Monday, April 22, 2019

Microreview [book]: The Rosewater Insurrection by Tade Thompson

A (Mostly) Harmonious Choir

Reviewer's Note: This is a review of the second novel in the Wormwood trilogy, so spoilers for the first novel should be expected. If you haven't read Rosewater, you should do that first because it's excellent, but The Rosewater Insurrection does an admirable job of bringing a new reader up to speed. While I never recommend jumping into the middle of a trilogy, it could work in this case. Either way, the spoiler-free review of The Rosewater Insurrection is that it's action-packed and slightly weird, but doesn't quite live up to the previous novel. 7/10. Last warning, spoilers for Rosewater will follow.

Following the events of Rosewater, The Rosewater Insurrection follows a handful of different perspectives as the city of Rosewater continues to act as host to an invading but seemingly benevolent alien. What the residents of Rosewater don't know is that the alien is just a "footholder" for a subtle but complete invasion as aliens essentially download themselves into human bodies. While this starts to take shape, the government of Rosewater declares its independence from their host county of Nigeria, which turns all eyes inward at a time when the alien is going through some changes.

Where Rosewater largely followed Kaaro, The Rosewater Insurrection makes Kaaro a secondary character to several others, such as Aminat, the alien avatar Anthony, and other characters more central to the plot. The multiple perspective changes serve to give a more complete picture of what's going on within the city of Rosewater than the singular perspective from Kaaro, but the non-linearity of perspective and the expanded cast is a lot to keep track of sometimes. The point, however, is that Rosewater is the focus of the story moreso than any one character.

While this hopping around might make a novel feel jittery or uneven, The Rosewater Insurrection progressively and competently builds to a crescendo that mostly pays off. Like the previous novel, this one suitably combines the near-future with weirdness and it's still fun the second time around. It does pull some stuff out of its pocket that feels like rewriting continuity a bit, but I'm excited to see where the next novel goes.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 Still weird, still engaging

Penalties: -1 Lots of moving parts to keep track of

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 (an enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws)


POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014

Reference: Thompson, Tade. The Rosewater Insurrection (Orbit, 2019)

Friday, April 19, 2019

Microreview [book]: Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear’s Ancestral Night provides Big Smart Objects, interesting aliens, a gigantic canvas, and a strong first person narrative to lay a marker as some of the best Space Opera being written today.

Haimey DZ is a salvager. Along with her business partner Connla, their spaceship’s AI, Singer,and a pair of cats,  they make a living in the far future by finding ancient wrecks, and salvaging information and items of interest. When Haimey and company find an ancient ship, and some even weirder tech that is derived from a rather distressing source, their find is interrupted by interlopers. In a race to find what the piece of technology that attaches to Haimey means and what it can really do, Haimey and crew have a long ranging adventure ahead.

“Mantis Cop” Cheeirilaq is also soon on the case, and if he is ally, Javert, or has an agenda of his own, Haimey doesn’t know. He Is rather determined, though, with a tenacity that Prince Corwin of Amber might admire. Oh and there is a  sexy space pirate is determined to get Haimey and that technology  by any means necessary.

This and a lot more comprises story of Elizabeth Bear’s Ancestral Night. 

Bear’s novels, for me, always really focus on characters. They are frequently broken, and in interesting ways, and the precise way that Haimey is broken seems clear at first in the novel. However, as the plot unfolds, Haimey herself starts to learn and question aspects of her history and even personality. In a world, and even more importantly, a culture and polity that is willing to, and does adjust personality and memory with far greater ease than taking pharmaceuticals may have well indeed adjusted Haimey more than she ever knew. In addition to all the worldbuilding and revelations on larger scales, Ancestral Night really is a journey of discovery and investigation by Haimey into her own past. It’s not a journey that she particularly wants to make, the introspection is painful, but we as readers are brought into that pain and discomfort as Haimey, in the midst of everyone else going on, has to face herself and who she really is.

What’s more, this first person deep dive lets Bear do a lot of exploration of “persons versus society” and explores the aspects of the galactic society that she has built, in relation to the individual, namely Haimey. Her future galactic civilization has advantages over our own, but it is no utopia, and the first person lens and personality dives lets her interrogate the society she has built, and by extension, interrogates our own.

