Book Review: Fool’s War by Sarah Zettel

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Fool's WarFool’s War by Sarah Zettel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read for the Women of Genre Fiction Challenge and the Space Opera Challenge.

The book has received a lot of mixed reviews. I think the big reason why is that no matter what you’re expecting, this book is not what you expect. Is it space opera? Well; yes; sort of. Is it cyberpunk? Yeah; that too. Is it a story about the Singularity? Yes; but not entirely. Is it a story about First Contact? That too.

What’s the plot? I think the second paragraph of the back of the book summary is probably the best description I could come up with: “Katmer Al Shei, owner of the starship Pasadena, does not know she is carrying a living entity in her ship’s computer systems. Or that the electronic network her family helped weave holds a new race fighting for survival. Or that her ship’s professional Fool is trying to avert a battle that could destroy entire worlds. And when Al Shei learns the truth, all she’ll really know is that it’s time to take sides.”

What’s a professional Fool? Well, in Firefly they have Companions to keep the space travelers sane; in this world they have professional Fools, allowed to go where they want and keep people laughing.

And if I tell you any more than that, I will totally spoil the book for you, because plot and counter-plot and plot twist are the name of the game.

It does take a little while to get going. A lot of time is spent at the beginning of the book fretting and worrying about what the other owner of the ship, Al Shei’s no-good brother-in-law, might have done with the Pasadena while it was in his possession (they time-share) and with not much apparently happening. I see that people have gotten impatient with that. Relax; it picks up quickly. All of that is necessary setup. I think that people may have just gotten lazy about reading setup in recent years because we’re all used to reading James Patterson novels and Twitter feeds. Stick with it, and you’ll find a whole world of wonder opening up to you.

There’s so much to like about this book! One of the first things? There are two protagonists. Both are women. The plot would not change much if they weren’t. One of these women is a devout Muslim, who blows all the Western stereotypes about Muslim women into the void. This novel doesn’t have any issues in passing the Bechdel Test.

Another thing to like is that Al Shei (the Muslim protagonist) is happily married, shows no interest in the male members of her crew, and is a mother, but still travels around the galaxy because that’s the nature of her job. The writer, Sarah Zettel, pulls off a very difficult task; she manages to make Al Shei’s husband Asil into a significant character whose fate you care about, even though he does not appear in the book more than a handful of times. Also, Zettel succeeds admirably at the John W. Campbell challenge.

Aside from that, it’s just really good writing. And good all-around space opera. And hard science fiction, proving that space opera doesn’t have to be disguised fantasy.

I see that someone else who reviewed this book was saying that they didn’t like it because they were comparing it to Ancillary Justice, and that wasn’t fair because “that book was the Exception That Proves the Rule.” I assure that reviewer that without Fool’s War, which was written in the 1990s, there would not have been an Ancillary Justice. I see why Fool’s War is considered such an influential book in science fiction, and as I have many times before, I find myself wondering why it has not won more awards, nor garnered more attention than it has.

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Book Review: Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

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Starship TroopersStarship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read for the Space Opera 2016 Reading Challenge and the 12 Awards in 12 Months Reading Challenge.

This is one of Heinlein’s most controversial novels. Along with Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, this is the novel that invented the space marine and military science fiction. If you look around you can see its influence in so many works of sci-fi that it’s become a trope: Halo, Warhammer 40000, Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, even Mechwarrior. Master Chief and the Spartans wear Heinlein’s Mobile Infantry suits.

The first thing I will tell you is this: do you remember the big-budget film made a few years back with Denise Richards playing Carmen Ibanez? Yeah, well; don’t waste your time. The director admitted to having only read the first couple of pages and it shows. If you’re going to claim that a movie is an adaptation of a famous novel, then tell the story the novel tells, dammit! Don’t slap a famous name on it, borrow a couple of character names, and then claim you’ve made an adaptation. How people get away with this without lawsuits I will never know. It was such a far cry from the actual novel that I don’t know why they bothered to connect it at all. Grrrrrr!

Okay, now that I have gotten that out of my system: Starship Troopers is controversial because it has a reputation as being an ode to fascism. Having re-read it now for the first time since I was a pre-teen, I think that this reputation must be due to one of two things: either people do not understand the novel, or people do not understand what fascism is. I am willing to concede the latter after overhearing some man confirm his wife’s belief, when they were passing through the biography section in the bookstore where I work, that Stalin was “Hitler’s right hand man.” A similar confusion has occurred here: if anything, the philosophy outlined by the characters in Starship Troopers is an extreme of communism, which, of course, is fascism’s polar opposite.

