Friday, September 19, 2014

Quick Notice

**This week's review will be delayed a few days, as I need a little more time to finish the book.
Said review should be up by Sunday, September 21, at the very latest.
Thanks for understanding!**

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Wednesday Short: John C. Wright's One Bright Star to Guide Them

Today, we come to yet another sci-fi/fantasy author that I, as a supposed "conservative" fan and blogger, have unconscionably neglected: John C. Wright. Wright's been working in the field since 1995 and has a pretty sizable bibliography -- all of which I intend to add to my reviewing schedule at my next opportunity, as Wright has the sort of intellect that generates some genuinely interesting ideas. His conservatism is quite a bit archier than mine, but damn: I definitely can't ignore what he has to say -- and his respect for the old masters is something I really appreciate.

Which brings me to this week's Wednesday Short: One Bright Star to Guide Them. One Bright Star is Wright's homage to C.S. Lewis; it essentially asks and then attempts to answer the question, "What if the children in the Chronicles of Narnia grew up and proceeded with their adult lives -- but then were called once again to fight on the side of good? How might they have changed in the meantime?"

When it comes to recapturing the feel of Lewis' oeuvre, Wright is certainly a master. One Bright Star also decently portrays the ways in which the pressures of our own culture corrupt us as we age and make it all the more difficult to recognize the Truth for what it is. BUT -- I'm afraid I'm going to be one of "those" reviewers who complains about a novella being "too short" and "too episodic." We see Tommy meet up with each of his living friends to warn them that their old enemy is now threatening Britain, but we are denied the opportunity to experience with Tommy his daring escapes and horrifying discoveries in re: the aforementioned evil. We are, in essence, told what's happening instead of being shown.

To discuss one illustrative example: At one point, Tommy learns that a few of his old friends have fallen in with the antagonists and abandoned the cause of good. In the novella as written, this revelation happens quite abruptly over the course of one conversation -- but what kind of story do you suppose might've emerged if, instead, knowledge of this betrayal had been withheld until Tommy had been given an opportunity to fully renew his emotional connection to these characters? Don't you think both Tommy and the reader would've felt the shock more keenly? Similarly, wouldn't the story have been more powerful if the conspiracy to conquer Britain's soul had been unfolded gradually instead of all at once?

As I implied above, Wright is a skilled practitioner of the genre -- but One Bright Star doesn't, in my opinion, reflect his best work. Given his relentless and searching mind, he could've done a lot more with this basic idea.

Final Verdict: Your Mileage May Vary.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Monday Commentary, Take Two

