Review: The Last Colony, by John Scalzi

This is the third book in the Old Man’s War series, and it unites the storylines of the first two books. John Perry has been returned to human form, and Jane Sagan has been made human as well. They married and settled down on a world named Huckleberry, adopting Zoe, the orphaned daughter of a brilliant traitor.

Everything was going fine, and then the Colonial Union asked them for a little favor.

So John, Jane, Zoe, and the rest of their household are off to form a new colony on Roanoke, except this is no ordinary colony. It’s a mix-mash of divergent cultures and almost seems designed to fail. And then they get the rug pulled out from under them when it turns out the Colonial Union has been… shall we say, less than truthful. From there it’s an engaging story of setting up a colony under less than ideal circumstances, hiding from aliens, and discovering the truth about what’s really going on.

This was probably my favorite of the series so far. It was all fresh material, and there were lots of problems to be solved, both practical and political. John, Jane, and Zoe all did humanity proud, even if it wasn’t always what the Colonial Union wanted. They also peeled the lid off of a static situation, and I’ll be interested to see where the story goes from here.

So, if you faltered during the Ghost Brigades, pick this one up and keep on marching.

Review: Angel Seeker, by Sharon Shinn

This was the fifth and final book in Shinn’s Samaria series. It’s not that it reached any definitive conclusion to the series, just that it was the last one written and that the author has said she has no plans to write more of them.

I enjoyed it. It seemed to have a bit of a political message, but it was one I agree with.

All of these Samaria books are interesting blends of SF, fantasy, and romance. The SF bit is that we’re living in a world that is specifically not Earth but a distant colony of Earth in some equally distant future. The fantasy bit is that we’re living in a world with angels living amongst the mortals of the world, and there is no doubt about the reality of Jovah, their god. They can sing prayers and get results, anything from manna falling from the heavens to lightning bolts blasting at the desired target. And the romance… well, in some ways I would say that they are all romance books merely set in an odd SF/fantasy world.

This book has two romances. The first is between an ambitious girl and… well, I won’t say with whom. She is determined to marry an angel and give birth to an angel child. I won’t say whether or not she succeeds, but I will say that her romance is more about finding herself than whether or not she actually marries an angel. I enjoyed this one quite a bit, mostly for her character arc.

The second romance was between an angel and a young Jansai girl. The Jansai are one of the many cultures populating the world of Samaria, and they seem to be remarkably similar to certain Earth cultures, particularly in how they treat their women. They treat their women as cherished property, but they can also be quite vicious to their women if they step outside their defined roles. And sexual promiscuity pretty much carries the death penalty, i.e. stoning and exile to the lifeless desert.

Anyway, this second romance dealt a lot with the politics around that kind of culture. Many or most of the men seem to be quite happy to hand out these harsh punishments. Some are disgusted by it but seem powerless to stop the overall harshness. The women are mixed between those who support it simply because it’s what they know, those who hate it but find can only fight it in tiny rebellions, and those who would flagrantly flaunt the law of their male masters.

Shinn ultimately comes down hard on this culture, so there is some politics here, but like I said, I agree with her position. As for the romance, I mostly found myself shouting at the young Jansai girl to get out while the getting is good, but I confess that seeing her reluctance to leave the only world she knew gave me some insight into how many women on Earth tolerate or even reinforce these cultures here on Earth. So while parts of it made my skin crawl, it did expand my horizons.

Now, that’s all about how I liked the book for what it was. However, I do have a little complaint about what the book wasn’t, and that’s no fault of the book. What bugged me was where it fell in the Samarian timeline.

The first three books in this series proceeded along in chronological order. Then the fourth book jumped to a time long before the first, and then this one was just after the first. That would be all right except that the third book – the furthest along in the timeline – kind of ended on a cliffhanger. There had been some major change in the world, and I was left wondering what was going to happen next. After two more books, I still don’t know because nothing has been written in the time after the third book, and from the sounds of it, nothing will be.

As such, the series feels unfinished to me. I don’t know if the publisher just gave up on it, or if the author herself doesn’t know what comes next. Either way, I’m cranky that I never quite got a sense of resolution to this series.

Kickstarter for Mars?

I know this sound ridiculous on the surface, but have we reached the point where someone should be doing a Kickstarter project for a manned mission to Mars? The NASA budget continues to limp along at about half the inflation-adjusted size of the 1966 Apollo peak. Proposals for manned missions to Mars keep getting cancelled and reproposed, but they are always far enough down the road that it’s a future president who will have to come up with the funds. Inside Washington circles, it seems like NASA is the unloved dog that is still too cute for anyone to put down.

Yet outside of Washington, NASA and some of the private space ventures are quite popular. In national polls, NASA gets approval ratings in the 55-75% range, compared to 30% for the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, Congress has been struggling beneath 20% for over four years. Politicians would kill for NASA’s numbers – especially right now after Curiosity’s successful Mars landing – and yet the only thing they’re killing is NASA’s budget.

So, maybe it’s time to bypass the politicians altogether and raise the money privately.

Let’s talk numbers. NASA’s budget for 2012 is $17.7 billion (USD). Worldwide, government space agencies are spending about $27.5 billion, of which about $10 billion is for manned flight. That’s a lot, but it’s not much compared to the US or global economies.

That’s how much we’re spending now for a modest amount of manned activity in low Earth orbit. What about going to Mars? How much will that cost? Well, the problem is that no one really knows for sure, but estimates range from the fantastically low $4 billion to the unfundable $1 trillion. Other numbers from recent NASA estimates have put it in the $40-60 billion range, with the cost to be spread over ten years.

Which numbers should we believe? Well, past space projects (and technology projects in general) lead me to believe that it won’t cost nearly as much as the initial high-end estimates. Aerospace engineers are smart guys – like rocket-scientist smart – and they tend to figure stuff out once they put their minds to it. So, I’m willing to throw out the trillion dollar estimate as that of a pessimist who is predisposed against the idea.

But on the other hand, it’s never quite as simple as you think it’s going to be, and cost overruns add up, so whatever we think it’s going to be when we lay down the initial specs, we can count on that cost to go up by 50% to 100%. I think that pretty much blows the $4 billion estimate out of the water.

But somewhere in between, say $50-100 billion, spread over ten years… that seems quite reasonable. It’s also a number on par with what we’re currently spending on manned space missions worldwide, i.e. that earlier $10 billion. On the one hand, you could say we’re already spending that and not getting to Mars, but we are getting something for it. It’s also a measure that there is an aerospace industry ready to absorb that kind of money and do something with it.

Ok, anyone got $100 billion to spare? Well I don’t, but I’ve easily got $100 I’d throw at this. Heck, I’d throw $100 at it every year for ten years. I mean, really, $100 is about the cost of taking my wife out to dinner and a movie (plus the babysitter). To see us put people on Mars in the next decade, I’d gladly give up a date like that once per year.

But how many people are like me that way? Well, if everyone in America felt the same, that would yield a budget of $30 billion annually. Well, let’s say half that because, after all, my wife is part of that $100 date. Still, that’s $15 billion. But not everyone in America is as pro-NASA as I am. Even with a 66% approval rating, that’s a third of the people who don’t like it. So that knocks us down to $10 billion per year, which is about on target.

Of course, it’s easy to say you like NASA, but parting with Mr. Franklin may be a little harder, so perhaps it’s unrealistic of me to think that 66% of Americans would toss their hard earned cash into such an effort, but this doesn’t have to be done by NASA. With private enterprises like SpaceX building and launching their own vehicles like the Dragon capsule, this could conceivably be an entirely private venture, funded by individuals and corporations across the globe. And for that matter, while many people would only drop in their pocket change, others would pony up for more.

