Game of Thrones Season Six: Ruminations in the Absence of an Actual Book…

Fantasy, High Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, Television, Post Modern

Game-of-Thrones-Season-6-HEADERThough I normally don’t review TV shows or movies on this site, in the great desert between the release of volumes of the Song of Ice and Fire, I feel there is a space to examine the latest season of HBO’s televised version of the saga.  This seemed appropriate because it was, of course, the first season of the series to be written and air without a pre-existing book to guide it. Now, having time to have digest it, I feel that this somewhat shows.

3053129-game-thrones-season-6-pictures+(1).jpgIn general, I have been a fan of the TV adaptations of George RR Martin’s epic tale.  While the TV show has cut out a great deal of the beautiful and daring detail and tapestry of the novels, it has also cut down on some of the self-indulgent meandering the books seem to get into.  Many viewers of the show have complained that season five seemed to waffle without much forward progress in the story lines.  Woe to those who feel so, for one of the great achievements of the TV series is that they managed to compile two enormous meandering volumes (Books Four and Five) whose total length exceeded the entirety of the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit (and indeed almost the Silimarillion as well) into ten episodes without seeming to lose any salient points.  So it was that I was eager to see how they did with Season Six, their first ‘solo outing’ as it were (though they did have the outlines of Martin himself).

gameofthronez3In some senses the show managed to exceed my expectations.  There were some epic battle scenes, and we saw the brilliant playing out of aspects of the books that have long lay in the background.  They worked in historic reveals in a manner that played very well on the screen, and they brought some real emotional fruition to character arcs we have been reading and watching for a long time.  Oh, did I mention there were some epic battle scenes?  No really, they played out very well.[1]  Not just from their excitement, but from the emotional payoffs for viewers/readers who have followed characters through five or six grim season/volume installments of the saga.[2]

Cersei-game-of-thrones-season-6.jpgYet, having said all this, and while I did enjoy Season 6, I cannot say I was as enthralled with this season as I expected to be. Now, this could be due to the fact that for the first time I actually watched the show on a weekly basis as it was released.  Previously, I had binge watched whole seasons, but as that I wanted to avoid spoilers, my wife and I chose to actually watch it ‘real-time,’ and weeklong gaps always reduce the enthrallment. Yet I feel it was more than that.

It was good, no mistake about it, and we enjoyed it, but – but….

hodor-dies

Okay… this scene had heart…

I cannot help but feel it lacked a little heart.  It just didn’t have quite the magic of previous seasons.  Whether this was due to the gaps in presentation or the distance between Martin’s vision and this work, I cannot say, but I cannot help but wonder what the effect will be on the last installment of the series.  Will the conclusion meet, exceed or fail short of the epic journey that has taken us there?  Who knows? What I do know is that even if it does fulfill my love of the series, I will read the books to see how the author himself manages to complete the trip he began us on so long ago.  His books, for all the delays between volumes and the endless and self-indulgent meanderings of the last two volumes, has heart.  There is a soul bound into Martin’s prose and vision that captures the imagination. No matter how well or terribly HBO manages to end the series, I suspect that Martin’s final chapters will exceed that.

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[1] Well, ok there is one battle towards the end of the season that got a bit silly in its portrayal of the metaphor ‘mountains of the dead’ but beyond that… pretty good stuff.

[2] I would like to remind you that, for those of us who have been reading the books, we’re talking twenty years. Over half of that time has been spent waiting on two books.  Now, this is something I have a new appreciation of, as that there is a growing gap in publication between my own works, but it does seem a long wait to have between cliff hanger endings.

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Cataclysm: The Myst Clipper Shicaine, Kerry Forrestal and John Fracchia (Bedlam Boys Publishing, 2016)

Science Fiction, Fantasy, Science Fantasy

Introduction:

This month we are interviewing the authors of a newly released novel that pushes the cataclysm ebook.jpgboundaries of fantasy and science fiction, combining them into a fascinating and unique mélange of Science Fantasy that, for me, sparks the imagination.  To that end, I thought rather than perform an outright review of the book, I would interview the authors to investigate how the book developed and why.

Cataclysm: The Myst Clipper Shicaine is the debut novel by Kerry Forrestal and John Fracchia. It is one part science fantasy, one part horror and heavily spiced with an air of sail-punk, which when blended together spells a novel that is sure to capture the attention of sci-fi and sailing junkies like me. It stands out for me because where more Science Fantasy Novels sit primarily in one camp or the other (Star Wars – Science Fiction with heavy Fantasy elements, Krull – Fantasy with heavy Science Fiction Elements), this novel truly is a blend of the two.

The Myst Clipper Shicaine is gripping tale of a high tech world that was ravished by an unnamed cataclysm centuries before. Most of the world consists of badlands covered by strange and caustic mysts that burn and destroy all that they touch.  Only a handful of far flung cultures have managed to survive this apocalypse.  Kept safe behind their domes, these surviving peoples maintain an uneasy peace, with contact primarily maintained through the use of the great myst-clippers. Using every form of technology they can muster, these vessels sail over the mysts, and in so doing, recall some of the best elements of both sail and steam aged navigation.

Among these clippers one ship stands above the rest: the Shicaine.  Once part of an underground railroad for sentient machines, her crew was betrayed and scattered. Five years later, they’re being killed one by one, and it is up to their former captain, Nathaniel Gedrick to save them.

 Interview:

 I’d like to begin by welcoming the authors, Kerry Forrestal and John Fracchia to The Archaeologist’s Guide to the Galaxy.

 Both:  Thanks, it’s good to be here.

What was the genesis for Cataclysm: The Myst Clipper Shicaine?  How did you come up with it, and how did you come to write it?

 Kerry:  While I was waiting to get into medical school I had some time to kill and as a gamer started tinkering with an idea for a multi-user game (MUG/MUD) or what people now know as MMORPG.  Back then there wasn’t the amazing computing power we have now to render whole worlds so I broke it up into zones to allow for easier loading.  Each Zone needed to have it’s own character and the idea for T’Amorach grew.

The name for the world was the result of a conversation with my father.  He’s Irish so I asked him for the Gaelic for “tomorrow”(Which embodied the hope of all the inhabitants of our world that they worked for a better tomorrow) which is Amárach. Unfortunately, everyone took that for a thinly disguised “America”.  By craftily using a writer’s tool called a letter, we put a T in front of it and the result was T’amorach.

While it’s a pretty cool environment for a game, it became clear that this was a world that I wanted to write in.

I discussed the project with John and he mentioned that he was working on something that might fit in well with the over all theme.  My best description of the experience is working on a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle and having some of the borders done and a few areas when someone comes alone and drops a few hundred piece section all completed into the middle and it fits perfectly.  Then by bringing the rest of the work up to match it and be supported by it, you realize you had a 10,000 piece puzzle all along.

John:  That’s right. When Kerry pulled me in, he and I had just finished writing a play called, Club Hell, and were having a discussion about writing.  We’re both big fans of science fiction and fantasy and he started to tell me about this idea he had for a book that revolved around the concept of a world where a toxic environment had forced the surviving cultures into protected areas.  The cultures were very different and maintained a tenuous peace.  As it turned out, I had been sketching out ideas for a book about a theocratic culture centered around a female messianic figure.  As we talked, we started to realize that the ideas meshed really well and started to develop the story together.

TAmorachFinalMapThe world that the story is set in, T’Amorach, is quite unique.  It combines elements of gothic fantasy with Science Fiction while adding a heavy dose of Tall Ship sailing adventure.  Why did you decide to break the archetypes and set it in such an unusual universe? How did you come up with this vivid and fascinating world?

Kerry:  ADHD?

Both Laugh.

John: It’s a fair cop.

Kerry: Seriously, both John and I are lovers of diversity.  We created a living thriving world filled with different types of people because it’s what worlds really are.  Each of our characters were intended to be the heroes of their own stories, there is no cannon fodder.

We’ve come to find that some of our “Bad guys” are pretty well justified in their actions, even though they oppose our central characters.

As an example, Kragen, the Prelate elevated to the supreme position in the religious zone, started out a cardboard bad guy, but as we wrote we realized that, though ambitious and a bit slanted in his views, he really sacrifices a lot to do what he thinks is right for the home he loves.

