Monday, 25 April 2016

Trial by Fire by Charles Gannon

This book is, you know. okay. And I mean just okay. With some fairly  major problems, but most of it just squeaked by as enjoyable. (Just squeaking by is probably not what you want.)  Some of the problems are specific to me as a reader, some are much broader. Here's problem number one. It feels a little like Gannon's trying to do something like Lois McMaster Bujold, with the multi-faceted hero who is always so many steps ahead of those around him it's not funny.

The thing that's missing is that Miles Vorkosigan is not good at everything. He's good at many things, but there are also deep character flaws that keep him human. He can be manic. He can be depressed. He can ride roughshod over people simply because he's sure he's right all the time. He's terrible at romance.

Caine Riordan, the hero here, feels like he's trying to be Miles without the drawbacks, a journalist/diplomat/soldier/strategist/xenopsychologist who knocks up all the ladies (trust me, we'll be coming back to that) while correctly assessing every situation and never flagging under pressure. It's...just a little boring. There's no meat to the character, other than that he's awesome about everything.

Let's give Gannon a break by going to something that is not a fault in the book, per se, but it's just something that means that this book was inevitably going to be less appealing to me. This is definitely military SF or milSF if you need two less syllables in your life. As such, there is so much description of the ground war in Indonesia where aliens have invaded Earth, or in space battles. 

I've said it before, I'll say it again, I'm not a visual thinker. Words on the page don't transform themselves into pictures or movies in my mind. (Tastes and smells are far more powerful for me.) So when there are pages and pages and pages of military tactics, I'm sure they might be exciting for those who use those words to create strong visuals of what's going on. Unfortunately, I just stare at the descriptions with no idea what they would translate to in 3D space.

Back to things that are larger. Oh, wait. Should I give you an idea of plot?

After a first contact congress with multiple-alien species, the aliens (a couple of species of them) strike first. The book is about humans fighting back on Earth. There. Done.

Number one is that, while it's not a deadly sin, it is a boring one to have two female characters who are entirely Riordan-focused, while Riordan, despite in theory loving both of them, can put them out of his mind to get the job done. 

Less forgivable is the idea that Riordan knocked them both up, one 13 years ago, one now. No birth control in the future? You can go to the stars but you can't stop the sperm? Ridiculous.

The other quibble I have is the part where Gannon uses a very old trope about humans and their interactions with aliens, one I'm more than a little tired of, particularly given how closely it tends to mirror older racist discourses of civilization. 

It's that trope where other civilizations are static, while "we" alone are adaptable. "They"'re either old, decadent, and stagnant, or barbaric and unable to think creatively. And if you can't see how that relates to racial politics, particularly of the 19th century, haven't read a lot about it.

I get so frustrated when I see this tired old trope repeated in SF. We can imagine literally anything, but we always have to imagine that other alien races are monolithic and static, while our own is flexible, adaptable, and ultimately superior? (There are individual aliens who disagree in this book, but they are largely ignored.)

This is tied to far too heavy a reliance on evolutionary psychology. Even when we're talking about earthlings, it is far too often used to bolster a status quo by looking at our bodies and trying to find reasons why something is a "natural" way to be, even though there are almost always incredibly disparate cultures on our own damned planet that contradict it. Society is powerful, people. Social constructs don't mean weakness, but they do sometimes mean we'll use tortured pseudoscientific reasons to give them what feels like a strong base.

Likewise, we're supposed to believe that a quick look at the biology of an alien species tells you all you need to know about their psychology and how they're react, presuming that nothing has changed from their pre-sapient ancestors on whatever world they came from. That's lazy fucking writing.

So...yeah. This book is not really for me. There's some competent writing, some of the time, but the content was either baffling or frustrating.

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