Logistically, it would have to be funded and engineered in stages. That would probably slow things down from ten years to fifteen or twenty, but it would be one of the best ways to build credibility. At each stage we would learn more about the shape of the problem and refine the designs for the next stages.

Certainly, we are going to learn a lot from the Curiosity mission, particularly whether or not there is accessible water in the Martian soil. That mission cost has been estimated at $2.5 billion, or about $8 per US citizen. Given how excited everyone is about it, I think we got our $8 value from just watching the landing.

And I think that kind of thing would be key to ramping up the funding momentum. With each success building towards the ultimate manned missions, excitement would build, and that would drive the funding. More rovers, sample return missions, test runs of new drive systems, all could be played for the kind of buzz we’ve seen this week, and the funding for future missions could be timed to tie into that.

Visible successes – and yes, even tragic missteps – would make us all feel like we’re part of it along the way, so when we see that first boot print on Martian soil, we could all say, “I made that happen.”

On the other hand, it might be too much to ask. The only other secular funding effort on this scale is the American political process, and $10 billion is more than is raised/spent even in a presidential election year. But I’d like to think we could get even more excited about going to Mars than prevailing over the hippie/redneck across the street.

Review: Intruder, by C.J. Cherryh

This is the thirteenth book in her Foreigner series about Bren Cameron on the world of the Atevi.

I had been waiting eagerly for this one for a while since it seemed to have had a long gap since the last one. I had also been eagerly looking forward to the start of another trilogy-set in this series. However, I have to say I’m a little disappointed in this one, though it’s not really the fault of the book.

I love this series for three reasons: 1) Cherryh’s use of language is fantastic, both in her English narrative as well as her English-rendition of the Ragi language, 2) her exploration of the mixed psychologies of human and alien (Atevi) and the political problems they generate has been fascinating, and 3) the stakes have always been high with the political ramification reaching out from the quaint villages into interstellar space.

The first trilogy developed the world and hinted at the interstellar politics that were about to crash down on them. The second trilogy had Bren going out to face those politics and solve them. The third trilogy dealt with the fallout of what happened while he was gone. The fourth trilogy dealt with more fallout from the time they were gone. And… you guessed it, this fifth trilogy opens with even more fallout from the time they were gone.

All the while there is another bit of interstellar politics looming over their heads, with its promised arrival date any day now.

Or more to the point, any book now.

So I was really expecting this trilogy to open with the resurgence of the interstellar problem that was left open during the second trilogy. And MINI-SPOILER, it didn’t. In fact, so strong was my expectation that I went through most of the book expecting it to pop up at the most inconvenient moment, or at the very least, at the end in a sort of cliff-hanger/teaser for the next book. But it didn’t.

Yes, the political intrigue was suspenseful, and I’m really enjoying the growing relationship between Tabini (essentially the king) and his young son Cajeiri. I’m also intrigued by the increasingly visible fractures in the ever-secretive Assassin’s Guild, and I really like what it’s showing us about the back stories of Bren’s bodyguards.

But this is the seventh book in a row dealing with the political fallout of what happened when Bren was away in space. How many more will there be before we get back to that looming interstellar crisis? I feel a bit like I’m complimenting an endless line of chicken dishes, all the while craving another taste of beef.

And yet it was good, so I can’t really fault it for dashing my own expectations. So, I’m giving it a qualified thumbs-up.

Politics in SF/F

I don’t want to read your latest Libertarian screed masquerading as a futuristic civics lesson, nor am I interested in your theories on matriarchal divinity leaping out of your epic fantasy’s exposition. What I am interested in, however, is whether or not a mother has the right to refuse the fetal computer implant thus dooming her unborn child to a life of techno-deafness, or perhaps the vampire debate over easing the draconian laws against overfeeding on the now runaway human population.

In short, I have grown bored with modern politics popping up in my sci-fi and fantasy with nothing more to disguise them than a different flag or pointy ears and a tail. Yes, I know the argument that putting our own politics into these tales gives authors the opportunity to make social commentary in a new light. Uh-huh, yep, got that.

