War Stories edited by Andrew Liptak and Jaym Gates

War StoriesTitle: War Stories: New Military Science Fiction
Editors: Andrew Liptak and Jaym Gates
Published: 7 October 2014
Publisher: Apex Publications
Source: eARC from the publisher
Genre: military science fiction short stories
Rating: 8/10

Military sf is one of the sf subgenres I’m least likely to read, but admittedly I haven’t read very much of it, so I thought it was worth giving this anthology a shot. From what I have read my assumptions are that it tends to be by men and about men, focusing on combat and toying with ideas for badass military tech – big guns, heavy high-tech armour, tanks, spaceships, drones etc. I like action, but it’s not enough to carry a story for me and is usually better on a big screen than in a book.

This anthology from Apex Publications was very quick to show me how narrow-minded those assumptions were. Divided into four sections – Wartime Systems, Combat, Amored Force, and Aftermath – it shows that this military sf is not just soldiers dealing death with their super tech. Instead, these stories focus on people – soldiers battling with their roles as professional killers, the difficulties that their families and partners go through, the people designing military technology, the people forced to live with war tech even if they’re not fighting, veterans struggling to live in the mundane world. War, as is argued in the introduction, happens in our minds and bodies as well as on battlefields.

This isn’t a male-dominated anthology either. In the acknowledgements, editor Jaym Gates mentions that it focuses on the perspectives of female and LGBTQ characters. So there are plenty of female authors, and most of the stories have major female characters. In fact, when I encountered a story without a major female character, it stood out as distinctly odd and old-fashioned. In addition, there are loads of LGBTQ characters and relationships, most of which are treated as perfectly natural rather than being spotlighted as something radical. I love seeing this in sff, and we could use more of it – LGBTQ relationships and good male/female gender balances that can just exist without having to be justified, as if we need to explain why we’re not sticking to the tired old straight-white-male tradition.

So a major drawcard was that War Stories seemed fresh and progressive to me (apologies to military sf fans who already knew the genre was so much more than I assumed it to be). There are some stories that are more conventional than others and as with any anthology I didn’t like everything, but most stories offered something memorable. I’ll go through my favourites and the ones that stood out.

Wartime Systems

This was a great opening section and I enjoyed it the most. It starts off very strong with “In the Loop” by Ken Liu, my favourite story in the anthology (I’m just a sucker for Ken Liu). Kyra’s father is a drone operator who becomes increasingly traumatised by having to make thousands of cold, calm decisions about whether or not to kill someone by drone strike. When Kyra grows up, she designs a programme to replace the humans controlling the drones, so that no one ever has to bear the responsibility for killing. In designing the programme, Kyra gets right down to the cold reality of war – that it’s about preferring the lives of one group over the lives of another, that different lives have different values. In this case, Americans are assigned the highest value, anyone ‘ethnic’ falls below that, and the lives of the poor and desperate are worth the very least. Kyra doesn’t agree with the ethics of this, but she has to admit that she thinks in similar terms – the life of her father meant far more to her than the thousands of people he killed. As usual, Ken Liu is brilliant at capturing the nuances of these psychological conundrums.

Most of the other stories in this section look very closely at the way tech affects personal lives. In “Ghost Girl” by Rich Larson, an albino child who would normally have been kidnapped by human traffickers for muti, is protected by a drone left over from a war. In “The Radio” by Susan Jane Bigelow, a cyborg struggles with issues of purpose and identity after the war ends and her side abandons her on the planet as if she were nothing more than a piece of dead tech. “Non-Standard Deviation” by  Richard Dansky also explores the idea of the tech itself as sentient beings affected by war, although in a very different way.

Then “The Wasp Keepers” by Mark Jacobsen shifts the focus from fighters to civilians. In a post-war Syria, Western powers have enforced peace by assigning wasp drones to monitor every adult. The wasp can kill the person it observes, which is exactly what happens to a seventeen-year-old boy at the start of the story. It’s written from the POV of his mother, who was a social media activist during the war. I like this story partly because it depicts a more nuanced Islamic society than you typically see (no one is obsessed with religious propriety) and because it addresses issues of perspective and understanding in war. The Wasp Keepers are considered miraculous because they ended the war and kept the peace, but all the information they gather fails to reflect the complexity of people’s lives and the difficulty of the choices they’re forced to make.

Combat
This, of course, conforms more to the idea of what I thought military sf was, but I was still impressed with what I found.

“All You Need” by Mike Sizemore is a bit vague about exactly what conflict is being fought and how the characters fit into that, but I enjoyed it for “the girl and the gun” – the depiction of the relationship between a girl (an assassin) and her sentient sniper rifle. The story has a kind of quiet, assured tone that sticks with me and makes me want to go back and read it again.

“One Million Lira” by Thoraiya Dyer also features a brilliant assassin – a Muslim woman who shoots people through the left breast partly because her culture made it difficult for her to look men in the eye, and partly because her mother – a famous actress – died of breast cancer. That alone is the kind of thing to pique my interest, but this story is also notable for how much worldbuilding, conflict (cultural, military, personal) and character is woven into a few words.

“Light and Shadow” by Linda Nagata is a bit heavy on the combat for me, but I do like the tech ideas she explores in this story. Soldiers wear skullcaps that enable monitoring and communication but also alter their mental states, suppressing difficult thoughts and emotions, keeping them calm and focused even when they’re tired and traumatised. Most soldiers find it easier to wear skullcaps all the time, but one woman puts it on only when she absolutely has to, despite the harrowing psychological effects of taking it off.

Armored Force
Like the Combat section, this is another aspect of military sf that I expected to see a lot of, but wasn’t particularly excited about. However, Yoon Ha Lee immediately blew me away with her contribution. Her surreal stories tend to be so bizarre that I often have to read them at least twice to make sense of them, but her weirdly beautiful imagery and incredible ideas are worth the effort. “Warhosts” is by far the most imaginative story in this collection. In a distant future, mankind has developed sentient nanotech that later took control over them (whether this happened planet-wide or only in a small region is unknown and unimportant). Now the nanotech fight their own small-scale wars – or perhaps just war games – using humans as armoured mechs. I don’t mean that the humans wear armour – the nanotech invades their bodies’ systems and forces them to grow terrible plating and protrusions. Their bodies are covered in sores that the tech use as entry and exit points. The humans are in constant pain, but kept alive and fit enough to fight each other. This military horror sf is told from the POV of a nanotech ‘scout’ whose job it is to understand the personalities and culture of the humans in order to improve their fighting abilities.

