Dreadnought — April Daniels

Cover of Dreadnought

Dreadnought / Sovereign
April Daniels
280 pages
published in 2017

A trans girl rescues a superhero, inherits his power and gets a magical transition in the process. And all she wanted to do was buy some nail polish.

Dreadnought was the world greatest’s superhero. Danielle “Danny” Tozer is just a trans girl who still has to deal with all the same problems as she did yesterday, only now with added supervillain threats. Her father is still abusive, her mother still compliant in his abuse and Danny knows she cannot expect either of them to accept her as she really is. Worse, though she now has the body she always dreamed about, she’s still the same, insecure, cowed fifteen year old girl inside, largely unable to stand up for herself against her father. There’s no way she could let them know what happened to her, apart from the unmissable fact that she’s now a woman both inside and out.

Things aren’t looking that much better on the superhero side of things. Danny isn’t the first one to inherit Dreadnought’s mantle, but the previous ones were all cishet men and his old superhero team, the Legion Pacifica seems less than eager to welcome her to their ranks, or acknowledge her as his successor. Worse, one of them, Graywytch, reveals herself to be an out and out transphobe, a trans-exclusionary radical feminist with a chip on her shoulder about trans women especially. All hope for support and understanding from them is quickly undermined in their first meeting, leaving Danny to face her family as well as the supervillain that killed the previous Dreadnought on her own.

Luckily there’s Calamity, a socalled graycape, an unsanctioned vigilante who makes her money hunting criminals. She was there when Danny transformed and she manages to track Danny down to invite her to go caping together. Calamity is the only one who accepts her unreservedly, both as a woman and as Dreadnought. And whereas Danny was a bit of a superhero fangirl, Calamity’s family history make her much more cynical about the whitecape world. The same age as Danny, she’s her ideal guide to the realities of superheroing. Not to mention the realities of being a teenage girl.

Much of Dreadnought, especially the first half, is devoted to Danny coming to grip with her transition and how her family, friends and school respond to it, rather than to superheroing. Thanks to her father’s abuse, Danny has very low self esteem and finally having the right body doesn’t change that, especially in the face of her father’s insistence on “curing” her. The abuse and constant misgendering by her family as well as Graywytch are hard to read through and I can imagine it would be much worse for an actual trans reader. Nevertheless I’m glad Dreadnought doesn’t gloss over the realities of transphobia and the difficulties of coming out as trans, understands that a bodily transition is only one part of it and even a magical, neigh-perfect transition will still leave you needing to deal with all the other aspects of transitioning.

The most difficult part of writing a superhero novel must be writing good superhero fight scenes, but Dreadnought delivers once the action starts to ramp up in the second half of the novel. Danny and Calamity not only go caping together, but actively go hunting for Utopia, the supervillain who killed the previous Dreadnought. Shit hits the fan when they actually do and ultimately it’s up to Danny to finally claim the mantle of Dreadnought and save the world.

I tore through Dreadnought in just a few hours after reading James Nicoll’s review, almost as fast the second time when I reread it after having read Sovereign, the sequel. I like Daniels’ writing, I like Danny and Calamity and I hope this gets more sequels.

Rocket Girls — Hōsuke Nojiri

Cover of Rocket Girls

Rocket Girls/Rocket Girls: The Last Planet
Hōsuke Nojiri
214/250 pages
published in 1995/1996

Morita Yukari came to the Solomons Islands to look for her long lost father, who disappeared on his honeymoon seventeen years ago, leaving behind her pregnant mother when he went out on a walk to look at the moon. She has little hope of finding him, but feels she has to try after hearing rumours of a Japanese enclave on one of the islands, which led her to Maltide. What she doesn’t know is that the enclave is the Solomon Space Association which is attempting to create a manned rocket capability but having little success with their new booster which keeps going kaboom. So they decide to go back to their older design, but that has less weight lifting capacity so the race is on to shave off as much weight as possible, including from the astronaut. Who promptly flees. Various things happens, Yukari gets caught up in it and when the SSA director sees her, he has the bright idea to turn her into an astronaut — no weight loss needed for a high school girl weighting only fifty kilos.

Rocket Girls and its sequel rocket Girls: The Last Planet are what you get when you re-imagine your typical Analog space advocacy hard science fiction story as an anime-style comedy. Yukari is the only sane woman in a world full of fanatics and space obsessed loons who see no problem with basically blackmailing a high school girl into becoming their astronaut. The director promises that in return for her becoming an astronaut, he’ll put the SSA’s resources to work to search for Yukari’s father, but it turns out he knew where he was all along.

