June 8th, 2013
published in 2005
Scardown is Elizabeth Bear’s second novel, sequel to Hammered, continuing the adventures of Jenny Casey. Where Hammered was straight up streetlevel cyberpunk, in Scardown the perspective opens up. That opening up actually started in the last pages of Hammered and Scardown continues seamlessly. Middle books in a trilogy, as this is can often sag, neither setting up plotlines nor resolving them, but Scardown avoids this fate. Each of the books in the Hammered/Scardown/Worldwired has its own story, but together they do add up to one coherent one.
Jenny Casey is a veteran who lost her left arm and eye in a war in South Africa decades ago, replaced by fairly primitive cyborg implants. Her ability to cope and survive for so long with these implants made her an unique candidate for starship pilot training, as these pilots would need to be plugged into their spaceships. This is why she was being pursued by the Canadian government in the previous novel, Canada and China being the world’s two superpowers in 2062. The world is dying, killed by climate change and humanity’s hope lies in the stars. Which is why both superpowers are building starships, starships made possible by alien technology found on Mars.
Hammered ended with Jenny Casey and her lover Gabe Castaign setting foot on board the Montreal, Canada’s first functional starship. Scardown begins with Jenny making preparations for her first trip as a pilot with the ship. She has made her peace with colonel Valens — the villain of the previous book — for the moment, even if she’s not reconcilled with what he did to her decades earlier. It’s just that she knows they all have bigger problems now. On a more optimistic note, at least she, Gabe and Elspeth Dunsany have come to an understanding regarding their relationships, starting to form a proper family together with Gabe’s two daughters, Leah and Genie.
Valens meanwhile is shown to be more than just a cardboard villain, or even the dedicated patriot trying to do the best for his country, no matter the cost that he was in Hammered. This is done not just because we get to see more of what motivates him, but also because of the introduction of his granddaughter Patty, who with Leah Castaign is one of the young volunteers for the starship programme. It’s just one example of how Bear opens up the story in this volume, following not just the characters from the first book — Jenny, Elspeth, Gabe, the Richard Feynman AI, Razorface et all– but also giving more screentime to secondary characters like Valens, as well as introducting new characters: Min-xue, a Chinese starship pilot, a young Canadian terrorist called Indigo Xu who has business with Jenny, the Canadian prime minister Constance Riel, various others.
This wider range of viewpoints compared to Hammered reinforces the opening up of the story. This is no longer about Jenny Casey and while it remains her story, what’s at stake is no longer the fate of one woman, but that of whole nations. Both the Chinese and the Canadian governments are convinced Earth’s climate is damaged to the point of unsustainability and the only solution is to get as many people off planet and to the stars as possible. Yet neither is willing to see the other side getting their first, with the Chinese in particular aggressive in sabotaging the Canadian process.
To be honest, the geopolitics (literally) is perhaps the most unconvincing aspect of the story. It was already established in the previous novel that the US had become a fundamentalist state for a while and therefore drifted out of superpower status, but to see Canada, at the head of the Commonwealth — the UK having frozen over when the Gulfstream shut down — as the dominant superpower together with China is a bit difficult to believe. India and Pakistan apparantly had a brief nuclear war sometime before 2062, while the European Union, Russia, Africa and South America are only mentioned in passing. It doesn’t quite convince me as a possible future, it feels more like a bog standard dystopian sf future with some of the furniture moved.
But that’s a minor quibble. Some of the background may bit a bit sketchy, the story Bear tells with it is worth it. There’s a steady ratching up of tension as the various plotlines come together, culminating in a climax about fourfifths through the book that’s literally world changing, the last fifth of the story dealing with the fallout of it.
What really impressed me about Scardown though — which in a better world wouldn’t be a reason to be impressed by a sf novel — is the wide variety of well rounded female characters in it. This is a book that passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. It’s not just Jenny Casey who’s important, all the named female characters are driving the plot as much as their male counterparts, if not more. Similarly, like Casey, most of the important characters are pushing middle age, with everything that entails. They carry the aches and pains and experiences of four-five decades of living. That too is somewhat unusual in science fiction.