“Suits” by James L. Sutter is the story without a significant female character, but what’s interesting about it is that it’s told from the POV of a mech technician – a specially cloned midget who is never allowed off the army base and does little more than work on the mechs. He’s knows virtually nothing about the war he’s helping to fight until one traumatic day when his officer takes him out to work on a malfunctioning suit.

Like the Linda Nagata story in the Combat section, “Mission. Suit. Self.” by Jake Kerr shows soldiers who have come to use their military tech as a crutch. Mechs enable people with battered, stitched-together bodies to be brutally functional in the field, and most soldiers prefer to spend all their time in the suits rather use their own faltering bodies. The plot of this story wasn’t particularly memorable, but I liked the idea about the suits.

Aftermath
Naturally the pace slows here. The high-action conflict has been left behind and the protagonists are back home fighting mostly psychological battles that are sometimes harder than facing guns and bombs.

In “War Dog” by Michael Barretta, the genetically engineered weapons of war persist even though the war has ended. This is a huge problem in the case of a deadly, infectious fungus that causes zombie-like behaviour (reminds me of the game The Last of Us). There are also human-dog hybrids who don’t pose a danger but are supposed to be wiped out simply because society considers them abominations. You could compare them to veterans who struggle the most in normal society – no matter how hard they fought or how much they sacrificed, they are ostracised from the societies they protected. In this story, a retired officer tries to protect one of the ‘war dogs’, and begins an intimate relationship with her.

“Always the Stars and the Void Between” by Nerine Dorman takes place during a space war fought by the African Federation and it’s worth mentioning for that alone – the battles are in the background, but for once Africa isn’t portrayed as a continent of sad, dusty victims fighting desperately with inferior tech. Sadly, but not implausibly, South Africa’s class and racial politics have not evolved at all (and may even have regressed), as is painfully clear in the protagonist’s personal relationships and experiences when she returns from the war to her family’s struggling farm.

In “Enemy State”, Karin Lowachee tells a story from the POV of a man struggling to have a relationship with a soldier who can’t handle normal life and keeps going back to war. He describes their relationship like a war – putting up defences, trying to break through barriers, treating his heart like fort.

So, overall, an excellent, eye-opening read that goes far beyond what I expected of this genre. War Stories will be published on 7 October and costs $5, but is worth a lot more 🙂

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The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

The Mirror EmpireTitle: The Mirror Empire
Series: Worldbreaker Saga #1
Author: Kameron Hurley
Published: 04 September 2014
Publisher: Angry Robot
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: epic fantasy
Rating: 6/10

I normally start a review with my preferred kind of plot summary – one that covers all the major inciting events and most, if not all, of the key characters. But it just doesn’t work with The Mirror Empire. This book pushes the boundaries of what it means to be “epic”, and from the very beginning you’re in the middle of a strange world, surrounded by characters, bombarded with backstories, while caught up in complex current affairs and personal conflicts. I won’t lie – I found this book difficult to read and review, but here goes.

The Mirror Empire relates the beginning of a war brewing between parallel worlds. ‘Mirrored’ worlds. They have the same hourglass suns. They have the same stars, which give various powers to those gifted with magic (known as jistas). They have the same people, more or less. But each world has moulded those people in very different ways. In one the sky is amber, the Dhai race wage constant war, and the world is dying. In the other, the sky is lavender-blue and the Dhai are scholarly pacifists in their own land and slaves in another. On both worlds, the star Oma is rising, a cataclysmic event that has dire consequences for the politics of magic and leadership throughout the land. Those who are gifted In the blue-sky world where most of the story is set, different regions wrestle with each other, while seething with their own internal conflicts. A large cast of diverse characters drive the story, which is set across a variety of locations, each with its own culture.

And that’s just a very, very broad overview of the plot. Given how much hype this book has received, you’ll have no shortage of plot summaries available anyway, so I’m going to take advantage of that and delve into other discussions. There is a lot I really appreciated in this novel. It’s not only impressive in its scope, but in the way Kameron Hurley seems to have considered all the conventions and lazy assumptions of fantasy (epic or otherwise) and said “FUCK THAT”. She subverts everything, from the bottom up.

For example, the characters don’t ride horses. Horses don’t even seem to exist. They ride dogs or bears with forked tongues. The landscapes in Dhai are not forests and open grasslands, but treacherous jungles of semi-sentient, occasionally carnivorous trees and vines. The plant life is so savage that it has to be razed to build homesteads, and then kept at bay with fences, protective webbing or magic. Travelling through this woodland on foot or by bear/dog presents a unique peril. Weapons like swords are only sometimes made of metal – many warriors carry ‘infused’ swords made from plants that spring from a seed inside the wielder’s wrist, or wrap around the wrist, binding the wielder to the weapon. Even food is different. You get a kind of paradoxical vegetarian cannibalism – people who don’t eat any meat except human meat, although only in certain circumstances; humans are not kept like livestock. Food is also made from blood, insects and the strange plants, none of which is treated as exotic. There is one occasion when a character balks at the weird food, but it’s when he’s served the kinds of meat and fish dishes that are more familiar to us.

Then there are family structures. I don’t recall coming across any patriarchal, heterosexual nuclear families (ie. one man, one woman, and however many kids). In Dhai, families are large, polygamous units with a very egalitarian feel. In Dorinah on the other hand, families are matriarchal but deeply sexist. One of the POV characters, a general named Zezili, has a beautiful husband who is more like a concubine, sitting quietly at home while she goes off on military campaigns. With this kind of marital structure comes a different view of gender and the body, as you can see in the way Zezili describes her husband:

He wore a white girdle that pulled in his waist just above the hips. He was, of necessity, slender. She believed men should take up as little space as possible. He wore his black hair long over his shoulders, tied once with a white ribbon. Those men allowed to live were, of course, beautiful; far more beautiful than many of the women Zezili knew. Anavha was clean-shaven, as she wanted him, lightly powdered in gold, his eyes lined in kohl, eyes a stormy gray, set a bit too wide in a broad face whose jaw she had initially found almost vulgar in its squareness. He stood a hand shorter than she; she easily outweighed him by fifty pounds. She liked him just this way.

