Posts Tagged space opera

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s “Trade Secret” — Slow Start, Absorbing Finish

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller have been reviewed here at Shiny Book Review multiple times. They always turn out thought-provoking, high-quality novels and most of the time, their novels end up on my “to be re-read soonest” shelf.

Their newest novel is TRADE SECRET, a direct sequel to their earlier novel BALANCE OF TRADE, both off the “main sequence” of the Liaden Universe and predating the action of AGENT OF CHANGE by a few centuries. Clan Korval is only mentioned by reputation in both of these novels; instead, the Liaden Clan at the heart of both BALANCE OF TRADE and TRADE SECRET is Clan Ixin, while the personage we’re following is a young human man named Jethri who’s been adopted into Clan Ixin and is learning the business of trade (as you probably guessed by the title).

Now, you might be asking yourself why I’m dancing around the issue of Jethri’s name. Simply put, the Terrans call him one thing — Jethri Gobelyn — while the Liadens call him another — Jethri ven’Deelin Clan Ixin. And because Jethri has two names, he often has to reconcile who he is with what society expects from him.

Or, in his case, what both societies (Terran and Liaden) expect from him.

One of the ways authors Lee and Miller do this is by contrasting the expectations the Liadens have with regards to sex compared to those Jethri grew up with (the Gobelyns, who are Loop Traders — that is, their trading ship has comparatively few destinations that repeat over and over compared to a bigger trading enterprise such as the one possessed by Jethri’s adoptive mother Norn ven’Deelin Clan Ixin). Jethri is a young adult, so the Gobelyns have taught him to be careful, to be smart, to not rush into anything and not to pair off until you’re much more sure of yourself . . . and sex, obviously, is a part of that pairing off.

This, of course, is much like most parents treat young adults now. It’s a mix of caution plus some education as to why you’re feeling more hormonal surges (and urges), and the way the society on-ship is constructed, young adults don’t get a lot of opportunities for experimentation save a few furtive kisses now and again (almost never on their own ships, as they aren’t big enough to prevent inbreeding) or with “bundling,” which is a lot like cuddling except in a small space.

But the Liadens see sex differently. They feel sex should be a sharing even between two people who don’t have love between them. (Granted, the Liadens do not feel you should go to bed with anyone at all. They are more rigid in many ways than humans in that regard.) They also think if you’re not trained to be a considerate, caring partner, that shows a lack of breeding . . . and because Jethri has only recently been adopted into Clan Ixin, all of his tutoring has been accelerated.

Including his romantic training.

The ways the Liadens are similar to the Terrans are in the realm of education and awareness — neither culture sees it as a good thing when young adults are unaware of what sex is all about, and both cultures feel you should not produce children if you cannot take care of them, most especially if you are of a High House (Liaden) or are a member of a trading ship (Terran/Rim Runners/Loop Traders).

So Jethri’s introduction to sex is much more complex than you might expect, and it is a plot point because Jethri stands between two worlds — Terran and Liaden. And because he’s the first person to do this, he’s a trailblazer . . . and he feels the weight of expectations on both sides keenly.

I enjoyed TRADE SECRET quite a bit once I got into it, but the first half was a bit slow for my taste. Jethri starts out learning from his adoptive mother Norn, but must be sent elsewhere on an important mission where his dual identities will be an asset. Getting there was torturous at times, especially when Jethri’s personal objectives were nearly met in one chapter before the next cut away to what’s going on with the Gobelyns these days. And figuring out exactly why the Gobelyns mattered so much took some doing.

(Hint, hint: It’s not necessarily for the obvious reason.)

The action mostly revolves around something Jethri’s father Arin left him. No one knows where it is, but Jethri has hints. So he has to go in search of that in addition to going on the important mission (the two are intertwined in a way I can’t reveal without spoilers, I’m afraid) and it’s a decent way to structure TRADE SECRET that worked better the longer I thought about it.

Ultimately, though, the action is a MacGuffin. It’s not what’s important. What is important is Jethri’s coming of age story and how he balances his nascent adult self against what the Terrans expect on the one hand, and what the Liadens expect on the other.

Before I forget, there’s also a subplot about a particularly nasty cuss who doesn’t like Jethri and does everything he can to get in Jethri’s way. This rather immature Liaden “halfling” (teenager, roughly) has been spoiled rotten and yet has one, loyal person around him: his butler, who sees some potential in the nasty cuss and is trying to bring it out.

This particular subplot at first left me scratching my head, but ultimately it, too, came into focus. (Further reviewer sayeth not.)

Despite the slow start due to all of the above, TRADE SECRET was quite, quite good.

In fact, once everything finally fell into place (a few, short pages before the end), I understood why authors Lee and Miller chose this particular way to tell this story.