While many readers will come for that deep dive into character, other readers will find the worldbuilding and the vision of a galactic future to be equally if not even more compelling. I was surprised right off that this novel was set in the same verse as the worldship series Jacob’s Ladder. (Dust, Chill, Grail). However, in Ancestral Night, we travel across the galaxy, wind up on multiple stations and ships, and get a much wider canvas. The themes of cultural divergence and the conflicts between cultures are carried from Grail to here, but setting it up as a conflict between the pirates and disaffected of the Freeport communities versus the Synarchy that is the predominant political system in the galaxy.  Plus there are ancient elder race artifacts, a trip to a supermassive black hole, secrets written  into the fabric of the universe, big smart (as opposed to dumb) objects and a lot more for readers to find. And I didn’t even mention the diversity of aliens, and the thought that Bear puts into a multi-species polity. The aforementioned Cheeirilaq is definitely my breakout favorite of these.

Integrating the personal story of Haimey and the larger scale space opera themes, and pieces of the world is the ultimate challenge and writing tightrope that Bear attempts here. It feels like the author is trying to appeal to two separate interest spheres within science fiction--the big damn sense of wonder wide open worldbuilding that stirs the heart, and the deep dive into character, psychology, personality and introspection.

The novel that Ancestral Night brings to mind, then, for me, is Frederik Pohl’s Gateway. That classic novel also gives us a first person protagonist, Robin Broadhead. While the novel gives us spacecraft programmed to go to *somewhere*, a devastated earth, a mysterious elder race (the Heechee) and a huge canvas. (Also, like Ancestral Night, a black hole is an important feature of the worldbuilding). But there is a deep focus in Gateway on the inner emotional life and the psychology of the protagonist, the interior life of Robin IS the point. Exploring Robin’s past and what really happened and how it’s made Robin who he is today--that very much resonates with parts of Bear’s novel. Ancestral Night doesn’t go that far in being a bottle episode, but there is plenty of Haimey coming to grips with her past even as events swirl around her and she has to fight for her future.

In a season, perhaps a year, that has exciting Space Opera on the menu, Elizabeth Bear’s Ancestral Night stands tall as a marker as to why Bear is one of the leading writers in Science Fiction and Fantasy today. For a long time, I’ve recommended her Carnival as a novel for those interested in Bear’s fiction but not quite sure where to start. I think that, between canvas, character, story, and writing, This novel is a definitive and decisive book for SF readers who want to try her work. Given how deeply it is in dialogue with the themes and ideas of SF, on character and worldbuilding, I don’t think that the novel would work for a reader new to SF. This is not a novel to hand to a person just off the streets of mundania and walking through the portal into the realms of science fiction. But for those who already in the White Space of SFF, this is a novel for anyone remotely interested in the Space Opera being written today.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for excellent worldbuilding and ancillary characters (team Cheeirilaq!)
+1 for strong first person character and viewpoint that engages in deep questions.

Penalties: -1 this is a novel that is best read by people already well versed in SF and Space Opera to truly appreciate the nuance of the novel

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 very high quality/standout in its category

Reference:  Bear, Elizabeth, Ancestral Night, Tor, 2019]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Thursday Morning Superhero

My fellow nerds who ventured into the world of SDCC hotels are hopefully receiving confirmation that they got the location of their choice for this year's 50th anniversary of SDCC.  Meanwhile I am counting down the dates until the premiere of NOS4A2 on AMC. What AMC has shared with the public up to this point has me very excited that Joe Hill's creation will have a faithful adaptation to the small screen.

Pick of the Week:
Gideon Falls #12 - The new arc is upon us and we are treated to some of the history of Gideon Falls and the origin story of the Black Barn and the evil with in. It all began in 1886 when a serial killer named Norton Sinclair had killed 13 people.  It is unknown if this is the same Norton Sinclair who was suffering from mental illness and questing for pieces of the Black Barn early in the series, or someone he is related to.  What is clear is that the evil, the man who laughs, is using Sinclair as a doorway between alternate realities.  Father Burke is in pursuit of Sinclair and understands that his religion may serve as a strength in confronting this evil. Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino really outdid themselves in this surprising new issue that is getting at the core of the evil in their creation.

The Rest:
Daredevil #4 - When we last checked in on Daredevil, he had just been rescued by no other than the Punisher himself.  After losing badly to detective Cole following a sting operation, it was looking grim for Murdock until Frank Castle surprised us all and unleashed a torrent of gun fire raining down on the police. In this issue we learn why Castle saved Murdock and the juxtaposition of Punisher vs. Daredevil plays out effectively as Murdock makes his case for his no kill policy.  Punisher follows a simple rule of math and figures that killing on bad guy saves the lives of many. The philosophical debate is capped with Daredevil making an exciting exit and pondering what is next for him as he attempts to clear his name. I remain impressed with the new creative team of Chip Zdarsky, Marco Checchetto, and Sunny Gho.

