In Search of New Sci-fi

So after paying my library fines last week, I swore to myself that I was going to take out one, and only one book that day. Hopefully a light, entertaining jaunt that I could get through in a few days. Perhaps it was part of a series so I could enjoy those characters that I fell in love with again and again. Oh, and it had to have spaceships.

I decided to go with “The Shadow of Saganami” by David Weber. It’s actually the first novel in a spin-off series of the Honor Harrington Saga, which I remembered from the snazzy cover art I’ve seen grace the shelves of the bookshops from time to time. The novels star a female starship captain name Honor Harrington who spends most of her time kicking ass for an anachronistic constitutional monarchy out among the stars. While the novel didn’t directly star Ms. Harrington, it promised more of the same. A space opera full of shady political deals and massive starship battles. It seemed perfect. I took it home, cracked it open, and got to the beginning of chapter two before closing it again for good.

I realize that this might not be a fair review of the novel. After all, the book was meant for long-time fans of the series who were familiar with the universe, the terminology, and the characters. However, I didn’t get too far before I found that reading the rest of the book would just be a chore. The straight-laced characters seemed to have little to distinguish them outside the pips on their uniforms. I have a friends and relatives in the military, and in an industry where there is a culture of funny story battles, you’d think there would be more interesting ways to introduce a military officer character rather than having her checking over her dorm to see if she forgot anything. The dialogue was written in the same stilted American dialect that every major science-fiction universe has used since Larry Niven’s “Known Space” novels in the 1970’s. They also do that thing where they stop using contractions and use larger words to signify that they’re being sarcastic. They’ll say something like, “I am sorry I cannot acquiesce to your superior demands, O so-called viceroy of the surrounding sector and its principalities”. It makes me want to put my head through drywall.

So, back it goes to the library. My cousin recommended Neal Stephenson’s latest, so I think I’ll give it a shot. The problem is, I know why this series is a New York Times bestseller. The descriptions of the space battles are grand and detailed. If there is ever a TV show or movie from the Honor Harrington universe, I’d probably watch it (if only because David Weber wants Claudia Christian from Babylon 5 to play the title character). However, there was such an ennui in the tone of the book, like everything I was watching through the text had been done before. I find this is a problem with most science fiction after the 1980’s. As hard sci-fi concepts like computers and space travel become commonplace, writers put less effort into describing those things with the wonder and mystery that they used to. This is why I read older novels from authors like Heinlein and Niven. The novels still read like they are fantastic, even though the technology in them becomes dated by our standards. It’s important to remember that in science fiction, technology is more than just a way to get from plot point A to mcguffin B. They are symbols of humankind’s hopes and dreams.