Outpost

a review by Bob Roman

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Outpost by W. Michael Gear. DAW Books, 2018. 432 pages, $26.00

outpostOutpost is the first book in a trilogy titled “Donovan” after the planet on which most of the story takes place. W. Michael Gear is an “international bestselling author” with several dozen books to his credit, some co-authored with his wife, Kathleen O’Neal Gear. This is the first of his books that I can recall reading. There’s been something about the way his books have been marketed that, for me, has been off-putting. I’m not sure what that is, but given that I’ve been a cheerful consumer of the late Tony Hillerman’s mysteries, one has to wonder. I don’t think the publisher has improved their marketing with this series. “Space Opera” they tag it. Nonsense. This trilogy is a thriller in the context of a particular subgenre of science fiction, a subgenre I would call “star colony” fiction. No galactic empires here, but Gear does throw in a little horse opera.

Star colony fiction has its own conventions, some baked into it and others optional. There are always issues regarding the colony and the colonizing entity, complications regarding communications between them. There is the planet and its locales. There is often an almost standard cast of characters, allowing for commentary and judgement: the leader, the bureaucrat, the witless crowd, the politician, the schemer… It might be interesting to revisit old books to do an inventory but not so interesting that I’d care to do it myself.

International bestseller really doesn’t mean much regarding an author or a book. People swarm en masse over unbelievable garbage… but judging by this book, Gear really does deserve the audience. He may not be much more than competent as a wordsmith, but he is an outstanding storyteller.

What Gear presents in this tale is a thriller. The essential element of a thriller is conflict. This might be violence and indeed the story begins with the hunter in peril of becoming the hunted. But violence is but one mode of conflict. It can also be opposing ambitions. It can be solving a puzzle. It can be timing as in suspense: Will backup arrive in time? This tension / release, suspense / resolution etc. is essence of drama. One way of writing a thriller is to focus mainly on plot, and it is there that holes will develop in the story: Character and locale and plausibility be damned: The story always comes first! But the reader won’t have time to think about it until it’s over.

Gear is a good deal more subtle than that. He makes use of the conflicts inherent in the science fiction set up and in the characters. And that’s another thing to admire. Star colony fiction typically comes with a cast of characters, typical to the point where sometimes they are almost archetypal. Some of Gear’s characters come from this ensemble but he makes sure that the primary characters have more than two dimensions. He does his best, IMHO, with the psychopathic Dan Wirth, who comes across as an empire builder straight out of an American western, a truly frightening personality who has major potential for disaster or for accidental glory. Gear intelligently uses the conflicts built into the personalities and not just the conflicts built into subgenre archetypes as a source of conflict.

I might add that it’s not unusual for authors of star colony fiction to use cardboard characters that come with the subgenre to vent on some perceived social ill by having a representative come to a well-deserve bad end: those damned self-important bureaucrats, for example. In this first volume, Gear mostly avoids this, but I think libertarians will have some reason for pleasure.

The universe that encompasses a science fiction tale can be counted as one or more  of the characters, and Gear effectively uses this as a source of drama as well. Better still, most of it is reasonably well thought out. His interstellar travel is plausible, or at least I was willing to accept it. The planet Donovan is supplied with a plausible and interesting and dramatic ecology and the locale around Port Authority has a plausible geology.

This is a good book and I think you can count on the next two books in the series, Abandoned and Pariah (forthcoming), to be as thoughtful and as exciting. However, I don’t think these books are for everyone. I got a few dozen pages into the next book, Abandoned, before I abandoned the project. Part of it is just me. These days I find thrillers, even ones as well done as Gear’s story, to be more tiring than fun. 500 pages – the span of Outpost – and I’m pretty well exhausted and full.

Another part of it is that as thoughtful as it is, there are holes in the story that need to be ignored. By the time I reached Abandoned, these holes were getting in front of the story. As it happens, some of these match my pet peeves regarding science fiction. Allow me to vent.

