Maelstrom, by Taylor Anderson

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Having just finished reading Maelstrom, I’m officially downgrading this series from “potentially profoundly interesting” to “some variety of popcorn lit.”  You know, the stuff that you’ll compulsively eat without thinking too hard about it: sometimes it’s exactly what you’re looking for, but more often it’s just there and you don’t bother to stop yourself.  This series is alt-history tech-bootstrapping military fiction with a very particular set of idealized social dynamics, and as of now it doesn’t look like it will stretch beyond that.  I’m not saying that it’s bad; popcorn lit is definitionally good enough that I’ll pick it up and breeze through it simply for the pleasure of reading it, provided I’m in the right mood.  But it also hasn’t lived up to my hopes of offering more introspection on any of its various conflicts, or breaking further from its genre precedents in an interesting fashion.

I should note that it’s hard for most novels to make it past my popcorn lit category, and the category itself encompasses an almost unhelpfully wide spread of books; furthermore, I can’t pretend to be better than that myself, as I doubt any of my own short stories would qualify as anything but popcorn lit.

I won’t say that the series can’t ever be anything but popcorn lit.  Some of the future books may deliver answers to the niggling contentions I’m sharing with you here.  But thus far my hopes for what I’ll call “deeper” material have not been met.  Specifically, I want Anderson to go deeper into examining the cultural conflicts inherent between the Americans and their various allies, and I especially want him to include the perspective of Lemurians who truly don’t have specified gender roles or gender/sex expectations.  It seems like he’s introduced the Lemurians (the cat-/lemur-like creatures with whom the Americans allied in the first book) as being without specific gender roles, but when we’re treated to the perspective of a Lemurian there are a number of basic social operating assumptions that appear to be based in a society more similar to our own, one which certainly embraces a number of implicitly gender- or sex-based values.  If Anderson wants to write the human perspectives in his book with those value assumptions in place, that’s ok by me, even if I don’t like it.  But much like my love for and disappointment with the use of Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy, I find it frustrating that Anderson should introduce an ostensibly gender- and sex- blind culture and then not do them the justice of writing from a gender- and sex-blind perspective.  I have to give Taylor Anderson credit for trying, and it seems like he might not be aware of how he’s failing to deliver here, but that doesn’t make it un-frustrating.

More after the break.

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Into the Storm, by Taylor Anderson

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This book falls into a strangely particular sweet spot for me; there’s something about the alt-history technological bootstrapping genre that I find appealing, and the obviously idealized social dynamics presented in this book are endearing if not convincing.  Furthermore, S.M. Stirling’s cover blurb pulled me over the edge into reading it.  I was not quite as automatically engrossed as he apparently was, but Into The Storm has made excellent reading material while I’ve been laid up following an unfortunate paintball incident.

The basic concept is very simple, transposing an American WWI destroyer caught in action against the Japanese at the opening of WWII from our world into an alternate world in which (more or less) the dinosaurs never really died away.  The story is all about the destroyer’s crew doing their best to survive in a strange new world, and doing what they can to find friends who might be able to help them keep their ship operating instead of simply falling apart.  It feels a little like S.M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time crossed with Eric Flint’s 1632, but instead of dealing with a town or island it focuses entirely on a very small warship.  The crew is wonderfully convincing, right down to their malicious pranking and oddly neurotic idiosyncrasies, and I enjoy following all of their various perspectives as the story progresses.  The crew actually reminds me a little of the residents of an Apocalypse World hardhold or members of a Chopper’s gang.

Now, when I say “endearing if not convincing” up above, I don’t mean to disparage the author’s conception of hierarchical systems founded on an egalitarian society.  As it’s presented, it seems to work pretty well.  But the author’s clear preference for the system by which ‘the good guys’ operate is so transparent that I feel unable to accept it at face value.  I don’t have experience with living and working on a US Navy vessel, I have no idea whether or not Anderson’s description is anything like the truth, and I suspect that what Anderson describes is closer to the ideal towards which his hierarchical system strives rather than the reality.  I’m certainly aware of many failure modes that would prevent a hierarchical system from working nearly so well as it’s presented in the book.  I think of it as a variation on the likable / wish-fulfillment protagonist problem; it’s really not actually much of a problem, so long as we remain aware of the fact that we’re idealizing the subjects of our attention, be they characters or systems of governance.

Also, I found the gender relations of the human characters (and characterizations of the male vs. female human characters) to be pretty frustrating.  I had a hard time taking the characterizations of the male and female leads seriously, because they seemed so stereotypically 1940s to me.  At a guess, Anderson was trying to ensure that these things were appropriate for a group of people in the US Navy in 1942 (unsurprising given his previous work as a technical and dialogue consultant for movies and documentaries), and I’m ok with that for the most part even though it turned me off the book to some extent (some things, methinks, are better left in the 1940s).  But he doesn’t really explore any of the disconnect between the humans’ attitudes and those of their newfound allies in this first book.  If/when he does get around to exploring that, and looking at the ramifications of further association between their two cultures, I think that has the potential to be super interesting.  If he just glosses over that topic over the next several books, I suspect I’d be a bit disappointed.

So!  If you’ve read and enjoyed Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time, or Flint’s 1632, I suspect you’ll enjoy this book as well.  If you haven’t read them but are intrigued by the idea of a group of wanderers on the seas of time and space, doing their best to reestablish themselves safely in a dangerous and not-so-subtly different world, you’ll also probably enjoy this book.  If you don’t think you can tolerate some nearly-stereotypically-1940s gender roles, or some very nearly Apocalypse World-like shenanigans, maybe wait and see what I have to see about the next book before deciding whether this one is worth it.

1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies, by Eric Flint and Charles Gannon

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This scene doesn’t happen, but doesn’t it look nice?

My review has been delayed by other distractions, but I read most of 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies before it actually came out.  You see, I’m infatuated with the 1632 universe.  I think that’s at least in part because the series offers a far more optimistic take on the world than most of the other fiction that I read.  If you already know that you don’t like the series, I doubt this book will change your mind… but if you do like them, you’ll want to take a look.  I’m not totally sold on it, and yet I still love it.

What do I mean by that?  Well, this book is a clear sequel to the Baltic War storyline, but it also incorporates at least two other storylines into the mix, with other elements thrown in from the rich milieu which has developed in the rest of the 163X stories.  It’s clearly intended to start a new set of storylines, several of which seem like they deserve their own books, or at least their own short stories.  I can see why they tried to fit so much into this book, but I feel like they ended up trying for too much and then ended up without quite enough to satisfy me with each of the individual stories.

But maybe the piecemeal way in which I read the book has done it a disservice.  I got early partial copies as soon as they became available and, like the literary glutton that I am, devoured each morsel as quickly as I could.  Like I said, it’s an infatuation.  While I doubt I’ll be able to restrain myself from reading new 163X books as fast as I can, I resolve to start over from the beginning next time once the whole book becomes available.  I’ll probably re-read 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies some time soon to see just how much of my impressions came from the disjointed nature of my reading.

Now then, how about my thoughts on the material itself?

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