Roboteer – Alex Lamb

Roboteer

So I lied. I said I wasn’t going to read any more books for a while, and then I read the Guardian’s Science Fiction Roundup for Q2 2015. Much of it wasn’t really what I was looking for, and then the last book in the list,  Roboteer, tempted me away from my self-imposed sensory deprivation.

Well, that and the prospect of several hours travel on a budget airline.

The main character of the book is a Roboteer, a genetically altered human being whose purpose in life, insofar as the designers of his genome are concerned, is the programming of robots. True AI is deemed impossible, at least with the science accessible to the colony worlds, so they created large numbers of robots to carry out the numerous and perilous tasks their environmental tinkering requires.  To manage this, they developed genetically-enhanced individuals capable of managing these large fleets of semi-autonomous robots by interfacing directly with the complex software that is their equivalent of a consciousness.

But Will’s career as a Roboteer is not back on his colony world. He is a Roboteer on a starship, deep in combat with a force from Earth, and so the book opens on a space battle unlike any you are likely to have seen before. The originality of it – including the interpretation of “soft attacks” that run in parallel to the more violent aspects of combat, is refreshing and a strong point of the book.

Roboteers have difficulty interacting with others. The particular skillset they receive from birth unfortunately pushes them a few notches up the autism spectrum, and they therefore suffer from a certain amount of discrimination. Will is a particularly high-functioning Roboteer, who feels this discrimination keenly. This has a tendency to get him into trouble, and this trouble, combined with his particular gift for his profession, lands him a job on a soft-attack ship, for a mission of critical importance to his colony – one on which their entire survival hinges.

Earth, united under a totalitarian religious leader, has climbed out of its long period of self-harm, and has rallied around a new holy crusade – to recapture the colonies that it once called its own, but who have since spread their wings, embraced self-modification and genetic optimisation, both hideous in the eyes of the new faith, and represent the capitalism that Earth and its religious leaders have identified as the source of all harm. People with adjustments must be “purged”, which is the kind of cleansing one doesn’t come back from. The war will therefore not result in half-measures, and is a live-or-die moment in the history of the human race.

Unfortunately, despite having spent almost a hundred years in civil war and therefore having failed to develop the same level of technological advancement as the colonies, Earth appears to have developed a weapon that may win them the war. Discovering the nature of this weapon is the mission Will and the crew of the ship he joins must undertake before Earth attacks Galatea and all is lost.

I leaped at the book because it represented a new voice in space opera, and a new take on how technology and society might arrange itself in the context of interplanetary civilisation. In this respect, the book is a terrific read, and I can only recommend it wholeheartedly.

The combat scenes are excellently drawn and very immersive, and the science behind the fiction is – for the most part – believable, if not hard SF when looked at closely. Unfortunately, and I never thought I’d hear myself say this, there’s too many of them.

The strength of a fleet is usually the way in which it co-operates. The value of a leader is usually in the strategy with which he directs troops and assets. The battles in Roboteer feel, by the end of the book, almost like first-person computer games, because individuals constantly and consistently shift the tide of entire battles on their own, through their direct actions. Perhaps because I have read too much military history, I found myself straining to maintain my suspension of disbelief, as a single ship or a single person saved the day or overcame impossible odds, yet again.

But don’t listen to me. I always find something to complain about (just read the previous reviews), and what you should really do is go out and buy this book. You should do this both for the obvious reason that it’s really quite good, but also because we really want to encourage new writers entering the field to continue writing and developing their skills. This is a really promising first book and I hope that Alex Lamb has a lot more of this kind of work in him.

Pause reading…

If you glance at the bookshelf page of the website, you’ll notice that the rate at which I’ve been finishing books lately has shot up, peaking at two books in one day on 3rd August. A bit ridiculous, actually, and as a result I’m a little sleep-deprived.

There’s a few reasons for this. One of which is that reading is a handy escape from stress that I’ve been indulging in lately since I’ve got more stress to hide from than usual. That will pass. In any case, it’s not the principal reason.

There’s no way I could have raced through, for example, The Bone Clocks. It’s too dense, there are too many important characters that I actually want to know about, and when you read a book like that too fast, you miss out on things that are important not only to the story but to the flavour of what you’re reading. Reading it fast is like eating pasta with no sauce. You have to have the sauce!

But recently, I’ve been reading a different kind of book.

This is not to criticise, there’s a place for all these stories, but some stories go further, are more inventive, create more interesting or complex consequences and relationships, and overall just make you think more than others. I have a loose grasp of why that is, why one story or one author tends to make me slow down and read more carefully whereas others make me want to turn the pages faster and faster to see what happens. To describe I have to carefully manoeuvre around the word “better” because it’s easy to say and unfortunately too broad and too inaccurate to describe the difference between these books.

