Review of Mightier than the Sword by K.J. Parker

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This is a historical fantasy novella, published June 30, 2017, by Subterranean Press and running 136 pages. K.J. Parker (a pseudonym for British novelist Tom Holt) won the World Fantasy Award in 2012 and 2013 and has been nominated a couple of times since. This review contains spoilers.

The Emperor has been indisposed for some time, sort of on his death bed, and the Empress rules. The Empire has been plagued by barbarian raids of late, so she summons her nephew and puts him in charge of stopping the raids. Nephew is an Imperial legate, and a possible heir to the throne. The raids seem to have targeted monasteries fairly often, so he takes an expedition out into the hinterlands to investigate the monasteries for possible clues about who the barbarians are and what they want. The monasteries are repositories of history and learning, and are in charge of maintaining libraries and copying books. The Abbots turn out to be mostly old friends/relatives of the ruling family who have been banished from the capital, and everyone seems to have their own agenda. As Nephew unearths corruption and closes in on who might be behind the raids, word comes that the Emperor is dead and that he should stay where he is until the succession question is settled. What should he do?

This is an entertaining read, written in first person and presented as a translation of an ancient text. Nephew (unnamed, but possibly Emperor Ultor III) has a certain wit and a cynical viewpoint that lightens the narrative. As the Emperor’s nephew, he is completely comfortable in wielding wealth and power. He’s not the brightest, the handsomest, or the bravest, but he is likable and is well informed by study about military strategy. As the story develops, it becomes clear that Nephew is also a total realist and completely ruthless. He trusts (almost) no one, and does what he has to do to survive.

It’s hard to come up with any negatives in this. The only niggle I have is that Nephew seems to have a lot of trust in his staff, and no apparent suspicion of his sweetheart’s motives about suddenly agreeing to get married. Presumably he’s sure of these people because of his own personal charisma—plus, I guess you have to trust somebody. It’s a short book, but the length is about right. Once we’ve seen all the candidates for trouble, it moves right into the succession issue and finishes up without dragging its feet.

This goes back three years, but it very much addresses a couple of the recent popular themes in literary SFF. The first is the issue of erasing history. Nephew is totally on the side of preserving books, and in leaning on history for the path forward. “In the end,” he says, “books are all that matter…[they are] the past speaking to the future.” The second popular theme covered here is the assumption of wealth and power. Not only does this story provide a grand tour of the Empire’s corruption, but it also outlines the career path for the successful emperor candidate. Trained at ruthlessness from an early age, Nephew doesn’t waver. If they’re a challenge, they’re dead.

Recommended. Five stars.

Review of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker

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This novel is science fiction/historical fantasy, published by Orbit in April of 2019, and runs 325 pages. It’s apparently successful enough to have triggered a sequel, How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, upcoming in August 2020. K.J. Parker (a pseudonym for British novelist Tom Holt) won the World Fantasy Award in 2012 and 2013 and has been nominated a couple of times since. This review contains major spoilers.

Orhan is a colonel in the corp of engineers, normally employed in building bridges and repairing aqueducts. He’s a former slave and a minority in the country, often at odds with authority, but adept at corruption—the sort of lying and cheating that is necessary to deal with the government supply lines. After a surprise attack in the city of Classis, he gets crosswise with authority figures, so takes his crew into the hinterlands to work on a bridge. When they return to the base at Colophon, Orhan finds the city under siege, the fleet blocked, the army decimated, the emperor non-functional, and himself the ranking officer in the city. Oops. Can he take control, put together a resistance from the panicked residents and design some quick engines for defense? And once he knows who’s behind the attack on the city, can he deal with the issues there?

On the positive side, this is wry and sharply entertaining. It’s written in first person and Orhan has a totally cynical view of government, petty tyrants and red tape. He’s also good at working all the angles; plus a solid engineer when it comes to building bridges and siege tech. He has a daughter that provides an emotional touch. The theme is also a standout. The subtext here is about racism and slavery, but the author has turned this backward from what we see in US society. Orhan is a milkface, brought by slavers into a country of dark-skinned bluebloods. He suffers discrimination and has a slight chip on his shoulder about the whole thing that affects his interactions. Regardless, he chooses to carry on with his responsibilities, trying hard to save his adopted city from a siege brought by what turns out to be another former slave out for revenge. This is subtle, but feels downright subversive to me in today’s political climate. Enough so that I looked up Orbit. It’s owned by Hachette Livre, a French company.