I had hoped that the intent of my last post would be obvious - especially given my track record as a reviewer and fan commentator - but as soon as I posted the link on Facebook, argument erupted again. In the interest of addressing certain misunderstandings that cropped up over the course of that thread, here is a quick list of things I'm pretty sure I did not say:
  • John Ringo should stop doing what he's doing. On the contrary, as evidenced by the extremely positive review I just gave the Black Tide Rising series, I want Ringo to continue writing in the military SF genre for many years to come; the style clearly suits his personality and he is very, very good at it.
  • John Ringo is writing women wrong. When I remarked that Ringo tends to write "men with tits," I was not using that descriptor in a pejorative sense. In fact, I was using it the way Ringo himself has used it in panel discussions on writing "strong female characters." As he's noted in the past, when women are working with men in dangerous, high-stress environments, they instinctively damp down their feminine qualities so as not to distract their male colleagues. They become - and again, these are Ringo's own words - "guys with tits" because to do otherwise is to risk getting themselves killed. And this, actually, was the core argument of my previous post: Ringo is not writing women wrong because he's writing a very particular type of woman who fits into a very specific context.
  • Ringo's women are "average." There's one especially annoying poster who keeps citing examples that "prove" that women are weaker than men (and that, by extension, Ringo's female characters are ridiculous concessions to feminist dogma). Well, duh. We all know that women-in-the-aggregate are weaker than men-in-the-aggregate and that a woman who hits the 99th percentile for women in strength and fitness would probably still be beat by a man in the 99th percentile for men. We also know that women-in-the-aggregate are less likely than men-in-the-aggregate to opt for a career in killing people and breaking things -- or to opt for a career that involves physical danger of any kind. That's why, as conservatives, we tend not to worry about "gender parity" in the professions: We recognize that there are inborn differences between the sexes and that these differences will impact job choices later in life. But authors don't write about aggregates. They write about individuals -- and as many folks have been trying to get through the aforementioned gentleman's thick skull, the individual women who play dominant roles in a Ringo-type story are not going to reflect the inclinations and skills of women-in-the-aggregate because if they did, they really would look ludicrous. The characters have to fit the setting -- and if you're talking about a Ringo book, the setting is NOT average. (And if it's this poster's intent to claim that no women should appear in a military-SF setting, then he's wrong. While they are unusual, women who fit Ringo's "type" do exist.)
  • More average women should be shoe-horned into military SF.  In my peroration, I wrote that we should "come up with story ideas and settings that demand skill sets of our female characters that go beyond the physical." That phrasing was chosen very carefully and for a specific reason: I did not want to suggest that authors should artificially squeeze more "feminine" women into a story where they don't belong. Again, the characters have to fit the setting -- which means to get a broader snapshot of the female experience, we will need to come up with a broader range of story ideas. We've been joking around on Facebook about writing stories of SF housewives programming lunchboxes (because a bunch of us saw that and immediately thought, "CHALLENGE ACCEPTED"), but in all seriousness: Technological change will impact the hearth and home in profound ways, and there's no reason why we shouldn't explore those realities. Said stories are likely to be quieter and more reflective, but that doesn't necessarily mean they won't be interesting.
  • People should be forced to write and/or read things I'd like to see. I'm not an SJW, guys. If military SF and action/adventure is your wheelhouse and you have no interest in writing/reading anything else, fair enough: You can ignore my suggestion secure in the knowledge that I won't judge you a bad-dog-dirty-male for liking what you like. (Hell, I like a lot of that stuff myself!)  My post was addressed more to those conservative authors and readers who are looking for something a little different (and notice I said different, not "better" or "superior") and are, perhaps, interested in challenging the badass/victim dichotomy (not that there's anything wrong with the badass end of that scale).   
Okay: After all of those qualifications and extensions, is my position now perfectly clear? If not, feel free to ask me follow-up questions in the comments.

Monday Commentary: Right-Leaning Science Fiction and the Men with Tits Phenomenon

While I was away at Dragon Con, an argument erupted on Facebook that I would like to address -- and since I've just reviewed John Ringo's zombie plague novels, now is as good a time as any.

The argument in question began in a private conservative/libertarian author's group with a post that complained that John Ringo writes women badly. In creating female characters who are overtly sexual and kick a lot of ass, the poster asserted, Ringo is merely bowing down to feminist ideology, consequently betraying his conservative principles.

Now: Does Ringo write "men with tits"? Well, yes. To cite just one example, Faith - from the previously reviewed Black Tide Rising series - is an Amazon who outright enjoys getting into "scrums" with the infected. But having heard Ringo discuss his work in multiple venues over the past several years, I'm confident that his female characters are determined by the settings he chooses and not by political considerations; indeed, Ringo has gotten into at least one notorious fight with the feminists, so the very idea that he's been slavishly catering to that mindset seems rather ludicrous.

Here's what is happening: Ringo and many other right-leaning science fiction authors hail from modern-day military backgrounds and tend to cluster in the military-SF sub-genre, where the emphasis is placed on the characters' experiences in combat. Thus, their stories usually require principal characters, regardless of their gender, to fall on the skinny end of the bell curve when it comes to personality and physical strength. After all, only a certain kind of person would realistically take up a line of work that, let's face it, involves killing people and breaking things.

The upshot? Yes -- the portrayal of women in a lot of conservative science fiction is skewed, but the distortion is an accident -- a side-effect of these authors' inclination to explore military themes and a consequence of their own real-world experiences. Ringo and the others are writing the women they know: women who are "masculinized" and therefore fit into our current military subculture. They are not attempting to represent all women.

