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The Reference Library

by Don Sakers

Science fiction has an empathy problem. It’s a problem that has influence on the entire genre, but particularly on the subgenres of military and adventure SF. And it all started with in 1934 with Stanley G. Weinbaum.

Let me explain. Weinbaum’s 1934 story “A Martian Odyssey” was arguably the first to present alien beings as complex but nonhuman creatures with their own perceptions and motivations. Prior to Weinbaum, alien characters (and, it could be argued, a great many human ones as well) were one-dimensional, their actions solely defined by their role in the plot; they were there either to help the protagonist or to act as obstacles, no more independent agency than a raging river or pit of snakes to be crossed or avoided.

After Weinbaum, one-dimensional aliens were no longer the rule. Serious readers started to expect aliens who acted for reasons of their own, complex reasons that arose our of the alien’s particular biology, environment, and culture. In short, it was now possible to empathize with alien characters...even those who were opponents.

In a way, this change mirrored a decades-long change taking place in all genres of pulp fiction: as social attitudes altered, stories featuring simplistic evil villains were seen as less sophisticated, immature, even childish. Serious literature moved in the direction of morally complex, nuanced antagonists—and make no mistake, SF writers of the Astounding/Analog mold considered themselves to be writing serious literature.

Thus, the empathy problem. Stories, especially adventure and military SF ones, are based in conflict . . . which means protagonists need to have opponents. Wars need lots of opponents. But if readers are going to empathize with the opponents, stories can get derailed quickly. In the middle of a war, you usually don’t want readers—or characters—stopping to question which side they should be on.

Historically, SF writers used a number of strategies to deal with the empathy problem.

One strategy is to ignore the question. The bad guys are, by definition, bad—and we’re just not going to worry about it. They represent a different society, religion, or biology. It’s Us vs. Them, and there’s only room for one to survive.

Another strategy is to embrace the problem; to encourage readers and characters to empathize with the opponents, even consider the possibility that there are no “good guys” in the conflict. Writers have followed this strategy in several directions. In many of David Drake and Joe Haldeman’s works, for example, both sides can be corrupt and morally questionable; individuals and teams can still find redemption in virtues like loyalty or self-sacrifice. Sometimes a protagonist comes to realize (often through betrayal) that their own side is the true “bad guys,” leading them to defect to the morally superior opponents.

A natural extension of this strategy leads to baroque, even byzantine societies in which none of the many sides is “good” or “bad,” and in which conflicts can persist for centuries or millennia. Notable examples include Catherine Asaro’s Skolian Empire series and David Weber’s Honor Harrington universe.

Another set of strategies involves making the opponents literally non-human: that is, removing the possibility of empathy.

One classic method is to make the “opponent” a disembodied, natural force: a quake, volcano, impending supernova, world-threatening quantum phenomenon, etc. Questions of empathy can’t even arise for natural forces.

There are lots of variations on this strategy. One of the most popular is the “War Against the Bugs” approach, in which the opponents are mindless hordes of (mostly) interchangeable creatures. Again, questions of empathy don’t arise. A. E. Van Vogt and Robert A. Heinlein were early pioneers of this method.

Similarly, the opponents could be machines (think of Fred Saberhagen’s Berserkers or the evil machines form the Terminator franchise) or rogue AIs bent on destruction.

More recently, there’s been a vogue for zombies or zombie-like opponents. Essentially mindless, these altered humans are motivated exclusively by primal hunger and/or rage; there’s no reasoning with them, and certainly no empathizing. Besides the obvious zombie tales, this kind of opponent appears in everything from James Dashner’s Maze Runner series to Jason M. Hough’s Dire Earth cycle.

Another way to dehumanize opponents is to make them so incredibly advanced as to be beyond the concerns of humanity. A sort of reverse War of the Worlds situation, we might call this the “To Them, We Are Ants” strategy. Here, with humans and godlike aliens operating on two different scales of morality, it’s perfectly possible to empathize with both sides of the conflict. Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee sequence uses this strategy to great effect.

Finally, one’s opponents could be human, or human-like aliens, so irredeemably evil that empathy is impossible, and any conflict clearly falls into the category of “Just War.” Often the opponents are intolerant purists of racial, genetic, religious, or cultural varieties, intent on annihilating any and all divergent cultures. Repressive, totalitarian regimes that suppress freedoms—be they governments or corporations—are also popular easy-to-hate opponents. Often in these situations, readers and characters are encouraged to empathize with particular individuals on the other side, while the opposing system is what’s evil.

