Monday, June 15, 2009

Spaceships that go "Whoosh"!

No matter how far afield I go, I always return to my true reading love: space opera. Here are notes on a few recent space opera reads, with qualification in one case.

:: As I noted when I posted about John Scalzi's Old Man's War, military SF isn't really my thing. I like it once in a while, but a lot of times, Mil-SF seems to come too close to being "war porn": fiction for people who really like war. My space opera tastes require some of that good old "sensawunda", along with some elements of the fantastic. Usually you won't find that in Mil-SF in great degree. Well, you don't find that in great degree in Scalzi's OMW follow-up The Ghost Brigades, either, but what you do find is a compelling story with finely written characters and a complex and fascinating plot that deepens our view of the universe Scalzi had set up in his first novel.

For those not up to speed, in OMW we learn that Earth is the homeworld for the expansion of the human species throughout space. Unfortunately, lots of other alien species are also trying to expand throughout space, and it turns out that Scalzi's alien races aren't of the Star Trek type, willing to be lived along with in peace and harmony after Captain Kirk or Picard drops by to kick-start them out of whatever weird habit it is that they've got going on. No, Scalzi's aliens hate humans and want to kill them, and for the most part, Scalzi's humans hate the aliens and want to kill them right back. So the stellar human government, the Colonial Union, has created an army of enhanced humans called the Colonial Defense Force (the CDF), whose ranks are filled with the elderly from Earth who want to leave their world behind and get a new lease on life (by taking on a new, enhanced body). Hence the title Old Man's War.

Mentioned also in OMW was the "special elite forces" of the CDF, the "Ghost Brigades", whose ranks are filled not with elderly recruits but with soldiers specifically cloned from the DNA of the dead. This second novel focuses attention on these special forces soldiers and the trials they face as clones. The plot is fairly simple, at the outset: the Colonial Union is facing a daunting alliance of three alien races, who are being aided by a traitorous human who is giving the aliens information on the Colonial defenses. In an attempt to access the memories of this traitor – who has left behind a clone in an attempt to fake his own death – the CDF proceeds to "grow" a new soldier out of the traitor's clone's body, a soldier named Jared Dirac, whose memories do, in fact, later begin to surface. The questions become not just where is the traitor and what has he done, but also why he has done it at all. The answers to these questions are pleasantly surprising.

The Ghost Brigades is a stronger book, overall, than OMW, which was much less a plot-driven tale than an episodic one. TGB maintains a tighter pace, which picks up quite a lot of steam as the climax nears, and the resolution is particularly satisfying, if a tad bittersweet. (Yes, bittersweet. In a Mil-SF novel.) I was especially pleased that some of the questions I had about the ongoing political nature of the OMW universe are explored here; I figured Scalzi had some answers up his sleeve, and here he gives them. TGB is a terrific read. I give it two stars. Why only two? Because Scalzi says something mean about the Ewoks in the book, and that's just not nice. Otherwise he'd get three and a half.

(I'm pretty sure I recall Scalzi indicating that his intention with TGB, at least in part, was to write a book in a series where it wasn't necessary to have read the first one. Since I've read the first one, I can't say for sure how well he achieved that goal, but my sense is that if you haven't read OMW, you might not pick up on some nuances in TGB but you'll be able to understand the book just fine.)

:: Somewhere I got the idea that Andre Norton's Moon of Three Rings was a space opera, but it's not. It's got some of that space opera feel, but the entire book takes place on a single planet, with nothing happening in space per se, which makes it not space opera but space opera's sister genre, planetary romance. Oh well. I love a good planetary romance as much as a good space opera, just as long as I know I'm reading one so I'm not getting halfway through the book and thinking, "Where are all the spaceships?" (Now, there is a sequel to Moon of Three Rings which I haven't yet read, called, I think, Exiles of the Stars. Maybe that's a space opera? I'll report back when I read that one.)

Anyway. To my knowledge I've never read any Norton before, which makes her a pretty big hole in my SF reading life. Andre Norton died a few years ago, and she was one of the most prolific SF writers of the 20th century. How she managed to slip through the cracks of my reading life until now, I'm not sure, but I'm glad to have finally got round to her and I plan to read more of her in the future.

