Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Thoughts on Walter Jon Williams "Dread Empire's Fall"

Lately I've been craving some military SF, which is a sub-genre I usually steer pretty clear of. In particular, I've been looking for shouting-distance-of-realistic space opera, hard SF kind of stuff. It's tough to find work that doesn't bring in too much "magitech": technology that doesn't have its basis in any known science. Artificial gravity and inertial dampeners, for example.

I'm quite willing to forgive some specific types of magitech in the pursuit of a good story--some kind of faster-than-light technology is all but necessary for any kind of interstellar tale that has humans as major characters. But too much magitech (or just plain old ignoring physics) is why there are almost no realistic depictions of space combat in film SF. The Star Wars model of 18th century naval battles, spiced up with World War Two-style dog-fighting, remains the default representation. This may make for entertaining visuals, but does so by sacrificing the intellectual and emotional impact of a higher degree of physical realism.

Cherryh, of course, got me thinking this way. The strength of her alien and culturally-focussed "softer" work tends to overshadow books like "Rimrunner" and the "Heavy Time/Hellburner" sequence; revisiting them recently was a real delight, as they are incredibly tightly, even claustrophobically scripted, more interpersonal and psychological than the broader casts of her other sequences.

But what has really been grabbing my imagination is the space combat aspect. Her particular take on it is more like submarine warfare than anything else--a lot of waiting, a lot of carefully calculated decisions, a very tense wait-and-see environment. This is built on a framework of immense distance and high velocities, one that makes good narrative use of uncertainty, of the desperately hard limits set by simple Newtonian rules on fragile tin cans in the vacuum.

Finding SF novels of that general species has proven strangely difficult. I find that scarcity particularly weird given the large slices of SF generally designated "hard" and/or "military". The truth is, I think, that without bringing a lot of magitech into the equation, space travel & combat are hard to deal with in an interesting fashion; much of the fun of SF is in off-the-wall creativity, and there's not much room for that in rocket physics.

But! That intro aside, searching for this kind of stuff lead me to Walter Jon Williams' "Dread Empires Fall" trilogy. And it's quite good! There is a glorious lack of magitech, excepting the device of wormholes for interstellar jumps--and even there, he posits a mass-balancing requirement that necessitates wormhole stations flinging junk mass through them to prevent disruption by passing ships.

Most pleasing to me in terms of what I was looking for was the time and acceleration constraints of long-distance, high-v maneuvers. The medical cost of high acceleration, the time needed to decelerate afterwards, the months-long turnaround time for miscalculated maneuvers--all very well done.

Williams uses a narrative device similar to the Butlerian Jihad to set his board--the suicide/abdication of a supremely powerful race called the Shaa, who have bent all known species under a totalitarian system for millennia. In addition to outlawing AI and genetic sciences with extreme prejudice, the Shaa have generally created an extremely rigid, feudalistic, and conservative society among their conquered nations. The absence of advanced computer intelligences, coupled with a few characters suddenly innovating in a military world dominated by rigid formations and rank based on politics rather than merit, allow the reader to discover and enjoy some of the nuances of the space environment along with the main characters.

The biggest strength of the trilogy is those two main characters, Gareth Martinez and Caroline Sula. Except for a few odd departures, the narrative viewpoint focuses on the two of them throughout the trilogy, and, despite a hint of corrugation and a few eye-roll inducing tricks (like including a long mathematical passage that makes Sula go "oh, of course!" to prove that she's a smart or whatever), it's these two characters that pull you through--Williams does a good job of using their often-frustrated desire for each other to move the reader back and forth between two increasingly distinct plots.

A little bit of help is good, because the pacing is pretty unsteady. Clocking in at a "mere" 1,500 pages or so, "Dread Empire's Fall" isn't on the extreme side of genre-bloat, but it's still rough going at times. The serialization seems almost random--chapters and novels end without satisfying plot or prose, and there are a few meandering sequences (such as Martinez's abrupt switch to procedural-crime-type investigation) that do little to deepen our appreciation for the world or characters.

My biggest complaint with the trilogy is its strangely amoral feeling. Its lack of critical engagement with issues it puts to the forefront but never really takes a stance on is particularly weird: both Sula & Martinez give us perspective on a society that is founded on violence, that has deeply troubling and clearly unfair class issues, that is failing to rise to the challenges facing it largely because of its ossified system of cronyism and nepotism in its arrogantly aristocratic structure. These conservative tendencies are villainized, or at least ridiculed, but there's no real move to replace the forms with more legitimate ones. After leading the most inventive, merit-based, and democratic branch of the resistance, the self-made Sula is packed off to an obscure post, with the potential romantic relationship with Martinez solidly nixed in a final passage that seems bizarrely punitive towards her character.

Furthermore, no-one in this series seems to be even slightly troubled, on principle, by the use of torture, mutilation, and massacring of innocents at a huge scale as political tools. The series also embraces the oldest and most thinly-veiled racist trope of all, the bug-eyed monster: the "villains" employ the exact same tactics and rationale as everybody else, but are to be feared and hated because they look like insects. So it's totally okay to brutally murder them even if they're noncombatants!

The book doesn't read as particularly grim; it's actually quite light. Eddie Izzard's bit from Circle on the British Empire ("We lost it by going 'Oh, do you think so?' and 'ummm...' A lot! And "Oh really? Have they?!") was in my mind a lot. That very lightness makes the issues of violence and corrupt power all the stranger as I get further away from it. One walks away with the idea that being incredibly inflexible and hide-bound can be a disastrous thing, which is well and good...but the slightly-more-savvy, still totally unjust system of kleptocracy and nepotism is largely unshaken.