*   *   *

The Cruel Stars
John Birmingham
Del Rey, 412 pages, $28.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $9.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-0-3995-9331-4
Series: The Cruel Stars 1
Genre: Military SF, Space Opera

John Birmingham is an Aussie writer best known for his masterful fusions of the SF and techno-thriller genres, the Axis of Time series (Weapons of Choice, Designated Targets, Final Impact, and Stalin’s Hammer) and the Disappearance series (Without Warning, After America, and Angels of Vengeance). With The Cruel Stars he takes a leap into the territory of military SF space opera, and he doesn’t disappoint.

In the far-future interstellar society of The Cruel Stars, the opponents are the Sturm, biological purists bent on ridding the galaxy of all humans who are genetically or cybernetically enhanced—which is the vast majority of them. After a long and bloody war, with billions killed, the Sturm were finally defeated and driven out of the galaxy entirely, pushed far into Dark Space.

Centuries passed peacefully. Humanity—enhanced in multiple ways, linked together in cybernetic networks, and accompanied by their ubiquitous AI partners—successfully spread across more and more of the galaxy.

Then the unthinkable happens. The Sturm return from the Dark and, in one coordinated, merciless attack, wipe out a major part of humanity’s defenses. Striking through the AIs and networks, the Sturm use a combination of mind control and destructive force to turn enhanced humans into mindless killers or outright corpses. Across the galaxy, only a relatively few escape. In the ensuing chaos, Sturm invaders descend on many worlds and take control of the surviving populace.

The Cruel Stars is the story of five who escaped the Sturm attacks. Lucinda Hardy, a lieutenant new to the Royal Armadalen Navy vessel Defiant, suddenly is left in command of the last remaining Human warship. In a military prison compound, convicted traitor Booker is waiting for his execution when the Sturm attack comes; he manages to escape. Sephina L’trel leads a band of outlaws and uses all her crooked skills and criminal connections to resist the Sturm. When Princess Alessia’s planet is overrun and the rest of her royal family executed, she eludes the invaders and goes into hiding. And the last remaining hero of the previous war with the Sturm, centuries-old Admiral Frazer McLennan, finds himself once again face-to-face with his ancient foe.

These five oddball survivors come together in a last-ditch stand against the extermination of enhanced humanity.

It’s a rollicking, thrill-packed story that twists and skews in unexpected directions. The tech is fun and intriguing, especially that surrounding the nets that link human space together. And the Sturm are just the kind of cruel, fanatic, merciless opponents that it’s easy to hate without any guilt or doubts.

The Cruel Stars is the first of a proposed trilogy. But don’t wait for the next two books to come out; this one comes to a satisfactory enough conclusion, with only a short epilogue to show that the story of the Sturm war isn’t quite over yet.

*   *   *

Cry Pilot
Joel Dane
Ace, 409 pages, $17.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $9.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-9848-0252-1
Series: Cry Pilot 1
Genre: Adventure SF, Biological SF,
Ecological/Environmental SF, Military SF

Joel Dane, according to the About the Author page, is “the pseudonym of . . . the author of more than twenty books across several genres, and has written for film and TV, including a dozen episodes of a Netflix Original Series.” Whoever he or she is, Cry Pilot is the first work appearing under this name. So we’re starting with a clean slate here.

In the future of Cry Pilot, some decades from now, two powerful forces have transformed the social and physical landscapes of Earth. Environmental disasters have left much of the surface a devastated wasteland. The ascendancy of all-powerful corporate entities has remade culture and politics. It’s a hard, pitiless world where security is rare and precarious, and a lone refugee kid has to do a lot of things he doesn’t like in order to survive.

Maseo Kaybu was such a kid. Now, as an adult, he conceals his criminal past and joins the military in the only role open to him: as a “cry pilot,” fodder for suicide missions. Maseo is cunning and resourceful, with the skills necessary to cheat the system to ensure his survival—after his stint is over, he’ll be set for life.

But then, in basic training, he’s assigned to a squad of misfits. Before long, he’s bonding with his fellow recruits, learning the mutual trust and respect that the military teaches. Yet the closer he grows to his squad, the more the risk that the secrets of his past will be exposed.