John:  That’s right, but I feel there’s something else there. Kerry and I are what I would call connectors.

In our lives we tend to operate across traditional boundaries and hook up things that feel as though they naturally go together.  So when we started to write, we weren’t consciously thinking that the book should be sci-fi, or fantasy.  We let our idea for the story drive where it went and it ended up as a bit of a mash-up.  But I’m glad that we approached it that way, because it gave us the freedom to take the world wherever it felt like it made sense to go.

That actually raises another question, collaboration on a novel is often difficult. There are different visions and interpretation of vision that often come into play.  How did you manage your collaboration? 

Kerry:  Beer mostly. And distance.  The “Mute” button helps.

John:  And fisticuffs. Occasionally blunderbusses at 10 paces were called for depending on the disagreement.

But seriously, for us it actually wasn’t as difficult as you might think.  Kerry and I have been friends for 32 years and have collaborated on so many things that we’ve learned how to navigate disagreement.

In the framework of writing, I think it’s best explained by an experience we had while writing Club Hell.  The play is about two sleazy marketers who die in a car wreck and wake up in hell.  They decide that their best ticket out is to convince the devil that hell needs a makeover by recreating it as a resort.  In order to do it, they need to make a big pitch and Kerry envisioned it as a religious revival scene.  When he described it to me my immediate gut reaction was a resounding no.  I thought it was too over the top and it made me think of fundamentalism.  But in our script for months we had this placeholder sentence that simply said: “Insert revival scene here.”  One night we were debating the scene and he finally said to me, “Look, what’s the harm in trying it?  Let me write it and if it’s not good, we won’t use it.”  I realized that he was absolutely right and he brought one of my favorite parts to the play.  So when we have one of those moments where one of us is digging in our heels, all the other has to say is: Insert revival scene here. It’s become our cue to back off and give ourselves permission to develop an idea.

Kerry:  Yes, it really helps to have developed a framework a long time ago.  But there is a bit more.  Every so often you meet a person who you will know your whole life.  That’s John for me.  He has great ideas and he’s pretty good at telling me when something sucks, which often it does.  I have a bit of an advantage in that medical training gets you pretty hardened against taking the “that’s the worst idea I’ve heard in a while” personally.

I’ve come to find that John is generally right (excepting the revival scene in Club Hell) and by being told something sucks, by someone I trust, I can move onto the next idea faster.

That I can see.  It’s never easy to take criticism of one’s writing, but a long developed partnership is key, and you guys have known each other for a long time.

Kerry:  You could say that.  We met in college back in 1984.  I was teaching a first aid class and John was taking it.  We formed those bonds that you form in college over beer, broken hearts, aspirations and the struggle to become something more than what we are.

John:  Imagine Binghamton University in 1984….

You mean SUNY Binghamton?

 Kerry:  It’s called Binghamton University now… [1]

By heretics.

 John:  Binghamton University has a campus ambulance squad called Harpur’s Ferry and I signed up to take an Advanced First Aid course. Kerry was the instructor.  After that, we were loose friends throughout undergrad, but ended up in the same grad program and the friendship really developed there.  In fact, it led us to start a business after graduation, which we did for a couple of years before deciding to pursue other career passions.

For me those passions led to a career in higher education. Now I work at Ithaca College as the Associate Director of Career Services. It’s a career that allows me to help feed the passions students develop in college into careers.

Kerry:  For me it led to medicine.  I’m a physician in Emergency Medicine, though I also teach as often as I can, and to reaching out and collaborating with others to share ideas and methods.  In fact, I’m presently working as the Ambassador to Ireland for the American College of Emergency Physicians.

John: Yeah, I think that we’re both pretty wired to try anything that we think might be interesting to do and that has led us to very full lives.  I’m very passionate about service to one’s community so am a councilmember in my town (Caroline, NY) and involved as a board member of a number of non-profit organizations including Twin Tiers Honor Flight, One World Market (a fair trade store) and the National Dance Society.  The arts are really important to me and in addition to writing, I’m also a musican/songwriter, experimental filmmaker, DJ on a non-profit radio station (WVBR) and member of a performing improv troupe (ComedyFLOPs).  Somehow I still find time to spend with my wife Nancy and our six kitties.

KerrysHouseKerry:  I work a little less directly with the arts, but I did recently built a tree house for my daughters and am getting less than dangerous with power tools.

Of course, I also love computers and gaming, which as I think we mentioned is tied to the origin of this book.

Well clearly passion and drive is a defining element of both of you.  Did that come into play during writing.  Did it help bring any one part of the novel under one writer or the other’s domain?

Kerry:  Nope. We broke it down evenly.  I write the even words, John writes the “odd” ones.

John:  I think we each have elements of the story that are special to each of us.  For Kerry I think it’s the Shicaine because he grew up in an area that has a rich maritime tradition.  For me, it’s Kwyne, because I’ve always had an interest in religious history and an abhorrence of religious fundamentalism.  But ultimately, every bit of the book was developed, written and re-written by both of us.  People have told us that it is not obvious in the writing that two people worked on it and I think that’s why.

Could you each tell me about your favorite sci-fi works and how they influence your novel?

Kerry:  I loved the craftiness of the traders in Asimov’s Foundation and the clipper ship captains are heavily influenced by that writing.  Piers Anthony and the Adept series.  The Thomas Covenant series was awesome.  So was Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange land, and the intrigue and scale of Herbert’s Dune.  I’d like to think that Hemmingway would thrive in Douglas Adam’s “Hitchhikers” series.  Neuromancer is of course evident in the Net-rogues.  Clarke’s moralism is always with the work.  Obligate Tolkien reference.

In other media- Star: Gate(SG1, SGA), Wars, Trek.  Firefly. V. Dr. Who (Recently visited Cardiff), Quantum Leap, Blade Runner, and New BSG before the last season. (Please note the visual media part was added after reading John’s answer.  OOOOOO, I hate it when he gets a better answer than me. HOWEVER- I referenced Firefly so I win)

John:  I think that my influences are as much or more in fantasy than they are in straight sci-fi.  Tolkien was the first author who really impressed upon me the power of creating a completely unique world as well as the importance of world building.  I think he was a big influence for us, though our worlds are very different.  I also like Arthur C. Clarke and Piers Anthony, particularly his Bio Of A Space Tyrant series and the first three books of the Apprentice Adept series.  We love Elizabeth Haydon’s Rhapsody series as well and she’s been an incredible mentor to us. Kerry and I like to infuse humor into our works so there are likely undertones of Monty Python and Douglas Adams.  Hitchhiker’s is definitely one of my favorites.  For me, visual media is also very influential and I’d cite Blade Runner, Brazil, Star Trek, Star Wars, Quantum Leap, Doctor Who and THX-1138 as influences.  I like them because they are all story driven works and while they do sometimes utilize incredible effects, the engine is always a great story.

Given the setting of Cataclysm: The Myst Clipper Shicaine, have sailing ships and mercantile clippers always interested you?

Kerry:  For myself, they definitely have.  Cutty Sark, Sea Witch, Flying Cloud, so many of the great clippers ships.  Fast and maneuverable, they capture the imagination as no other ship of the time really could.

But more than that, I was intrigued by the period of time where sail was giving way to powered sail.  Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance was also fascinating to me.  Having both power and sail on the Shicaine and other Myst clippers was a natural fit due to the power requirements of sailing above a cloud that would dissolve your cargo, your ship and you if you ever happened to settle down into it.

Now purists will say that an engine would never be installed in a clipper ship, it would go against it’s purpose of being light, fast and maneuverable and they’d be right.  Shackleton’s ship was not a clipper but rather a Barquentine designed for polar work.  She was sturdy and heavy.

BUT, in our world- it’s doable.

John:  For me, not so much though I also grew up on the ocean, but I loved the idea of using ships as a method of conducting sentients through an underground railroad. It also provides an excellent environment for character development.

Why did you choose to published Cataclysm: The Myst Clipper Shicaine via e-book and print-on-demand?

Kerry:  The current pattern of “Traditional” publishing is a very economically demanding one.  Publishers may deal in the arts, but they are not creating “art for art’s sake.”  They have to try to gauge the market (which they’re generally good at), invest in making the product, marketing it, place it in stores and if it doesn’t sell- they buy the product back.

