Monday, April 28, 2014

The Empire's Corps

I like military SF. And I liked the Foundation series of novels by Isaac Asimov. Now imagine if John Christian Falkenberg were to hook up with Hari Seldon and instead of founding the Foundation accompanies him and a bunch of soldiers into exile.

The Empire's Corps tells the story of a bunch of elite soldiers, Marines led by Captain Ed Stalker, who get in some political trouble on a future Earth. The galaxy has been settled with human colonies far and wide, all of them under the rule of the Empire. The Empire projects its will through its Marines. Captain Stalker is given a promotion to Colonel, then sent into exile to a remote colony called Avalon.

Accompanying him into exile is an academic who made the mistake of looking into the Empire's political and economic underpinnings, and discovering the Empire is about to fall. He's had his cushy professorship taken away and his family is forced to live in a bad neighborhood.
Earth is over-populated with tens of billions of people and if you're rich, you live in a nice apartment, and if you're middle class you live in a not-nice apartment, and if you're poor you live in a hellish government housing project. Social control is maintained by threatening the middle class with moving into government housing where criminal gangs run free. Step out of line, get caught, and you're shipped off to a colony world as indentured labor.

This is the Earth that Stalker and his Marines are exiled from. They are exiled to a relatively new colony called Avalon. It has a corrupt central government, rebels in the hills, as well as bandits terrorizing the countryside.

When Stalker arrives he's got a job, restore order. Trouble is that the fall of the Empire is immanent and he knows it. Avalon will be his home and he has to come up with something more stable than the status quo, that won't survive the Empire's collapse.

Happily, the only bad guys are the oligarchs running the show and the bandits in the hills. It remains for the Marines to support the government just enough to let it fall of its own weight. Along the way there are lots of nifty space infantry firefights and bad guys defeated and good guys triumphant.

There is a pretty clear message through the whole book that paternalistic central government control is a Bad Thing and that individual initiative and self-improvement is a Good Thing. I liked the Empire Corps, because it handles the military SF well enough and it provides just enough galactic politics to keep things suspenseful.

All the good guys keep getting thrown into the deep end of the pool and they figure out how to swim fairly quickly.

And if you like it, there are several sequels available. I'll be reviewing them in a little while.

The fall of a galactic empire is a Big Deal and it is a story that gets told from multiple perspectives. One thing to keep in mind is Mr. Nuttall's odd-even scheme of telling the story. The first two novels follow events on or near Avalon. Subsequent novels alternate between the Marines on Avalon, and other parties acting on Earth, in the next sector over, and back on Earth. Clearly, Mr. Nuttall is setting up a climax where these disparate threads are pulled together.

Altogether a most enjoyable read: 5-stars.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Pixie Noir

In the late 1970s, an animated movie named Wizards came out. I don't remember anything about the movie except a scene toward the end where one wizard confronts another wizard. And you might expect a big fight with magic being thrown back and forth. Instead, one wizard pulls out a revolver and puts daylight through his opponent. Gunplay in a magical fantasy story was a brand new thing and it had shock value. The scene was as surprising as later when Indiana Jones aborts a sword fight with a big scimitar wielding dude using his sidearm.

In the decades that have followed, this sort of blending of firearms and magic has become a little more common. Larry Correia does a great job of describing with loving detail the firearms used to dispatch evil in his Monster Hunter stories.

In Larry Correia's world you might not take down a werewolf with a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, but you'll slow him down enough to drop a desk on him. And Larry Correia doubled-down with his magical private eye in his Warbound stories wherein John Moses Browning supplies the firearms.

The mix of fantasy and noir goes well together and Cedar Sanderson adds a twist in her mystical bounty hunter, Lom. Whereas Larry Correia builds his stories around big dudes--a towering "combat accountant" and a magical "heavy"--Lom is a pixie.

As in shorter of stature and slight of build.

When I say a story is about a bounty hunter, one doesn't immediately think of a pixie. Which is cool.

But all the other things you would expect of a noir protagonist are present. He's got a past. He's been betrayed by those close to him and thus he doesn't trust anyone.

That includes the dame in trouble with great gams. He meets Bella in the opening scene of Pixie Noir. Like a good noir story, the dame is more than a pretty face and smoking hot body.

Trouble takes the form of various magical monsters who want her dead. Lom's inner demons and his unhappy past add to his internal conflict. They run a gauntlet of evil monsters as Lom tries to deliver Bella to his client. Along the way they use guns, lots of guns.

Lom and Bella undergo some changes on their road trip and the nature of the relationship becomes more complicated as well.

It's a fun read and I recommend it heartily. Five stars.

BUT FIRST a word from our Grammar Nazi. (What good noir story doesn't have Nazis?)

English Grammar does not use grammatical cases as much as other languages. When I learned English grammar in school, I cheated. My mom spoke grammatically correct sentences, and thus I never learned English Grammar, I just gave the answer that "sounded good." There were exceptions. Nobody says "whom" any more, so any usage with "whom" did not sound right. Thus it was only in the last few years that I learned that "who" is used in a subjective case, and "whom" is used in an objective case.

Moreover collections of names and pronouns like "Joe and I went to breakfast" combine names and pronouns with the case of the pronoun depending upon the usage of the collection. If the collection is used in a subjective way, you say "Joe and I" and if it is an objective use, you say, "Joe and me."

