Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer (Terra Incognita #1 and 2)

This is a review of the first two books of the Terra Incognita series. I suspect they might have even been one book originally, given the title of the first does not make sense until the conclusion of the second.

Forget Sci-Fi. While taking place in a utopian future, amidst self-driving flying cars, smartphones embedded in people’s’ ears, and innovative forms of government, this series only dimly feels like it occurs in the 2400s. It feels unstuck in time. Most of the characters are immersed in Enlightenment philosophy. Several even dress like they’re from the 18th century, speak like it!

The story, written from the first person perspective and in the reader-aware style of the eighteenth century, follows Mycroft Canner, a convict. In the future, convicts must travel the land providing service (“Servicer” Mycroft) in exchange for food. Like many aspects of Palmer’s future wherein liberalism has spun out of control, it sounds nice and humane at first but is gradually revealed as borderline slavery. Anyway, Mycroft narrates the story, told over a few days. There’s various hi and lo-tech tricks that allow us to see the points of view of other characters, but Mycroft is our primary point of contact. It makes the eventual reveal of why he is spending the rest of his life in servitude all the more chilling and impactful.

Too Like the Lightning, by necessity, must spend a good deal of words setting up the universe, with its combination of future tech, Enlightenment worship, extensive social and economic cause-and-effect chains, etcetera etcetera. This new government-nation evokes ancient Rome and its notions of citizenship and rule.  Europe is run by a Parliament… but also the King of Spain. Here’s five other world governments too.  P.S. since the planet has been geographically decentralized (flying cars at impossible speeds), nobody is tied to their birthplace anymore but can choose whom they owe allegiance too.  

While fascinating, it does make for rather slow reading. Characters are developed and the plot put in motion in between lengthy segments of world building (and philosophy). While I liked it from the start, book 1 became dramatically better once I understood the basic tenets of the world and the last quarter of the text rockets forward, the dominoes falling rather than being stacked up.

What is stunning about book 2, Seven Surrenders, is that despite being action-packed, there’s very little action at all. The pacing is driven by conversation, by political upheaval, by personal vendettas between powerful people and their world-spanning fallout. Dialogue-as-action spouted by characters 400 years in the future dressed as characters 200 years in the past! It’s weird! And really good.

Ada Palmer, as she notes in the afterward, is interested in continuing the great Conversation, as started by Voltaire. The events and characters of Terra Incognita are set up so that questions asked are either timeless: what level of sacrifice or violence is acceptable to preserve the safety of the whole? What freedoms and forms of expression ought to be given up to prevent violence and division?

Other questions point more directly at our current moment. Gender is crucial to both the understanding of the world and the plot itself. Gender is a topic of high-interest in science fiction currently. We’ve seen a mass revival of the themes from Ursula’s LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, wherein a people (or all peoples) of the future have only one gender. It’s typically interesting but feels highly reactionary to the present moment of history wherein hard-right institutions, both legitimate and not, are on the rise. Don’t get me wrong, this is far from a bad thing. But it can also feel overly simplistic, too desperate to demonstrate how wonderful a gender-less future would be that it doesn’t feel genuine. I noted this when I read Anne Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, which left me wondering if everyone in the future is bisexual.

Terra Incognita seems like this at first. Everyone is a ‘they’. If not outlawed, overt genderism is seen as unethical or at least highly distasteful by the population at large. It slowly becomes apparent, however, that by acting like gender does not exist the people of the future just buried the problems of the past rather than truly unpacking and understanding them. This isn’t shoved in your face (at first) but gradually unrolled, like most of the series’ best points.

If it wasn’t clear yet, I thought these books were excellent. The best series I’ve begun in a very long time. I never rush out to get the next book but I did here, eager to find what happened next in this weird utopia on the brink. It was innovative and original and I wish every science fiction novel I picked up was such an opportunity to journey somewhere new.

