Saturday, April 12, 2014

Surfing the Human Wave: Sarah A. Hoyt's Witchfinder

When Sarah Hoyt released Witchfinder, her first wholly "indie" novel, last week, she immediately got nervous. "I didn't realize," she wrote on her personal blog (where Witchfinder was originally composed in bits and pieces over the course of a year), "how much COURAGE those of you who published indie had. I apologize if I ever told you to stop being a ninny and start putting your stuff out because you didn't need a gatekeeper to tell you it was good enough. I was right, yes, but I had no comprehension at all of how SCARY it all is."

Well, having read Witchfinder, I don't think Sarah needs to be too anxious. It's a good book -- one that, I'm sure, will please fans of her other works.

The back-story behind Witchfinder, essentially, is this: Due to a major magical event, the earth has been split into an infinite number of alternate worlds in which magic is present - or not - in varying degrees. We have, for example, modern-day Earth as we recognize it, where magic is severely attenuated but technology has developed to fill the gap. We also have Avalon, where magic is an everyday fact of life. And we have Fairyland, which is not an "Earth" per say but a strange sub-universe in which "reality" is determined by the thoughts of the perceiver. Travel between these alternate worlds is possible, but may be illegal depending on the laws of your point of origin. (Avalon, for example, has proscribed such travel on grounds that resemble the Prime Directive.)

This may sound rather convoluted, but despite having to juggle several settings at once, Sarah never really lost me in her execution. Her plot - in which the protagonists must unravel a conspiracy that threatens both Avalon and Fairyland (and possibly the other worlds as well) - is complex but well-constructed, and her world-building is clear without being pedantic. Aside from her primary villain, who struck me as a bit flat and a little too obviously evil, her characters are strong as well. I like that Sarah allows her heroes to be flawed without completely vitiating their heroism.

The other thing I like about Witchfinder is the overall message. The story is lightly sprinkled with certain ideas that mirror themes found in Sarah's award-winning Darkship series. Once again, our villains are motivated mainly by their desire to seize power and lord it over others -- while the good guys recognize that true leadership requires humility, a desire to serve, and a willingness to allow people to exercise their God-given rights. If you liked the libertarian red meat that is A Few Good Men, there's a high likelihood you will like Witchfinder as well -- even if the libertarian sensibility is more covert.

Overall, whether you're a fan of Sarah Hoyt's other works or not, I definitely encourage you to pick up Witchfinder. It is a solid fantasy novel that successfully held my interest.  

Final Verdict: Recommended

Friday, April 4, 2014

Surfing the Human Wave: Cedar Sanderson's The Eternity Symbiote

For this week's review, I got to indulge a little more in my alien kink with Cedar Sanderson's The Eternity Symbiote, in which the main characters stumble across an alien parasite that enhances their strength and endurance -- after which they consequently discover that Earth has now become a focal point for a larger intergalactic conflict.

The basic premise here is good and the characters are likable, but to be honest, I wish this book had been longer. While I've always been a sucker for alien takeover plots, the execution here felt very rushed. In one scene, the Ghis offer help to the president; shortly thereafter, they've successfully conquered the entire planet. What happened in the meantime? Why was the president so eager to accept Ghis support? And why did the other countries fall into line? Cedar has limned the basics here - and has done so in an entertaining and well-written way - but there's no detail -- and I think said missing detail contains a good deal of story potential that, as it stands, has been left unfulfilled. Why would some human leaders willingly sacrifice the freedom of the human race? Exploring that question in a gradual fashion, I feel, would've made The Eternity Symbiote a great story rather than a pretty good one.

Final Verdict: Recommended, But With Notes.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Surfing the Human Wave: James L. Cambias' A Darkling Sea

Have you been looking for a science fiction novel that combines Hal Clement-style alien world building with an extended reflection on the Prime Directive and other policies of non-interference? Well, look no further! James Cambias' A Darkling Sea is that book -- and I don't think I can sing its praises highly enough.

The novel takes place in the deep ocean of a Europa-type moon where a team of human explorers has set up a science station to study the indigenous life. Said team has been forced by interstellar treaty to avoid contact with the Ilmatarans, the intelligent natives, but one human, a cocky media personality, decides to skirt dangerously close to violating those rules in order to get a closer look. What results is a tragic misunderstanding that attracts the attention of a third civilization, the Sholen, whose most radical political faction believes the human race should be contained within the Terran solar system before human beings do any more "damage." As you might expect, conflict ensues.