The biggest hole is one of population and community. To be fair, this hole has engulfed quite a few science fiction authors. Donovan’s population of 1,500 should be intimate. Gear does what most authors do: assume an urban level of anonymity and division of labor. With a background in archeology and anthropology, Gear has less excuse for this than, say, Arthur C. Clarke (one of the subsequent Rendezvous with Rama novels) or Kim Stanley Robinson (Aurora) would have. You cannot describe a village as if it were a city.

This has plot implications. For example, Dan Wirth sets up a rigged gambling establishment as a vehicle for taking over the colony. With a population of 1,500 (who are stuck on Donovan, will or nill), just how many customers are you likely to have? What percentage of the population? There are also issues regarding money. But, hey, this wouldn’t be Tombstone without a casino. Or a bar / whorehouse. Or a gunfight showdown, though to the extent that happens in this first volume, it’s mostly off stage, accompanied by “It was a fair fight”. Oh! this brave new libertarian world that has such freedom from The State in it! Freedom from the community, too, apparently.

Another implication can be summed up by a phrase from Marx: the idiocy of rural life. The population is scarcely large enough to allow for a division of labor needed to maintain a technological outpost. Every death (and Donovan is a deadly place) is a potential catastrophe, a skill lost, a profession no longer available. Even in a less fraught environment, a population that size will have a high level of mutual dependence. Putting such mutuality into a deadly, poorly understood environment only turns the dial up to eleven: cooperate or die. The only plausible crutch would be extensive Artificial Intelligence “slavery”, automated manufacturing and a library, but while there is reference to AI on board the starships, there’s nothing in evidence on the ground. And there is no mention of printed products, inconsistent mention of mobile communication, and no mention of satellite support.

Nor is the political economy of Donovan and interstellar travel very convincing. The whole point of a colony on Donovan is said to be resource extraction. The area around Port Authority is mined for rare earths and other minerals, and a substantial percentage of the population is there to do that mining, directly and indirectly. Even allowing for their indentured servant status, why would travelling to Donovan be cheaper than mining asteroids or Mars or the Moon or the sea floor or garbage dumps or even extracting minerals from sea water? And if manned starships are so expensive (Gear talks about this as a way of ramping up suspense.), why are unmanned drones not used for freight and communication between Earth and Donovan?

Ah, the sacrifices we make for drama. Gear actually does pretty well compared to a lot of what gets published. He even does pretty well compared to some other authors who I like much better. But will I read more of Gear? Well, he’s not on my shit list so it could happen. Or maybe not. But certainly not the rest of this trilogy even though it’s good for what it is.

Rapture

Okay, I agree that Valentines Day tends to make me rather… cynical? Too negative, in any case. So as a day after offering, may I present to you this musical item whose lyrics have everything except “happily ever after”: agape, sex and death, ecstasy, and the dissolving of boundaries:

Rapture

Divers asleep
Dream of the deep
Closing over their heads
Lost comrades gather
By their beds
“Her voice in the drowned bells
Was tolling
In rapture we died
Waves o’er us rolling”
Pilots beware
The perilous air
Streaming under your wings
She will betray you
As she sings
Her voice in the hot sun
Is calling
In rapture you die
Flying and falling
Lovers who lie
Beneath the night sky
Neither speak nor hear
In the perfect stillness
She is near
Her voice in the heart’s blood
Comes roaring
In rapture they die
Diving and soaring.

— Lyrics by Judy Henske
— Music by Jerry Yester

from the album Farewell Aldebaran.

Farewell Aldebaran is among my favorite psychedelic albums and “Rapture” is my favorite cut off that album. The album was issued in 1969 on Frank Zappa’s “Straight” label. Musically and most especially lyrically, it is a remarkable bit of work, even if a few of the cuts only skim the top of mundane. Some of the cuts feature a Mellotron, an analog means of sampling sounds and playing them with a keyboard.