Lilith’s Brood (Xenogenesis trilogy) by Octavia Butler

liliths-broodThere’s a peculiar quality in media produced during the Cold War, especially the late five-minutes-to-midnight era. Not just the fear and hopelessness — that’s present in plenty of time periods and cultures. Instead, it’s the near-certainty that humanity had reached its apotheosis. That mutual self destruction was indeed assured. This is the end of the road. 

So when, prior to the events of Lilith’s Brood, the US and USSR have blown each other apart and the rest of the world is succumbing to the after effects, it’s no surprise. It’s a simple inevitability. But it’s what follows that I find truly peculiar to the time.

An alien ship approaches Earth, scooping up any surviving humans it can find. These aliens, the Oankali, spend generations seeking out new life to integrate with and mate/merge genetically. Starting with our heroine, Lilith, they plan to train squads of humans to return to a primitive earth and produce children with them. Any humans who refuse this offer are either permanently locked in stasis (to be experimented on) or allowed to return to Earth, but sterile. No more true humans are to be made.

Why? Science! Genetics! The Oankali are so fine-tuned at examining genes that they’ve concluded that humans are genetically inclined to eventually blow themselves up. It is the conflict of both intelligence and hierarchical behavior in all of us. Destruction is inevitable. This isn’t an alien conceit either — the narrative never challenges it. In the world of Lilith’s Brood, genes are everything, including the extinction of the species. Even when book 2 flirts with the notion that humans could have a future separate from the Oankali, that future too would eventually be doomed.

Sitting from the vantage of 2016, where we’ve averred mutual destruction thus far and managed to survive the catastrophic world-breaking powers we gained in the 20th century, the moral center of the book is off-kilter and never truly believable. Not that humans can’t be prone to violence. Certainly we see that is still a world-spanning problem every day. But basic behavior being purely guided by genes? Not just violence but gender roles, sexual assault, etc. The behaviors Butler takes for granted as genetic truths is what we would deride as biotruths today. In other words: mistaking cultural habits for genetic ones.

This whole set of notions is more of an attraction than a repellent. Butler is a great writer. Her prose is crisp and leads to a comfortable story flow. The Oankali are a wonderfully realized and believable set of head-tentacled, three gendered aliens. It’s science fiction that exists without the shackles of genre trappings. If it feels dated, well, it is 30 years old.

That is, until book 3 anyway. If you’re reading this series for the first time, I’d suggest skipping it entirely. The first book is the aftermath of destruction. The second is the rebuilding. The third is a smaller, first person alien story lacking any of the greater human conflict. It’s very repetitive, repeating many of the same alien biotrait stories we’ve read before. My opinion, not supported by the narrative voice in any way, is that the Oankali really are just galactic parasites. That their promise of human-oankali hybrids was a lie, because we can see from a first person perspective that their children are simply Oankali with a slight human veneer.

As you can see, even when describing what I dislike, it’s within the context of the story, rather than “the writing was bad” or “the plot didn’t make sense”. It definitely sucks you in.

The Fifth Season (Broken Earth #1) by N. K. Jemisin

fifthseasonThis book took me all over the place. I couldn’t decide if I hated it or admired it or was utterly bored or wanted to read the next book in the series right now.

In a volatile, volcanic world, civilization is destroyed every so often by cataclysmic geological events (Seasons). Thrust into this world are three different characters vying with the various conflicts that mark living on an unstable planet with specific prejudices against them in particular. The characters are linked, though initially it is a mystery just how. I guessed the reason about halfway through the novel: it’s a pretty cool twist! The plot is based around these three, and my enjoyment of the novel varied so greatly between them, that I will go through them one by one.

Damaya is a child taken from her family for developing superpowers. In this world, some people are born as orogenes, which means they have devastating seismic abilities to literally move mountains or burst volcanoes. Naturally they’re feared and persecuted, and when children are found (and not killed in ignorance), they’re taken off to a wizard boarding school called the Fulcrum.

The reason I couldn’t wait to be done these chapters is simple: I’ve had it with magic schools.