Zezili is very gruff and not especially likeable, but she and her husband – along with other characters – undermine several gendered stereotypes or norms – women as slender beauties, men as strong warriors (most of the warriors are female), men as leaders. In Dhai and Saiduan, there is also more than one gender – the Dhai recognise five different kinds (male/female assertive, male/female passive, and ungendered), each with their own pronoun, and the Saiduan have three physiological sexes. There’s even a character – an immortal warrior assassin – who periodically changes gender.

It makes sense then, that in these societies heterosexuality is not the norm. In fact characters don’t categorise their sexuality at all. People are simply attracted to other people, rather than specific genders. You could say that bisexuality is the norm, although the term doesn’t really apply when there’s no heterosexuality or homosexuality to define it against. No one is particularly possessive either – having multiple sexual partners seems as normal as having multiple friends, although it’s a bit different in unequal relationships like Zezili’s marriage (she can lend her husband out to her sisters, for example).

I like that there’s this balance of good, bad and grey-area characteristics to these societies. It’s not simply a utopia of sexual freedom and progressive family structures, but a different kind of society with its own problems and advantages. So it’s cool that you have female warriors like Zezili, but not that she has the power to own her husband like a sex toy. Then there’s the story arc of a character named Ahkio: he becomes Kai (the Dhai leader) when his sister dies, but he and others are uneasy about this, because the Kai has traditionally been a woman gifted with magical powers (of which Ahkio has none). It’s not that the Dhai discriminate against men, but rather that people tend to cling to tradition.

And some parts of the world are pretty racist. Both the Saiduan and the Dorinah keep slaves, and most of those slaves are Dhai. So some Dhai are comfortable, well-educated and enjoy the support of large family units, but quietly ignore the fact that their own people are slaves in other parts of the world. This becomes an important plot point later in the book, and the issues of slavery and and racism also make Zezili’s story one of the most interesting. Zezili is half-Dhai, half-Dorinah, and achieved a position of prestige in service of the Empress because her Dorinah mother accepted her, thus favouring the Dorinah half of her heritage.

She’s given a tediously gory and baffling task – to systematically slaughter all the Dhai in the slave camps, supposedly to quell some rebellion. Zezili is not one to question her Empress’s orders, but she finds the task depressingly easy and wonders why the Empress is crippling their society, which relies on the labour of the slaves to function. And, in the back of her mind, Zezili knows that once all the slaves are dead, half-breeds like her will be next.

I enjoyed specific aspects of the story like this, but now I need to get into what I found problematic, which is that, on the whole, this is an overwhelming sprawl of a novel. As I said, I found it to be a very difficult book in some ways, and several things contribute to that.

It’s a totally unfamiliar world. This is part of what makes it great, but it also means that, throughout the book, you’re concentrating on all the new details. It not just a few cool ideas, but entire landscapes, social structures, cultures, a magic system etc., all of which have bearing on the plot.

Then, while trying to picture the contemporary world, you’re also given the history behind it. There is an unbelievable amount of backstory that you need to understand before you can get a good grasp of the current story. I’ll be honest: I don’t think I got much more than a general idea of either. Because, as I’ve mentioned, the plot is a pretty complex one too, and it’s told using many (too many?) characters. It took me a while to get to know the cast, some of whom start getting POV chapters later in the novel, or disappear for several chapters so that you can’t quite remember who they are when they pop up again. If I had the time, I would have re-read the book and made twice as many notes before attempting this review. I will definitely have to re-read it before I even think of attempting the sequel.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t get particularly attached to any character, except perhaps Roh, a charming young parajista (he has magic abilities linked to the star ‘Para’), and Zezili (unlikeable, but in a way I like). Ahkio, the ungifted man unwilling pushed into in a leadership position usually given to gifted women, has one of the most potentially interesting story arcs, but I found him a bit bland, and got bogged down by all the politics and people involved in his chapters. The ‘main’ character Lilia, who we meet as a child in the first chapter, fulfils, in some ways, the standard trope of  the orphan with hidden Powers and a Destiny, but differs in other ways. She was handicapped as a child, when acid burned half her foot off, and she’s asthmatic. She’s hopeless at magic, but brilliant when it comes to strategy and puzzle-solving. You know, according to storytelling convention, that she’s eventually going to get stronger and more powerful, but she still has to deal with her disability, and her journey is characterised by terrible violence that strips her of that golden aura of nobility that typically surrounds this kind of character. These are the kinds of things that should make Lilia one of my favourite characters, but instead I found her tedious. I’d like to meet her in the next book, but in this one? Meh.

So, do I think The Mirror Empire is a good book? Yes, mostly. I cannot fail to admire Hurley’s ambition, and what’s she’s achieved as a result. Epic fantasy often looks to me like a somewhat stagnant genre, where too many of the books are so lacking in imagination that it’s more like vaguely historical fiction than fantasy. But you can’t say that of this novel; Hurley’s world is jsut so invigorating.

That said, this was too much of a sprawl for me. It’s so challenging, in a way that tends to more tiring than enjoyable. I took ages to finish. I don’t mind that it’s quite slow, building up to what will surely be massive, devastating events, but I do wish that it was more focused, more tightly written. It looks geared to be an influential book in the genre, so I’m glad to have read it, and I’m glad to have read an epic fantasy novel that takes a fresh approach to worldbuilding, social structures, sexuality, etc. But it’s not going to be one of my favourites.

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

Consider PhlebasTitle: Consider Phlebas
Author:
 
Iain M. Banks
Published:
 
1987
Publisher: 
my copy published by Orbit
Genre:
 
space opera
Source: 
own copy
Rating: 
6/10

The Culture and the Idirans have been at war for years. Billions have died and worlds have been destroyed. The Culture, a post-scarcity society of machines, humans and other races, is intrinsically opposed to warfare but has found itself with no choice but to engage. The Idirans on the other hand, are a race of huge three-legged warriors, who fight, colonise and enslave for religious reasons.

