Reading about flat characters in E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, I have just been reminded of one of the things that routinely frustrates me in David Weber’s work. Weber likes trying to make characters who should essentially be flat, more or less caricatures intended to draw up conflict or drama or comedy (or maybe they should be comic but he refuses to use them in that way, making them painfully comic instead… more on that later). But instead of accepting that these characters should be flat, he tries to flesh them out. He tries to make them round, and make me care about them. Nine times out of ten, he fails.
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.
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.
There’s an obvious joke or three to make here about being distressed by David Weber, but he doesn’t really deserve them. The fact is, I continue to like his Safehold series, even if it is pretty predictable at this point. Like I mentioned last time, Weber is serving up a recipe that is tried and true, and despite being well known and familiar it still tastes pretty good.
In By Schism Rent Asunder, Weber continues the Safehold series that he started with Off Armageddon Reef. He returns to his burgeoning Age of Sail adventure that pits a lovable and clearly heroic pseudo-England against a corrupt and controlling Mother Church, in what will soon become a holy war. This recipe has been tried before, and it turns out that it tastes just fine.
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.
Take one of my favorite writers and give him license to contribute to the phenomenally successful Honor Harrington series, and what do you get? You get Eric Flint working with David Weber on the short-stories-turned-novels, Crown of Slaves and Torch of Freedom.
Do you like space opera? How about great characters engaged in spy games and intrigue? Or maybe true badasses going up against incredible odds? All of them? Good. I’ve got some books to recommend to you.