Moon of Three Rings takes place on the planet Yiktor, where the trade ship Lydis has just landed. Crewman Krip Vorlund decides to go out and see some sights, eventually taking in a "beast show" – an exhibition of Yiktor's exotic wildlife – that is run by a charismatic priestess named Maelen. Before Vorlund can return to his ship, however, he is kidnapped by a "Combine" which intends to use Vorlund as a tool to gain weapons from the space traders in order to continue their conquest of all of Yiktor. Maelen comes to Vorlund's rescue, but her method is somewhat unique: she causes Vorlund to switch bodies with a beast of Yiktor called a "barsk". The barsk is a wolf-like beast, and now Krip Vorlund finds himself in a race against time: he is evading his pursuers at the same time he is trying to recover his own body and then make it back to his ship before it blasts off again.

As noted, this was my first encounter with Andre Norton. It took me a little while to get into her style, but once I did, I realized that she had a finely honed voice and a gift for descriptive imagination. Her alien environments are alien enough to be exotic but not so alien as to be unrecognizable, and she is able to convey the nature of various beings without resorting to easy metaphors (like my use of "wolf-like" in the preceding paragraph). One thing that did take a bit of getting used to was likely specific to this novel: she alternates between the viewpoints of Krip Vorlund and Maelen every couple of chapters, but each is written in first person, so it was a bit difficult getting used to this. Fortunately she varies the voices of these characters nicely, and I noticed that she didn't do the obvious thing of basically saying, "OK, now let's go view these same events through the other person's eyes now." Each time the viewpoint changes, the story keeps going from the place the other character had left it. I appreciated that.

I don't know how much Norton I'll ever get to read; she was very prolific. But I definitely plan to read more.

Finally, a regular reader of this blog and a regular correspondent of mine offered up a recommendation way back when I first announced my desire to read as much space opera in one lifetime as I can: an old book called Space Viking by H. Beam Piper. Just finding this book proved a bit difficult. Several times I would locate a copy on eBay, only to get outbid on it (or have to pass it up in moments of lean economic activity). The book has actually shown up on Project Gutenberg, so I figured I would have to read it that way eventually – until a few months ago when I was in Barnes&Noble and just happened to see that Space Viking had been reissued in mass-market paperback by Cosmos Books. Score! Anyway, Space Viking was one of the books I took with me on my trip out west for my mother-in-law's funeral. I started it on the plane ride home, and finished it over the subsequent weekend.

What's Space Viking about? Well, it is a tale of murder and revenge, of love and loss, of space wars, of rogues and knaves, of court politics and the nature of history, lots of worlds, lots of characters, and nice big spaceships. And it packs all that into under 250 pages. No overwriting here, nosiree, Bob.

As the book opens, Lord Lucas Trask is marrying his beloved, a woman named Elaine; however, before the ink is dry on their marriage license, Elaine perishes in an attempt by an insane local noble to kill both her and Lord Trask. After the murderer escapes by stealing the newly built starship Enterprise, Trask decides to go after him and pursue revenge by becoming a "Space Viking". Space Vikings are precisely that: men who raid lesser worlds and steal their goods. In this way Trask begins to build a force, which over time becomes influence over several worlds, which over more time becomes the beginnings of something of an Empire. Meantime, the whole revenge thing percolates in the back of his mind.

It's really something of a throwback to read something like Space Viking, a book which is more than forty years old. It doesn't read like "Old SF", though, at least as far as I can tell. Sometimes when I read old SF novels, they really do seem old; not so this one. Its scientific content isn't all that great, but Piper is more concerned with exploring themes of morality and history than dealing with the newest scientific ideas of the day, and his focus is constantly on his characters and their actions instead of the settings and the "Gee whiz" stuff.

Anyway, track down Space Viking. It's a terrific read.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A great review. Piper was first and formost a historian. He would take a past historical event and dress it in a futuristic setting. He only wrote a handfull of books each one is a gem. The Terro-Human Future history timeline series is excellant. For History DOES repeat it self.

try Uller Uprising next, think sepoy mutniy

In any case I recomend all Pipers stuff.

Thanks for the Fab review

DavidS (Read Starfire Formerly Read Space Viking)