Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

‘Ms. Midshipwoman Harrington’ by David Weber

with 19 comments

It makes a sort of sense to follow Peter F Hamilton with David Weber, purveyor of what the editors describe as “the kind of space opera UK readers love to hate”. In other respects, its inclusion is questionable.

Firstly, it isn’t very good. It is even longer and duller than the Hamilton and never aspires to be more than functional; pure Extruded MilSF Product. Secondly, whilst the Venn diagram of space opera and military SF overlaps, this does clearly fall into the latter camp. It is, after all, Hornblower in space (a fact made even more explicit than usual here).

Finally, although we know by now that lack of quality or relevence is no impediment to inclusion, I would have thought the fact this story is so similar to the superior ‘Weatherman’ by would have given the editors pause for thought. Both are prequel stories that see an exceptional military student face the challenges of life outside the academy in their first post. For Miles Vorkosigan, it reveals his character for the reader; for Honor Harrington, it simply confirms for the reader that she is made of awesome. To hammer this home, she is also physically perfect and has a magic cat.

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Written by Martin

7 January 2013 at 10:11

19 Responses

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  1. Do they actually say that about UK readers? That’s really interesting.

    Jonathan McCalmont

    7 January 2013 at 10:17

  2. They are really hung up on the notional differences between UK and US space opera and the idea that New Space Opera has characteristics uniquely influenced by UK (which they strongly disagree with).

    Martin

    7 January 2013 at 10:23

  3. So is the idea that a) UK people hate certain types of space operatic stories and b) UK writers do not produce a noticeably different form of space operatic story?

    Jonathan McCalmont

    7 January 2013 at 10:29

  4. The full quote is “the kind of space opera UK readers love to hate, for its focus on the military and for its right-wing politics.” So yes to A (although this does raise the Hamilton question again). On B, however, their view is that although the UK does produce noticeably different space opera, this shouldn’t be taken to define the New Space Opera.

    There is a weird undercurrent of derailing national chauvinism (in the face of perceived national chauvinism) to the anthology. From the main introduction: “There is no one thing that is the new space opera though, no matter how the Brits would like to think so, and claim it.”

    Martin

    7 January 2013 at 10:45

  5. While my instinct is to reject the idea there’s a strong difference between US and UK space opera (the sample size is so small that it seems dominated by the idiosyncrasies of individual authors), isn’t it true that there are some very large US/UK differences in sales for the authors in question? Sales numbers are, of course, virtually impossible to find, but when I visited the UK ten years ago I was shocked at the prominence of Banks’ work in shops (his M books, not just his mainstream books) vs. his near-invisibility in the US. It also seems to me, though I could definitely be wrong, that Reynolds and MacLeod are discussed a lot more by UK fans. Meanwhile Bujold’s Vorkosigan books were apparently out of print in the UK at the height of their popularity in the US.

    Matt Hilliard

    8 January 2013 at 00:00

  6. There is definitely a huge sales schism. Banks, Hamilton and Reynolds are, I think the best selling science fiction writers in the UK. As you say, this doesn’t translate over into the US – most strikingly with Banks. The reverse is true of Weber and Bujold.

    But I’d be cautious of putting this down to content rather than the vagaries of the publishing industry. I’m sure a Banks reader would be happy picking up a Bujold and a Weber reader happy picking up a Hamilton. But they simply haven’t been published the same way in the both countries (Bujold was predominantly not out of print but rather never printed at all).

    And this is wider than space opera: for example, no one in the UK picked up Paolo Bacigalupi for ages and I’ve talked before about the Transatlantic divide.

    Martin

    8 January 2013 at 11:18

  7. I don’t know, I think there is a content difference — the US stuff in my experience tends to be episodic character drama against a static background, where Banks and Reynolds are more about the picaresque tours of exotic settings and world-changing times. Which makes it hard for me to think of the US stuff as space opera, frankly. The last US space opera qua space opera I remember reading was probably “A Fire Upon the Deep”, and that’s twenty years ago now.

    David Moles

    14 January 2013 at 20:33

  8. This story is part of section four of the anthology, “Volunteers: Revisionaries [Early 1990s]” (although I’ll note in passing that the stories were actually published between 1995 and 2002). I haven’t read the story yet but this section also includes Dan Simmons who I would consider a true space opera writer. Further down the table of contents we have Scott Westerfeld and John C Wright who I think also fit the bill as does perhaps Robert Reed who I know little about. So I think US space opera qua space opera does still exist. So I’d stick by the idea that there isn’t a difference between US and UK space opera but perhaps this is much less relevant given that, as you say, there is much less US space opera and commensurately more MilSF.

