A friend of mine, James Nicoll, asked me and a few other mutual amigos to review a self-published science fiction novel: Through Struggle, The Stars, by John Lumpkin. Somewhat reluctantly, I downloaded and read it. To my surprise, I enjoyed the read while remaining unconvinced by the scenario. I will also put up my friends reviews (all written separately). Here (with one change) is mine:
Through Struggle, The Stars is much better than a self-published novel has any right to be. It’s a tale of a war in the year 2140 between China and Japan, told through the eyes of a new officer in the United States Space Force. The USSF — which has inexplicably adopted naval ranks and conventions despite the name — exists to defend both the terrestrial United States and its interstellar colonies. The setting is hard science fiction, in the sense that the only gimme is a system of wormholes to allow interstellar travel. No aliens; space vessels rotate for gravity; and while they use fusion engines that we have no idea how to build the accelerations involved are tiny. The politics aren’t self-evidently silly and the populations of the colony worlds are sensibly low. In fact, it reads like the kind of novel that I tried to write as a teenager, only well-crafted.
From the tone of the above paragraph, I’m sure that you can guess that my overall review is going to be negative. Since the book has a lot of positive qualities, let me start with them. First and foremost, I kept reading! I am not the sort of person who finishes every book he starts. In fact, I finish only a small minority of them. Most of my reading is work-related nonfiction and thus mostly skimmed. As for novels, I’m a high-friction reader: the moment I have to work to maintain my attention, my reading speed drops quickly — and it takes very little to get me to quit. This novel I did not quit. That is an extremely good thing.
Second, I very much liked how the majority of the American characters had Spanish last names. Finally, somebody who thinks about demographics! I also liked that they threw in Spanish catch-phrases, but just as that: catch phrases. That is exactly how Spanish survives after several generations. We learn (from a Senate vote) that the United States has at least 52 states by 2140 and the author opens the possibility that Cuba might be one of them. Normally, that would get my “silly future cliché” alert up, but the allusion is simply that one enlisted USSF person has Havana for a home town. That would be possible today. While I do not believe that Cuba will ever become part of the United States it is supremely easy to believe that the country will continue to have a “special relationship” with the mainland, up to and including free migration. So the throwaway line didn’t desuspend my disbelief — after all, add Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia and you’ve got 52 right there.
The characters were believable, if somewhat clichéd. Actually, “clichéd” isn’t the right word. They were believable enough for me to care about them (and therefore keep reading) but they weren’t distinct enough for me to really remember any details. The one exception was a Chinese gangster-turned-intelligence-agent, and he stuck with me because I didn’t really ever believe in him. He wasn’t a cliché by any means; he just seemed too much like an agent of the plot, a character created by “The Narrative” rather than a real person who naturally found himself involved with the other people in the book. (The phrase in quotes is a reference to Scalzi’s Redshirts.)
The politics were well-handled … but lacking. First, the portrayal of China as a quasi-democracy felt wrong. Such regimes first appeared in Latin America in the late-nineteenth century; they quickly collapsed (via coups or civil wars) or turned into full-on dictatorships. That pattern continued through the 20th century with a third wrinkle: several of the quasi-democracies turned quickly into real democracies. Mexico’s second dictatorship-in-drag collapsed in the 1990s; even in Turkey today, the “deep state” seems to be on its last legs. It strained my belief to think that China would be ruled by a century-old corrupt oligarchy 130 years from now. (A newly-minted corrupt oligarchy would be a different story.)
Second, the politics of the war were given disappointingly short shrift. It is indisputable that major inter-state war has gone into serious decline since 1945. It strikes me as very plausible that it could see a comeback. The novel provides a necessary condition: powerful directed-energy weapons make it at least plausible that politicians would believe that they could control the ladder of escalation. (The prevalence of robotic and precision weapons had a similar effect.) Logically, therefore, the war began as a limited conflict fought at sea and in space; one can imagine future audiences cheering on such a contest.
The problem is that there was something very pro forma about the backdrop. There is an interesting question about whether industrialized interstate war (limited or not) is possible in a modern democratic environment. Can modern democratic politicians capitalize on violence? Would modern audiences countenance unleashing death in their names for anything less than national survival? These questions are unaddressed. When the author reveals the reason the American president maneuvered the U.S. into the war, it comes as an anticlimax. (It depends on the FTL McGuffin.) There were some references to U.S. domestic opposition, but mostly in the context of “ethnic Chinese” congressmen objecting to a war with the madre patria. (Which is, I have to say, a silly idea — in a world where China has been rich for a century, there will be no discernable Chinese-American community have been little net immigration from China for at least as long. The descendents of past and current immigrants will have long since assimilated; second-generation outmarriage among Chinese-Americans currently tops 50%.) There is a subplot involving a Taiwanese independence movement that strained credibility. In short, the politics never became unbelievable — but they were underexplored.
Which brings me to the killer problem: the book read like it took place in 2012, 2030 on the outside. It was simply unbelievable as a depiction of life in 2140. The ground combat scenes, for example, read like they happened last week. (The main characters were a little too composed during the fighting, but that’s a different issue.) Sure, there were exoskeletons and lasers from space, but that felt like window-dressing. Nothing about microdrones, intelligent robotic “pack animals,” self-guided ammunition ... the tactics of ground combat were basically unchanged.
The same problem afflicted the rest of the book. There were passing mentions of self-driving vehicles, advanced drones, machine translation, advanced 3-D printing, computer interfaces implanted in people’s eyeballs and “the best genes that money could buy,” but none of that had any appreciable effect on the course of the action or the social background in which the characters operated. The author failed completely at giving the impression that the book took place in the future. Now, it is possible that the author is correct that by 2140 automation will advance, sensor technology improve, cyborgization continue, 3-D printing mature and gene modification become common among the rich ... yet with daily life remaining about the same as in 2012. (Along with military organizations, ground combat and democratic politics.) That is possible! And hell, as a small-c conservative, I would very much like it to be true. But it’s a tall order, and a writer who wants to keep my disbelief suspended needs to make the case. The author of this book does not even try.
As a coda, I had three other quibbles. First, while the space combat scenes seemed well thought through, I did have to wonder what all those people on board the ships were actually doing. Even if our 22nd-century space navies decide to keep human commanders in the loop rather than entrusting it all to the AI’s, one would think that the ships would operate with tiny stripped-down crews and lots of maintenance robots. If that’s wrong, I want to know why.
Second, the dynamics of space colonization didn’t make much sense, at least not on the surface. There wasn’t much commerce, so the motivation seemed to be non-economic. The few colonies we saw were not rich places, so there was some indication that the author realized the problem, but it wasn’t explicit. Nothing caused me to recoil, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something didn’t make sense about the scenario.
Lastly, there were a few dumb throwaways. A reference to helium-3 mining on the Moon. Ugh. A reference to asteroid mining. Slightly more plausible for a few rare elements, but double-ugh as something needed to power Earth industry. And then there was a major lacuna for a book about geopolitics: a bit about coastal protections for major cities was the only reference to global warming.
In short, the book succeeded as a yarn. But it failed as science fiction. Props for the Spanish last names, thinking through the dynamics of orbital combat, and avoiding (most) clichés. But minus for essentially writing “2012 in Space!” rather than something about the year 2140.
I would read other works by the author; he shows a lot of promise. I’m not sure that I would read other works set in the same universe, though. None of my objections require him to rewrite his background — just explore it in greater depth. The end result, however, won’t look much like the “2012 in Space” that we saw. Maybe Charlie Stross would let him bounce ideas around?
Comments welcome on any and all of the topics raised above.