BOOK REVIEW: Impulse, by Dave Bara

Publisher: Del Rey

Series: Lightship (#1)

Genre: Military SF/Space Opera

Pages: 372

Publication Date: 2015

Centuries after a devastating war, humanity is starting to rebuild civilisation.

Peter Cochrane, a young nobleman fresh from the naval academy, has been assigned to the ship that recently lost some of its crew, including his own girlfriend.

Searching for answers following an unprovoked attack, Cochrane finds himself thrust into the unfamiliar world of diplomacy, and learns that ancient grievances may not be as dead as he once believed . . .

There is a thin line between Space Opera and Military SF. Like so many stories, Impulse crosses that line freely. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but while it’s a decent Space Opera, this novel is less successful as Military SF.

Let’s focus on the positives, and that’s the worldbuilding. You won’t find anything new or remarkable here, but the classic elements are pulled together tightly and effectively. The Historians put me in mind of Asimov’s Foundation, guarding technology and lore for their own purposes. The Sri, while less developed, are no less interesting. I hope further instalments show them in more detail, and to be less one sided than their appearance here.

The political dealings Cochrane is forced into are typical of the genre, and at times feel contrived. Cochrane’s swift agreement to a marriage proposal is generally indicative of the simplicity of the politics on show.

And that leads to the main issue. For a fresh faced academy graduate in mourning for his first live, Cochrane is quite the ladies’ man. It’s his blossoming romance with a coworker that I found most troubling. Surely, there are regulations regarding sexual relations between officers on active duty.

This lack of cohesive command structure is where the military side of things breaks down. The Impulse is a joint taskforce ship, but any friction is dealt with quickly, with a semi-inspiring speech. I personally feel there should have been more to it than that.

In the end, there’s a lot to like about Impulse. Just don’t think too hard about the details.

CANON, CONTINUITY & CONTROVERSY

Here’s the thing: A good story is a good story, regardless of context. That’s why you can enjoy a Lovecraft story without being a frothing-at-the-mouth, anti-semitic, homophobic racist. But this opinion piece isn’t about the separation of art from artist, that’s for another time. Today I want to talk about canon.

The 2015 release of The Force Awakens, effectively wiped out the Star Wars Expanded Universe. ‘Effectively.’ Because although they are no longer canon, the books still exist. You can still go into charity shops, second hand bookstores, and pick up copies. Some of them have even been reprinted under the ‘Legends’ banner. You can still play the games, read the comics. Disney hasn’t destroyed anything, they’ve just created a new ‘official’ storyline. In a lot of cases, the older material and the new can exist side by side. After all, the rise of the First Order hardly affects the plight of Darth Revan and the Old Republic. If there’s an EU story you want to relive, then go ahead and do it. It’s still there. And if you’re concerned that the new canon has rendered the old one obsolete, here’s something to consider:

None of it is real. It is all fictional.

For the past two years, I’ve been reading the Dune series. If you’re reading a blog about science fiction, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard of it. Frank Herbert’s six novels tell of the fall of a galaxy-spanning Imperium. But sadly, he died before it was finished. Years later, his son Brian Herbert found the notes for book 7 locked away in a box, and resolved to finish the series himself. Bringing on renowned SF author Kevin J Anderson as a co-writer, the Dune series continued. The difference in writing style is obvious, but the characters, setting and themes are all continuations of Herbert Sr’s. For various reasons, Herbert and Anderson wrote two prequel trilogies before tackling book 7 itself (which was eventually split into books 7 and 8). As you can expect, allegations are still ebbing thrown about ‘disrespected legacies’ and ‘milking the cash cow’. There are literally hundreds of reviews that pour hate on these new instalments simply because they were not written by Frank Herbert.

