Space Opera and the Question of Empire: From David Weber to Yoon Ha Lee

A new post over at!

When I set out to write this piece, I had a grand vision for what I was going to say. Then I realised that in order to achieve that vision, I’d need to write myself a book’s worth of words. So instead of having an incisive and cutting post looking at approaches to imperialism and gender in space opera, you’re getting the shorter version: a sketch towards an argument comparing the space opera novels of Ann Leckie, Yoon Ha Lee, David Drake, and David Weber, and how they treat empire.

More books arrive

Six of these, half a dozen of the other...

Six of these, half a dozen of the other…

Here we have courtesy of Tor: Michael Swanwick, CHASING THE PHOENIX, David Weber, HELL’S FOUNDATIONS QUIVER, Jaime Lee Moyer, AGAINST A BRIGHTENING SKY, and Catherynne M. Valente’s RADIANCE. Courtesy of DAW, we have Jacey Bedford’s WINTERWOOD. And courtesy of Oxford University Press, Nicholas Walton’s GENOA LA SUPERBA: THE RISE AND FALL OF A MERCHANT PIRATE SUPERPOWER.

Books in brief: HELL’S FOUNDATIONS QUIVER by David Weber

David Weber, Hell’s Foundations Quiver. Tor, 2015. Copy courtesy of the publisher.

There’s a level at which I don’t understand why I’m still reading the Safehold books. They are basically pages and pages and pages of technical detail about a) weapons, b) weapons manufacture, c) industrialisation, d) furnaces, e) cold-weather clothing and supplies for an army, and f) other logistics, interspersed with descriptions of battles, and very occasional moments of character development.

If I wanted to read about rifles and furnaces and the problems of winter warfare, I could read a history or three. But somehow there’s just enough character in each volume that I find myself wanting to know what they do next – but really, the interesting bits are less than a quarter of the content. The rest is very skimmable. I keep hoping that one of these days someone will tell Weber, “Less of the expounding on the wonders of steam power/better ways to make things go boom/ironclads, more of the dilemmas of character,” and that Weber will actually listen? But so far, there’s no sign.

But Hell’s Foundations Quiver, while largely readable in between the techsposition, did a thing that pissed me off exceedingly. The Evil Church has set up concentration camps, you see – essentially extermination camps. And Weber does a thing where he briefly focuses on a single family in one of those camps, a sort of SEE HOW AWFUL THIS IS SEE ONE OF THE GUARDS ISN’T COMPLETELY LOST TO COMPASSION OOPS HE’S GOING TO DIE thing, and then one of the main characters – to whit, Merlin – rescues that family from CERTAIN DEATH and even fixes their broken teeth and shit.

And look. This is a questionable narrative decision. Because if a character can save three people in this manner, they can save a hell of a lot more. So what the writer is doing, essentially, is absolving the reader from having to see that “suffering has no limit, and horror no frontier.”* The whole treatment of these kind of camps – concentration camps – gulags – is questionable in its failure to create that bridge of empathy, to stare into the horrors of which humanity is more than capable and refuse to let us look away, refuse to let decline to understand just how human a horror it is. It’s a narrative flinch, a failure of moral courage. And if a writer is not willing or able to force their readers to inhabit that horror as nearly as possible, to confront it in all its human anguish? Then they have no business including such camps in their narrative at all.

And Weber fails on this point. He flinches. He flattens. And it pisses me off no end.

*cf. Charlotte Delbo, “Vous qui savez,” in Aucun de nous ne reviendra, Paris 1965.

Recently arrived review copies

Five of them!

Five of them!

I’ve been away. I come home after six days to find a stack of review copies waiting for me. No pressure, like?

Courtesy of Tor Books, Max Gladstone’s LAST FIRST SNOW, and ARCs of David Weber’s HELL’S FOUNDATIONS QUIVER and Gene Wolfe’s A BORROWED MAN. And courtesy of Titan Books, George Mann’s THE AFFINITY BRIDGE and Bennet R. Coles’ VIRTUES OF WAR.

Books in brief: David Weber, THE SWORD OF THE SOUTH

David Weber, The Sword of the South. Baen, 2015. Copy courtesy of the publisher. (Ebook.)