That’s pretty hard to make a profit doing so they really need proven winners.  Big names who will draw sales.  It’s increasingly rare that a publishing house will take a gamble on a new author without some sort of publishing record.  The same is true of Hollywood, hence the number of sequels and reboots.  A friend in the publishing business tells me that they DO sign debut authors at her house, so my knowledge in this area may be lacking.

E-publishing is democratizing writing in that anyone can access to having their work read.  If it sucks, it dies.  If it’s worth something word spreads.

John:  Two reasons.  The first is that so much of the industry is now geared towards the delivery of electronic content and it allows us to put the work in someone’s hands immediately. The second is that printing physical copies is expensive and requires a fair amount of storage space, so digital works better from that point of view.  But, we both love physical books because they’re tangible and tactile, and we believe that others do as well.  In fact, I think this is part of the reason for the resurgence of vinyl record albums.  We long to engage works with multiple senses.  So, print-on-demand was a way for us to have the best of both worlds.

Now that your novel is out, are their things you would have done differently?

Kerry:  We’re storytellers not really writers (though Elizabeth Haydon still holds out hope that we may become so somewhere in the far off future).  I’d say better planning and more efficient writing.  That said, with two people writing whatever came into their heads and then trying to get it all to mesh created a lot of depth and complexity.  In some cases we’ve had to create whole subplots to bridge gaps.

John:  You mean besides take fifteen years to write it?  Not really, because as first time novelists, we needed to develop and understand our process.  We both tend to be experiential learners, so jumping in and trying was an important part of our education.  But, there are things we did in the first book that we will not do in subsequent books. We have a better understanding of how to approach the writing process and we think that our readers would like to find out what happens to the Shicaine before we’re dead.

Speaking of the Shicaine, I very much enjoyed the feel of the merchant sailing ships that you pull off in the scenes set on the Shicaine herself.  Did you need a lot of research to get that sense?

Kerry:  I was out on the water from birth and was sailing from the time I was 12, though I’ve not had much opportunity since med school and fatherhood to do so.  Screaming along the water propelled by wind is one of the great experiences in life.  I think where we needed quite a bit of help was in nautical terminology.  We also had to hit the sweet spot between using proper terminology and not getting so lost in it that the reader couldn’t make out what we were saying.

John:  There is a certain knowledge base that you need in order to authentically represent the ship environment, particularly for readers who love this niche.  We are fortunate to have people in our lives with a great deal of knowledge and experience with ships, so we consulted with them on things like terminology and ship layout. We also worked on the premise that close quarters facilitate close relationships and in order for those to exist, we needed to invest in character development.  It was important to us that crewmembers have a history, shared values, and genuine regard for one another.  For those things I think we drew on our own relationship and that’s why the crewmembers approach each other with care, respect and humor.

Now, this book is told from multiple perspectives, and a lot of them at that.  Which characters do you really feel are the most central?  Which pull the story along the best or have hidden details within their story arcs?

Kerry: Derring is an embodiment of an idea that sometimes the most devout people in a religion are not the obvious ones.  In 37 years of dealing with people’s medical secrets I’ve found a fair number of devout people to be utter frauds.  Derring is an outcast among the devout, yet has done more to keep her faith intact than many others.  I find this a compelling situation.

Another is Gedrick.  He’s the quintessential amalgam. He is, for me, the embodiment of strength through diversity. By embracing all the world has to offer without prejudice he has become the strongest of the strong.  He carries with him enormous strengths born of diversity both within and without.  His crew are culled from the best of every zone and he carries gifts within himself from all the cultures.

I love that Derring and Gedrick have this epic love affair that can never be consummated.  They love each other, but in our lore when Lokaryn become aroused, they kill.  They would die for one another, they would sacrifice all for one another, but can never be together.

Of course the romantic in me can not let that stand and perhaps I have found a solution. . . .

John: For me Kell is a driving force. The idea of a vampyric character with multiple personality disorder just opened up so many interesting possibilities.  In spite of the obvious driven evil within the character, there is also a certain innocence and vulnerability because she is the victim and by-product of a fundamentalist worldview.  I also like that she allowed us to explore the concept of lokaryns and blood alcohol content.  That particular chapter still makes me laugh aloud.

I can really see how each of those work, and how they drive the story forward both as individuals and across the whole arc of the tale.  And that tale is kind of unique.  It is something I’ve noticed more and more recently with Indie books, some of the best ones really push the genres, and Cataclysm: The Myst Clipper Shicaine certainly does that. 

I look forward to other books set in this world.  Thanks you both for joining us.

Cataclysm: The Myst Clipper Shicaine is now available from Amazon and other book sellers in  hardback, paperback and ebook format.  You can by them by following clicking on the appropriate format above, or ordering them through a bookstore near you.

 

[1] I should note that, as it turns out, all three of us are graduates of The State University of New York, Center at Binghamton, which changed its public name from SUNY Binghamton to Binghamton University back in the late 80s.  Only a handful of crusty old timers still have any objection to this.  This common bond between us led to a quick camaraderie and many jokes and conversations not included in this interview…. Some unfit for publication anywhere….

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The Complete Hammer’s Slammers, Vol. 1, David Drake (Baen Books, 2009)

(Military Science Fiction, Science Fiction, Space Opera)

hammerSlammerVol1Cover

Grade: Γ — Good book within the genre.  Solid story, good characters, if you like this genre, read this book.

In brief:

This is the first volume of the definitive collection of David Drakes’ classic military science fiction stories featuring the armored mercenary unit, Hammer’s Slammers. Like any short story collection, it is a mixed bag, but includes some of the best of Drake’s work and has no real stinkers. If you’re a fan of MilFic and haven’t read them, or if you are interested in trying out military science fiction but don’t want to expend too much effort trying to see what the genre is about, this is a must read.

Setting:

Set in the late 3rd Millienium, Hammer’s Slammers uses a classic far future Space Opera setting, with faster-than-light travel, and a selection of multiple independent governments whose sphere of control range from planetary continental to multiple star systems.  The stories focus on an exceptionally well fitted out armored mercenary unit and the remarkable hover tanks and hover cars that they use.  The adventures take place on a variety of planets, and as one might expect in a story about tankers, there are no space born adventures or starship battles.  This is a story about tanks, armored cars and above and beyond all else, the men and women who man them.

hammer__s_slammers_commission_by_shimmering_sword-d43xy2vIn Depth:

This is a classic collection.  David Drake helped pave the way for what is now the staple of military science fiction with this series of short stories about an elite mercenary corps armed with fusion powered hover tanks.  Beginning with the grim tale, “Under the Hammer,” the first story in this selection, Drake helped to define the morally ambiguous heroism that is central to the best Military Science Fiction works. \

Unlike either Starship Troopers (Heinlein, 1959), which paints a heroic picture of the sci-fi military life,[1] or The Forever War (Haldeman, 1974), which paints a particularly grim, dark and critical view of the military, Hammer’s Slammers shows both sides of the coin. He paints a multifaceted interpretation of soldiers and military life, and as such realistically portrays of the complexities of war and avoids any definitive judgment. It is a series where the soldiers are neither spotless heroes nor evil monsters; a reality where the service is neither a bastion of all that is good, nor a Machiavellian bureaucracy hell bent of war for war’s sake. To that end, it helped cement a path that has made for the best subsequent military science fiction, a world of grays where both systems and individuals can be wrong and right at the same time.

HammersSlammersCharactersDrake based these tales on his own experiences as a loader in Viet Nam and Cambodia.  According to the forward in this volume, much of what he wrote was done as a way of working through the horrors of what he witness, and it shows. Many of the stories depict horrific scenes of war, including some terrible actions by the mercenary protagonists of the series. Yet this is beautifully balanced by equally heroic and moral actions. Yet he never lets any choice appear easy, natural or foregone. They are choices, hard choices, and that is what makes the stories so appealing.

