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James Nicoll's review of Through Struggle, The Stars
james_nicoll
Through Struggle, the Stars - A Human Reach Novel
By John J. Lumpkin




I read this because, well, I was bribed. As it turns out, the book falls squarely into my areas of interest. Although it is self-published, it is no worse than the professionally published MilSF I see and better than most; assuming the author does not have Jim Monroe-style objections to the idea, some major publisher might want to consider snapping Lumpkin up. Had I purchased it on a whim, I would not have been disappointed.

The author has clearly done some research and has avoided some of the outdated tropes other authors unthinkingly adopt; sadly, there are still some areas he needs to work on [0]. Although many of the comments that will follow may seem negative, this is a book for which it is not completely nonsensical to offer constructive criticism; the flaws are ones that the author could conceivably address in future works (although probably not without abandoning this setting).

The novel is set about 2140. The US has been eclipsed as a major power, although it seems to be a respectable second-ranker on par with the position France or the UK were in around 1960; the main powers are Japan and China. Advances in technology have given humanity access to the stars via artificial wormholes; both access to raw materials and concern that a single planet is too vulnerable has inspired the various nations to expand into the solar system and beyond. Wormholes are expensive and seem to be funded at the nation-state level; as a consequence nations see their extrasolar colonies as a measure of national worth. It reminded me a bit like the race for Africa in the 19th century; arguably the profit levels just are not there to justify the effort but rational goals are not really part of the process.

Although nobody wants a general war, diplomatic and military ineptitude leads to one. The fact that nobody has fought a real war in space means there will be a brutal learning curve as factions discover which of their doctrines actually work; paralleling this are lessons in how vulnerable the space based infrastructure is [1]. Although you'd think a century or so would have been long enough for the US to come to terms with its status, the adminstration in power sees America's fall from supremacy as an affront; when the chance comes to exploit the growing rift between Japan and China, President Delgado jumps at it.

The aspect we get to see is a daring plan to retrieve Sun Haisheng, the leader of the Taiwanese independence movement, from a distant planet so that he can be dropped into China to stir up nationalist fervor; even if the plan had worked, you have to wonder if any of the geniuses who came up with this were familiar with how cunning gambits like this worked out in the past, from sending Lenin off to cause trouble for the Czar to various adventures in Central Asia.

As protagonist Neil Mercer soon discovers, there is a huge gap between how the plan was envisioned back in an office on Earth and how it works out in the field, particularly when there is an escalating shooting war going on. There is a lot of hostile territory between where Sun Haisheng is and where he needs to be and Neil's side is not the one that enjoys the edge in either absolute numbers or in tactics; adding in an irate and highly motivated Chinese intelligence officer with a grudge against Neil and his friends is just the cherry on top of this crap Sundae. Without spoiling too much the book very quickly turns into a running example of how badly simple plans can go wrong.

The novel itself was functional enough; the characters are a little flat and Neil seems oddly conflicted about killing people on the other side for someone who signed up with the military. He's also a bit naive about why the US did the things it did when it was on top,going by "But America had long since abandoned its crusade for worldwide democracy as too expensive and antagonistic." Frankly, I am not at all keen on the antagonist's motivations but at least his quirks are not painted as flaws all Chinese are prone to.

I've seen other MilSF books where the good guys are on the short end of a series of curb stomp battles but the examples that come to mind involve the black hats using zerg-rush tactics, not being better at carrying out a war than the protagonists.

One point of praise: MilSF has a great store of outmoded or just plain stupid ideas about how war in space would work. Lumpkin has at least gone to the effort of using such resources as Atomic Rockets to try to work out for himself how space combat might work. There is no stealth in space here and rockets do not zoom around at absurd accelerations. I am little unclear why crews on starships are so high large; I'd have expected a lot more automation.

The main problems I have with the setting may be due to a mismatch between the situation the author wanted to have (a declining America trying to pull off a Mussolini and leap back to prominence as a great power) and the Sfnal props he elected to use to tell that story. Artificial wormholes + wanting a lot of star systems under human control requires the setting to be a minimum number of years into the future, even given the relativistic probes used to carry the wormhole ends and the unrealistically short delay between developing the technology needed to reach the stars and actually using it. Consider, for example, the typical lag between NASA deciding on a particular space probe proposal and that probe actually being launched. The geopolitical situation would have made more sense in the mid or perhaps late 21st century but the limitations of the handwavium he used pushed the date back at least half a century too far.

There are also some details I wondered about: climate change seems to be completely absent as an event and I had to wonder why Japan and not India as the great power and if Japan, how they handled their current demographic issues.

Despite my quibbles, I enjoyed reading this book and would recommend it. I would also be interested in reading another book by the same author.


0: Lunar helium three *choke* For much of the book, I could live with the 3He + D fusion plants because the source was said to be gas giants but then the author made it clear the original source of 3He was the Moon. Sigh. 11Boron + p, will there never be any love for you?

