Zero Sum Game — SL Huang

Cover of Zero Sum Game


Zero Sum Game
SL Huang
305 pages
published in 2014

If it wasn’t for her blogging about the renewed SFWA controversies back in January, I would never have heard of SL Huang or Zero Sum Game, her first novel. She’s not the first author I bought books from on the strength of their online writing. I knew Jo Walton and Charlie Stross as Usenet posters before I’d read their fiction and Ian Sales as a blogger before I read his Apollo Quartet books. It’s of course not guaranteed that somebody who’s a good blogger or poster is also a good fiction writer, but so far I haven’t been disappointed.

Zero Sum Game opens with its heroine tied down to a chair watching the fist of Rio, the one man in the whole world she trust coming at her face hard and fast enough to break her jaw. As she watches, lines of force, numbers and probabilities dance before her eyes, giving her a way to take the blow without getting more damage than a split lip. Barely a minute later she sees a way in which she can free herself, kill the four Columbian mobsters in the room and knockout Rio, all while evading the thugs’ gunfire, and takes it, escaping just as more thugs come barreling in. Jumping through the only outside window calculated in such a way as to not get herself torn to pieces, shen then doubles back to get the woman she needed to rescue from the gang, knocks out the guards outside with perfectly aimed rocks thrown to their foreheads and escapes in a hotwired jeep. All in a day’s work for Cas Russell, math savant extraordinaire.

Of course it quickly turns out that this isn’t a normal day’s work, otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. It soon turns out neither Courtney Polk, the woman she was hired to rescue, nor Dawnea, Courtney’s sister are quite who they said they are, but much worrying than that is how easily Cas believed Dawnea in the first place and how much effort it costs her to stop doing so. What started as a quick extraction turns into a nightmare in which at least two parties are hunting Cas, at least one wanting her dead and her only ally, apart from her psychopathic friend Rio, is Anton, an ex-cop turned detective who’s too noble for his own good.

Zero Sum Game is a fast paced action story, which never stands quite still enough to let the reader ask difficult questions. It takes skill to do this, more skill to convincingly show Cas Russell’s math skills in action. Cas can calculate the flightpath of every bullet in a firefight instantaneously, then move fast enough to not be where they will end up, she can sees how to jump through a plate glass window in such a way as to not get cut to death, able to pluck business cards out of the air without looking; she’s basically a superhero. Superheroes are easy to do in comics, not so much in text and it takes a good writer to write believable, fast paced and compelling action scenes for them. SL Huang manages to do so very well:

Specular reflection. Angles of incidence. Perfect. As long as the cop wasn’t going to fire blind, I had him. Hands still raised in the air in apparent surrender, I twitched my left wrist.
At the speed of light, the glint of sunlight came in through the window, hit the bathroom mirror, and reflected in a tight beam from the polished face of my wristwatch right into the cop’s eyes.
He moved fast, blinking and ducking his head away, but I moved faster. I dodged to the side as I dove in, my right hand swinging out to take the gun off line. My fingers wrapped around his wrist and I yanked, the numbers whirling and settling to give me the perfect fulcrum as I leveraged off my grasp on his gun hand to leap upward and give him a spinning knee to the side of the head.

But just writing action scenes well doesn’t a good novel make. While the plot itself is basically an action movie, complete with supervillain, where Huang really shines is in her portrayal of Cas. Cas is not a well woman emotionally, not a well woman at all, but it takes time for you as the reader to realise this, as she doesn’t realise this herself, or doesn’t allow herself to recognise this. At first she just seems supremely confident and capable, her mathemagical abilities giving her the upper hand in almost every situation. It’s when those are challenged, when the manipulations of Dawnae Polk makes her doubt them for the first time in her life, that she starts to doubt herself.

The other thing that’s started to make her doubt herself is Anton, the detective not turned love interest and thank god for that, because how often do you get a story like this where the heroine doesn’t fall in love with her sidekick but instead is just grateful to start a friendship? Before she met him and started to care for him she knew she was bad at dealing with people and their emotions, but she didn’t mind it, didn’t mind what they thought of her, but now she does. And that’s almost as scary as having her mind altered against her will.

Zero Sum Game isn’t perfect — there are times when it feels more like a movie script or television treatment than a novel, but it is a hugely entertaining story, one that made me eager to read on. Go buy.

Peacekeeper — Laura E. Reeves

Cover of Peacekeeper


Peacekeeper
Laura E. Reeves
324 pages
published in 2008

Peacekeeper is the sort of novel you pick up knowing full well it’s probably not going to be very good, but hopefully will be entertaining. It helps, if like me, you have a bit of a weakness for military science fiction and are willing to lower your standards. Once you’ve voluntarily read David Weber’s Honor Harrington series the chances are you’ll read most anything. And, to be honest, Peacekeeper wasn’t that bad. Very much the first novel in a trilogy, but decently paced and competently written. I’m not sure I’ll go out of my way to read the sequels, but wouldn’t pass them up either If I came across them.

