Review: HMS Ulysses

HMS Ulysses

A rightful classic, HMS Ulysses is, in my opinion, the greatest naval action novel of all time. Author Alistair MacLean, a veteran of the Royal Navy in World War II, could draw on a lot of personal experience, and it shows in this masterpiece. People who know their naval history can look at the obvious parallels between the actions of the book and the ill-fated Convoy PQ-17 (which MacLean served on), but that doesn’t change its effectiveness.

The way MacLean sets a tone is hard to describe, but he succeeds brilliantly. The travails of the convoy, in no small part thanks to the PQ-17 historical experience, are both dramatic and plausible-seeming. The feat of squaring the circle cannot be applauded enough. Historical military fiction, at least to me, has had the issue of “it’s going to be either realistically dull and un-dramatic, in which case I’ll read a history book that makes no pretense at narrative, or it’s going to be exaggerated, in which case I’ll read a cheap thriller that doesn’t have to be bound to an existing war.”

This avoids both of them by throwing one (plausible) German threat after another at the convoy and emphasizing the wear and tear the climate and stress imposes on the sailors. I cannot recommend this book enough.

Review: Foundation

Foundation

foundationcover

Now I can add Isaac Asimov to the list of famous authors reviewed on Fuldapocalypse, and what better book than his masterpiece, Foundation?

I’m somewhat leery of reviewing massively successful books by famous authors. A part of me has this guarded “it can’t possibly be as good as they say” feeling, and I like giving more obscure stories a platform. But I felt I had to.

The story of the decaying empire and genuis Hari Seldon’s plan is very Shakespearean. By which I mean it’s a well-done story that nonetheless has gotten retroactively treated as something a lot more highbrow than it was upon first release. This isn’t a mere spacesuit commando book, but it’s still much closer to Ken Bulmer than it is to Stephen Baxter.

And while this isn’t Asimov’s fault, a lot of this is dated. There’s the obvious, like treating “nuclear power” as some kind of super-technology. There’s the historical conceits, like taking Edward Gibbon’s view of ancient Rome too closely. Then there’s the central premise of a triumphant technocratic process, the sort of thing embodied most by… Robert McNamara.

Yet I don’t want to come across as too negative. This is very readable, and it’s been so influential for science fiction that seeing where a lot of the tropes became popularized is also fun. This is a “classic” I do recommend.

Review: Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers

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Ah, this book. Starship Troopers is a misunderstood classic. It’s also something where the influence is worse-considerably worse- than the content of the book itself. Heinlein’s famous tale of the Mobile Infantry deserves a lot of scrutiny, and it’s very, very hard to give a “conventional” score.

For the book itself, if the average military sci-fi cheap thriller is an apple, this is definitely an orange. Viewed as a coming of age story, a training story with realistic drudgery, and (however worthy or unworthy the politics) a political piece, Rico’s story is better than it would seem from the perspective of “how many explosions are there?”. If I had to give a critique of the orange that’s independent of that, I’d say the writing tone is a major problem.

The book is written in a sort of, for lack of a better word, “Gee-whiz” style that I recognized from another Heinlein book of the time I read, Tunnel in the Sky. This style happens to not go well with any of the elements. Not the “Space Herman Melville”, not the politics, and not what action there is.

If it was just an orange,  I’d feel better about it. It’d just be a type of orange that I could personally dislike to a degree, but still understand why others would like the taste. However, it’s an orange that influenced a whole lot of apple farmers.

 

When reading military sci-fi and then reading what I call “contemporary action”, there are differences that drag the former down. Perhaps the most obvious, and the most obviously taken from Starship Troopers, is filling every first part of the first installment with training. Contemporary action heroes, in contrast, tend to just stride in wholly trained. There are exceptions, but those are the trends I’ve seen.

Imagine if, somehow, the romantic-ish Vigdis subplot of Red Storm Rising made the book popular to readers of romance fiction (let’s just assume the zombie sorceress mind control was particularly effective that day). Now imagine that what sometimes feels like every fluffy romance novel you read adopts the structure of a technothriller, with a lot of viewpoint characters, a lot of sitting in conference rooms giving details of little particular relevance to the (crowded out) main characters, and a general “big-picture” scope that doesn’t seem to fit the small, intimate story you’d expect from a romance. And you just stand there going “no, no, Red Storm Rising wasn’t a romance, it was the story of a third world war! It didn’t really fit but people are copying it anyway!”

That’s what Starship Troopers has done to military science fiction. I don’t want to put too much blame on it or any one book, but it’s a definite influence in that negative direction, and, apple or orange, I don’t see the original as being good enough to make up for the way it pushed its genre down the road of the (pun very much intended) “spacesuit commando.”