I do think, though, that as conservative writers, we can - and should - do a better job creating strong female characters who don't fall into either the "kick-ass" template favored by a lot of military-SF or the "victim" template favored by bathetic feminist SF. As I've noted elsewhere, world history is replete with promising models, so it's not as if we're lacking in potential sources of inspiration. Further, because we are conservative, we have an advantage the other side does not: We see people as individuals and not as interchangeable members of stereotypically-defined collectives who must all behave the same way and embrace the same causes. Therefore, it should not be difficult for us to write women from multiple walks of life who feel three-dimensional and wholly real.

In sum: Let's cast our net a little wider and come up with story ideas and settings that demand skill sets of our female characters that go beyond the physical. As conservatives, we are uniquely suited to rise to that challenge.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Steph Reads Baened Books: John Ringo's Islands of Rage and Hope (Black Tide Rising, Book 3)

Back when I reviewed Larry Correia's latest summer-blockbuster-in-book-form, I remarked that I had made a mistake in omitting discussion of the Monster Hunter International series until that moment. Well, today, we're going to discover another reason why I'm a hideous failure as a blogger and reviewer: John Ringo's Black Tide Rising series. No -- I didn't review the first two books (which you should definitely purchase here and here). Yes -- this does make me an idiot.

The Black Tide Rising series had a rather ironic genesis. You see, Ringo actually hates zombie apocalypse stories; as he remarked at, I believe, Dragon Con 2013, he finds most such tales to be completely nonsensical. So, of course, it was only natural that he would be hit with a zombie apocalypse idea that would seize his consciousness so completely that he would go on to write four complete novels in one sitting at breakneck speed. Since then, Baen has been polishing and doling these books out every few months.

To update you on the story so far: An as-yet-unidentified terrorist has unleashed a weaponized virus upon the world that in its first stage looks like a severe flu but in its second stage causes the destruction of all higher brain functions. (Note: Because Ringo consulted some experts before penning these books, his zombies are reasonably grounded in science. They are not the reanimated corpses of traditional zombie stories, but living beings who are irreversibly brain damaged and murderously insane.) The Smith family - the protagonists - have escaped this world-ending plague by taking to the sea; along the way, they have assembled a flotilla - complete with a much-attenuated Navy and Marine Corps - whose primary mission is to rescue survivors, produce a vaccine, and (in the long term) work to rebuild civilization.

In Islands of Rage and Hope, which was released just last month, the aforementioned rag-tag band has now started clearing Caribbean islands as well as boats in its search for more qualified personnel -- and for the materials necessary to produce vaccine. There are also quite a few side plots going on as well: The astronauts left behind on the ISS make an appearance, as do a cadre of reality show television stars; a mystery emerges as to the true identity of one "Thomas Walker," who seems to have a much more impressive background than he's initially willing to admit; the flotilla contends with an imminent baby boom; and Faith Smith spends most of this installment struggling to shift her mindset from "me kill zombies good" to that of a competent Marine Corps officer. Through it all, everyone is looking for reasons to carry on in the face of impossible odds.

The indisputable thematic heart of this book is the passage in which Sophia Smith goes to watch the flotilla's newly created propaganda film:
...The views faded to a shot of Earth's surface, by night, dated the day the Plague was announced. There were more as the plague progressed and the sparkling strands of light slowly began to turn off, portion by portion, Africa went before South America went before Asia went before North America went before Europe until the entire world was cloaked in preindustrial darkness... 
...Then the shots zoomed down, pre-Plague satellite images of New York, Beijing, Moscow, Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, filled with people and life and laughter, the cities bright by day and night with a trillion incandescent and fluorescent and neon and LED lights proclaiming to the heavens that Here Was Man. 
And then the same cities, in current satellite shots, with avenues choked with decaying vehicles, and raven-picked bodies, and naked infected roaming the streets... 
...The music ended. All there was was a scrolling night shot of the dead world from a satellite. It seemed like the movie had ended, and Sophia almost got up, wondering why anyone would want to see this montage of horror. They'd all lived it. 
Then there was the sound of a scratch of a match...
Typing those snippets out made me tear up a little bit. Human Wave? You betcha -- and that's why, I think, this series has become such an overwhelming success. Unlike the writers of other well-known zombie apocalypse series, Ringo doesn't create a world that is irretrievably grim; instead, he supposes that competent and determined people might actually succeed in pulling mankind out of the abyss -- after, of course, a great deal of hard work, suffering, and personal sacrifice. Ringo also incorporates enough of his textbook humor to keep things leavened, and he succeeds in crafting a plot that keeps you hooked from cover to cover.