On the less positive side, there are a few minor issues. First, this has a slight mid-novel slump. It is highly entertaining during the set up, but once the defense organization within the city is up and running, there’s little for the residents to do except fight amongst themselves. This is messy and fails to produce any real furtherance of the story. The identity of Orhan’s daughter is revealed fairly late in the novel, which requires reinterpretation of events. And last, the dissonance in the slavery theme comes from Orhan’s parleys with his opponent, the former slave, but the light treatment here undermines the drama built up through the whole book to this point—this is the place where Orhan has to do some serious soul-searching about his race and position in society and for the author to make us wonder whether he’s going to support the society he lives in or tear it down. Still, the understatement is probably necessary because this is such a hot-button topic. In the era of cancel culture, somehow this novel has gone totally under the radar.

Highly recommended. Five stars.

More on Wealth and Power

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Most people who gain wealth and power have followed some kind of career path that gives them the skills to be successful in holding onto it. However, there’s an alternate path to wealth and power that involves behaviors we generally consider morally corrupt. It’s a scenario where the end always justifies the means, and favors are more important than qualifications and skill.

Looking again at the currently popular theme of killing people and taking over their wealth and power, it can be tricky to transfer these without documents, so what the authors are having the protagonists do is resort to fraud to carry it off. There’s a long tradition in fiction of romantic thieves who make their living through trickery and clever heists, but somehow this feels different. It’s as if the authors are advising readers to cut corners to get what they want. This signals a shift in moral standards.

Examples: In The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, the protagonist January kills her benefactor William Cornelius Locke and forges documents to take over his estate so she can live in comfort and have what she wants. In Network Effect by Martha Wells, ART’s crew is forging documents to dispute ownership of worlds and displace the corporate owners. Both these instances are presented as matter-of-fact and justified because of systemic bias, therefore the right thing to do. So, is moral corruption now the approved method to achieve our various causes?

Of course, corruption has always been there in human interactions. Moral corruption is the whole basis of organized crime, which uses violence, assault, murder, extortion, and fraud to build wealth and power. These tactics also have a bad tendency to creep into politics, where the stakes for wealth and power are similarly high. The US has laws against corruption, but various investigations and charges signal that it is fairly common and ongoing in politics. Somehow it is just there, strongly associated with people who achieve positions where they see the opportunities to capture or launder money and make deals to benefit their own personal interests.

So, is this one of the opportunities that women (or minorities) have been missing in their quest for wealth and power? Is that why authors are now pointing it out as a morally justified activity? It’s true that women have a complex association with corruption. Historically they have often attached to corrupt and powerful men to share in their spoils. Research shows that (at least in democracies) more women in business and politics tends to be associated with lower levels of corruption. Plus, women see the opportunities differently. For example, women tend to evaluate the risk of corrupt behaviors more carefully than men, and may take a bribe and not follow through on the deal. This makes them less trustworthy for anyone who is offering corruption, and turns out to mean that men are approached with more and better deals. However, when there are no penalties, everybody seems equally corrupt.

On the one hand, we’ve got a human tendency to corruption, and on the other an unspoken assumption that our society has rules against corruption, and that this is the moral high ground. The question is which we’re going to choose, and where we’re going to draw the line. Another consideration is how we justify morally corrupt behaviors to ourselves and whether this is actually exculpatory. Is it okay for someone to (allegedly) lie about sexual assault for monetary or political gain as Tara Reade and Christine Blasey Ford have been accused of doing? Is it okay for somebody to manufacture a racial hate crime like Jussie Smollett or racial profiling like Rev. Jerrod Moultrie? Is it okay for Sherita Dixon-Cole to lie that Officer Daniel Hubbard sexually assaulted her during a traffic stop because of the need for police reform? These charges are consonant with political causes, so does that justify lying to manufacture incidents? Is this now the best way to get the power for the changes we want? Or not?