Morning In America #2 - I read the premise of this series, group of teenagers in 1983 small town USA investigate why their peers are disappearing, and I was intrigued. I am a sucker for a supernatural mystery that is nostalgic (Stranger Things, Paper Girls) and I am happy to say that this is an entertaining book. The book centers around a group of young women, known as the Sick Sisters, and their lives in Tucker, Ohio.  Tucker, Ohio is dealing with the issues associated with local industry jobs shutting down and the Sick Sisters are all dealing with the issues they face breaking numerous rules.  A classmate turns to them for help when nobody believes him when he describes some sort of monster that took his sister. The Sick Sisters go to investigate when they learn the police are actively trying to classify all of the disappearances as runaways.  While much lighter than Paper Girls and lacking a bit in the nostalgia factor up to this point, this series has been enjoyable and I look forward to reading more about what the Sick Sisters uncover. Props to author Magdalene Visaggio for giving us a diverse set of protagonists at the heart of her story.

POSTED BY MIKE N. aka Victor Domashev -- comic guy, proudly raising nerdy kids, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Feminist Futures: Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre

When we started planning for the Feminist Futures project at Nerds of a Feather last year, I had a lot of thoughts about what I wanted to cover. Russ and Tiptree? Yes please! (Le Guin was already well in hand.) Something to fit within our main time period but also demonstrate the existence of marginalised voices outside white cis women? Enter Jessica Amanda Salmonson's pioneering women-led adventure fantasy anthology, Amazons!. And I knew wanted to do something from a more thematic perspective, looking at how feminisms of the time hold up to modern perspectives, particularly where assumptions of the gender binary come in.

Those posts exist. However, one post that I wanted to write, that I expressed my excitement for to the rest of the team, that didn't happen? That was Dreamsnake, by Vonda N. McIntyre. My copy of that book is currently in a friend's storage box, and I never quite figured things out in time to get hold of them. Dreamsnake, the Hugo, Nebula and Locus winning post-apocalyptic story of healing and hallucinogenic venom, whose author somehow doesn't get offered up in the same breath as Le Guin, Russ, Tiptree and Butler nearly as much as her contributions to the genre merit, would have to wait.

Then, just a couple of weeks ago, Vonda McIntyre died after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. The catalogue of her contributions to genre - in her original stories, her canon-enhancing Star Trek novelisations and tie-ins, her founding of the Clarion West writers workshop and of the Book View Cafe ebook site, and her support and warmth to others - have since been written by those much better placed than I to appreciate the loss her death represents. Through these posts, I learned from these posts was just how much of a contribution McIntyre has made, and learning about these things through obituaries always, always, feels like too little too late.

So, last weekend, I returned to Dreamsnake, to remind myself of how it felt to experience this weird, wonderful story the first time around. It's a post that's been too long in the making, but even though the author is no longer with us, it's certainly not too late to put her feminist future in this series where it belongs.

Dossier: Dreamsnake by Vonda N. McIntyre

Filetype: Book

Executive Summary: Snake is a healer in a fractured post-apocalyptic world, travelling through various communities which live out relatively isolated existences in a world which appears to have gone through nuclear war. As you might guess from her name, the title, and almost every book cover Dreamsnake has been released with (except for a 1994 edition which decides to focus on the book's stripey horse. There's also... this.) this healing involves snakes: Mist, an albino cobra, and Sand, a rattlesnake, are both bred to synthesise various cures and vaccinations for illnesses, representing a combination of genetic engineering and on-the-spot biochemistry. The third snake is even more special: Grass is a dreamsnake, an extremely rare "offworlder" breed able to create hallucinations and pleasant dreams which are most often used to ease the pain of the dying.