They’ve suffused popular fantasy novels and media for too long. I feel like there’s a generation of creators who are around my age or usually a little older who grew up with the same media I did. Before Harry Potter, we had The Wheel of Time, with its Aes Sedai and magic reduced to science that can be learned in a classroom, greatly influencing all of epic fantasy. Even the rise of immersive, narrative video games have left their mark. I’m thinking Bioware games like Mass Effect/Dragon Age for sure. Not only does The Fifth Season’s magic users and subsequent prejudice have much in common with Dragon Age mages, tonally it is similar. Perhaps because Bioware was in turn greatly influenced by Joss Whedon. Maybe this is all an oversimplification but pop-Sci-fi/fantasy media of all stripes are feeling tightly entwined.

Another reason magic schools and I don’t mesh is that a) I went to a commuter college and b) I always hated school. Harkening back to college life is a key nostalgia element for the many people I know that speak of their college experience with such fondness (and certainly it would have been cooler if they were learning magic). If not nostalgia, I imagine there is still some appeal for those that actually enjoy classroom learning. 

The next point-of-view character is You, a woman named Essun. It’s written in the second person, following the account of a woman who found her small son murdered at the hands of her husband. This plot immediately grabbed my interest — distinct narrative point of view, jarringly awful event — and then promptly lost it. For starters, it’s glacially slow and Essun seems to barely cover any ground compared to the other two. Certainly the husband plot isn’t resolved.

Jemisin’s narrative style is something I’m going to call blogversation because I as far as I know there is no useful term for it (yet). What I mean is that the narrator is present and speaking directly to the reader in accessible, conversational language that reminds me of blogs. Many sentences start with “Well,” and end with “, actually” or “, anyway”. It means you can end up with prose that looks like this:

“Wow.

Really. That’s what you’re thinking. You’ve got nothing better. Wow.”

It’s not awful exactly, but I’m not a big fan. I feel like it puts a layer between me and the characters because the modern author writing in such modern language makes me start thinking about N. K. Jemisin writing that to me and not the actual character. This happens throughout the entire book but it’s especially bad with Essun. There’s a point very early where she ends up killing a whole bunch of people and the following chapter begins with:

“You’re so tired. Takes a lot out of you, killing so many people.”

There’s a sort of flippancy in that sentence that just kills it for me. If you can speak like that about killing people, how much does killing people actually matter?

Another major gripe I have with the You of Essun’s chapters is that, despite the intent of being so personally linked to this character, she spends near zero time contemplating what I figure nearly anyone would if they found their husband killed their child. Namely: how could he do that? We know nothing about husband Jija by the end of this book.

This brings me to Syenite. A college-age student/prisoner of the Fulcrum, Syenite is sent on a routine mission to help a coastal town, but the whole operation is just a front to be forced to have sex with and be impregnated by a senior orogene. 1 + 1 orogene = 1 more orogene for society to collectively control. 

I like this. I liked it quite a bit. It’s a good ‘ole back-and-forth, twist-and-turn adventure story. It still has some of the prose and thematic problems of the other two characters, but I forgave them easily because I was invested in the story. Even the secondary characters are superior to the other arcs.

I feel like the part of the novel I actually enjoyed is just a footnote at the end of this review here, but as they say, it’s easier to point out what you don’t like than what you do. Also, while Syenite is only one of three characters, it feels like her chapters are about half the book. So it’s at least as much good as bad or lukewarm.

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

sevenevesThere’s a golden rule in science fiction and fantasy that goes something like this: Don’t infodump.

Instead of spending paragraphs or entire chapters explaining the rules of this fictional world — the breeding habits of the native Grew, the intricacies of the spacecorn trade, the atmospheric pressure of Planet X — have that information roll out gradually through character action and dialogue. It’s simply a genre specialized version of fiction’s holy paean of SHOW DON’T TELL.