Charlie Jane Anders checked in with her opinion earlier this year. In City in the Middle of the Night, all the grand causes fail because corruption degrades the new order the same as the old. Would choosing a different path to wealth and power make a difference in the results?

Gaining and Using Personal Power

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Since I’ve reviewed a number of works in the last couple of years that seem to deal with the question of how to gain and use personal power, I’m going to devote a couple of blog post to it. Specifically, the most popular theme seems to be about killing someone and taking over their power, but other writers, like Holly Black for example, have taken a deeper look at why women, in particular, seem to have problems in gaining and using real authority. Power isn’t a dark mystery. It’s an important subject to anybody interested in leadership, and social scientists have studied how it’s done. Again, this is just the high points, and anyone interested in the topic should do more reading.

In 1959, French and Raven identified five bases of power: legitimate, reward, expert, referent and coercive. Later, they added informational as a sixth. Legitimate power is generally gained from a formal position of some kind, like a boss or a president, that everyone agrees has a right to give orders and expect compliance. Reward power has to do with what kind of rewards a person can provide for his or her followers. Bosses can hand out bonuses, for example; politicians provide a job in the administration and crime lords share their wealth and influence with followers. Expert power is based on high levels of skill or knowledge. A mentor has this kind of power, as does a medical expert or a military strategist. Referent power comes from a person’s particular personality or charisma. This kind of leader is highly respected and perceived as worthy by his or her followers. Coercive power comes from the ability of a particular person to hand out punishment for anyone who steps out of line. Police, the military and some businesses enforce this kind of power, as someone who fails to follow the rules can be subject to fines, imprisonment, or in the case of work, get demoted or fired. Informational power has to do with the ability to control the information someone receives. This includes influencing beliefs through fake news and web brigades to rig foreign elections.

It’s easy to see that highly effective leaders often employ several of these power bases. King Arthur, for example, was apparently a highly charismatic leader, seen as legitimate because of Excalibur. He also had the power to punish and reward his followers, and presumably he developed into an expert peacemaker and strategist in dealing with his enemies. Some leaders may have problems in combining power bases like this. For example, a boss may have positional authority, but lose the respect of employees because of negative and demeaning policies, overuse of punishment, corruption, unreasonable demands, failure in planning, etc. Some positional power is also undermined because this kind of leader doesn’t have the control of events followers expect. For example, company management sets policy that supervisors have to follow. Personal charisma is always the wild card.

So, why do women have problems with this? I can’t define this problem in just a few words, but I’ll review some literature. Again, studies have suggested causes. There is a huge snarl of traditional expectations at work that undermine women in power positions. Traditionally women have taken their positions of power and authority from their male relatives, husbands or boyfriends. You can still see this at work from the prominence of Ivanka Trump, for example, or the push to draft Michelle Obama as a presidential candidate. Women are often less interested in positions of power, possibly because of family responsibilities and other interests. Another big difference is that men traditionally mentor younger men, sharing methods for successfully wielding power, while women fail to establish appropriate support networks. Because of this women can miss the existence of unwritten rules in an organization that all the men know about. Once in positions of power, women also tend to behave differently, as studies show women are less inclined to use rewards like bribery, suggesting that they may employ fewer tools in building and maintaining a power base. Studies of alpha females found that their positions of power correlated with masculine traits, but women may have problems in presenting these without being identified as shrewish and strident. Consider the campaign to convince Oprah Winfrey to run for president, for example. Winfrey is highly charismatic and known for empathy and social consciousness. She has considerable influence in media, but why was she unwilling to move up to a run for president in 2020? How would she have had to alter her image to stand on a debate stage next to Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris, for example, and attack the other candidates?

For further reading on female power, check the article here.