I confess myself astonished to read, after many years, a David Weber novel that isn’t largely composed of technological exposition, talking heads, and battlefield set-pieces. The Sword of the South is a strong throwback to Weber’s Oath of Swords, and opens a new chapter in the story of Bahzell Bahnakson, champion of the war-god of the Light.

Some seventy years have passed since War Maid’s Choice, and the forces of the Dark are moving once again. Arrayed against them, for now? There’s a mysterious red-haired man who’s lost his memory (but who might be a great warleader plucked out of time), a thousand-year-old wizard with uncanny knowledge, a cross-dressing assassin… and Bazhell. We’ve got a good old-fashioned sword and sorcery fetchquest here: go find and reclaim the Object of Power (a sword, natürlich) from the fortress of the Evil Wizard, who’s a pawn of the Even Eviller Wizards across the sea. (And for the first time in a while Weber’s written a villain who strikes one as understandable and even almost admirable in her self-honesty – although I might like her better because she doesn’t go chundering on about politics like most of his previous ones.)

I’ve got a giant soft spot for well-done sword and sorcery, and even though I think the most interesting characters in the whole book were shuffled off to the side very early, this is still a lot of fun. More smashing things! Fewer talking heads! Definitely better than I expected!

Review copies arrived since last we mentioned such things…

I'm seriously spoiled for choice these days...

I’m seriously spoiled for choice these days…

That’s Glenda Larke’s The Lascar’s Dagger, David Edison’s The Waking Engine, David Weber’s Like A Mighty Army (I got an ARC of that back in January and reviewed it for, I don’t know why Tor’ve sent me another copy, unless it’s just that they sense my shelves need more symmetry and silver leaf), Django Wexler’s excellent-looking The Forbidden Library, and Trudi Canavan’s forthcoming latest.

The Trudi Canavan arrived wrapped in brown paper and sealed with red wax. I preserved the wax seal of ORBIT here:

Gloomy hood cover with red wax seal

Gloomy hood cover with red wax seal.

It’s really a very cool piece of attention-getting. (And now I want a seal all of my own.)

There are also a number of electronic review copies lurking on my harddrive, and this copy of The Gospel of Loki whose review I’m working on lately. But electronic copies don’t have the same oooh shiny factor…

A brief summation of some books read over the last weeks

I am a very irregular blogger. Well, I never promised otherwise.

Amalie Howard, The Almost Girl. Strange Chemistry, 2014. ARC.

Reviewed at I fear I may have been rather unkind to the poor thing.

David Weber, Like A Mighty Army. Tor, 2014. ARC.

Review forthcoming at Very much following the tone of previous Safehold books: more wargaming than character development.

Marie Brennan, The Tropic of Serpents. Tor, 2014. ARC.

Review forthcoming at Sequel to A Natural History of Dragons. I like it. Lots.

David Drake, The Sea Without A Shore. Baen, 2014. Electronic ARC.

Next in Drake’s entertaining RCN space opera series. And, in the way of that series, very enjoyable.

David Weber and Timothy Zahn, A Call to Duty. Baen, 2014. Electronic ARC.

Set in the early days of the Star Kingdom of Manticore, the setting might be David Weber, but the style, energy, verve, and attention to character is all Zahn. I like Zahn’s work: I tend to like it best when he’s playing with other people’s toys, and whatever one may say about Weber’s latest works, he has an impressive toybox when it comes to Manticore and its navy – and its navy’s history. I liked it a lot, and I’m delighted to hear that it’s only the first in a contracted trilogy.

Courtney Milan, The Countess Conspiracy. Ebook, gift.

Excellent historical romance involving science. I like science.

Faith Hunter, Death’s Rival. Roc, 2012.

Fun violent urban fantasy.

Sharon Shinn, The Shape of Desire and Still Life With Shapeshifter. Ace, 2013.

Not exactly interesting romance with minimal point to the fantastic content.

Libby McGugan, Eidolon. Solaris, 2013.

Reviewed for Vector (forthcoming). Oy, how boring and irritating was this book.

Michelle Sagara, Touch. DAW, 2014. ARC courtesy of DAW.

An excellent sequel to the excellent Silence. I should be reviewing it for shortly.