Literarily speaking, Drake uses the short story structure beautifully, allowing characters to live, die, prosper and fail appropriately depending on individual story arcs.  Yet there are characters, situations, and of course equipment that carry over across the stories, providing a solid pull from tale to tale.  Thus the collection continues even when specific characters don’t.

hammerhovercarcontrailerCentral to the collection is the eponymous Colonel Alois Hammer, the commander of the mercenary tank regiment that bears his name.  A brilliant military leader who is also skilled in political maneuvering, Hammer is a wonderfully flawed yet admirable leader who formed the mercenary unit to fill the niche needs of his home world.  To say too much more is to give away some of the adventure, but it is important to note that Hammer is not the main character of most of these stories.  Indeed, while he is a presence in most of them, the vast majority of tales focus on other characters, many of them making one off appearances even though they serve as the point-of-view character for the tale they are in.  Indeed, to that end, Hammer’s prime purpose in most of the book is almost setting, a backdrop against whom we grow to understand the POV characters in each tale. What works so well about this is that when we do see him as a main character, we see his flaws and strengths all the more vividly.

Just as significant a presence in the stories are the tanks and other vehicles that the unit uses.  True to any classic tale of Military Science Fiction, the gear has a central place in the series, so much so that there are chapters spliced between the stories that are dedicated to the equipment.  There are also tables of organization, logistics and general ‘future historic’ settings of the world itself. While it is possible for such explanatory chapters to break up the flow of a book, here they add to the stories, giving us insight and depth.

Hammer_M2_Ursa_Hovertank.jpgTo that end, the Supertanks are central to the book, almost serving as characters in and to themselves.  High computerized with an impressive array of firepower and informational displays, the tanks are one part tank and one part hovercraft.  Using almost limitless power from fusion engines, they have heavily armored lift-fans and ‘skirts’ to create a cushion of air on which they float. This makes for a  fast and powerful armored presence on the battlefield.  While there are times where this approach pushes the limits of my ability to suspend disbelief (due to the innate vulnerabilities of hovercrafts), the far future aspect of the setting allows me to push those aside.

Second to the tanks are the hovercraft combat cars that feature in many of the tales.  Fascinating and exciting, these faster, more versatile but infinitely less deadly vehicles are described with no less detail and appear in the series long before the tanks themselves.  Other equipment such as powerguns and the like are outlined in the book, building an interesting and believable world into which one can immerse oneself.

HammersSlammershovercars.jpgAs for the stories themselves, as with all such collections, some of the tales are better than others, yet there are no real failures. It begins with the first short story of the series, “Under The Hammer” which sets the feel for the volume as a whole.  It focuses on the first encounter of a young recruit to the armored mercenary unit that gives the book its name.  While its heavy use of jargon may prove a bit of a turn off to some readers, it remains one of the best military science fiction stories ever told.  After this installment, subsequent stories are a bit less jargon heavy, and the writing flows far better, yet of all the tales it is the first and the last in this book that stand out most strongly in my memory.

With twenty-one chapters/stand (mostly) alone stories in this volume alone, I obviously cannot go through the whole book. I will note, however, that certain thread tales throughout the book are brought to a remarkable end with the last short story in this volume.  To that end, this collection does something that very few manage – not only does it have a solid arch through its wide range of short stories, it also allows one to feel a sense of completion at the end of the volume despite the fact that there are subsequent volumes and novels in the collection as a whole.  To that end, it stands out as a fantastic read and could serve as a good place to begin one’s exploration of military science fiction.

[1] Though this interpretation is open to debate, and in my view, Heinlein’s classic MilFic tale is more subtle than it first appears.  See _LINK_

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Preview of The Traitor’s Gambit, book 2 in the Rippers Raiders series

This month we are giving a preview of the next book in the continuing saga of the Ripper’s Raider’s Saga:  The Traitor’s Gambit  (copyright 2016).  This is the prologue of the book, opening after the end of Strings on a Shadow Puppet.

 

The tires of the airvan gave a tiny screech as it touched down on the street. A faint cloud of road dust and dried leaves billowed briefly and dissipated as its lift-fans wound down. Stub-wings folded into the stout passenger vehicle as it taxied into the car park.  The side doors slid open before it had slipped into a parking space, and eight people in heavy black boots and oversized cloths filed out. Behind it, a skysedan circled once, its blowers whining as it landed in the adjacent lot.

Car doors slammed and in a moment a group of ten men and four women stood on the pavement in front of a glowing sign: Swanzie Imperial Care Facility: A Home for Retired Naturals.  Around the placard flowed holographic text, “…because the worth of a society is measured not in its strength of arms or economy, but in the way it cares for those who cannot care for themselves. – Emperor Octavius Pleiades, IC 00.”  Behind it was a complex of low single story buildings, set with white picket fences that formed small garden courtyards.  In one a fountain stood, in another a flowering tree.

The group of men and women split their furtive glances. Some looked towards the buildings, others scanned the area around them; a few caught one another’s eyes.  A tall thin woman with a light brown pony tail and a rough scar down the left side of her face pulled out a PAD and typed a code into its touch screen.  Both the airvan and skysedan’s chirruped in response.  Next to her a tall, striking black man with a neatly shaved head gave a quick glance to a nearby window.  His eyes narrowed, his jaw clenched.

“See something Alec?” the scarred woman asked, brushing a loose strand of hair from her eyes. Some of the others put their hands inside their oversized coats.

The bald man gave a curt shake of his head. The others relaxed.  While the scarred woman pecked commands into her PAD, the rest of the group continued to scan the area around them.  Occasionally the woman closed her eyes, clearly observing something through her implants.

“We sure we want to do this?” a redheaded man asked. His gaze was locked on the bald man named Alec.

“No one’s going to get hurt, Wyatt,” the scarred woman replied.

“If it goes to plan.”

“If it doesn’t we’re fucked anyways.”

     “These are old folks, Rachel,” Wyatt said, pushing a loose strand of auburn hair from his eyes.

     “Old naturals,” a broad shouldered woman added. She was pretty, with skin a shade darker than the bald man and a muscular build. She looked to the red head as if for support, but didn’t find any. “Terms like aged, infirm, and grandma come to mind.”

“Alright look,” the scarred woman, Rachel, said as she lowered the PAD and caught the eye of each member of the group one by one, “The Delang was fake and Rubo was a twat, but they got one thing right: people who are vulnerable get attention.  Kids, and yes, grandparents.”

“But naturals?” the woman asked, hands wide as she shrugged. The bald man, Alec, looked at the Rachel with narrowed eyes and a clenched jaw.

“Yes, Annie. Naturals,” Rachel spoke with a firm voice, though her eyes hinted at less certainty, “Especially naturals. Anyone who chooses to turn down technological treatments looks old, infirm, and pathetic.  It will get attention.  It will get us what we need, and don’t kid yourself, we need it.

“We’re the last, get it?  Every other cell in Wayang Network has been taken out. The regulars are gone.  The terror cells are gone. The fucking Stalkers are gone, the Federalist Democratic Army has written us off. The Federalist Liberation Army has too, and it’s not just any set of Imperials who are after us, it’s Ripper’s Raiders, get it?  It’s only a matter of time before they get us – and you know what will happen if we are caught.”

Annie looked away.

“These ain’t all people,” a small woman in an oversized black trench coat said, her eyes fixed on Annie, “They got slimmies and bugeyes in their mix. Those don’t count.”

“Look, Annie,” the scarred woman said, sparing the speaker a distasteful sidelong glance, “I feel the same way, and I know you and Alec are new to us…”

“Don’t throw me in with her doubts,” the bald man said.

“…but most of the group here?” Rachel continued, “We’ve been on the run over a year.  Half of us have been declared Outlaw.  That means no civil rights – none.  They could torture us, kill us, cut us up for body parts, whatever the fuck they want. Oh, sure they say if we turn ourselves in we could get a trial, but do you really believe them?”

“Yeah, a trial,” Alec said with a snort. He ran a hand over his bald scalp.

“I get it,” Annie said, “we do what it takes.”

Rachel’s gaze narrowed as it moved between her and the other newcomer, Alec. The small woman in black looked around more frequently. She was growing jumpy.

“If we don’t get a ship and clear out of Imperial space, we’re fucked.” Rachel’s eyes lingered for a moment on Alec. “If we can make it to Atrucan space maybe we can make lives for ourselves in one of the camp.  Those who want to keep up the fight might be able meet up with one of the Feddie Regular units, or who knows.  Maybe Hectoro, or the Raksash, or the Voice, or fuck knows maybe even the Great Mother herself, but if we don’t, we’re dead. Or worse.”