Judy Henske is originally from Wisconsin (or maybe the old Riverview amusement park in Chicago, if you wish to believe Jack Nitzsche’s liner notes elsewhere). She eventually got into folk music on the west coast, becoming known as “the Queen of the Beatniks”. Jerry Yester’s main claim to fame is as a member of  The New Christy Minstrels and later The Lovin’ Spoonful. At the time Farewell Aldebaran was issued, Henske and Yester were married but separated not long after.

I only have one other album by Henske in my collection, The Death-Defying Judy Henske. It is a live concert recording and it immediately precedes Farewell Aldebaran in her discography (liner notes by Nitzsche). It was a junk store find and seemed to be in near-unplayable condition. Then a few years later I replaced the needle on my turntable and what a remarkable difference! Apparently the new needle played a different, less eroded part of the groove.

Judy Henske is still in the music business. You can get a CD reissue of Farewell Aldebaran at her web site; possibly it’s available for download through iTunes though you’ll need to check that yourself. I’m running Linux / Ubuntu so checking iTunes is a bit hard for me to do.

Yester seems to have come to a sorry end, and I’ll say no more about it.

Etch A Sketch

Some months ago, The New Yorker (I think) posted a cartoon that was entitled something like: Etch A Sketch gallery wiped out by earthquake. Fast forward to February, 2019, and I encountered an exhibition of Etch A Sketch artwork by “Princess Etch” (Jane Labowitch) at the Harold Washington Library, 400 S. State in Chicago. It’s up on the 8th floor and it runs through March 2, 2019. It’s pretty cool… amazing, actually. Here’s a sample:

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Final Fantasy: Legend of the Crystals

By golly! Wouldja look at that!

I’m not inclined to review anything I wouldn’t recommend to my friends or to the unwary. After all, I’m not getting paid to do reviews, nor is this blog in the business of feeding culture vultures. But sometimes you run into something that is not good but is also really strange. Or maybe it has a few notable features of interest. It’s a real temptation, then, to present it to all and sundry with (best case) a bemused expression or (worst case) with a stunned, ashen face and, either way, saying: “By golly! Wouldja look at that!”

Yep. That’s precisely where the movie Final Fantasy: Legend of the Crystals resides. It is the final movie of a series based on a 1990s Japanese role-playing game. It was released in Japan in 1994 and here in the States in 1997, though I think it was only on VHS tape, not in any theaters.

I watched it! I did! Why! Oh, why? Well, mild depression, fatigue and boredom probably: three of the four horsemen of the psychological apocalypse will drive even the most sensible person to self-abuse. So I watched it, with dismay, through animation just one or two steps beyond that old Saturday morning television program Clutch Cargo, with fashionably snarky humor, fatuous dialogue, shrieks of dismay or triumph, endless explosions, improbable acrobatics, clichés for plot: in short, nearly every sin in the book but without sufficient imagination to invent new ones.

But wait! Legend of the Crystals is not just that. I would not have written this if it were. As the disaster progressed, I became more and more distracted by the musical score. That could be another criticism of the movie, as the music should compliment the story-telling not compete with it. Not all of the music was to my taste, but as the movie entered the inevitable and climactic orgy of violence and destruction, I found myself looking forward to the credits not simply for relief but to answer a question. Who wrote the score?

It turns out to be someone I had never heard of: Masahiko Satoh. But if you are at all hip to the Japanese jazz scene for the past half century, this would be a familiar enough name to marvel at my ignorance. He’s also done a considerable amount of film, television and advertising work. That implies a variety of styles, and it might account for the variety of the music that accompanied the movie. One could imagine Satoh, regretting his involvement, rummaging around in his bag of half-completed ideas then handing over various bits and pieces: Here, will this fit?

But the question of music also got me thinking about other aspects of the movie. It wasn’t just bad. It was also weird.