Thus we say, "Joe and I went to breakfast. The waitress brought toast to Joe and me." It is a common mistake to use the subjective pronoun in a collection when one ought to use the objective pronoun. Objects of a prepositional phrase are invariably subjective case. Ms. Sanderson needs to hire an editor to catch these things in her final draft.

For this reason, the Grammar Nazi insists that I deduct a half-star from Pixie Noir: four point five stars.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Save Me from My Sin

I watched a fun little movie on Netflix, Robot and Frank. It is about an old man who suffers from senile dementia. His family loves him, but his son lives several hours away and his daughter travels the world, and his wife isn't around. He needs someone around to keep house and mind his health, so his son buys a robot.

Frank rejects the mechanical valet until it helps him shop-lift a soap from a local boutique. You see, he is a cat burglar who has been released from prison in his dotage. He is surprised at the complete amorality of the robot, and soon he is teaching it how to pick locks.

The robot obliges, because its primary mission is to keep Frank engaged and active while monitoring and helping to improve his health. The robot would prefer they work on a garden, but its programming is flexible.

They burgle the local library, and after that succeeds, they go after bigger prizes. It's a lot of fun because the "mark" is an unpleasant and annoying man.

If you dislike spoilers, stop reading and come back when you've seen the film...

It's OK, I'll wait...

No, really, I'll be right here when you get back...

What works well in this story is misdirection and uncertainty in the audience about how much or little is wrong with Frank's memory. As the cops close in on him, he summons his son, feigning death. He gives him a packet that's the same size and shape as the millions in jewels he's stolen.

The cops stop the son and demand to see the package. They find useless shoplifted trinkets. The son is furious to discover Frank is not dying, and the cops proceed to search the house with the son's consent. Frank flees and while he's on the lam, he has to erase the robot's memory.

The movie ends with Frank in a nursing home when his son comes to visit. Frank's dementia seems worse. He joins the rest of his family and they share a bittersweet visit. As his son is leaving Frank say, "Dig under the robot's garden."

The movie ends with a laugh that Frank has fooled the cops, his annoying son, and the audience who feared that Frank's final score would be lost. A lot of modern crime stories work this way with a similar "happy ending" as the crooks get away scot-free.

Which brings me to my point. I was taught as a child to fear God and believe in Heaven and Hell. My terror of the dark prompted me to seek God's mercy by asking Jesus into my heart. I didn't quite understand this transaction until many years later. (If you weren't so taught, and you do not so believe, that's OK, I promise not to pass an offering plate.)

My flawed childish understanding that I was "saved" from Hell and the devil's punishments in recompense for my acts of wickedness as defined by, say, the Ten Commandments, the whole of the Torah, or merely Jesus' summary to Love God and one's fellow man.

I didn't understand that Jesus doesn't save me from Hell, but he saves me from my sins. Whether the movie's Frank burns in Hell or not is immaterial. He's a thief at the beginning of the movie, and he's a thief at the end of the movie. He is never saved from being a thief.

Stealing makes you a thief. Lying makes you a liar. Adultery makes you an adulterer. And so on.

Stories can swing between the extremes of pornography and art, based on how they handle truth. If your story just panders to the audience's appetites, even non-sexual appetites, I call it pornography. Conversely, if your story tells the truth, even truths that make you uncomfortable, I call it art.

I once heard that there are some laws you never break, but you just break yourself against them. For this reason I think it unwise and untrue to tell stories where lawbreakers get off scot-free.

You might think this is moralistic claptrap and that's your prerogative.

But suppose that instead of being a thief, the movie's Frank were a murderer?

What if there's a body under the robot's garden.

Saturday, April 5, 2014


You know that perfection often exceeds our capabilities. We may strive for it, but we'll invariably slip just a little bit. I'm told that the aim of a marksman will jiggle a little with each heartbeat. The olympic competitors learn to slow the heart and time the shot in between beats.

I found myself with a bit of woodworking that needed doing. Keeping the saw blade on the line is nontrivial. The longer the cut the more likely you'll grow a little tired or your hand will shake a bit.

You have to tolerate small errors that detract from perfection.

Or know how to hide them: If you look at the woodwork in your house, you'll see the boards do not line up perfectly. They are offset by about a 16th of an inch. The eye will see every tiny discrepancy, but the offset will hide smaller variations.

I had a task which had me flummoxed. I had a piece of plywood that needed to be cut with a four-inch radius on two corners and a couple uber straight runs of several feet. I have a circular saw and a saber saw, but I lacked confidence in my skills.

So, I went to my neighbor who is an expert woodworker. While I looked on and helped him, he cut the plywood. And he did a great job. But it wasn't perfect.

This showed me something: He used the same tools I had and it wasn't perfect. It was more than good enough. That 64nd of an inch where he drifted from the line is nicely hidden by a bit of trim.

I learned that I'll tolerate errors when someone else does the work, that I won't tolerate when I do it myself. The standard of "perfection" is higher when I do something myself.

It is lower when I ask a favor from a friend.

And when I hire work from an expert, he's must know the craft well enough to hide the inevitable imperfections.

Those more worthy than I: