Thursday, September 27, 2012

Slow Train to Arcturus

Rating: 3.5 stars
Length: A sneeze on the long side, but uses space well (432 pages)
Publication: October 7, 2008 from Baen Books
Premise: A crew from the planet Miran has been sent to investigate the enormous spaceship that's headed toward their system. Their scientists have speculated for years about the possibility of parallel intelligent life, so the crew is wildly enthusiastic about communicating with these humans....until the primitive people they've found try to slaughter the whole landing crew. One scientist, Kretz, is injured but escapes through an airlock into the next "bead." He will have to pass through several alien habitats to get to a landing craft near the front of the train, and each one is its own harrowing challenge.
Warnings: attempted rape, offscreen rape or attempted rape of an adolescent (ambiguous sequence), threats of castration
Recommendation: If you're looking for something that's just plain fun and pulpy, give this one a try. It's not going to blow your mind with originality, but it's a good adventure. It's likely worth it in mass market, and lots of libraries tend to stock up on Eric Flint, so give it a whirl. 

Minor spoilers in the red pen section to discuss the attempted rape; steer clear if you're worried about that. I also describe some of the habitats, so if you'd prefer to be surprised by each one, maybe wait and read this afterwards. 

 What makes this one exciting and fun:  

This one is simply a pleasure to read, providing fun encounters and light food for thought without devolving into long speeches about personal philosophy or pages on end about every fussy detail. Starting out in the alien perspective is a good move, and one that makes the oddity of even fairly ordinary modern human customs pop out of the scenery. These aliens have their own scientific theories about intelligent life and foreign life-forms, and they're thrilled to collect plant samples and study a new culture, in a fun mirror of the normal human anticipation of first contact. The most pervasive thing is perhaps the gender; Mirans begin life as male and eventually turn female, settling down in breeding soil when they are old and successful, so gender for them is just a life stage, like adolescence. Females are also much larger, deeper-voiced, and respected for their level-headed good sense once the gender transition is over, and that makes running into humanity an interesting puzzle for them. For example, Kretz thinks at first that Howard in the second habitat is female thanks to his size, and provides all sorts of entertaining commentary for the religious authorities.

The habitats themselves are done quite well in several respects. They were made by essentially blowing thick metallic bubbles and setting up the insides with land, air, water, terrain, and various survival machinery to maintain the structures and provide enough food and air. Momentum is hard to build and easy to leave, so the habitats build up momentum and simply leave the train, starting at the back, when they reach the correct star. Terraforming is difficult and expensive, so people use solar energy as well as metals in the system to maintain their habitats and expand, colonizing star systems instead of staying on just one planet. Great little quotes from earth's past at the top of each chapter help explain how the habitats got started; we see everything from engineering explanations to internal security memos to lectures and textbooks. The most pivotal one comes early on, explaining that while the space habitats are expensive, they provide valuable benefits....and let Earth get rid of some of its misfits who can't adapt to mainstream society. Any group that can afford a habitat is welcome to leave and live out their way of life far from Earth's restrictions.

The second habitat is New Eden, a place that seems to loosely based on peaceful fundamentalist Christianity. The founders left Earth to keep themselves pure and to escape claims of animal abuse because they raised and ate livestock, which very few other people did. They're patriarchal and resistant to technological change and progress, but otherwise seem like decent people bent on helping each other. There's one obligatory foaming-at-the-mouth type who thinks that the injured Kretz is a minion of Satan, but for the most part the people of New Eden are living up to the values they preach. Howard, one the most adventurous of them, is sent to help Kretz along into the next habitat and closer to his goal, since he's still too injured to make it on his own. 