I can see how someone who didn’t read it thoughtfully might have gotten this idea. In the society of Starship Troopers, only citizens have the right to vote, and the only way to become a citizen is to offer two years of service (more if required) to the state. This service is up to the state’s discretion, with some weight given to a person’s preferences. And it doesn’t necessarily mean military service; you might be a bureaucrat in an office. But Juan Rico (whose native tongue is Tagalog; how director Paul Verhoeven and scriptwriter Edward Neumeier got their Aryan Nation Nazi fantasy out of a cast of Filipino and Hispanic characters I will never know) is assigned to the Mobile Infantry; space marines.

The Mobile Infantry is a brutal place, where occasionally bones are broken and people are even killed as a normal part of basic training. However, you can leave at any time, and the only penalty for leaving is that you aren’t allowed to come back and you won’t ever be given the right to vote. In one passage, one of the instructors informs Rico that this is so that only those who really give a damn about duty to others before themselves will actually make it through, and so that only those who are willing to defend that at any cost make it. It sounds like a “the few, the proud” speech, so I suppose you could take that as fascism if you weren’t paying attention. Except that it’s really the extreme of socialism; though of course, in the spirit of the time, it denounces Communism as being more suited to the evolution of the insectoid species the human characters are fighting against.

You see, fascism is all about a “superior” elite distinguishing themselves from common people and thus, proving their “right to rule” over everyone else, applying Darwin’s theories to social behaviour. Socialism is about believing that the group is more important than any one individual; which, in its extremes (such as Communist Russia) can be brutal, compassionless and dehumanizing. In this case, the welfare of the group must be more important to a person than their own life or limb, and this is the qualifier for the right to vote. I’m not sure this is a bad idea. Wouldn’t it be great if only those who have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are not interested in selfish motives could have a voice in politics? Of course I can’t think of any real-life way to establish this without creating the very “elitist” class that it would be intended to avoid, but this is a novel, and who is to say that the society of the future looks anything like the society we have now?

Another passage which might support the fascism theory is in support of spanking a child and of corporal punishment, which are accepted parts of this future society. This is not a popular idea in our time, but do remember that this book was written in 1959. Keeping that in mind, the fact that Heinlein includes female pilots and ship’s crews in his future military is impressive, based in the idea that, on average, women have faster reflexes and reaction times and, on average, men are physically stronger. There are always exceptions of course, and Heinlein’s military allows for them, but Carmenica (not even just Carmen, for crying out loud!) Ibanez becomes a pilot and not a trooper. Since women were denied the right to join the Apollo missions a decade later, this is downright revolutionarily feminist in 1959. And Heinlein’s women are no less brave and heroic than their male counterparts. The pilot of Rico’s ship flies directly into an overwhelmed fire zone to do a pickup, and then makes an impossible landing, giving Rico hell for risking all their lives by delaying the pickup all the while.

Now that I’m done arguing against the critics, I’ll address the book itself. Heinlein starts in media res and the rest of the book is excellently paced between philosophy and action. You never find out who won the war, or whether or not Rico even lived through the experience, but that’s not what the story is about. It’s about a boy growing up by finding himself in the military and creating an identity for himself as a soldier. It’s an old story; one not currently popular, but one that’s nonetheless true for many people and has been for centuries.

It’s worth contrasting Paul Mandela’s experience in The Forever War with Juan Rico’s experience. Both books have a lot of valuable things to say about war. In The Forever War, Mandela is drafted into a war he doesn’t understand or believe in, and he finds the space marines to be an alienating, dehumanizing experience of horror and misery. In Starship Troopers, Rico volunteers during peacetime, before the war begins, and he finds himself and his personal identity as a soldier, putting his life on the line for the sake of others, and it fits him well. If you’ve known any soldiers, you know that one of the ways they see themselves is as sheepdogs, who protect the flock from the wolves. It may well have been Heinlein who gave us this reference. Starship Troopers was once on the U.S. Marines’ recommended reading list, only recently replaced by Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.