Ariane Kedros is the pilot of the scout ship Aether’s Touch, which she runs together with her employer Matt Journey. She’s also a reserve major int he military of the Consortium of Autonomous Worlds, which has just fought a brutal war with the Terran Expansion League, until strong hints from the Minoans — the aliens who had uplifted humanity into space and faster than light travel — put both parties at the negotiating table. Though nobody but Ariane’s superior, colonel Owen Edonus of the Directorate of intelligence, knows, in the eyes of the Terrans she’s also a war criminal, having piloted the ship that destroyed an entire solar system using temporal distortian weapons. As part of the peace treaty both sides will have to stand down and destroy said weapons and colonel Edonus has tapped Ariane to be part of the team that will escort a Terran inspection team at one of the CAW’s facilities. He of course has a hidden motive for this: somebody is killing off the people involved in the mission that made Ariane a war criminal and she’s put out as bait…

Meanwhile, once Ariane is sent on her mission, Matt gets caught up in the murder of a business partner, which seems to be related to a piece of ancient alien technology he and Ariane have found during their last explorations, something that might be similar to Minoan technology but not be of Minoan origin. Something that might make humanity no longer dependent on the Minoans so much. To get out from his troubles Matt has to apply for help from colonel Edonus, the last man he would want to help him.

Finally there’s the Terran State Prince Isrid, one of the people who has been most fanatical about getting the war criminals that had destroyed the Ura-Guinn star system. He has had to set this aside as the political reality changed and it was no longer convenient for the Terran government to use this atrocity as propaganda. He’s coming as leader of the Terran inspection team to the same facility as Ariane is on. The question for her is whether he’s the one behind the killings and what will happen once they meet; does he know she was part of the crew as well?

Much of these other subplots is setup for the next book, with the central mystery in Peacekeeper being who is killing Ariane’s old crew members and why. The obvious answer, that it’s the Terrans, is of course not the right one. That’s only to be expected, but unfortunately the revelation of the real villain came too much out of the blue for me, didn’t arise naturally from the story. In general the plotting was on the weak side, more a series of events that happen to Ariane than a solid story.

In general Ariane was too much of a victim and not enough of an active participant. She gets attacked, kidnapped, tortured, dropped off, almost kidnapped again, almost killed and never quite is in control, manipulated by friend and enemy alike. Matt meanwhile gets to do even less, mainly looking on as others rush into action, there to get the plot explained to him.

Pulling back slightly further from the plot, I wasn’t really convinced by the central moral conflict of the story, the idea that Ariane and her crew didn’t commit war crimes by blowing up an entire star system because they were following legitimate orders and that the sole reason the Terran state prince Isrid is hunting them is because he didn’t believe they were. That’s a bit much for a crime of that magnitude, even if we do learn through a flashback that Ariane and her crew had been lied to about the true nature of their mission.

Worldbuilding in general felt a bit off. At first this looks like a bogstandard milsf future, with two vaguely defined powers in conflict with each other, but there are some oddities. Many of the cultural references, religion and names we see seem to have been derived from classical Greece and there are hints that the history before humanity was contacted by the Minoans wasn’t quite our own. Certainly the future we see here, with e.g. both Christianity and Islam absent in favour of Gaia worship, with Jesus and Mohammed both reduced to minor prophets in her service, can’t quite be reached from here. The problem is that while Reeves does do a lot of proper infodumping, they don’t quite add up to explaining the setting. At first it made me wonder if, despite the lack of indicators of such, this perhaps was a sequel to an earlier novel. Having looked it up though, this is in fact Reeve’s first novel, so my guess now is that this has been a story she had been thinking about for years and she wasn’t entirely successfull in realising that what might’ve been obvious to her about it, may not be the same for her readers.

All of which adds up to a not entirely satisfactory novel; not a bad novel though for what I expected of it and something that I still enjoyed reading. It’s just that you can see the seeds of a much better novel in this.

The Ship Who Sang — Anne McCaffrey

Cover of The Ship Who Sang


The Ship Who Sang
Anne McCaffrey
205 pages
published in 1969

Some writers you can only appreciate if you discover them in the golden age of science fiction — twelve — because at that age you’re less likely to notice the two dimensional characters, slipshod plotting or obnoxious politics you would’ve noticed as a more experienced reader. McCaffrey is such a writer for me. I loved her books when I was twelve and reading them from the local library, but trying my hand at some of her later works ended in disappointment. There’s also the danger of rereading cherished childhood classics and finding that in hindsight, they’re not so great after all. With McCaffrey’s early Dragonriders novels I already took that gamble and got lucky, now I’ve reread perhaps her best known novel outside that series and see if The Ship Who Sang was as much of a tearjerker as I remembered.