Dreamsnake's plot falls roughly into three episodic parts. In the first - which originally formed the self-contained novelette "Of Mist, Grass and Sand" - she meets with a nomadic desert community who seek help for a sick child, but panic when she leaves the boy with Grass overnight and kill the dreamsnake, leaving Snake bereft of one third of her abilities despite her success in eventually healing the boy's illness. Initially resigned to returning to her community to admit the loss, Snake is instead persuaded to travel into the mountains to the region's only "city" - an underground vault still closed off to outside visitors but which might be willing to help her in return for information about one of their own. The second act sidetracks this journey somewhat as Snake spends time in a mountain community healing the town's mayor and fixing everyone's problems, leaving with an adopted daughter and a shady follower apparently trying to steal her stuff. In the third act, Snake's interactions with that shady follower leads her to an unexpected source of Dreamsnakes and a dangerous showdown with the man who keeps them. Interspersed with all of this are brief scenes from the perspective of Arevin, a man who despite only meeting with Snake briefly in the opening has now been set up as her designated heterosexual love interest and is seeking to close the gap between them. Arevin is not going to make much more of an appearance in this review, which should indicate how much I think this romance adds to the overall plot.

Feminist FutureDreamsnake's science fictional underpinnings are mainly rooted in biology and genetic engineering, and the technology-disguised-as-magic of the healers and their snakes is complemented by other assumed developments in humanity, particularly when it comes to fertility. It's assumed that everyone in this world has enough physiological control over themselves to, uh, raise and lower the temperature of different body parts, preventing the release of gametes while letting them have all the no-strings-attached sex that they want. The ability to have sex divorced from threat of pregnancy plays out as a constant through the different communities in Snake's world, meaning that sex for pleasure is widely accepted and cohabitation is usually based on more than pairings, but that people can become ostracised if they get a reputation for not having control, as its assumed that sex with a risk of pregnancy won't be enjoyable for anyone involved. Given the level of technology that societies have in Dreamsnake, there's an implication that these scientific underpinnings came at least in part from whatever society came before Snake's, and while this is left completely mysterious it's still pretty revolutionary to consider that despite apparently wiping themselves out in a nuclear war, these forerunners also found time to take the gendered implications of fertility seriously and focus scientific priorities on it.It's also worth looking at the characterisation here. Dreamsnake follows a protagonist who it's hard to believe predates the "paragon Bioware protagonist" stereotype by two decades (maybe more, I have no idea how pathologically helpful you can be in Baldur's Gate). Snake is practical, sensible in both her actions and her emotional regulation, and constantly able to overcome the biases and irrationalities of people around her, and the narrative is happy to showcase her ability to do so, deepening the worldbuilding through what we see through her eyes. Snake gains different reactions from different people, but they are all through the lens of her being a healer - a non-gendered role - and aside from assumptions of heterosexuality there's no suggestion that Snake's journeys through the world are particularly shaped by her being a woman. It's a refreshing standpoint, reinforced by moments like Arevin taking the lead on childcare within his extended family, which makes me forgive the occasional moments where Snake comes across as a little too annoyingly right about everything, and it's a point that leads me on to...

Hope for the Future: In almost all post-apocalyptic stories I can think of, where human society contracts from a lost age of high technology into pockets of isolation, there's generally a patriarchy involved. Whether it's a return to "natural" hierarchies across society and the assumed erosion of status for women due to lack of average muscle mass, or the creation of pockets of extreme - often religious fundamentalist - patriarchy as part of a patchwork of ideologies, if you're reading a post apocalyptic story in which women exist, there's probably going to be some heightened misogyny, rape and exploitation somewhere, and it's probably going to be at least a side plot to the main narrative. There's an assumption that, without the social, cultural and technological forces of our current society, at least some men are going to go back to the default state of treating women like things.

What sets Dreamsnake apart is that it completely resists this interpretation of post-apocalyptic society. Sure, all of the societies Snake visits have their own permutations of close-mindedness, societal bias and emotional repression, with some interesting, understated nuances here. Arevin's people don't tell their names to anyone except immediate family and very close friends, making the fact that Snake learns his name in the short time they are together an indicator of how quickly and deeply he develops feelings for her; a group of nomadic scavengers are persuaded to overcome their fear of outsiders' medication and experiments with the promise of a Tetanus vaccination; the mountain community are collectively obsessed with beauty and ostracise Melissa, the girl Snake adopts, largely because of facial burns. What none of these societies have is baked-in misogyny: a point which is driven home (as cringey as this is going to be for modern readers) by the rape subplot with Melissa and her guardian. When Snake finds out that Melissa is being raped, she is completely thrown by how monstrous a person would have to be to do something like that, and faces a challenge in bringing the man's behaviour to light because the community's leaders are equally unable to believe that someone would force sex on another person. Although I'm a lot less impressed on a second reading with the introduction of male violence just to drive home how little male violence this book has, it does achieve that effect.