That’s something I just do not understand. Obviously, the original author would have written a book more in line with the others in the series, but that is no longer possible. So why not just enjoy the brilliant books we do have? Or if you don’t like them, why not keep quiet about it? Not liking a book because it is badly written, or not to your tastes is fine. Hating a book’s very existence because it contravenes your personal idea of canon is just moronic. The ending of Dune is about as fitting as I can imagine, and the prequels expand on the mysteries of the series in ways that are both cleverly original, but also seem organic. Of course Herbert’s notes alone are not enough to publish. The books would have been far worse off were his successors not able to embellish here and there, to add their own distinctive flair to the universe. But the whole Dune series, now seemingly complete at nineteen novels and an anthology, is now more than Frank Herbert likely imagined. And better for it. And again, if you don’t like the continuations, the original six novels still stand alone.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I all but idolise Isaac Asimov, so you can imagine my excitement when I found out about The Second Foundation Trilogy, a trilogy licensed by the Asimov estate and written by a trio of highly respected SF authors. The series, admittedly, varies in quality, and is strikingly different from Asimov’s own work. But while it is inferior to to what is possibly the greatest SF series of all time, I refuse to dismiss it out of hand just because it was written without Asimov’s involvement. Even a casual read of the Robots/Foundation universe will reveal that Asimov himself pulled his narrative together from disparate elements and unrelated series. Perhaps someday another author will take up the challenge and create an in-universe reason for the discrepancies. I would be first in line to buy it if they did.

There is an exception to my open approach to fictional universes, and that is fan-fiction. I can see the benefits of it, from wish-fulfilment to writing practise, but I disagree with it in principle. Not because the writing is worse (it often isn’t), or because of a deviation from the original, but because it is knowingly outside of canon. The writer writes there own version of events or characters, in the full knowledge that what they write could never be the ‘real’ version.

Having said that, there is an exception to that exception. Next year sees the release of The Redemption of Time, by Chinese fan fiction writer Baoshu, and I am planning to buy it. Why? Because Cixin Liu, the author on who’s work it is based, has deemed it legitimate, and it will be published by the same houses that took up the trilogy on which it is based, even translated by the same man. Remembrance of Earth’s Past is my favourite SF series of the 21st century. If this new instalment is good enough to please Liu himself, then surely it’s good enough for me.

At the end of the day, Science Fiction is fiction. So long as the storytelling is consistent, the situations gripping and the world enticing enough.go ahead and dive right in. I know I plan to.

BOOK REVIEW: The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman

Publisher: Gollancz

Genre: Military SF

Publication Date: 1974

Verdict: 4/5

The year is 1997, and Earth is waging war against the Taurans.

With the war happening across vast interstellar distances, Einstein’s laws of general relativity mean that for every month the soldiers spend on the front lines, years pass by back on Earth.

William Mandella has enlisted in the UNEF (United Nations Exploratory Force), dedicating his life to fighting back the alien threat. But as the war drags on, he finds that the home he left behind can never be the one he returns to . . .

It’s always a tricky proposition, reviewing a stone-cold classic like The Forever War. Such is its influence on modern SF that I was surprised to see how recently it had been published. There are two main issues with a modern reading. One technological, and one social.

Obviously, (Despite what the Internet may wish you to believe) Earth was not in an interstellar war in the late 90s. But the date is a significant one, chosen so that the same soldiers who fight the Taurans were also present in the Vietnam war, as Haldeman himself was. The scenes of warfare on the planetary surfaces of the galaxy, through jungles and trenches, would have nowhere near as much of an impact had they not been written by a veteran. Tempting though it may be to label The forever War ‘alternate history’, the (thankfully) inaccurate timeline is of no real consequence, as the Earth we know, the Earth Mandella knows, is quickly left behind.

Despite knowing that ‘home’ will have changed, the Earth of the mid 21st century is almost as alien as the Taurans themselves, and that is the masterstroke of this novel. The alienation of humanity’s own soldiers as they return from the front is beautifully done. So different is this new world that the soldiers would rather return to the front lines than try to adapt to it. But that leads to the second issue. The social one.

In the Seventies, Haldeman’s vision of a global embrace of homosexuality must have seemed daring, even progressive. But from a 21st century perspective, there’s is something just not quite right. I doubt this particular vision would make it past modern censors and sensitivity readers. There is, much to my surprise, an asexual character, Charlie, possible the earliest example of one I have found in SF. Nevertheless, the changing sexual morality of Haldeman’s humanity, while inventive, never seems, well. Right.