Categories: science fiction
May 19th, 2013
The Heart of Valor
published in 2007
I’m beginning to see a pattern here. The first Valor novel was a replay of every mil-sf writer’s favourite Zulu War siege, while the second took on an equally venerable plot: the “let’s investigate a mysterious derelict alien space ship” one. And now, with The Heart of Valor, the third novel in the series, Tanya Huff once again takes on an old mil-sf standby, the march upcountry across a hostile planet, though she doesn’t go for the full Anabasis. In short, it looks like Tanya Huff is working her way through the Big Book of Stock Mil-SF Plots, but I’m not complaining. The general outlines might not be original, but as with everything, it’s all in the execution.
It helps if you have a strong character to hang your story on of course, and I like gunnery sergeant Torin Kerr. She’s a hardbitten, cynical career soldier keeping an eye out for her people, weary of her superiors and their inevitable fuckups. She also somebody we met in the first book waking up from a tryst with a di’Taykan, a somewhat randy alien species who never say no to a one-night stand, a di’Taykan that later turned out to be her commanding officer. Huff lets the reader spent a lot of time in sergeant Kerr’s skull and she comes across as smarter than she presents, conscientious and slightly paranoid. The latter is probably not surprising, considering her previous adventure on a very alien spaceship.
The Heart of Valor starts with Kerr recently promoted from staff to gunnery sergeant, being debriefed over her adventures on Big Yellow, the alien spaceship and bored out of her skull. So when major Svensson suggests she joins him as a temporary aide de camp on an expedition to the marine training planet Crucible, she jumps at the chance. The good major wents to check how his almost entirely rebuild body functions under combat circumstances, having only recently been detanked after almost having been killed. Gunny Kerr will be there to keep the major and his civilian doctor safe, while they join a group of recruits off for a twenty day survival course. By pure coincidence, the same di’Kaytan staff sergeant Beyhn who was there when Kerr through her tour, is also in charge of this batch of recruits.
On Crucible, the platoon of 120 day recruits is supposed to survive for twenty days while fighting various combat scenarios against combat drones and other AI directed threats, all overseen by a staff of instructors safe inside an orbital platform. Major Svensson, his doctor and gunny Kerr will tag along. It all sounds simple, but of course things go wrong quickly. First there’s staff sergeant Beyhn who carries a secret that could kill him and makes him fall ill at the worst possible moment. Then the Combat Processsing Node directing the “enemy” forces goes haywire and starts attacking with real life ammunition. Suddenly it’s up to Kerr and the major to sheepherd the rookie marines to safety…
Meanwhile, in a subplot carried over from The Better Part of Valor, gunny Kerr is still worrying about Big Yellow, the alien ship she encountered and some of the things that happened after they had gotten off the ship, things that don’t make sense, like a disappearing escape pod only she and Craig Ryder –the civilian salvage contractor she fell in love with — remember.
The marines in which Kerr serves are multispecies, with humans, Kaytan and Krai all serving, these three races having been brought into the Confederation especially because of their aggressive natures, to fight its wars against another multispecies alliance, the Others. Not that any of these warrior species is much respected for their nature by the supposedly more evolved and pacifistic Elder and Middle races. It’s a familiar setup we’ve seen in other sf novels. Both the Krai and the Kaytan are stereotypical alien races with one or two defining characteristics: the Krai are omnivores eating everything they can get their hands on, including fellow marines if need be, while the Kaytan are omnisexual and ready to hump anything that’s willing and stands still long enough. For the various Krai or di’Kaytan marines this is the main thing that distinguishes them from their human counterparts: they either eat everything or fuck everything. Apart from that, they’re marines.
I’ve got a fairly low standard for military science fiction: as long as the battles are good and all the military bits sounds plausible I’m not too worried about the writing or characterisation, which is why I can still enjoy David Weber’s novels. Tanya Huff is a much better writer however and hence The Heart of Valor is much better than it needed to be, as a lightweight mil-sf romp. It’s not world changing science fiction by a longshot, but it’s the kind of novel you inhale in one long sit, then run out to get the sequel.