Irona and the other radical Sholen embrace the assumptions behind the 1980's version of the Prime Directive: Contact, no matter the circumstances and no matter how peaceful its intentions, will always result in a despoiling of the local culture and environment. But through his storytelling, Cambias invites us to consider a more nuanced viewpoint -- one informed not by the boilerplate left wing reading of world history but by the more optimistic conviction that sapient beings everywhere are actually quite capable of adapting to change. Yes -- Cambias does acknowledge that the meeting of two different cultures must be handled in a way that's circumspect and responsible; the death of Henri teaches us the dangers of reckless arrogance. But at the same time, it is not the human explorers who ultimately initiate the first real conversation with the Ilmatarans -- it is Broadtail, an Ilmataran scientist whose innate curiosity leads him into a human camp. The implicit message is this: It is incorrect - indeed, even insulting - to suppose that beings from a less "advanced" culture would necessarily want to have their society preserved in amber. They may, in fact, be just as eager as we are to expand their horizons and try new things, just as capable of assimilating information that seems to conflict with their understanding of the universe and its natural laws -- and just as likely to angrily object to being "protected."

It took me mere hours to read this book. Granted, I've always been a swift reader, but in this case, my speed of completion was aided by the fact that I could not put it down. Not only did I enjoy the story and its above-discussed message, but I was absolutely riveted by Cambias' rendering of Ilmataran society. As I suggested above, the thoughtful logic of the world building reminded me of Mission of Gravity; everything from the method of record-keeping - knots in ropes - to the style of communication - a mixture of shell tapping and sonar - made sense for blind creatures who live in a lightless aquatic environment. And, true to my usual proclivities, I was equally captivated by the humans' struggles to overcome the language barrier and make themselves understood by Broadtail and the others. Aliens, folks! Just -- aliens. Fully realized aliens.

The Ilmatarans don't look like this. They're more like a cross between a beluga whale and a lobster. But still - aliens.

The end of the novel also sets up an intriguing mystery. Does this mean Cambias intends to return to Ilmatar in a sequel? I certainly hope so! I fell in love with Broadtail and would be quite disappointed if his story ended here.

Final Verdict: Highly Recommended

Friday, March 21, 2014

Surfing the Human Wave: David L. Burkhead's Live to Tell

I'm sure this particular dream is common enough: You're on the run from a group of evil men -- or monsters. You're pushing yourself as hard as you can, but your efforts seem in vain, as you can hear the enemy drawing closer and closer. If you don't do something soon, they will be within reach, so in your desperation, you hide -- perhaps in an attic or a crawl space. You do your best to quiet your breathing so you don't give yourself away.

The above describes much of the plot of David Burkhead's Live to Tell, a novella in which a sergeant must battle his PTSD to avoid capture by a contingent of alien hunters. This premise is pretty exciting, and, for the most part, Burkhead is able to maintain the required pace. Only once was I thrown out of the mood, and that was when Burkhead described the Eres for several long paragraphs. That felt like a "holy info-dump, Batman!" passage to me. While it was necessary to know something about the Eres anatomy and physiology in order to understand how Yamada could overcome them, I question whether Burkhead's excruciating detail actually served the plot.

But outside this one complaint, I think Live to Tell has the potential to be very empowering for anyone who suffers from genuine PTSD. Yamada could've allowed his fear to completely cripple him, but instead, he manages to use it to his advantage. This, I believe, sends a very important message: that we don't have to be defined by what we've suffered. That we can, instead, use our trauma to accomplish something good.

Final Verdict: Recommended    

Friday, March 14, 2014

Surfing the Human Wave: James Young's An Unproven Concept

First off, let's begin with a short video presentation:


Many, many apologies. As I said, I was dared. But now that we've dropped a hint about the premise of An Unproven Concept, let's move forward with the actual review. Concept retells the story told in Young's earlier novella, Ride of the Late Rain (which I reviewed last month), but it does so from two completely different perspectives. On the one hand, we hear from the crew of the doomed civilian starliner (somewhat obviously named the Titanic); on the other hand, we hear from the crew of the military carrier that is sent to attempt a rescue. Alas, we don't hear from the aliens who attack the Titanic, which, for me, is one of this novel's two downsides.

My primary critique regarding this book, however, involves the pacing. As I've noted in the past, military science fiction is one of my favorite genres. I grew up a Navy brat, so I know - and love - the culture; curling up with a military science fiction novel is basically curling up with a book about My People. I will admit, though, that at times, mil-sci-fi can get lost in discussions of weapons and tactics and lose the thread of the story -- and this is precisely what happens about halfway through Concept during the Constitution's extensive battle exercise, which felt more like unnecessary padding than like a critical plot component.

