Monday, May 7, 2018

A Response to a Lousy Review.

  The tagline of this blog mentions that I rant.
  Buckle up.

  Ever know that guy that bad-mouths a movie, or a book, or something and then you learn he hasn't seen/read it? Or the guy that starts disparaging something and the more he talks the more he reveals that the problem is the guy talking made an error?
  You know what I am talking about.




  So today someone posted a link to a review. The reviewer is this guy.
  I'd never heard of him before.
  If you look at his little bio you'll note that when he lists 'inspirations' his first is H. Beam Piper. I am a life-long fan of H. Beam Piper, with a special fondness for his final book, Space Viking. And I am not alone - Space Viking is one of Piper's most popular and influential books and is set in Piper's Terro-Human future history.

  The review in question is of Space Viking. He says it is the first time he's read it. While his blog has a much worse layout than mine (which is hard to do!) it turns out that in the 2+ years he's been blogging, while he's been doing these other things, he hasn't read one of the most influential book's by his first-listed influence.
  OK; it happens.

  Let's start shredd... uh, reviewing the review.
Never heard of it? Perhaps not, but it’s a trophy sought by old-school science fiction fans and a guidebook to the origins of much space opera that came after it.
  Fair enough. It is very influential.
Piper is best known for his Little Fuzzy books about cute little aliens who befriend a grumpy old prospector on a far-off planet. Those books have been in and out of print for years and there’s even an updated version of the novel by John Scalzi (author of Old Man’s War). Although a rather prolific author, Piper’s career was stopped short by his suicide in 1964. Coincidentally, that is the year Space Viking was released, a book which his fans often praise as the best work ever.
  The gloss of Little Fuzzy is... rather glossy, let us say, but fair about the rest.
For decades I’ve hoped to come across a copy at a used bookstore or science fiction convention. Now, due to the magic of the internet, I was able to procure a used original 1964 paperback (and even then it took some doing). So now that I’ve read this legendary book, what do I think of it?
  This is where I started scratching my head. What is he talking about 'hoping to come across a copy'? There's the printing he's got; the really good, famous, Whelan-cover printing of 1977 that had more runs in '78, '79', '80, '82, and '83;  The Wildside Press release of 2007 (trade, paperback, and hard cover!) which had another paperback run in '08; and more physical printings in '08, '10, '11, and '13.
  In other words, Space Viking has been readily available in new print runs for the last decade! I picked up a used copy for my oldest son to take to camp in 2013, used, for about 2 bucks off Amazon.
  Now, if he HAD to have the first paperback version, and he HAD to but it at a convention or used book store, maybe, but if you want Space Viking you can get it. I won't go into a lot of detail about the $0.99 ebook that has been out for at least 9 years which has 4-5 of Piper's books in it including Space Viking or the fact that Project Gutenberg has had Space Viking available free for a freakin' decade.
  That is a lot of pixels for me to say - if he wanted to read this book "for decades" why hasn't he?
I found it fascinating how Marc W. Miller cut and pasted so much of Piper’s universe to write the hugely popular role-playing game Traveller.
   Well, this isn't true. Sure, when the Spinward Marches was released it had the Sword Worlds in it, which is a rather direct nod, but the setting is really, really different, the tech is different, etc. Don't get me wrong, Space Viking had an impact, but "cut and paste"? Hardly.

The setting of the novel is the far future, but characters still carry titles such as duke and baron as they fight over interplanetary fiefdoms.
  Does Callahan think that's unique to Space Viking?! There was a little book called Dune that, although published after Space Viking, was written before it. You read the old pulps and Sir Arthur of Alpha Proxima fighting the evil Count of the Black Nebula was nothing to blink at in the 30's.
  Maybe he's finally talking about the book, though.
The emphasis of Space Viking lives is also very Traveller; they simply strive to amass wealth and power over their enemies.
  This is a 'maybe'. Valkanhayn and Spasso start out this way but Valkanhayn returns, over the novel, into being focused on world-building and civilizing the barbarous remnants of the collapsed empire. Spasso's character flaw (that leads to ruin) is that he doesn't grow out of this attitude. And this is about the opposite Of the motivation of Trask, the protagonist.
In fact, the plot of the book can be described as: her [sic] creates and equips a starship, goes into combat, amass wealth, and uses wealth to upgrade equipment and expand power base–then goes into combat, and repeat.
This is the point in the review I started to suspect Callahan hadn't actually read the book. In point of fact there is a lot more written in the book about how Trask used the wealth he gained to end raiding and slavery on Tanith and then create schools of the people of Tanith than there is about amassing wealth. Why?
  Because the plot isn't about 'amassing wealth, upgrading equipment', etc. Indeed, the protagonist's ship, the Nemesis, never gets upgraded, only repaired. The Lamia gets downgraded to an orbital defense platform. Perhaps he mistakes how the ratty, old, unmaintained junk ships were repaired and turned into actually spaceworthy ships for 'upgrades'?

