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"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

The Stars Above

Posted on | October 30, 2021 | Comments Off on The Stars Above

— by Wombat-socho


Welcome back to the continued trashing of what may be the worst list of recommended SF not published on I’ve been noodling over this post for most of the week, cudgeling my brain for good space opera, because in contrast to Ryan & Finney, who broke their list into “A Place To Begin”, “Military Focused”, “Social Focused”, and “Mind Expanding”, I am keeping it relatively simple by denying that there is a difference between good combat SF and socially-focused SF, because as I said last week, the whole point of combat SF is to examine the effect of war on people and their societies, noting in passing that the “people” in question are not always human. There’s a rather famous Harry Turtledove story, “The Road Not Taken”, in which a bunch of aliens (who have developed anti-gravity and the stardrive but otherwise are stuck with 17th century technology) attempt an invasion of contemporary Earth, which fails horribly because muskets and pikes are no match for modern mechanized infantry, and their flyers are hopelessly outclassed by F-15s. 

So this week we’re going to look at combat SF that takes place in space, or as some folks like to call it, space opera. Like so many things in SF, space opera clearly begins with E.E. “Doc” Smith, and his two epic series. The Skylark novels begin as a kidnapped damsel in distress story and end with an apocalyptic war of oxygen-based life against chlorine-breathing aliens from a different galaxy in which psionic powers are used to teleport suns across millions of light years to trigger novae in the hostile aliens’ home systems. Along the way, we’re introduced to several alien races, most of them humanoid, and get a good look at their societies, which are inevitably changed (usually for the better) by the advent of our hero, Dr. Richard Seaton, and his friends. This gets expanded to a grander scale with the Lensman series, which begins with Triplanetary and really hits its stride when we meet Kimball Kinnison in First Lensman, which seems at first to be merely a tale of a galactic police agency fighting a war against a drug cartel, but turns out to be much more. 

Despite being heavily involved in the aerospace industry, Jerry Pournelle didn’t write about any space battles in the CoDominium/Empire of Man universe until The Mote In God’s Eye, but between him and Larry Niven, they turned in an outstanding example of the genre, especially if you include the deleted section later published as “Reflex”. Probably the only better such story set in that universe is Don Hawthorne’s “The Face Of The Enemy”, published in one of the War World anthologies, and in some ways a foreshadowing of our next subject.

Your fleet has been lured to the enemy’s home system under the pretext of peace talks, but during the talks the enemy executes the fleet’s senior leadership. The admiral commanding the fleet has left you in command, but you’ve just awakened from a century-long snooze in cold sleep aboard a survival pod. During that time your heroic last stand in the opening days of the war made you a hero to your people – their Arthur, their Holger Danske – and much of your fleet believes that you’ve been sent by the living stars to save them in this dark hour. What now, Captain Geary? So begins The Lost Fleet: Dauntless, the first of Jack Campbell’s excellent series about “Black Jack” Geary outthinking and outfighting the Syndic fleets as well as officers in his own Alliance fleet who don’t want to change the way they’ve learned to fight as the decades rolled on and things like fleet tactics were forgotten. There’s also a bigger problem (no, not the complicated relationship between Senator Rione, Captain Geary, and the skipper of the Dauntless, Captain Desjani, which does give our hero some serious migraines) that could spell the end of both the Alliance and the Syndic Worlds. Campbell does an outstanding job portraying the troubles involved in leading a fleet that initially acts more like a barbarian warband (as Raj Whitehall might say) than a coherent fleet, the headaches of logistics involved in operating behind enemy lines, and the feeling of desperately trying to get up to speed on a century’s worth of progress – and sometimes, all too often, regress. Highly recommended. 

No list of space opera would be complete without the Salamander. The tale of a far-future Horatio Hornblower begins with On Basilisk Station, Harrington’s first command and since then has expanded to fourteen books in the main sequence, two sets of prequels, and at least one other side series – forgive me, I pretty much lost interest and track of the Honorverse after Weber failed to kill her off like Lord Nelson at Trafalgar. So much the worse for me. Still, unlike Forester’s stories of the misanthropic Royal Navy captain, Weber gets heavily into the politics, not only of Harrington’s own Kingdom of Manticore but also her adopted world, the Protectorate of Grayson, on whose originally theocratic society she has a considerable impact. That having been said, while Forester rarely showed Hornblower in other than single-ship actions, Weber treats us to many, many scenes of squadrons, groups, wings, and fleets in combat described in loving detail, while describing in passing the effects of Manticoran and the Republic of Haven societies on their fleets. It honestly doesn’t get any better than this. 

Next week, we’ll talk about the groundpounders, tankers, Mobile Infantry, and suchlike people.

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