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Musing on Books
Abandon in Place Jerry Oltion, Tor, November 2000, 24.95
Eternity's End Jeffrey A Carver, Tor, December 2000, 26.95
I think it goes without saying—but I'm saying it anyway—that people read for different reasons. Even mine swing widely, as inclination is often based on a number of telling things: How much sleep I've gotten lately (none, due to my son's second year molars), how much I've been fretting over the "little things" in life (lots), and how generally stressful the universe conspires to be in February, that month of sunless cold. During these times, I tend to reach for the nearest Pratchett (if there is one that I haven't read).
But this time, for reasons that seemed much more sensible a couple of months ago, I decided that I would do something different. I generally tend to review fantasy novels with the occasional foray into social sf, so I picked up a bunch of sf novels with the intent of reading them and providing some sort of overview here.
However, inclination and novels mixed poorly in this case, and of the seven books in the read-for-review pile, I could only actually make my way through three. On the surface of things, they all sounded interesting; they ran the gamut from the viability and necessity of space flight in the near future on the one end, to the interstellar fall of empires as the more mythic tropes of space opera—predestiny, possibly transcendence for and of the human race—came into play. Each of these scenarios presents a challenge to the intrepid writer: In near-future sf, if you can't actually pay attention to the world around you enough to engage in intelligent speculation—evoking politics, economic forces, technological trends as well as the things that any novel needs in terms of characterization and story—you lose me in the first chapter. I don't actually care if you're a fortune teller; you don't have to predict the outcome of the universe accurately. But I have to feel, reading your work, that this is a reasonable outcome, given your assumptions. In the broader, pangalactic space sf, clashing ideologies, cultures and civilizations have to be drawn distinctly enough that they feel real. I assume that FTL travel is somehow possible in the far future; that humanity has indeed gone out and colonized from here to eternity without wiping himself out along the way, and that planets are fairly homogenous (I know this is stretching it, but it's part of the willing suspension of disbelief). Here, though, character and archetype is necessary, as is the ability to create the alien.
I started with seven novels. In one case, the book was actually very good, but it wasn't sf; it was a well researched, well thought out near-past historical. In one case, there was nothing at all wrong with the book itself, but I drifted, unable to anchor myself. In some cases, the line by line writing was clunky; everything—internal monologue, external description, and hearty dialogue—was just slightly off, as if poor stage directions had been given when it came time to create character and mood. This is no doubt me being overly sensitive; I notice that what I consider to be clunky is often excused with ease by the customers at the bookstore I work in as long as the story itself is solid. I, as a reader, often can't get past the words to the story; words are part of what I read for, and I don't demand that they be invisible—although invisible is preferable to clunky.
That left me with three novels.
I started with the Flynn. It's a good place to start, and it follows on the heels of Firestar, Rogue Star, and Lodestar. Billed as the climax of an "epic of the near future," I'm going to assume that this is the last of the books, and that's too damn bad, because Flynn has done something with this series that I hadn't quite expected, given the tone, scope, and conclusion of that first novel. (As an aside, if you haven't read Firestar, and you like golden-age sf of the Heinlein variety, you owe it to yourself to hunt that novel down and read it. Even if you don't like that particular brand of sf, you still owe it to yourself to hunt it down; Flynn takes the gung-ho man-against-the-universe themes of earlier books and strips them of the naivete that make them such hardsells in the much wearier world of the present day millennium. In particular, his ability to lay out two sides of a difficult debate, and to inject as little judgment as possible into the lives of the people who live across the divide, make the book less of a soapbox than it might otherwise have been in less competent—I'm tempted to say less wise—hands. Although the general consensus is that the science is damn good, which is good because there's a lot of it, all near-future, I was more taken by other elements of the novel; it's one of the few that I've recommended successfully to most any type of reader at the bookstore. Okay, end of digression.)
Rogue Star was a darker, grimmer work, and Lodestar was also lacking in cheer. But what made those books work—for me—was the way Flynn continued to develop the characters that he didn't kill off. In most series, characters' lives continue, but the personalities of those characters don't usually change. They -react-, and if they undergo enough, their reactions are fixed in place, visible emotional scars that form a geography of sorts, a short-form. But they don't truly change.
Flynn's change. They change with time. They age, and they age into a wisdom that speaks to and of experience. Youthful, fiery characters grow into a more weary, less vibrant age; some lose the fire of their ideals to the practicality of life—paying mortgages, feeding children—and some lose the practicality of life because the ideals are the life they've chosen. Take a snapshot of any of the continuing characters—Mariesa, the woman who started it all with her intense passion for learning, for education, for space—over the years and they are distinctly different—enough so that without the history behind them, you might never recognize them as the same people.
Which is true to life, but is seldom engaging enough to hold onto readers who come back to a series seeking that connectivity with the characters they admired the first time out. Flynn makes it work. Add to that his deft handling of economic and political forces in a way that makes them feel organic rather than hastily tacked on, and his equally deft handling of the speculative near-future science, and you have a bunch of books that I'm very surprised never made it to more award ballots. Flynn isn't a poet, but his dialogue and his interior monologues have a very solid, realistic feel to them that grounds the novel perfectly.
So. In Falling Stars, Flynn returns us to a world which is the grips of a recession because of the events of the previous novel. Unfortunately, what with elections coming up, the news that an asteroid—a very big, very dangerous rock embedded with alien equipment—is on a course for collision with earth in a short six years doesn't seem to have made an indelible mark upon either the electorate or the politicians; there is no funding for a space program that is the only hope of averting a major disaster which many people privately consider to be a hoax. Mariesa Van Huyten, who feels justifiably responsible for the coming disaster, once again begins to lead the way, first by approaching the rich and the powerful among her circle and then by approaching the "children" of her earlier crusade—Jimmy Poole, computer hacker and social misfit, Chase Coughlin, reformed high school thug, Roberta, Hobie.