  Here's the real plot of Space Viking;
  "When a madman kills his wife on their wedding day and flees into space on a stolen ship the nobleman Trask sells all he has for his own ship to pursue vengeances. In the long years of his search he slowly turns from raider into builder, from thief to leader, and until his obsession becomes protecting other innocent people from madmen who would destroy them."

  The fact that this rather well-illuminated, straightforward plot eludes Callahan is surprising.
With this in mind, there is very little exploration of the characters as three-dimensional people.
  This is when I decided that Callahan can't be trusted with a review.
  You know how people take their drinks; you know that the background character moonlights as a painter which overlaps with Van Larch, the Guns and Missile officer, who is depicted as hand-painting landscapes to prep the crew for worlds he has seen and they haven't.
  And that's just the background guys. The protagonist, Trask, grows from a clever, charming, but provincial man of wealth and leisure into an obsessive amoral combatant until over time he heals from his incredible trauma to be a truly caring leader and mentor who has liberated an oppressed planet, forged an alliance of scores of raiders into traders, and saved a major civilization from total collapse in his spare time. The man of leisure becomes a man of action; the provincial becomes the cosmopolitan; the innocent becomes the vengeful becomes the guardian. We see him interact with nobles and peasants, see him deal with grief and (bluntly) PTSD, see him grapple with leadership and responsibility, and a lot more. To claim he isn't a three dimensional character to to show you either didn't read the book or didn't grasp simple language.
  Hell, even the semi-background character of Valkanhayn grows from a semi-timid heavy drinker well on his way to penury into a cool, decisive advisor and leader who is trustworthy, brave, and cool under fire. There is a lot of fine characterization in Space Viking.

Our hero, Trask, makes rational decisions, builds his empire for…reasons, and only rarely shows any sentimentality or desire outside his political goals.
 My first impulse of a response to this is "what utter nonsense" but let me be more detailed.
  The man who abandons his former life, sells his ancestral lands and title for a starship, and plunges into an entirely unfamiliar life as a space bandit seeking vengeance for his dead love "Rarely shows sentimentality"? Really, Callahan?
  Here is an excerpt from the book:
"He and Sir Paytrik Morland had been on foot together in one of the big hollow buildings that had stood since Khepera had been a Member Republic of the Terran Federation. The air was acrid with smoke, powder smoke and the smoke of burning. It was surprising, how much would burn, in this city of concrete and vitrified stone. It was surprising, too, how well-kept everything was, at least on the ground level. These people had taken pride in their city.
   They found themselves alone, in a great empty hallway; the noise and horror of the sack had moved away from them, or they from it, and then, when they entered a side hall, they saw a man, one of the locals, squatting on the floor with the body of a woman cradled on his lap.
  She was dead, half her head had been blown off, but he was clasping her tightly, her blood staining his shirt, and sobbing heartbrokenly. A carbine lay forgotten on the floor beside him.
   "Poor devil," Morland said, and started forward.
   "No." Trask stopped him with his left hand. With his right, he drew his pistol and shot the man dead.
  Morland was horrified.
   "Great Satan, Lucas! Why did you do that?"
   "I wish Andray Dunnan had done that for me." He thumbed the safety on and holstered the pistol.
  "None of this would be happening if he had. How many more happinesses do you think we've smashed here today? And we don't even have Dunnan's excuse of madness."
  Does that sound like a character that "rarely shows sentimentality?! Trask is shows as a romantic, and someone who gets a little misty at a scene of a little girl with a puppy - and Callahan misses it.