Sentiment is an underrated emotion in science fiction, something we’re a bit embarrassed about, but which plays a greater role than you’d expect in such a “rational” genre. Quite a few classics thrive on it — “Helen O’Loy”, “Green Hills of Earth”, “Faithful to Thee, Terra, in Our Fashion” all spring to mind — and as I remembered The Ship Who Sang, it positively wallowed in it, in this story of a severely disabled girl whose only hope for any sort of life was to become the “brain” of a spaceship, who then found love in the arms of her “brawn” partner only to lose him to cruel, cruel fate. The perfect sort of story for a sensitive twelve year old, but would it hold its appeal?

Sadly, no

The problems start literally from the first paragraph:

She was born a thing and as such would be condemned if she failed to pass the encephalograph test required of all newborn babies. There was always the possibility that though the limbs were twisted, the mind was not, that though the ears would hear only dimly, the eyes see vaguely, the mind behind them was receptive and alert.
The electro-encephalogram was entirely favorable, unexpectedly so, and the news was brought to the waiting, grieving parents. There was the final, harsh decision: to give their child euthanasia or permit it to become an encapsulated ‘brain’, a guiding mechanism in any one of a number of curious professions. As such, their offspring would suffer no pain, live a comfortable existence in a metal shell for several centuries, performing unusual service to Central Worlds.

That’s a fairly dodgy attitude even in a novel written at a time and in a country that had no problems with involuntary sterilisation of undesirable people and nonconsentual medical experiments, let alone now we’ve sort of managed to accept disabled people as human. To have a writer approvingly talk about euthanasia for mentally disabled babies, or lifelong servitude for those merely severely physically disabled, if their parents allow it, is a reminder of how social darwinist (or downright fascist) science fiction could be and sometimes still is.

It left a nasty taste in my mouth, though for the rest of the novel this background is never referred to again and Helva, the protagonist, is perfectly happy being a Brain. What reinforces that feeling is the way the Brains are forced into servitude to pay off the huge debts they occurred from being kept alive the way they are, which they have to work off in service to Central Worlds. What’s more, anything that Helva needs as a ship to fulfil the missions she’s sent on she needs to pay for herself, including any damage done to her in the mission. It does feel a lot like slavery, even if she does get paid for these missions as well. All of this is completely ignored in the stories that make up this novel, just part of the background, a device to get Helva to go on dangerous missions to pay off her debts.

I didn’t remember any of this from the last time I read The Ship Who Sang, decades ago; what I remembered was the romantic story at the heart of it, as Helva comes of age and gets her first partner, the “brawn” who will handle all those physical tasks on planet she can’t do herself. It’s during the party for the eight candidates that Helva gets her name as “the ship who sings”, as she reveals her ability to do just that and turns out to have a perfect voice that can do anything the best “normal” singers can do. That’s when she first meets Jennan, the only one to consistently talk to where her physical presence was located in the heart of her ship-shell, the one she immediately falls in love with and who actually dies less than ten pages later. The rest of the novel is about Helva dealing with her loss and grief, ultimately finding new love in the strangest of places.

Because this is a fixup novel however, with each story in it originally having been published as a standalone, the characterisation of Helva is rather two dimensional and that deep love and deeper grief doesn’t look so impressive anymore as it did at age twelve. The sentiment is there, but much of it has dissipated after the first two stories, McCaffrey preferring to tell perfectly good sf puzzle adventure stories for the rest of the book. These are decent enough on their own, but I missed the emotion in them I remembered.

In its place was something more nasty, a deep ingrained sexism that again I completely missed the first time around. Helva is consistently shown to be “not like other girls”, one of the boys, while other women are either victims or harpies, largely illogical and emotional, with things like logic and emotions explicitly shown in gendered terms. It’s all very Heinleinian, with McCaffrey having the same sort of this is how the world works and anybody who thinks otherwise is a fool tone in her writing her. It’s very offputting and offensive once you notice it.

Without the sexism, without the dodgy background McCaffrey gave the novel, what remains is a great idea executed through decent if not worldbeating stories. It’s typical of the science fiction of this generation that most of the interesting stuff is discarded so quickly, largely due to the length restrictions it had to labour under. This after all is a novel of barely 200 pages, which tells half a dozen of stories during it. That leaves little room for anything but plotting.

A bit of a disappointment then, another book I’d with hindsight should’ve left to memory.

Voodoo Planet — Andre Norton

Cover of Voodoo Planet


Voodoo Planet
Andre Norton
192 pages
published in 1956

Genre science fiction got its start in the pulp magazines of the twenties and thirties and many of its early writers were just pulp authors writing the same old stories they’d always written, just with some sf flavourings. So instead of the brave sheriff depending on his horse and trusty six gun to fight off the bandits out in the Oklahoma badlands, you got the brave space marshall depending on his trusty rocket and raygun to take out the bandits hiding out in the Martian badlands. It’s this what fans meant when they talked about space opera, before that got co-opted for something more respectable, crappy fake science fiction stories that might just as well have been westerns. As the field matured and new writers moved in actually interested in science fiction as a genre, these stories quickly disappeared.

