Choreographist Fiction

January 18, 2011 at 2:48 am | Posted in Essays | Leave a comment

Any man who claims to remember and can recount each cut, parray, and riposte in a melee like the one we faced is either a liar or did nothing but watch.

The above aside comes from Michael Stackpole’s Talion: Revenant, a teenage favorite of mine that I’m currently rereading. I’ll review it in a few days, but in the meantime I wanted to do something a little different. I’ve seen some people talking about the need for new critical terms lately, and it’s true that most attempts at defining lexicons are either not available online (like Clute’s Encyclopedia of Fantasy lexicon), aimed at writers and not readers and reviewers (like the Turkey City Lexicon, which for the most part is not actually a lexicon), or else comedic (like Lavie Tidhar’s new blog and Adam Roberts’ hilarious Anathem review). I can’t and won’t attempt an actual lexicon, but there are a couple concepts that I find myself mentioning fairly frequently in reviews here, so I thought it would be helpful to coin terms for them and write a little description–not because anyone else will ever use these words, but so I can use them and link back to my previous comments instead of repeating myself.

The first of these is a word I’ve used in my head when thinking about books for a while now: choreographist. It refers to prose fiction that takes it upon itself to carefully choreograph something for you, usually some sort of hand to hand combat. Here’s an example, from a small part of a fight scene from early in Matthew Stover’s choreographist science fantasy novel Heroes Die:

At about this time I realize he’s been pounding the side of my head with his doubled elbow. He can’t get any force behind it, lying down like that; he’s doing it mostly to distract me from his other hand, which is sliding up my neck to hook a thumb toward my eye.

As he swings again I rear back out of his elbow’s path and grab his upper arm, twisting him on around so his back’s to me now, pinning his scabbarded sword with my chest. The hair on the back of his head is matted with blood from a single cut where his scalp split against the edge of the step. I lock my legs around his again and roll us both over faceup just in time—the pair of ogres, who were winding up for free shots at my back, lower their morningstars uncertainly.

My left arm snakes around Berne’s face, over his eyes, to pull his head back while my right hand draws one of the long fighting knives from its sheath along my ribs. I put its point against his external jugular; it’ll take a single second to drive it straight in the side of his neck and slice out though the front, parting carotids, external and internal jugular, and windpipe. He has no chance to survive, and he knows it.

In this scene, Stover has figured out precisely what movements the combatants are making and is explaining it as precisely as possible to the reader. Stover is, by my reckoning, pretty good at this difficult transformation of movements in three dimensions into prose (I should note I haven’t done him any favors by stripping the context in order to keep the length of the excerpt down). His first person narrative renders most of these scenes in a distinctive voice and he sprinkles his fights with a lot of little character moments, similar to but more realistic than the way comic book characters converse while fighting. However, and this is the difference between fiction with some choreography and what I call choreographist fiction, these elaborate fight scenes are clearly a big part, though still by no means the only part, of the novel’s appeal for its readers.

But no matter how well done, what’s really going on here? Action movie envy, if you ask me. Action movies have always been popular, and with the rising popularity of martial arts and the importing of idioms and styles from Asian cinema, the choreography in movies has gotten ever more elaborate. But prose fiction is not a movie, and even if one is reading a novelization of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is it really desirable to recreate it “shot for shot” in prose? The movie Crouching Tiger is actually an adaptation of a novel, so perhaps at some point I should read the original and see how it handles the fight scenes, but in the meantime I will provisionally answer: probably not. And by the way, this doesn’t just apply to hand to hand combat. You often hear people talk about how space battles are exciting, but how many books have space battles that are even remotely as exciting as those in movies?

