Half Life — SL Huang

Cover of THalf Life

Half Life
SL Huang
150 pages
published in 2014

SL Huang’s first novel, Zero Sum Game was a tightly plotted, fast paced technothriller, which I only got to know about because I’d been following her blog. The sequel to it I got to read because SL Huang offered a review copy, which is always appreciated. It’s actually the first time that any author has done this, so it’s a bit of new terrain for me as a reviewer. What about ethics in science fiction reviewing? No matter; I would’ve bought this anyway and getting a free book is nice, but had I not liked Half Life I would’ve said so too.

Now when we met Zero Sum Game Cas Russell was an amoral math savant making her living doing …retrieval… work for anybody who could pay. Thanks to the events of that novel she went from being bad at ordinary relationships and not worrying about it to being still bad at them but working on them. In Half Life she goes further; it can be best summed up as “Cas learns the value of friendship through the medium of extreme violence”. It all starts when she gets a somewhat particular retrieval mission, to rescue the daughter of Noah Warren, an ex-engineer laid off from Arkacite Technologies, who claims that they hold her for experiments. Cas is weirdly possessive about kids and even though she immediately notices during the rescue mission that Liliana isn’t a real girl, but an extremely advanced robot, that doesn’t stop Cas from wanting to protect her.

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The Handmaid’s Tale — Margaret Atwood

Cover of The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood
308 pages
published in 1985

About a decade ago, when promoting her book Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood said some dumb things while distancing it and herself from science fiction, insising it was “speculative fiction” (ironically a term invented by that most hardcore of sf writers, Robert Heinlein when he tried to make sf respectable half a century before Atwood) and being dismissive about “talking squid in space”. Science fiction fandom has a long history for (imagined) sleights and while Atwood has long since walked back her remarks, sf fans tend to still be a bit grumpy about it. Yet Atwood does have a point that she isn’t writing for science fiction readers and therefore her books shouldn’t be judged by science fiction standards.

Which is fair enough. If you read the Handmaid’s Tale it soon becomes clear that though it is science fiction, it’s science fiction in the dystopian tradition of Orwell and Huxley rather than in the tradition of e.g. Heinlein’s If This Goes On…, another story of religious oppression in a future America. That has flying cars and blaster guns and other sfnal paraphernalia though no space squid, while Atwood’s story is set in what are still recognisable eighties suburbs.

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Monument — Lloyd Biggle

Cover of Monument

Lloyd Biggle
173 pages
published in 1974

It’s been a while since I’d read any of Lloyd Biggle’s novels; the last one had been The World Menders back in 2007. I’ve always liked his writing, quietly liberal and anti-colonialist in a way that few other science fiction authors of his generation were. His belief in the idea that “democracy imposed from without is the severest form of tyranny” seemed especially apt during the darkest days of War Against Terror triumphalism. He is however, not a writer much read these days, having done the bulk of his writing in the sixties and seventies. He died relatively recently, in 2002, after a long illnes, having written only some six novels since the seventies.

Science fiction is often an imperialist, colonialist genre, in which it’s taken as natural or even desirable for there to be a galactic imperium to which newly discovered worlds should be gently or firmly — depending on the author’s preference — be persuaded to join. Sometimes this is dressed up as the need to avoid interstellar wars and even in stories with a Galactic Federation rather than an empire the need for newly discovered worlds to be assimilated is rarely questioned. Not so with Lloyd Biggle; several of his books question this mentality and Monument is one of them. Taken its lead from what was happening in e.g. Polynesia at the time, it’s an sfnal attack on ill considered economic development imposed from the outside.

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WALL-E: thriumph of the nice guy

So seeing WALL·E over Christmas again got me thinking. That love story between WALL·E and EVE, that’s pretty much the nice guy fallacy in a nutshell, isn’t it? WALL·E falls in love with EVE and pesters her while she’s doing her job, not taking no for an answer. He keeps hanging around and bringing her gifts she doesn’t need, isn’t honest about his feelings for her but seems to think that if only he brings the perfect gift she’ll like him. That by accident he does bring her just the thing she needs doesn’t alter anything. After this he stalks her to her home, interferes with her work again, makes her an accomplish in his jail break from the mental hospital for robots, keeps her in trouble with lawful authority and finally guilts her in loving him when she sees how he took care of her when she was incapitated. All that’s missing is the negging.

Yes, this may be tongue in cheek

Playing Civ V the Culture way

One of the things that stayed with me the most from Iain M. Bank’s The Player of Games more than twenty years ago was the following:

Another revelation struck Gurgeh with a force almost as great; one reading—perhaps the best—of the way he’d always played was that he played as the Culture. He’d habitually set up something like the society itself when he constructed his positions and deployed his pieces; a net, a grid of forces and relationships, without any obvious hierarchy or entrenched leadership, and initially quite profoundly peaceful.