Most of the first novel is about Yukari being forced to come to terms with her new career, as she settles down in the routine of being an astronaut prospect. Endless medical tests, followed by endless training in astronaviagtion and orbital mechanics, followed by a healthy dose of physical training, including high g centrifugal training set by a slightly sadistic instructor. Adding to her misery is the prospect of her space suit. For the same weight saving reasons as why she was chosen as an astronaut in the first place, it’s not the bulky NASA style suit familiar from e.g. the Moon landings, but a rather skintight number that leaves little to the imagination and is therefore highly embarassing.

Things kick into gear when during the obligatory jungle survival mission, she stumbles over the village of a native tribe and not only discovers her long lost father but also her …sister? The same age as Yukari, Matsuri is quickly drafted into the space programme as a backup astronaut. She turns out to have a natural aptitude for it, which leads to a bit of competition between the sisters, mostly one sided on Yukari’s side. But it’s mainly thanks to Matsuri that she learns to not only accept, but get actively engaged as an astronaut. Increasingly, they’re each other’s strength, which is necessary considering how monomanically focused if not completely useless all the adults are in the story.

Which is indeed the biggest hurdle to overcome in enjoying Rocket Girls, as I can’t help but feel Yukari got shafted hard and good by all the adult authority figures in the story, from the space programme’s director who dragged her into it in the first place, to her father and mother who each insist that since she choose this, she has an obligation to see it true. A very Japanese attitude, seen in countless anime series, but when it’s presented as raw as here, it kind of sticks in the craw.

Things get better in the second half and especially the sequel, when the focus changes from Yukari coming to terms with her new career to the technical challenges in first proving the idea that school girls can indeed make proper astronauts, then following her and Matsumi on their missions once they’ve done so. She’s still the butt of most of the universe’s jokes, frex having to make a crashlanding in her former school’s pond not once, but twice, but it’s not so blatantly unfair as the buildup was.

Technology wise this is very much a product of the mid-nineties, taking place in what’s roughly “the present”: the Mir space station is still around, there are no cell phones or internet, etc. And while the plot is absurd, the rocket science at the heart of it is solidly Analogian, though thankfully without the dreary lectures or politics an analog writer would’ve put it in. The most sfnal things in the whole story are probably the skinsuits and the idea of high school girls flying rockets.

Rocket Girls is a vast, entertaining story as long as you can get over the setup. The translation is good enough that for the most part you don’t realise you are reading one. For those curious, it was made into an anime series that again is quite enjoyable, again if you can get over the setup.

Juniper Time — Kate Wilhelm

Cover of Juniper Time

Juniper Time
Kate Wilhelm
296 pages
published in 1979

This got easier to read after the rape, which happened on page 88 but I could see coming from almost the first page. A late seventies science fiction novel, with a female protagonist and a near future setting in which America is suffering a long term hypertrophied economic depression, in a stalemate with the Russians and sliding off to an autocracy (aka standard seventies dystopia #1)? Yeah, there’s going to be a rape. It’s depressingly predictable and while it’s not the worst sort of plot motivating rape I’ve ever read and you could even argue that this time it’s truly essential to the plot, it’s still disappointing to see it used. But once it was out of the way it was much easier to enjoy what is otherwise an extremely interesting novel.

Juniper Time is a novel I first read sometime in the eighties, in Dutch translation, because of the recommendation in an old issue of the Holland SF fanzine. I remember liking it well enough at the time, but also that after I’d discovered cyberpunk, it struck me as the poster child of everything in science fiction the cyberpunks revolted against, as per Bruce Sterling’s introductions to Burning Chrome and Mirror Shades. It’s a political novel, a feminist novel that’s more focused on Earthbound matters than the conquest of space, slow moving and presenting a world that’s Disco Era America writ large, depressed, crime ridden and worn out. I can well understand how dated it superficially must’ve looked after Neuromancer came out. Thirtyfive years on, cyberpunk is just as dated, the glamour has worn off and it’s easier to see Juniper Time‘s strengths.

It’s sometime in the future and America (as well as the world in general, but that is only mentioned, not shown) suffers from a decades long drought and resulting economic depression. As Wilhelm is at pains to point out, this drought is not the result of human activity like global warming, as my first guess would’ve been, but comes from unforeseen interactions of cosmic rays in the atmosphere. Though this is only mentioned late in the book, this is important. Juniper Time‘s America is an inward looking country, struggling to cope with the effects of the drought and depression.