In the midst of the war, a Culture Mind – an incredibly intelligent and complex AI – escapes destruction and hides on Schar’s World, a Planet of the Dead. The Idirans – technologically inferior – want to claim the technology for themselves. The Culture wants to save the Mind and keep it out of Idiran hands. No one is allowed entry to a Planet of the Dead, but Bora Horza Gorbuchal, a Changer, used to live there with four other Changers who worked as stewards on the planet. Now, Horza is an Idiran agent, so they task him with going to Schar’s World and retrieving the Mind.

But it’s not that simple. Horza is left drifting in space following at attack on an Idiran ship, and is picked up by a band of mercenaries whose leader is searching for treasure. He needs to find a way to take over the ship and get to Schar’s World, but until then he has to stick with the mercs through their violent and dangerous campaigns. At the same time, two women from the Culture – a Special Circumstances agent and a brilliant problem-solver whose mind matches those of the machines – are trying to reclaim the Mind too.

 

Although I’ve loved Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels ever since I read The Player of Games in third year, it’s taken me a long time to read Consider Phlebas. I’ve had a copy on my shelf for years, but I could never never finish it. I tried 4 or 5 times, and never made it more than halfway before I lost interest or got tired. Only now, thanks to the stamina I developed from reading difficult review books, was I able to finish it. It was Banks’s first sci fi novel, and his second published novel after The Wasp Factory, and I think his relative inexperience shows. Consider Phlebas  is more dense and less elegant than the other books in the series. It suffers from very lengthy, often clunky infodumping, and neglects some of its best characters.

However, it does have a ton of dire action, violence, epic explosions, and more cool ideas than you can count. The plot is packed, and only about a third of it involves searching the Command Tunnels of Schar’s World for the Mind. The lecturer who introduced me to Banks said he had these really awesome ideas that most authors would write a whole book out of, but he’d just use them for a chapter or two and then move on. That seems especially true of Consider Phlebas. For example, I could imagine a novel based on the card game Damage, which is sort of like poker except that players can chemically alter the emotions of their opponents, and losing a hand means literally losing a life – one of two sacrificial volunteers or your own. Damage is ideally played in a location that’s about to be destroyed (which means staying in the game can be life-threatening as well) and the audience can also tap into the emotions of the players (and there are junkies addicted to this).

You could also write a novel based on Changers like Horza. They can’t transform instantly, but spend some time preparing the likeness of the person they want to imitate, including body language and voice. Changing back takes about a week too. They have incredible control over their own bodies (like the ability to cut off pain in an arm) as well as poisons under their nails and teeth for defensive purposes. Their ability to change brings up all sorts of identity issues that the novel mentions but doesn’t explore. Mind you, there’s so much going on I don’t think I could handle another major theme. Horza’s issues with the Culture already dominate the novel.

It’s unique in the series in that, not only does the protagonist come from outside the Culture, he hates it and fights against it. This means that the reader gets a very critical perspective of the Culture, although I’ve come across some of it in the other novels. The morality of Special Circumstances, for example, is an issue that’s come up often. Some of Horza’s other criticisms make sense, but most of them are deeply flawed simply because they come from deep-seated prejudice.

This makes him a mostly unlikeable but very interesting character. Horza doesn’t fight for the Idirans because he agrees with them, but because he hates the Culture. He actually recognises the barbarity of the Idirans. They’re a race of violent religious fanatics who go around the galaxy colonising other races or wiping them out.Horza himself doesn’t buy into this kind of religious belief or agree with the Idiran’s voracious colonisation, but he believes that they will eventually slow down and settle down, even if that only happens in hundreds or thousands of years (pity about the body count). He imagines that the Culture, on the other hand will just never stop expanding.

Which is a fair point. The Idirans would naturally be hated by the people they kill and colonise, but the Culture is just so nice. They could keep expanding partly because lots of races would want to join them, and they are so very hospitable. Extremely liberal, casually hedonistic, technologically advanced, with infinite resources. They don’t have money or a government because they don’t need either. Everyone is well-nourished and extensively educated. They make their own stunningly beautiful worlds for people to live on. No one needs to work because the machines take care of everything, so the inhabitants are “free to take care of the things that really mattered in life, such as sport, games, romance, studying dead languages, barbarian societies and impossible problems”. Honestly, if a drone appeared right now and offered me an immediate one-way ticket to the Culture, I would say yes. I want it like I wanted to walk through the back of my cupboard and go to Narnia.

Horza would scoff at this. He hates how impressed some people are by the Culture, but not only because he thinks it’ll eventually take over the universe. The other major reason he dislikes the Culture is their machines. The ships and habitats are run by unfathomably intelligent and powerful Minds, and intelligent drones also form a major part of the society. In the Culture, the AIs are considered people. Destroying one is considered murder. And they do have emotions and personalities. One of my favourite passages in the book describes a drone’s feelings about a woman it works with:

Jase, which deep down was a hopeless romantic, thought her laughter sounded like the tinkling of mountain streams, and always recorded her laughs for itself, even when they were snorts or guffaws, even when she was being rude and it was a dirty laugh. Jase knew a machine, even a sentient one, could not die of shame, but it also knew that it would do just that if Fal ever guessed any of this.

Horza, however, believes that the machines will eventually consider the humans in the Culture to be “wasteful and inefficient”. He is suspicious of their plans (which no one could fathom because they’re so intelligent). He does not consider machines to be people no matter how intelligent they are, believing they “ought to stay in their place”. `That quote really highlights Horza’s problem. He’s the kind of bigot who thinks society will crumble because slavery’s been abolished or women have been given the right to vote. And, as with any bigot, the faults in his reasoning are easy to see.

Throughout the novel, Horza encounters things that expose the absurdity of his beliefs about the Culture or his support of the Idirans. He meets religious fanatics who range from simply annoying to extremely cruel and dangerous. He meets an Idiran who loathes him along with all other humans and doesn’t buy the idea that he’s an Idiran ally. In the meantime, Horza has a relationship with a woman named Yalson, who looks human but has a light covering of fur over her dark skin. An interspecies relationship like this would be easily accepted in the Culture, but no doubt considered disgusting by the Idirans. He is often saved or assisted by Culture technology. He cannot help but admire the beauty, power and efficiency of things made by Culture. The entire plot is based on the Idirans’ attempt to retrieve a Culture Mind, the kind of technology they are nowhere near creating. Things get particularly interesting when Horza has both a Culture agent and an Idiran officer as his prisoners. Admittedly, Banks was being a bit heavy-handed here, but that’s in comparison to his later works. It’s still more sophisticated that other action-heavy novels.