In all the games he’d played, the fight had always come to Gurgeh, initially. He’d thought of the period before as preparing for battle, but now he saw that if he’d been alone on the board he’d have done roughly the same, spreading slowly across the territories, consolidating gradually, calmly, economically… of course it had never happened; he always was attacked, and once the battle was joined he developed that conflict as assiduously and totally as before he’d tried to develop the patterns and potential of unthreatened pieces and undisputed territory.

The Player of Games is of course all about playing a particularly complicated game, insanely complicated even, which functions as the central controlling metaphor for a rather nasty interstellar empire the Culture wants to Do Something About. It made sense for the resolution to be about playing the game the Culture way, but ever since I’ve been looking at Grand Strategy and 4X games and how to play those the Culture way, starting with Master of Orion way back when.

Now last week I started getting into Sid Meier’s Civilisation V. Yes, I know, I’m so ahead of the times. After playing a first few games, I started thinking how I would play this game as the Culture. Obviously, it means going for the science victory rather than just attacking and conquering every other player, but how else should I play?

As we know from the Culture novels, the Culture isn’t military aggressive, but can respond quickly and with overwhelming force when provoked. This means building up an empire in Civ V that’s scientifically advanced, with enough resources (gold, otherwise) to quickly build an army when necessary. The other aspect of the Culture is that it is an exploring and flexible civilisation, continueously establishing new outposts and welcoming new peoples, as well as letting others leave. In Civ V terms this means therefore lots of scouting out the world, quickly establishing new colonies and forging ties with other civilisations and city states, including the occasional annexation of a city state.

As for simulating contact, there are the scouts and the diplomatic functions, trading directly with other civs, giving gifts and pledging protection to city states, with the spies acting in the background as Civ’s version of Special Circumstances. On the whole a Culture civilisation should focus on discovering new territories and settling them, improving the empire’s economy and keeping an eye on the more aggressive fellow civs. When need be a bit of dirty trickery should provide the excuse to start a war against an aggressor civ, after which the military forces should be hidden or dismantled again.

It may not be as much fun to play the Culture as it would be to go full Gandhi on the world and let rain the atom bombs, but it is an interesting challenge…

John Carter – Borelord of Mars

Had the movie been more like the the trailer it would’ve been more successful. But having just watched it on the BBC tonight I understand why it was such a box office failure. Boy did this drag, mainly out of the misguided desire to put a framing story around it. It also doesn’t help that John Carter himself is a huge dick during most of the film and an incompentent dick at that. Or that the story itself, that of the reluctant hero unwillingly learns to fight for a greater cause than his own greed, is so predictable.

All of that is fixable though. Cut out everything in the first fifteen-twentyfive minutes until Carter is chased by Apaches into the cave with the portal to Mars/Barsoom, tighten up some of the running to and fro once he’s on Barsoom and with the Tharg, cut at least some of the “Carter gets angry, gets in a fight and gets his arse kicked” scenes, then end the movie with him calling himself John Carter of Mars. That should cut out at least half an hour of tedium and puts the focus back on the fighting and the great setting. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom is a great place for a spectacle film, but not if you load it up with tedious extras.

I’m not sure why Disney felt it necessary to make the film the way it did, why it didn’t just film A Princess of Mars, but it’s such a shame because it could’ve been a great sci-fi romp. When it does gets going it’s a great movie to watch. The CGIed Tharg look great, the Martian technology looks cool and the low gravity jumping looks fun. A missed opportunity.

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…

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Better than Spider Robinson’s fanfic any day

The person who wrote this little The Rolling Stones vignette really has Heinlein’s writing patterns down pat:

“Chief Engineer Grandma?” Meade said sweetly, ducking her head into the room. “Would you please tell Buster to stay out of my garden? He may think he’s clever, but he’s killing my broccoli. I’d tell him myself, but he obviously doesn’t listen to me.”

Hazel looked across the chessboard at Lowell. “Best do as she says, Junior,” she commented.

“But she’s wrong about the salinity gradients-” he protested.

“Grandmother dearest,” Meade said, her hands on her hips. “Why does everyone aboard this ship assume I am incapable of doing math?”

“Beats me,” Hazel said. “I tutored you myself; you can handle a differential with the best of ‘em.”

Really. The voices, the way the characters speak, that mixture of banter and infodumping, it’s all prime Heinlein and Kalirush has done a great job capturing it. I wish they’d do more Heinlein stories.

Broken Homes — Ben Aaronovitch

Cover of Broken Homes

Broken Homes
Ben Aaronovitch
357 pages
published in 2013

Peter Grant was a normal copper until he noticed he could talk to dead people in Rivers of London/Midnight Riot. Now he’s part of the Folly, the Metropolitian Police’s special unit for magic, which apart from him consists of one elderly but backwards aging survivor of the glory days of British wizardry before the war, as well as his colleague Lesley May, Toby the dog and Molly, the folly’s housekeeper of indefinitive species, currently experimenting with cooking from one of Jamie Oliver’s recipe books, to mixed results.

