Jul 06

Science fiction from within

There are so many interesting points being elicited in the responses to my previous post on why the deep norms of the SF genre matter that I think I may have passed a threshold. I think the material I have written on critical theory of science fiction is now substantial enough that I could actually expand it into a book. I am now contemplating whether this is a good idea – whether there’s a market in either the strict monetary or other senses.

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Jul 02

Why the deep norms of the SF genre matter

In the book reviews I’ve been writing recently I have been applying some very specific ideas about the nature and scope of science fiction, particularly in contrast to other genres such as fantasy, mystery, and horror. I have not hesitated to describe some works found in SF anthologies as defective SF, as non-SF, or even as anti-SF.

It is not fashionable these days to be so normative about any kind of artistic form, let alone SF. The insistence that we should embrace diversity is constant, even if it means giving up having any standards at all. In a genre like SF where the core traditions include neophilia and openness to possibility, the argument for exclusive definitions and hard boundaries seems especially problematic.

I think it is an argument very much worth making nevertheless. This essay is my stake in the ground, one I intend to refer readers back to when (as sometimes happens) I’m accused of being stuck on an outmoded and narrow conception of the genre. I will argue three propositions: that artistic genres are functionally important, that genre constraints are an aid to creativity and communication rather than a hindrance, and that science fiction has a particular mission which both justifies and requires its genre constraints.

(Some parts of this essay are excerpts from earlier related writing.)

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Jun 30

Review: Solaris Rising 3

Solaris Rising 3 (Ian Whates; Rebellion) is billed as an anthology showcasing the breadth of modern SF. It is that; unfortunately, it is also a demonstration that the editor and some of his authors have partly lost touch with what makes science fiction interesting and valuable.

As I’ve observed before, SF is not an anything-goes genre. You do not achieve SF merely by deploying SF furniture like space travel, nonhuman sophonts, or the Singularity. SF makes demands on both reader and writer that go beyond lazy fabulism; there’s an implied contract. The writer’s job is to present possibility in a sufficiently consistent and justified way that the reader might be able to reason out the story’s big reveal(s) before the author gets there; the reader’s job is to back-read the clues in the story intelligently and try to get ahead of the author, or catch mistakes in the extrapolation. As in murder mysteries, there can be much else going on besides this challenge and response, but if the challenge and the possibility of such a response is not there, you do not have SF.

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Jun 29

Review: Ark Royal

In Ark Royal (Christopher Nuttall; self-published) the ship of the same name is an obsolete heavy-armored fleet carrier in a future British space navy. The old girl and her alcoholic captain have been parked in a forgotten orbit for decades, a dumping ground for screwups who are not quite irredeemable enough to be cashiered out. Then, hostile aliens invade human space – and promptly trash the modern unarmored carriers set against them. It seems the Ark Royal’s designers wrought better than they knew. Earth’s best hope is to re-fit and re-staff her in a tearing hurry, then send her against the invasion to buy time while sister ships can be built. Adventure ensues.

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Jun 25

Review: Patton’s Spaceship

Patton’s Spaceship (John Barnes; Open Road Integrated Media) is a new e-book release of an effort from 1996.

Parts of the early action, in which the protagonist loses his family to a vicious terrorist group of unknown (and very exotic) origins, seem sadly dated in light of the even greater viciousness that terrorist groups of thoroughly well-known origins have since exhibited.

Nevertheless, much of this novel is an entertaining alternate-history adventure, presenting (among other things) the most grubby and creepily plausible portrait of a U.S. under Nazi domination I have seen.

Alas, I must report that Barnes tends to get a bit too cute in name-checking historical figures. In the most extreme instance of this he makes the poet Allen Ginsburg into an action hero. That move is perhaps best read as unintentional comedy; for some intentional comedy, see if you can spot Robert Heinlein’s cameo appearance.

Barnes has written better, before and since. But this isn’t bad.

Jun 25

Review: The Steampunk Trilogy

The Steampunk Trilogy (Paul diFilippo; Open Road Integrated Media) is three short novels set in a now-familiar sort of alternate-Victorian timeline replete with weird science, Lovecraftian monsters, and baroquely ornamented technology described in baroquely ornamental prose.

What distinguishes this particular outing is that it’s hilarious. In the first chapter of the first book, a runaway young Queen Victoria is replaced by a newt. In the second chapter (a flashback) an experiment in powering a steam locomotive from the waste heat of masses of uranium comes to a tragic, mushroom-clouded end when an accident slams them together just a bit too hard.

The books proceed in a tumbling cascade of ribaldry, parody, slapstick, and sly historical references that sends up every target in sight. And just when you think it’s all farce…Walt Whitman delivers a compassionate and psychologically astute critique of her poetry to Emily Dickinson, it isn’t comedy at all, and it’s even plot-relevant! Along the way, Herman Melville tangles with the Deep Ones and the naturalist Henry Agassiz recognizes Dagon as an ichthyosaurus…

Even if you’re not equipped to parse all the historical and literary in-jokes, this is fun stuff. If you are…I enjoyed the hell out of it. You probably will too.