And speaking of Ender’s Game: the alien Bugs that Heinlein’s troopers are fighting are incomprehensible to human beings, and were probably Bugs in order to make them incomprehensible, because the plot isn’t really about them. Humanity and the Bugs are competing for the same ecological niche; and in Heinlein’s novel, this competition is what creates the conditions for war in the first place; population pressure. It’s suggested that the technology might be available to just outright destroy the Bug planets, but they don’t do that because “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” The idea is to force the other side to do what they want; destroying them isn’t going to do that. More than a little, Ender’s Game was an answer to Starship Troopers, in which Card suggests that humanity, if it possesses the technology to commit genocide, will do so; and that this is wrong because all life is precious, even those of Bugs. And that, too, is something important to be said about war.

A lot to think about in a little 208 page novel! But I suppose that’s why it won the 1960 Hugo award and is considered one of the defining books of science fiction. I chewed through it quickly and would have done it even faster if I hadn’t been spending those four days mostly driving. I’m sure I’ll read it again, maybe with a completely different viewpoint. But in any case, it’s certainly food for thought, and is definitely a must-read for anyone with even a casual interest in science fiction.

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Book Review: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold

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Gentleman Jole and the Red QueenGentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book that is probably written mostly for the fans of the Vorkosigan Saga. But that doesn’t mean that other people wouldn’t find it interesting and thought-provoking also. Let’s start by clarifying — this book is primarily a planetary romance; that is to say that it is a science fiction story that takes place on a single planet and that centers around a particular relationship’s development. It’s also a story about retirement, and about learning who you are in retirement. It’s also a story about a grown-up child learning that his parents are real human beings. It’s also a story about parenthood, and legacies, and about giving love its due while there’s still time to do it; after all, nobody ever said on their deathbeds, “I wish I’d spent more time working.”

So, speaking strictly of Lois McMaster Bujold’s writing, as one of my favourite authors, I would say it’s typically complex, typically character-driven, and typically human. It does what a good science fiction book is supposed to do; considers how technology might change and challenge the human condition.

It is not a space opera, not unless you take it in the wider context of the whole saga. It is not an intergalactic spy novel. It is most definitely more literary fiction/romance novel than science fiction action/adventure. Lovers of action need not apply.

That said, I liked it very much because it quite neatly tied up a lot of loose ends in the saga and established the legacies of characters I have come to care about very much over the years.

I would have read this book regardless of what was in it because I am a dedicated fan of the Vorkosigan Saga, but I selected this book as part of two reading challenges I am doing. One was a Space Opera challenge (https://www.worldswithoutend.com/roll…), and the other is an LGBTQ Speculative Fiction challenge (https://www.worldswithoutend.com/roll…). For that reason I will address the LGBTQ elements specifically. SPOILERS follow!

(view spoiler)

Some critics and reviewers have expressed their unhappiness with what they see as “shoehorning past history” in creating the discreet, behind-the-scenes relationship that the entire novel’s premise rest upon, but I think that’s really just a reluctance to admit that Aral’s character has always been bisexual, though expressions of that were obviously limited in the political climate of socially-backwards Barrayar. I think that this has always been going on and that Bujold had it in the back of her mind from the beginning, as one of those salient details the writer always knows about, but the reader might not; especially since our viewpoint character through most of the series has been Miles Vorkosigan, Cordelia’s and Aral’s son, who was being kept deliberately out of the loop for a number of reasons; the homophobic society, the political ramifications of what might be seen to the very traditional Vor as “adultery,” and even the very normal awkwardness from discussing one’s personal and sexual life with one’s adult children (which might rightfully be considered none of their business). I love this aspect because it also shows that Miles, for all his cleverness, is not infallible, especially when it comes to his deliberate personal blind spots.

I like the idea of this relationship very much. Bujold treats both LGBTQ relationships and polyamorous relationships as something unconventional but no more complicated than many other relationships might be. As a polyamorous bisexual person myself, I laughed aloud when Cordelia lamented how complicated all the SCHEDULING had been! That made me wonder if she’s been there, or if she just happens to be really good friends with someone who has.

