Monday, December 28, 2009

Review: The Battle at the Moons of Hell by Graham Sharp Paul

grahampaulBefore he turned to writing, Graham Sharp Paul served as a commissioned officer in the British and Australian Navies, and then worked in finance and business consulting until he retired to write in 2003.  His debut The Battle at the Moons of Hell marks his entry to the field of military science fiction.  It is the first book in Paul’s “Helfort’s War” series, which thus far also includes The Battle of the Hammer Worlds and The Battle of Devastation Reef, though it still stands alone well as a self-contained story.

I read this book almost purely by chance: I was at the bookstore, didn't see anything that I particularly wanted, and finally picked it because I didn't want to feel like I'd wasted the trip by going home empty handed.  Happily, my choice paid off.  Score one for the sunk-cost fallacy.

The Battle at the Moons of Hell focuses on the story of Michael Helfort, newly commissioned Junior Lieutenant in the fleet of the Federated Worlds, one of the preeminent polities in human space.   Helfort is assigned to the DLS-387, a small reconnaissance vessel.  DLS-387 is traveling on a routine patrol when it receives urgent news: a Federated Worlds civilian liner, the Mumtaz, has been hijacked and the advanced terraforming equipment it carried stolen by agents of the Hammer of Kraa, a brutal theocratic regime that has been a frequent enemy of the Federated Worlds.  An informant in the Hammer government has revealed that Mumtaz’s passengers and crew have been taken to the world of Hell, a barely-habitable planet where the Hammer puts prisoners, dissidents, and heretics to work in nightmarish labor camps.

DLS-387 is ordered to change course for Hammer space for a covert reconnaissance flyby that will provide intelligence for a Federated Worlds rescue mission and retaliatory strike.  Penetrating so deep into enemy space will be dangerous, and if DLS-387 succeeds the larger conflcit with the Hammer still lies ahead. The Federated Worlds cannot allow hostile powers to abduct and enslave its citizens – and Helfort cannot leave his mother and younger sister, passengers on the Mumtaz, to die hundreds of light-years from home.

The Battle at the Moons of Hell is a promising debut for Paul. The action is exciting and extremely tense. Paul does a nice job of providing a panoramic view of events, moving from Helfort and his crewmates at the front to the imprisoned passengers of the Mumtaz to the highest levels of government on both sides.  Paul also largely avoids resorting to the sort of large lumps of exposition that many people find frustrating about military science fiction and space opera.
My primary complaint is that the characterization of Michael Helfort himself is lacking; he is defined enough to make me care about what happens to him, but he still seemed rather flat.  Most of the secondary characters suffered a similar problem.  (I should note that this aspect improves considerably in the subsequent books.)

I thought the action scenes were great, on the other hand.  Paul’s descriptions of battle do a good job of bringing out the sheer size of space, with ships exchanging salvos that take several minutes to reach their targets, while the crews hold their breath as ship defenses duel with vast clouds of rail gun-propelled metal slugs to decide the ship’s fate.  Paul exploits this to the hilt, and generates a tremendous sense of tension from it.  His details and description are highly effective and give Paul’s description of space combat a ferocious tone that feels almost physically punishing.

The setting is somewhat lightly sketched in, but still interesting.  In his portrayal of the Federated Worlds, Paul does some interesting things with the idea of a society where neural implants are widespread and people can download data (including the equivalent of mail and phone calls) directly into their brains, carry recordings of everything they see and do in their heads, or have behavioral blocks installed.  I especially liked the book's portrayal of the internal politics of the Hammer of Kraa; its almost Stalinist brutality and ruthless, bloody purges as members of the ruling elite struggle for dominance did a great job of evoking an utterly nightmarish society.

I liked The Battle at the Moons of Helland would recommend it to fans of space opera and military science fiction in the vein of authors like David Weber.  The next two books in the series thus far, The Battle of the Hammer Worldsand TThe Battle of Devastation Reef, are also worth reading.   Graham Sharp Paul is a promising addition to military science fiction, and I look forward to seeing more from him.

(Note: This is a revised and expanded version of a review originally written for Crucial Taunt.)

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Friday, December 11, 2009

SF writing and race

Over at the SFWA blog, Nisi Shawl writes on the subject of writing about characters from races and cultures other than your own.  It's a great article and has some excellent ideas for improving one's own knowledge and insight.

The number of aspiring authors who shy away from writing about characters of other races because they believe themselves unable to do so well is strange, since there is probably no genre that spends more time with people or beings unlike the author than science fiction.  Jack McDevitt is not an archaeologist.  Elizabeth Moon is not autistic.  Iain M. Banks is not a machine intelligence.  David Drake is not a psychologically reconditioned rapist.  Neal Asher is not an alien space-faring biomechanical sphereoid with a penchant for strange, cryptic pronouncements.  Dan Simmons is not a Jewish college professor who has spent the last twenty years grappling with his religious beliefs while watching helplessly as his beloved daughter ages backwards into infancy.

Writing about characters of another race or culture is not an insurmountable challenge compared to this.  There is, of course, an added degree of risk if it is done badly, in terms of causing real-world offense or anger, that doesn't apply to portraying the inhuman; Peter Watts need not fear being upbraided by space-going philosophical zombies who thought the aliens in Blindsight were offensive stereotypes.

Anyway, I definitely recommend checking out Shawl's article.  Discussion of racial and cultural diversity in science fiction topic tends to be vague and platitudinous,  so it's great to see more writing about the nuts and bolts of actually doing something about it.

Stumble Upon Toolbar