Jun 23

Review: Unexpected Alliances

Unexpected Alliances (M.R. LaScola; Two Harbors Press) is, alas, a horrible example of why the absence of editorial gatekeepers in indie publishing can be a bad thing.

Here’s a clue: if you see nothing wrong with a near-future first-contact scene in which the commander of an armada of 30,000 starships many light years from Earth introduces herself as Nancy Hartley from the planet Ultron, you shouldn’t be writing SF.

The relatively short portion of the book I managed to read before I gave up also featured talking dragons and 7-foot-tall nonhuman aliens who casually interbreed with humans. The prose reads like something a bright 9-year-old might write. It’s a sort of pile of glittery SF and fantasy fripperies quoted with absolutely no regard to whether they make any sense, or even any sense that they ought to make sense.

It’s a brave new world. Anyone can publish. Sometimes they shouldn’t.

Jun 22

Review: Soulminder

In Soulminder (Timothy Zahn; Open Road Integrated Media), an invented device called a “soul trap” can capture the personality and memories of a dying human in a form that can be restored into the person’s brain if the physical damage that killed them can be repaired. While the device is initially conceived as a device to save the lives of trauma patients and people undergoing dangerous surgery, the fun doesn’t really start until the discovery that under some circimstances the device can be used to body-swap.

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Jun 20

Review: the Human Reach novels

The Human Reach novels are a planned trilogy by John Lumpkin of which two books have so far been published: Through Struggle, The Stars (2011) and The Desert of Stars (2013. A third, The Passage of Stars, is planned.

These books bear comparison with Thomas Mays’s A Sword Into Darkness, previously reviewed here, in that they are military SF that works very hard at getting the tactics and technology of future space combat right, and leaned on the excellent Atomic Rockets website to do it. But the differences are as interesting as the similarities.

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Jun 18

Review: A Sword Into Darkness

A Sword Into Darkness (Thomas Mays; self-published) is better than I was expecting. There’s been a fair bit of buzz about it on G+ and elsewhere in the corners of the net I frequent; the buzz led me to expect a well-executed work of space opera and military SF that could stand comparison with (for example) John Ringo’s Live Free Or Die and its sequels. There’s a bit more here than that, as it turns out.

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Jun 17

Review: The Mandala

The Mandala (Timothy R. O’Neill, Publish Green) is an airport thriller with an SF premise. In the badlands of northern Montana there appears something that produces gravitational pulses powerful enough to perturb satellite orbits, and drives people who wander too near it insane. Satellite imagery reveals a vast, intricate pattern of subtle changes in the ground surrounding the site, with no correlates at all from ground level. Something about it has spooked the Russians enough that there are rumblings of nuclear threat. Can the enigma be solved before it triggers atomic apocalypse..or worse?

Many tropes of the airport thriller genre duly check in – an alphabet soup of secret government agencies, a maverick hero with a troubled past, ancient conspiracies, a race against time to uncover a world-shattering secret.

The SF premise works OK, but the real reason to bother with this one is unexpected: the dialogue is brilliant and funny! The characters do not speak in the usual bureaucratese or action-hero grunting; they’re as nervously, mordantly witty as escapees from a Noel Coward play.

This bit of style seemed as incongruous as a camouflage pattern in day-glo colors at first, but I got used to it and spent much of the rest of the book periodically succumbing to did-he-really-write-that giggles, occasionally regaling my wife with the choicest bits. And when was the last time you read an airport thriller with laugh-out-loud lines?

Jun 16

Review: The Devil Incarnate

At the end of my review of The Devil’s Concubine I wrote “it would be nice to think that the sequels will be about something other than her approach-avoidance dance with the guy, but experience has taught me to be pessimistic in such matters.”

To my pleased surprise, my pessimism was not fulfilled. In The Devil Incarnate (Jill Braden; Wayzgoose Press), the romance element is almost disappeared; this book really is about QuiTai’s struggle against the Thampurians rather than her sex life.

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Jun 11

Review: Space Opera

Space Opera (Rich Horton, editor; Diamond Book Distributors) starts off with an introduction that gives a historical overview of the evolution of the term “space opera” from its disreputable beginnings in the 1940s to the self-conscious modern revival of the subgenre after 1985.

It’s a pretty good summary with a few odd lapses. Missing, for example, is the informative detail that the term was coined by analogy with “soap opera”, but in its original context probably owed more to the now near-extinct term “horse opera” for a formulaic Western. Also, given the editor’s cogent argument that space opera never really went away during the pre-revival years, it seems inexplicable that he fails to mention such obvious exemplars as The Mote In God’s Eye (1975) and Startide Rising (1983), among others.

