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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Crusade, by Taylor Anderson

Crusade

I just finished reading Crusade last night, the second book in Taylor Anderson’s Destroyermen series.  It still hits that oddly specific sweet spot I mentioned before, with alt-history technological bootstrapping and idealized social dynamics being the name of the game.  I believe I referred to Into the Storm as a strange mix of Stirling and Flint, but I’ve come to a better understanding of these books’ oddly specific conflux of flavors.  To envision Anderson’s style, strip away most of Stirling‘s semi-religious influences and replace what remains with faith in Honor and Doing What’s Right, convert Flint‘s cheerfully proletariat bonhomie into something just a bit more hierarchical, and toss in Weber or Ringo‘s blood-spattered military adventurism.  Now you’ve got a good approximation of Anderson.  (Just to be clear, I don’t expect any Oh John Ringo No! moments).

This second book in the series sticks with the same characters we met in the first one, and expands the cast slightly to give us a better perspective of the foes our protagonists face.  The setting remains the same, and the various characters on the ship are still wonderful to follow around.  I still sometimes felt like I was reading about a Chopper’s gang from Apocalypse World, and the sometimes aggressive, sometimes malicious pranking and posturing of the crew is reminiscent of my own experiences of living with a large group of other young men.  People are convincingly selfish and obsessive about their various areas of responsibility, and I’ve really enjoyed seeing the gradual induction of non-human characters into the ship’s crew and watching how they adapt to their duties and adopt the mannerisms of the other characters around them.

Ok, speaking of adapting, I need to mention something that I brought up last time as a concern; Anderson very carefully carries through on representing stereotypical 1940s gender roles, and I found that a bit off-putting (not the accuracy, but the roles and expectations themselves).  Fortunately, since the American humans aren’t the only culture in the book, there are groups of characters who aren’t bound by those gender-strictures.  But Crusade doesn’t look much deeper into the disconnect between the human conceptions of propriety and the conceptions of their new Lemurian allies.  I said that I’d be dissatisfied if that didn’t change… and it didn’t really change, and I am dissatisfied.  At the same time, the topic has certainly been discussed (briefly, or as a source of disconcertion) by the characters even if not much has come of it thus far, and it looks like there may be more change coming down the line.  My guess would be that such change will inevitably be lower priority for the story than the themes of military and honor, but I’ll keep reading and keep hoping that the change will come some point soon.  At a guess, the alteration of gender expectations will come about as a fait accompli as more of the humans die and are replaced by Lemurians.  Go figure.

Those quibbles aside, I’m still enjoying the series.  If you liked the sound of the style amalgamation I described above, you’ll probably enjoy it too.

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.

Off Armageddon Reef, by David Weber

Do you like Arthurian legend, religious war motivated by politics, and the burgeoning Age of Sail?  If yes, then try Off Armageddon Reef.  This book will feel abundantly familiar to anyone who has read a moderate number of David Weber‘s other works.  Not only is he recognizable by his language (and especially by his descriptions of violence in naval combat, which bear a striking resemblance to those used in the Honor Harrington series), but the story itself is often assembled from elements which he has already used in other books.  It speaks well for him that he’s found another way to combine those pieces, and used them to explore new topics and themes.  With naval battles and wonderful Arthurian parallels, I’m sold on this series.  Maybe I’ll change my mind six books from now, but I suspect that much like with the Honor Harrington series I’ll continue to be drawn in by the story being told here.  I happily anticipate gorging myself on the next book posthaste.

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