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Noel Maurer's review of Through Struggle, The Stars
james_nicoll

In the words of the person who requested the review, Through Struggle, The Stars is much better than a self-published novel has any right to be. It’s a tale of a war in the year 2140 between China and Japan, told through the eyes of a new officer in the United States Space Force. The USSF — which has inexplicably adopted naval ranks and conventions despite the name — exists to defend both the terrestrial United States and its interstellar colonies. The setting is hard science fiction, in the sense that the only gimme is a system of wormholes to allow interstellar travel. No aliens; space vessels rotate for gravity; and while they use fusion engines that we have no idea how to build the accelerations involved are tiny. The politics aren’t self-evidently silly and the populations of the colony worlds are sensibly low. In fact, it reads like the kind of novel that I tried to write as a teenager, only well-crafted.

From the tone of the above paragraph, I’m sure that you can guess that my overall review is going to be negative. Since the book has a lot of positive qualities, let me start with them. First and foremost, I kept reading! I am not the sort of person who finishes every book he starts. In fact, I finish only a small minority of them. Most of my reading is work-related nonfiction and thus mostly skimmed. As for novels, I’m a high-friction reader: the moment I have to work to maintain my attention, my reading speed drops quickly — and it takes very little to get me to quit. This novel I did not quit. That is an extremely good thing.

Second, I very much liked how the majority of the American characters had Spanish last names. Finally, somebody who thinks about demographics! I also liked that they threw in Spanish catch-phrases, but just as that: catch phrases. That is exactly how Spanish survives after several generations. We learn (from a Senate vote) that the United States has at least 52 states by 2140 and the author opens the possibility that Cuba might be one of them. Normally, that would get my “silly future cliché” alert up, but the allusion is simply that one enlisted USSF person has Havana for a home town. That would be possible today, and while I do not believe that Cuba will ever become part of the United States it is supremely easy to believe that the country will continue to have a “special relationship” with the mainland, up to and including free migration. So the throwaway line didn’t desuspend my disbelief—after all, add Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia and you’ve got 52 right there.

The characters were believable, if somewhat clichéd. Actually, “clichéd” isn’t the right word. They were believable enough for me to care about them (and therefore keep reading) but they weren’t distinct enough for me to really remember any details. The one exception was a Chinese gangster-turned-intelligence-agent, and he stuck with me because I didn’t really ever believe in him. He wasn’t a cliché by any means; he just seemed too much like an agent of the plot, a character created by “The Narrative” rather than a real person who naturally found himself involved with the other people in the book. (The phrase in quotes is a reference to Scalzi’s Redshirts.)

The politics were well-handled … but lacking. First, the portrayal of China as a quasi-democracy felt wrong. Such regimes first appeared in Latin America in the late-nineteenth century; they quickly collapsed (via coups or civil wars) or turned into full-on dictatorships. That pattern continued through the 20th century with a third wrinkle: several of the quasi-democracies turned quickly into real democracies. Mexico’s second dictatorship-in-drag collapsed in the 1990s; even in Turkey today, the “deep state” seems to be on its last legs. It strained my belief to think that China would be ruled by a century-old corrupt oligarchy 130 years from now. (A newly-minted corrupt oligarchy would be a different story.)

Second, the politics of the war were given disappointingly short shrift. It is indisputable that major inter-state war has gone into serious decline since 1945. It strikes me as very plausible that it could see a comeback. The novel provides a necessary condition: powerful directed-energy weapons make it at least plausible that politicians would believe that they could control the ladder of escalation. (The prevalence of robotic and precision weapons had a similar effect.) Logically, therefore, the war began as a limited conflict fought at sea and in space; one can imagine future audiences cheering on such a contest.

The problem is that there was something very pro forma about the backdrop to the war. There is an interesting question about whether industrialized interstate war (limited or not) is possible in a modern democratic environment. Can modern politicians capitalize on hostility and violence? Would modern audiences countenance unleashing death in their names for anything less than national survival? These questions are unaddressed. When the author reveals the reason the American president maneuvered the U.S. into the war, it comes as an anticlimax. (It depends on the FTL McGuffin.) There were some references to U.S. opposition to entering the conflict, but mostly in the context of “ethnic Chinese” congressmen objecting to a war with the madre patria. (Which is, I have to say, a stupid idea — in a world where China has been rich for a century, there will be no discernable Chinese-American community.) There is a subplot involving a Taiwanese independence movement that strained credibility. In short, the politics never became unbelievable — but they were underexplored.