Categories: science fiction
May 10th, 2013
published in 2005
Elizabeth Bear is a newish science fiction writer who I’ve been aware off, but hadn’t read anything off until now. Hammered is her first novel, published in 2005 along with its two sequels, Scardown and Worldwired. It was well recieved, with Bear winning both the 2005 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and the 2006 Locus Award for Best First Novel. Both are well deserved, as this is one of the better first novels I’ve ever read. Elizabeth Bear is in complete control throughout and it reads like the work of a much more experienced writer.
Hammered starts out in the most cyberpunk posssible way, with local gangster boss Razorface bringing a kid overdosing on an army combat drug called Hammer to Maker, Jenny Casey, a UN combat veteran of what wasn’t WWII, now left with a cyborg left arm and prosthetic left eye, to see if she can save him. Razorface has mouth full with “a triple row of stainless steel choppers”, hence his nickname, while Jenny has hers because she fixes things. Neither is fond of Hammer, a dangerous drug even when pure and the batch the kid o.d. on is anything but. Some corporation is leaking tainted drugs in their city (Hartford, Connecticut) and together they have to stop them. Meanwhile, an online multiplayer game in which the best players get a chance at piloting a virtual star ship is infiltrated by an AI, who suspects the game is more than just entertainment. It’s 2062, climate change and the wars resulting from it have wrecked the world, China and Canada are locked in a Cold War and somebody’s after Jenny Casey. It might even be her sister.
But while the setting might be cyberpunk, Jenny Casey’s life lacks the glamour a heroine in a Gibson story would’ve had. Her metal arm suffers from phantom pains, fucks up her shoulder and back where it attaches to the rest of her and while her artificial eye is an advantage in a low light situation, it’s a pain most of the rest of the time. She has had to live with her cybernetic implants, not just the arm and eye but also the enhanced nervous system that can make her reaction speed inhumanly fast when needed, for some twentyfive years and now that she’s pushing fifty, she’s suffering for it. She’s no Molly, cool cyberchick, but a woman who has had to learn to live with the limitations of her body.
She’s not the only great female character in this novel. There’s also Dr. Elspeth Dunsany, who spent the last twelve years in prison for violation of the Military Powers Act, released so she can do what she refused to do twelve years ago, built a tame AI for Unitek, the most powerful corporation in the world, brought back by colonel Valens, the villain of the piece, the spider in the web who is also an old ‘friend’ of Jenny and who is moving all the players together for his project. Elspeth allowed him to get her, both to get out of prison but also because her father is dying. Like Jenny, she’s not a young woman anymore and like her, she also has to live with what her history has brought her.
Not that Bear neglects her male characters. Apart from Valens, who isn’t quite the black and white villain you see him as in the first half of the book, there’s also Gabe Castaign, the man who actually saved Jenny from that burning APC in South Africa that cost her her arm, now also working for Valens. There’s Razorface of course, somebody else who has to struggle with his personal history and his status as number one gangster in Hartford with younger and more ruthless ones coming up to challenge him. But most of all there’s the AI, Richard Feynman, personality based on the American mathematician. There’s always a temptation for a cyberpunk writer to use an AI as deux ex machina, but Bear mostly avoids this.
One of the dirty little not so secrets of first wave cyberpunk was how much it shared the obsession with getting into space and off Earth as the salvation of humanity with classical science fiction, only slightly more realistic (ie with all the politics and crime it nicked from the hardboiled detective genre). This idea is at the heart of Hammered too, the one thing in which it followds older cyberpunk like Neuromancer unreservedly. In most other aspects, Hammered subverts or rejects the stereotypical cyberpunk tropes, as with Jenny’s cyborgisation above. These aren’t low punks with high techs, disaffected teens and twentysomethings looking cool, but real grownups dealing with real grownup problems, as well as the legacy of everything they fucked up in their lives when they were twentysomething themselves. It reminds me of Melissa Scott’s Trouble and her Friends, another book that took the easy cliches of the underground hacking elite and looked at them with an adult eye.
I read the first third or so of this book the way I normally read, in short bursts inbetween doing other stuff, but the last twothirds I read in one big gulp, everything else forgotten. And once I’d finished, I read the other two books in the same way. Higher praise than that I cannot give.