Concealing his past soon becomes a minor worry, as Maseo and his squad are sent into action against a rogue bioweapon, a force that’s devastated every military unit it’s encountered.

Here the opponent is a combination of inhuman forces: environment devastation, heartless corporations, and implacably mindless biological terror. All Maseo has on his side is the loyalty and mutual support of his fellow misfits.

It’s a thrill-ride of a story. Throw in the well-conceived future society, and glimpses of Maseo’s mysterious past, and this one’s a definite winner.

*   *   *

The Guardian
J. D. Moyer
Flame Tree Press, 359 pages, $24.95 (hardcover), $14.95 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $6.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-7875-8369-6 (hardcover), 978-1-78758-367-2 (paperback)
Series: Reclaimed Earth 2
Genre: Psychological/Sociological SF

You may remember J. D. Moyer’s Sky Woman (reviewed in the March/April 2019 issue), the first book in the Reclaimed Earth series. Centuries ago, technological civilization on Earth was destroyed in a supervolcano eruption that left the planet a hostile wasteland inhabited by low-tech bands of surviving humans.

Before the disaster, much of civilization moved to orbiting ringstations, where Earth’s vanished culture is preserved. Lately, those on the ringstations have been observing the planet below, planning for the reclamation and repopulation of Earth.

Sky Woman told the story of anthropologist Car-En Ganzorig and her interactions with the Viking-like Earth village of Happdal . . . especially with bow-hunter Esper.

Now it’s a generation later. Car-En and Esper’s son, nine-year-old Tem, has been raised in Happdal and looks forward to a future as an apprentice blacksmith. Yet his life hasn’t been easy: as the only brown-skinned child in the village, he faces the usual problems of bigotry and hostility. Eventually, Car-En decides that it’s time for the family to make an extended visit to her home ringstation.

As Tem adjusts to the high-tech culture of the ringstations, the official resettlement of Earth is in high swing. One of the leaders of the effort is a woman named Umana, called “Squid Woman” for the biocybernetic tentacles that enhance her body. Umana’s plans involve the forcible settlement of parts of the recovering Earth—and it’s not long before Tem finds himself cast against the Squid Woman as the unwitting guardian of his homeworld.

Although Umana is a satisfactorily dislikable opponent, there’s still complexity and moral ambiguity enough to make this a serious, engrossing story.

*   *   *

Hour of the Horde
Gordon R. Dickson
Baen, 166 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $8.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-4814-8417-6
Genre: Military SF

The latest of Baen’s reissues of classic SF books is Gordon R. Dickson’s Hour of the Horde.

Miles Vander is a painter with little concern for anything beyond his studio. Then the aliens come, looking for a champion to held defend the galaxy from an existential threat.

The aliens—a super-advanced, ancient race from near the center of the galaxy (they call themselves the Center Aliens)—warn of the approach of another alien race, the mindless, implacable Horde. Every few million years the Horde passes through the galaxy, leaving total devastation in their wake. The last time they passed, it took the survivors of the Center a million years to rebuild their civilization.

This time, the Center Aliens have assembled a vast fleet, crewed by many species and armed with immensely powerful super-weapons, to meet and defeat the Horde before they can do any damage. They come to Earth to enlist a human as Earth’s representative in the great battle. And the champion they choose is none other than Miles Vander—they explain that he is uniquely able to form an empathic bond with all humanity, an ability that could be of use to them.

When Miles becomes part of the multi-species crew of a ship called the Fighting Rowboat, he becomes aware that things aren’t what they seem. The crew is seen as barbarians unworthy of actually joining the fight; their role is to act as “psychic amplifiers” to boost morale.

This knowledge sticks in Miles’s craw. He knows that he has the ability to meld the misfits of the Fighting Rowboat into a force that can make a difference. But first, he has to prove himself to the crew in a series of brutal hand-to-hand combats.

The Horde, although they’re described as being like weasels, are a fine example of the “War Against the Bugs” strategy. In this story, Dickson’s primarily dealing with concepts like teamwork and emotional engagement among the alien alliance—empathy with the Horde would only be a distraction.

