I’ve been aware for some time of a culture war simmering in the SF world. And trying to ignore it, as I believed it was largely irrelevant to any of my concerns and I have friends on both sides of the divide. Recently, for a number of reasons I may go into in a later post, I’ve been forced to take a closer look at it. And now I’m going to have to weigh in, because it seems to me that the side I might otherwise be most sympathetic to has made a rather basic error in its analysis. That error bears on something I do very much care about, which is the health of the SF genre as a whole.
Both sides in this war believe they’re fighting about politics. I consider this evaluation a serious mistake by at least one of the sides.
Big Boys Don’t Cry (Tom Kratman; Castalia House) is a short novel which begins innocently enough as an apparent pastiche of Keith Laumer’s Bolo novels and short stories. Kratman’s cybernetic “Ratha” tanks, dispassionately deploying fearsome weapons but somehow equipped to understand human notions of honor and duty, seem very familiar.
2040 (Graham Tottle; Cameron Publicity & Marketing Ltd) is a very odd book. Ostensibly an SF novel about skulduggery on two timelines, it is a actually a ramble through a huge gallimaufry of topics including most prominently the vagaries of yachting in the Irish Sea, an apologia for British colonial administration in 19th-century Africa, and the minutiae of instruction sets of archaic mainframe computers.
Yesterday’s Kin (Nancy Kress; Tachyon Publications) is a surprisingly pedestrian first-contact novel. Surprisingly because Nancy Kress has done groundbreaking SF in the past. While this novel is competently written, no new ground is being broken here.
The introduction to The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2014 (Rich Horton, ed.; Prime Books) gave me a terrible sinking feeling. It was the anthologist’s self-congratulatory talk about “diversity” that did it.
In the real world, when an employer trumpets its “diversity” you are usually being told that hiring on the basis of actual qualifications has been subordinated to good PR about the organization’s tenderness towards whatever designated-victim groups are in fashion this week, and can safely predict that you’ll be able to spot the diversity hires by their incompetence. Real fairness doesn’t preen itself; real fairness considers discrimination for as odious as discrimination against; real fairness is a high-minded indifference to anything except actual merit.
I read the anthologist’s happy-talk about the diversity of his authors as a floodlit warning that they had often been selected for reasons other than actual merit. Then, too, this appears to be the same Rich Horton who did such a poor job of selection in the Space Opera anthology. Accordingly, I resigned myself to having to read through a lot of fashionable crap.
In fact, there are a few pretty good stories in this anthology. But the quality is extremely uneven, the bad ones are pretty awful, and the middling ones are shot through with odd flaws.
World of Fire (James Lovegrove; Solaris) is a a promising start to a new SF adventure series, in which a roving troubleshooter tackles problems on the frontier planets of an interstellar civilization.
Dev Harmer’s original body died in the Frontier War against the artificial intelligences of Polis+. Interstellar Security Solutions saved his mind and memories; now they download him into host bodies to run missions anywhere there are problems that have local law enforcement stumped. He dreams of the day the costs of his resurrection are paid off and he can retire into a reconstructed copy of his real body; until then, he’s here to take names and kick ass.
As I write, the author of The Chaplain’s War (Brad Torgerson; Baen) has recently been one of the subjects of a three-minute hate by left-wingers in the SF community, following Larry Correia’s organization of a drive to get Torgerson and other politically incorrect writers on the Hugo ballot. This rather predisposed me to like his work sight unseen; I’m not a conservative myself, but I dislike the PC brigade enough to be kindly disposed to anyone who gives them apoplectic fits.
Alas, there’s not much value here. Much of it reads like a second-rate imitation of Starship Troopers, complete with lovingly detailed military-training scenes and hostile bugs as opponents. And the ersatz Heinlein is the good parts – the rest is poor worldbuilding, even when it’s not infected by religious sentiments I consider outright toxic.
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.
Nobody will ever confuse Fortunes of the Imperium (Jody Lynne Nye; Baen) with great SF, but it’s a likeable, fluffy little confection of a book that had me thinking “Wodehouse…in…spaaace!”
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Shadow of the Storm (Martin J. Dougherty; Far Future Enterprises) is a tie-in novel set in the universe of the Traveller role-playing game. It’s military SF set against a troubled political background, with the Solomani Confederation facing off against the Third Imperium in a tense peace and the Confederation’s border worlds restive.
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.
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?