So, overall, I liked Consider Phlebas for its amazing ideas and the fantastic characters that I know I can always find in a Banks novel. That said, it’s the only Culture novel that I’m not interested in re-reading. The worldbuilding information can be picked up from the other novels or you can go and read the many articles written about it. All the action didn’t make up for the fact that it’s overly long and dense. But I’m glad I finally read it.

Review of Germline by T.C. McCarthy

Title: Germline
Author: T.C. McCarthy
Series: The Subterrene War #1
Published: 
26 July 2011
Publisher: 
Orbit
Genre:
 science fiction, military sf
Source: own copy
Rating: 5/10

“I’ll never forget the smell: human waste, the dead, and rubbing alcohol – the smell of a Pulitzer.”

That’s what journalist Oscar Wendall thinks as he makes his way to the front line of the Subterrene War. It’s the 22nd century and the USA is once again fighting her old favourite enemy, Russia, in a bloody war over the mineral resources buried in the mountains of Kazakhstan (simply referred to as Kaz). Oscar is the first member of the press allowed on the front line (currently underground), but he doesn’t find a story so much as a new life, fighting alongside the soldiers amidst plasma bombs that will cook you alive and flechette bullets that rip you to shreds.

In fact, Oscar is a dreadful journalist but a decent soldier. It’s not long before he gets fired by his paper, but he finds ways of getting back into his armour and out onto the battlefield. He falls in love with one of the “genetics” – beautiful teenage girls genetically engineered to be the USA’s supersoldiers. They’re clones, indoctrinated all their lives with a religion that teaches them to live for war and hope for a glorious death in battle. They’re often on Oscar’s mind and he finds his way from one battlefield, trying to deal with all the horrors of war.

Germline is known as a non-stop, action-packed novel about the brutality of war. This is true. I couldn’t keep track of the number of battle scenes, each of them full of explosions and death. The novel hurtles along from one action scene to the next and apparently doesn’t have much time for things like character development or world building.

The result is that a lot of events or emotions feel tacked on. It’s not that these things are necessarily implausible, but the build-up to them is rushed and insubstantial. The author tells you things that you don’t quite feel. For example, we’re told that fighting underground causes soldiers to be fearful of the surface. In the tunnels, danger comes from only one direction, but topside it can come from multiple directions, with the sky being the most threatening. This makes perfect sense, but it doesn’t feel right for Oscar to develop this fear within the very first chapter. The novel doesn’t give us a chance to really understand the experience of being in the tunnels and the effect it has on people. We just get a quick run-through, and suddenly Oscar is speaking like a war vet.

There are other examples. Oscar makes a few friends among the soldiers and when some of them die he goes on and on about how deeply this affects him. It sounds insincere when these friendships don’t have much time on the page and Oscar doesn’t even bother to learn the soldiers’ real names, going only by their nicknames. When Oscar falls in love with a genetic named Bridgette, he does so in a matter of hours, claiming that it “was easy to fall in love because neither of us was likely to live long anyway” (p.66).

The world building is equally feeble. We’re told almost nothing about the war beyond the simple fact that Russia and the USA (along with some allies) are fighting over mineral resources in Kazakhstan. But how did the war start? What are the metals they’re mining used for? How the hell can the Americans lay claim to mineral resources in Kazakhstan? (my boyfriend answered that last one by pointing out that they’re basically doing the same thing in the Middle East. Fair point). What kind of social changes allowed the USA to regress to the extent that genetics have replaced female soldiers with the idea that there will be more women to give birth to more soldiers? What do US citizens and the rest of the world think of the war? Is McCarthy saving the details for the second and third books in the series?

As a journalist Oscar is the ideal character to give the reader this information, but he’s so bad at his job that he just doesn’t seem interested in any of it; he just wants to be in the warzones with a gun in his hand. I can’t understand how even a barely competent editor could have given him this assignment. Besides being an awful reporter, he’s got a long history of substance abuse. He actually picks up a new drug addiction in the first chapter, and seems to be addicted to being in the war as well. That’s the only good explanation I can think of for why he insists on staying. Oscar himself is rather evasive on the topic. For all his interior monologues on the war, his character is a bit flat. We don’t learn much about anyone else either – a disappointment for me, because I really wanted to know more about the genetics, the most interesting feature of the novel. I wanted to know more about their weird religion (a kind of modified Christianity), the prayers they say before battles, and the fact that they are shot when they turn 18, because their minds become unstable and their bodies begin to rot. Oscar’s obsession with the genetics seems to end at wanting to be close to one of them; he doesn’t ask them many questions when he is.

So let’s face it – the focus of this novel is combat. It’s about the weapons, the armour, the explosions, the gunfire, the corpses. It’s a barrage of bullets, grenades, plasma bombs, blood, gore, faeces, and mangled bodies. We follow Oscar from one battleground to another, with him pontificating about the war in between. He talks about his armour, mostly about how disgusting it is when it comes to waste disposal (or lack thereof). He goes on about either wanting to fight or wanting to get out. He talks about the friends he’s lost. And then a bomb explodes and he’s running for his life.

Despite all the graphic violence, Germline has this odd PG-13 feel to it because anything sexual is glossed over. When Oscar puts on his armour for the first time and hooks up the tubes used for his waste disposal, he refers to his penis as “your you-know-what” (3). Later, there are a few sex scenes, but they’re all just start with a bit of kissing and then fade out with “when we were done” or whatever. It’s like either the author or the publishers are trying to keep this clean enough to market to a teenage audience, and violence, insanely, has always been deemed more acceptable than sex. However, it seems so ridiculous that a man like Oscar is uncomfortable referring bluntly to his own genitals or that he’d go into detail about everything that happens to him but not the sex that he apparently finds so fulfilling. A pity; I think the sex scenes could have done a lot to give a little emotional depth to this novel.