Review of The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black

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The Queen of Nothing is the third novel in the Folk of the Air series, preceded by The Cruel Prince and The Wicked King to complete a three-novel set. The Queen of Nothing was published by Little Brown in November of 2019, and runs 320 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Jude had been banished by the High King to the mortal world for her murder of Prince Balekin. She is living with her sister Vivi, Vivi’s girlfriend Heather and her brother Oak in Heather’s apartment, and makes money to help with the rent by hiring out as an errand-girl for a local faery. She accepts a job and ends up fighting a duel with Grima Mog, Redcap general of the Court of Teeth, who then reveals a plot to dethrone the King of Elfhame. Soon after, Jude’s twin sister Taryn arrives. She reveals she has killed her husband Locke, and she wants Jude to stand in for her at the inquest so she can use her resistance to glamour in order to lie. Jude agrees, and disguised as Taryn, she re-enters Elfhame. The inquest seems to go well until Nicasea insists Taryn be searched for a charm, and King Carden offers to examine Taryn himself. Once they are alone, he reveals he knows who she is. Madoc attacks the palace, attempting to rescue Taryn, and captures Jude. She wakes in Madoc’s war camp, where she continues to pretend she is Taryn and learns about the plot to remove the High King. When Madoc’s forces arrive at the palace to capture the crown, Carden destroys it and then turns into a monstrous serpent that defiles anything it touches. Is there anything Jude can do to save the kingdom and claim her rights as Queen of Elfhame?

My first impulse that this is an allegory for high school turns out to be correct. Jude and Taryn are Average Kids trying to enter a clique of the Right People. Nicisea is the Mean Girl, Locke is the Gamer, and Carden is the abused child who grows up to be a monster that Jude tries to salvage. Jude continues to fight her way through everything, while her twin Taryn tries to blend. At the end, everybody ends up getting pizza together at the local shop. On top of this, author Black spins the surface story of Faerie and the scheming around succession to the throne. In general this works well, and the story manages to be entertaining on both levels. It continues the theme of fighting for power versus submission to the system, and Jude continues to fail in her struggle to deal with a powerful position. Black’s trademark style is fairly lyrical and this is strongly plotted, if a little abrupt sometimes and short on transitions.

On the less positive side, the surface story seems to be wearing a little thin toward the finale as the allegory starts pulling the strings. Jude constantly overestimates her abilities, takes on more than she can handle and then despairs—after a while, she ought to know better. Maybe the constant murders are an allegory for “cutting people dead,” but the high attrition rate continues to be worrisome. Also, it would be nice if Jude and Carden would just talk. A little bit of communication would go a long way in resolving the issues between them. Instead, Jude remains defensive and suspicious, refusing to recognize that it’s about anything but Jude. As far as I can tell, she never grows much as a person, always grandstanding solo rather than taking the reins of power and working within the structure that should be in place to defend the king and the kingdom. I’m wondering why so much space is used up by descriptions of women’s gowns, and also why everyone uses just swords and knives. Maybe there’s some magic in Faerie that prevents the use of firearms, but in the mortal world, why does Jude still show up for a fight with just a knife? There are other ways, dear.

This is a good story, regardless of the niggles. Highly recommended for young adult.

Four stars.

The Myth of Family versus Factory Farms in SFF Stories

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Okay, one more rant in this series and then I’m done. There seems to be a myth out there about the pastoral family farm. Martha Wells uses this to describe Preservation’s economy, and I’m sure she’s right on the current zeitgeist. It’s more about that yearning to live a free life in a kind, caring, socialist economy that takes care of everybody (including animals) and provides the kind of safe food supply the US enjoyed in the pre-world war years.

This theme is a reflection of real life movements concerned about the welfare of animals crammed into crowded pens on factory farms. There are also concerns about disease in this system, and how quickly it can spread in crowded conditions. Activist groups are currently taking action on bills to limit factory farming in the US as a proposed method of “ protecting the food supply” from pandemics like coronavirus, apparently trying to make the association between these farms and the wet markets in China where animals are slaughtered onsite.

About 99% of US farm animals live on factory farms, and this isn’t unusual. Global studies suggest that about 90% of farm animals are raised on factory farms worldwide. So, if factory farms were banned, then a possible 99% of the meat supply would disappear off the US grocery store shelves.