Jean Brighton’s father was an astronaut, one of the people who went to the moon. Arthur Cluny’s father was his best friend; together they were almost singlehandly responsible for getting the international space station started when Jean and Arthur were still children. But while the station got started, the economic depression, the continuing droughts plaguing America meant less and less money could be gotten for it from Congress and their dream died with them. But dreams of space don’t stay dead long in science fiction, not even seventies science fiction, and it’s Arthur who’s pushed by his friends to re-ignite the dreams, his background making him the ideal candidate to make the case again.

That’s all explained in the first chapter, with the next three following Arthur as he gets involved with the effort to get the space station started up again. Arthur here is only a figurehead, important because of who his father and because he can get the papers his father saved when the station was mothballed. But that’s not the only thing that’s taken up his time: he has falled hard for Lina Davies, the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. His courtship and ultimate marriage to her is not easy to read: Lina remains a cypher, only seen from the outside and only through Arthur’s lust filled eyes, with no hint of personality or intelligence. He’ll end up killing her later in the book.

It’s only in chapter five that Jean returns to the spotlight, working as intern in a linguistic project for a not very considerate professor at the university, trying to prove that thanks to the existence of unconscious grammars, a correctly programmed computer could decode any language without need for a Rosetta stone. Jean also believes in this work, if not to the extend of her employer, but it seems to be her instinctive talents that lead to the breakthrough. Yet because the programme is now successful, it comes to the attention of the military and Jean refuses to have anything to do with them. Which in turn leads to her having to leave, her loss of student status and flat and move into a Newtown filled with refugees and ultimately, her gang rape.

I remember that I had the same struggle reading this novel the first time I read it, back in the eighties. It seems rather perfunctory, with Arthur being an unlikeable dick and Jean the inevitable victim, set in a tediously grim, crapsack world that just seems to slowly grind down. The rape is the ultimate low point in this unpleasantness, distressing to read though Wilhelm is careful not to give too many details and describes it almost clinically. At this point Juniper Time reads no different from many of the rightwing grim ‘n gritty mopefests published in the late seventies. All that changes when Jean goes home to her late grandparents house, in Bend, Oregon.

That’s when Juniper Time comes alive. Unlike the somewhat generic cities Wilhelm has been describing up till now, Bend has the heft and weight of a real place. Abandoned by almost everybody and under control now of the army, it has become a ghost town, a place of safety for Jean. It’s of course a classic response to trauma, a flight back to the safety of her childhood, unspoiled by contemporary reality, no people around to hurt her further. In the newly returned desert she can start to heal

On one of her desert jaunts she runs into an old childhood acquaintance, a Native American friend of her father and grandfather, who finds her after she has collapsed, perhaps settled down to die. He rescues her and through him she finds a renewed purpose in life, as she comes involved with his tribe’s struggle to adjust to the new old world they find themselves in. They’re still trying to find out how to live within the new limits of their homelands, learning what works and what doesn’t and they need Jean both to teach English to those who don’t speak it and establish a dictionary of their language, as support for their new lives.

And here we come to the central message of Juniper Time, embodied in the tribe’s struggle to adjust and relearn the old ways of living in harmony with the land. Usually science fiction is about overpowering your problems, of learning better ways to deal with nature and its challenges, of triumphing over adversary. Here, it’s about adapting to the inevitable. The world is drying up through circumstances humans have no control over. This isn’t climate change as we know it, but a natural, unexplained phenomenon. Save from one suggestion about cosmic rays, we’re never shown what causes the drought, why it continues or why it’s worldwide.

Meanwhile, in the other plot thread, Arthur has gotten his wish, the space station is being rebuild and something …interesting… is found hiding in low Earth orbit, a golden scroll filled with what looks like alien signs. It sends him looking for a linguist, for somebody not beholden to the military or government, to examine the scroll and see whether it is a hoax or not, some trick by the Russians or perhaps America’s own hardliners to put one over the opposition and claim the station for themselves, the key to unlock the status quo.

It of course sends him looking for Jean and he expects to find a victim, somebody shattered by her experiences, but instead he finds a confident, self sufficient woman who helps him for her own reasons, not because he had to manipulate her into it. The contrast between Arthur, who married somebody purely out of lust, then later basically ended up killing her out of spite, arrogant, conceited but convinced he’s a good guy and Jean’s new found quiet strength is strong, must’ve been done deliberately.

Rereading Juniper Time, it does feel as if Jean and Arthur come from different novels, a mashup of the New Wave disaster novel ala Ballard’s The Drought and the late seventies “space will save us from the Carter economic malaise” as written by e.g. Pournelle. I’m wondering whether Kate Wilhelm has deliberately written this as a critique of the latter, of that tendency to think moving into space can solve any problem. Jean’s outlook on life is so much more mature than Arthur’s; she never falls for the alien deux ex-machina but is willing to use it for her own ends.