Next in the line is the nudist Matriarchal Republic of Diana, which I was certain would be a hot mess, but is actually quite intriguing. The founders were primarily nudist dominatrices and the men who wanted to live in submission in that sort of lifestyle. Of course, once you get past the first generation, children born into that society would be forced into laws like men belonging to women, men being unable to testify in court because they count as minors, and men not being able to go out in public without being accompanied by a woman, passing from the custody of their mothers to their owners. One of the chapter header quotes makes the valid point that any society based on the absolute superiority of one group is going to have a permanent underclass that will end up harming even members of the privileged group; this crops up for lesbian members of the society, since they're perceived as being weak for not dominating the straightforwardly submissive members of society. 

This sentiment gets interesting, with the women trying to take each other down out of spite and resentment as healthy debate struggles to survive; it's much like the story "Way in the Middle of the Air" from Bradbury's Martian Chronicles. In it, all of the black people in the the United States are emigrating to Mars without warning; one white racist tries to find excuses to detain some of them, and when he fails, one of them calls out "what are you going to do nights?" in parting; he's a member of a local gang, potentially the KKK, that harasses and lynches black people at night, and now they're all leaving. He has no one to dominate and abuse anymore, and his life feels oddly empty without the objects of his contempt; we find out in a brief aside later that the first habitat, the one full of cannibals, was originally called Aryan Freedom, which makes sense; without the coherency of purpose in hating other groups, they fell into barbarism. 

The Matriarchal Republic of Diana is in better shape, partly because it carries its male underclass with it. There's even a men's liberation movement dedicated to tearing down the existing regime and replacing it with a male rule where each man can have as many women as he wants. Flint and Freer went an interesting direction with this; it's very common in science fiction and fantasy for members of a potential revolution to inherently be in the right because they're fighting against an oppressive system, which this matriarchy undeniably is. Instead, without an outside model of an egalitarian society, this movement wants to simply reverse the oppression. The women are willing to punish men and castrate them if they get out of line, and many of the men want to rape and subjugate the women who have mistreated them for so long. It's a thorny cycle of abuse and distrust, and it works, though it would be interesting to see if there are more reasonable revolutionaries, or maybe female sympathizers. These people are all but married, and it's impossible to believe that every woman is a dominatrix content to have sex with the house help without respect or love involved. That aside, this really is an isolated society, and they can't imagine the norms being other than how they are.

The next two territories are more unusual; one is inhabited by a South American tribe that's simultaneously embracing their traditional way of life and working with the habitat system's computer to learn languages; unlike the previous two habitats, they're aware that other habitats exist, and they want to expand into some of them so that everyone can have more space and resources. They seem very primitive at first, and in some ways they are, but they also take advantage of that perception to play dumb and learn about their visitors; a history of being forced off their native lands in the past has made them wary, but they have a sense of humor about getting their visitors drunk and spying on them. After that is a habitat of people who fly by flapping their arms in mechanical wings; they left Earth when extreme life-threatening sports were outlawed, and their only requirement for citizenship is the willingness to fly and not say that it's "too dangerous." Neither group is much caught up in religious or cultural ideology, only in the desire to do what they want without being told no, and that stubborn desire for freedom and independence is at the core of all the habitats, even those that have gone horribly wrong. Expansion, exploration, the wonder of space....Flint and Freer have worked hard to capture the wonder of open space and its sense of possibility, which feels especially relevant when NASA struggles to survive but is still doing things like landing on Mars and pulling us ever-so-slightly outward.

The red pen: 

The central characters are on a journey through new habitats, experiencing new cultures and acquiring unusual companions, but the side plot is decidedly....mediocre. In short, two of Kretz's party members have gotten into another habitat, way down at the other end, and one of them (being less than stable) has decided to declare himself leader. The other crew member is disturbed and wants to get out to help rescue the others, but he's soon imprisoned and can't do anything while the locals go along with it and support his companion. Another crew member is at the main ship, unsettled by his/her premature trauma-induced sex change. Kretz is trying to rescue the crew member at the front so they can both rescue and accompany the one at the back, but there's so rarely new information from either one. There's lots of radio chatter about people being worried and upset and demanding that the others come and find them immediately; it gets repetitive in a hurry and makes it easy to dislike every character involved in that arc because they're distracting from the good stuff. It doesn't take up a lot of space, but it does get tiresome, and then beyond tiresome when Mr. "And then they made me their chief" tries to rape an adolescent girl because sexual perversion and shock value, I guess. It might have gone better had radio contact not been established for a long time. 