Which brings me to the killer problem: the book read like it took place in 2012, 2030 on the outside. It was simply unbelievable as a depiction of life in 2140. The ground combat scenes, for example, read like they happened last week. (The main characters were a little too composed during the fighting, but that’s a different issue.) Sure, there were exoskeletons and lasers from space, but that felt like window-dressing. Nothing about microdrones, intelligent robotic “pack animals,” self-guided ammunition … the tactics of ground combat were basically unchanged.

The same problem afflicted the rest of the book. There were passing mentions of self-driving vehicles, advanced drones, machine translation, advanced 3-D printing, computer interfaces implanted in people’s eyeballs and “the best genes that money could buy,” but none of that had any appreciable effect on the course of the action or the social background in which the characters operated. The author failed completely at giving the impression that the book took place in the future. Now, it is possible that the author is correct that by 2140 automation will advance, sensor technology improve, cyborgization continue, 3-D printing mature and gene modification become common among the rich … yet with daily life remaining about the same as in 2012. (As will military organizations, ground combat and democratic politics.) That is possible! And hell, as a small-c conservative, I would very much like it to be true. But it’s a tall order, and a writer who wants to keep my disbelief suspended needs to make the case. The author of this book does not even try.

As a coda, I had three other quibbles. First, while the space combat scenes seemed well thought through, I did have to wonder what all those people on board the ships were actually doing. Even if our 22nd-century space navies decide to keep human commanders in the loop rather than entrusting it all to the AI’s, one would think that the ships would operate with tiny stripped-down crews and lots of maintenance robots. If that’s wrong, I want to know why.

Second, the dynamics of space colonization didn’t make much sense, at least not on the surface. There wasn’t much commerce, so the motivation seemed to be non-economic. The few colonies we saw were not rich places, so there was some indication that the author realized the problem, but it wasn’t explicit. Nothing caused me to recoil, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something didn’t make sense about the scenario.

Lastly, there were a few dumb throwaways. A reference to helium-3 mining on the Moon. Ugh. A reference to asteroid mining. Slightly more plausible for a few rare elements, but double-ugh as something needed to power Earth industry. And then there was a major lacuna for a book about geopolitics: a bit about coastal protections for major cities was the only reference to global warming.

In short, the book succeeded as a yarn. But it failed as science fiction. Props for the Spanish last names, thinking through the dynamics of orbital combat, and avoiding (most) clichés. But minus for essentially writing “2012 in Space!” rather than something about the year 2140.

I would read other works by the author; he shows a lot of promise. I’m not sure that I would read other works set in the same universe, though, although I might. None of my objections require him to rewrite his background—just explore it in greater depth. The end result, of course, won’t look much like the superficial “2012 in Space” that we saw, but it will remain consistent.

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

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I'm going to pick a bone with one line: "in a world where China has been rich for a century, there will be no discernable Chinese-American community".

Italy has been rich for a while, but I know lots of people that identify as Italian-Americans. Same thing (with fewer members) for German-Americans. (Polish too, but maybe Poland wasn't rich enough a century ago?) At any rate, I don't believe that ethnic identification with the country your ancestors emigrated from is something that just goes away based on wealth.
(Frozen) (Thread)

I think James was making a point about how the emigrants of a rich China — which would almost certainly dominate the world — might regard themselves: not as Chinese-Americans, but as American Chinese. That is to say, ethnic Chinese who happen to live in America, like 19th century British administrators in India. (But I'm guessing, the point was elliptical.)
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

By James, do you mean Noel Maurer, whose review that is?
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

Yes, sorry, I got confused.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

That's an excellent point, but not one that I had considered.

It would only apply to recent migrants, however. Unless, of course, the great American assimilation machine had run off the rails in the interim. That's more than possible, but not consistent with the future portrayed by the author.

Even in Asia, Chinese communities vary. For an example of great assimilation machine in action, consider the Philippines. (I turn further comments over to my friend and colleague, Carlos Yu.)

Best,

NM
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

The national identity of the Philippines is something of an oddity: a very late flowering of the Enlightenment idea of inclusiveness at a time when other nations were defining themselves by ethnicity. It probably had to do with the early leaders of the Philippines being complete mutts, and the colonial Spanish treating them all as subjects, not playing the divide-and-conquer game.