*   *   *

Octavia Gone

Jack McDevitt
Saga Press, 375 pages, $27.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $7.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-4814-9797-8
Series: Alex Benedict 8
Genre: SF Mystery

Jack McDevitt should need no introduction in these pages. He’s a frequent contributor to Analog, most recently with his short story “Tea Time with Aliens” in the March/April 2019 issue. A frequent nominee for the Hugo Award and Nebula Award, he won the 2006 Nebula for his novel Seeker. He’s written many standalone books and stories, and has two very successful series as well. The Academy series features pilot Priscilla (“Hutch”) Hutchins and her crew of space archaeologists as they scour space in search of artifacts left by long-vanished alien civilizations.

McDevitt’s second series focuses on far-future antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his assistant Chase Kolpath, who are invariably drawn into a mystery involving a seemingly innocuous alien artifact. Octavia Gone, the latest of Alex Benedict’s adventures, is a worthy addition to the series.

In the very first Alex Benedict book, A Talent for War (1989), Alex’s uncle Gabe was aboard a ship lost in hyperspace, and declared dead. In Coming Home (2014), that ship was found and Uncle Gabe rescued. Now Gabe leads identifies an artifact that leads to the mystery of another notorious space disappearance, that of the research station Octavia.

Years ago, the Octavia vanished in orbit around a black hole called KBX44. The fate of the station is one of the biggest enigmas of the age. And now, with Alex, Chase, and Uncle Gabe are on the case, the mystery may be solved.

Part Indiana Jones, part Sherlock Holmes, and a great deal of McDevitt’s own captivating style, Octavia Gone is a sheer delight.

*   *   *

Footprints in the Stars
Edited by Danielle Ackley-McPhail
eSpec Books, 192 pages, $14.95 (trade paperback)
Kindle: $2.99 (e-book)
ISBN: 978-1-9496-9103-0
Genre: Exploration & Discovery, Original Anthologies

The idea behind this anthology is perhaps the most quintessentially science fiction concept ever: finding and following the footsteps of alien civilizations to the stars. There’s a longing, deep inside our humanity, to learn about and meet intelligences different from our own, to know for sure that we’re not the only minds like ours in a vast empty universe.

Editor Danielle Ackley-McPhail has put together a sweet collection of thirteen such stories by as many authors . . . with, in my opinion, one of the most striking SF covers I’ve seen in many a year.

The array of featured authors includes, oddly enough, stories by more than one editor-publishers. McPhail, of course, is part of the team behind eSpec Books and frequent editor for their titles. Gordon Linzner is the founder and former editor of Space and Time Magazine. Ian Randal Strock is owner/publisher of Gray Rabbit Publications and its SF imprint, Fantastic Books. Robert Greenberger has been an editor at DC Comics, and is a cofounder of Crazy 8 Press. Aaron Rosenberg is another Crazy 8 Press cofounder.

Now, all these fine people are writers as well as editors and publishers—it’s refreshing to see so many of them get a chance to show their work rather than staying behind the scenes.

Other familiar names include Christopher L. Bennett (you might recognize him from Analog, most recently “Hubstitute Creature” in the November/December 2018 issue), Keith R. A. DeCandido, and Jody Lynn Nye. A smattering of less-familiar names complete the roster.

Stories range from a Lunar engineer’s discovery of strange crystals that might be communications from an alien race, to astronauts who accidentally discover a helpful piece of alien medical equipment, to an Earthbound writer pursuing the mystery of a book and coins bearing inscriptions in a totally unknown language. There’s something here to delight any SF reader.

*   *   *

Readymade Bodhisattva: The Kaya Anthology of South Korean Science Fiction
Edited by Sunyoung Park & Sang Joon Park
Kaya Press, 429 pages, $25.95 (trade paperback)
ISBN: 978-1-8850-3057-3
Genre: Reprint Anthologies, World SF

It’s always a pleasure to see how science fiction has developed in other parts of the world. After all, one of the reasons we read SF is to get glimpses of different societies and cultures—what better way than to read stories written by those who already live in other cultures?

In Readymade Bodhisattva, editors Sunyoung Park and San Joon Park present English translations of thirteen stories first published in South Korea. They also include very informative essays about the nature of SF and SF fandom in South Korea, as well as profiles of the authors. Most of the stories are from this century, although the volume does include an excerpt from a 1967 work, “Empire Radio, Live Transmission” by Choi In-hun (translated by Jenny Wang Medina).