I’m telling you all this to make sure we’re on the same page when I say that Seveneves feels something like sixty percent infodumps. Or more. The moon explodes and all life on earth is doomed. What follows is lengthy descriptions of how, in the brief span of time we have left, humanity builds a set of vessels in space to survive our five thousand year exile from earth, waiting it out until the surface of the earth stops being bombarded by lunar debris and cools down. So the meat of Seveneves is technical explanations of the the structures humans are building in space, and how it is possible to build them. This is coupled with a primer on the science — with a particular emphasis on orbital mechanics — required to understand how space works.

Don’t get me wrong: There are characters, and they’re not poorly developed, though many are stand-ins for real life people. A Neil Degrasse Tyson stand-in named Doob is central. Hilary Clinton and Jeff Bezos analogues make appearances. But we’re talking about a 900 page book here. Characters and plot are not the focus, which is sort of counter to popular theory of what a novel ought to be.

Anyway, I thought it was great. I’ve never been partial to golden rules. Or rules of any kind really.

By attempting to encase the novel in real science, either what we can already do now or what we think we can do in the very near future, there’s an authenticity to the theory that makes it sing. I’m not a scientist. I have zero idea how much of this came from Neal Stephenson’s imagination and how much of it is solidly based in fact. But he sells it well enough that the novel feels like a legitimate merge of non-fiction science text and fictional adventure.

It does take a leap in the last few hundred pages, literally, time jumping to five thousand years in the future wherein humanity is terraforming earth in hope of returning full time. While the science theory is still there, sort of, it morphs into a second-rate fantasy novel that feels vaguely like Stephenson trying to create a setting for a video game RPG. It’s not bad exactly. Still a fun beach read. But a dramatic step down from the first two sections of the novel.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

msgv

Beleaguered, weary, wounded and battleworn, I ride my chopper to one final deployment. Not another sortie to South Africa or Afghanistan, to sneak into a soviet installation or assassinate an arms dealer, but to write this blog post. A task I am finding difficult. Usually before writing I already have a lead or structure, an idea to elaborate on. I already have the post about the book I’m reading half-written in my head. Yet, I don’t seem to have much to say about Metal Gear Solid V, a game I enjoyed immensely.

Just why is this game so good?

Take this episode for example: Early in the game, I was tasked with rescuing a hostage. I snuck into a Soviet-occupied Afghan village, slithered up on a soldier to interrogate him and retrieve the prisoner’s location, and was nearly there, without being seen, when a guard spotted me at the door. Alarms sounded as I rushed into the hostage’s room. The prisoner is screaming, bullets are plinking glass bottles above the bar I’m hiding behind. I’m surrounded.

I radio my chopper for air support. I hold out behind the bar while I wait for it to fly in. The Soviet guards freak out and start screaming and returning fire as my chopper strafes them. The pure chaos allows me to sneak out, prisoner thrown over my shoulders. A few hundred meters from the village, I radio my chopper to come pick me up. I watch as it flies away from the battle, slightly smoking, to touch down in front me. I toss the hostage inside and hop in myself, taking potshots at the enemy soldiers, not really expecting to hit anything. Mission complete.

Everything feels so organic. There’s a thrill in non-scripted happenstance. A point is reached where gameplay is so well-designed, well-thought out, and polished that it becomes narrative. MGSV has a plot of its own, and it’s pretty interesting, delving into the imperialism of language and western tyranny in the Middle-East and Africa, as well as exploring some video gamey themes like player agency.

But this is secondary to the story that is built simply by playing the game. Like that time I blocked a road with a truck, and while the tank rolling down that route honked its horn and yelled at the truck to move,  I snuck up behind it and planted C4 on its bumper, only to creep away and detonate it from a safe distance. Or when I sicced my pet wolf, D-Dog, equipped with a taser, on a full squad of armed men and how he somehow stunned them all. Or the simple thrill and follow up relief of being spotted by a guard and reflexively shooting him precisely in the face with a tranquilizer dart, in the brief window between him noticing me and alerting his buddies of my presence.

You know that feeling you have, watching a good thriller, when the protagonist is hiding from some villain or creepy monster and your heart is racing because the scene is tense and well-shot? That is the feeling MGSV evokes, except you’re the protagonist and you are the one who got yourself in this situation, not the screenwriter or cameraman or director.