In many ways, this Germline reminds me of The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974) – the constant fighting, the pace, the lack of character development, and a sense that the war is being fought for its own sake, rather than for the reasons stated. But even though I often didn’t understand the science of The Forever War and I found the characters forgettable, it still made an impact on me. You really felt the brutality of the war, and the unbelievable waste of life. It was a short book, but a forceful one.

Germline is longer but has less of an impact. It didn’t live up to the hype, and I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it. With its lack of emotional engagement or details about its world, it was often boring. All those action scenes just didn’t do it for me, especially since I didn’t really care what happened to Oscar.

Strangely enough though, I’m actually looking forward to reading the sequel, Exogene. Exogene’s protagonist is a genetic, and shows the war from their perspective. I wanted to whack Oscar over the head for not asking more questions about them, but book 2 will give me a chance to get that story while Oscar won’t be there to get in the way.

Buy Germline (The Subterrene War #1) at The Book Depository

Review of The Pillars of Hercules by David Constantine

Title: The Pillars of Hercules
Author: 
David J. Williams writing as David Constantine
Published: 
06 March 2012
Publisher:
 
Night Shade Books
Genre:
 mythology, historical, steampunk, alternate history
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 3/10

Alexander of Macedonia has just taken over Egypt, a province of the powerful Athenian Empire. His conquest marks the beginning of his campaign to crush the Empire as a whole. He believes himself to be a god, the son of Zeus, and it seems like nothing will stand in his way. Everyone speaks of the sorcery that Alexander has at his command – Greek fire, deadly war machines designed by his former tutor, Aristotle, as well as the seemingly god-like ability to control the weather. And Alexander isn’t just planning to conquer the Athenian Empire. Beyond the Pillars of Hercules – the gateway to the outer ocean – lies the lost city of Atlantis and powerful artefacts of the ancients. If Alexander can get control of such secrets, he won’t stop at conquering the Athenian Empire – he’ll aim for world domination.

Helping the ambitious prince is his ever-loyal lieutenant Eumenes, and experienced generals like Perdiccas. Many are trying to stop him or take the treasures of Atlantis for themselves. Alexander’s cold-hearted father, Philip, has sent his bastard son Ptolemy to thwart the legitimate son who wants to rule the Macedonian Empire. Barsine, a Persian noblewoman, holds a deep grudge against Alexander for conquering her homeland, and possesses the means to undermine his goals. She recruits a pair of soldiers to help her – a Gaul named Lugorix who wields an axe he calls Skullseeker, and a Greek archer named Matthias. The Athenian commander Leonidas is determined to save his Empire from slaughter as he pits his forces against Alexander’s.

These intertwined narratives clash in battles of blood and flame, with swords, axes and battleships going up against automatons, gunpowder and siege engines. Myth and magic are intertwined with science, in a novel that combines steampunk, alternate history, mythology and the ancient world.

It’s a pretty weird genre mash-up, but it sounded like an interesting idea. Unfortunately it failed. Miserably.

I don’t know what to start with, so I’ll start at the beginning, when I had hope. I generally liked the characters, of which there are many. Too many, I eventually realised. The story is made up of multiple strands, and the author, David J. Williams writing as David Constantine, frequently adds or removes POVs from the narrative, even towards the end (it’s really irritating). Not all the characters are likeable and some – like Alexander – could have been fleshed out more, but the narrators were interesting enough. Although I could handle the large cast of characters however, I was struggling to get a grasp on the politics and military strategy, simply because I have no head for that stuff and my mind tends to wander. To make things easier, I clicked over to the Wikipedia entry on Alexander the Great in order to get a better idea of what was going on. Instead I found that Constantine had little interest in historical accuracy and an article on Alexander wasn’t going to help much, except to confirm that some of the major character really did exist.

According to his website for the novel, Constantine’s intention was, in part, to explore the question of what might have happened had Alexander gone west, rather than east. In Pillars of the Earth, Alexander doesn’t die in Babylon as the history books tell us, but conquered it and continued east to Afghanistan. It’s there that he receives an order from his father to come home, so he turns around and returns to Pella, Macedonia, attacking Egypt on the way. This brings me to another major historical difference – at this point in Alexander’s life, his father had been dead for over a decade, and he was already King of Macedonia. Here, however, his father is alive and the two are caught in a power struggle for the throne. Philip is king, but Alexander’s army is more powerful, and their relationship has always been tense at best.

Alexander’s mother Olympias is long dead, although in reality she outlived both her husband and son. I was a bit miffed about her absence. Other than Alexander, she was the one character I wanted to see – the woman who claimed she’d been impregnated by Zeus and given birth to a god. I would have loved to see her interactions with Alexander, convincing him of his divinity. Instead, Constantine killed her off in favour of a more mundane father-son conflict.

Technically, all this puts the novel in the alternate history genre. However, it feels a lot more like the author is just exploiting an historical narrative to write an action adventure novel, without much respect for his source material. Constantine would hardly be the first to do this, and I can’t say I haven’t enjoyed wildly inaccurate books or movies simply because I thought they were fun. But in this case the author goes way too far and it really pissed me off.

My biggest issue was the language. Alternate history is fine. Steampunk in the ancient world sounds cool. But your characters cannot bloody speak in modern slang saying things like “awesome”, “what gives” and “dig this”, or high-five each other after blowing up enemy ships. The dialogue also has a very brash American quality to it, which makes it even worse. At one point, Barsine says “Suck on this” before firing a torpedo. The Macedonians are referred to as “Macks”. Matthias crudely says “Fuck you very much” to a man he doesn’t like. There is also mention of the terms “turkey shoot” and “human pretzel”. Pretzels?! Really? They didn’t even exist then! I’m fairly sure turkey shoots didn’t either.

I already hated Constantine’s writing because of this, but my opinion of it was further lowered by the fact that the book was riddled with errors. I usually don’t mention this when it comes to ARCs, because they still have to go through a final proof. In this case however, there were way, way more errors and inconsistencies than I’ve ever seen in an ARC and I just couldn’t see Constantine as anything other than a sloppy writer.