What with the rape and the general slow burn of the novel’s first third or so, I found this a hard novel to read, but ultimately worthwhile, complex and thought provoking.

The Three-Body Problem — Cixin Liu

Cover of The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem
Cixin Liu
Translation by Ken Liu
302 pages
published in 2008 (English 2014)

If it hadn’t been for Marko Kloos doing the honourable thing and withdrawing his nomination, The Three-Body Problem wouldn’t be on the ballot for this year’s Best Novel Hugo. And that would’ve been a shame, since The Three-Body Problem is the first translated novel to make the shortlist. The start of a trilogy, it originally came out in China in serialisation in 2006, with the novel version coming out in 2008. The English translation was done by Ken Liu, who has won a Hugo Award himself. The sequels will come out this year and next.

What makes The Three-Body Problem almost missing out on the Hugo shortlist deeply ironic, is that it’s exactly the kind of oldfashioned hard science fiction the people behind this year’s vote rigging were supposed to be all in favour of. It revolves around the mystery of why all those physicists are killing themselves, the answer to which seems to be that fundamental principles of physics are broken… There are some great moments of sense of wonder, of conceptual breakthrough in it, as well as some characters Asimov would think were a bit two-dimensional.

The Three-Body Problem starts in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, introducing Ye Wenjie, whose physicist father is killed by Red Guards, young, fanatic followers of Mao fighting against what they see as the counter revolution. Her younger sister is part of the Red Guards and is killed in a fight with the regular army. Ye Wenjie herself, because of her family background and intellectual tendencies is banished to the countryside, working in a “volunteer” labour battelion. It’s while she’s working on deforesting part of Inner Mongolia to remake the forest into farmland, that she comes into contact with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which will help provide the motivation for what she will do later. While under arrest for having the book on her, Ye Wenjie is recruited to help with the running of Red Coast, a secret PLA radio telescopy/listening post.

But just as her story seems to start, it moves to the present, with Ye Wenjie out of the picture until much later in the book. Instead we now follow Wang Miao, an academic working on nanotechnology, who is recruited by the socalled Battle Command Center, which turns out to be an international organisation, fighting a hidden war against an invisible enemy, a war fought against science. What the Battle Command Center in particular wants to know and needs him for is to understand why so many distinguished scientists and physicists have committed suicide.

In a scene that’s a direct homage to Isaac Asimov, a game of pool is used to first showcase the foundation of all physics/ We’ve discovered a great principle of nature: The laws of physics are invariant across space and time as one character puts it, before going on to explain that this is no longer the case:

“Imagine another set of results. The first time, the white ball drove the black ball into the pocket. The second time, the black ball bounced away. The third time, the black ball flew onto the ceiling. The fourth time, the black ball shot around the room like a frightened sparrow, finally taking refuge in your jacket pocket. The fifth time, the black ball flew away at nearly the speed of light, breaking the edge of the pool table, shooting through the wall, and leaving the Earth and the Solar System, just like Asimov once described.

That’s why scientists are committing suicide and what Wang Miao needs to figure out is who or what is behind it. This part of The Three-Body Problem reads like a techno thriller, as Wang Miao emerges himself in the conspiracy behind the suicides, getting cryptic hints from police captain Shi Qiang, rude and obnoxious but with a knack of saying just the right things to get Wang Miao to move forward.

It’s here that the central gimmick of the story is introduced, a virtual reality video game, Three Body in which Wang Miao is put in a world which vaguely resembles that of ancient China but with laws of physics that make no sense. His job and that of the other players is to figure these laws out and determine what’s going on.

Because I bought it as an ebook I read most of this in short snatches, frex waiting at the coffee machine at work. In retrospect, this hindered my comprehension of The Three-Body Problem‘s plot but helped my appreciation of the book as a whole. I would’ve seen most of the plot twists and shocking reveals coming, had I read it in a more sustained fashion, as Cixin Liu is far from subtle; indeed this has been one of the most common points of criticism leveled at The Three-Body Problem.

The Three-Body Problem of course refers to a classic physics problem and the virtual reality game has as its first goal to let its players figure out that the world they play in is subjected to this, a planet in a trinary solar system. Cixin Liu takes a while before he allows his protagonist to figure it out and perhaps it takes too long; a more observant reader would’ve gotten there much quicker.

Once that’s been figured out it’s a small step for characters and readers both to understand that the world of Three Body depicts an actual alien world and hence that aliens are behind the breakdown in physics. The rest of the novel revolves around understanding the history and gols of these aliens as well as what motivates their human collaborators. Which turns out to be an overwhelming sense of the failure of humanity to treat the world properly, so let somebody else try it, bringing the story back to Ye Wenjie, who turns out to have set everything in motion through her work at Red Coast.