Even so, they never completely went away and every now and then you run across a story whose pulp roots are clearly visible, even with a writer like Andre Norton. Voodoo Planet, as you may have guessed, is one example. The sequel to Plague Ship, this is another adventure of the crew of the Solar Queen, who have been invited to a big game hunt in Africa Khatka, a planet settled by African colonists, where they run straight into a trap set by the resident witch doctor.

Which is just as pulpy as it sounds. Khatka is a planet that’s like the Africa out of pulp magazines, mostly untamed wilderness full of dangerous animals, while the natives are somewhat more sophisticated than in the prewar pulps. Norton is at pains to emphasise that Khatka is just as civilised a planet as any other, they just prefer the primitive life of their terran ancestors. It’s all a bit separate but equal, not very progressive even for the fifties.

The plot doesn’t help, pitting the rational crew of the Solar Queen against one of the hoariest of pulp cliches, the evil medicine man who uses superstition to oppress the hapless natives. Even though the various black characters are just as well rounded as the Solar Queen’s men, ie solidly twodimensional, that kind of plot still taps into all sorts of racist, colonial imagery. Again, Norton does seem to do her best to avoid this, but the shape of the story works against her. It remains too obviously an pulp African adventure transplanted to a science fiction setting. Not her best story.

What Makes this Book So Great — Jo Walton

Cover of What Makes this Book So Great


What Makes this Book So Great
Jo Walton
446 pages
published in 2014

What Makes this Book So Great is that it’s written by Jo Walton, who has a real talent for making you both reconsider books you know well or long for books you’ve never heard of before. I’ve known Jo for almost twenty years now, from when we both independently discovered internet, usenet and rec.arts.sf.written, where it didn’t take long for her to become one of the most interesting posters there. It was no great surprise that she became a professional writer, or that Tor would ask her to do the same thing she did on usenet on their website, the end result of which is this book. You could call it the non-fiction counterpart of Jo’s Hugo and Nebula award winning Among Others

What this is than is a collection of some 130 columns written for tor.com in 2008-2010, mostly discussing a single book, sometimes going into more general topics about reading books. As Jo makes clear from the start, she isn’t a critic and she’s not reviewing these books, she’s just writing about the books she’s reading and why she likes them. Because she’s been reading for a long time, because she’s a writer herself, because she’s been thinking and talking about books, about science fiction in the ways only an intelligent lifelong reader can, these columns are interesting whether or not you’ve read the books in question.

Now Jo Walton is one of the persons who’ve done a lot in shaping my own reading over the past twenty years and a lot of the novels she’s talking about here we used to discuss on usenet way back when. Reading this felt a lot like going back to those days and at times I wanted this to be an usenet discussion rather than a book just to say “yes, but” or “have you thought of”.

To be honest, because she did so much to shape my reading, because so many of the books she likes are also favourites of mine, it’s hard to be very objective about this book. Whether or not you’ll like it depends on how much you like Jo’s voice and enthusiasms. If you’ve read Among Others you’ll already know that she grew up reading science fiction in the seventies and that while she does read outside of the science fiction and fantasy genres, those are her home turf.

Her tastes, as seen in the columns collected here, run to the more literary part of the genre, rather than the hardcore Heinlein/Campbellian tradition. Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke do appear, but writers like Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler, Tanith Lee, Ursula LeGuin or Jack Womack get as much if not more attention. Jo also spends much time looking over less well known writers, both writing inside and outside the genre, to bring to the attention interesting books otherwise overlooked. It’s interesting to see which writers she pays the most attention to, which seem to be mostly those writers rec.arts.sf.written was in love with in the nineties: both Steve Brust’s Draegeran novels and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga get long series of reviews, as do the Alliance/Union novels of C. J. Cherryh. Other rasfw darlings like Vernor Vinge, Iain M. Banks and John Barnes also make multiple appearances.

The picture of Jo Walton you get is that of an intelligent, demanding reader who wants both intellectual stimulance as well as a good story. She doesn’t have much truck with experimental writing, or so it seems, as most of the book talked about are fairly mainstream in their construction, but doesn’t go for much pulp either, the occasional indulgence like Jerry Pournelle’s Janissaries nonewithstanding.

I’d read a lot of these columns when they first appeared on tor.com a few years ago, but rereading them was no punishment. What Makes this Book So Great made me want to reread those books I already knew about and seek out those that were new to me, which I find is the ultimate sign of a book like this: to make you curious about the books discussed.