Like so many older works, The Forever War is relatively short, only 238 pages in the Gollancz edition. But a lot of ground is covered, both physically and thematically. Broken into sections covering decades or even centuries, the realistic battle sequences and detailed discussion of physics complement each other well. The ending may be abrupt for some, but I feel that was the intended effect. A sudden, final jolt in the narrative. There are sequels, and I hope to get around to them sooner rather than later, but The Forever War, like all greats, is a functional standalone.

If you want to read one of the founding fathers of Military SF, then The Forever War is a wonderful place to start. Though dated in some aspects, it remains a timeless classic.

BOOK REVIEW: Off Rock by Kieran Shea

Publisher: Titan

Series: Standalone

Genre: Heist

Publication Date: April 2017

Verdict: 4/5

The year is 2778, and humanity has reached the stars. Or the rocks at any rate. Mining companies with the might and authority of nation states are doing a roaring trade in pulling every last ounce of resources out of any asteroid they can find. Miners work under terrible conditions, knowing they could be fired at a moment’s notice.

Jimmy Vik is one such worker. Approaching middle age, potentially an alcoholic, and with nothing to show for his labours but a small pension, he’s had enough. So when he stumbles across a gold deposit while doing demolition work, he makes plans for an early retirement.

The only problem is getting that gold off the rock. . .

Off Rock is a very fun book. The writing is conversational, reminiscent of John Scalzi. There were times when it genuinely felt like an overheard story, told by an increasingly inebriated man down the pub. The tale rattles along at a brisk pace, taking no breaks, for all of its three hundred pages. It’s addictive, like a stash of prohibited candy, and you’ll want to devour it all in a single helping. I know I did.

For such a short book, there is a lot of head hopping, with five major players. Shea does a masterful job of balancing their individual yet intertwined plotlines, making sure everyone has something to do, and none outstay their welcome. It’s a delicate balancing act that a lot of writers (myself included) seem to struggle with, but Shea has no such difficulties.

The plot is a simple one, a heist rendered almost comedic as more and more people are drawn into Jimmy’s plan, each of them worrying (sometimes rightly) that they’re going to be cut out of the deal. As the heist becomes increasingly public knowledge, Off Rock shows the same snowballing effect most often seen in sitcoms, with lies being invented just to cover up older lies. It’s with the people that Off Rock really shines. K7-A may be a small rock in the middle of nowhere, but it’s home to a fascinating and diverse cast of characters.

While it would be a stretch to call any of Off Rock’s protagonists heroes, they are undeniably endearing. Even the vaguely disgusting Jock has his moments. Despite his flaws, you can’t help but root for Jimmy. he’s a classic underdog: Unskilled, downtrodden, and at times just plain desperate.

It’s hard to take issue with a book as charming as Off Rock, but I did find the worldbuilding to be slightly lacking. We’re given everything we need to understand Jimmy’s situation. But that’s about all. A greater exploration of humanity’s interstellar domain would not have gone amiss. But that’s really a minor issue, and a personal one at that.

If you’re looking for a deep insight into the human psyche, or an intricate multi-layered narrative, you won’t find that here. What you will find, is a pile of fun, a crew of lovable rogues, and a rollicking way to pass a few hours’ reading.

AT BOUNDARY’S EDGE – An Introduction

Welcome, one and all, to At Boundary’s Edge, your new SF review and opinion site.

If you’re a fan of Sci-Fi and Fantasy (and if you’re not, I hope you soon will be) then you’ve probably seen dozens of fantasy review sites out there. Great ones. But not so many for SF.

I, Alex Hormann, being of fairly sound mind and in possession of too much time, have taken it upon myself to correct this imbalance. Thus, At Boundary’s Edge has been born.

This blog will be home to reviews of all things SF, primarily books, but also film, games, TV and RPGs, from stone cold classics to those modern masters pushing the boundaries of the genre. Whether it’s Space Opera, Tomorrow Fiction, Tech Thriller, Military SF anything in between, you’ll find it At Boundary’s Edge.

So stick along for the ride, strap yourself in, and let’s see where this crazy rocket takes us.