Categories: science fiction
May 4th, 2013
published in 2005
I’d never heard of Linnea Sinclair before I picked Gabriel’s Ghost up in a secondhand bookstore, but the cover and plot looked interesting. Also, I’m still trying to read more female authors. Googling Sinclair made clear she’s a science fiction romance writer and indeed Gabriel’s Ghost won the 2006 Romance Writers of America’s RITA award for Best Paranormal Romance. Neither this nor the title however means there’s anything paranormal about this novel. Rather, it’s a science fiction adventure story with a somewhat greater emphasis on the romance between the two main characters than usual, which does have some consequences for the rest of the plot.
Gabriel’s Ghost starts imperial fleet captain Chasidah Bergren banished to the prison planet Moabar for crime she didn’t commit. Barely arrived, she had to kill a guard who tried to rape her and only then the real danger began, as the next person she met turned out to be somebody from her past, somebody she thought long dead. Gabriel Sullivan is a rogue and a smuggler she had clashed with repeatedly when she was still a frigate captain, until he died a few years ago. Now he’s back and offering her escape, if she helps him with one little job…
It turns out that somebody high in the empire’s hierarchy is once again breeding a long outlawed biological super weapon: the jukor, a murderous animal originally bred to destroy alien telepaths. Sullivan needs Chasidah for her knowledge of how the imperial navy thinks to help him infiltrate the project and destroy the jukors. She’s not the only one on his team; there’s also one of those alien telepaths, Ren, a Stolorth. In the mepire these are the creatures of nightmares, mindstealers, even seen as demons by the Englarian church and yet this same church has raised him from childhood. It helps that he’s blind and hence unable to use his powers; the Stolorth themselves normally kill their blind kind.
Between Chasidah and Gabriel Sullivan there’s a sexual tension from the start. They not only share a past as nominal enemies, but Gabriel also hides a dark secret he needs to get Chasidah to know and trust him about. He clearly sees her as much more than just a tool; she is skeptical and suspicious and needs to learn to trust him, but it’s hard when he doesn’t tell her even half of what she needs to know and worse, might be actively manipulating her. Ren might not be the only telepath on the team…
Basically then Gabriel’s Ghost has two separate plots running. The first is that of the blossoming romance between Chasidah and Gabriel, while the second is a science fiction adventure of escaping prison planets, stealing spaceships and infiltrating imperial space stations to blow up genetic labs. The two are not always integrated successfully, with the latter at times coming to a halt to explore Chasidah and Gabriel’s romance more.
To be honest, the whole jukor threat doesn’t make much sense anyway. They’re basically hard to kill super predators, but they’re still just animals and you can’t help but think a decently equipped modern day army platoon could make mincemeat of them. They’re certainly not convincing as something that could upset the balance of power in the empire. What also doesn’t make sense, for such a secret project is that so many people know or suspect about it. Chasidah’s almost rape actually turns out to have been attempted because the jukor project uses alien Takan women as brood mares for them, with the poor women dying while giving birth. Apparantly the Takan know this is going on and some of them have decided to rape human women as revenge.
The romance also has some problems. Since Gabriel’s Ghost is told purely through Chasidah’s point of view, we never really get to know just why Gabriel Sullivan is and seemingly always was so in love with her. She herself certainly isn’t clear on this. She thinks she’s plain looking at best, not all that interesting or smart and yet at the same time not only has Gabriel after her, there also turns out to be an ex-husband who still loves her even though she divorced him to choose her career over his wish to get children. Not to mention that Ren the Stolorth, who’s described as being a very male sort of alien, also has something of a thing for her, even if only platonic.
There are also some consent issues playing a role here, as Gabriel not only insists that she asks him no questions about who or what he is, but several times manipulates her perception and memory. It’s not out and out mindrape and she does take him to task for it later on, but it’s uncomfortable and she is slightly too forgiving of it to my taste. It all is a bit too reminiscent of certain outdated romance cliches.
There’s also a lack of female characters other than Chasidah. There’s a jealous ex of Gabriel who shows up in one scene, the ship’s cook who gets a couple of lines and a cliche religious fanatic who turns up on the villain’s side. It barely passes the Bechdel test and emphasises how unique Chasidah is to be able to keep up with the boys.