Still, the above criticism aside, Concept is a fun read once the story gets going. Again, Young's style is engaging and accessible, and the heroes are all basically admirable. I also appreciate that the plot's resolution is neither easy nor bloodless. Young is being entirely truthful when he advertises Concept as a story for those who "like their science fiction without hero shields and their protagonists mortal."  Overall, if you like hardcore space battles with high body counts, definitely give this novel a shot!

Final Verdict: Recommended

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Traditionalist Science Fiction: Does It Exist? Is It Possible?

Yesterday, I went up to CPAC for a day, and I spent the final three hours drinking with some folks from Liberty Island and the National Review -- including Patrick Brennan, who got an earful on the politics of the science fiction fandom and the continuing implosion of SFWA. (Hello, conservative journalist who's younger than I! Let me tell you how science fiction is yet another front in our culture war. Etc., etc.)  At any rate, during the course of our conversation, an interesting question arose: Is there such a thing as traditionalist (aka socially conservative) science fiction?

Because when I think about the science fiction authors past and present with whom I'm familiar, Orson Scott Card is the only one I can think of off the top of my head who's expressed an identifiably traditionalist viewpoint on a particular issue (and his stance on gay marriage certainly doesn't guarantee equally traditionalist stances on other issues). The rest of my mental list is populated by leftists and libertarians. (And thank goodness for the second group!)

Fantasy, of course, has plenty of traditionalists, but do they exist in science fiction? Brennan seemed to think that a traditionalist wouldn't be interested in exploring technological progress or space exploration, but personally, I'm not so sure. After all, the Vatican - arguably the most powerful proponent of traditionalism in the modern world - has an astronomer -- who, by the way, once commented on the possibility of alien lifeforms having immortal souls. And let's not forget that several early scientists were members of monastic orders -- Gregor Mendel, for one.

Unfortunately, while I have been reading science fiction for most of my life, I certainly cannot boast that my knowledge of the genre is complete. So let me throw the above question out to the peanut gallery: Can you name any science fiction works that are clearly traditionalist? Suddenly, I have a mighty need.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Problem with "Respect"

Noodling around on Facebook today, I ran across some commentary that bothered me. Granted, the author of said commentary seemed genuinely well-intentioned. Granted, he also seemed willing to concede, at least in a vague sense, that people on his side of the fence are behaving like bullies and need to stop. The fact remains, however, that his call for fans to "respect" each other and make fandom a "safe space" still strikes me as deeply problematic.

What is respect exactly? I would be the first to come to the defense of a gay fan who was the target of hateful name-calling -- and I certainly don't think a woman's sexy costume entitles anyone to a free grope. Speaking up in the face of genuine maltreatment is, to me, what respect entails. But when I look around the fandom - and the culture at large - I see a lot of people confusing respect with an uncritical obeisance to their point of view. When, say, a religiously orthodox writer happens to voice doubts about the project to redefine the sacrament of marriage, the fandom telephone game invariably twists his or her words into something completely different -- and before too long, said author's mere presence at a con is enough for some to declare that they feel "unsafe." When an otherwise liberal author questions the shibboleths of multiculturalism, a similar ridiculous drama unfolds.

A simple contrary opinion does not automatically rise to the level of "disrespect", but all too many people in the fandom have demonstrated a willingness to throw rational discernment out the window. Malicious intent is always assumed even when there is none. I'm a woman and, as noted above, no fan of sexual harassment, but when I imagine the current powers that be crafting anti-harassment policies for conventions, I shudder. I've been sexually assaulted (not at a con, but on a street in Williamsburg); I've also been the target of awkward flirting. To me, the difference is stark and categorical. But I've seen the misandry certain fans spout when they think they're among like-minded friends. To them, real sexual misconduct and a clumsy pass are one and the same.

In order for me to embrace this whole "respect" crusade, I must see full, open acknowledgement that the fandom's social justice warriors can be - and often are - unreasonable in their demands. It is unreasonable, for example, to dress in something revealing and then insist that no one notice and appreciate your breasts. It is unreasonable to demand that all debate regarding gender roles, sexuality, racism, or multiculturalism be squelched. You are entitled to be treated civilly; you are not entitled to a life without discomfort or cognitive dissonance. And by the way, this "respect" you crave must be a two-way street; the same consideration afforded to certain favored minority groups must also be afforded to fans who happen to be conservative, Christian, and/or male.