Washington Post’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of 2015

I’m all about book discovery so I was very happy to find (via file770) that the Washington Post has published its choices for the best science fiction and fantasy of 2015.

You can find the Washington Post article here.

Their recommendations are below.

Washington Post Top Picks of 2015

Aurora
Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit
The Fifth Season
N.K. Jemisin
Orbit
The Only Ones
Carola Dibbell
Two Dollar Radio
Three Moments of an Explosion
China Miéville
Del Ray
Touch
Claire North
Redhook

With a list this short, it’s inevitable that I find myself thinking phrases that start with the words, “but where’s…”. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to be said for a list that limits itself to 5 books. It requires discipline, and requires that very good books be left to one side, which means that what was chosen must have been chosen for strong reasons on the part of the journalist.

I have already read (and reviewed) Aurora. The others have passed me by. I have seen the Fifth Season listed in so many places that I think I will now purchase it, as something recommended in this many different places must have a good chance of being good.

On the difficulties of finding books to read

You’d think, in our highly indexed, catalogued and searchable dataverse, that it would be easy to find the information you wanted. Especially when there was a financial incentive for certain individuals and organizations to make that data available, but unfortunately this is not the case. At least not when you’re looking for new books in speculative fiction. Continue reading On the difficulties of finding books to read

Ancillary Mercy – Ann Leckie

The Imperial Radch series is funnel-like. It starts with an eye-opening vision of a civilization ruled by an all-powerful distributed leader, and shows us this through the eyes of the final fragment of a destroyed ship, the last ancillary of the Justice of Toren, betrayed by her ruler in a civil war of a monumental and complex nature, dealing with loss and a crisis of identity on a tragic scale. What vistas, what scope!

As we follow Breq and discover her predicament, her self-imposed mission and the universe in which it all takes place, we are given vast horizons to contemplate. Her mission takes her all the way to Anaander Mianaai, ruler of the Radchaai (or at least one part of her), and there we discover the details of the civil war, the split within Mianaai herself.

In the second book, the funnel narrows. We are taken to Athoek Station, where Breq, now wearing the Mianaai surname, takes control of a politically complex situation, but compared to the war raging in the universe at large, we know that what happens here is a storm in a teacup. Athoek is not critical to the ongoing civil war. Important perhaps, a staging point for future conflict, perhaps, but not the turning point. This gives us an opportunity to examine more closely the social and political consequences of the civilization Ann Leckie has invented for us. This is well done in the second book, which explores the social mores, complex emotional states and intricate rules of conduct of the Radchaai in great detail.

I was hoping that the third book would broaden the scope again, giving us the vistas glimpsed in the first tome once more, and showing us the conclusion of the war into which Breq, her ship and her crew have been entrained.

In fact, we are still at Athoek, and the narrative takes a philosophical turn. Leckie has always liked exploring the societal consequences and complex mannerisms engendered by the culture she has imagined, but here we go into full-on obsessive mode with deep analyses of the internal emotional states and moral convictions of various individuals, all witnessed through the all-seeing connected awareness of our main protagonist. This is a universe in which making tea in the wrong china set can cause such offense that it leads to a depression that needs medication from a professional doctor, and I’m barely exaggerating.

Breq looks very tough in large part because everyone around her is either visibly falling apart or hiding their emotional fragmentation behind vast reserves of stoicism. Every sentence spoken is a minefield, every politeness is a potential insult to a third party, every act a move on a moral and emotional chessboard of ever-increasing complexity, but often of little real consequence. The absence of a supporting influence is enough to cause characters to fall apart emotionally to the point where they must be sedated. This went a little far for me.

Unfortunately, most of this matters little to the physical reality of Athoek system. Athoek, in turn, matters little in the overall scheme of the civil war. Either the very real, very military strategies at play will work in Breq’s favour, or they will not, and Breq rolls the dice on her military decisions with far more recklessness than (s)he manifests in her/his delicate management of interpersonal relations.

So much of the book is internal dialogue explaining the consequences of this or that on someone’s emotional state that it implies the individuals in the story are more important than the civilization tearing itself apart in the background. The civil war unfortunately only serves as a backdrop to the narrative. Don’t misunderstand me, it is interesting to explore how such convoluted social rules lead to extremes of emotion in individuals upon whom entire star systems depend, but I would have preferred it if these emotions were not the dominant thread in the narrative.

I very much enjoyed the first and second books, and was hoping that the third would veer away from introspection and towards Breq’s role in the greater events at work in the universe around her. How does one resist or fight or outwit a schizophrenic, megalomaniacal, near-omniscient multi-bodied ruler who doesn’t know her own mind? I was hoping an answer would be forthcoming. Unfortunately for me, that’s not where this book was going.