 And then Callahan shows his true colors.
Also, in the tradition of OLD SCHOOL gamers, there are no women playing active roles in this novel. One ship is said to have a female captain, but we never meet her and the ship explodes in battle. All the other female characters are love interests at best and window dressing at worst.
  He's a bigot. He is trying to take a huge, diverse group of people from all over the world (old school gamers) and treat them as a monolithic block who all conform to his own prejudices. That's bigotry.
  As for Old School and women, I have written about this more than once. To recap - back in the actual 1970's when I was playing almost every group had girls in it, and they were welcome and good players. So stop with the prejudice and bigotry.
  Besides, he's wrong about the book, too. Lady-Demoiselle Evita is the downfall of an entire planet and she's off screen. The entire plot of the book is driven by Elaine. I could go on.
This jives with the ascetic [sic] of 1964 I suppose (If Mad Men is to be taken as factually based), but without active women in this universe, how impressed am I supposed to be by the men?
  So Callahan doesn't measure men by their virtue, nor by their enemies, nor by their words, or deeds, or accomplishment, nor their honor, but solely by the yardstick of women? Not only is that ridiculous in and of itself, the obvious implication is that women can only be measured by comparing them to men - yet I bet he'd screech if someone else were to suggest that.
  According to Callahan the Old Man and the Sea is trash because there is no Old Woman and the Sea to compare him to.The sufferings of Job? Meaningless without a book of Jobette, he proclaims!
It is said that science fiction author Jerry Pournelle and H. Beam Piper were friends, and I can see how the two men had a lot in common. Apparently, this was especially true in the field of politics.
  Having read a great deal of both mentioned authors, studied Political Science, and my own involvement in politics I can state that Pournelle and Piper might have been friends, but they did not share a political outlook, In the various books of Pournelle and especially in his long-running blog he was very much a Libertarian-leaning Classical Liberal. Based on Uller Uprising, Space Viking, and his other works Piper is much more a Soft Monarchist Tory - that's rather different.
As in Pournelle’s works, Piper presents an almost Ayan [sic] Randian philosophy; the man in charge who inherits wealth should not be ashamed to use it—for by doing so intelligently, society will prosper as a side effect.
  The idea of a landed nobleman who inherits vast wealth laboring for the good of society as a whole is so close to the opposite of Randian thought that I very literally laughed out loud when I first read this. The position Piper takes in Space Viking is damn near the opposite in prose, as well - Trask is very supportive of monarchy and makes his own; he is very opposed to democratic reforms; he thinks of the common citizen as a nobleman thinks of peasants; etc.
  In short - as if.
Whereas, the man (and yes it’s always a man) who organizes the rabble and fights for social justice is the villain who’s misguided philosophy will destroy the galaxy…or whatever.
  This is when I decided that Callahan might, just might, be writing a satire. Why?
  In the novel (you know - that Callahan is reviewing) there is a guy that claims to be fighting for social justice. The character's name in Andray Dunnan. In reality he is an amoral, power-hungry thug who uses his followers to kill police, intimidate citizens, torture old men, etc. Dunnan is very, very explicitly using the same tactics as Hitler, organizing his group along the line of the NDSP, and very literally using Nazi tactics to seize power as a total dictator.
  Now, maybe it is just lousy, lazy writing but since the blog post is supposedly about Space Viking (he does take a side line to insult people who played D&D in the '70's, so maybe he's lost the thread) he appears to be painting Dunnan as "fighting for social justice".
  Did he just support an actual Nazi?!?
In Space Viking, characters talk at length about these subjects and it’s clear where Piper stood in the matter.
  That's because the clash between barbarism and civilization is central to the book's complex theme. Not that Callahan noticed.
So, yes, the book is flawed and dated. But I still recommend it as a study in Science Fiction anthropology because it’s clear many major players in science fiction have read this book. For example, Gorge Lucas lifted the name for planet Hoth right off the pages. As a kid in the 1980s, I played an awful lot of Traveller so I must admit that Piper’s last novel influenced my own writing quite a bit (read The Adventures of Crazy Liddy if you don’t believe me). 
Space Viking is also a study of what works and what doesn’t work in space opera. When a reader picks up a book with a title such as Space Viking he or she expects lots of action and peril, not a lot of political talks. Besides, there is something “clay pidgin [sic]” about expressing one-sided politics in science fiction. The author, after all, sets up the targets and it’s no surprise to the reader when he hits the bulls-eye from two feet away.
  In reality, Space Viking is a powerful depiction of how hollow vengeance truly is and how important civilizationreally is by having the setting resemble post-Roman Europe where in the absence of the former hegemonic power local regions collapsed into small, weak polities and how raiders from outside turned into merchants and then city builders (i.e, the real vikings) while also being a rather pointed parable about how the success of the Nazis was more about the weakness, cowardice, and lack of resolve of everyone else rather than anything special about the Nazis.
  The core theme of the book is the very complex interplay between barbarism and civilization necessary to maintain a large, modern world. Too much barbarism and you have collapse, like you see on Gram. Too much civilization and you are helpless against despots, as almost happens on Marduk until Trask reminds them that violence never solved anything other than slavery, fascism, and such.

  In the end, my review of the reviewer must boil down to: either Callahan didn't read Space Viking or he didn't understand it.