Let’s start with sex. Since I’m a guy, I don’t find a male gaze in movies and animation irritating so much as I find it boring. Usually. But this time it was a problem. The heroine is Linally, a teenaged (At least. I hope.) apprentice magician who, pretty much throughout the movie, wears a dress so short that it could be mistaken for a short tunic over tights. But it becomes obvious soon enough that she has no tights. Indeed, after she becomes the host to the Crystal of the Wind, her butt glows at various magical moments. Possibly this is some kind of in-joke among the filmmakers… breaking wind light… get it? Then there are the sky pirates: a crew of scantily clad dominatrix whose shtick sometimes resembles the Keystone Cops and, yes, pirate Captain Rouge has a thing for whips. Her crew acknowledges her orders with “Yes sir!” Thank God for no laugh track.

Let’s segue to gender politics, specifically machismo. The main protagonist is Linally, but she has a male sidekick Prettz. Prettz is the very model of young machismo. He’s loud. He wants to be in control. He lusts after Linally. He rides a motorcycle and wears a 1930s aviator’s helmut. For all that he is a pain in the neck, he’s handy to have around. And loyal. Indeed, later in the movie, Prettz is characterized, in a kindly way, as Linally’s dog. And then there is Commander Valkus of the imperial airship Iron Wing. Valkus is the very stereotype of a Japanese commander: rigid in devotion to duty, violent, focused, hierarchical… And Valkus falls instantly in hopeless infatuation over Rouge, the dominatrix pirate captain. Are these subversive of machismo? Maybe, but don’t get your hopes up, so to speak. One of the characteristics of snarky humor is a certain degree of self-depreciation. It might be that instead.

Finally, the movie was a Madhouse product. Madhouse is a major Japanese animation house. They’ve done some truly outstanding work. For just one example, Satoshi Kon did all of his work under their auspices. They’ve also put out a lot of brain dead and mind mangling product — Lensman, an animated movie vaguely based on E.E. “Doc” Smith’s pulp science fiction series, as just one example. (I lasted no more than 10 minutes into that one.)

So. Are you brave? Are you a fool? Is your life a barren waste? Until the copyright police visit, here is the English dub version of Legend of the Crystals. (You know, this might work with a half-pint of whiskey. Let me know how it goes.)

The Boogeyman’s Intern

A review by Bob Roman

The Boogeyman’s Intern by Matt Betts. Dog Star Books, 2018. 215 pages, $15.95

theboogyemansinternThe Boogeyman’s Intern, as its central concept, uses a plot device that has been floating around the science fiction / fantasy genre for decades: Gods are real, but their existence is almost entirely dependent on belief by humans. Betts extends this to all entities generated by humanity’s magical thinking, including boogiemen, imaginary friends, tooth fairies and the like. Move Valhalla or Olympus to a more generic Hill (very much a company town, like Hollywood), add a murder mystery and a parody of a police procedural: voilà! You have the basic recipe for The Boogeyman’s Intern. The blurb supplied by author Josef Matulich characterizes it as a mashup of two movies, Monsters Inc and Chinatown. That’s very nearly correct, except that Chinatown was a seriously noir mystery story. If you were to substitute Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or The Big Lebowski, you’d be much nearer the mark. Betts raises some serious questions about identity and agency and the state of popular culture, but this is intended to be a funny book. Just where the “Intern” in the title comes from, I don’t know. It’s a great title; it’s why I borrowed the book from the Chicago Public Library. Possibly Betts intended to write a book somewhat different than what appeared as the final product. It’s been known to happen.

Intern? The closest thing to an intern is the protagonist, Abe, at the beginning of the story. He’s an imaginary friend. If being an imaginary friend is not an internship then it’s a gig, a temp job. After all, it’s a constituency of one believer that does not last past childhood. Abe not happy and he is screwing it up with monumental self-sabotage. Things get weird when the powers that be yank him from his job (no surprise) and assign him to invent the role of policeman to solve what appears to be a murder. This is unprecedented. There are no police. What is there to steal? If anything on the Hill is coveted, it’s believers, the equivalent of ratings. Can the inhabitants of the Hill be killed? And is Abe really what he thinks he is?