It is excellent.

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

man in the high castleI expected a book about the aftermath of a history where the Allies lost World War 2. While that is the setting of the book, what I actually got was many pages about running an antique business in mid-century San Francisco. And many more pages of characters pondering their daily reading of the I Ching

At first, I was intrigued. People getting by in Japanese occupied SF (many of the streets mentioned surround my workplace!) It felt like a good play-on-expectations for anyone expecting a book about Nazi America. Then I realized that’s all the book is. In other contexts, this could be fine. But I didn’t care one whit about these characters. The book makes a point to paint them all as horrendous racists, Japanese or German or colonized American. Though the first and last didn’t set up murder camps. Or kill everyone in Africa. Yes, in this history the Nazis unleashed some bio-experiment that killed everyone in Africa. Also, slavery was re-instituted in America, a point that is given maybe a paragraph of recognition. While having point of view characters on every side, it’s borderline unconscionable that there is no black character with a voice in the novel. It single handedly robs the novel of the moral authority it attempts to wield.

There’s plenty of high-concept philosophical mumbling, but it’s unconvincing and comes to nothing. You have one character going on about Nazi ideology and wishing they were gods, several enmeshed in the I Ching and Yin & Yang and maybe this is supposed to tie back to the idea of history and how we fit in it. Maybe history doesn’t matter and embracing how feeble and weak we are and potentially governed by the esoteric will of a several thousand year old book is the answer. The fact of the matter is that this is less a plotted novel and more Philip K. Dick’s endorsement of eastern mysticism. You have a man yearning to be part of a harmonious cosmos, one that obviates human agency as a meaningful factor. Embrace the wu.

(so long as you’re not African)

This was one of those books that I didn’t dislike while reading, but found myself waiting, waiting, waiting for it come together; for the narrative and thematic threads to come together and form something. A tangible plot. A philosophy or politic of interest. I was disappointed. There’s hints of something better, but they’re half baked or cast off by novel’s close. 

A Brief Note On The Morality of Star Wars

storm trooper

No reviews this week, what with the holidays and being only partway through a 900 page Victorian epic.

I did see the new Star Wars. I found it a nicely produced Disney movie, if not the second coming of the Blockbuster Flick as some hoped. But anyway this is not a review, but as the title says, A Brief Note on the Morality of the New Star Wars.

Let’s recap: Storm Troopers.

In the original trilogy, they were just faceless mooks/cannon fodder for our heroes to kill. In the ill-conceived prequels, it turns out they were all just clones of one specific guy, which made them OK to kill, despite all the sci-fi film and literature on the subject that alerts us that Clones Have Feelings Too. The new series smartly abandons that point and storm troopers are back to being individuals. They’re children taken from their parents at a young age and trained to kill, but without a Queen of Dragons to come free them like the same exact plot point in Game of Thrones.

In fact, the male lead, Finn, begins as a storm trooper. After his first battle where he’s tasked to kill innocents and one of his buddy troopers dies messily, he decides he’s had enough and gets the hell out. He then spends the rest of the movie, along with the rest of our heroes, constantly shooting storm troopers while showing no remorse. The movie gives me this backstory about these boys/girls ripped from the family bosom, given a number as a name, and forced to kill. Then they get blasted and no one ever mentions it again! What the heck.

So yeah, that’s how I became uncomfortable every time someone took a blaster to another white masked trooper.

Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

radiance!Here’s a book I liked but am mildly disappointed because it has all the elements of something I should love.

  • A twisting, unique narrative: the story moves not merely back and forth in time, but also into the actual screenplays and in-film narrative of its cast of directors and set people. A fictional filmography essential to the plot (like Infinite Jest!)
  • Good writing: Rare among SFF writers, Valente gives a damn about prose/style/craft and the sentence to sentence work of Radiance is quite good.
  • A fun sci fi premise: Radiance jumps around an alternate history of the early 20th century, where space travel rapidly exceeded the pace of our world’s and all the planets of the solar system turned out to be habitable.