To an American audience, the most striking thing about this anthology is how well the stories fit in conversation with Western sf. South Korean readers and writers are quite familiar with SF from the rest of the world, both in written form and in visual media. Our concerns are the same.

Stories run the gamut of science fiction, from the place of robots in a Buddhist temple (the title story, by Park Seonghwan, translated by Jihyun Park and Gord Sellar) to gymnasts who control gravity (“The Sky Walker” by Yun I-Hyeong, translated by Kyunghee Eo) to a love story set in a South Korea conquered by invading aliens (“Where Boats Go” by Kim Jung-Hyuk, translated by Sora Kom-Russell).

This is a thick book, and maybe a bit of a slog for some American readers. Notes from the translators sometimes hint at what we might be missing from the original text. Still, it’s a fascinating and rewarding snapshot of what South Korean authors are adding to the field.

*   *   *

The End of the World: and Other Catastrophes
Edited by Mike Ashley
British Library, 330 pages, £8.99 (trade paperback)
ISBN: 978-0-7123-5273-4
Series: British Library Science Fiction Classics
Genre: Post-Apocalyptic SF, Reprint Anthologies

Last year the British Library embarked on a new series of anthologies that should be on the want list of anyone interested in the history of the field. Edited by SF scholar (and writer/editor) Mike Ashley, each volume is dedicated to a particular theme, and reprints classic works drawn from British books and magazines. A few stories in each volume appeared in British editions of American magazines such as Astounding, F&SF, and Weird Tales—but the rest are authentic British homebrew.

To date, it looks as if there are four titles in the series. The first two are Moonrise: The Golden Age of Lunar Adventures and Lost Mars: The Golden Age of the Red Planet. The two I review here are the third and fourth of the series; I fully expect that there will be additional volumes in the future.

Let’s start with The End of the World: and Other Catastrophes. Thirteen authors, thirteen stories, published between 1889 and 1956. The most familiar names are Ray Bradbury (“There Will Come Soft Rains,” 1950) and John Brunner (“Two by Two,” 1956). The catastrophes range from extreme climate variation (cold and heat) to astronomical events (impacting comets or second suns) to the machinations of a mad scientist.

Some stories, especially those from more than a century ago, might strike modern readers as a mite bit turgid, but they’re worth the effort. In these days of universal apocalyptic anxiety, it’s good to see how previous generations through about the end of the world.

*   *   *

Menace of the Machine: The Rise of AI in Classic Science Fiction
Edited by Mike Ashley
British Library, 350 pages, £8.99 (trade paperback)
ISBN: 978-0-7123-5242-0
Series: British Library Science Fiction Classics
Genre: Artificial Intelligence, Man & Machine, Reprint Anthologies

The second recent title is Menace of the Machine: The Rise of AI in Classic Science Fiction. This time Ashley gives us fourteen stories by sixteen authors (two collaborations) published between 1894 and 1965. Here there are more names familiar to today’s readers: SF luminaries Brian W. Aldiss, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore, and Murray Leinster (under his real name, Will F. Jenkins), as well as historical names Ambrose Bierce and E. M. Forster. I’m sure many of you will recognize two names from before the Golden Age, Harl Vincent and S. Fowler Wright.

Some of these stories are recognized classics: no such anthology could be complete, for example, without Forster’s “The Machine Stops” or Jenkins’s “A Logic Named Joe.” Less familiar are Bierce’s “Moxon’s Master” (1899) or Elizabeth Bellamy’s delightful “Ely’s Automatic Housemaid” (also 1899).

Once again, worth making the effort to get through the old-fashioned prose in some of the earlier-published stories is rewarding.

Since none of these British Library anthologies seem to have an American edition yet (and why not?), getting ahold of them may be a bit challenging. At the moment, I can find some of them available from online bookstores; if you look hard and have patience, it probably won’t be necessary to go to the expense of having them shipped from a British store. All in all, if you’re interested in somewhat obscure corners of the history of SF, you’ll find these volumes worth the effort.

And now, I do believe I’m out of space. See you next time.


Don Sakers is the author of Meat and Machine, Elevenses, the Rule of Five serial at, and A Cosmos of Many Mansions, a collection based on previous columns. For more information, visit


Copyright © 2019 Don Sakers

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