As a story, The Boogeyman’s Intern is not primarily supported by conflict although there is indeed some drama. Humor is probably a larger element of the story-telling, but humor is not universal so not every reader will have the benefit of it. A larger element is simply ambiguity: What is going on here? This requires some attention to pacing, and while it worked for me, it may not for others. Finally, Matt Betts is more of a poet than a novelist. While this does not result in much of any lovely or lyrical prose, Betts does deliver a pretty consistently competent use of language: That kept me going!

This is a creative mix of ideas, tropes, devices, etc., from science fiction, fantasy and mystery genres. It’s funny and it’s a serious conversation about the state of popular culture, magical thinking and memes. The story is worth your time. If you have an opportunity to do so, read it.

Occupy Me

a review by Bob Roman

Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan. Titan Books, 2018. 361 pages, $14.95

Does Tricia Sullivan need an introduction? I do not recall reading any of her work until this book and she’s been publishing since 1995. I don’t claim to be hip, so maybe that’s it. It turns out that while she’s a New Jersey girl, she’s been residing and publishing in the United Kingdom. For good and for ill, national borders still mean something in fiction publishing. Maybe that’s it.

Occupy Me is Sullivan’s latest work, originally published in 2016 though the Titan Books edition is dated 2018, and it may be her last for a while as she is pursuing a PhD in Astrophysics. The book is essentially a science fantasy thriller with some fairly heavy philosophical subtexts. These subtexts are not necessary for the reader’s pleasure, but they are there if you like. It wouldn’t be good Sci-Fi without them.

The story begins with an excerpt from a users manual that seems a bit out of place and is excerpted once more in the course of the story telling. It’s there as something of a clue as to what is going on, but my not-so-qualified opinion is that it is more of a bug than a feature. Sullivan also shifts between first person, second person, and third person (omniscient narrator) depending on the character being tracked. It is something of a surprise that Sullivan makes this work as well as it does.

Add to this many of the usual elements of a thriller: secret societies, corporate malfeasance, thugs in the service of white collar megacrime, chases, monumental fights, missing persons, engaging (more or less) characters, deadlines… My goodness! Sullivan tries to keep it moving fast enough to skim over the plot holes as any good author of a thriller should. She mostly succeeded for me, and the “what’s going on here?” question also helped my engagement. But I don’t think I would have finished the book with much enthusiasm if there hadn’t been, scattered like video game easter eggs or a book binding decorated with semi-precious stones, some occasional hair-raisingly lovely writing, for example:

“The creature looked like forged emptiness. It breathed smoke and the vast unlit places between stars. On the ground it seemed amplified. Its wings made a hard wind with even the most casual movement, and its breath rebuffed the waves. A pheromone fume seeped from its fur. There was a disturbing hum in my occipital bone, a sensation of drag on my consciousness. Like magnetism. The sensation was out of all proportion to my physical body. I felt I could be reeled, wings and all, into a single one of quetzlcoatlus’ black-hole pupils and never be found again.”

If you don’t like that paragraph, well, there’s no accounting for taste. But for me, the prospect of more writing like this kept me going even on those occasions when the pacing dragged or the plot seemed unlikely.

With other authors, I’ve encountered a page or two of really brilliant writing. Rarely it will be most of a book. But regardless of whether it’s the now and then paragraph or a page or an entire volume, writing like this makes my day.

If that isn’t enough of a recommendation for you, allow me to recommend three other reviews: Tricia Sullivan – Occupy Me by Steven Shaviro, “Talk About A Lost Cause”: Tricia Sullivan’s “Occupy Me” by “danhartland”, and Occupy Me – Tricia Sullivan by Paul Kincaid.

Read this book. It’s good.

Red Moon

a review by Bob Roman

Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson. Orbit Books, 2018. 446 pages, $27.00

RedMoon
Image from Orbis Books

I have a mental list of authors who have annoyed or bored me enough that I really do not care to read any more of their work. Despite being a more than competent writer who shares a good deal of my politics, Kim Stanley Robinson keeps coming close to being added to the list. For me, his latest work, Red Moon, was partly an adventure in seeing whether he would end on it or off it. But that’s just me.