A woman is missing. Severin Unck, the most skilled documentarian of her time and daughter to Percival Unck, a renowned pulp genre director. After shooting a series of films across the solar system — from hunger strikes on one of Mars’ moons to the final cruise of Neptune’s city-boats before the planet goes behind the sun — Severin sets off to Venus. Venus is unique among the planets because it is home to the callowhales — enormous, country sized beasts (or maybe plants, who knows?) — from which humans harvest ‘callowmilk’. Callowmilk is basically oil ramped up to a hundred. It’s an essential ingredient in everything from fuel to heroine. A village full of callowmilk divers recently disappeared — well the people disappeared, the village was smashed to bits — and Severin and her crew set out to film it.

And then she disappeared too.

We never see Severin’s point of view. Just that of the people around her, or segments from her films. There’s a point early in the novel where a character is watching one of Severin’s documentaries and observing how everything is staged. Her hair, clothes, the lighting, tone of voice, pauses, the dialogue itself — everything is framed completely by the director despite its aim of authenticity and gritty realness. It’s effective. And true. Most documentaries have an angle, manipulate their facts just the right way, and lie by omission. Doesn’t it gall to discover all this when reading about it later on the internet after being impressed upon, had your passions risen by a particularly good documentary?

This chapter lays a pall over the rest of the novel. You know you can’t trust anything Severin says. You know you can trust her dad even less, and large swathes of the book aren’t actually happening in your run-of-the-mill narrative sense, but are excerpts from a new film written by Dad to honor Severin.

The book only sort of wants us to buy into this criticism though. It’s actually married quite closely to these characters and their fates. From the overly saccharine excerpts of Severin’s childhood (she’s just so precocious) to the brooding fate of the child Severin found on Venus shortly before her disappearance. What I mean is that the gorgeous styling is not the point of the book, the story is still the point of the book and I just don’t trust these characters or feel invested in their twice fictionalized fates.

Furthermore, and I’m still mulling this notion over because I’m aware it sounds half-formed and contradictory, I started to rotate this ‘is she lying?’ lens from Severin to Catherynne M. Valente, the author herself! I understand this sounds ridiculous. It’s a work of fiction, of course the author is ‘lying’, she’s making it all up and we all know this. But I mean more in the tonal manipulation the narrative warned us Severin is employing. I started to notice the commonalities between author and heroine. From the blurb calling this “decopunk pulp SF alt-history space-opera mystery”, which is some mystical in-group nonsense to the almost too-self aware look at me look at me retellings of old advertisements and gossip rags. Some indefinable sense that this is less a novel and more like a too-personal performance of which I wasn’t supposed to be able to see the strings. But I did, and felt mildly embarrassed for everyone involved. Like the child Severin wasn’t Severin but instead it was Valente writing Severin without knowing she was writing herself. This was followed up in the acknowledgements where Valente reveals she’s the daughter of a filmmaker and the phrasing Severin uses with her lover “I love you right in the face”, she deploys to her lover. So the question is, is Valente playing me like Severin is playing her audience?? Don’t all good authors? Should I let her play me?

With a more absorbing tale and dramatis personae, I think the answer would have been a resounding yes, willingly or not. I wasn’t sold. I gush enough about Infinite Jest on this blog but to compare to a similar conceit, even though I know David Foster Wallace was making it up, I still believed James Incandenza made those movies. I could find them, somewhere. Complete. By contrast, Severin’s films were a mere author-brain construct.

So it’s ultimately a beautifully stylistic romp, that lacks character depth and some sort of immersive spice. The first part makes it worth reading, one hundred percent. But it also left me wanting something more.

Starcraft II

starcraft2

I don’t want to be one of those guys in their 30s (or 40s or 50s or whatever) who complains, through rose-tinted glasses, that modern corporations or re-tellings of old media are ruining their childhood. The fact is: I haven’t played the original Starcraft since I was 15, max. I can’t possibly remember how good the narrative was because I viewed it through an entirely different lens.

