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A Wonderful New Novel and an Interesting Old Series - Synchronicity swirls and other foolishness

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January 27th, 2015


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02:39 pm - A Wonderful New Novel and an Interesting Old Series
Sadly, humane is not the most common adjective that one would use to describe most space opera novels, and charming is pretty much never on that list. I have however found one exception The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (as a DRM-free ebook), which is also available on Amazon. It's basically what you'd get if you took Firefly (minus the unfortunate Civil War metaphors) or an average campaign of the Traveller RPG and focused more on interpersonal dynamics and character's emotional lives, while substantially reducing the level of violence.

Don't go looking for anything remotely resembling hard SF here – the setting is less unbelievable and physically impossible than Star Wars or Star Trek, but not by vast amounts. However, if you are willing to fully engage your suspension of disbelief when you open the book, you're in for quite a treat. Not all of the major characters were likeable (although most were), but they were all understandable, and the way the novel switched points of view worked quite well.

This is the author's first novel and I'm definitely looking forward to more. It also makes me long to play an RPG like Traveller in the same style of low-action, major focus on interpersonal dynamics that we use for the other RPGs we play.

One reason I enjoyed The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet so much was that just before I read it, I finished rereading E.E. Smith's Lensman series, which was interesting, if utterly devoid of charming and sketchy on the humane.

The first and only time I read it was when I was a pre-teen, quite a number of decades ago. I remember thinking at the time that Boskone (the antagonists) were clearly stand-ins for Nazis. When I was that the books were published in the early 50s, that idea made perfect sense, and I thought no more about it, until a while back I reread Smith's Skylark series (the first book of which was published in 1928), I noticed that most of the Lensman series was first published before World War II, and the first two books (Triplanetary & Galactic Patrol) were published in the 1930s.

Galactic Patrol was first published (serialized in magazines) starting in late 1937 and completed in early 1938. The last part of this novel was published shortly before Nazi Germany invaded Austria and Czechoslovakia, meaning that very few people in the US considered the Nazis to be a military threat. However, upon rereading it, it's pretty clear that Boskone are Nazis. Instead of what seems to be gangs of pirates, you have an organized military force under the control of a tyrant who has complete contempt for freedom and liberty, and this tyrant's name is Helmuth. So, yes, definitely space Nazis.

What's fascinating is that they don't look at all like our conceptions of Nazis, since none of the modern stereotypes about them existed yet. What we have is a brutal tyranny where the will to power is their driving force, where failure is severely (and often fatally) punished, and compassion seen as weakness. However, the leaders are also just as intelligent as the heroes and their technology is just as high and sometimes higher. One big difference is the complete lack of racial (or even species) superiority. They are tyrants, but not racists. It's worth noting that in 1937, while anti-Semitism was thriving in Germany, no one was being rounded up and thrown into concentration camps.

These are also very different novels from his earlier Skylark series, where the answer to any serious problem seemed to be genocide – in the first novel it was on a continental scale, and by the last, it had expanded up to a galactic scale. The Lensman series involved throwing planets at other planets, but with the exception of the ultimate villains and some creatures that psychically fed on suffering and death, the goal was never to exterminate a species (although in practice, this presumably occasionally happened with all the throwing planets at each other) and the protagonists both worked to understand and befriend extremely alien creatures and showed compassion for others (yes, this all ultimately boils down to me saying that the Lensman series only has a limited amount of genocide).

In any case, I was surprised, because I honestly expected Smith to be pro-fascist, at least until the Nazi started attempting to conquer Europe, and he clearly wasn't.

Also, looking at the novels in the order that they were written turned up something else – his use of female characters changed quite a bit, from essentially none before WWII, to, in First Lensman (1950) actually come up with a reason why a woman who all of the other characters agrees should be a lensman can't be, and still having her be impressive, to Masters Of The Vortex (Here's a hilarious and also exceedingly accurate review of Masters of the Vortex). No, Smith never wins prizes for feminist writing, but compared to other SF from 1960 and before, Masters of the Vortex comes across as noticeably above average in that regard (although to be honest, in that era the bar is set pretty darn low).

(12 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:mindstalk
Date:January 28th, 2015 12:41 am (UTC)
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proofreading: 'interested' in the title
'when I was that'
[User Picture]
From:mindstalk
Date:January 28th, 2015 12:49 am (UTC)
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Heh. Books with more genocide than Lensmen. Never did read Skylark.