In general, the book seems content to show that people in all sorts of social and sexual permutations can be happy if they want to and are willing to do things like acknowledge the existence of science, and it works really well right up until people start talking about it. Lana of the Diana habitat ends up defending a lesbian relationship that makes her uncomfortable because she likes the people involved and will have none of anyone bad-mouthing them, and it's great...which makes the later discussions such a letdown. Seriously, when characters are spouting things like "we must try to include, not to exclude" and "if they were so transparently joyful together, what was wrong?," it feels very much like the authors using the characters as mouthpieces. It's genuinely powerful to see these characters offer to give up long-held ideologies because they care for each other, but the way they express those things in conversations or internal monologues verges on after-school special territory.

The most bothersome problem crops up in the Matriarchal Republic of Diana, when members of the men's liberation movement capture two natives and Howard with the intention of gang-raping them because "there's plenty to go around." This is a thing that's believable, that men who have been so repressed would try to turn on easy targets, particularly since one of them is a police officer who arrests any men spotted out on their own. It's is usual in these situations, the aftermath feels really unexplored. This is a sci-fi romp, so I didn't go into this expecting therapy time, but the power dynamics of ruling women who don't take backtalk from men, let alone assault, being faced with the prospect of gang-rape and then being rescued from it by a man and a male-ish alien, are bound to be....complicated, and could have merited at least a conversation or two. This is especially true given that Howard is sexually harassed almost incessantly during his time in Diana, with many people assuming that he should be sexually available simply because they want him; there's room for empathy there, and room for characters to see that their society is genuinely unsettling in a way that they'd never noticed before.

At any rate, one of the attempted rapists ends up traveling with them for a while because there's no other choice, and apart from Lana's utter refusal to trust him with a weapon, there's not much fallout, even from the other more sheltered near-victim, who is a a lesbian. Basically, this felt like an excuse to add drama and introduce a short-term villain, and I feel cheated of the interesting material that could have been in here instead; there's no trauma, no real conversations about it, just the quick problem and rescue flashing by in just two or three pages. This goes absolutely nowhere near the festering heap of stupidity that was The Warded Man territory, but it still comes off as a cheap writing trick.

There are a few minor things that bothered me, like the bizarre description of how the habitats supposedly rotate; I'm not much of a scientist, but it seemed weird, especially when compared to the smooth descriptions of how other technology in the habitats is deteriorating. It's also absolutely ridiculous that people who build their own wings have never really looked at birds, even in pictures, to pick up innovations for how to design tails for better steering and movement; it's a lazy way to include characters who haven't talked for a while, and it doesn't make sense. Those quibbles aside, on the whole, I really enjoyed this one. It captures Star Trek's optimistic "Wagon Train to the Stars" mentality, suggesting that humanity's outcasts are also its best hope for frontiers and exploration, and there are quite a few laugh-out-loud funny moments of cultural exchange. 

Prospects: This doesn't seem to set itself up for a sequel, but both authors are fairly prolific.

Enjoyed this? Try: 

~This book touches lightly on quite a few themes, so it's a good jumping-off point. If you want to read more about gender shifting and the customs involved there, I highly recommend Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of  Darkness. It can feel a little slow in places, but it's marvelous at integrating myth with diplomacy, friendship, trust, the forces of short, it's artistic and very rewarding. 
~In a similar vein, try David Weber's Safehold series if you're looking for inventors and dreamers held back by religious forces who are willing to deem creativity a heresy. Odds are I'll get to it in my review sequence fairly soon, but the short version is that if you're patient with technological descriptions and enjoy Arthurian sendups, you might really enjoy this one.

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