But.

I’m still going to tell you that the Starcraft II is terrible by comparison. It’s that bad. It didn’t ruin my childhood or anything hyperbolic, but the original did inform my vision of sci-fi, surely more than Star Wars or Star Trek or Robert Heinlein or anything. Even when it was ostensibly ripping off Starship Troopers, it felt more like a story that was actually about humans and bugs in space, and not a political manifesto pleading the return of the Roman notion of citizenry, as Heinlein’s Starship Troopers book revealed itself to be.

Recap: Starcraft was about some miserable humans (terrans) launched into space, who literally reformed The New Confederacy and shortly found themselves tangling with two different alien species, the parasitic, seemingly mindless zerg, and the psychic, rigidly class based protoss. You alternate between the factions — a magistrate helping launch a terran rebellion and toppling the confederacy (only to find the new boss is just as bad as the old boss), as a lieutenant to the biblical verse spewing hivemind of the zerg (not so mindless as you thought), and as some middle manager in the incredibly bureaucratic protoss class structure, running a coup to kick out the assholes and uniting the fractious protoss clans to do the right thing and smash their biggest spaceship into the zerg overmind.

The expansion followed this up introducing the UED — humans from Earth who were maybe even more frightening villains than the zerg. It also characterized Sarah Kerrigan. Betrayed by the new terran government, Kerrigan was left to die amidst a zerg invasion. The zerg Overmind decided to spare her life and instead mutate her into some kind of human/zerg hybrid (the whole schtick of the zerg is they conquer worlds and mutate their favorite lifeforms into their swarm). In the absence of the Overmind (since you smashed your ship into it already), Kerrigan solidifies her power over the zerg and becomes its new ruler. She then proceeds to slaughter all your friends from the opposing factions on her way to smashing the humans from earth, the new terran dominion, and the united protoss. Yes, the planet eating, sentient bug race wins Starcraft. It’s bleak. But kind of funny.

Starcraft II then ignores all that and opens up several years later like nothing happened. Kerrigan just fucked off for 20 years I guess. She shows up again in the first (terran) campaign as a villain, but I guess one of the main terran characters, Jim Raynor, last seen in the Starcraft campaign vowing to see Kerrigan dead no matter the cost, now just wants to save her and spends the human campaign trying to do so. Remember, this is the same mutant-alien-woman who has murdered millions of innocents by this point. Jimmy succeeds in saving Kerrigan, by turning her back into a human by the end of the campaign, using a mysterious alien artifact that does shit like that.

… and then the zerg campaign starts (actually it started 2 years later, because Blizzard decided to release each campaign as a separate game), and Kerrigan’s human transformation lasts about five minutes before she re-zergifies and you control the zerg on the dumbest retcon plot thread of all time. Turns out the zerg weren’t always voracious life-subsuming monsters, but actually way back on their primal homeworld, they were noble beasts who were just scampering around and have a grand old time before a Dark God (yes) showed up and corrupted them. So Kerrigan needs to Eat, Pray, Love and find her inner self and become true Primal Zerg, and lose the influence of the Dark God, who is actually the reason she was such a bad person in the last game, yeah, whatever.

Which brings us to 2015, and the protoss campaign, where you control the most milquetoast, bland group of heroes yet, led by Saturday morning cartoon hero, Artanis, who just wants to clasp his hand over his heart and tell you how much we need to cooperate and be noble with eachother, guys. Anyway, the Dark God guy, Amon, who initially corrupted the zerg now just corrupted the protoss! So, as Artanis, you need to collect the uncorrupted protoss, and through the power of Friendship, unite them all and take down Amon. Which you do, but it turns out you can’t just go around killing gods or whatever because now there’s some nonsense about An Infinite Cycle, and someone needs to ascend to take Amon’s place. And who is it other than the Queen of Blades and mass murderer turned hero, Kerrigan, who sprouts wings and turns into an angel or some shit and Blizzard, you have so much money, why don’t you just hire some writers?