I recently read the first two novels in both the Vatta’s War and Lost Fleet series. Both of these are fun reads, and I powered through them with almost no pause from the first to the last page other than those hours that are not entirely mine to dispose of as I please (work, minimum sleep requirements, the occasional raid on the fridge). They’re not the literary equivalent of fast food, but they’re not the equivalent of a gourmet meal either. I found the stories fun, the writing decent, the narrative strong in places, weak or perhaps a little simplistic in others (particularly characterisation), I valued them for their entertainment value and will undoubtedly read the rest of both series though they’re expensive compared to other works given how many books I will have to buy.

I also read The Bone Clocks, Seveneves and Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War. These took more time, were more dense with innovative ideas, depicted a number of main characters of equal complexity and depth, and were captivating and immersive in ways that didn’t make me want to turn the page faster, but occasionally made me want to read slower to ensure that I understood what was going on. Perhaps one aspect of this is that they challenged me to keep up with the research that had gone into writing them in the first place.

I think it’s probably fair to say that some combination of more effort, more skill and/or more time went into those books than the more linear storylines and limited casts of the pulpier novels that I enjoy.

It’s important not to overdose on these things.

Three or four chapters from the end of Old Man’s War, which I just finished (review pending, I have catching up to do, anyway it’s been out for years), I found myself reading so fast that I was skipping bits of description or dialogue. I’d force myself to go back to see if I’d missed anything critical, and I hadn’t. Often I’d subconsciously skipped a paragraph because it was telling me something about a character that I already knew (Vatta’s War and The Lost Fleet are particularly guilty of this). When I got to the end of it, I was both happy I knew how it finished, and strangely indifferent to starting another book straight away. So I stopped.

I’m going to take a few days off reading – to force myself to do other things, but also to let my literary tastebuds recover from too consistent a diet of military science fiction and linear adventure plots so I can enjoy the next book properly.

To me, this has been a bit of an object lesson in ensuring there’s variety in my reading diet.

 

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless – Jack Campbell

Dauntless (The Lost Fleet Book 1)

John Geary is very very cold. The psychological effects of having spent a hundred years in hibernation, frozen in a capsule after a battle in which he was presumed killed. That battle was the opening salvo in a war that has since continued unabated, losses on both sides mounting relentlessly.

John Geary is very famous. His actions and sacrifices during the battle resulted in many lives saved. Posthumously, he has become the poster child for generations of ever younger warriors and ship captains. As war casualties have killed the senior officers, the skills, strategies and tactics necessary to plan and execute a fleet engagement have been lost before they could be handed down. The fleet fights bravely, valiantly, but bluntly, with little in the way of intelligent battle planning.

John Geary is thrust by circumstance into the role of Fleet Admiral shortly after he awakens. For him four weeks have passed. For the fleet a hundred years, and to them, he is either a legend returned from the dead, or an outdated relic from the past. Faced with inexperienced crew, untrained ship captains, a philosophy of war in which bravery outranks tactics and a navy at odds with the values he was taught to respect as an officer, can Captain “Black Jack” Geary take the Alliance Fleet back to the safety of Alliance Space, or will the many challenges facing him overcome the advantage of his ancient, and yet vastly superior knowledge of engagement strategy, battle tactics and fleet management?

The concept of this story is exceptional. Geary is a perfect hero – the one who is thrust into the position of leader not just because he is famous, but also because he can see that everyone around him is completely lacking in the skills necessary to do more than charge at the enemy en masse. He reluctantly recognizes that, even if his seniority is based on an accident of history, he really is the only person in the fleet with the knowledge and skills to run an engagement intelligently. The only one with a chance of getting these sailors home.

Much is made of his legendary status, with ship captains under his command predictably splitting into groups that support or even idolize him, and groups who cannot accept the idea that a controlled engagement and long-term view of the conflict is better than the virtue of direct confrontation and the courage and self-sacrifice this represents. To some, he appears cowardly and at odds with the way history has depicted him.

Perhaps too much is made of it, in fact, because after several chapters, even though we understand that Geary is conflicted, even though we understand that some of the ship captains are against him, even though we know he is embarrassed by the way people idolize him, we still get long passages during which he walks the ship, agonizes over the way he is perceived, or has long disclosure sessions with the only civilian representative on board, a woman who makes much of the threat he poses as a living god who could seek to rule the Alliance as easily as serve it. She unfortunately seems to lack the finesse to understand that sometimes you deal with what’s in front of you before tacking the very theoretical and unproven problems of many months hence. She gets quite annoying, actually.

If the story’s emphasis lies elsewhere than character development, this is likely because Jack Campbell, a.k.a. John G. Henry, is a retired US Navy officer, and combat is what he knows. This is apparent in the battle scenes which are long, elaborate, and well thought through. The great strengths of this novel and the series as a whole rests in two things – the original idea of a world in which war has waged for so long that the art of war itself has been mostly lost, and both sides are reduced to flailing at each other with little in the way of tactics; and the well drawn military engagements that demonstrate the effectiveness of a military mind at the head of a fleet, especially when faced with an enemy that is not used to an opponent that does more than merely bludgeon.