“Let’s get this over with,” Wyatt said, eyeing Annie like one might watch a poisonous snake.

The woman called Rachel nodded and most of the group started towards a path that ran between a tall hedge and the back of one of the numerous buildings.  As the others moved forward, she the redhead’s arm. Two others hung back with them.

“Keep an eye on those two newbies,” Rachel whispered, indicating the black woman and the broad shouldered man who spoke, “Alec seems a little gung-ho, and Annie is a bit too reluctant. I don’t care who they worked for in the Lai-Jung cell. Everyone but us and them who were tied to the Wayang is dead or captured.  Let’s not get lazy and join them now.”

“I could off them now,” Wyatt said, “You know I never liked adding untested people to the team so late in the game.”

“I know,” she said, “But we need them. Besides, we’re not Rubio. We don’t just off people without reason.”

“Except old naturals?”

“Just keep an eye on them, okay?”

Wyatt shrugged, running his hand through his read hair as he broke eye contact.  The other two took up posts on the outside of the building.

In a moment, the rest of the group stood beside an emergency exit and Rachel took her place right by the door. She looked up at a security camera by the door, then nodded. A mix of weapons were drawn from under their jackets, some submachine guns, some shotguns and one laser rifle.  Rachel pushed one last button on her PAD before pulling a hand gun and ripping open the door.

In the center of the room a group of old men and women gathered around a table. Others sat in high backed seats and wheelchairs set about in scientifically predetermined “conversation” groups.  To one side a collection of men, women and sentient aliens held half-made arts and crafts in their hands. Some walls were hung with water colors and landscapes, while others projected a bucolic holographic countryside in 3-D. Some of the residents stared as if unaware the projections were not real, most others turned watery eyes to the armed terrorists rushing into the room.

“Everyone listen and no one will get hurt!” Rachel shouted.

For a moment the room was still as a tableaux.  At the central table a beautiful blond woman bent down as she laid a candle covered cake onto its surface, a smile frozen on her face.  In front of her an old man seemed oblivious to the intrusion and the cake, his eyes looking down the woman’s sweater blouse.  In the corner, a large ententicled alien loomed unmoving over the craft makers, its skin flushed in patterned beige.

One of the terrorists moved towards it and fell head over heels as he tripped over an oxygen tank.  Bullets sprayed the wall and ceiling. That is when the screaming started.

“Fuck.” Wyatt said between clenched teeth. Alec smiled.

“Quiet!” Rachel shouted.  The screams grew louder. Others just looked around with confused and watery eyes.

One of the caregivers, the woman with honey colored hair, tried to calm the mix of old humans and aliens. The radially symmetrical quasi-vertebrate sentient alien, wrapped its long, tentacle-like limbs that ended flower-like ends around four others. The creature’s skin took on a shade of bright and angry green with leopard like spots flowing across its surface. The screaming and sobs continued.

Annie grabbed an old man in a wheelchair and put the barrel of her submachine gun to his head.  The man screeched, the wheelchair clattered to the floor.

“Shut it! Now!” Annie shouted. That seemed to have some effect. Silence fell and the redhead stopped watching Annie.

“Patients against the windows, facing out,” Rachel ordered, “Nurses, keep them calm and no one will be hurt.”

“I’m not a…” the blonde started.

“Shut up!” Alec said, gesturing at with her gun.

There was the shuffling of feet and the squeaking of wheels as sobbing frightened naturals moved towards the windows. A withered old sophant had difficulty undulating its way into position, Alec kicked it.  It let out a squeak and a terrible smell. The blonde lifted it and carried it over. Rachel noted the muscles beneath her clothes and wondered how an aged care nurse could spend so much time in the gym. In the distance, sirens could be heard.

“That was fast,” Wyatt said.

“Imperial Facilities have constant security monitoring,” Alec said.

“Everybody take up your posts,” Rachel said as she pulled out her PAD and awkwardly pecked commands into it with the hand that held a pistol.

For a moment everything was quiet.  The terrorists kept out of view of the windows, the old aged pensioners were kept up against them.  The redhead started to eye the striking blonde teacher in a less than professional manner, the old man had never stopped. Annie continued to hold the old woman. Alec kept a gun on the alien caregiver, sneering with disgust. Its spots shifted into stripes.

“Citizens of Sophya!” Rachel spoke into the PAD as if it were a camera. “We are the Federalists Liberation Army and we are fighting to free you from the totalitarian grip of the Imperialists who claim to protect your rights! We have taken the Swanzie Imperial Care Facility and are holding the residents in protective custody until our demands are met. We need a ground transport, a long range, jump capable ship, and clear roads and airspace. When we reach a lagrange point, we will release the captives…”

The front door opened and the two remaining terrorists ran in. “The first wave of Imperial Guardians are pulling into the lot.”

“I am sending a full list of demands now,” Rachel said as thumbed a send message, “Long live the Federalist Revolution!”

“I think there were Marines with them,” the man said.

Rachel looked up, her brow deeply furrowed. Outside they could hear feet tramping on the ground and aircars circling overhead.  The redhead and the dirty blond shared a quick, nervous glance. So did Alec and Annie. Annie nodded.

“That’s all of them,” Alec said out of nowhere.

Wyatt gave the good looking bald man a quizzical look, Rachel opened her mouth.

“And then there were none,” the tall striking blonde said.

The old men and women turned in silent unison to face the inside of the room. Wyatt stepped away, Annie let go of her hostage, but Rachel grabbed another.  The man who had been staring at the blonde’s chest.

“Tell them to face outside!” She pulled the old man tight to her body and put a gun to its head.

The frail framed residents snapped open their mouths, but instead of screams there was only a soft hissing noise.

“I am Lieutenant Samantha Smith of Imperial Naval Intelligence,” the honey blonde caregiver said as she stood straight and impressively tall, “You are under arrest for…”

Wyatt raised his gun. Before he could shoot the weapon was out of his hands and the ground, the butt of Alec’s rifle smashing into the redhead’s face.

Annie’s submachine gun came down on the skull of one of the terrorists, before she delivered a back-kick into the face of another.  The first dropped like a stone.  The second flew backwards onto an easel. He didn’t move.

Rachel pulled the trigger and winced. The head of her wrinkled captive blew open. Coolant and circuits sprayed across the floor.

Across the room, the multi-colored alien burst into action.  It enwrapped the woman in the black trench coat with two tentacle-like limbs and ripped her gun away with another.  By the windows, the old men and women raised their hands as they continued their hissing scream.  Flicking their fingers, needles sprang out.

“What the fuh…” one of the terrorists started, before collapsing to the ground. As the others began to follow suit, the senior citizens leapt from their spots, landing on their captors and sticking their needle claws deep into the necks of their victims.

Head spinning, Rachel raised her gun to aim at tall black bald man who had betrayed her. Annie took a step towards her, but the blonde Lieutenant was faster. She flicked her wrist and a pistol snapped into her hand from beneath the sleeve of her sweater. Samantha Smith took the shot, and the last leader of the Wayang Network died with a bullet to the brain.

There was silence for a moment. Only four people remained standing: Alec, Annie, the alien and Lt. Smith. The old people remained hunched over the others, needles in their victim’s throats, but their hissing mouths finally closed.

“You know Samantha,” the bald man spoke, his voice suddenly heavy with the plummy educated tones of the social elite, “It would be nice if once in a while you could avoid shooting people in the head. That would leave questioning as an option you know?”

“Sorry Alex,” Samantha replied, brushing a strand of her honey colored hair from her eyes.

“Hell yeah, I’m not sorry,” Gunnery Sergeant Andrea ‘Annie’ Chrom, said, “That bitch was gonna shoot your ass.”

The doors to the room burst open and a mixture of Imperial Marines and Army Guardians entered the room. They filled the room quickly and efficiently, combat rifles smooth and steady as they secured the space.

“Commander?” the lead Sergeant asked, looking at Alex with narrowed eyes and a cocked eyebrow.

“Yes, Sergeant Bowman,” Alex said as he ran his hand over his bald head, “The room is secured.”

“Sorry, skipper, I didn’t recognize you-”

“No need to apologize,” Alex said with a smile, “That was the idea. Amazing what some sun and a razor can accomplish. Now, secure the prisoners.”