OK, but how about the gamplay? It was fun I guess. It feels like the real time strategy genre is more-or-less dead right now, so it was a good change of pace. There was too many “kill 5 void crystals/devices/generators/technobabble” levels, and I still had to endure the horrendous story of course. I tried to play some multiplayer games, and it’s funny how much difference five years make. In 2010, it felt like a quant diversion to play a gameplay style perfected in the 90s. Nowadays, it feels positively archaic. I didn’t last long. Gameplay mechanics designed just to make sure you can click X amount of times per second do not have a place in games anymore. For example: to maximize zerg efficiency, you have to make sure your all your queen units inject your hatchery (unit producing) buildings or else you have less larvae to create new zerg with. It’s just an artificial barrier to being good at the game. No thanks. Not 15 anymore.

Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch #3) by Ann Leckie

ancillarymercyWait, this is the last one?

As another episode of Spaceship-Turned-Person gallivanting across space, this one is pretty good. It doesn’t really blaze new ground, but it’s a satisfactory wrap-up of the Athoek Station plotline from book 2. As a conclusion to a trilogy sparked from a galactic civil war between warring factions of a thousand bodied ruler? Left me a bit wanting. Because it’s doesn’t really conclude the overaching plot; because it introduces new characters who seem like they’re going to do something important and then they don’t; because the crucial showdown is resolved by a specific take on legal interpretation.

But I guess I’m kind of putting the end of the review first here. Ancillary Sword ended with Breq solidifying her influence over the planet of Athoek and its space-bound, AI-controlled Station, where most of the action took place. It barely touched the plot threads from the first book, with an empire at war with itself, due to its many-bodied emperor, Anaander Mianaai, reaching a moral quandary and splitting in half. Ancillary Mercy combines these two story arcs. A unit of the ‘bad Anaander’ warps into Athoek space, seriously pissed off at Breq and looking to seize control of Station. Book 2 and 3 could almost be two halves of the same book — they’re very similar in plot and tone. Book 1 is left floating out in space as our hero’s origin story.

Ancillary Mercy is enjoyable. It has almost entirely the same strengths and weaknesses as the previous books. i.e. Breq is still a great character, noble and inscrutable, but the secondary characters are forgettable or baffling unbelievable  (I’m astounded to find that Seivarden, the worst part of book 1, who was mercifully absent in book 2 gets a whole section based around her because she’s a fan favorite; why is emotional immaturity is a staple of Radchai military personnel?). The social justice piece is occasionally interesting, but reductive. A tyrannical plantation owner is replaced by a co-op and apparently everything is solved, and we move from near slavery to perfect bliss.

A new thematic element is investigated: The personhood of machines. It’s relevant seeing the main character was formerly a spaceship, but sort of half baked. AI Ship’s are programmed to be fond of their captains and take care of their crew. This doesn’t mean they have to do everything to the best of their ability — a captain who is kind to her ship is going to get better treatment than one who treats ship and crew poorly. Ships do have their ‘favorites’. Your average human can’t compel ships to do anything but certain people with closely guarded access codes can force ships to do whatever they want. Ancillary Mercy declares that last sentence is morally repugnant and weaves that notion into the plot. I call this half-baked because like, if you initially program someone to only find joy in doing some things, and those things revolve entirely on servicing you and your army, then saying “OH! We’ll stop forcing you to do things.”, doesn’t mean shit. What happens if a Ship decides it doesn’t want to be a space-taxi shuttling around your army goonsquad anymore? What if it declares itself a pacifist and discards its guns? The book doesn’t ask.

So final verdict: As an episodic sci-fi tale that is at least somewhat nonstandard in narrative and characterization, with a swift moving prose, and frequent forays into modern socio-political issues, it’s a good series and well recommended. As a complete space operatic trilogy that concludes its main threads satisfactorily and doesn’t needlessly introduce loose ends, it’s not quite there. Still, I’m on board for more Ann Leckie.