Moreover, the lack of baked-in patriarchy and restrictions on Snake's actions by virtue of being a woman make the antagonist of the third act, North, much more compelling and sinister, because the threat he represents is not overshadowed by the general awfulness of society, or played up to have to compete with the casually awful predators that men without societal constraints are expected to be in post-apocalyptic fiction. There are a ton of predatory undertones to North's behaviour towards Snake and Melissa, but these climactic scenes benefit from being allowed to stand as the behaviour of an awful person, rather than the inevitable result of a woman in post-apocalyptic times trying to do something besides staying at home with the water purifiers.

Legacy: Dreamsnake clearly made quite an impression on its release, winning the Hugo, Nebula and Locus (SF) awards. In doing so, McIntyre became the third author after Larry Niven (Ringworld) and Arthur C. Clarke (Rendezvous with Rama) to pick up all three awards for the same book. What I don't know, but would be interested to find out, is how many other authors have picked up an award for a short fiction piece, as McIntyre did for the novelette "Of Mist, Grass and Sand" (which won a Nebula) and then gone on to win again with a reworked longer piece. I can't think of any other examples, but that doesn't mean they're not out there...

In Retrospect: Four decades after its release, Dreamsnake is a fascinating and worthwhile read, with a world that's just as interesting on a second visit and which is well integrated into an episodic, character driven plot. There are elements that might look different if Dreamsnake were written today: the sexual violence against Melissa feels like an exhausting contribution to an overused plot device from a modern perspective, even though it's not used to humiliate her or to titillate the audience, and despite the expansion in what constitutes a family unit, the actual relationships and humans of Snake's world are pretty heterosexual and binary, particularly given the big biological reveal at the end. Nevertheless, this is a book which deserves all of its current recognition and more: a work which looks the patriarchy of our own world in the face and says "nope, this one's not for you". It may only be a small part of McIntyre's legacy but it's one I'm so grateful to have experienced.


For its time: 5/5
Read today: 4/5.
Wollstonecraft Meter: 9/10

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference: McIntyre, Vonda. Dreamsnake [Houghton Mifflin, 1978].

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Microreview [Book]: Shadow Captain by Alastair Reynolds

There's something in the dying (or at-least-super-old) Earth subgenre that has always resonated with me: a storyworld littered with weird and wondrous leftovers from times so far past that people are not quite sure what to make of them. In those stories, the massive weight of history hangs over the world and makes it alien in a very specific way. There's an intriguing contrast to our own situation in history where we (at least think we) can understand everything in sight better than our ancestors ever could, and there's (as far as we know) no unrealistically advanced technology we can dig out and play with without really grasping it. What a bummer.

In his Congregation series, Alastair Reynolds transposes the core of this subgenre into space. The human civilization is millions of years old and has gone through a number of different phases known as 'occupations'. Some of them left behind strange artifacts like big skulls that can be used for communication between spacecrafts and weapons defying the laws of nature. These objects are then scavenged from artificial mini-planets or 'baubles' that are normally closed but open at certain intervals to let daring adventurers in. Small spaceship crews of relic-harvesting semi-pirates try to make a profit by rushing in and taking what they can before the baubles close again – hopefully steering clear of actual pirates who are ready to kill you and take your cargo, or worse.

It's a rich setting filled with manufactured worlds, robots, alien races, spaceships with massive sails, and a mystery around 'quoins' that are used as currency, so there's a lot of storytelling potential. Reynolds is working on a trilogy set in the Congregation, and his new novel Shadow Captain continues the story of the Ness sisters Adrana and Arafura who in the first book Revenger escaped from their home planet in order to start a life of spacefaring adventure.

It didn't go as planned, of course, and Adrana was captured by the murderous space pirate Bosa Sennen. Revenger followed Arafura who tried (and finally managed) to free her sister, losing parts of her body and personality in the process. Arafura became rather murderous herself during the course of the book and finally killed Sennen and took over her pirate ship.

In Shadow Captain, we continue from there. Now the protagonist is Adrana who is suspicious of her sister's new Sennen-like behavior. On the other hand, Adrana herself was held by the pirate who intended to transform her into the next incarnation of Bosa Sennen with the technologies of tomorrow. So, Adrana and Arafura both seem to have features of Sennen in them, and this conflict is driving the plot forward for much of the book. In addition to them not being able to trust each other (or even themselves completely), they find out that their ship is being followed by a mysterious vessel which should be impossible.