Then there’s the steampunk aspect, which also contributes to the historical authenticity issue. The idea in itself is fine, but there’s lot of tech that seriously pushes the boundaries of plausibility, usually for the sake of big explosions. Barsine, the Persian noblewoman, has a ship that can travel at high speed, fire torpedoes, and be converted into a submarine. Alexander has a hoard of war-machines designed by Aristotle. In this novel, Aristotle isn’t portrayed so much as a philosopher as a sorcerer/scientist. Magic and science are intertwined, in the sense that those who don’t understand things like periscopes or bombs call them magic, while those who know how they work call it science. Aristotle’s designs include a giant siege engine, automatons, and something called a Leviathan – a huge, mechanically controlled human figure. The siege engine and Leviathans were ok, but I couldn’t imagine how they’d program robots or have missiles and torpedoes. Constantine just pushes his premise way too far with little explanation for how these things are possible, to the extent that it feels like you’re reading about modern warfare.

The author’s final major crime is relying far too heavily on artificial mystery. The characters in the know keep their plans from others and the reader, so that you’re never sure exactly what’s going on until a plan is executed, and even then you might not know why. Sometimes, they don’t even keep significant information from you. A character might just see something worrying (like a bunch of soldiers coming at them), but they still won’t say what it is until later. To facilitate this, Constantine switches the POV every few pages, as if to create a diversion. So at the moment when it something momentous could be revealed, the POV switches so we can’t find out what it is. Constantine keeps this up right until the climax of the novel, when he starts switching POVs every few paragraphs.

As far as maintaining the mystery is concerned, this tactic works. But mystery should be tense and exciting whereas this is just extremely irritating and confusing, especially when almost every character is one step ahead of you. It also makes it devilishly hard to keep up with the complex plot and the large cast of characters. By the end I was so tired of it all I couldn’t give a fuck about the big secrets at the end of the Earth. I just wanted the damn book to end. My rating dropped from 5 to 3 because every sentence was setting my teeth on edge.

This story might have worked as a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster. It wouldn’t take up more than 2 or 3 hours of your time and there’d be sexy people and mind-blowing CGI to keep your attention off all the ghastly flaws. Instead, you have to spend a good few hours making the effort to read it, and it’s painfully obvious how much this doesn’t quite feel like the ancient world. If you really don’t care about any of this as long as someone’s getting an axe in the face every couple of pages, then there’s plenty for you to enjoy. If not, it will probably make you want to scream.

Review of Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt

Title: Ragnarok
Author: A.S. Byatt
Series: Canongate Myths
Published: First published 6 September 2011 by Canongate. This edition published 1 February
Publisher: Grove Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic
Genre: mythology
My Rating: 9/10

Ragnarok is not quite the story that the blurb of my edition implies – a modern retelling of a Norse myth featuring a child living in the English countryside during World War Two. Rather, it is a semi-autobiographical tale of a young child reading and re-reading Asgard and the Gods, endlessly fascinated by its stories. The child – known only as “the thin child” – is not the focus of this book, but rather a means for Byatt to write for her “childhood self, and the way I had found the myths and thought about the world when I first read Asgard and the Gods”. In this manner, Byatt not only relates a set of rich, mysterious and beautiful mythical stories, but leads the reader through the musings about reading, storytelling, mythology and religion that occupy her philosophical young protagonist.

The thin child is a classic book lover and fantasy fan:

She devoured stories with rapacious greed, ranks of black marks on white, sorting themselves into mountains, and trees, stars, moons and suns, dragons, dwarfs, and forests containing wolves, foxes and the dark.

She frequently reads late at night, under the covers with a torch, or in the sliver of light from her bedroom doorway. When we dive into the pages of Asgard and the Gods with her, we aren’t given the text of the book itself, but a rewritten version that recreates for us the same sense of awe that the thin child experiences. The feel of Ragnarok is partly a product of the Norse myths themselves, but mostly an effect of Byatt’s writing – it’s lush and vivid, bringing to life a bizarre world in which humans play no real part (they’re created after dwarves and elves and then promptly ignored). She also chooses to hold true to the style in which the myths were told. Most of the other authors who wrote for the Canongate Myths series chose “to assimilate the myths into the form of novels, or modern stories, retell the tales as though the people had personalities and psychologies”. Byatt however, writes something more akin to what she calls “raw myth”:

Gods, demons and other actors in myths do not have personalities or characters in the way people in novels do. They do not have psychology […]. They have attributes – Hera and Frigg are essentially jealous, Thor is violent, Mars is warlike, Baldur is beautiful and gentle, Diana of Ephesus is fertile and virginal.

At the beginning we’re told of Yggdrasil, the World Ash and Rándrasil, the Sea-Tree. The thin child ponders the question of how something came from nothing, leading us to the Norse creation myth, wherein a giant is born from chaos and is later slain by the first gods, who dismember his body and use it to create the heavens and the earth. Later we learn about Asgard, home of the gods, and encounter the divinities themselves. There’s Odin, the sinister, damaged god who lost an eye drinking magical knowledge from a fountain. The thin child’s favourite character is Loki, “a being who was neither this nor that”, a trickster who alone among the gods possessed the ability to change his shape and even his sex. She admires his humour and wit, and finds his changeable shapes and cleverness attractive.

Byatt relates the stories that eventually lead up to Ragnarök, which “means the darkening of the Regin, i.e. of the gods, hence the Twilight of the Gods; some however explain the word Rök to mean Judgement, i.e. of the gods’”. The thin child likes Ragnarök because it a real, bloody ending not a cyclical one, and unlike the Christian stories, it’s not humans who are judged but the gods themselves. They are flawed and stupid in a disturbingly familiar human way – they “know Ragnarök is coming but are incapable of imagining any way to fend it off, or change the story. They know how to die gallantly but not how to make a better world”.

In reading Asgard and the Gods, the thin child contemplates the tropes of storytelling – the way prohibitions are there to be broken (like one God gave to Adam and Eve), the recurrence of the number three, the way the youngest of three children is always the most important, and how in every story something must go wrong and not even the gods are powerful enough to stop it. She notes how myth differs from the fairytales, and how “[t]hey cannot be explained and do not explain” but haunt her nevertheless “coiled like smoke in her skull, humming like dark bees in a hive”.