You see, all the disparate elements worked to create a mosaic. Mosaics can’t usually be understood until you step away and ponder them for a while. And while creating a mosaic is not the usual way to structure a novel, this approach benefited TRADE SECRET immensely.

Bottom line? TRADE SECRET is an excellent coming-of-age story, the cross-cultural clashes are stellar, and all of the seemingly unrelated stuff actually is related once you step away from it and ponder the novel as a whole.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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Spoor and Flint’s “Threshold:” Good, Solid Space Opera

Eric Flint and Ryk Spoor’s THRESHOLD is a space opera that centers around our near-future Earth, Mars, and a bunch of long-lost alien artifacts.  (The first book, BOUNDARY, while a good read in its own right, does not have to be read in order to understand THRESHOLD.)  All you really need to know to start this book is that the human race has attained space and now has a small colony on Mars, and that there’s a hope that more alien artifacts (of the type found on the Earth itself and Mars during the course of BOUNDARY) may reside within the solar system.

THRESHOLD starts out with a quick recap of what has gone before (deftly incorporated into the narrative), which is this: Madeline Fathom, formerly an agent for Homeland Security, has resigned to take a new position on Mars along with her new husband, Joe Buckley.  Helen Sutter, a paleontologist, and her much-younger husband, A.J. Baker, continue to puzzle out the alien fragments left behind that have been named Bemmius Secordii for two reasons: “Bemmius” is for the “bug-eyed monster” the aliens apparently looked like, while “Secordii” is the name of the person, Jacqueline Secord, who discovered the alien artifact in the first place.

Because of the alien artifacts, humans have finally been able to get out into space to stay.  (Human ingenuity plus alien knowledge is the equation Flint and Spoor make, and quite credibly, too .)  Now, there’s a legitimate “space race” going on, with India developing a “space elevator” for freight, the European Union building the biggest, baddest spaceship on record (the Odin), and of course Baker’s own Ares Corporation (the first private company in space, headquartered on Mars) also develops its own, small spaceship.

Over time — as much of this story is told in the form of vignettes — Fathom and the others realize there’s a real problem: the Martian artifacts, which have been freely shared with the crew of the Odin, lead to yet another artifact.  The Odin’s crew, rather than telling everyone on Mars (and Earth) what they’re doing, instead cuts the Martian colony completely out of the equation, possibly so the EU will be able to put its own, massive footprint in space.

While the devious nature of the Odin is not in question, there’s a further problem.  The Ares Corporation has far more work than it knows what to do with considering the alien artifacts known to be on Mars that are within its purview (as most of Mars has been parceled out to other Earthly concerns, if and when they are able to join the United States, the EU, and other major groups in space), but Fathom, a security specialist, does not believe the Odin should be left to have it all its own way.   To be blunt, she emphatically distrusts the Odin’s chief of security, Richard Fitzgerald, because he’s more or less amoral — she calls him a “mercenary . . . sociopath,” which may or may not be true.

What is true, though, is that Fitzgerald is the most unscrupulous crewman on the Odin.  Fathom is right to distrust him, as is the Captain of the Odin, General Hohenheim.  And what Fitzgerald will do to try to gain the Odin an advantage may just start the first — and, possibly, last — interstellar war.

THRESHOLD is an excellent book that does everything right.  There’s treachery, politics, love, mayhem, friendship — in short, the usual array of human personality traits and emotions — which just goes to show how well grounded Flint and Spoor are in human psychology.  All the relationships (positive and negative) make sense in context, the science (both the alien and human) seems sound, and the story is well-constructed.

But be warned: as the name THRESHOLD suggests, this story leaves the reader on tenterhooks, especially in the latter half of the book.   (Especially with regards to this question: will Joe Buckley survive?  Or won’t he?  Tune in tomorrow . . . . )

That being said, there is a sequel to THRESHOLD in the works called PORTAL (Spoor’s Web site mentions that PORTAL was accepted by his publisher, Baen Books, last September).  This is a very good thing, because THRESHOLD asks more questions than it answers and left most of “our heroes” in a devilishly tight spot.

So, you have an episode in a very good space opera series, with another to follow.  Excellent!  (Put me on the list to read PORTAL soonest, please.)

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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Ryk Spoor’s “Grand Central Arena” — Imaginative Space Opera

Ryk Spoor’s GRAND CENTRAL ARENA is an imaginative piece of space opera that’s set on a near-future Earth where artificial intelligence — AI — is taken for granted.  Most people have what are known as AISages — that is, artifically intelligent personalities — that work with them inside their heads to the point that people who refuse to have them are considered, at best, weird.  Many things have changed, including bio-mods in the womb (changing hair color, eyesight, skin color, etc., to something completely unnatural), but most things are understandable to the reader, including the fact that humans are still restricted to the Solar System and haven’t done extensive amounts of space travel due to the lack of a practical FTL system.  Because of that, humanity has not discovered any other intelligences than our own at the start of this novel.