1: This reminded me a bit of James S.A. Correy's Caliban's War, where kicking the legs out from under the shared infrastructure everyone's lives depend on turns out to be a bad idea.

Also posted at Dreamwidth, where there are comment count unavailable comment(s); comment here or there.

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The unshakable plighted troth of boron and protons will be fulfilled in the Man-Kzin Wars XIV story LEFTOVERS. Date circa AD 2600.

even if the plan had worked, you have to wonder if any of the geniuses who came up with this were familiar with how cunning gambits like this worked out in the past, from sending Lenin off to cause trouble for the Czar to various adventures in Central Asia.

Well, perhaps, but, well, were any of the geniuses who came up with cunning gambits like this in the past familiar with how cunning gambits like this worked in the past? Just because a dumb idea has been tried repeatedly before and failed is no reason for people not to try it again...

Sounds like a decent book.

Although you'd think a century or so would have been long enough for the US to come to terms with its status

Not really; I grew up in a part of the US where you can still see the occasional Confederate flag.

Occasional? You must have grown somewhere relatively metropolitan.

(Deleted comment)
grown *up*

I swear that word was there before.

Dallas area, mostly. Actually I'm not sure I ever saw an actual flag, just lots of bumper stickers.

Down (up, I guess, relative to Dallas) here, on the Virginia/West Virginia border there's at least one outbuilding that sports the flag in glorious, 4x6 *yard* mural form.
(I'm estimating; I was driving past it at highway speeds)

Or anywhere outside the South?

(The first Confederate flag I saw in person was outside a home in very rural California, but that counts as occasional.)

There's a guy in or near Haverhill, Massachusetts who likes to drive around with twin, rather large US and Confederate Battle Flags flying just behind the cab of his pickup truck.

(The actual Stars and Bars is relatively rare except among, I suppose, real history buffs. I do find it peculiar that the outcome of the 2001-2003 Georgia state flag controversy was that they switched from a flag based on the Confederate battle flag to a flag based on the Confederate first _national_ flag.)

As it's self-published, perhaps he can add a bit of backstory in version 1.1 to explain away the inconsistencies in the setting. Perhaps the low level of civilian technology is the result of a generations-long struggle to repair the Earth, which diverted all production and development to government use. Wormholes and their associated colonies as a desperate Manhattan Project, and were not intended as commercially-viable investments.

At the end of 1945, humanity had had ballistic missiles and rockets that could reach space (if not orbit), nuclear weapons, jet fighters, and huge transport aircraft that could fly across oceans. However, the lives of everyday people in Europe were still at levels seen in the late 19th century.

Textiles and manufactured goods were scarce and rationed until the 1950s, exactly the opposite of what we would have predicted during the boom of the Industrial Revolution. Food, even bread, was scarce and rationed, exactly the opposite of what we would have predicted at the dawn of agricultural mechanization. Houses were not comfortable and modern, but were cold, drafty, and suffering from deferred maintenance (and by some accounts, as much as 80% of German urban dwellings had some degree of damage). Domestic and street lighting was still largely provided by gas lamps, domestic appliances were rare, and only a small fraction of the population had ever flown in a propeller aircraft.

With a bit of handwaving, we could explain how we could have a future with a low overall technology level, but still have fun toys to move the plot along.

Earth is not poor in this setting. No one thinks their technology is lacking. Even middle income nations have colonies, although not whole planets. (It would be a spoiler of sorts to give away the identity of a key American ally.)

The setup is broadly parallel to the belle epoque: navies, colonies, spies, countries at the top of their game. Of course we know how that epoch ended.

(It would be a spoiler of sorts to give away the identity of a key American ally.)

Iran?

(The description says it's not China, so I'm guessing "least likely apart from that".)

You got it. And they're still (ooga-booga!) devout Muslims.

It would probably be faster and easier for him to do a global search&replace on the dates to move them up a few decades. 2080's ought to do, since the technological progress wouldn't be as slow, but far enough in the future that few readers will live to see the date.

But Lumpkin needs that time to set up colonial space. Wormholes are transported by very small relativistic antimatter rockets to the next star at 0.8c -- I don't want to think about that final burn -- where they're quickly widened to Panamax Jumpmax sizes. That's why Lumpkin's interstellar ships have a common beam, incidentally.

Since you have the advantage of having read the story, how early do you think Lumpkin could reasonably stage the stories events if he wanted to, e.g. a situation like the Scramble for Africa (a big rush to colonize before the other guy did)?

Parts of Lumpkin's plot are set up around the first colonial generations: e.g., the American president's mother died in a successful secession/revolt on one of the colonial worlds.

I wonder what the world record is for least amount of time between the founding of a settler colony and a violent attempt by the colonists to go independent.

I do wish that people wouldn't stereotype military types

(Anonymous)
"Neil seems oddly conflicted about killing people on the other side for someone who signed up with the military."