Fight scenes considerably predate action movies, of course. In fact, I suppose they predate written literature. Here is the end of the most important fight in the Iliad:

As he spoke he drew the keen blade that hung so great and strong by his side, and gathering himself together be sprang on Achilles like a soaring eagle which swoops down from the clouds on to some lamb or timid hare–even so did Hector brandish his sword and spring upon Achilles. Achilles mad with rage darted towards him, with his wondrous shield before his breast, and his gleaming helmet, made with four layers of metal, nodding fiercely forward. The thick tresses of gold with which Vulcan had crested the helmet floated round it, and as the evening star that shines brighter than all others through the stillness of night, even such was the gleam of the spear which Achilles poised in his right hand, fraught with the death of noble Hector. He eyed his fair flesh over and over to see where he could best wound it, but all was protected by the goodly armour of which Hector had spoiled Patroclus after he had slain him, save only the throat where the collar-bones divide the neck from the shoulders, and this is a most deadly place: here then did Achilles strike him as he was coming on towards him, and the point of his spear went right through the fleshy part of the neck, but it did not sever his windpipe so that he could still speak. Hector fell headlong, and Achilles vaunted over him saying, “Hector, you deemed that you should come off scatheless when you were spoiling Patroclus, and recked not of myself who was not with him. Fool that you were: for I, his comrade, mightier far than he, was still left behind him at the ships, and now I have laid you low. The Achaeans shall give him all due funeral rites, while dogs and vultures shall work their will upon yourself.”

This is a prose translation of the poem, but it’s pretty clear that for all his blood, gore, and constant battle scenes Homer wasn’t really writing choreographist fiction. The stock epithets fly fast and furious, but Homer takes it for granted his audience believes in the skill and prowess of Achilles and Hector and lets them decide exactly how it all looked. Of course, tastes have changed, and when I read this in high school it struck me as anticlimactic. If someone were to make a modern movie out of the Iliad the battle would last for several minutes at least (I can’t remember how it was done in Petersen’s Troy but I’m not willing to watch it again to find out). This is now true for most novels as well: the climactic sword fight of Guy Gavriel Kay’s not even remotely choreographist Lions of Al-Rassan carefully describes quite a bit of the back and forth.

You might think this is all an elaborate way of saying I think choreographist fiction is garbage, but I’m not. Now some of it is badly written, and then it is fair game, but otherwise I think this is a matter of reader preferences. There are, as I see it, two reasons one might attack choreographist fiction as a whole. The first complaint would be that in the first person, and these stories are quite often written in the first person, it is flat-out unrealistic. I began with a quote from Talion: Revenant that made this argument, although curiously throughout the rest of the novel the narrator is happy to provide a blow by blow description of his fights. Apparently melees “like the one we faced” are different. Perhaps I simply wasn’t good enough, but I used to be a fencer and five minutes after a bout, while I could remember the decisive moments and the broad outline, I certainly couldn’t provide a detailed description of what happened. The idea of reproducing anything even remotely accurate days, weeks, or even years later is absurd.

The same criticism, however, can be made of first person narratives providing the exact words of conversations, so this turns out to be an objection to the first person perspective as a whole. In truth, with a very few exceptions, every first person narrative is unrealistic. Most people (although not all, see the discussion in the comments here) just accept that as long as it follows certain conventions we can ignore the question of precisely how the text came into existence, just as we don’t require that a movie explain how the camera got there and why no one is looking at it.

The second possible objection, and the one I am more sympathetic to, asks: why we are reading a book in the first place? It’s a cliché of adapted movies that the novel is always better than the movie, but is that because the fight scenes are better in the book? While that’s not impossible, given competent direction I think it’s safe to say only the most ardent lover of books would rather read a fight scene than watch it. There’s a reason that “action” is widely considered to be an actual genre of film but has only extremely weak parallels in the book world. Shouldn’t we read books that emphasize the things prose does well, and leave the things film does better to film and television? I guess some people are text purists, like Johan Jönsson in this Strange Horizons article where he concludes that he doesn’t like maps in fantasy novels because he prefers “a book where the text works without such aids as maps or appendices.” I guess I’m more pragmatic. Maps are much better at communicating geography, so why on earth wouldn’t you use them if you can? Likewise, if the perennially two years away multimedia novel of the future ever becomes common (I have my doubts), then by all means let’s switch to live action video for the fight scenes.