Some of my problems with Robinson are more generally relevant, though. His novels, after his first few, have acquired a distinctly didactic quality to them. He’s not at all unique in this, even in science fiction and fantasy. From the other end of the political spectrum, Robert Heinlein comes to mind, and Heinlein even did one about the moon: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. But you do need to be a very good writer to make didacticism palatable to readers who do not share your perspective. There is also the temptation, for any artist, to play to the true believers, trusting in their instinct to give a hurrah for our side, whatever side that may be and however lame the execution. Whatever sells, after all. Robinson is good enough, usually, to keep it interesting while having enough integrity to not simply pander.

But that gets rather more difficult when one writes what should be a thriller, as Red Moon should be: Sometime around the middle of this century, Fred Fredericks travels to the moon, specifically to a Chinese research settlement at the south pole. His job is to deliver to his employer’s customer, the head administrator of the research settlement, an encrypted cell phone. This turns out to be the occasion for an assassination plot directed at the head administrator with Fredericks as the means of delivery. It very nearly kills Fredericks as well, but he ends up on the run with another person on the run, Chan Qi, a highly privileged (and pregnant) daughter of a top rank Chinese Communist Party and government official. Her dad is indeed one of the candidates for the top job at the pending Congress. She’s not having any of it and has slipped her leash, both from Daddy and the Party. Throw in a highly siloed government and Communist Party (rogue bureaucracy on the loose!), a chase across the Moon and across China, an emergent artificial intelligence, nonviolent citizen uprisings in both China and the United States (sort of a cross between Occupy and the various “color revolutions”), block chain alternative currency, diplomatic intrigue, and you should get a roller coaster thriller, a page turning experience where one does not notice the plot holes until they are long past, indeed probably after you close the covers of the book.

Instead, what is delivered to the reader is more akin to a 19th Century visit to utopia, where the protagonist (and thus the reader) is given a tour of a brave new world… Think of Aldous Huxley’s Island (granted, a 1930s novel) or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. Most of those utopias, even the most classic, are pretty lame examples of story-telling. Robinson, at least, can use the conflicts built into his plot to keep things moving with some drama, but he doesn’t really enter the thriller mode of story-telling until the end of the novel. And the ending is either brilliant or a set-up for volume two. If it is the latter, it is not brilliant and I think I’ll take a pass.

A lot of science fiction really ought to be called science fantasy. Robinson does stick pretty close to the real world in his speculation. If there’s much speculative violence done to science, it may be in biology rather than the usual suspects of physics or information science.  Robinson’s Moon has far more in common with modern Antarctica than it does with a nostalgic fantasy of the American (or the Siberian, for that matter) frontier: a dangerous, expensive place mostly only good for research or for novelty. And if Robinson’s Mars trilogy had mountain climbing as a visceral experience, Red Moon has the simple difficulty humans will have learning to maneuver in the Moon’s low gravity.

I think Robinson has gotten the Moon approximately correct, or at least he compliments my prejudices. China is this book’s other big obsession. If he’s gotten the Moon about right, what about China? I haven’t much basis for judging that except that anything written about China, even in the present never mind several decades from now, is likely to be wrong at least in part. And I suspect Robinson would agree. In a space.com interview, he noted: “China is really interesting and important and nobody understands it — and I mean not just Americans, who definitely don’t understand it, but even the Chinese people themselves. It’s a big, powerful society in rapid flux. It’s unstable and dynamic and it’s super interesting.” And more to the point, anything happening there will have consequences here, but if you need Red Moon to make that point, you haven’t been paying attention.

Caught between being a thriller and a visit to Erewhon, I don’t think this is one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s more successful efforts. But I liked it well enough that Robinson is not yet on my shit list and I liked Red Moon well enough to write this modest review of it. And he does have some interesting things to say about the future of humans on the Moon and about China. But I don’t like it well enough to hope for a sequel.