But yeah. Someone pointed out that Civilization is like a more open-minded Mythos. You've got really weird aliens, some not even made entirely of matter as we understand it, or limited to our dimensions. You've got entities full knowledge of which would be mind-blasting. But they get along, as best they can; it's IDIC, not xenophobia. And it's supposed to be democratic, though that interacts interestingly with the 'incorruptible' Lensmen. One of the prequels even has an election in detail.

I never expected it to be fascist, but I did expect more moral absolutism out of "Boy Scouts in space". Instead, I remember a recurrent message that Boskone wasn't morally wrong in some divine law sense, just different and incompossible. Also, inferior -- rigid authoritarianism is portrayed as intrinsically flawed, at a time when people were seriously wondering if 'democracy' had had its day and was on the way out, and if Soviet central planning or Fascism would win out.

Sort of an odd mix of moral relativism and values-Social Darwinism. "Your way is a different way, and that's okay, except you keep attacking us, and our way turns out to be better, thank Mentor."


As far as humane space opera goes, have you read Blue Remembered Earth? I haven't, but I've been hearing about it as "Alastair Reynolds tries to do utopia". _Learning the World_, _Freefall_, and _Sclock Mercenary_ also come to mind.
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:January 28th, 2015 01:50 am (UTC)
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I never expected it to be fascist, but I did expect more moral absolutism out of "Boy Scouts in space". Instead, I remember a recurrent message that Boskone wasn't morally wrong in some divine law sense, just different and incompossible. Also, inferior -- rigid authoritarianism is portrayed as intrinsically flawed, at a time when people were seriously wondering if 'democracy' had had its day and was on the way out, and if Soviet central planning or Fascism would win out.

Some of my expectations came from reading the Skylark series, which has some seriously horrific elements - gleeful ethnic cleansing is a phrase that could be applied to at least two of the four books of the series. Then again, the first Skylark book was written in 1928 and the third in 1934, and the world changed a lot in a few years. Maybe Smith thought better of his earlier ideas.
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:January 28th, 2015 02:42 am (UTC)
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As far as humane space opera goes, have you read Blue Remembered Earth?

I have and it's quite good. Reynolds, along with Hodgell, and Kirstein (if she ever releases another book - sigh) is on my pre-order the book as soon as it's announced list. I read almost all of what Martha Wells, Elizabeth Bear, and Charles Stross write, but I read everything Reynolds writes.

Almost all of Reynolds recent work had been humane space opera, but there's not a lot of other options these days. I'm hoping Ken MacLeod will stop writing grim near future SF sometime soon.
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:January 28th, 2015 07:25 am (UTC)
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Someone pointed out that Civilization is like a more open-minded Mythos. You've got really weird aliens, some not even made entirely of matter as we understand it, or limited to our dimensions. You've got entities full knowledge of which would be mind-blasting. But they get along, as best they can; it's IDIC, not xenophobia.

Absolutely - in his Skylark series, Worsel & (especially) Nadreck would have been monstrous and inhuman villains and both of their species would have been exterminated w/o mercy, in the Lensman novels, Nadreck is a valued ally and Worsel is Kinnison's best friend.
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From:mindstalk
Date:January 28th, 2015 12:55 am (UTC)
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The Masters of the Vortex review is interesting. Elephant princesses and space Spanish...
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From:heron61
Date:January 28th, 2015 01:51 am (UTC)
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It's a very odd book. Fun, and different from the earlier Lensman books, but also odd, the review is dead on.
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From:james_nicoll
Date:January 28th, 2015 06:00 am (UTC)
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(buys a copy)
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From:james_nicoll
Date:January 30th, 2015 04:10 pm (UTC)
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May I quote " It's basically what you'd get if you took Firefly (minus the unfortunate Civil War metaphors) or an average campaign of the Traveller RPG and focused more on interpersonal dynamics and character's emotional lives, while substantially reducing the level of violence."?
[User Picture]
From:james_nicoll
Date:January 30th, 2015 04:36 pm (UTC)
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And may I link to this post as well?
[User Picture]
From:heron61
Date:January 30th, 2015 09:06 pm (UTC)
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Yes & yes!
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From:james_nicoll
Date:January 30th, 2015 09:58 pm (UTC)
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Thank you.

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