Broken Homes is the fourth novel in the Rivers of London series. There has been a mini boom in London based fantasy these past few years and Aaronovitch isn’t the only one either who has his protagonist working for the Met. There’s a sort of inevitability about the idea. London with its long history and dominant presence in the psyche of not just Britain, but arguably the world, just fits as a nexus of magic in a way that say Amsterdam wouldn’t. Of course the Met would have its own magical police force, some hangover from Victorian times, staffed with aging public schoolboys, into which the thoroughly modern London figure of police constable Peter Grant fits awkwardly. That tension between the gentlemanly tradition of magic and modern policing is part of the charm of the series.

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James Nicoll’s Great Heinlein Juveniles Plus The Other Two Reread

With Podkaybe of Mars, does not end well:

Unlike Elsie, Jackie, or Peewee, poor Podkayne is cut off at the knees before her adventure begins. Podkayne can dream of commanding a space ship but she can never see that dream realized because her narrative purpose is to serve as a doleful lesson to readers. This is where misplaced female ambition can lead! Well, if not Podkayne’s misplaced ambition, then her mother’s. Where the classic Heinlein juveniles are about boys reaching for the stars, Podkayne of Mars is a hectoring lecture, telling women to stay in their place.

To be fair, it’s not just Podkayne of Mars James has problems with, as shown by the list of the other reviews, below. It’s abundantly clear that many of the problematic opinions Heinlein had in his later books towards the proper role of women, sex, incest and consent were not a product of his medical troubles nor a new development, but present already in his juveniles. For somebody lauded for being so forward looking, he sure is wedded to gender models already becoming obsolete at time of writing. With rare exceptions, women are there to be mothers or wives and while his heroes may often be overshadowed by their female companions, they still need to be satisfied with these roles once the story is over.

  • Rocket Ship Galileo (1947):
    “Depraved indifference” and “the uncle who used his relatives as living meat shields” are going to be book-ends for this series of reviews.
  • Space Cadet (1948):
    It’s entirely possible that Matt is part of a terrible machine and too naïve to realize but at least, unlike my memory of Starship Troopers, the Patrol has ambitions of being lawful good.
  • Red Planet (1949):
    By this point in his career, Heinlein was still sticking with the “girls are ick and moms are a drag” model; there’s a genially patronizing treatment of the female inability to handle math in a discussion of the air plants that made me idly wonder what that character’s throat would sound like if his wife stuck a knife in it in mid-sneer.
  • Farmer in the Sky (1950):
    It’s pretty clear to me that George’s Plan A was to ditch Bill on Earth so George could secretly marry Molly and emigrate to Ganymede; given the difficulty of communicating with Earth, it’s possible Bill might not have found out about George’s new family for years, if ever.
  • Between Planets (1951):
    I’ve never particularly noticed it before but there are parallels between the plot of this and the plot of Lord of Rings; Don is stuck with a ring of great importance and what he needs to do to save the day is get rid of it under the right circumstances.
  • The Rolling Stones (1952):
    Heinlein paid lip service to the idea that women could be professionals but all that had to stop as soon as he married one of them, even if it meant poverty for the Heinlein family.
  • Starman Jones (1953):
    This book stands out as possibly the first young adult novel I ever encountered that featured pretty transparent references to johns being rolled by prostitutes.
  • The Star Beast: (1954)
    Of all the Heinlein Girls in Charge, The Star Beast’s Betty Sorenson is the girl most in charge and in Mr. Kiku we find an extremely uncommon figure for SF, a sympathetic career bureaucrat.
  • Tunnel in the Sky (1955):
    Since the majority of Americans didn’t come to see mixed race marriages as acceptable until the mid-1990s, forty years after this book was written, that minor bit of business was pretty daring on Heinlein’s part.
  • Time for the Stars (1956):
    Given that telepathy completely breaks relativity, I don’t know that it makes any sense to discuss whether the way he telepathic communication is affected by relativistic star-flight is realistic.
  • Citizen of the Galaxy (1957):
    Purchased on an apparent whim by the beggar Baslim the Cripple, Thorby is rescued from a life of exploitation and abuse for one as the acolyte and adopted son of a man who is far more than he appears.
  • Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1958):
    For me, the highlight of the book is young Peewee Reisfeld, twelve years old — almost — and willing to take on an alien invasion single-handed if she has to. Peewee might be the finest example of Heinlein’s girls in charge. Peewee is smarter than Kip, she is just as brave, she manages to escape (temporarily) from the wormfaces before she ever meets Kip, something she keeps up through the book, and she saves Kip on a number of occasions.
  • Starship Troopers (1959):
    The book opens as Juan Rico nerves himself to murder alien civilians, “Skinnies”, as he calls them. Heavily armed and armoured, Rico and his human confederates rampage through the Skinny city, destroying infrastructure and leaving a trail of bodies behind him (including what may be a substantial fraction of the congregation of a church).

Does this mean these books aren’t worth reading? Not entirely; certainly the best of the bunch like Citizen of the Galaxy have charms that make their flaws easier to overlook, but the overwhelming sexism does sour a lot of the fun in these.

If you like these reviews, you can commission your own review from James.