Furies — Lauro Martines

Cover of Furies

Furies: War in Europe 1450 – 1700
Lauro Martines
320 pages, including index
published in 2013

A lot of history books about war and warfare, even when they look at the impact war had on wider society, on the civilians and soldiers caught up in it, are remarkably clinical and dry about the violence it brings with it. Not so Furies: War in Europe 1450 – 1700. Before it’s good and well started, you get the first grizly massacre to process, no horrid detail spared, all the better to prepare you for the rest of the book. This is not an easy read, not your average military history wankfest, this is a book with a message and that message is that war in Early Modern/Renaissance Europe was hell, a total war where nobody cared if you lived or died.

That period from roughly 1450 to 1700 was one in which a military revolution took place, with Europe emerging from feudalism and war as a noble pursuit for knights and aristocrats giving way to mass warfare by any means necessary. It was a revolution brought about through the introduction of gundpower weapons making possible new ways of making war, as well as the growing strength of the emerging European nation-states. Add to that increasing religious schism and you have a recipe for warfare on an apocalyptic scale and Martines is not afraid to show what that meant on the ground, for the people caught up in the war.

The first chapter therefore is a mosaic of war waged across the period, showcasing the horrors of war. It’s beat after beat of violence and horror, laid out in quick scenes, foreshadowing the themes of the other chapters. It’s not as intense as some of the descriptions Martines offers in later chapters, but still makes for uncomfortable reading. If you get queasy reading this, the rest of the book is not for you.

In his introduction Martines puts forward his thesis of the armies of this period as “frail monsters”, prone to melt away through desertion, disease or lack of pay. That last one especially. As armies got bigger and bigger and wars more expensive, states ran their ability to finance them right to the ragged edge and quite often the soldiers in the field were the last to be fed, let alone paid. Which in turn meant they were that much more likely to plunder their way around the country, whether or not it was their own or the enemy’s. Indeed they were expected to live off the land, as the required infrastructure to feed what was arguably a mobile town on a level with the largest cities in Europe of that time just wasn’t there.

Most soldiers at the time being professionals anyway, an Europe wide brotherhood of mercenaries, with little love for the countries and princes they nominally fought for. Of course, a great many of those professionals didn’t exactly volunteer to become soldiers, but had been forcibly drafted. Whether professional or drafted, as soldiers they were subjected to what was in theory a strict discipline, with harsh punishments for ill discipline and especially desertion, but with enforcement sporadic.

Harsh through life in the army was though, Martines makes it very clear life for any unhappy civilian caught in the army’s claws was much worse. Whether trapped in a siege, or forced to house soldiers in your village, or just robbed, raped and killed, civilians almost always came out worse when encountering soldiers. They did occassionally get their own back though; any wounded soldiers left behind when an army moved on would surely be killed once it was out of sight.

After the first chapter, Furies moves from subject to subject through European history, looking at the sacking of cities, sieges, how armies are like mobile, dying cities in this period, plunder, the fate of villages in the path of an army, the growing influence of religion in war, weapons & princes and the emergence of the state, not necessarily in that order. Throughout it Martines emphasises the suffering and violence war meant, without becoming prurient.

Apart from wanting to foreground the suffering war brought with it, Martines also wants to show how war made the state, how the need for princes to grow their armies also meant the power of the state grew with it. As countries searched for the edge in financing their tax structures were strengthened, as princes had to command their armies more the power of their aristocracy lessened. The chaos that war created helped the state in this respect, as long as it wasn’t consumed by it.

Furies is ultimately only an introduction to a complex subject, as Martines himself is the first to admit. What I liked most about it was its point of view, never shying away from the reality on the ground. It’s a much needed corrective to some of the more bloodless academic treasises covering the same subject.

Meeting the Sculptor — Floris M. Kleijne

Cover of Meeting the Sculptor

Meeting the Sculptor
Floris M. Kleijne
61 pages
published in 2004

Here is why it pays to follow SFF authors on Twitter; because otherwise I’d never had known about Meeting the Sculptor being free on Amazon, which is of course the perfect price to try out a new author with. Not that Floris M. Kleijne is exactly a new author: according to his autobiography he sold his first story, to legendary dutch anthology series Ganymedes backl in 1986, only to see the series fold before it could be published. After that false start it took a while for Kleijne to get back in the habit of writing, deciding in 2001 to start aiming at the English language market instead, in which he has been relatively successfull, though he’s still not a very prolific writer.