But a story requires characters to bring it to life, and while Geary is very solidly depicted and rendered, few of the other characters benefit from that degree of complexity, appearing more as foils to bring contrast to Geary’s character than individuals in their own right. Each character has his or her place – The Co-President is Geary’s conscience (although she does more to confuse than to settle him), Captain Desjani is his day-to-day mirror, Duellos is his encouragement, remaining at the end of almost every single captain’s conference to advise and encourage him, Numos represents his opposition within the fleet, blindly hating and resenting anything that he says or does, and who can always be relied upon to disobey orders in the most damaging way. In the end, their behaviour is so predictable that they’re useful more for exposition than as true story elements in their own right. The only character truly in focus is Geary.

But military science fiction can get away with this, because we don’t necessarily read it for the characters – we want the battles. It’s a shame we can’t have both, but a novelist with a strong grasp of character would find it difficult – without major effort on their part – to describe battles in as convincing a manner as Campbell. So it’s a trade-off I’m willing to accept in a novel that is unashamedly military in its ambitions.

This is a good story, I hope that as I make my way through the series the characterisation becomes more complex. I’ve already read the second novel and not to pre-empt my review, it hasn’t really improved all that much in this particular area, but my hopes remain. There are further elements that are only hinted at that could become very interesting as the story develops – nobody seems to understand why these two groups are at war in the first place, for example, and that is something else that someone from the past can have an influence over.

I enjoyed this first look at Geary’s adventures, it’s a bit pulpy in the sense that I raced through it extremely fast, but it was satisfying nonetheless (if a little expensive in a dollars-per-hour-of-reading calculation).

Trading in Danger – Elizabeth Moon

Trading In Danger: Vatta's War: Book One

There are two principal ways in which this book (and those that follow, one would presume), is particularly strong.

The first, and more subtle, is the credibility of descriptions of military behaviour and composure under pressure. I hadn’t entirely understood why certain aspects of the heroine’s behaviour seemed so believably military-cadet-like until I learned that Elizabeth Moon has a military background herself.

The second particular strength is the nature of the world that’s being described as a backdrop to the story. With a far-flung empire and obligatory travel time measured in weeks and months rather than days, a kind of rule-by-consensus evolves. The distance and time involved in travelling from one point to another maintains and enhances the importance of shipping and transport while diluting the ability of any central authority to exercise control or to enforce a particular set of rules. Finally, it gives disproportionate power to anyone capable of bridging those distances with either information or matter, and those who have that sort of power have a strong incentive to hang on to their monopoly of it.

So it is that Kylara Vatta, after being thrown out of a military academy for rather spurious reasons, finds herself earning her way back into her family’s graces (and being conveniently moved away from the epicentre of the scandal she’s created by getting thrown out of the academy) by captaining a ship that’s due for salvaging at a location a few months travel from home.

Her genetic heritage – a desire to make the best of every situation and a constant search for trade and profit – manifests halfway through the journey as she spies an opportunity for some lucrative work if she makes a small detour. From there things slide downhill fast as she finds herself inadvertently embroiled in a complex fight between unknown but very powerful organizations, while still piloting nothing more than her ready-for-the-scrapheap outdated trading vessel.

Some weaknesses in the narrative comes in counterpoint to its strengths. While the military background of those characters that deserve one is impeccable, the character descriptions fall a little flat when we look at the civilian and emotional aspects. Specific character traits are explained, demonstrated, explained again, analysed in excruciating detail through italicized internal monologues, and then analysed and examined some more a few paragraphs later because we may not have gotten the message the first time. Ky’s affinity for combat, her complexes regarding the way she’s perceived by her family (too nice to strays), her dilemma about getting involved or becoming independent of her family – it is all over-explained, it comes back too often, and it moves forward too slowly to merit the many lines of text dedicated to the subject.

In terms of the very interesting concept that law and order become fungible and difficult to enforce over the vast distances of space, the idea is great, but disappointingly under-utilized. We spend more time worrying about whether we can trust the people in the ship, or whether Kylara can get over her first love affair, than examining the concept of how society and those who wish to further it struggle to protect against those who would take advantage of the relative lawlessness of space. We get aspects of this – the existence of militias and mercenaries in particular – and the genesis of the story more or less depends on the premise, but it’s rarely dealt with head-on in the text.

That said, despite being very linear and having some character balance issues (Kylara is the only properly developed character in this first book), the story works both as a by-the-numbers space thriller, executing a simple plot well, and as a coming of age story for a young heroine who discovers her strengths as she exercises them. For a young adult crowd, an excellent demonstration that science fiction can be fertile soil on which to grow adventure stories.

I enjoyed the book very much, even if I don’t think it’ll be winning any literature prizes.