At any rate, our heroes are the bold, fearless space pilot Ariane Austin, enigmatic power engineer Marc C. DuQuesne (his name and some of his personality is based on the E.E. “Doc” Smith’s character, and is no accident), pretty-boy physicist Simon Sandrisson (discoverer of the Sandrisson Drive, which allows for faster than light flight), and five others, including a doctor and a biologist; they’ve been chosen by the Space Security Council to take the first manned interstellar FTL flight.  Austin was hand-picked by Sandrisson in order to be a last-ditch “fail-safe” mostly because of her outstanding piloting skills, and partly because he’s sexually attracted to her.  (I suppose there are worse reasons.)  These are powerful individuals with very strong personalities, which is emblematic of the whole classic space opera style.

The first quarter to third of the novel details the various aspects of how the crew, once picked, gets to know each other and what Austin, DuQuesne and the computer specialists do to retrofit the newly-christened Holy Grail spaceship with non-AI-augmented circuitry, as they realize in a true emergency the AIs might go down.  This can be slow going at times, with an odd, disconnected feel that’s thrown in by the strong reliance on AIs by many members of the crew, but bear with it because things are about to get interesting.

Once the Sandrisson Drive is engaged, something truly bizarre happens: the Holy Grail emerges within what appears at first to be a large tin can.  (No, it’s not literally made of tin.  But it’s not something the humans understand, either.)  Only Austin’s skills — plus all that retrofitting she, Dusquene, and the computer specialists did beforehand — are able to save the ship and get it to stop before it crashes into the walls of the enclosure.  Next, they have to figure out where they are and what to do about it.  But they’re hampered, some of them more severely than others, because their AIs have all gone on the blink and refuse to work anymore; the humans now have to rely simply on themselves in order to figure things out.  This gives the reader fully understandable people to root for, and adds to the overall tension nicely.

But what, exactly, have they gotten themselves into?

Once the crew explores a bit, they find out that they’ve come to a place that features an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere similar to Earth along with all sorts of intelligent xenosophonts, a place that’s similar in some respects to Grand Central Station in New York (hence the title).  In other words, this is a place where many different types of intelligent life have gone through it on the way to other destinations.  

Which means it’s time to meet the aliens. 

First, we meet Orphan, the last member the Liberated faction, who’s sort of like a bipedal, intelligent scorpion.  Orphan is a resourceful survivor-type who is willing to help the humans — almost too much so, which makes DuQuesne (one of the few survivors of a failed social and political experiment called “Hyperion,” a plot point that’s more important than it seems at first) extremely nervous.  Then, in rapid succession, we meet the Shadeweavers, who aren’t so much one particular species as they are a philosophy, that of using power for its own sake in a way that may as well be called “psychic” though it quite probably is no such thing; the Faith, who uses the same power the Shadeweavers do, but feel the powers they’re using are gifts from God (or at least some sort of Deity figure) and also admit many different physical types; and the Molothos — a seven-legged species that is pitiless, merciless, and nasty as Hell mostly because they hate all other species than their own.

As you might expect from this cross-section of other species, this place is not necessarily beneficent, which is where the “Arena” portion of the title comes into play.  Austin and the others quickly discover that in order to be considered an adult species — one that reasons and can think for itself and choose its own destiny, much less even return to Earth again — humans will have to answer a challenge successfully.  And answering, in this case, means only one thing: surviving the challenge, and living to tell the tale. 

So, can the humans survive long enough to figure out the Arena?  What’s up with all these aliens, anyway?  Which ones will Austin and the rest become allies with, as obviously Orphan by himself isn’t going to be enough to help them, formidable though he proves to be?  Will they be able to return to Earth any time soon?  And, finally, which of the two men, Sandrisson and DuQuesne, will have the better chance with Austin?  The answers to these questions riveted my attention until the final page was turned.

This is an intelligently written space opera with a great deal to recommend it.  I thought the science here — the Sandrisson drive, the AISages, even the bio-mods — enhanced the futuristic feel, and made sense in context.  The aliens were well-drawn for the most part, with understandable motivations despite their disparate cultures, which is consistent with the overall homage Spoor has said he intended to old-fashioned, rip-roaring space opera.  And I appreciated the characterization of the humans, especially that of DuQuesne; all eight humans go through realistic changes, and all eight have obvious flaws that enhance the narrative rather than detract.

The biggest thing that concerned me was the novel’s start, which as I said before was slower than I’d expected (I’ve read Spoor’s DIGITAL KNIGHT, which has a faster build-up) and somewhat disconnected due to the humans’ reliance on the AISages.  But providing you can get past the whole “supplying the spaceship” bit, you should like GRAND CENTRAL ARENA a great deal because it’s a lot of fun.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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