This is the canvas for Shadow Captain, and its noticeably smaller than its predecessor had. The small crew lead by the Ness sisters is confined inside their spaceship (plus the occational bauble) for the first half of the book, trying to get their hands on necessary resources, planning for the future and being skeptical of each others' intentions. This is quite different than Revenger, in which we got to see several weird worlds and plenty more action, but Reynolds is not bad with the thickening suspense either.

My main criticism is that the other crew members are quite forgettable characters and they could have been spiced up quite a bit. Adrana is probably meant to be a little more adult version of Arafura, but to me she just felt like a more passive and frankly boring character. The book doesn't really get going until they make their way to a backwater planet for supplies and treatment for an injured crew member.

Finally, there's action, weird worlds and answers for mysteries, so I guess I got mostly what I wanted. Still, there's no hyper enigmatic adversary this time (just an enigmatic one), or same kind of a clear purpose that would be driving the main character forward. I was hoping for a little more energy in the book, even if it's still definitely worth your time and will hopefully set the stage for the final book that will – fingers crossed – be swashbuckling as hell.


The Math

Base Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for the most amazingly fascinating fictional universe in recent memory

Penalties: -1 for not living up to Revenger in some respects, -1 lack of energy here and there

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10 – "still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore"

Reference: Reynolds, Alastair. Shadow Captain [Gollancz 2019]


POSTED BY: Spacefaring Kitten, an extradimensional enthusiast of speculative fiction, comics, and general weirdness. Contributor since 2018. 

Monday, April 15, 2019

Microreview [book]: Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos

Solid as a Rock...

Terms of Enlistment is the debut novel from German SF writer Marko Kloos. It was originally self-published, then picked up by Amazon's 47North imprint. Since publication in 2013, Kloos has essentially written a sequel per year. The series is highly regarded by fans of milSF.

I first became aware of Terms of Enlistment in 2015, when its sequel, Lines of Departure, was (a) included in the sad/rabid puppies Hugo slate and (b) subsequently withdrawn from consideration by Kloos because he's not a culture warrior. This piqued my interest, so I made note to read the series. Four years later I have finally done so, and am happy I did. Terms of Enlistment is a well-made milSF novel that is sure to appeal to fans of the style - and would also serve as a good introduction for new readers.

Terms of Enlistment tells the story of Andrew Grayson, a self-described "welfare rat" who enlists in the North American Commonwealth (NAC) military to get out Boston - which, in the year 2108, is essentially one giant housing project. After basic training, he is assigned to the Territorial Army, tasked with keeping the peace in the welfare cities of the NAC. This is a setback for Grayson, who yearns to leave Earth and patrol the outer colonies, where the NAC and rival Sino-Russian Alliance (SRA) tussle over terraformed colony planets.

After a peacekeeping mission in the Detroit welfare city goes horribly wrong, Grayson is transferred to the Versailles - an aging starship tasked with ferrying supplies to the NAC's far-flung colonies. Not long after they arrive, however, the crew of the Versailles makes a horrifying discover - humans are not alone in the universe, and our neighbors are not exactly looking to make friends...


If this sounds familiar, it's probably because it is. Terms of Enlistment evokes the classics of the genre - and both Starship Troopers and Old Man's War specifically. It is neither as grandiose as the former nor as subversive as the latter. But Kloos is a veteran, and there are little details throughout the book that add an authenticity to Grayson's experience that make it stand out in a crowded field.

World-building is solid throughout. The NAC is basically the United Space of America, but this makes far more sense in the context of a divided Earth than it does when Earth is united. Kloos also does a good job portraying alien lifeforms. They feel suitably, well, alien.

And overall, Terms of Enlistment is a well-paced and fun adventure story. There is enough action to keep the reader engaged throughout, and mercifully little of the battle fetishism or tedious he-man posturing that mar the Baen-esque version of the style. Meanwhile, Grayson is a likable protagonist, though I would have liked more in the way of character development. Presumably that comes later in the series, but Terms of Enlistment would have benefitted from a deeper look inside his head.

Kloos' writing is clean and efficient - the kind of prose that fades into the background until you barely notice it anymore. Basically, it's "TV ready" fiction. More than once, I found myself thinking how well Terms of Enlistment would work on that medium. On balance that's pretty good - and way above average for milSF, which is not exactly the most literary of SF subgenres.