But these are nearly quibbles, relatively speaking. The larger lapse is that the editor of this anthology never engages the question of what “space opera” actually is – that is, what traits define it relative to other subgenres of science fiction. The consequence of this lack is that the stories in this anthology, while sometimes quite brilliant individually, add up to rather less than the sum of their parts, and it can be difficult to discern why any particular story was selected.

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Jun 09

Review: Trial By Fire

Trial By Fire (Charles E. Gannon, Baen) is the sort of book that divides those who notice it into two parts. One group will sneer “Yard goods from Baen, yet another space opera full of stuff blowing up”; the other will nod and smile and say “Good clean fun, I’ll take it.”

I’m cheerfully in the second group, myself. But I do have standards. Done badly, this sort of thing is just boring and derivative button-pushing, a sort of male-targeted analog of formula romances. Done well, it’s a fun ride with enough elements of puzzle story and sense of wonder to make it respectable SF even if it doesn’t aspire to the heights of conceptual breakthrough found in the best of the genre.

This particular book is the second in a sequence that I would describe as enjoyable if unexceptional. Much of the furniture is familiar (one of the major alien species is perhaps too much like Alan Dean Foster’s Thranx, and another is fairly generic Proud Warrior Race Guys) but the author knows his way around the battles and action scenes, and some of the reveals in the puzzle side of the plot are genuinely interesting.

Overall, the author earns his money. You’ll want to read the first book, Fire With Fire, before this one. Expect sequels – but if you’re in the target market for this book, you already know you want them.

Jun 08

Review: The Worth of a Shell

M. C. A. Hogarth’s The Worth of a Shell (self-published) is a complex, serious, well-thought-out extrapolation of the consequences of alien sexual biology marred only by the fact that one of its central premises is not at all credible.

The Jokka are presented as a humanoid species with three sexes; males, females, and neuters. There’s a tragedy built into Jokka physiology; under stress, the females often have strokes that decrease their intelligence. Giving birth induces such stress so reliably that after multiple pregnancies they generally become mindless animals who have to be strapped into a mating harness.

This novel tells of a disgraced neuter who finds renewed meaning in his life by becoming the protector of a female who rejects breeding because she doesn’t want to lose her curiosity and self-awareness. They seek the Birthwell, the legendary origin-point of the Jokka, where she suspects there might be an answer to the Jokka tragedy.

Much of this is well executed. Hogarth has invented plausible specializations for each of the three Jokka sexes and worked out what the resulting dominant social pattern would be like in both logical and evocative detail. Her exploration of the character psychologies arising from these circumstances is equally thoughtful and convincing; she does a particularly good job on her neuter viewpoint character. It is really too bad that Hogarth has screwed up something so basic in her worldbuilding that the whole edifice collapses in a heap.

No, it isn’t the trisexuality, in itself. It is true that premise is almost certainly impossible for a species that isn’t eusocial, like ants or meerkats; the bioenergetics of this have been investigated in some detail. But we can let that slide under the One-McGuffin Rule (a work of SF is allowed one impossible or highly implausible premise as long as the consequences are worked out consistently, and FTL doesn’t count).

The real problem here is the second half – most females going non-sophont after a few births. It’s the “most” that’s the problem here. If this disadvantage were wired so deeply into the Jokka genome that there was effectively no differential across germlines it might be stable. But explicitly it is not; for a few prized females (no one can predict which) the decline is slowed or halted.

This difference is not stable under selection. Remaining sophont in order to care for and advance the interests of your offspring is such a huge reproductive advantage that the alleles preventing the stroke vulnerability should have been strongly selected for in the Jokkas’ evolutionary past, and birth-related strokes should never have had anywhere above about 1% incidence.

The author’s apparent failure to even realize this problem is a crash landing that makes this novel a sad failure as SF. Doubly unfortunate because I can think of a couple of different fixes for it that would have had minimal impact on what the author apparently wanted to do.

Note for those unfamiliar with genre forms: it is allowed for Ms. Hogarth to have an explanation in mind that she has not revealed, but respect for her readers’ ability to play the game requires that she drop a clue to the explanation, or at least signal that she knows it’s a continuity problem that has to be resolved.

Further warning: this is another one of those first-of-a-sequence books that is not so labeled and doesn’t warn you that it ends without resolution. Turns out this may only be true of the ARC; the Amazon listing describes it as first of a series.

Jun 07

Review: Echopraxia

Peter Watts writes complex, dark novels full of intellectual fireworks – disturbing tours-de-force that question our most cherished notions of consciousness, self, free will, and agency. I often disagree with his logic and conclusions, but he plays the game honestly and shows his work – usually with extensive citations to the published literature in half-a-dozen scientific fields.

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