However, despite my sympathies, the reality is virtually all good books appeal on multiple levels. Heroes Die may be “just” a choreographist novel, but it’s also a fantasy novel. In fact, simultaneously, it also happens to be a science fiction novel. It would be a shame if readers missed out on the novel just because they look down on fancy fight scenes. I confess I tend to skim when fight descriptions get technical, but there’s plenty more to like about Heroes Die. For elaboration, albeit not much, you can see what I wrote about it five years ago (lacking the term choreographist, I went with “fighting procedural”).

Now, if a book strikes me as being solely choreographist that’s a different matter, but that’s where a reviewer can help readers figure out whether or not a book is worth reading. Hopefully having a term will be helpful in that regard.

Wolf’s Cub by Mackay Wood

January 9, 2011 at 3:20 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

Fantasy tends to be like historical fiction in that it psychologically recalls a certain time period. Guy Gavriel Kay’s historical fantasies do this explicitly, of course, but A Song of Ice and Fire has the feel of Europe’s High Middle Ages and The Malazan Book of the Fallen has echoes of the early Roman Empire. Even “weird” fantasy like Perdido Street Station draws unmistakably from the experience of the industrial revolution in England and Germany. Still, like historical fiction, some periods are more popular than others. Wolf’s Cub takes a road somewhat less traveled by positioning itself in the western Europe of the Early Middle Ages.

This isn’t obvious at first, with the labored cod-medieval infodump in the prologue and the protagonist Prince Herric’s horror at having his engagement with the love of his life broken in favor of a treaty-sealing marriage with a child. Whatever reservoir of sympathy I might have had for hereditary nobility’s difficulties with arranged marriage has long since been exhausted by other authors, but Wood doesn’t end up making a huge deal about it. Herric moves on with his life because he’s got bigger problems: the unceasing raids by Viking-analogous northmen have brought Herric’s nation Athgar to the brink of collapse.

Although Wolf’s Cub is a vaguely Arthurian romance, the choice not to use the trappings of the elaborate monarchies of the High Middle Ages (the time when Arthurian legends got traction regardless of when the real Arthur, if any, might have lived) gave the story a pleasantly unique feel, at least for me. The monarchy of Athgar claims a direct connection to a mighty past, but it’s clear that while they live in the ruins of a magnificent civilization, the novel’s Athgarian nobility are a tiny warrior elite who have lost all the civic institutions that made a continent-spanning state possible. None of the pomp that I associate with medieval settings is present: the nobility is too busy with real combat to bother with stylized forms like jousting and dueling, the peasants are too close to dropping below subsistence level to levy in large numbers if at all, and with the low agricultural productivity cities and markets cannot be supported. This is a kingdom that, whatever its history, is in serious danger of collapse. Not to some dark lord, either, but to northmen sent raiding by population pressures at home.

This is still fantasy, so there is something of a dark lord in the picture. It seems the good old days were made possible by wise kings using wizards as a sort of civil service. But in the chaos surrounding the collapse and fragmentation of the old system, the wizards withdrew to a few mountain kingdoms and were persecuted whenever found in most of the small successor states. Athgar has its share of trouble with the neighboring wizard nations, but the question as to whether these wizards (thought to be irredeemably evil by a prejudiced populace) are really dark lords instead of rational political actors is a major concern of the Athgarian monarch given how weakened the nation has become due to the raiders.

I generally don’t read romance novels unless they are genre crossovers like Time Traveler’s Wife or A Civil Campaign, so I’m not really qualified to judge the romantic elements. All I can say is, I found Herric and his young bride to be sympathetic and believable. Unlike (I gather) typical romance stories, not only is their relationship is not really the center of the book but to a large extent it’s not even the center of their own lives. Perhaps their relationship is just a bit too understated, actually: the business of producing an heir is ignored (and not even discussed!) for quite a few years after it becomes possible, but I guess I can forgive the story this small anachronism.