That said, there is too much infodumping for my tastes. The individual infodumps are relatively painless on their own but are made worse by the fact that the narrative is written in first person. If Terms of Enlistment were written in past tense, then I could imagine the narrative as a memoir written with future audiences in mind, but it's not. Instead, we have access to Grayson's innermost thoughts and he...explains basic politics as if addressing a tourist from another place and time.

The best SF writing, in my opinion, immerses you in perspective. It presents time and place as lived reality, exotic though it may be. It assumes that readers are smart enough to follow along, and to figure out by observing - to learn, for example, that thermobaric grenades are dangerous just by seeing them explode. By addressing the reader directly, infodumping breaks the fourth wall and shatters the suspension of disbelief. Its presence did not ruin my enjoyment of Terms of Enlistment, but as far as I'm concerned, the book doesn't need it and would have been better without it.


It is easy to see why the puppies liked this novel, and why they misdiagnosed Kloos as friendly to their cause. Recall that the puppies claimed that recent Hugo nominees were too literary and overly focused on political messaging (while also charging that progressives manipulated the nominations process to promote these works and freeze out conservative-leaning ones).

Terms of Enlistment thus seems to embody their ideal of what a Hugo-worthy book should look like. It is unabashedly genre fiction - well crafted, to be sure, but with no literary pretensions or political ambitions. And it certainly emphasizes story over message. Furthermore, while it not conservative "message fiction," there is a certain normativity to the book, and to milSF more broadly, that could easily be reconciled with a conservative worldview. For example, while the NAC's welfare cities could be interpreted as a critique of war capitalism, they could also be interpreted as a critique of central planning and reliance on government handouts. The ambiguity seems intentional to me, but readers will likely read their biases into the text.

Political ambiguity can be a good thing. In his Culture series, Iain M. Banks presents us with a utopia, but then explores the Culture's imperialist tendencies. We are thereby invited to sympathize with the Culture but also to feel uncomfortable as it meddles in the affairs of neighboring societies - typically without gaining consent.

Terms of Enlistment, by contrast, seems like it's trying to avoid having a political conversation altogether. For example, early on in the book, Grayson's brigade is called on to quell a riot in the Detroit welfare city. When they get there, they find mysteriously well-armed and organized adversaries shooting at them from apartment buildings. In response, Grayson commits what is in essence a war crime - firing a thermobaric grenade into a building full of civilians.

This would be a fascinating moment to explore - not because I think soldiers should be conflicted about taking civilians lives (though I do), but because I've read enough war memoirs and spoken to enough veterans to know that they often are. But Grayson doesn't really dwell on what he did. Instead, we are told that it's okay because he was being shot at, and because he loaded the thermobaric grenade accidentally. Later, we are encouraged to sympathize with Grayson and despise the "pencil pusher" who wants him to take the fall for the civilian deaths.

Look, it's not that I think individual soldiers bear the primary responsibility for crimes of war. Sometimes they do, but more often they do not - command responsibility is a well-established principle in international law and the rules of engagement that most nation-states adhere to. So ultimate responsibility does lie with policymakers. And the pencil pusher is no idealist - he's just covering the NAC's collective ass. But Grayson's shrug emoji reaction strikes me as a missed opportunity to both explore his mindset and raise some interesting moral questions.

(There is another example of this later in the book, but I won't mention it here because spoilers.)

All that said, I don't want to overemphasize the things I took issue with. On balance, I really enjoyed Terms of Enlistment. It's a fast-paced, fun and well crafted book that kept me glued to the page and got me excited to start on the sequels. It is undoubtedly a good book - just one that falls short of greatness.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for fast pace milSF fun; +1 for authenticity in the details of a soldier's narrative.

Penalties: -1 for infodumping in present tense; -1 for avoiding the tough questions it raises.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10. "A mostly enjoyable experience."


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather founder/administrator, since 2012.

Kloos, Marko. Terms of Enlistment [47north, 2013]


Friday, April 12, 2019

Microreview [book]: The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein, by Farah Mendlesohn

The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein By Farah Mendlesohn proves to be an essential volume of genre criticism about one of the giants of the field.