“Aye, aye, Skipper,” Bowman said, then gave a smiling nod to Gunnery Sergeant Chrom. In less than a minute the limbs of the terrorists were cuffed regardless of whether or not they were conscious, or even alive.

“Good work people,” Alex said when the last of them was bound, “I’d particularly like to thank Colonel DuZhod and Lieutenant Popolopolis, for your assistance.”

“Wouldn’t have missed it!” the radial sophant said through its translator as a spectrum of colors flushed over its hide. One of its flower like heads bobbed in a gesture intended to mimic a human nod.

“My pleazhure, heh, Lieutenant Commander,” one of the women in a wheelchairs said with the heavily accented voice of an adult man.

“Now Colonel, if you could be so kind as to shut down your seniorbots, I think we can proceed from here.”

The ancient looking androids slumped to the visible relief of all the marines. They, and the Imperial Army Guardians began to haul off their unconscious forms.

“Congratulations, Lord Fotheringday,” the alien Lieutenant Popolopolis said as it turned the flower-like head of one of its tentacles to Alex, “If I am not mistaken, that puts an end to the very last remnant of Wayang terror network.”

Somewhere, someone started to clap.  Soon the room was filled with cheers.

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The Problem with Military Science Fiction Part 3: The Myth of the Gung Ho Space Marine…

This imechnstuffssue we are returning to one of this blogs most popular series of articles: the examination of what Military Science fiction (Part 1, Part 2, and Pollyanna was a Space Marine).  As stated in the previous articles, Mil Fic has a bad reputation.  We’ve already examined criticism of the subgenre ranging from complaints that characters are not very well developed (Link to Pollyanna was a Space Marine), that the nature of conflict in the books is simplistic (link to part 1), and/or that as a whole subgenre is a bit schizophrenic, with pacing ranging from plodding to frenetic (link to part 2). Yet, while these issues are each important, so far we have ignored the one complaint that is most frequently aimed at the subgenre – the elephant in the room.

The single most common criticism leveled at Military Science fiction (and Military Speculative Fiction as a whole) is that it glorifies war and promotes a pro-military, often conservative political agenda.

foreverwarIndeed, in 2011 the Guardian Newspaper published an article by Damien G. Walter that said exactly that.  It critiqued the subgenre as a whole suggesting it encouraged men and women to “enter the meat grinder” of modern military life and as a whole glorified combat, and simplified the world into a militaristic the us versus them nature needed to engage in a war.  The article ended by summing up the world as a dichotomy:

On the one side, it seems, are the Guardian reading liberals, for whom war is good for nothing, and nothing more than a failure of understanding and communication between peoples. On the other are military SF loving conservatives, who believe that the enemy is out there, is evil, and can be defeated by heroes carrying very big, very expensive weapons.

A bit ironic for a person who criticizes the genre as dividing the world into Us and Enemy.

soldiersdutyOf course, as anyone who is familiar with MilFic as a whole, this particular article seems to have been poorly researched and based on the reading of one or perhaps two works (mostly Weber’s Honor Harrington series it would seem, and even that not very closely). Even so, it is an article that strikes resonance with many critics of the genre, espouses sentiments that are often felt by non-fans, and puts some potential reader off many excellent works.  It is also a viewpoint is fundamentally wrong.  This is not to say MilFic does not have its problems (as this whole series of articles explores), but in this case, such a reading is just plain wrong.

While there are certainly books out there that do glorify war, promote the military, and/or put forward a conservative agenda, to categorize the whole subgenre that way is like saying that all Christians are Creationists, or that all liberals are vegans. Yet, even if this claim was true, the putting forward of those agendas, should not, by itself, be a reason to dismiss the genre as good for nothing, no matter what your place on the political spectrum.

hicknvasquez.jpg

Stop challenging my world view!

Literature should not only be allowed to express myriad ideologies, it should strive to do so.  In a modern world of educated actors, one NEEDS read viewpoints different than ones own, one should try to understand them, not just as straw men arguments, but as the fully fledged concepts they represent.  If nothing else, it allows you to argue against them all the better.[1] Being made to feel challenged and/or uncomfortable is how we evolve our understanding no only of the world, but of the self and the other.[2]

This is not to say that every book you read should be an experiment in building your world view. It is more than just okay to just read light, comfortable books – it’s good! Fiction should be enjoyable.  Even so, I am grateful that not all books simply confirm my world view, and the best ones often make me challenge them.  I would hope that other readers feel the same.

Beyond such intellectual idealism, however, there is another problem with the argument that Military Science Fiction is gung-ho, pro-war, conservative propaganda. It is blatantly not true.  There are just as many works of MilFic that do quite the opposite.  Indeed, even some of those that have been critiqued as flaunting ultra-conservative agendas that promote military states are in fact quite the opposite (link to Starship Troopers article). Such misinterpretations are frequently the result of a failure to read more deeply into the text. This is something we will discuss in detail later in the article, but for now, let us just note that like any other form of literature, there are books that fall across the whole spectrum of political and ideological views.

StarshipTroopersProblemMilFicThe most classic examples of this range of attitudes can be seen, in fact, in many of the most famous books of the genre. Indeed, the “bookends” of Military Sci-Fi themselves, Robert Heinlien’s Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War can be seen as diametrically opposed views of the military and politics.  As discussed in my review,  many see Starship Troopers as a novel that promotes an extreme form of pro-military conservative politics, one that suggests only those who serve the government or military should have the right to vote.

forever-warModernCoverWhile this view is highly debatable (and not one I believe Heinlein actually supported – see the link to my review), it certainly is the kind of state outlined in the book.  In contrast, however, there is the Forever War, by Joe Haldeman which in no way can be interpreted as pro-war, pro-military, or conservative. Even the lightest of readers can see that it is a clear cut condemnation of the Military and the Military-Industrial complex. What is more, the Forever War is far from alone in the genre. Other giants in the field also show a range of views on both politics and the military.

HH001David Weber’s Honor Harrington series certainly seems to fall under the more conservative scale of politics. Within the pages of most, if not all, of the Harrington books more conservative viewpoints are not only promoted, liberal positions are frequently used as straw men arguments, and even all but ridiculed.  There are some who even accuse Weber of promoting an Ayn Rand-ian world view where some people are just born to lead.  I would certainly not go that far, but clearly Weber’s Honorverse books promote a more conservative view point.

HammersSlammers.jpgIn direct contrast, however, are series like David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers.  While some of his tales may occasionally appear to promote a pro-militaristic viewpoint, one need only read his first short story “Under the Hammer”[3] to realize nothing could be further from the truth. Oh, it’s true that some of his stories, such as “Standing Down”[4] could be seen as promoting the virtues of military coup d’etates, I would argue that they are world building and thought experiments.  Most, if not all, of his other stories demonstrate that his tales are descriptive and/or cautionary more than they can be said to promote any sort of political agenda.  Indeed, they primarily describe the horrors of war far more than any form of glorification of it.

OldMansWar(1stEd)Other books give complex views as well. In Old Man’s War and its related series John Sclazi wavers back and forth between the two poles. At one point he seems to damn any military held political power, at other times he seems to justify dark secrets and military agendas.  There in lies Scalzi’s greatest strength, he does not simplify the situation or give right-and-wrong answers.  Instead, the right and wrong of it is seen through his character’s eyes, and as points-of-view change, so do the judgments that go with it.  To this end, he simply draws a picture in shades of greys and let’s the reader decide.[5]

The list goes on, and indeed, from my reading, most of the stories fall on the more progressive side of the political spectrum. Why then the concept that Military Science Fiction represents a pro-war, gung-ho and militaristically conservative point of view?

In part it is because some individuals, such as Damier Walter (above), seem to feel uneasy in the reading of any story about war that does not whole-heartedly condemn it and those who take part in it.  People like that seem to support the idea that all soldiers should be portrayed as baby-killing neo-Nazis.[6]

Yet, individuals such as that are few and far between.  Just as most authors and fans of MilFic hold a wide spectrum of views, most critics are not simplistic nor jingoistic card-carrying lefties. Indeed, I’ve got more than a few friends whose views are on the extreme left who LOVE MilFic. So why then are there so many people who seem to feel that Military Science Fiction is gung-ho, pro-war, propaganda?