Have you picked up any of the books in the Black Tide Rising series? If not, I urge you to do so posthaste. In the immortal words of Wolf Squadron's aforementioned film, "The hell with the darkness. Light a candle."

Final Verdict: Highly Recommended.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Wednesday Short: Tom Kratman's Big Boys Don't Cry

I love me some sapient war machines. I have not yet plowed through the entirety of the Boloverse (started by Keith Laumer and continued by others), but the stories I have read have all successfully inspired sympathy for AI characters who could kill the hell out of me if they considered me a threat. Indeed, a few Bolo stories have actually made me cry -- over ginormous tanks bristling with weaponry, no less!

Here's the thing, though: From what I've seen, the Bolo stories are, with only a few exceptions, very optimistic. The relationship between man and machine? That's generally portrayed in a positive light. Bolos will, without hesitation, sacrifice themselves for their squishy, breakable human commanders because their programming includes all the features of the "ideal" soldier, including an overwhelming sense of duty to the regiment. But is there a possible dark side to this entire concept?

Enter Tom Kratman and his recently published novella, Big Boys Don't Cry. In Big Boys Don't Cry, we get to peek at the memories of a Bolo-like AI character named Magnolia who is currently being dismantled for scrap, and what emerges is a disturbing subversion of the Bolo trope. Magnolia does feel affection for the rank-and-file human soldiers who, at one time, served with her, but her human commanders feel nothing in return. In their eyes, Magnolia is just a machine that they can manipulate at will; they don't really recognize her sapience, nor do they appreciate that she can feel both emotional and physical pain.

As much as I love the Boloverse, I think Kratman's addition to the conversation is immensely valuable and all-too-likely. Let's face it: It takes a monumental effort to cultivate in man a genuine sympathy for the "Other." Until recently, I think our own civilization was on the cusp of accomplishing such a feat -- but in the end, it has proved far too easy to fall back on our tribal instincts. Would we, upon beholding an intelligent tank, actually recognize that tank's consequent rights? Maybe not. Hell -- we have trouble enough recognizing the rights of beings whose humanity is blindingly obvious!

The other sad reality Kratman ably captures is how often military men are betrayed by their leaders and their societies. Soldiers are sometimes deployed for unjustifiable reasons -- and they are sometimes abused and discarded upon their return. In light of both historical and current events, the palpable anger that leaps off the pages of this story definitely resonates.

In sum? Some have suggested that Big Boys Don't Cry should be nominated for the Hugo in 2015, and yes -- I personally think it is a potential contender. Granted, if you are extremely attached to the Boloverse, this may not be a good choice for you, but I would urge you to keep an open mind, as this novella's critical look at man's attitudes in re: AI is certainly worth the price of admission.

Final Verdict: Highly Recommended.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Monday Commentary: A Quick Dragon Con AAR

That's right, ladies and gents: It's time for another AAR!

Dragon Con 2014 was my eleventh Dragon Con -- and my eighth as a volunteer. At this point, I don't even bother to hit the Walk of Fame or queue up for a media guest panel because I've already met my favorites (those who happen to be living, that is). Indeed, except for a couple of forays into the Marriott to see some Classics Track events and at least one trip to the dealers' halls, I spend all of my time in the bowels of the Hyatt, where Verizon phones have to be set on airplane mode (at least if you want to avoid being an "outlet hugger"). Boring? Mayhaps, but it suits me. As I remarked in my last post, the people who hang about the Science Fiction Literature Track are My People, and I would much rather stay in one place and chat with them than fight the madness elsewhere. (And it does get pretty mad -- especially during peak hours. I think I was accidentally stepped on every single time I went to get something to eat. The Peachtree Center Food Court was just that crowded.)