Could we go to a vegetable or grain-based food supply instead? It’s definitely more efficient and cost-effective. Currently about 33% of corn produced in the US goes for animal feed, and about 40% goes to ethanol production. Only about 1.6% goes to bread and cereal products. US wheat looks slightly better: 36% percent is consumed domestically by humans, 50% is exported, and 10% is used for livestock feed, Couldn’t we add soy and turn these grains into burgers, instead?

The truth is that grain is also produced on factory farms. US grains are often genetically modified (GMO), leading to varieties that produce well, but may cause unknown health problems. Grains are also subject to disease, though generally fungus and not viruses like swine flu or coronavirus. Crops like grain, lentils and soybeans are often spraying with glyphosate (Roundup) to desiccate the green parts before harvesting. This after earlier spraying with insecticides to control pests. This means grain and vegetables from factory farms are often contaminated with chemicals that can cause cancer and affect hormones. You can see where the issue about factory farms is coming from.

So, is there any way to make the small family farm work again as the major US food supplier? The truth is that the small family farm has been in trouble for a long time. Most of them run in the red, and small farmers have to have second jobs that pay the taxes and actually support the family. Regardless, these small farms still produce about 27% of the US food supply. Can we get by on that? Probably not.

The issues are land available, profitability and population. About 44% of US land is currently available for agriculture, and many small family farms are gone, bought up for housing developments. Farming is also what’s called in economics a perfect competition, which means that profits often go down as production goes up. In 1900, the population of the US was about 76 million, and about 60% lived in rural areas and grew their own food. Today the population is about 273 million and only about 18% live in rural areas. That means it will be hard to create small family farms again, and to make them profitable. Next, would this system be able to produce enough food for the current US population? Not without major changes. So, trying to limit factory farms is a questionable goal without having a backup plan.

This also means that writers should take a second look at that idea of the bucolic economy supported by small family farms. It will only work if the population is small and most people provide their own food supply. This will not be a highly profitable economy. Small farmers have less capital to buy equipment and they lose the economy of scale advantage that large farms have in planting crops. That means everyone will need to work in the fields. Farming is not a leisure activity unless you have, maybe, a lot of bots that do the dirty work for you. That’s a big investment, too. Maybe illegal aliens instead? They work for low wages.

Economic Analysis of the Corporate Rim versus Preservation in the Murderbot Diaries

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This won’t be anything scholarly, but I’ll try to hit the high points. I don’t mean to pick on Martha Wells, in particular. I love the Murderbot Diaries, and generally the economic system has been vague enough to get by. However, after a few installments, it’s now specific enough to get a grip on.

First, the Corporate Rim is a fairly standard instance of unregulated capitalism. It’s unclear where the government is that should be regulating it, or even if there is such a government—maybe there’s only a network of local administrations and a civil court system. If so, this is a case of imperialist might-makes-right, and it’s no wonder everybody has to hire muscle to carry out simple planetary surveys. The corporations indenture workers on labor contracts where they do get paid, but also have to pay the companies for board and health care, meaning they won’t have much at the end of the contract. In addition, the corporates buy and sell planets, kill off inconvenient competitors, ignore laws about interdicted areas, enslave human-machine hybrids, and are irresponsible with terraforming operations and seeding of colonists. Apparently there’s also a lot of damage from production like mining operations that the companies expect to abandon. This sounds very workable, but it’s also clear that it’s not the most optimal system.

Preservation is an independent freehold planet. The colonists were originally seeded on another planet where the terraforming was ineffective, so they were starving. They were rescued by a colony ship that stored them in the hold and brought them to Preservation. The colonists then rebuilt the ship into a wormhole port station. It’s unclear who operated the ship or how they got title to the planet, but the story suggests this was a rescue operation rather than a business deal–maybe someone looking for colonists to populate their private planet. According to Murderbot, the planet works on a barter system but the station works on hard currency cards in order to interface with systems that travelers come in from. Farms on the planet are operated by family groups, and everyone seems to be prosperous, though we have no information on how this works. (Does the government own the farms? Where are the farm workers? Do they use bots for the dirty work? Does everyone take a turn in the fields?) The government doesn’t seem to lack for funds. Commerce is low key and many things seem to be provided free of charge, including traveler lodging on the station. It appears that public servants volunteer their time, and are required to continue their normal occupations at the same time. This is why Mensah is the planetary leader and also working as lead on a planetary survey. Presumably she also has duties on the family farm, though we never see her working there, only on the survey and the station.

