Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Someday the Stars (Lunar Free State #2), by John E. Siers

Mill City Press, ISBN 9781626521056, May 2013

This is an incredibly frustrating book.

The bulk of it is a really good story, well written, well plotted, with decent character development. The Lunar Free State, a decade after its successful establishment as an independent country, continues to grow (to the asteroids and Mars), and continues to advance in technology, outstripping the nations and alliances of Earth in space drive technology in particular. Then  a scientific mission to Jupiter accidentally wakes up an alien probe, which promptly heads out of the system, toward the alien power that planted it.

Ian Stewart, CEO of the Lunar Free state, Lorna Greenwood, Admiral in the LFS fleet, and other characters both new and from the earlier book, scramble to prepare for coming First Contact. And when the aliens, the plantlike Mekota, arrive on an apparently peaceful visit, and treacherously kill Ian Stewart and leaders of two Earth nations who were part of the first contact delegation, the survivors rally to take out the small Mekota squadron, and prepare for the arrival of a larger fleet.

There's a lot to like about this book, The characters are likable and interesting; when they are acting or reacting, they are plausibly intelligent, plausibly impulsive; they don't do stupid things because it fits the plot.

The Akara are interesting aliens I'd like to see more of, intelligent, reasonably self-interested, and reasonably interested in friendly contact where possible. They have their own advantages over the humans, to go with their disadvantages in comparison with humans.

But.

You knew there was a "but" coming, right?

The Mekota, masters of a reasonably substantial empire, are stupid, rigid, inflexible, and pointlessly and self-defeatingly hostile. They do do things because it's necessary for the plot.

A novel should also not make you wonder about the author's age. Seriously. At one point, he has Ian Stewart thinking of the phrase "Chinese fire drill" as an apt description for something that's happening, while acknowledging that it's grossly unfair to the Chinese (who have a very decent space program among other things, in this book). My problem is this: I heard and read this phrase as a kid, and have read it in older books all my life, but I haven't actually heard it from someone in decades. It has long since faded out of use. Where would Ian Stewart ever have heard it, and absorbed it enough that he uses it in his own mind automatically, even though manners would probably stop it ever coming out of his mouth? (Rather like I grew up saying "Peking," and have learned to say and write "Beijing"--but often still think the older form.)

Similar is the consistent use of the word "oriental" where I, and I think anyone younger than me, would use "Asian." It doesn't feel racist or even "deliberately defying political correctness" in how it's used. It's just the word Siers uses, which suggests that he significantly predates the change in preferred terminology, which distracts me with curiosity about his age... when I'd rather be concentrating on his book.

An even more serious complaint: You should not be able to tell a writer's leanings on current political issues by reading his novel set a century and a half in the future. "Conservatives" are Good, and "liberals" are Bad. People who do not share Mr. Siers' gun-love do not favor gun safety regulation because they want guns treated in a way that promotes safety; they want to confiscate all guns because they think inanimate objects commit crimes of violence on their own. (It has apparently not occurred to Mr. Siers that, no matter how hostile the intent, pointing a finger at someone and shouting "Bang!" doesn't produce injury, much less death.)

Fiction shouldn't be about sending a message. In a phrase that Mr. Siers will certainly remember, but may possibly be Greek to many of his fans, "if you want to send a message, call Western Union." A rather more contemporary version would be, "send a text."  Any "message" should simply emerge from the story; we should not have Stewart and others delivering lectures.

It seems almost petty to comment on the fact that a major female character gives birth at one point, and we're supposed to be impressed by the hardship of a two-hour labor! That one, I have to admit, I laughed at.

All in all, frustrating, but well worth a read--especially if you are less sensitive to the things I complain about than I am, or if you enjoy good, old-fashioned space adventure without--despite a couple of my specific complaints--the background racism and sexism that so often affected Golden Age sf, enough that distracting vocabulary won't put you off--which is the category in which I'd place myself. The vocabulary can be distracting, but underlying assumptions about people are far more congenial to a contemporary audience.

Recommended with reservations.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.