Well, in one light it is easy to understand why even close reading, deep thinking person might misinterpret certain elements of MilFic with such a pro-military/ultra-conservative agenda.  Certainly I once did, for despite the wide range of political views within the subgenre, and indeed the wide range of story types told by the authors, there are some elements that all of these books hold in common – elements that could easily be misconstrued for a militaristic viewpoint despite the subtext of many of these books.

Techno-Weapons Porn – or a love and focus on the hardware of war

air-and-space-museum.jpgTrue to the traditions of Heinlein, most books in the genre spend a certain amount of time lovingly describing the hardware of death.  My books certainly do.  In part this is because MilFic generally has a certain element of hard-sci fi in them – it is part of the “trope”. Military Science fiction often describes and relishes the technical workings of the weapon systems they describe.  Be it StarFIST guns and drop ships, the altered bodies of the Old Man’s War, the warships of the Honorverse, the ultra-cool cyborgs of the Legions of the Damned, or the Spectre-Class stealth ships of my own novels, there is a certain pornographic glee in the description of the military hardware within the annals of Military Science Fiction. This is as much a part of the genre as ghosts, zombies, and vampires are part of Paranormal stories, or Magic is part of High Fantasy. Yet does a focus on the guns imply a love of war?

slammers.jpgOf course not. For one thing, the weapons are part of the setting and plot in the same way that murders are part of Crime Fiction, magic is part of Fantasy, or clothing and décor are part of the appeal of Regency Romances. The accoutrements of war are part of the mechanics and setting of a story about the military. Soldiers use guns.  Star pilots fly ships.  Knowing how they work and how they run are important to the characters. Soldiers know about their guns, pilots know about their ships. What is more, those are important aspects of their lives.  To that end, the gear helps set the tone, affects the plot, and fleshes out the lives of the characters in a manner that is key to the workings of most of the stories.

gun002.jpgAfter all, what is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea but the loving exploration of a technology based idea – what would happen if we could build a ship that sailed under the water for extended periods? So too many if not most of the MilFic genre include plot elements tied upon the technical workings of their gear.

Flickr_-_Israel_Defense_Forces_-_Female_Soldiers_Unload_their_Weapons.jpgYet there is more to it than simply setting and a love of techno.  While much of Military Science Fiction does focus on the cool nature of military hardware, it does not always do so favorably.  Indeed, the very first volume of the StarFIST series, Starfist: First to Fight (Starfist Book 1) by David Sherman and Dan Crag (Del Rey, 1997), is centered around the introduction of a piece of technology that does not work: the UPUD[7]. Indeed, in one sense the whole book is nothing more than an action packed adventure that criticizes the nature of military command structures and the way they introduce untested equipment risking the lives of good men and women.  The other way to view the book is as a tribute to the men and women who can overcome such obstacles, but we will get into that later.

LEgionOFDamned2An even more clear cut example can be seen in William C. Deitz’ Legion of the Damned – a series that introduces the very cool concept of brain-in-a-box cyborgs soldiers.  While it does spend a lot of time discussing the hardware of the different cybernetic bodies that such soldiers can be plugged into (everything from anthropoid to battle tanks and fliers), and while this description is very cool and definitely keeps the reader engaged, the book is far from a glorification of it.  Indeed, it is quite the opposite – it is a metaphor for how twisted a military can become when it is put in inappropriate hands. It is a metaphor for how a soldier can be viewed as little more than a weapon. What is more, it and the other books in the Legion of the Damned series show the conflicts soldier have when in this position, and how honorably they can behave despite being made killer slaves.

This then leads us to the second element that leads critics to misunderstand the genre…

Pro-Soldier is NOT Pro-Military

ladysoldier.jpgPerhaps the most common misunderstanding of the genre is the confusion between pro-military and pro-soldier.  To a degree this is very understandable error to make.  If one is creating a tale a heroic men, women and things who serve in the military, it is easy to understand how many of these tales could be see as promoting an agenda that suggests the military as an institution is somehow superior.  In fact, there could be nothing farther from the truth.

MilFic is, in fact, very rarely pro-military.  Indeed, the focus of most of the stories (even the Honor Harrington series) critiques the military in some form or another.  Be it a condemnation of how it can be misused and misguided (Dietz), the finding of faults in military command structure (Weber), the over reliance on technology (StarFIST), the application of jingoistic propaganda and how that can create a fundamentally flawed atmosphere (Jack Campbell’s Dauntless, The Lost Fleet Book 1 (aka John G. Hemry) (Ace Publishers, 2006)), the absolute horror and death that comes in battle (Drake) or some combination of all of these (Heinlein and Haldeman… ironically), MilFic focuses on the problems with the military, not its glory.

soldier.jpgYet, the misunderstanding of this is completely comprehensible – for the other element that all MilFic have in common is NOT that it is promilitary, but that it is Pro Soldier.  It focuses on the honor and dedication that men and women who serve in the military have.  It may point out how this can be misused, or it may focus on how it is the solution to greater problems but it is a constant across the subgenre.

MilFic is a genre that focuses on the men and women who serve and the lives they live while serving.  While some may interpret that as being gung-ho, it is not per se.  MilFic examines what life in the military is like.  Sometimes it focuses on those who serve a good cause, some on those trapped or fooled into serving a bad cause, some who shouldn’t be there in the first place.  Yet, no matter how you view it, the genre looks at the lives and mentality of those who lay down their lives for their nation – be it voluntarily or through a draft.

Here then, is where the worst elements of misunderstanding lie. For those who critique milfic as gung-ho propaganda have not really read it for what it is, but rather condemn it for what it isn’t – and it isn’t as a genre a way of promoting a political or military agenda.

None of which is to imply that a person who doesn’t enjoy reading military science fiction is in someway wrong (or in any sense unpatriotic) if they just don’t enjoy the subgenre.  That would be an even worse stereotyping than the one I suggest. Not every type of literature is every reader’s cup of tea: AND PEOPLE SHOULD READ WHAT THEY LIKE.

Some people don’t like MilFic because they don’t feel comfortable with the topic matter (which is not to say they don’t respect soldiers. Indeed, I have one friend who doesn’t like it because he saw too much while serving and really just doesn’t want to think about it). Others dislike it because they don’t like the plot structure or kinds of character arcs that are at the stories’ cores. Still others dislike it because they get bored with the description of hardware or of the violence or of any number of other elements inherent in the stories.  There are a thousand reasons why a smart reader might not choose to read such a tale, in the same way that one might dislike Fantasy, or Romance or any other genre.[8]  AND THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT!!!  One need not like every genre, or subgenre.  Good on you if that’s how you feel.

anna-popplewell-silva-forward-unto-dawn.jpgThe problem comes when readers, particularly professional critics (or worse yet University Professors), write off the whole subgenre as a single category: especially when it is just not true.  Military Science Fiction as a whole does not glorify war. Some of it does, sure, but most doesn’t.

What it does do, universally, is explore, examine and in most cases try to honor the lives of men and women who serve. That is the common thread across the genre.  It is what binds it together, and that is blatantly obvious anyone who gives serious thought to what is on the page, rather than what is already in their minds.

Go to :

The Problem with Military Science Fiction Part 1

The Problem with Military Science Fiction Part 2: Taxonomies

Pollyanna Was a Space Marine

 


 

[1] This is, by the way, the same argument I use to Creationist fundamentalists when they object to evolution being taught in my class.  I don’t ask you believe it, I ask that you understand it. Why would a god give you a brain if he did not want you to use it?

[2] Thus speaks the academic… you could never tell I teach at University could you?

[3] Hammers Slammers

[4] ibid

[5] Indeed, anyone who might suggest Scalzi has a conservative agenda need merely read a few pages of his blog and you might find a very different answer.

[6] Indeed, one cannot help but wonder how he feels about books such as All’s Quiet on the Western Front, or movies like Platoon.

[7] Yes, I still giggle every time I read that…

[8] Heck, I went through about a ten year period where I couldn’t stand mysteries.  ME!  I now write them, but I got bored.  I’d read too many in a row and the mechanics of the genre were just too blatant to me.  Thank goodness I got over that, but it was a thing and not reading mysteries because I didn’t enjoy them was a good thing.