    Martin

    14 January 2013 at 21:07

  9. Oh, right, Simmons. And yeah, Risen Empire feels like the real thing. Wright I’d have to take your word for.

    David Moles

    14 January 2013 at 21:54

  10. I’ve always thought the content difference was that American space opera (and really American SF in general) was more optimistic, but that could be because my main exposure to British space opera is Iain “The M is for Meaningless” Banks and not someone like Hamilton.

    Matt Hilliard

    14 January 2013 at 22:25

  11. David: I didn’t mean to imply I’d actually read Wright, don’t tar me with that brush! Although, now I come to think of it, I did read one when Tor were giving them away for free as ebooks. But I seem to remember that was about trans-dimensional schoolgirl spanking rather than space opera.

    Matt: Ah, well, I’d describe Banks as optimistic too. The Culture is, after all, a pure communistic state and the average Culturenik lives a life that is just as much wish fulfillment for a certain type of person as Honor Harrington is for another.

    Martin

    14 January 2013 at 23:01

  12. Wright’s Golden Age trilogy, written before his conversion and subsequent interest in making people on the Internet angry, is actually a pretty impressive take on posthuman society. It doesn’t have the stylistic punch of Rajaniemi’s Quantum Thief but its future is at least as well thought out. Its popularity was no doubt hurt by the Anathem-class quantities of philosophy, but for me that’s not a bad thing. It’s also very stereotypically American, celebrating an individual whose dreams lead him away from a comfortable but mediocre society (but in this it is clearly descended from The City and the Stars by noted non-American Arthur C. Clarke, so once again perhaps it’s a wash).

    I suppose the existence of the Culture represents a sort of optimism, but the difference is the actual human protagonists of Culture novels don’t get to enjoy that lifestyle the way Honor Harrington (I assume) enjoys hers. The best you can hope for, should you find yourself a character in a Banks novel, is that like in Player of Games you will be manipulated into doing something useful essentially against your will. More likely, you will be more like the characters in Consider Phlebas, Against a Dark Background, Matter, etc., and whatever you think you’re up to, it actually means nothing at all, and you will be ground within the gears of a machine beyond your understanding without having achieved anything.

    Matt Hilliard

    14 January 2013 at 23:33

  13. You can always hope to be a minor character who wanders into the scene with a drug bowl, a recreational head cold, and a small hand-built steam-powered automaton to provide comic relief.

    David Moles

    14 January 2013 at 23:35

  14. (And if “optimism” means power fantasies for the main characters, you can keep it.)

    David Moles

    14 January 2013 at 23:36

  15. That’s the thing, I imagine most Weber fans want to be Harrington whereas I doubt that any Banks fans want to be Zakalwe or Gurgeh. The identification is much more, as David says, with the lovable stoners in the background.

    Optimism in SF is political since it depends entirely on the type of future you want. Banks has literally written a manifesto for his personal utopian future. What could be more optimistic?

    In contrast, the Honorverse represents the Napoleonic naval wars flung into the far future with precious few changes. It is a universe of capitalism without end that means drudgery for most and pain and misery for many. This doesn’t sound particularly optimistic to me. So I’d question the inherent assumptions in a perceived optimism split between UK and US.

    Martin

    15 January 2013 at 09:02

  16. [...] the lack of Transatlantic publishing synchronisation that the editors refer to and that I discuss here since my understanding is that Take Back Plenty wasn’t published until two years after its [...]

  17. There’s more to a novel than the setting, even an SF novel. There is likewise more to my hazy sense of whether a novel feels optimistic or not than just its setting. When characters I sympathize with end the novel in disastrous circumstances, as in Consider Phlebas or Perdido Street Station, I feel bad. At minimum that seems sufficient grounds to call those novels depressing, but I think we can go farther and say in both cases a literary point was being made about the plausibility of happy endings and the ability of the main characters to have any control over their destinies. Thus I consider them pessimistic.