Still, an enjoyable and fairly light read, and made me think a lot about varying biological response to g forces, which honestly is all one can ask from a novel, yes?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Rules from My Nonsensical Dictatorship: Pumpkin Carving


  1. Thou shalt make no mark or incision on the pumpkin's exterior with anything other than the carving instrument.
  2. Thou shalt make no cut on the pumpkin which does not pierce through to the hollow interior, later to admit the light of the flame.
  3. The use of guides or stencils is strictly forbidden.
  4. Thou shalt discard any section of the pumpkin cut free, preferably in fire.
  5. Addition of any non-pumpkin material, such as paint or accessories, is strictly forbidden.
  6. Thou shalt use no light source other than open flame. Concern for fire prevention in lantern-lighting is frowned upon.
  7. Thou shalt take no undue care to keep the lantern safe from vandals. All pumpkins are offered as sacrifice to vandalism, and the night.
  8. When rot or vandalism end a lantern's life, please, consider composting. Disposal by fire is also acceptable.
  9. Thou shalt eat of the seeds of any pumpkin you carve, and reflect briefly on kuru.
  10. Carving of non-pumpkin gourds and squashes, while not strictly forbidden, may merit surveillance from the local authorities.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

"The Good Old Days"

Any non-ironic use of "the olden days" drives me up the wall.

A little out of character for me/this blog, but I saw this being shared on Facebook today:

Checking out at the store, the young cashier suggested to the older woman, that she should bring her own grocery bags because plastic bags weren't good for the environment.

The woman apologized and explained, "We didn't have this green thing back in my earlier days." The young clerk responded, "That's our problem today. Your generation did not care enough to save our environment f or future generations."

She was right -- our generation didn't have the green thing in its day.

Back then, we returned milk bottles, soda bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, so it could use the same bottles over and over. So they really were truly recycled. But we didn't have the green thing back in our day.

Grocery stores bagged our groceries in brown paper bags, that we reused for numerous things, most memorable besides household garbage bags, was the use of brown paper bags as book covers for our schoolbooks. This was to ensure that public property, (the books provided for our use by the school) was not defaced by our scribbling's. Then we were able to personalize our books on the brown paper bags. But too bad we didn't do the green thing back then.

We walked up stairs, because we didn't have an escalator in every store and office building. We walked to the grocery store and didn't climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time we had to go two blocks. But she was right. We didn't have the green thing in our day.

Back then, we washed the baby's diapers because we didn't have the throwaway kind. We dried clothes on a line, not in an energy-gobbling machine burning up 220 volts -- wind and solar power really did dry our clothes back in our early days. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing. But that young lady is right; we didn't have the green thing back in our day.

Back then, we had one TV, or radio, in the house -- not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a handkerchief (remember them?), not a screen the size of the state of Montana.

In the kitchen, we blended and stirred by hand because we didn't have electric machines to do everything for us. When we packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, we used wadded up old newspapers to cushion it, not Styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap.

Back then, we didn't fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. We used a push mower that ran on human power. We exercised by working so we didn't need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity. But she's right; we didn't have the green thing back then.

We drank from a fountain when we were thirsty instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time we had a drink of water. We refilled writing pens with ink instead of buying a new pen, and we replaced the razor blades in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull. But we didn't have the green thing back then.

Back then, people took the streetcar or a bus and kids rode their bikes to school or walked instead of turning their moms into a 24-hour taxi service. We had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And we didn't need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 23,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest burger joint.

But isn't it sad the current generation laments how wasteful we old folks were just because we didn't have the green thing back then?

Please forward this on to another selfish old person who needs a lesson in conservation from a smart-ass young person.

Okay look, so, I need to be a downer here.

These are all good and laudable practices.

But let's be real careful with our nostalgia here.

Washing our diapers by hand isn't going to bring back the ice caps. Or frogs.

Getting overly-nostalgic about a rose-tinted "good old days", handily absent a specific time period, is one of my biggest pet peeves. It's a wonderful way of subtly blaming the victim.

And the victim is us, my friends.

In general, I am very optimistic about the future; that is to say, I think this is overall the best time to be alive, and it's likely to get better. That said:

Climate change is real and huge and we're only going to see it more. Massive pollution, poor land use, and eradication of biodiversity are not going away. The looting and plundering of our financial system and economy, the glaring loss of equality and opportunity for 99% of Americans, the expensive-to-rectify conversion of our cities into glorified automobile exchanges instead of vibrant public spaces--these are real and long-term problems that were all set up in the "good old days". The failure to address most of these issues in any timely or meaningful way is largely due to people in power who were raised in and try to emulate "the good old days".

When we uncritically perpetuate the myth of a golden age we've all fallen from (apparently the '50s, which--if that doesn't give you pause...read a book, people), we not only blame the present (or at least the very recent past) for problems that go back much further, we risk ignoring the attendant issues (sexism & racism to an extent that seems almost surreal today springs to mind, not that those battles are done), the extent to which these technologies were not romantic and fun, but back-breaking and time-consuming, and, much larger, how this entire system was enabled by and led to our current state of affairs: coasting on an affluence at least partially derived from rampant exploitation of the environment, embracing a military/industrial/capitalist combo that yielded a lot of changes in quality of life, but also resulted in all these environmental and social problems.

Should we an embrace less wasteful, more personal technologies in our lives? Absolutely. But the way forward, unsurprisingly, is not back. We're going to need new solutions to deal with the legacy of environmental damage left to us by "the good old days". There's no justice possible for these kinds of distributed, cross-generational harms, and there's only so much use in being angry about things done by society at large, in the past--but think twice before you buy too heavily into this kind of argument about how good and green we were "back then".