Who are some of my fellow trolls in the Hyatt dungeon? Well, first we have Sue, our intrepid leader. Sue's been in the fandom since the mid-seventies, so she's actually seen Larry Niven drunk and singing filk songs in some random corridor at a World Con. ("Back when we were both much younger,"she was quick to note.) I had several long conversations with her about fandom issues, including the whole "cosplay is not consent" thing (which we both felt should be covered by common sense or, if necessary, the local police) and the various SJW crusades that have been poisoning our well water. As a small-L libertarian, Sue welcomes honest discussion and a touch of controversy; actually, this year, she was a little disappointed that everyone was so nice on panels that were intended to be contentious. (And yes: Even the more outspoken Baen authors were exceedingly well-behaved. At one point, John Ringo decided to be frank about why he didn't go into teaching in his early twenties, but that's the only time anyone succeeded in causing offence.)

We also have Bill. Bill's been in the fandom even longer, he's ridiculously well-read (especially with the early stuff), and - I hear tell - he has an astounding science fiction library that I dearly wish I could raid. This year, Bill fell on his sword for the rest of us and listened to a paper presented by a young - and evidently ignorant - academic claiming that Heinlein was both racist and sexist. If I were not up at the Baen Roadshow, I probably would've ripped that chickadee a new one over her hack reliance on presentism and her absolute failure to look into Heinlein's actually very progressive attitudes on both race and sex. Bill, on the other hand, was able to restrain himself, though the conversation we had afterwards was pretty damned fun.

And then we have Shawn. Shawn is an AP English teacher in the Atlanta metro area, so we have some common experiences that go beyond science fiction specifically. We both know exactly what's wrong with Common Core, we've both seen a precipitous crash in our students' writing and critical thinking skills, and we both decry the push to indulge our students' tastes, which hampers the development of true empathy and encourages shallow analysis. Shawn's personality is a bit hard to describe, but he's got this dark, sarcastic quality that frequently makes me laugh. At one point, for instance, he jokingly called me a home-wrecking whore because - well - I accidentally flirted with Robert J. Sawyer on a panel. (Sorry! Sawyer made a remark about how he'd never dream of hitting on me, and the "Well, I'm available..." came out before I thought about what I was saying. This is what happens when I'm both focused on entertaining an audience and operating on insufficient sleep.)

Oh, yes! Speaking of which, I did appear on two panels:
  • The first was "Science Fiction 101" on Friday afternoon; the purpose of said panel was to generate a list of works that were "essential" to understanding the genre as a whole. (Note to Dad: Toni Weisskopf mentioned the connection between Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, which allowed me to talk about my college term paper and add Card's Ender's Game to the conversation.) Was this a successful presentation? Yes, I think so. Personally, I think our track needs to have more "history of" panels in the future, as there are quite a few people walking around who have no freakin' clue what the genre - or the fandom - was like in its early days. (See also: the people who think the exploration of "alternate sexual lifestyles" is something totally rebellious and exciting. Ah, no -- if anything, I think a story featuring a traditional Christian marriage may be more subversive.)
  • The second was "The Big Stuff" on Saturday afternoon, in which we discussed high concept sci-fi. I was the only fan on this panel and consequently felt ridiculously out-classed, but I managed to get some words in edgewise about my desire to see high-tech personal medical monitors that are linked to the local EMS and about my qualified optimism regarding high-tech in general.  
I also got a chance to meet Larry Niven, but I'm really afraid I struck him as a complete doofus. I remember telling him that Lucifer's Hammer was the second work of science fiction I read as a middle-grader and that my father is also a big fan, but after that, my memory's kind of a blur.

Photographic proof!
Was it a good con overall? Absolutely -- although, once again, I do wish I had more time for after-hours socializing. I was staying in a hotel up in the Emory area, so I was beholden to the MARTA schedule and consequently couldn't hang around the BFC for very long -- nor could I go out with some of the CLFA members who were in attendance. Next year, I'm going to try to get a room downtown so I can come and go whenever I please. That should makes things a thousand times easier.