The thin child’s fascination with myth means that it becomes intertwined with the way she thinks about her own life. Her father – who’s been away at war for years – is portrayed as a mythical figure, fighting battles in the air in places that, for the thin child, exist only in books. She remembers him as having “red-gold hair and clear blue eyes, like a god”. At church, she can’t help but compare the Norse myths to the Christian stories, and comes to the realisation that Christianity too, is a set of man-made myths, only far less interesting than the Norse ones. Consequently, she can’t believe in either, even if she can take pleasure in their stories. A particularly interesting illustration in Asgard and the Gods, when seen in relation to the landscape of her home, gives her an idea of how myths are created:

The picture gave the child an intense, uncanny pleasure. She knew, but could not have said, that it was the precise degree of formlessness in the nevertheless scrupulously depicted rocks that was so satisfactory. The reading eye must do the work to make them live, and so it did, again and again, never the same life twice, as the artist had intended. She had noticed that a bush, or a log, seen from a distance on her meadow-walk, could briefly be a crouching, snarling dog, or a trailing branch could be a snake, complete with shining eyes and flickering forked tongue. This way of looking was where the gods and giants came from.

In a shadow of the way Byatt loved Asgard and the Gods, her Ragnarok also gave me “an intense, uncanny pleasure”. She very beautifully achieves her aim of recreating a sense of the profound reading experience from her childhood. Ragnarok is an exquisite book that I feel I could re-read multiple times, savouring the details and letting myself be as enchanted as Byatt was. The eARC I received for this review will not be sufficient – this is a book I need to have in hardcover to grace my shelf for years.

Buy a copy of Ragnarok at The Book Depository

Review of Prador Moon by Neal Asher

Title: Prador Moon by Neal Asher
Author: Neal Asher
Series: Polity #1
Published: first published 26 May 2006 by Night Shade Books. My edition published 17 October 2008
Publisher: Tor, an imprint of Pan MacMillan
Genre:  space opera
Source: review copy from Pan MacMillan South Africa
My Rating: 6/10

Chronologically, Prador Moon is the first in Neal Asher’s collection of novels about a post-human space-faring society known as the Polity. It’s the 7th of a series of books set in this universe though, so it functions as a prequel. For me however, it served as an introduction to Asher’s work, so I basically read it as a stand-alone.

The Polity is mostly composed of humans but is ruled by AIs. Although it’s a space-faring society, they’ve only ever encountered two alien species. One is already extinct. The other, known as the Prador, is alive but evasive. The Polity has gathered a few scraps of info about the aliens, but no one has ever seen one of them. That’s about to change however, as the novel opens with the first meeting between the Polity and the Prador.

It does not go well. The Prador are revealed to be giant crabs, and their first and only words in this scene are, “I am Vortex, first-child of Captain Immanence. […] You humans will surrender this station to us” (7). Each of the Prador whips out as many guns as they can hold in their multiple claws, and so the war begins.

The crabs would like to enslave humanity to use them as part of an organic hardware system that controls their ships’ critical systems. Plus human flesh turns out to be pretty tasty, and the Polity has some rather nice habitats and technology too. The Prador are a naturally aggressive species with highly sophisticated weaponry, and since the Polity hasn’t had to deal with a conflict like this for a long time, humans and AIs scramble to switch to military mode. Epic bloodshed and destruction ensue, with loads of guns, bombs and spaceship battles.

Prador Moon is certainly the kind of novel that deserves to be called a “no holds barred action-packed thrill ride”, but – not surprsingly – it lacks depth. I mean, look at the aliens – a hoard of giant, cannibalistic, man-eating crabs who want to enslave humanity. They have a viciously hierarchical society where progression through the ranks is typically achieved by killing (and then probably eating) your superior. The most powerful crabs have hoardes of children who are hormonally bound to obey their fathers’ every word. Most of these children are kept in stasis until cannon fodder is needed. Human prisoners on the Prador battleship are recklessly used in experiments that inevitably lead to gruesome deaths. Seriously, everything about the Prador just screams EVIL. This absurdity is actually openly acknowledged in the book as “the kind of scenario that would have been laughed out of the door by a modern holofiction producer” (9), implying that the story has a kind of necessarily pulpy realism. Admittedly, I was happy to just go with that because I found the Prador pretty entertaining in a scandalous way.

The human and AI characters aren’t all that sophisticated either, but they’re less interesting. Jebel Krong (whose name always makes me think ‘jezebel’), is a super-soldier who quickly becomes famous for his skills in killing Prador. He would sacrifice himself to stop the Prador, partly because they’re evil, but mostly because they killed his woman (she was preparing a romantic dinner for two when the crabs attacked). It’s kind of funny. I actually like the few AI characters, but you don’t learn much about them.

What the novel lacks in depth it tries to make up for in technical complexity – how that machine works, what this AI’s capabilities are, and so on. Some of this is very cool. Humans can get cybernetic enhancements that give them a few AI-style abilities. The Prador have these awesome ships that absorb the energy of anything you fire at them and use it to for their own massively powerful weapons or to repair damages. It makes them fantastically hard to defeat. The only ship that can really take them on is an old but advanced AI ship called the Occam Razor whose mind is fused with a human captain.

Unfortunately, most of the tech stuff was boring and too confusing for me, and there’s quite a lot of it. One of the protagonists – Moria Salem – receives a particularly advanced enhancement that allows her to process extremely complex calculations. Thanks to this, she and super-soldier Jebel represent the Polity’s best hopes of defeating the Prador, but I for one did not know what the hell she was doing. Fans of hard sf would probably love it. I could not.

However, since the novel manages to be an entertaining read without a sophisticated plot or characters, I didn’t really need to understand the details of the tech in the same way that I don’t need to know how guns work to enjoy an action movie. I just got through it by translating long paragraphs of explanation to something suitably dumbed down like “Moria does something really complicated with the fancy technology”.

Unfortunately, this came back to bite me in the ass at the end, when I didn’t have a clue what the big plan for the final showdown was. I re-read the ending and got a vague impression of an epic strike outrageous enough to suit the rest of the book. On the whole though, I had fun with Prador Moon, even though it does take itself a little too seriously. I’ve also heard from one or two reviewers that it’s not the best of the Polity novels, and either way I wouldn’t mind reading a few more if they are in fact characterised by “over-the-top violence and explosive action” as the blurb of this book suggests. On my list of review copies is Gridlinked (2001), the first Polity novel to be published, as well as the first in the popular Agent Cormac series. We’ll see how that goes.