Another central piece of the plot is that some of Cordelia’s ova and Aral’s sperm has been saved, and enough of it is viable that not only can Cordelia choose to start some new sisters for Miles, even at the age of 76 thanks to uterine replicators, but enough enucleated ova of Cordelia’s have also survived (that is, ova with no cellular nucleus) that it is possible for the scientists of the time to meld DNA from Aral’s and Jole’s sperm (taking an X chromosome from one and a Y chromosome from the other) and create a child who is, in a way, born of all three of them. The dilemma as to whether Jole, at the age of fifty, will do this or follow the path of his military career, is part of the central conflict of the novel. (hide spoiler)]

I want to address this for a minute, because the technology to do all of this is not some invention of the far future. This will be possible within a decade. Uterine replicators are currently being tested on animal fetuses. And the sort of technology that combines an X chromosome from one donor and a Y from another into an enucleated ovum, which is where all the RNA building instructions are located, is how Dolly the Sheep was cloned. It’s how it works.

I think this has some beautiful implications for LGBTQ and infertile people wanting to start families in the future. Wouldn’t that be a marvelous thing? As a woman who has suffered miscarriage, I love the idea of uterine replicators and I can tell you, I would have been extremely glad of such a thing myself. I can hear the Christian Right beginning their outcry now at the “unnaturalness” of it all, but they can lose a baby to miscarriage before they argue with me about it, otherwise they can quite frankly go to hell.

There’s so many ethical and social implications of this technology that it really should delight any dedicated science fiction fan. Bujold has already dealt with many of them throughout the series — the implications of children sired by rape, of mothers exposed to dangerous chemicals, of crazy depots trying to assure their genetic legacy, of genetic engineering. We could trace some of those out in different directions. For instance, if bearing a child does not become necessarily entirely a mother’s burden, should potential fathers have the right to decide to raise a child in a uterine replicator if the mother doesn’t want to keep that child? If so, should the mother be tapped for child support? How about the dangerous chemical exposure issue — could it possible, or *should* it possible, to legislate women who are chronic dangerous drug abusers to put their fetuses in uterine replicators so that we wouldn’t have crack babies anymore?

Anyway, I thought the book was well worth reading. I will of course collect it because I collect the Vorkosigan Saga. But I’ll hold out for a trade paperback or a cheap hardcover. Good, satisfying, an excellent conclusion to the series, but in and of itself, not *great,* not like some of Bujold’s past books. It suppose it suffers by that comparison, and I suppose that’s not entirely fair. Still glad she wrote it though.

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Happy Geek Moment – Vorkosigan Saga

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Happy Geek Moment - Vorkosigan Saga

Sharing a happy geek moment!

So I’m in the public library after having *finally* caught up on my library fines, and my local public library has a nice new building whose space I am coming to enjoy immensely to do writing and web-work. I’m on my out to meet my hubby, who is picking me up, and of course I am sitting near the sci-fi and fantasy section . . . so I’m walking out and I catch a glimpse of a name that immediately catches my attention . . . Lois McMaster Bujold. For those unfamiliar, she very well might be the greatest science fiction writer of our time, having won the Hugo award four times (which matches the great Robert Heinlein’s record).

I am a fan of Bujold’s great series, “The Vorkosigan Saga,” classic space opera with a twist. Her protagonist, Miles Vorkosigan, is a truly great geek hero; he has some serious disadvantages that make him the least likely action hero, not the least of which is a disabling bone disorder . . . but he’s really, really, *really* smart.

Lately, Bujold has been writing award-winning fantasy, but I want to start with the first book and I’ve had some trouble holding it at the library so I haven’t started it yet . . . and so I look more closely at the book cover as I pass it, and realize that this isn’t fantasy, this looks like hard science fiction. Then when I get just a little closer than that, I realize there’s a banner across the top that proclaims this “A New Miles Vorkosigan Novel.”

AAAAAAGGGGGHHHHHHHH! COOOOL! Really? She said she wasn’t writing any more Miles books, not after “Diplomatic Immunity” kind of finished the story for him (and I could see that; look what happened to Babylon 5 when the fans demanded they write past the end of the story . . . I just personally pretend that the last two seasons don’t exist.) So I seized it immediately and checked it out on the way out. And I have to say that it was everything I’ve come to expect of the series, which is a truly great story written with a masterful hand that is poignant, exciting and very often funny as well.

This was published in 2010, and now I have a hold on 2012’s “Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance” which is about Miles’ cousin, who has been a significant character in the story before . . .

If you’re a sci-fi geek who has not yet read this series, read it. Really. You won’t regret it.