Much of what happens here is critically important to the individuals concerned, but in the grand scheme of things, with which we were teased in the first novel, it is a storm in a teacup. Although you’ll soon find out it’s a 3000-year-old teacup that belonged to an extinct dynasty from a conquered world.

Conclusion: Well written, well worth the read, and I did enjoy it, but if the first book set you up with expectations that you were going to see, first hand, the evolution of the Imperial Radch at this turning point in the civilization’s history, reset those expectations before you jump in. Then you’ll be fine.


Addendum: I suppose it would be odd not to comment on the deliberate use of the pronoun “she” to describe every character in the book. This has been commented on to death elsewhere, favourably and unfavourably. It didn’t do much for me, and I would personally have preferred a normal use of pronouns, but it neither makes nor unmakes the book. As you read, you quickly learn to ignore it and it fades into the background apart from occasional moments where it can cause a little gender confusion. It is, however, a relevant brick in the edifice Ann Leckie constructs, and it is relevant to the societal norms and cultural eccentricities that are very much at the heart of the novel, so it has its place here and is more than a gimmick or a political statement.

Aurora – Kim Stanley Robinson

There’s an introspective and meditative quality to Robinson’s novels that comes, I think, from his avoidance of page turner strategies. He avoids chapters that end in suspense, making you want to know what happens next, and we don’t get the multiple interwoven storyline treatment that allows the author to always have one cliffhanger active at any given time.

So what we get is a novel that is more centred on real, physical challenges faced by the population of our interstellar ship. Problems related to closed-loop ecologies, population control, artificial intelligence (and its definition), and the concept of authority and hierarchy on a multi-generational starship. These are all tackled in a fictional context, but with great attention to the inner workings and intricate details of each challenge.

There is a clear sense that Robinson has a stack of research on his desk a mile high.

The story covers the last few years before a starship launched from earth several generations ago arrives at Tau Ceti, its destination. The people on board have never known Earth, and are aware only of their own small microcosm – the Ship. We see events unfold through the life of Freya, the daughter of a well-known member of the community, Devi. Unlike Devi, who is, by virtue of her understanding of the ship’s mechanisms, the default engineer in chief, Freya lacks the mind for the task and is more interested in how people behave.

Our narrator is the ship’s nascent artificial intelligence, which is writing a narrative account of the journey at Devi’s request, and after a number of aborted attempts, focuses on Freya as a protagonist to give the narrative structure. The process of writing the narrative account neatly tracks the Ship’s evolution towards true intelligence, both in the narrative style and in the content and questions asked as the narrative unfolds.

As an investigation of the difficulties of reaching far-distant stars through the use of long-lived starships, the novel is extremely thought-provoking and challenges the often-made assumptions that allow us to do away with considering the real problems such an endeavour would face. For example, Robinson undertakes a detailed examination of the chemical reactions that immobilise vital elements that are in short supply, and the resulting effects on the ability of the ecosystem to continue to function. Through this part of the story, he demonstrates that the problem-solving required in even this single discipline is insufficiently developed at this time for us to even consider a project of this kind. We depend on so many things that our environment on Earth provides without our needing to manage it that we are ill-prepared to take on the challenge of recreating the right conditions for long-term life away from our cradle.

In a way, the novel is slightly defeatist in this regard, and perhaps that’s a shame, because such an in-depth investigation could have led somewhere more rewarding without the need for sugar-coating. Some of the challenges (perhaps the most difficult and insurmountable) faced by the population of the ship are somewhat deus-ex-machina in terms of their formulation, and the premise that any planet worth occupying will already have some form of life inimical to our own is not necessarily something that I feel is properly explained or defended in the book.

Nevertheless, Robinson has taken the premise of a generational starship reaching for the stars further and deeper than anyone before, and while the novel may not leave you with the sense of wonder that drew some of us to the science fiction genre in the first place, it is an enriching narrative, a good story and an extremely valuable addition to the science fiction bookshelf.

Highly recommended.

Forty Signs of Rain – Kim Stanley Robinson

The science fiction in Forty Signs of Rain is subtle, permeating the book through little snippets such as wrist-mounted screens and small technological improvements to the devices we already have. This is a very far cry from the omnipresent enhanced reality of Charles Stross’ books or any other number of interpretations of how technology will change our future.

In fact, this is a book about the intersect between global warming and politics, or perhaps the lack of an intersect where one ought to be. It’s near future setting looks forward to a gradually worsening environment, rather than new technological marvels.

We are presented with the problem of global warming from the point of view of individuals who do not need to be convinced of the truth of its impact, who can understand and even to a certain extent predict both the timing and the consequences of what a shift in climate is going to do to the world, but who find themselves powerless to do anything about it despite their position as some of the most influential individuals in the field, in the most powerful country in the world.

