from another into an enucleated ovum, which is where all the RNA building instructions are located, is how Dolly the Sheep was cloned. It’s how it works.

I think this has some beautiful implications for LGBTQ and infertile people wanting to start families in the future. Wouldn’t that be a marvelous thing? As a woman who has suffered miscarriage, I love the idea of uterine replicators and I can tell you, I would have been extremely glad of such a thing myself. I can hear the Christian Right beginning their outcry now at the “unnaturalness” of it all, but they can lose a baby to miscarriage before they argue with me about it, otherwise they can quite frankly go to hell.

There’s so many ethical and social implications of this technology that it really should delight any dedicated science fiction fan. Bujold has already dealt with many of them throughout the series — the implications of children sired by rape, of mothers exposed to dangerous chemicals, of crazy depots trying to assure their genetic legacy, of genetic engineering. We could trace some of those out in different directions. For instance, if bearing a child does not become necessarily entirely a mother’s burden, should potential fathers have the right to decide to raise a child in a uterine replicator if the mother doesn’t want to keep that child? If so, should the mother be tapped for child support? How about the dangerous chemical exposure issue — could it possible, or *should* it possible, to legislate women who are chronic dangerous drug abusers to put their fetuses in uterine replicators so that we wouldn’t have crack babies anymore?

Anyway, I thought the book was well worth reading. I will of course collect it because I collect the Vorkosigan Saga. But I’ll hold out for a trade paperback or a cheap hardcover. Good, satisfying, an excellent conclusion to the series, but in and of itself, not *great,* not like some of Bujold’s past books. It suppose it suffers by that comparison, and I suppose that’s not entirely fair. Still glad she wrote it though.

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Book Review: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

A Princess of Mars (Barsoom, #1)A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Edgar Rice Burroughs, the writer who gave us Tarzan, published this novel first as a magazine serial and then released it as a completed novel later on. It’s always an interesting experience to read classic sci-fi, especially when it’s this classic. This pulp legend is loaded with so many tropes it might make the modern reader toss it aside in disgust; except that none of these were tropes when this book was written. And why are they tropes? Because they were amazingly successful and popular, and thousands of writers who succeeded Burroughs tried to imitate what made the John Carter books what they were. These, along with C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, were the primordial space operas.

John Carter, ex-civil war soldier and Southern gentleman, is mystically transported to the planet Mars in a fashion that feels more like fantasy than science fiction to the modern reader, except that almost everything that happens after that is sci-fi to the core. John Carter finds that as a denizen of Earth he is considerably stronger and can leap incredible distances compared to the native Martians, who are adapted to Mars’ lesser gravity; which, of course, would be exactly what would happen by all laws of physics and biology, if Mars were actually inhabited (though this is also ignored in some places; for instance, Martian riding beasts have no trouble carrying John Carter, although he is certainly more dense, and therefore much heavier, than the people of Mars, which is called “Barsoom” by its inhabitants.)

Carter initially finds himself among the savage green men, who are twelve to sixteen foot tall green, four-armed aliens with great tusks like orcs; where he, through a strange combination of coincidences and misunderstanding of social custom, finds himself both a prisoner and a chieftain; and he teaches the green men about friendship, loyalty and benevolence, which are qualities they have forgotten because limited resources on the dying world of Mars have demanded a more savage way of life of its denizens. Then he ends up meeting the more human-like, more technologically and culturally advanced (but smaller and weaker) red men of Mars, where he meets the princess who motivates him to acts of heroism that read like mythology; which of course also make the John Carter books the primordial planetary romance.

As a modern reader I found that I was impressed by much of the implied technology, which included but was not limited to anti-gravity vehicles, terraforming, and the rudiments of nuclear power and plasma weaponry (described as being powered by radium or something similar.)

Aside from the fact that this standard story formula has become the essence of the default science fiction plotline and setting (clearly guiding, among other things, the standard plots of the original Star Trek series,) I can see so many direct influences in many other ways. The Gor novels are essentially Barsoom updated, kinkified and taken to the extreme; the Dark Sun novels borrow the “savage world of limited resources” setting whole-hock, and I think we even get the fact that Mork hatched from an egg from this novel, since the people of Barsoom are born thus. We even get our scantily-clad heroes and heroines from Burroughs’ work; the Martians wear jewelry and combat harness, but not clothing.

There is much to irritate the modern reader if you allow it to. Racism and sexism is rampant, as is the hypocritical logic of Colonialism, and as I’ve said, it’s full of what have become tropes. The writing of the time is prone to contrived plot conveniences and dei ex machinae. There’s a lot of telling and not showing, which of course is considered bad writing by modern convention. And yet it’s a damn good read that keeps you pressing on to the very last page. It took me only a day to burn through it even though I don’t have as much time to read as I would like on working days.

Refreshing, however, to the modern reader, is the fact that despite his Colonialism, John Carter is a man who tries always to do the right thing as he sees it at the time, and in this age of dystopias and anti-heroes, this is like a breath of fresh air. And the style is an easy read that is appropriate for everyone from teens to octogenarians and up.

Everyone who considers themselves a sci-fi or fantasy fan should read this book, whose influence is clearly underrated. Despite, or perhaps especially because of, the tropes.

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Book Review: Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

Babel-17Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I waited eagerly for this to arrive from Amazon, since this was going to be the book for January for my SF Masterworks book club, and it seemed like it would never arrive. However, that’s because it was shipped from the UK. It got here on the fourth and I started reading it right away. I chewed through it pretty quickly, partly because it was an excellent book and partly because I was really sick with the flu and thus I had the time.