Meeting the Sculptor is his biggest success so far, as he won the 2004 edition of the Writers of the Future competition with it, the annual writing competition organised by the scientologists in honour of the pulp writer origins of L. Ron Hubbard. I can see why it won. You’d think that more than a century after H. G. Wells’ The Time Traveller it wouldn’t be possible to come up with new ideas for a time travel story but Kleijne has managed to do so.

The story starts with Mark. Mark isn’t a nice guy, a thirthysomething alcoholic who has wasted most his life chasing women. One morning, after a particularly bad evening with one of his few remaining friends had ended in disaster and he drowned his sorrows in his favourite bar, he wakes up in the flat of the woman went home with to find a strange man standing in her kitchen who wants to know if Mark knows the exact moment his life went to shit. When Mark gets angry and threatens to call the cops, he stops him with one simple sentence: “April 24th, twelve years back, at eight minutes after three, pm.”

That is a date that Mark knows, the day that he started to lose perhaps the one woman in his life he truly loved and it convinces him to hear the stranger — who introduces himself as “I’m Jolo. I sculpt.” — out. Who promptly shows Mark he’s a time traveller by taking him to a historic scene Mark knows very well, one that anybody with interest in the American Civil War would recognise, so familiar in fact that it’s not even spelled out for the reader if “four score” isn’t enough of a clue. But what has time travel to do with Mark’s life?

As Jolo explains, there are times in anybody’s life where with the right nudge, they can go one way or another. In Mark’s case, what happened twelve years ago could, with a slight interference by Jolo, be put right and Mark could’ve remained with the love of his life forever. It would mean altering only a small detail, but there would be a cost, a price to pay…

Who will pay that cost is obvious from the moment Jolo outlines his solution and the rest of the story elegantly sets up this denouncement, at which time you also realise that the flashbacks to that fatal date that interspaced the story weren’t Mark’s own, but those of his counterpart in the new timeline…

What impressed me the most about Meeting the Sculptor was just how tight and well constructed the central timeloop in the story is, how well done that moment of revelation where you realise that what you thought were flashbacks, was instead the second, changed part of the loop. What also struck me –and I’m not sure this was a thing already in 2004– is the irony of the sculptor’s name: Jolo, or YOLO?

Meeting the Sculptor can be bought via Floris M. Kleijne’s own website.

The Dark Colony — Richard Penn

Cover of The Dark Colony

The Dark Colony
Richard Penn
327 pages
published in 2014

James Nicoll is a longtime science fan active on Usenet and Livejournal, who has been working as an internal reviewer for various publishers. As that work started to dry up earlier this year, he started doing sponsored reviews, where people (but not authors) can buy reviews of books they’re interested in, suspect James would like, or at least would have an enjoyable reaction to. I’ve known James for a long time and he’s one of the people I absolutely trust their taste in books of, so I pay attention when he says something he’s worth reading. Which is exactly what he did with Richard Penn’s The Dark Colony and since it was cheap on *m*z*n, I bought it.

Now there was a risk with this. At times James’ fondness for exactly the kind of setting The Dark Colony provides — near future, the real Solar System, no magical rocket propulsion to let people pootle around it in hours or even days, no cheating — can blind him to some of the other qualities (or lack thereof) of a book. Fortunately however, in this case, the book’s appeal exists beyond its setting. Basically, this is a police procedural: it starts with the discovery of a body floating around in the the giant free fall hangar of Terpsichore Station. What’s remarkable is that it’s the body of a stranger to the Terpsichore colony, which only has a few hundred people living in the station and the asteroid itself. It’s up to constable Lisa Johansen to find out where the stranger comes from and in the process she finds herself unravelling a huge conspiracy in the heart of her community and beyond. Yes, this is not just a police procedural, it’s a gloomy Scandinavian one…

Well, not quite. While there is a conspiracy and it does cover awful crimes, the authorities are eager to stamp it out, not cover it up, they’re just hindered by the huge distances in the Asteroid Belt. Terpsichore is weeks or even months away from other colonies and while nominally part of a larger government, basically can only count on advice and moral support through video link. But despite these limitations, the support from the Belt Federations police on Phobos is invaluable if only available at the speed of light. They cannot provide immediate support, but they do have greater analytical resources available to look at and evaluate the evidence Lisa finds as she combs out the Hold after the corpse had been discovered.

And the most surprising piece of evidence is another stranger, a young girl who turns out to be Daisy, the sister of Tommy, the murder victim, who had died smuggling her to freedom. Her story reveals a dark colony, a hidden colony in reach of Terpsichore whose existence was completely unsuspected until the two refugees turned up. Of course, as we all know, hiding in space is difficult and stealth impossible but there are ways of making you less visible, especially if nobody is looking for you and you do know who you need to hide from. However, this hidden colony, especially since it got supplied through Terpsichore, still needs accomplishes. And it’s this where Phobos comes into its own, as they quite quickly unravel the conspiracy within Terpsichore Station to hide these contacts.