Old anxieties, old enmities, old friendships are examined as the people whose lives have touched, and been touched by, the Van Huyten legacy, come forward to accept the responsibility of saving the world.
And why did I like this book? Why did it hold my attention at the moment when attention is running a strong deficit? Not, in the end, because of anything I've said so far, although it's all true, but because Flynn's concept of personal responsibility and duty for its own sake strikes a really strong chord in me. Do the good guys always win? No. What makes them good -isn't- winning; it's struggling. It's the struggle that's the defining characteristic.
It caught my attention immediately; it was accessible, and it had a bittersweet sense of loss and nostalgia which I'll admit up front I'm a sucker for. If I had to guess, I'd say that the first of the four sections was the bulk of the short story, because the first of the four balances that nostalgia with the reality of the world in an effective way. I mean, ghost spaceships that begin to launch on disused NASA space-pads after the death of Neil Armstrong? There's something about that image that speaks to the loss of idealism and fervor about the space program as if the space program were our youth. It's almost perfect.
But it's also an almost perfect image for a short piece. It creates a mood that it can sustain, and it evokes emotions based on that mood that can also be sustained.
Rick Spencer is a NASA pilot. The woman that he loves, one Tessa McClain, is also a NASA pilot. They've seen—as has anyone with eyes and a television—the ghost Saturn V's in their graceful and silent sojourn toward the abandoned Moon. But those ships prove less ghostly in the face of radar; they are real, and they can be tracked, up to a certain point. And what do you do with a real ship? Well, in the end, you pilot it.
Did this happen with alarming ease? Did the characters in question accept just a little bit too easily the existence of ghost spaceships and the risk of trusting their solidity enough to attempt a lunar landing? Well, yes. But I could live with that suspension of disbelief because there was a lot of heart in it. But it didn't end there. Let's just say that there's a paranormal explanation for everything, and that in the end the two characters above wind up doing a lot more that's a lot less believable.
I finished the novel, but the further removed I was from the initial image, the initial emotions evoked by that ghost flight, the less comfortable I was with the territory I'd wandered into. Perhaps it's because I'd expected the real world to be more grounded than it was—that I had expected one strange thing, not a plethora. Perhaps it was because I don't really have much interest in superhero comic books anymore (although yes, I read all of the John Byrne/Chris Claremont X-Men in my time, and still own them). Or perhaps it's because the novel looks like an sf novel, but it's a fantasy novel, one in which the power of positive (or negative) thinking can literally work, and rework, miracles in a hand-over-fist fashion.
I think that we all have our blind spots; we're all willing to accept a specific kind of implausibility. I, for instance, have no difficulty whatsoever accepting the fact that magic—often in great quantities—exists when I read fantasy—but if more than a passing streak of magic inserts itself into any sf I'm reading, I react with Martin Gardner-like suspicion and annoyance. I'm a conditioned reader. In setting the novel—with its clear and abundant references to the Space Program—in a world in which sf tropes are in clear evidence, Oltion unintentionally invoked some hardening of the attitudes in me as a reader; I expected the world—aside from that single haunting and unusual nostalgic refrain—to be the normal, logical backdrop against which the strange would be brought to sharp relief.
Instead, the normal fell away in large chunks from the book until only the strangeness, shorn of nostalgia and shorn of the power to invoke it, was all that remained; magic, essentially, worked, even if it was called something entirely different.
I think the intent of the book was to be a statement about the power of positive thinking, of belief in others and one's self. In this day and age, that's not a terrible intent; it just didn't work for me. It may for others.
Of the three, it's set farthest in the future, and of the three, it's the closest to all-out Space Opera; once it starts—with a very unfortunate Renwald Legroeder, an escaped slave who also happens to be a Star Rigger, a pilot who can maneuver in the Flux that powers interstellar travel—it picks up speed and doesn't really stop. There is a grand conspiracy, which is pretty obvious from the moment that Legroeder is framed for the loss of a ship to the Golen space pirates from whom he managed to escape; there are helpful friends—in particular Harriet, a lawyer whose grandson was on the ship that Rigger Legroeder was flying when the Pirates struck, and who has never given up hope of finding him; and there are inscrutable aliens, allies whose loyalties are always in question, and century-old injustices, all of which lead—in the end—to space battles that feature big, fast weapons and seat-of-the-pants flying maneuvers that save the day.
There's a ghost ship in this novel as well but it's not a Saturn V; it's a ship called Impris, and its appearance, with its strong emergency beacon, was the siren call that led Renwald's first ship to its doom. If he can find that ship—a ship that no one believes exists—he can prove his innocence. But where is the ship? In Pirate space. And Legroeder has seven years' worth of reasons why he never wants to go back . . .
This sounds glib. But there are two passages in the book that actually surprised me—that made me stop for a minute, with a vast, perfect picture spreading out slowly across the horizon of my internal vision. This might be what people refer to as Sense of Wonder. I almost never have it, and therefore read sf for other reasons, but when it does strike, it's like a large window that opens into another world with unsettling clarity.
Those who've read the Star Rigger novels will be happy to see Carver's return to that universe; those that haven't, but who have a yen for Space Opera, replete with Aliens and unusual FTL travel, won't get lost in the shuffle; the novel is self-contained.
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