    Also, I see optimism as a question of slope, not of absolute value. If society looks like it’s getting better over time, that’s optimistic. If it’s getting better as the result of the considered actions of at least some of its members, that’s even more optimistic. If it’s getting worse, that’s pessimistic, and if it’s getting worse because of people trying to make it better, well, that’s very pessimistic indeed. From the beginning, since the Culture was literally the most wonderful society Banks could envision, it never could get any better. The setting’s contribution to my appraisal, then, was not positive or negative, whereas the characters typically provide a big negative swing. Whereas most YA dystopias, like Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy, are optimistic to the extreme, since the characters go from horrific situations to wonderful happy endings in which they also vastly improve their entire societies. David calls such stories power fantasies and I agree. He additionally suggests we should avoid them and there I hesitate. I didn’t love the Chaos Walking trilogy as much as (if I recall correctly) Martin did, and indeed a big part of that was I thought it was overly flattering to the reader, but there are other books I really like which also fall into this category (Cyteen comes to mind). I’ll have to think about it more.

    What does any of this have to do with the US vs. the UK? Probably nothing. Many people think both Hollywood and US TV are more prone to happy endings than their international equivalents, but there are plenty of non-cultural explanations for that difference, if it even exists.

    Matt Hilliard

    16 January 2013 at 00:02

  18. That’s interesting, I had been considering ‘optimisim’ primarily a measure of setting but you are right that it intersects with both progress and agency. But I don’t consider change to be necessary to judge a society positively or negatively. The fact that the Culture is stable but expansive is, I think, hugely optimistic. Banks invents a perfect society which persists for thousands of years with more and more of the galaxy coming over to their point of view and the ascend to the role of village elder. Pretty optimistic.

    In contrast, in a YA dystopia like Chaos Walking, yes, the society undergoes a huge positive change thanks to a single individual but the reverse is also true: it became a dystopia in the first place thanks to the actions of a single indivudal. That ability for huge societal shifts to be caused special people doesn’t necessarily strike me as optimistic.

    Now, there is a bit of a libertarian/socialism divide embedded in that which may well partially translate into a bit of a US/UK split. But that needs a lot more thought!

    Martin

    16 January 2013 at 11:31

  19. I completely agree with your assessments of both the Culture and Chaos Walking but you still are using a different frame of reference. I base my assessment on what the author chooses to show me. Or, if we insist on the author being dead, what is in the text. The text of Chaos Walking seems to be trying to tell me the ending is: “Thanks to the innocent love between the two protagonists, they and their society are saved from suffering and tyranny.” Looking at it intellectually, I would say instead: “This is a new government whose leaders deferred important decisions to two teenagers not because of special qualification but because they were such nice people. Seems likely to collapse into warlordism again in five or ten years.” The disparity between the text’s conclusion and my conclusion is, in my opinion, a major weakness in any novel but especially an SF novel…I didn’t believe the power-of-love argument it made. A big fan of the novels would probably say this is me as a reader bringing my own pessimism with me and projecting it on the text, and I think that’s absolutely right. The text is optimistic, just not convincingly so.

    As for Banks, he isn’t out to prove the goodness of the Culture (except maybe Consider Phlebas…it’s been a long time since I read it). That the Culture (a) provides an ideal way of life for most of its citizens and (b) is a perfectly stable society are truths he considers self-evident, and so he concentrates on the harder questions: is “meaning” essential to life and if so how can we find it, what are the Culture’s obligations to younger civilizations, etc. That willingness to examine tough questions is something I really admire, even if the questions he’s focused on lately haven’t been all that interesting.

    If Banks wanted he could easily write a Culture story that was optimistic by my lights and espousing the virtues you describe. In it, the Culture would contact Earth, show us the error in our ways, and one or more ignorant, bigoted, miserable Earth characters would get a tour of the wonderful world of the Culture plus a bunch of lectures about how shambolic Earth’s political, religious, and social institutions are. Earth would finally be benevolently assimilated and its population would live in the wonderful Culture forever. The end. People used to write polemic SF novels like this all the time from all sides of the political spectrum and I’m sure some still do, but instead Banks wrote “State of the Art”.

    I will agree though that “A Few Notes on the Culture” is a very optimistic text!

    I guess this is all semantics and I don’t think we really disagree about anything important here, but so far I still like my definition of optimism/pessimism better because I think it speaks more to the reader’s experience as well as what the author…sorry, what the text…is trying to convey.

    Matt Hilliard

    17 January 2013 at 00:45


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