Without pointing a finger at it, naming it or bemoaning it directly, political apathy and institutionalised immobility are omnipresent in the book, seen through the eyes of people who are seeking, each in their own way, to advance an agenda that will lead to a change in environmental policy. Their efforts are real and tangible, their eventual impact less so.

The main characters include senior scientists at the National Science Foundation, both a director and a visionary scientist on a temporary assignment in her organisation. Also the director’s husband, who is science advisor to an influential senator and devoted to passing a bill, sponsored by his senator, that represents a big step in the direction of reduced emissions and other measures to mitigate climate change.

Instead of presenting their efforts as a mission or a quest, each has exposure to the environmental issues as a core part of their job. Their knowledge and conscience lead them to seek change in the context of their daily work, and they are motivated by their own personal belief systems. In this the book is very realistic – change is effected by individuals such as these, not often by crusading heroes tearing down old paradigms. Unfortunately, their collective effort is insufficient to cause any real change in policy or on the environment.  In the real world, they would undoubtedly fail also, how could they not, given the vastness of what they must achieve to have even the most subtle impact.

So as we see them each apply pressure to the system in their own way, we also see the deteriorating environment as a general backdrop to the novel. Catastrophic changes in salinity and sea temperature are mere pages away from meetings with the president’s chief scientist in which it becomes obvious that no amount of statistics, reason or argument will move the policy needle. I was strangely reminded of the resistance to gun control during this scene in which logic was happily brushed to one side in favour of doubt, votes and the avoidance of cost. The country, as embodied by its leaders, finds it easier to ignore the problem than  deal with it.

Woven into the story are small hints at things greater than ourselves most obviously in some interesting interactions between main characters and some Tibetan monks who are the catalyst to major changes in the way a scientist, Frank, perceives his role and the role of science in the world. This provides Robinson with the opportunity to theorise how it is not cold science alone that will change things, because it takes energy and passion to overcome societal inertia.

As the environment gradually slips into catastrophe and sea levels rise inexorably, the discussion continues, and the book culminates with a flood in Washington DC, the monuments surrounded by water, the zoo animals running wild, and a sense, more or less unspoken, that even this will not be enough to instigate any meaningful change.

I found the book a little depressing in that our main characters are revealed to be somewhat impotent in the conflict they are a part of. This is contrary to what we often seek in a story – we want the protagonist to overcome the obstacles and demonstrate strength while being changed for the better by the effort of reaching his goals. Perhaps to a certain extent this is true of Frank, but the goals seem unattainable.

The typical heroic narrative is abandoned here perhaps to serve the larger goal of getting a message across. This eminently readable book is holding up a mirror, and perhaps a few people will look long enough and with eyes open enough to see a reflection of society that they didn’t expect. I have no problem believing that the events portrayed are totally realistic and even likely to occur, and that we will soon be facing exactly the problems described, and that we will have done no better than the fictional nations in Forty Signs of Rain to compensate for a warming climate, rising oceans and more violent weather by the time these phenomena are too advanced to address with preventative measures. As a message, this book works well, and I hope it is widely read, although if it is right in its diagnosis of the root of our apathy and denial, it won’t make a difference, because perhaps nothing can.

The Invisible Library – Genevieve Cogman

I enjoyed a thoughtful post on Charles Stross’ blog recently, saying good things about the Urban Fantasy genre, and I was inspired to go looking for a novel that might get me back into it.

My issue with urban fantasy is that if I have to read another scene about a breathless teenager falling in love with a vampire or yet another sexual domination metaphor dressed in werewolf tropes, I might just have to write off the genre entirely, and I know that’s not fair.

The reason I know it’s not fair is because we have works in this genre that, even if they aren’t always to my personal taste, are unambiguously good. Be it the idea behind Mortal Instruments or the deep well of new ideas that made up the Harry Potter franchise, or the deeper, more intricate and fantastical Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, which took the language of London and wove an incredibly rich tapestry. Unfortunately, for each of these comes a tidal wave of pulp concerning mythical creatures spouting incessant clichés.

I was quite keen, therefore to read  The Invisible Library since it was quite highly recommended for the originality of its concept. I bought it on Kindle and swallowed it whole over an afternoon.

I suppose that’s the first thing to say about the book; this is not like The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, where my reading slows down because of the density of the pattern being woven. This is a fun read, and the pages are turned quickly. You will not need to keep track of the movements of dozens of characters, nor will it be necessary (or necessarily possible) to understand the motivations of several of the characters. The book is about the action that occurs, and to a certain extent the secrets being kept.

Our protagonist, Irene, works for The Library. Capitalisation is important, The Library is not any library, it sits outside of time and space and exists for the sole purpose of collecting and preserving the works of fiction from different alternate worlds. Irene is an agent of the library, and she goes into these worlds and collects books for the library at the behest of senior librarians, such as her mentor, Coppelia.