Despite these flaws, which made Gabriel’s Ghost into a lesser novel than it could’ve been, I still enjoyed reading this. Linnea Sinclair is a good enough writer to keep you engaged throughout the story and it’s only afterwards that you start thinking, hang on, that’s a bit dodgy. What for me in the end made the novel was Chasidah who, while sometimes taking a turn to the cliche, still is a smart, interesting character. She’s unsure of herself, but she does take charge when she needs to and keeps a cool head in danger. Ultimately she is the hero of her own story and she is instrumental in stopping the plot to breed jukors. I wouldn’t mind spending more time with her.
Categories: science fiction
April 20th, 2013
published in 1976
Dragonsong is the first novel in the Harper Hall trilogy of novels that Ann McCaffrey wrote in 1976-1978 as a continuation of the original Pern novels, cite>Dragonflight and Dragonquest, weaving in and out of the main series. The heroine of the series, Menolly, would also show up in the later Dragonriders books, e.g in The White Dragon as a supporting character, occassionally hinting at her adventures in her own series. I hadn’t actually read this particular subseries before, as I never came across them until recently. All I knew was that the Harper Hall books had been consciously written for a young adult audience, unlike the original Pern books.
And reading Dragonsong that impression turned out to be right. This is as close to the platonic ideal of a certain kind of adolescent power fantasy as I’ve ever read. It’s even better than Harry Potter in this regard. You have the young heroine, on the verge of becoming an adult, with a special talent that’s not only unappreciated by her family, but actively suppressed and forbidden from practising it. She of course runs away from home, only to find people who do appreciate her and to find out she’s capable of more than not just her family, but she herself thought she was capable of. That’s the daydream of almost every misunderstood teenager at one point or another.
Menolly is the youngest daughter of the masterfisher Yanus, Sea Holder of Half-Circle Seahold, who is a dour, rigidly conservative man and who rules his hold and family in the same manner. In this he does not differ much from most of his subjects, all focused on the hard task of fishing in Pern’s oceans. Menolly is different, encouraged in her musical talents by the Hold’s resident harper, Petiron, as she works as his assistant in teaching the children of the Hold proper music and songs. Petiron was an old man and over the years Menolly took over more and more of his tasks, but after his death is forbidden by her father to practise her music anymore, especially not where the new harper can hear her.
One of the ways in which Menolly instead flees her miserable existence at the Hold is to undertake all the long, dreary foraging tasks that take her outside for most of the day, away from her family, none of whom are all that sympathetic to her plight. On one of those outings she discovers a group of fire-lizards flying over a cove, where a steep cliff leads down to a sandy beach. These are the creatures that the original Pern colonists genetically engineered to create dragons from, but of course the Pernese don’t know this yet. For Menolly, they’re magical enough on their own.
Meanwhile at home her situation worses and after an illness caused by an infection when she cut herself gutting fish, she decides to run away early one morning. Unfortunately that’s the day that Thread is due to fall. Thread is the reason the dragons were created in the first place, alien spores drifting in from one of Pern’s neighbour planets when its orbits are close enough. Caught out in the open during Threadfall is a good way to get killed. For Menolly there’s no other option than to head to the cave in the cove where the firelizards are living. She arrives there at the same point as the queen’s eggs are hatching and she frantically tries to feed the newly hatched fire-lizards to stop them from flying out into Threadfall. She manages to save nine of them, all of whom imprint and bond with her…
In the wider world meanwhile, the harpers from Harper Hall are busily searching for the mysterious apprentice Petiron was raving about, not realising “he” is a girl. Things come to a head when Menolly is out during a second Threadfall and is rescued by a dragonrider and taken to one of the dragonriders’ Weyrs, at Benden. There she finally realises there is a future for her outside the seahold and that there are other options open to her than either living miserably at home or all alone in a fire-lizard cave…
So yeah, this really is a story in which everything is set up to drive home how special Menolly is. The people who oppress her are all dull, miserable, loathsome if not actively evil, while all the cool people — dragonriders, masterbards, fire-lizards — all recognise her talents immediately. In the hands of a lesser writer, even a J. K. Rowling, this would’ve been tedious, but McCaffrey is good enough to overcome this. This is nowhere near as good a novel as the original two Dragonriders ones, but I would’ve eaten this up when I was twelve.
Categories: science fiction