Ultimately Wolf’s Cub is kind of hard to pin down, something that probably hasn’t done it any favors when it comes to finding an audience. It’s a character-oriented romance whose main character spends more time fighting battles than he does with his love interest. It’s a “gritty” fantasy in the sense that it takes place in a world of moral grays filled with bloodshed and difficulties, but its main characters are fundamentally good people whose lives are clearly destined to fulfill a prophecy of restoration. It’s also a book about the costs of war and the importance of peace that doesn’t try to shock the reader with descriptions of blood, entrails, and suffering. Finally, it’s a book that examines prejudice and the myths society tells about itself while also unironically portraying its protagonist as a hero. If there are other books along these lines (YA fantasies maybe?) I haven’t read them.

One final note: originally published in 1998 by a publisher who I believe went out of business, Wolf’s Cub and its sequel are back in print as ebooks. The death of the concept of “out of print” is the best part of the transition to electronic formats and I hope more authors do this as the market grows.

Surface Detail by Iain M Banks

January 3, 2011 at 12:48 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 2 Comments

Iain M Banks is the sort of author I like to use as a reviewer benchmark. Most people have read at least one or two of his novels, and while some are more liked than others there isn’t wide agreement on his best and worst. If you feel the same way, I’ll break it down for you: I think Use of Weapons is his best work, and indeed it’s one of my favorite science fiction novels of all time. Player of Games was also very good, of course. Consider Phlebas and Against a Dark Background were fun but a little too depressing in their nearly nihilistic outlook. Feersum Endjinn, Excession and Algebraist (at least the first two thirds of it) were fun although a little lightweight compared to his early work. I felt Matter had all the joie de vivre of Consider Phlebas without the humor and kinetic action. And Transition I found to be a complete, unmitigated disaster.

Right away, Surface Detail has some parallels with Transition. Like that novel (or at least part of it), Surface Detail is concerned with the morality of torture, or rather the lack thereof. Starting from the common idea of mind uploading, Banks speculates that civilizations would use it to provide a virtual reality afterlife for their citizens. In addition to the Heavens you would expect, sometimes these afterlives would include Hells as well. The central conflict of the novel is the humanitarian struggle to get rid of these things, for Banks’ idea of Hell (and by extension, every Hell ever created by civilizations in the novel…there doesn’t seem to be any diversity) seems pretty much taken from Dante. I found this disappointing, to put it mildly. Don’t get me wrong, when it comes to torture Banks has a reputation for creativity that goes back to his earliest novels (Consider Phlebas in particular is infamous for opening with the main character’s captors executing him by drowning him in excrement) and he hasn’t lost any of that spark. But ultimately the pro-Hell argument seemed very much a straw man to me. Dante’s Inferno is seven hundred years old, after all. Yes, people still believe in this version of Hell, but I’m going out on a limb and guessing none of Banks’ readers do. Well, I guess no one is reading Banks to learn about cutting edge Christian theology, but Ted Chiang’s “Hell is the Absence of God” is far more interesting and has much more to say on this subject despite being a short story instead of a novel. Still, I would have been much more interested to see Banks turn his formidable creativity toward what the various virtual reality Heavens might look like, since heaven remains just as elusive a vision today as it was when Dante wrote the Paradiso.

Then again, the Culture is a sort of secular heaven, even if it is more accurately called a utopia. However, one of Surface Detail‘s main characters Lededje (his novels might be uneven but the aesthetics of Banks’ character names are, ahem, consistent) literally dies and, thanks to a device that transmitted her neural state at the time of death, wakes up to find herself in the Culture at the beginning of the book. She’s had a hard life up to this point to say the least, but instead of exulting to find herself in secular paradise, she immediately starts heading back to her homeworld to get revenge on the man who repeatedly raped and ultimately killed her. That’s understandable, but what’s less understandable is that while the Culture politely scolds her for wanting to kill someone, it doesn’t seem to have any therapy or counseling options available besides, well, being in the Culture, and that’s obviously not enough in this case. In any case, Lededje is given a new body but no psychological help, so off she goes. Her quest takes up a fair amount of the novel, but it ultimately doesn’t have any real impact on events.