Delany apparently wrote this book at the age of 23 in the 1960s, and because of that, a lot of people are quick to judge him as being “in love with his own cleverness.” I think that’s a characterization that wouldn’t have been made were people not aware of that tidbit of information. I will admit that Delany does have a habit of lecturing his readers, even about subjects that he doesn’t really know as much about as his characters should.

Rydra Wong, the clever, strong, brave heroine of the piece (who might be a bit of a Mary Sue; but hey, cut Delany a break, this was a strong female sci-fi protagonist in 1966!) is a famous poet and a cryptographer in a far future where humanity has settled in the far-flung corners of space. One might think that these are contradictory skills, but Rydra is perhaps a bit autistic, having been afflicted with a plague as a child that may have caused brain damage, and is a bit of a savant when it comes to languages and communication. That “knack” extends into even reading the subtle nuances of body language and muscle tics, and might even border on telepathy.

There is a war going on between Invaders and Alliance (never thoroughly explained; the Invaders are some kind of enemy aliens but the Alliance also includes aliens). A general discovers that some kind of a code they dub “Babel-17,” is being broadcast over radio receptors right before major mechanical disasters happen to major Alliance military targets. He asks Rydra, the best cryptographer he knows, to crack it.

Realizing this is not a code but a language, Rydra decides she must track down the speaker of this language and understand it, and decides to go in search of it. The language doesn’t reveal much initially but does tell her where the next “accident” will be so she goes there, after first recruiting a bizarre hodgepodge crew. What follows after explores the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that language forms personality and consciousness, in an unforgettable crazy space opera romp with an unforgettable ending.

I find myself thinking of this novel as “proto-cyberpunk.” Babel-17 is likened at one point to computer languages and it is used to program machines. The working class people (called “Transport” as opposed to the stiffly proper white collar “Customs”) are prone to enormously transformative surgical alterations that make many of them look anything but human, nontraditional relationships, odd customs, and the use of discorporate (read: dead but preserved as energy) people to do jobs that live humans simply couldn’t do. I was reminded very much of the world of Joan D. Vinge’s “Catspaw” and I can’t help but think that if Delany had been born twenty years later, this book would have contained a lot more internet or cyberrealm equivalent. All the elements of what will become cyberpunk are here. I love this colourful world, so vividly realized in such a short novel.

I also love the protagonist. What a breath of fresh air in 1960s vintage science fiction! She’s marvelous! Some reviewers have found that her abilities stretch credibility, but really, if you read carefully, she’s amazing at just one thing; reading and understanding people. That ability serves her well in many capacities, including poet, cryptographer, starship captain, diplomat, and rogue.

I suppose it may not be to everyone’s tastes — my partner found it dull, but then again he doesn’t share my interest in how language forms consciousness either. Personally, I’m glad I had to buy this book to read it because I’m sure I’ll read it again. Highly recommended!

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Book Review: Changer of Worlds by David Weber and Eric Flint

Changer of Worlds (Worlds of Honor, #3)Changer of Worlds by David Weber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Okay, to be fair I started this book a fair bit of time ago, read about two and a half of the four novellas in it, and then my partner decided to read it and hid it on me. I found it again a month ago or so but wanted to finish reading the book I was on before I went back to this one.

These are some very well-written stories, and because they lack the usual Weber info-dumps, they’re among the best written Honor Harrington stories I have yet to read. And I have to warn you, unlike many short stories that center around an ongoing novel series, you kind of have to read these or some things will make no sense to you in the later books.

Fortunately this will almost universally be a pleasure. The first story, “Ms. Midshipwoman Harrington,” is a direct homage to “Mr. Midshipman Hornblower,” which is wonderful since the Horatio Hornblower books are part of what inspired Weber to write this series in the first place, and why it’s such wonderful space opera. Here we get to see Honor Harrington, great captain and general, as a mere midshipwoman on her “snotty” cruise. Lots of action, typical Navy politics . . . wonderful stuff for any Honor Harrington fan.

The second story, “Changer of Worlds,” provides some wonderful insight into the ways of the other major intelligent species of the Honorverse; the treecats, who are not just cute telepathic kitties. No indeed.

The third story, “From the Highlands,” introduces us to some other major characters in the Honorverse and what they’re up to; including Victor Cachat, Peep intelligence agent, Anton Zilwicki, the world’s most unlikely Manticoran Navy intelligence officer; Cathy Montaigne, renegade Liberal eventually to be a force to be reckoned with in Manticoran politics; and the Ballroom, a secret terrorist organization of escaped slaves dedicated to wiping out slavery by whatever means necessary. Oh yes, and Zilwicki’s daughter Helen, a force to be reckoned with on her own. This story, written by Eric Flint, is full of his subtle humour, sharp wit, and clever plot and counterplot elements. It reads just like a spy thriller with some comedy thrown in. Great stuff!

The only story I thought we could have done without was the last one, “Nightfall.” This was basically what happened when Secretary of War McQueen took on the Secretary of State Saint-Just just before the end of “Ashes of Victory.” I suspect it was originally included but Weber’s editor, in a rare act of prudence, cut it and told him it wasn’t necessary. I agree; it wasn’t necessary. Since we already read how it started, and we already knew how it ended, and it was just a lot of pain and bloodshed in between, and we didn’t learn anything about any of the characters or the events, I don’t see the point of it.

So; three out of four great stories ain’t bad. Well worth reading, anyway.

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