As someone who signed up with the U.S. military, I can attest that this is far from uncommon ... even in the Army at a time of war. In a navy that has been at peace for decades, it will be even less uncommon. The author had that one spot-on.

Noel

Re: I do wish that people wouldn't stereotype military types

Fair enough but there was a moment when it felt like he had that quirk in order to enable a particular plot thread to continue into the next book.

Re: I do wish that people wouldn't stereotype military types

I am not saying soldiers should be kill-crazy murderbots but that the possibility the job will involve killing people seems like something one should have come to terms with before signing up. I guess that does not take into account e.g. peacetime or signing up being one of a limited number of paths to education and prosperity.

Edited at 2013-01-06 12:34 am (UTC)

Re: I do wish that people wouldn't stereotype military types

At the beginning of the current pair of wars, a surprising number of serving members of the military suddenly applied for release as conscientious objectors. I expect it's a mix of some that just wanted the employment and/or training, and some that managed to cruise through their basic training without actually thinking about what it is militaries do.

Re: I do wish that people wouldn't stereotype military types

(Anonymous)
For all its versimilitude, training is still just training. It doesn't prepare you for reality of taking somebody else's life for an abstract political purpose.

Ironically, Marines are less prone to forget that killing is the ultimate point of the exercise because their version of BCT/ITB makes no bones about killing people for Congress. The Army is a little vaguer on that point, even in ITB. (Or at least it was back in the day.)

The Air Force, meanwhile, just has "warrior week," which I'm told is exactly like it sounds like. I don't know the Navy, but I suspect it's all academic. In Lumpkin's peacetime future, I'd bet it would be at least as academic as today, if not more so.

Some training is better than none, however, at reminding people that militaries exist to kill and maim other people for the sake of the polity. At the end of the day, that's why I support universal compulsory military service despite all the excellent arguments against. Unless you are a pacifist, you should at some point have the direct responsibility to (at least possibly) the killing that you believe your state has the right to do. But I'm a pinko.

NM

Re: I do wish that people wouldn't stereotype military types

Ah, like "don't eat the flesh of animals you would not yourself kill." Although that has at least one flaw in that if it was me versus a full grown pig, my money is on the pig to win.

Re: I do wish that people wouldn't stereotype military types

The list of Nicoll Events suggests you would survive with an amusing story. The pig, I'm not so sure. Are there any previous Nicoll Events involving pigs?

Re: I do wish that people wouldn't stereotype military types

The pig would end up inexplicably flash-fried, and scientists from all over would converge to study the first verified case of spontaneous porcine combustion.

--Dave, then someone would attempt to tape some of the bacon to James and things would go further pear-shaped

Re: I do wish that people wouldn't stereotype military types

Self-relevation moment here: I joined the Marines partly out of a sense that it was the one service where every member acknowledged that being a member included breaking stuff and hurting people as an essential task.

Re: I do wish that people wouldn't stereotype military types

Did anyone ask them what they thought all the guns and bombs were for?

Re: I do wish that people wouldn't stereotype military types

In 2002 I was living in Santa Fe, and I knew a guy who worked at Los Alamos National Labs. When America started gearing up to invade Afghanistan, it pretty clearly occurred to him for the first time that all the cool guidance systems his friends were working on were actually going to be aimed at people and used to kill them. It was quite a revelation for him, I think. This is an intelligent adult who'd just never been asked to exercise his intelligence outside of a very narrow focus.

Re: I do wish that people wouldn't stereotype military types

I always find the "Army Strong" ads amusing. They show people playing with cool toys, jumping out of helicopters, etc. but you don't get the feeling anyone will actually have to go and fight. Compare that to something like the Canadian Forces "Fight" recruiting ads, which actually show soldiers pointing guns at people and in obviously dangerous situations. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ZhGx3AREcw

Sarah Zettel used a boron-11 + proton fusion drive in _Fool's War_, published back in 1997. Apparent problems with neutron production by an unexpected deuterium-tritium reaction (caused by computer-controlled valves) form a minor plot point.

So, it's been done, but not recently enough.

Just wanted to say thanks to Mr. Nicoll and everyone else for the series of thoughtful reviews, and thanks to Mr. Angove for generously sponsoring them. The manuscript of the sequel, The Desert of Stars, is finished and being prepared for publication, hopefully within the next several weeks.


Edited at 2013-01-06 04:08 am (UTC)

where kicking the legs out from under the shared infrastructure everyone's lives depend on turns out to be a bad idea.

Back in the 1980s, I had an idea for a board game based on a civil war in a space colony. Among other things, weapons had a rating for how many structure points they removed from a habitat section; once all the points were gone, that section no longer supported life. Players would have to balance "winning" versus "not dying in the vacuum of space".

why crews on starships are so high

I spent a few seconds wondering what sort of intoxicants were being used and what possible advantage could accrue before I realized you meant "so large".

Chinese Hackers™ modified the American ships' lifesupport systems to include 1% N2O in the air mix?

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