Her murderer, Veppers, is a technocrat with a corporate empire in a non-Culture human civilization. In addition to being a serial rapist and a murderer, he literally has a harem and also holds gladiatorial events on his massive estate. A substantial chunk of the novel is told from his perspective, but this is made bearable by one of Banks’ literary superpowers: his ability to infuse charisma into over-the-top villains like Veppers and Transition‘s Adrian. Bearable, but not, in my opinion, worthwhile. These utterly self-centered characters have showed up frequently in Banks’ later work, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence they are absent from his best novels. In any case, most of the civilizations operating Hells turn out to have contracted out administration and maintenance to Veppers over the years, and he has a convoluted scheme to turn the galactic debate over their morality to his advantage. In the end, however, his schemes come to nothing and it seems unlikely they could have ever succeeded.

Prin and Chay meanwhile are anti-Hell activists of a nonhuman race that operates a virtual reality Hell, although to avoid censure from both domestic and galactic sources, this Hell is kept secret. With the aid of hackers, they enter their race’s Hell while still alive with the intention of escaping and then going to the media with their story. These are the scenes that let Banks construct his infernal theme park, but additionally Chay’s story in particular turns out to have some interesting moments. Overall, however, this was a frustrating storyline. The only argument presented by the pro-Hell side justifying their virtual reality Hell, which I remind you is a secret, centers on its deterrence. Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see how it can deter anything unless people know it exists. Meanwhile, Prin’s goal is to testify before some sort of galactic tribunal of unspecified powers, but plenty of civilizations seem to admit to operating Hells and no one has stopped them yet, so I’m not sure what this was supposed to accomplish. Ultimately Prin and Chay’s crusade is overtaken by events elsewhere, so their heroism doesn’t end up changing the outcome.

The only Culture citizen of the viewpoint characters is Yime, a human working for a branch of the Culture’s Contact bureaucracy that specializes issues relating to uploaded dead people. I don’t see why the Culture wouldn’t just call these “people” since really there’s nothing dead about them, but in any event she is sent after Lededje in hopes of…well, that’s never made clear. She’s just supposed to get to Lededje and trust this will be useful somehow. This seemingly simple task proves unexpectedly difficult, but Lededje turns out to be unimportant, so Yime’s mission is even more so.

The final viewpoint character is a man named Vatueil. After much acrimonious debate in galactic diplomatic channels, the pro-Hell and anti-Hell activists apparently decided to settle the issue by fighting a virtual war and swearing to abide by the result. Vatueil fights in this war for hundreds of subjective years. In the end, the losing side doesn’t respect their oath and starts a real war instead, so Vatueil was apparently completely wasting his time. I think Banks was trying to be ironic here, something along the lines of war being hell and Vatueil finding himself in a virtual hell about virtual Hells. Maybe. If so, it didn’t really work.

Incidentally, Banks is fond of twist endings, and there is a revelation in the epilogue relating to a previous Culture book. For once I anticipated one of Banks’ little twists from miles away (and even figured out the relevant anagram while reading), but even if I hadn’t, it amounts to a “hey how about that” and doesn’t change much of anything about the novel (or the novel it references).