The library also exists on the periphery of a struggle between the forces of chaos and the forces of order. By definition linked to the forces of order, the library has to be careful of chaos, which manifests in various alternate realities through the appearance of illogical things or impossible science, such as vampires, irrational magic, unexplainable mechanisms and more generally, the fae.

Irene is sent to collect a book from a world that is somewhat too far down the chaos end of the spectrum for comfort, and she soon discovers that the book she has been sent to find is important to others also, possibly critically important to all concerned, and that these others are prepared to go to great and violent lengths to obtain it.

So it’s an adventure mixed in with a detective novel, with some alternate realities and magical creatures thrown in.

I had second thoughts when I realised that I would be reading about alternate universes – another trope all too often abused – but it was well managed here, in that it gave meaning to the illogicality of much of the fantastical things that go on in the rest of the book. If glamours and charms work outside of a solid system of magic, it is because we are in an alternate world that is corrupted by the forces of chaos. Since these break down cause and effect and therefore open the gate to the irrational and the impossible, and in the context of this story, this is most definitely not a good thing.

Irene is a likeable protagonist, and even if adventurous librarians is not bursting with originality as a concept, the nature of this library (somewhat irrational in and of itself, if you ask me), is deeply original and very interesting.

This will no doubt become a series, I believe the second book is already out. I will probably read it because I enjoyed the first one. Let’s hope that the originality can keep coming and that the framework laid out in this first book is not the entirety of the edifice. If there is more to the world-building in the coming volumes, there might turn out to be a very good series behind this excellent novel.

Alive – Scott Sigler

I read some strong reviews of Scott Sigler’s latest book, Alive, and was looking for something to get my teeth into as I managed to free up some time for reading again. Unfortunately, there was a gap between my expectations and what the book delivered that made it hard for me to enjoy it.

That obviously doesn’t mean that the book isn’t good, but I’m not good with young adult fiction unless it’s sufficiently complex under the surface or it has a sufficiently powerful underlying premise or message.

In this case, unfortunately, that didn’t work out for me.

This is a book that keeps a secret from you and sets up a big reveal. You feel the secret building as you go, in the unanswered questions and in the gaps between the questions that have been asked, and that gets you to keep reading, playing a game of guessing the outcome before the story gets to the point where all is revealed.

It’s like painting with negative space, where it’s the bits of the canvas you don’t actually fill in that contain the detail of the image, and you can only see the shape of what’s being drawn when either the rest of the canvas is sufficiently filled for a shape to emerge, or when the artist helpfully traces a line around the edges of the object on the page.

As a consequence, there’s very little I can say about the book without revealing the contours or that image and spoiling the story for you.

As an aside, the author has a request to reviewers at the end of the book asking that they not reveal “spoilers”, and obviously I wouldn’t, but isn’t it sad that it’s necessary for an author to actually outright ask people not to spoil the book for others.

The reveal is satisfying (it’s not like Lost, at the end of which I was abruptly furious with the writers), in the sense that everything does hang together. Unfortunately it wasn’t interesting enough for me to feel that it was worth the buildup. Luckily, since the writing style is clear and the story fairly straightforward to follow, I blasted through this book so fast that I didn’t feel I had lost loads of time on it, so I wasn’t upset. It was more like a meal that leaves you strangely unsatisfied at the end of it.

What I can tell you is this – a group of youths awaken in coffins, they have no memory of how they got there, no idea what they are doing there, and no knowledge of their own names except for the engravings on the coffins they woke up in. From there they start to explore and discover their environment, and others like themselves.

The youths are marked with symbols on their foreheads, and these symbols correlate to specific skills and/or character attributes, which are drawn with so little subtlety that you have absolutely no doubt about who is what. It does get a bit tedious having people referred to as circle-stars or whatever, and the author in my opinion tries to mine this somewhat shallow vein for more than it’s worth.

As they explore, they will discover more about what they are doing there, who they are, and what’s going on. The big reveal isn’t wholly original, although there are interesting aspects to it which I thought were great and could have been explored more fully – but I can’t tell you what they are without comprehensively ruining the novel, and for all my reticence to rank it highly, it is probably quite a good read in the young adult category – I’m just a poor judge of that kind of material because it doesn’t push my buttons.  At the same time, there are scenes of brutal violence which don’t really belong in the YA category, so I’m not sure what to make of the book overall – it doesn’t sit well in any of the categories.

It’s the first part of a three-part series. I can see where the story could go, but don’t really feel the need to find out exactly what happens next, and will probably give the rest of the series a miss.

Some reviewers loved this book, so read other reviews before you decide, I seem to be somewhat of an outlier on this one.

Roboteer – Alex Lamb

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

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).