In the process it’s established that the hidden colony is more than just an unregistered colony, but one in which a group of criminals hold captive a group of women in sexual slavery; Daisy herself was getting old enough that she was bound to come to the attention of her masters sooner than later, which is why her brother smuggled her out. Their mother is still held captive.

Once the conspiracy inside Terpsichore itself is rolled up, Lisa, freshly promoted to sergeant, is charged to lead a rescue expedition to the hidden colony, with only a rough idea on which one of the three neighbouring asteroids of the “Local Group” they’re settled. The second half of the story is about making the preparations for this expedition and how Lisa and her crew manage to make the trip and rescue everybody, in the process setting up things for the sequel.

The Dark Colony is Richard Penn’s first, self published novel. As his autobiography makes clear, he’s a retired sofware engineer turned writer, not a “professional” writer. It’s somewhat noticable in his prose, which is a bit awkward, especially at first, not quite naturalistic dialogue, a slight tendency to as you know Bobism, which largely disappears by the end of the novel. Not bad or atrocious writing, but workmanlike.

What I like, apart from the interesting, realistic setting and the plot itself, is the politics of the story. James noted that the policing reminded him of 19th century Canada: not the free for all of the American west, but embedded in at least a nominal national police system. That in itself is somewhat novel compared to the usual more libertarian sympathies of authors likely to use such a setting, but what also struck me were the very recognisable sexual politics.

To put it bluntly, quite a lot of science fiction has fairly hideous sexual politics, with manly men and fridged women and no sense that the future is much different from a sixties frat house. Not so here. It’s not just Lisa and the other women who are revolted by the rape camps run by the dark colony, the men too are upset. In one scene, as they infiltrate the colony with remote controlled drones to find evidence of the crimes committed and Lisa basically hands out trigger warnings to her crew. It’s a breath of fresh air to see the matter of factness with which modern, sane notions of consent and the existence of queer people are promulgated into the future. The same also goes for the way in which Penn handles the rapes and other sexual harassment, all off screen without tittilation.

Really, the only thing that actually bothered me about this book was the awkward use of Dutch cursing in one scene, when Lisa made contact with the Dutch mother of Tommy and Daisy. Nobody but Dutch rappers use “neuken” as a curse; we say fuck or kut, shit instead of strong and it’s verdomde, not verdoemde klootzakken, etc. etc. But nothing is as hard as to do write realistic cursing in a foreign language so I’ll forgive this.

The Dark Colony and its sequels are available from the author’s website, less than four bucks on Amazon, so try it, you might like it.

As en Parels

cover of As en Parels

The cover for Dutch fantasy author Sophia Drenth’s latest story, As en Parels, available soon from Smashwords. I like her approach to writing:

Ten years ago I gave up my writing career. All the power was with the big publishing houses. They all said I was talented, but that they’d rather publish an established author. Early in 2014 the writing vibe suddenly returned and from the start I was a lot more hopeful. Nowadays self publishing isn’t a one way ticket to disaster like it used to be. Social media gives everybody a chance to share their talents. The only thing you need is dedication and a lot of hard work and I’m not afraid to work hard for something in which I believe so strongly as my writing. So I’m very proud to say: my writing story continues.

You don’t terraform a thriving ecology.

Vice’s Motherboard just launched its own short sf stories subsite and went a bit overboard in its enthusiasm:

There are ​tons of ​great ​publishers of science fiction online—but still, it’s strange that there isn’t more fiction commingling with the newsy posts and personality quizzes and status updates tumbling down our feeds. We encourage the dissemination of information and storytelling in every conceivable way, be it listicles, data visualizations, video collages, tweetstorms, whatever. But when was the last time you saw a link to a short story shared on Facebook? The internet, it seems, doesn’t know what to do with the stuff.

A strange claim to make in a world with Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Apex, Lightspeed, Uncanny etc. undsoweiter. We’re actually living in a new golden age of short science fiction, after decades of decline. Once again, we get new writers breaking through on the strength of their short fiction, rather than as novelists, something that had been rare in the past two decades. So why pretend that you’re the first ones doing it?

Especially as this project seems aimed at an audience not familiar with existing sf venues, lying about them is well dodgy. Be enthusiastic, big up your project by any means, but don’t diss the competition.