Monday, December 14, 2009

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless by Jack Campbell

One of the things about military-SF is that sometimes the books are more concerned about the toys than trying to create a setting that undeniably feels military in nature. That's why it is so gratifying when my friend handed me Jack Campbell's book, and it turned out to have that "feel" in spades.

Campbell (a pseudonym for SF writer John G Hemry) creates a universe that is "light" on the toys (he gives very basic descriptions of the ship's weapon systems), but heavy on the military aspect, dialogue and especially on the SF of what ship-to-ship combat might look like in a Newtonian/Einsteinian universe.

The story is clever -- although not necessarily original -- in its exploration of themes. And there are a few. The main character, John Geary, is the survivor of a battle nearly a hundred years ago that launched the war between the human populated Syndicate and Alliance worlds. Recovered from his escape pod -- in which he had been in hibernation -- Geary is suddenly thrown into a setting that is both familiar and very alien to him. But, in true Arthurian form, the fleet that recovers him are going into (what they hope) is a decisive battle against the Syndics, only to face defeat and Geary assuming responsibility as the most senior captain (after the commanding admiral is gunned down in cold blood). Through Geary we learn the pressures of military command, and the need for military discipline, no matter how silly it might look to a civilian.

On the other hand, we are introduced to Co-President Rione, whose role is not only to act as a foil against Geary, but also to explore the disconnect between military and civilian spheres that often happens. This is particularly notable when Geary decides to fight a battle against an inferior Syndic force, highlighting the necessity of discipline, but also the divide between rational decisions as they are seen by the military and civilian apparatus.

Along the way we are treated to a lot of battle descriptions, and the uniqueness of fighting a battle based on Newtonian physics, touched on by Einsteinian relativity effects.

One of the really gratifying elements is, as I mentioned, the military "feel" of the setting. For people that might never have served in the military, this aspect might not be as apparent, but for those that have, I thought it was an excellent detail. Of course, this is no mistake, since Hemry is retired US Navy. But the way he crafts dialogue is the most convincing aspect; he crafts it in such a way that it is soldiers talking to soldiers, rather than what a civilian might think it would be. Although this is a small detail, for me it goes a long way in reinforcing the immersiveness of the setting.

Overall this was a very good book, and rather enjoyable. I'm very much looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Star Trek: New Frontier by Peter David

This will be a brief one today.

I picked up Star Trek: New Frontier a little while ago, and read through it the last couple of nights. It's short -- very short! Coming in at only 168pgs for the main story (and a sample chapter at the back from Vulcan's Forge), it is as brief as can be.

Also, in a way, it encapsulates what I think was going wrong with Star Trek in the latter years.

The point of the story, however, is to setup characters for the launch of the "New Frontier" line, the concept of which holds a lot of promise for me. One of the biggest excuses for the reboot and reimagining (because that is what it really is) of Star Trek is that the canon became unwieldy and a hindrance to the franchise. I disagree with this assessment, mainly because there are two types of canon within a long-running franchise that sprawls across multiple series: global canon and local canon.

Global Canon is canon of the entire franchise. It encompasses the major dates, events, setting assumptions and the like any entry into the franchise should conform to. It is much less interested in what Commander Riker was doing on a specific date, or the career details of Dr McKoy. It is much more concerned with when warp drive was developed, or when the Earth-Romulan war occured, and so on.

Local canon, on the other hand, is canon as it pertains to the specific series. This sort of canon would be concerned with the personal details and chronology of the individual characters, and events within that particular series.

I think part of the problem with Trek, and the reason why it collapsed under its own weight (and thus creating the illusion that the setting needed to be wiped clean and "re-imagined" in order to go forward) was a problem of writing, and a lack of concern about the different types of canon.

This book suffers for some of the same reasons.

The story introduces us to M'k'n'zy of Calhoun, a rebel leader at a very young age, and his struggle to survive. It continues to introduce a handful of other characters, establishing their backgrounds, but really not doing anything with them. In that sense this feels like "episode 1" to a two parter. I think that was the intention of the writer and line developers, but in a book format I don't think it worked well. This book could have easily been 400pgs and have something actually happen in it.

As the book progresses we learn that M'k'n'zy has joined starfleet and was a protege of Jean-luc Picard's, linking it very closely to the Next Generation series. We discover that the main character now goes by Mackenzie Calhoun (wee!) who has been tapped to command a starship sent into the middle of a political crisis.

Despite the almost fanfic development of Mackenzie (this concept really needed some more editorial oversite, in my mind), the fact that the main driver of the story (at this point) is the collapse of yet another Star Empire, and a political mission (rather than "Boldly going where no man has gone before!" an element Star Trek lost over the years and the reboot showing absolutely no danger of recovering) falls into the old trope of the franchise's latter years. The book was published in 1997, two years after the launch of Star Trek: Voyager. At the time, this is what Star Trek had become, so perhaps we can forgive the idea of the book. But nonetheless, it doesn't inspire either.

I am nonetheless still interested in a series that has its own internal canon, but does not find it neccessary to completely reimagine the setting completely. On its own merits, David's book was fairly uninteresting, but then when considering it is (at best) and introduction to the series, I may go on to the next book to see how it develops.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Lord of Night by Simon Spurrier

Every once in a while you get just a bit of validation for plowing through the genre section at the local bookstore. While reading genre fiction to me is a lot like watching TV, every once in a while you find a diamond in the rough.

Simon Spurrier's book is that for me.

In the 40K universe, where everything is grim and dark, Zso Sahaal of the Night Lords Traitor Space Marine legion crashlands and has something very important and very dear stolen from him. And thus he goes on his quest to recover the object.

Equally, Mita Ashyn is a psyker in the employ of the ruthless Inquisition, there on the same planet to root out possible alien influences. Despite her competency, she is belittled for her skills by her inqusitor and marginalized by the group.

What follows is a story in which, by the end you won't be sure who the real bad guys are. And that's the best thing about it.

Along the way we learn revelations about the character and motives of the Night Haunter, Konrad Curze, why he selected Zso as his successor, and the fate of the Night Lords Legion in the 10,000 year interim between the assassination of the Night Haunter and the release of Zso from his imprisonment.

One brief comment about the story: I think there's a bit of an anti-religion philosophy in the background of the book. Mita for example, had dedicated her life to the Emperor, trusting in his love for her salvation, and thanking him for the psychic gifts she has. By the end of the book she rejects the Emperor and realizes her psychic powers were hers and hers alone all along. If this isn't a nice stab for humanism, I'm not sure what is...

Overall this ranks as one of the best 40K books I've read yet, and for anyone that is "40K curious" I strongly reccommend it.