In general The Three-Body Problem is an uneven book, oddly paced, with a build up in the first two parts that’s somewhat led down by its resolution in the third. What’s set up as a fundamental physicis problem basically turns into “aliens did it” with some technobabble about unfolding protons to make them into AIs. It’s a bit disappointing.

Also disappointing is the characterisation. The historical sections, telling Ye Wenjie’s story, are great, but every other character has to struggle to reach two dimensions. I don’t think this is a problem with the translation or differences between western and Chinese science fiction. Rather, there’s a reason Cixin Liu keeps reminding me of Isaac Asimov: he has a similar preferences for ideas over characterisation.

I didn’t read The Three-Body Problem in time to consider it for my Hugo ballot and I’m not sure I’d would’ve traded in one of my choices for this. The question now though, since it is on the Hugo shortlist, should I vote for it and if so, in which place? I won’t be upset if it does win the Best Novel Hugo, though I think I still prefer The Goblin Emperor over this.

Hero Complex — Sean O’Hara

Cover of Hero Complex

Hero Complex
Sean O’Hara
394 pages
published in 2014

Whether or not you’ll like Hero Complex can probably be determined by whether not the following passage intrigues or annoys you:

Ryder leaps onto the wall of an apartment building and runs straight up the side. She’s almost to the eaves when she jumps again, this time somersaulting high into the air, coming to apogee several yards above the monster. She flings her arms apart and the night is illuminated by stroboscopic beams from her—I’m not seeing that right. There’s no way she’s shooting lasers from her boobs.

“Of course not. That would be ridiculous,” Jensen says.

I thought as much, but given how many ridiculous things have occurred lately, I wanted to be sure.

Ryder snags a tree branch with an outstretched hand like it’s a trapeze and flips herself around.

“Everyone knows laser beams are invisible in clear air. Those are charged particle cannons,” Jensen says.

Needless to say I did find it intriguing and wanted to subscribe to its newsletter. Sean O’Hara is somebody I know from having hung around the same online spaces for years, which always helps when deciding whether or not to try a book.

As you might have guessed from the extract, Hero Complex isn’t an entirely serious novel, though there is a harder edge to it than is at first apparant. As such it reminded me of Seanan McGuire’s Velveteen series, which started out as lighthearted superhero fanfic but got dark quickly. The same is the case here. The protagonist, behind his first person smartarse persona, is suffering from an unhealed trauma, hiding a dark secret, something that will drive his actions through the story.

But it takes a while for that trauma to surface and at first Hero Complex looks like an affectionate parody of what you might call a harem anime, where you have the high school hero getting involved with a group of Strange Girls Who Are More Than They Seem. That’s what seems to happen to Erik when he’s recruited (or rather, pressganged) for his school’s drama club, after an unfortunate accident involving all its male members leaving.

Cue a bit of sexual tension between him and Jensen, the resident hardcase of the group, who makes it clear she doesn’t like him (nor he she), which, as any fule kno, is a sure sign of mutual sexual attraction, something that doesn’t go uncommented on by the other girls. That knowing commentary and genre savvy displayed by many of the characters, helps reinforce the fanfic feeling of the story, again like McGuire’s Velveteen.

It doesn’t take long for the plot to grow darker, as it turns out the drama club has a more important mission than amateur theatre and somebody isn’t happy Erik joined up with them. Before long he’s involved in running battles with this unknown enemy, which turns out also to mostly consist of high school girls. What in fact turns out to be the case is that both groups come from a fantasy world not unlike Zelazny’s Amber, a world with a higher order of reality and are waging their civil war on Earth. Like Amber, our world is a mere shadow of theirs.

Where it differs, and also where the story goes properly dark, is in how O’hara shows the consequences of these battles, showing how one battle completely destroys the all night restaurant Erik used to hang out at, killing everybody inside. Reality can reset itselfs once such a magical battle has ended, but it’s clear that this restoration isn’t complete. The people murdered may live again, but they’re not quite the same.

Hero Complex is the first in the My Dark and Fearsome Queen series; I’m not sure I’d want to read the next volume right now. Enjoyable as this was it was also somewhat uneven, with the mood swings between light and serious giving me a bit of whiplash. I’m not sure Erik’s tragic background works all that well with the rest of the story O’Hara wants to tell: it’s slightly too real for a story of school girl warbots armed with laser tits. Another small annoyance is that Erik’s dialogue wasn’t put in quote marks, which took some getting used to. Nevertheless, a good debut.