Except that it’s 2012, a presidential election here in the USA. Add or subtract two years and you have congressional cycles along with most of the governors. All of that in a country flooded with media, and there’s no shortage of social commentary. This year is particularly bad as we dredge up debates on issues that seemed settled a generation ago, so when I pick up a nice little escapist book, that’s what I want: an escape. I don’t want to be immersed in yet another argument for or against state-run healthcare.

But I don’t dislike politics in my fiction. In fact, good political drama makes for a great sweeping backdrop to the lives of our individual characters. The world is a-changing, and poor Xaglo and her little podlings need to find a new zhorink if they’re going to avoid being harvested in the fall. That’s high drama, and it’s driven by politics – not the politics of healthcare or immigration, but the politics of genetic diversity and un-zhorinked podlings. Can Karanthia truly prosper with these little half-clones swarming our colony’s gene pool?

Ok, so that one was a little weird, maybe too weird to make a story compelling to us humans who aren’t prone to spontaneous self-cloning. But what are some of the politics we human-ish folks are likely to run into in these far-flung settings?

In space opera, I can see a lot of politics around colonization. Colonies are huge investments. Who should pay for them? Who should profit from them? Who gets to go live on the new world, or perhaps, who do we force to relocate to that new world? How will those colonies be governed? Is there a set process for weaning them off into independence, or is there instead a road towards them become member worlds in some larger confederacy? It makes me wonder if we’ll get a replay of arguments from the British parliament back in the 1600’s and 1700’s.

If we run into aliens – or other races in fantasy – we can debate such concepts as universal rights and law vs. race-specific rights and laws. If the larval stage of the Vanoleks has the intellect of a cow, what rights to we grant it compared to their wiser elders? If an elf can live thousands of years, does his murder call for a stiffer penalty than the murder of a short-lived human? And for that matter, does thirty years in prison really mean anything to such a long-lived elf? Rigellians like to hunt the ape-like denizens of Quatorf-7. These poor creatures don’t qualify for sentient citizenship in the Federation, but should their resemblance to humans be enough to grant them protection?

Many of these aliens or forest-folk or demons or whatever… will have abilities that we don’t, and the political and legal structures will need to deal with that. Babylon 5 did a great job at dealing with the politics around a mixed population of telepaths and mundanes. What about beings capable of magic – should they be restricted from certain jobs or locations? How about those who can fly – do we let the fly freely or do we restrict them public lands? “No peeping angels in my backyard!” What about those hyper-intelligent aliens – do they get all the engineering jobs, or do we institute quotas to keep humans employed?

And then there’s the issue of augmentation. I think about movies like Gattaca where genetic screening and improvements were commonplace. I also think about lifelong computer implants. These kinds of augmentations will cost money. Who should pay for them, the parents, the state, or do we saddle the kiddos with the kind of debt reserved for Ivy Leaguers? If the state pays for it as some kind of universal right, what about those who want their children (or themselves) to remain unmodified? Will parents be allowed to deny their children that advantage? Will those who avoid it for themselves be penalized for not raising themselves to the level of all the other useful citizens?

And longevity? Certainly Social Security is going to need some reworking if lifespans are suddenly boosted to two or three hundred years, but if even if everyone keeps working, there might be problems. Will the young be disenfranchised from the political process by the twenty-two term Senator from Ohio? Will university faculty stagnate after a hundred and fifty years of tenure? Or will rejuvenation require some kind of career sacrifice from the old geezers? Maybe you have to quit your job and start a new career, but would that be a law or merely social custom?

Yeah, those are the kind of political dilemmas I want to see in my sci-fi and fantasy. It’s not that I hate the Libertarians and their free-will utopias. It’s just that they’ve gotten boring. Give me something new.

So, what’s your far-flung political dilemma, or are you still worried that those un-zhorinked abominations will overrun the ballot box with their tentacle spawn?