From these summaries of the viewpoint characters, you may notice a common theme. Although they frequently seem like they are about to influence the course of events, the characters all turn out to be spectators to the story. To a certain extent this is an inherent problem with the Culture setting. The intellect of the artificial intelligences that control the Culture is so vast that humans end up being mere bystanders. To the extent that the Culture is heaven, or at least a utopia, it begins looking suspiciously similar to Veppers’ life. Much of the time Banks spends with Veppers seems aimed at demonstrating how empty his life is: being wealthy, he can have virtually anything he wants, and he indulges himself with ridiculous pastimes as well as nearly constant sexual activity. Well, this really isn’t that different from the life we see Culture humans leading. Their post-scarcity economy gives them basically anything they want, they fritter their time away in outlandish hobbies, and of course seem to have as much sex as they want. While the Culture doesn’t allow the rape, murder, and slavery that Veppers also practices, these things are basically tangential to his lifestyle, and in any case if I recall correctly the Culture allows people to indulge such tastes in simulations.

Although there are some interesting contrasts here, it’s not really anything new if you’ve read previous Culture novels. It’s been a while since I read it, but I’m pretty sure the meaninglessness of life when it’s reducing to being a mere pet of machines was at the core of the Idirian opposition to the Culture in Consider Phlebas. While Banks has added a few new departments to Contact as well as a sort of galactic equivalent of the United Nations that ends up working out in practice rather similarly to the patronage system in David Brin’s Uplift novels, this is basically the same Culture setting being brought out of the toy box for another round. If you haven’t read Banks’ best work like Use of Weapons and Consider Phlebas, you should be reading those and not this novel. If you have, however, you might want to know if this novel is worth reading. Given all my complaints about the treatment of Hell and the powerless characters, I’m sure you would expect me to say no.

The thing is, when it gets going, this is an enormously fun novel. The Culture warship Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints steals every scene it finds itself in, and Banks makes sure it’s in plenty. I’ve often noticed that although people talk about wanting to see big battles in space opera, it’s really the sort of thing that comes across much better visually in a film or TV show than in prose. Banks squares this circle by letting us watch a complicated engagement with the Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints‘s running commentary. The ship’s breezily casual attitude toward combat, its relentless sarcasm, and its smirking asides are the prose equivalent of big budget special effects, at least for me.

Additionally, while as I’ve said there’s no substantive development of the Culture setting here, I feel out of all the Culture novels this one best captures the dark cynicism of Special Circumstances. Usually we see it from the inside, or else in retrospect, but most Culture characters in Surface Detail aren’t part of it and in fact both dislike and fear it. Even though this feeling is evoked and then not developed intellectually the way Banks’ early novels did, it’s nice to see Special Circumstances in its proper light without the distraction of the James Bond antics of their operatives.

In the end Surface Detail can be called a minor Culture novel, but it’s one of the better ones. Science fiction authors are well known for tailing off late in their careers and Banks has been writing for a long time now, but there’s more than enough good here for me to keep holding out hope that Banks has another great novel in his future.

City of Pearl by Karen Traviss

January 2, 2011 at 3:21 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment

Karen Traviss is mainly known as a writer of licensed novels, writing a number of Star Wars novels before having a falling out with Lucasfilm and moving on to some Gears of War books. Apparently something related to Halo is on the way as well. I admit to being a bit of a snob these days about licensed fiction. It’s not that some of it isn’t good (Timothy Zahn’s original Star Wars trilogy is his best work by a fair margin), but it’s hard to find the quality amongst the uninspired stuff since fans of a given license tend to have at least somewhat different criteria for judging fiction. However, one thing you can usually count on is that an author getting a lot of licensed work wrote something of their own that was well received in order to get that work in the first place. I’ve read a lot of good novels simply by backtracking down license authors’ careers, from Timothy Zahn’s early old-school science fiction in Spinnaret, Coming of Age, and Deadman’s Switch to Michael Stackpole’s clever fantasy Talion: Revanant to Matt Stover’s Heroes Die. Even Kevin J. Anderson’s Climbing Olympus wasn’t too bad.