Okay, so I have some questions about how this system works. The main one is how family-operated farms and a barter system can generate enough wealth to build and maintain a wormhole station and operate a fleet of ships that is available for surveys and rescue missions. This sounds Bronze Age pastoral. The barter system means they will trade chickens for medical care, and it will take a lot of chickens and cows to buy a spaceship. Pin Lee is a lawyer and Ratthi is a biologist. Do they get paid with tomatoes and squash? Do they work on farms in addition to this? Does Preservation have manufacturing capabilities? How does that work on a barter system? They’ve bought an option on another planet and are considering further investment. What are they planning to do with it? Where did they get the funds? Plus Mensah has plenty of cash on hand to pay off the Company for bonds and to buy one of their SecUnits. Presumably this is government funds she’s using. Therefore Preservation must grow, mine or manufacture something of considerable trade value with the Corporation Rim in order to have this kind of budget. It can’t be generated from a farm and barter economy without a currency to store value. That just won’t work.

Why can’t governments just print money and give it to everybody?

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Some of the discussion following recent reviews is about the current socialist versus capitalist theme of the novels, stories, etc., so I’m feeling like basic economics warrants a blog post. This a big subject, and I can’t cover it all in a short post, but I’ll supply some links and recommend further reading.

I suspect the prevalence of this theme is a reaction to decades-long trends in real life, where government policy in the US, for example, has favored wealthy capitalists and made accumulation of wealth harder for the poor and middle class. After WWII, many developed countries got rich from financing the rebuilding, which benefitted both the US capitalist system and the middle class, but by about 1960, this advantage started to bottom out. Then in the 1980s the Soviet Union collapsed. This was the major socialist challenge to capitalism in the post-war years. The collapse seemed to validate the US system of capitalism, and left the US as the major global economic power. This encouraged further expansion of capitalism though deregulation and world politics.

Production has moved from the US to Africa and Asia in search of less regulation and lower labor costs, and increasing automation in the US is also causing reduced opportunity for workers. Young middle-class workers are burdened by student loans, and good jobs are hard to come by. As a result, there’s been a movement toward socialism in the US, and calls for taxing the wealthy to provide everyone a basic income. This is not a new idea. The UK tried taxing the rich, and the wealthy just moved out of the UK. That means there will be problems with it in the US, too. See article on various countries’ experiences with socialism here.

So why does a government have to tax anybody? Why can’t a government just print more money and use it to provide everyone a basic income regardless of whether they have a job? The answer is that printing money without supporting it with increased economic activity devalues money and causes huge price inflation. You’re used to paying a certain amount for groceries, and if more people have money to buy groceries, then supplies drop and the price goes up. Eventually the supply will catch up and the market come back into balance, but the price of everything has gone up the same way, and now your money isn’t worth what it used to be worth. Also, if you’ve been saving for something (investment, college, old age), the value of savings drops during inflation, so you lose the results of your labor. See article on inflation here.

Economic systems are part of world building for speculative fiction, so let’s look at a few from history. The simplest is hunter/gatherer societies. Early humans did this, and as late as the 1800s it was still good for Native Americans that followed the buffalo herds, for example. However, this only works when there’s plenty of wild bounty to support everybody. When things get scarce, then you lose too much in wars trying to protect your interests. The next step for a society is agriculture and animal husbandry. This means you can accumulate wealth in the value of produce and herds, and this generally results in a barter system, where you can trade chickens for blacksmith work, for example. The problem is that this generates something like a feudal system, sharecropping and wars over ownership of the land. Plus, cattle herds are too bulky for saving in a treasury and they tend to die in a disaster. This means you need a safe medium of exchange, often gold, that’s easy to carry and store. That way you can set the value of a cow to one gold coin, or whatever, and everyone agrees to abide by this policy. Eventually gold gets too heavy to carry around, so nations go to paper money backed by gold, and then maybe just the strength of the economic activity. From there, the next step is to electronic transfer of funds by cards, phone apps, etc. Regardless, this remains a store of the value of your economic activity. It can’t be replaced with funds that aren’t backed by economic activity without disruptions in prices and the supply of goods. Exchange rates between countries reflect the value of their economic systems. See article on the history of money here.

Next, economic analysis of the Corporate Rim versus Preservation in the Murderbot Diaries.

Review of Network Effect by Martha Wells

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This is the hugely hyped sequel to the Murderbot Diaries series of novellas, a full-length novel at 346 pages. It was released by Tor/Macmillan on 5 May 2020 and immediately went to #3 on the NYT Bestseller list. It looks like another novella, Fugitive Telemetry (The Murderbot Diaries Book 6), is scheduled for release 27 April 2021. This review contains major spoilers.

Murderbot has contracted with Dr. Arada to provide security for her planetary marine survey. Just as they’re finishing up, they’re attacked by raiders, but MB holds them off and the research module takes off safely and docks with the orbiting baseship. They return to Preservation space, but as soon as they exit the wormhole, they’re attacked by another ship that tries to dock with the module. The baseship jettisons the module and escapes, and Arada, Overse, Ratthi and Thiago launch in the safepod, but MB and Dr. Mensah’s daughter Amena are caught by the attacking ship. Once within scanning distance, MB realizes the ship is ART (a.k.a. Perihelion), a university research vessel which helped it change its configuration and deal with things at Ganaka Pit in Artificial Condition. Clearly something bad has happened. ART is missing in action and the ship is being run by highly divergent humans who have installed their own operating system. MB wipes them out and destroys the new system, then reinstalls ART from a hidden file. The safepod has attached to the outside of the ship and gone through the wormhole with them, so the survey crew comes on board. Also onboard are two Barish-Estranza corporates, Ras and Eletra, who have crude implants that seem to allow external control. The ship has emerged into a system Eletra recognizes. Barish-Estranza has recently bought the planet and means to indenture the colonists, but the place is contaminated by alien remnants so two Barish-Estranza ships and ART, on a mission to liberate the colonists, were contaminated and taken over by an expanding hive mind. ART needed help, so it made up a plan to kidnap MB in Preservation space. Ras suddenly goes crazy and then dies, but they contact the Barish-Stranza main ship and transfer Eletra. Then they all look at the issue of how to find and rescue ART’s crew. Can it be done?

This has a lot of great points. It’s strongly plotted. The main characters are already established and it moves right along, revealing somewhat more about the characters, the corporate culture of the Rim and the adversarial free-hold planets. The counter play between ART and MB is entertaining. There are a couple of personal glimpses that are memorable and strongly dramatic. The final solution for defeating the hive mind is also creative. From all early reviews, this will be well received by fans.

On the not so positive side, this is probably the result of contracting to write a novel within a certain time limit and then getting too much advice on how to write it. I notice one early reviewer complained about pacing issues, but there are also problems with uneven characterization and questionable plot directions. Plus, this has ventured into subversive politics that some people won’t like (see Anders recent take on that). One cause of the problems is that there is a novella’s worth of material that’s missing from between Exit Strategy and this novel. Wells has folded some of it into interludes within the novel, but some of it is still just missing. The next problem is that this is stuffed too full of action when it should have been spread out over more novels/novellas. We start at the end of Arada’s survey, and MB is already upset and angry, something that’s unusual for it, which continues throughout. Thiago is either an idiot grand-stander, or else he and Arada have had a conflict about leadership through the whole survey mission. This is not clarified, and Thiago remains erratic and undefined. From this early emergency state, we continue right on into more emergencies, which ups the action/tension ante, but prevents the excellent story development and interpersonal conflicts that were characteristic of the novellas. There’s also very little additional character development for Arada and Overse, and hardly any at all for ART’s crew, clearly its major priority.

The wonderful, subtle, emerging quality about MB and ART is gone for this novel, and both characters act more human than not, just another one of the crew, haha. In the end, MB ends up failing dismally to rescue anybody, and has to be rescued itself. And then the politics: ART turns out to be only disguised as a research vessel. Its crew is traveling to planets controlled by corporate interests and trying to liberate the colonists by falsifying documents and then fighting in court about it. Regardless of abuses, falsifying documents is illegal, unethical, lowlife and pretty certain to provoke retaliation. This is not discussed. Plus, given the corporate responses we’ve seen, any organization that did this would need heavy security, heavy backing and really deep pockets. Also, if they’re not doing astronomical research, then why do they need an expensive AI like ART to run the ship? MB’s friends immediately support this activity, also questionable, as they should have learned their lesson from recent brushes with GrayCris and its ally Palisade. I’m also still wondering about the economic base of the freehold planets like Preservation. Where are they getting all this money to burn? Mensah shows up in a ship to rescue everybody, but what gives her the authority if she’s supposedly resigned as planetary leader? Is she somehow wealthy enough to pay for her own ship? And last, the corporates are fighting over this planet, even though it’s clearly contaminated by alien remnants. Isn’t it interdicted because of that? What gives?

I’m especially concerned about the issue here of promoting illegal and unethical actions to young readers as something their beloved characters support. Or even older readers, for that matter. It’s easy to slip into moral relativism and assume anything is okay as long as it’s done with good intentions. That’s really not so.

Two and a half stars.

Review of “Home” by Martha Wells

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Pre-orders of Wells’ novel Network Effect came with a bonus short story titled “Home: Habitat, Range, Niche, Territory.” This was released 5 May 2020 (I guess) by Tor, and I don’t have a page count, but it runs pretty short. This review contains spoilers.

Preservation Planetary Leader Ayda Mensah is suffering from PTSD from her recent experiences: first in GrayCris’s effort to murder her survey crew, and then being kidnapped and held as a bargaining chip at their corporate headquarters. The resulting highly dangerous escape and chase by Palisade didn’t help much, either. As the story opens, Ayda is in a discussion with Ephriam, council member and past-planetary leader about the wisdom of bringing a “product of corporate surveillance capitalism and authoritarian enforcement to the seat of our government.” He means the SecUnit Murderbot, of course. The conversation goes nowhere, but predicts similar conversations with the rest of the council. Ayda heads back to the team quarters on the station, where the team is trying to pull together their final report on the survey and make recommendations about their claim on the planet in question. Pin-Lee reviews the billing from the company and MB, always eavesdropping, realizes that Mensah has not completed the recommended trauma therapy. She leaves the team area to get more supplies for the coffee bar and encounters a strange reporter. MB is there immediately and scares the man away, reports him to station security. Waiting for security to arrive, they have a moment for a private conversation. What does Murderbot want from her?

This is a direct extension of the story contained in the MB novellas, a brief, personal glimpse of what Mensah hides behind her confident exterior, along with a review of events and what the council thinks about a SecUnit coming into Preservation space. It includes Wells’ emphasis on drama and relationships, and also subtly reveals the discrimination constructs experience, even in Preservation space, which is normally very welcoming to outsiders. Also, we get the most description of what MB looks like yet. The diaries are first person, and it doesn’t look at itself much.

On the less positive side, I’m wondering why Preservation is still considering exercise of their option on the surveyed planet when there were clearly alien remnants there. These are considered dangerous and interdicted. Also, I’m wondering what Preservation’s economy is based on that they seem so open-handed. Not only did Mensah have plenty of cash on hand to pay off the bond company’s increasing demands for bond payments in the GrayCris debacle, but it looks like lots of things there are provided free, including fairly comfortable lodging for travelers in a station that must have limited space. Economics rules, and nothing is ever really free.

Interestingly, this seems to come direct from the author’s keyboard, unedited and unproofed. It’s full of errors, including mis-spelled names. Ha.

Four stars.

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