Heinlein was among the earliest science fiction I tried to read, when my age was barely in double digits, back in the early 1980’s. After my introduction to science fiction, I took to reading my 7 year older brother’s works. The cover with a guy seated with a kilt, surrounded by beautiful women--well, it attracted me quite frankly, and so the first Heinlein I tried to read was not one of his juveniles, not his short fiction, but rather, Time Enough for Love. I didn’t quite understand all of it, even as the premise on the back cover of that edition was completely wrong (Lazarus Long does NOT become his own ancestor!). It took me a couple of years to try again with Heinlein, going to his short stories first, and then as his work got reissued in the late 80’s, his novels. I also read my first piece of real genre criticism, Alexei Panshin’s Heinlein in Dimension, which covered his work until the late 60’s. I wondered if anyone had done similar criticism of Heinlein’s work after that (I Will Fear No Evil and subsequent books) but found nothing. Once I had finished reading Heinlein, I had let him lay fallow for a long time, with a couple of audiobooks re-reads as my only exposure to him. I had mostly moved on.

And so now years later, my interest in Heinlein reawakened with scholarship and thought about the man and his work, to point, the latest work of Heinlein scholarship, Farah Mendlesohn The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein. The title itself is a play on the Heinlein story “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag”. The book was crowdsourced to its publication, and a list of supporters is at the back of the book.

The question is in this day and age if there is a place for Heinlein criticism, even given the supporters who backed the book. Has the field moved on from him so much that his worth is not worth discussing? The author very clearly thinks otherwise and lays out her arguments in the book.

The book opens up with a short biography of Heinlein, which for me extended and fleshed out the story of Heinlein I had gotten from Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction². For the first time, the pieces I had, from Heinlein himself, from that book and others are now fused together to give me a better view of the man and his story. How his life influenced his fiction is very meticulously laid down¹. I personally learned a fair amount of about Heinlein's life. This biography provides a solid grounding for the reader in Heinlein's life story and prepares the reader for the rest of the book.

The real meat of the book, though, comes in the subsequent chapters. The author handles her analysis of Heinlein’s work by theme. Heinlein’s Narrative Arc, Technique, Rhetoric, Racism and more are the framework for her to explore Heinlein’s oeuvre multiple times from multiple points of view. There is even a chapter on Heinlein’s relationship with cats, and I did not quite realize the scope of cats in Heinlein’s fiction before reading this book. This does mean that a single work of Heinlein's, like Farnham’s Freehold, for instance, is discussed in detail in the chapter best suited to it, and elsewhere in the book at all. This thematic approach allows the author to discuss the writer’s oeuvre as a holistic whole with each section, rather than rabbit-holing down the stories and novels in succession. I found the index at the back of the book helpful, and the text itself signposts when the author intends to discuss a book in greater depth elsewhere in the work.

The author provides a nuanced and well argued point of view (and giving credit in footnotes where appropriate to people who have influenced her thinking on particular matters) and the book has made me reevaluate significant aspects of Heinlein’s work and his oeuvre for myself. In a world where Heinlein’s work has become a touchstone of divisiveness, Mendlesohn lays out what she thinks of it all, the good, the bad, the nuanced, and the ugly in Heinlein’s work.

As she says herself in the preface:
“The purpose of this book is to tease out what I find fascinating about Heinlein, good, bad and reprehensible, and to understand his work as a close-to-fifty-year-long argument with himself and those he admired.”
I maintain that Mendelsohn has accomplished this in spades. The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein is the most detailed and comprehensive look at the man and his work that exists today. Sometimes that detail goes a tad long on length, but any genre reader or critic who wants to grapple with Heinlein’s work would stand very well to read Farah’s work. Just like the aforementioned Heinlein in Dimension, this is a crucial piece of Heinlein scholarship that also makes the case that reading Heinlein can be and still is worthwhile. That’s no mean feat.

¹ The book is meticulously footnoted as well. Some of them are rather funny and I found reading all of them worthwhile.

² Dey Street Books, 2018.

³ The full list is Biography, Heinlein's Narrative Arc, Technique, Rhetoric, Heinlein and Civic Society, Heinlein and the Civic Revolution, Racism, Anti-Racism and the Construction of Civic Society, The Right Ordering of Self, Heinlein's Gendered Self and the Epilogue, The Cat Who Walked Through Genres (itself a play on The Cat Who Walked Through Walls). There are also appendices.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for meticulous analysis in a well reasoned point of view.

+1 for being cogent enough to persuade a skeptical reader like me about some aspects of Heinlein's work.

Penalties: -1 for maybe just a little too much overwhelming detail.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10: very high quality/standout in its category. Very nearly a 10.

Reference: Mendlesohn, Farah, The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein, Unbound, 2019]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.