All this brings us to Traviss’ City of Pearl, the first of a six book series that so far is her only non-licensed work at novel length. A ship full of cryogenically frozen people has made the excruciatingly long journey to a habitable planet many light years from Earth hoping to found a religious colony. Contact with Earth was lost soon after arrival, but there is reason to think these colonists made contact with intelligent aliens. The government of a future version of the EU decides to send a secular follow-up mission on a ship called the Thetis to find out what happened.

Just presenting the setup like that makes the novel sound a lot like Maria Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. There are, however, some large differences. Unlike The Sparrow‘s flashback structure, the novel is told from the perspective of the secular crew of the Thetis. And while The Sparrow used its story to interrogate the Christian values of its Jesuit main character, religious thought in City of Pearl is analyzed but not seriously challenged. The biggest difference, of course, is that the religion City of Pearl is centered on is not Christianity. Oh, the colonists were indeed Christian separatists setting up your typical city on a hill, but the Thetis arrives to find them having adapted their faith so that it fits into the value system of an alien species, the Wess’har. The Wess’har, it turns out, are fervent environmentalists.

For long time readers of science fiction, City of Pearl has an old-fashioned feel to it. The main character Shan Frankland is a woman, but otherwise she wouldn’t be out of place as the hard-nosed, omni-competent protagonist that once starred in most science fiction novels. By trade a police officer, she wound up commanding the Thetis despite having no relevant experience and skills (I’m not being snarky, the surprise and consternation of her crew is an ongoing issue and the government’s motivation for placing her in command is subject to much speculation before finally coming to light at the end of the novel) but despite her inexperience she has very little difficulty, though her take-no-prisoners attitude isn’t always to the liking of the crew. The Thetis crew is a mix of military and scientific personnel, and already you know there are two ways that might go. It soon becomes obvious this is the story of story where the soldiers are brave, upstanding people and the scientists (who work for those malign entities, corporations) are greedy and put their personal ambitions ahead of the mission. Well, fair enough, and I’ve had a long run of evil-soldiers-good-scientists so it was even a little refreshing. In a shocking twist on both formulas, the ship’s one journalist even turns out to be a decent guy. Although authorial sympathies are clear, there’s still some balance: the Thetis finds itself in a delicate diplomatic situation since the Wess’har having overwhelming technological superiority, and when the inevitable misunderstandings inflame tensions, the military and the scientists each contribute to screwing up the situation.

The book is also oddly reminiscent of Ender’s Game in that the crimes committed by the Thetis crew that so anger the Wess’har aren’t actually intentional. Perhaps this is meant to accentuate the different values of the Wess’har, who claim not to understand the concept of forgiveness (nor the distinction between murder and manslaughter) despite long association with the Christian colonists. As for their beliefs about the environment, they are the most extreme I can recall seeing in a science fiction novel. The Culture’s opposition to terraforming stays mostly off screen, and the Mars conservationists in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy were portrayed as the radical fringe. In addition to despising the consumption of meat (fair enough) and regarding all forms of life as equivalent (hmm), the Wess’har hold the somewhat paradoxical notions that the biosphere must be kept intact and that the most virtuous way to live on a planet is to dig out underground cities, because that way the landscape still looks the same. It’s not at all clear to me that an underground city has less ecological impact than one above ground, but the Wess’har merely present their beliefs, they don’t defend them. And rapidly the main character Shan Frankland comes to see the Wess’har way of life as more virtuous than humanity’s. Given what we end up finding out about her biography this is not implausible, but the process is aided by the reckless greed of both the scientist characters and the corporatist society back on Earth, so it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the author’s thumb is on the scale.

So: not really The Sparrow after all, and instead an environmentalist version of Out of the Silent Planet. It doesn’t have the philosophical content of C.S. Lewis’ novel, but its story component is much more substantial. Frankland is a likable protagonist and her struggles to chart a course between human and Wess’har demands make for an engaging narrative. While I’ve been a harsh here about ideas I didn’t feel were adequately developed, there are after all five sequels, so I’ll be giving the next one a try to see where Traviss takes the series.

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