Compare why modern Indonesia has a special place for Bali as a cultural heart, but not other islands: Sukarno was half-Balinese, and the Dutch played divide-and-conquer throughout the archipelago.

Anyhow. It works out that somewhere around a third of the population of the modern Philippines is of partial Chinese descent, and probably more. Even though "Chinese" is still a category, it doesn't mean "one drop" or even "last name", because you don't know what their family history was. [*] It means "recent" or "unassimilated" and sometimes something rather like what "connected" means in certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn.

[*] ObNorthernExposure: "You know, your people have always been good with money, Joel. What do you think I ought to do with my assets?" "If my people were good with money, I would be on Park Avenue shooting estrogen into rich widows, not here."
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

I wondered what Noel meant by it myself: I thought he was claiming that Americans of Chinese descent would all go to China, which seemed unlikely to me, but I guess that wasn't it.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

...It appears he was pointing out more that there would be very little recent immigration from rich China to the US, and the several-generation Chinese-Americans already here would be so assimilated that they wouldn't form much of a unitary community as such. That makes more sense.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

Yessir! Thank you.

Guess I badly phrased that. Ugh.

NM
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

Nope! I just meant two things. (1) There would be very little net migration from a rich China; and (2) By the time 127 years had passed, the descendents of current Chinese immigrants would not form a distinguishable community. (Considering as outmarriage rates exceed 50% in the second-generation --- let alone later ones --- that is a pretty safe prediction.)

Caveat: there would in this scenario still likely be people identifying as Chinese-American in 2140. But that would have little to no discernable effect on their behavior or political beliefs.

Whew!

NM
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

I'm not sure that coming from a rich China is going to change things for emigrants to America* very much from the situation for Hispanics and African-Americans. These do not form tidy demographic blocks the way some politicians and marketing execs think they do; it's a gross simplification to say that there's a single Hispanic community in the US, it seems to me, but there is a sizeable bloc of people who self-identify as Hispanic.

Chinese-Americans as a group in 2140 will probably not be much like the present-day Chinese-American 'community' in many ways, but I'd bet a nickel at compound interest there will still be people who identify as Chinese-Americans.

*A rich China will still be a highly-populated, crowded China, and apparently under the rule of a less-pleasant regime than the USA in 2140, so I doubt that there will be insignificant migration.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

Not so sure this follows; some Irish-Americans proudly claim a distinct identity though their ancestors came here longer ago, and Pennsylvania Dutch have been even more distinct for longer. To say nothing of the Jewish diaspora, pretty much everyplace.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

Look down one entry in the thread: I mentioned the Irish example. It seems to be rather sui generis, however. Chinese-Americans show pretty much no sign of moving in that direction; if that's going to change, the author should give some indication why. No?
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

The Irish were one of three examples I mentioned, and I could have added others. So, no, I really don't see them as sui generis at all.
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

Well, the Irish are, really. The Pennsylvania Dutch are thoroughly assimilated other than the Amish. They don't care about German issues at all, inasmuch as they still exist as a coherent group.

Jewish-Americans, meanwhile, are a religious group, many of whom are concerned with the fate of a non-ancestral country as the result of a genocide that occurred within living memory. That's not exactly something easily replicated.

But let's not get sidetracked. Why do you think that Chinese-Americans will not only retain a connection to China in 127 years, but that the connection will grow stronger than it is currently?

Noel
(Frozen) (Parent) (Thread)

I take your point, but consider two things.

First, sizable Italian migration stopped 92 years ago. Current Chinese migration is smaller and shows higher exogamy ... for a future set 127 years from now.

Second (speaking as someone who lived in a former Italian neighborhood in Manhattan and then moved to a former German one) neither community is more than vestigial in the United States. Can you imagine Chris Christie or Andrew Cuomo being swayed by their ethnic heritage over, say, a eurozone question? I'm not really seeing it, and even less so after three more decades.

I could be persuaded that Chinese-Americans might follow the path of the Irish, but that seems to be a rather particular set of circumstances. Even Cuba is losing its salience among second and third generation Cuban-Americans.

That said, "no discernable" is an overstatement. "Not significant" or "vestigial" would be more accurate.

Best,

NM
(Frozen) (Thread)

I'm willing to cut authors a lot of slack on projections of social change, just because history is so darn implausible.
(Frozen) (Thread)

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