Starship Troopers and the Right to Vote

Tomorrow is election day here in the U.S., though it’s an off-year, so it’s mostly local elections, bond votes, and the occasional state constitutional amendment. I plan on voting, and I vote every chance I get. In fact, it’s a bit strange that I haven’t already voted because I’ve become a big fan of early voting in the last few years. (Notably, I had to bust out of the hospital to vote in the 2008 presidential primary, so I don’t like to leave things until election day.)

Voting and science fiction almost inevitably brings up Robert Heinlein’s novel “Starship Troopers.” In that novel, the voting franchise was limited to “veterans”. A “veteran” was not necessarily someone who had been a soldier, but rather someone who had volunteered for a two-year stint in “Federal Service”. Whether a soldier or not, these service jobs were apparently all fairly hazardous. Only after retiring from federal service could you vote or hold public office. The book focuses mostly on the soldiers, so both fans and critics tend to look on the rule as “only combat veterans get to vote,” even though the book made it clear there were non-military paths.

The argument for this was that the responsibility of voting should be reserved for those who have demonstrated an understanding of individual sacrifice for the greater good, i.e. voting is not about getting something for myself but about getting something for everybody else. Whether or not Heinlein himself felt that the voting franchise should be so restricted, the book makes a fairly passionate argument for it.

Critics have often equated this with fascism or military dictatorship. The 1997 movie of the same name was perhaps the greatest critique along those lines as it showed the Terran leaders as being active-duty military officers wearing remarkably Nazi-like uniforms. The movie also varied from the book in enough other ways that I don’t consider it to be a valid representation of Heinlein’s original argument on restricting the franchise to those who have already served. (The director has stated that he read only the first few chapters of the book.)

However, one thing that the movie did do was to bring up this argument again for a new generation. I was at a WorldCon in Baltimore (1998, I think), and I attended what was supposed to be a late night panel on Starship Troopers. Instead of a proper panel, it devolved into a roundtable discussion between all attendees. The arguments pro and con went round and round, complete with epitaphs of “Nazi” and “commie” and what have you.

I had not said much at all in that discussion, mostly just observing. (As a side note, I grow weary of the vitriol of many folks who are so fixed in their positions they are unwilling to entertain the notion that they might be wrong, and this discussion was filled with that kind of vitriol.) But eventually, someone turned to me and said, “You’ve been pretty quiet. What’s your take on it?”

I replied, “It seems to me that those of you arguing for the veteran-only vote are people who would be willing to make that sacrifice to earn the right to vote, while those of you arguing against it are people unwilling to make that sacrifice and just don’t want to agree with a system that would deprive you of the right you currently enjoy.”

I got two reactions. From those arguing for it, I got a chorus of “Fucking A!” From those arguing against it, silence.

I wasn’t surprised by the response from the pro-Heinlein crowd, but I was disappointed in the response from the others. I had hoped that instead of arguing against the likely results of such a system (again, the Nazi or militarism arguments) they would offer an argument for the right to vote for those unwilling to give up two years for some level of community service, that those voters deserved the right to vote or that they offered a unique and valuable voice that would not come from those who had already served.

Personally, I’m a little torn. I like to think that if I found myself in the world of Starship Troopers, I would have signed up and done my two years. However, in this world, I have never done so. I considered it strongly after high school, but pressure from my parents pushed me into college, and after that marriage, job, and kids kept me away from such a choice. I find that as the years go by, I regret that more and more. I still seriously consider making the switch to some kind of community service job in my later years, perhaps teaching. But I continue to vote now, without having made that choice.

I’ve gotten into the habit of closing these with a question, so my question to you is this: If you did have to do two years of community or military service to earn the right to vote, would you do it, and what kind of service do you think you would do? Don’t feel you have to restrict yourself to Heinlein’s choices of soldier or medical test subject. Instead, consider the many thankless jobs we have in today’s society.