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Graveyard: The Mutant Files (vol. 3), William C. Dietz (Publisher: Ace Books)

(Science Fiction, Crime Thriller, Gritty Noir, Series, Chronicle)

graveyard1Grade: B/Γ +— Highly enjoyable book of mixed genre. Solid story, good characters, if you like these genres, read this book. If you like one of them, but not the other, I suspect you will still enjoy it.

SIDE NOTE – Yes… I am going to revamp the whole grading system. It’s gotten way too complex. In short REALLY liked it – but it’s combination of genres may not appeal to everyone.

In brief:
Graveyard by William Dietz is a gripping, gritty dark detective story that serves as the third installment in the Mutant Files series. While it can be read as a stand alone (I did), it is likely best enjoyed if you read the series in order. Set in a post-plague apocalyptic Los Angeles, Graveyard combines Sci Fi, mystery and gritty police procedural in a manner that grabbed my attention. Its strong female protagonist drew me further in, and I really enjoyed the read as a whole.

This is a good read for sci fi and crime drama fans, a great read for those who like both genres, and well worth picking up for anyone who likes Urban Fantasy mysteries, and interested in seeing that same dark element in a Sci Fi setting.

Setting:
A post-plague apocalyptic Los Angeles, where the US has devolved into separate states. Some decades before the story opens, a devastating, man made disease was released upon the world population. This disease not only kills many of its victims, those who survive develop genetic mutations, not of the superhero form, but of the slightly more realistic body changing form. Some might be seen as beneficial, but most are painful, disfiguring and/or generally problematic.

As that many of those infected are still carriers, the non-infected population has created Red Zones that segregate the mutants from the rest of the population – resulting in social stress, bigotry and an unequal divide of resources.

Gravyard2

ARC Copy that I read

In Depth:
So, for my first sojourn back into book reviews, I decided to start with an author I like who has combined two of my favorite genres (Sci-Fi and gritty detective stories) into a new series that seems well poised to draw fans of both – and perhaps appeal to those who, like me, enjoy Urban Fantasy but are a tad bored of it.

To that end, Graveyard is a highly enjoyable read that blends the dark detective novel with a science fiction twist, allowing the author to subtly comment on poignant social issues of today. It also nicely blends four plotlines (two volume internal, one personal story arc, and one the Bonebreaker case that serves as the main series arc) in a manner that I have often felt is missing in many mysteries and crime dramas.

I have always thought it funny how so many cop stories seem to ignore the fact that police usually have to deal with more than one case at a time. In Graveyard the main character, LAPD Detective Cassandra Lee has four main cases she is attending to – two of which are intricately interwoven, one of which is wholly personal, and the third of which is a serial-cop-killer case that serves and the principal story arc across the series. While the plots and subplots are tightly drawn enough to prevent the story from meandering, they are also disparate enough to give a sense of reality that is often missing from Police Procedural stories. While I personally felt there could have been an extra beat to the Bonebreaker plot, the last scene was highly enjoyable and the end brought a very solid and satisfying resolution to all four sub-plots.

Deadeye1

Book 1: Deadeye

For those who have read the other two books in the series, Deadeye and Red Zone, Graveyard has the very appealing aspect of further exploring the Bonebreaker. We see a good amount from his point of view and discover a great deal about his past that builds upon and fleshes out the glimpses we had from earlier books (which I am in the process of going back to read). This has the advantage of both filling out how and the serial killer came to be, while also building up Cassandra Lee as a character – both in contrast and in backstory. It works very well.

One additional aspect I enjoyed about the novel was that, as with other of his books, Dietz also manages weave a socially relevant subtext into the series without hitting you over the head with it. In this case, the subtext is a dissertation on the problems of refugees, illegal immigration and the social complexities of building walls (real and symbolic).

In the world he’s built, America has torn itself apart attempting to deal with the mutant problem. Initially it created camps (refugee camps) where the infected were led and left to die. As the problem spread, the US created Red Zones, where the mutants were herded and left to fend for themselves. This resulted in the dissolution of the US and the creation of smaller federal states that do not always cooperate as well as they should.

Meanwhile to the South, Mexico was devastated by the plague. Unable to segregate itself as readily, the disease spread across the whole nation, with a much greater loss of life and a near universal infection rate. Those who survived reformed themselves into the New Aztec Empire… populated almost entirely by the mutant victims of the disease. A nation that does not exactly have a positive outlook towards Los Angeles and ruthless way it treated its own mutant population. Add to that elements that the Aztecs view as historic inequities, and you have quite a problem brewing.

Redzone

Book 2: Redzone

All of this can be read solely as exciting story backdrop, but I strongly suspect something more going on. Indeede, one of the things I enjoy the most about Dietz’s work in general is that there is usually something deeper woven into his books. Sometimes it is a bit of philosophy, sometimes social commentary, but it is never “hit-you-on-the-head” in its nature. If you want a good adventure tale and nothing more, the message doesn’t prevent that. Yet if you keep your mind open, there is usually a bit of thought provocation there too.

In this case, I cannot help but read a bit of commentary on the problems of immigration and refugees within this book. It is not over the top, nor does it condemn any one point of view. Rather, it notes the issue and encourages you to think about it, from both sides.

Throughout the Mutant Files, there is the underlying problem of the plague. The Americans (or former Americans as it were) need to deal with the serious problem of an epidemic and the death and destruction it brings. To me, this speaks of American present perceived problems of immigration, drugs and crime. This is in no way spelled out in the book, and I could be reading Latino/Muslim where no such subtext is intended, but it is my view.

Meanwhile in the series, the mutants (read refugees) are facing a real problem of the disease as well, not to mention the destroyed economy and overall disparity that have followed in its wake. If the former US had problems, surely it was worse in those areas where the plague ran free. One cannot help but feel sympathy for the mutants trying to make a better life, or hiding like illegal immigrants within the city

To that end, the Aztecs (a mutant based state that occupies areas beyond the present day borders of Mexico) are unjust in what they attempt to do in this story, but the inequity they face, and to a degree their justification of their actions, makes it seem understandable. The citizens of Los Angeles were cold and terrible in the way they excluded the mutants from society, but faced with a horrible disease one can understand how and why they addressed the problem as they did. It is possible to read all sorts of things into this – drugs, terrorism, poverty, the present refugee crisis from the Near and Middle East (not to mention the one from Central America). I cannot say how many, if any, Dietz intended to play upon, but to me – this all seemed poignant.

BillDietzIndeed, this is what impresses me the most about the tale. Dietz does not demean the reader by coming up with a quick-easy (or worse still sci-fi ‘magic’) solution. He plays out both sides and lets the reader form his/her own views. He does not play the role of a prophet – he comments and lets the ideas provoke the reader to think without it interrupting the kick-butt action and adventure of the tale.

And this is one of the things that shows Dietz at his best – a great gritty, gumshoe cop story in a cool setting that points out social issues without presuming to solve them.

If you want some action, adventure, crime drama and good story telling spiced with something to think about, read this book, and the series. I think you will be highly entertained.

 

Posted in Crime Thriller, Dystopian, Mystery, Near Future fic, Part of A Series but can be Read without reading previous volumes, Saga, Science Fiction, Series, Strong Characters, Thoughtful, Trilogy, Uncategorized, Unique or Imaginative World, Urban Fantasy, World | 1 Comment

A quick note from the author

This is just a quick note to say that over the next few months I will be revamping and changing my grading system.  It has just gotten too complex and needs some revision.  To that end, I intend to combine a star system (how much I liked a book) with the Greek alphabet system that I have been using.  That system will be more about who else might like this book.

My first reviews will keep to the old system, and I will probably never go back to modify the old reviews.  But one thing I will say is that I will probably end up with a lot fewer bad reviews.  Why?  Because I just won’t be bothering to finish books if I’m not enjoying them – at least, not for the most part.  I don’t have time and let’s face it, most of you are probably more interested in which books they might want to read rather than which books I don’t like.

This will also result in a book acceptance policy that is more restrictive.  I will publish the criteria before long, but while I will be open to books from all types of authors (traditional, small press, micropress and indie), I will probably need some indication that this book was written and edited in a professional manner AND that it actually meets the criteria of novels that this blog was set up to review.

Sorry, but there are just too many people publishing books these days…

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