RogerBW's Blog

Fire in a Faraway Place, Robert Frezza 03 November 2022

1995 military SF, sequel to A Small Colonial War. The rebellion on the colony world ended up with an independent civilian government, and the Japanese Empire doesn't like that…

All right, I'm not the same person I was when I read A Small Colonial War in 2015, but I couldn't help finding some of the racism pretty heavy-handed here. Almost all the Japanese are bad guys, and their culture assumes that only Japanese people are real people and everyone else is just a useful tool at best. And minor surgery is enough to let someone pass as Japanese. The more of this I read, the more I saw this as an artefact of the same 1980s-era paranoia about corporate Japan that led to some of the more unfortunate aspects of cyberpunk, particularly the way that trivial nasty details of Japanese culture are unchanged since that era despite its establishment of a world-controlling empire.

And maybe Frezza just looked up Afrikaner names from the news, but we have good guys called Terblanche (sic) and Kemp. Which might be a coincidence. And it might be a coincidence that Vereshchagin, the ultimate Good Soldier, in command of what was the Imperial expedition and is now the government's army of resistance, has his reputation described as "You're the magic man. You're Erwin Rommel and Robert E. Lee."

The rest is better. Frezza is clearly more comfortable with the military aspect than with the SF; his ground and air support tactics are entirely plausible, and entirely 20th-century. When it gets to spacecraft he's a whole lot fuzzier; while time is spent discussing the implications of upgrading an armoured car's gun to electromagnetic propulsion (actually a good example of intelligence analysis – there's a penalty in maintenance time and vehicle range, and the benefit of higher muzzle velocity is only relevant if they're fighting heavily-armoured vehicles, therefore someone on Earth must have decided that that's just what they're going to have to do), the spacecraft just act the way they need to for the plot to work. And when you write about a space station that's "floating in a stationary orbit 455 kilometers over central Honshu", this isn't just not right, it isn't even wrong.

(I can't help thinking Del Rey should have assigned him an editor, or even a writing partner, who was comfortable with SF, because while space war tactics are necessarily theoretical they could have been made a whole lot more convincing to match up with the ground stuff; the disjunction is very obvious.)

So there's an invasion, and hostage-taking, and insurgency, and that part works really well. It's all a bit Team Good versus Team Evil, but there are at least good soldiers on the Evil side, and awkward buggers working for Good. People die, even people one likes.

"War is like Wagner. It's loud and it lasts too long, and you can only smoke during intermissions."

And then with the conflict won (no spoilers), there's a consideration of how to stop it happening again: this is a world that's the main source of certain key metals, and the company that's been displaced is just going get the Empire to send more troops in another few years, again and again until they win. (Of course, because they're stereotypically Japanese, this is phrased in terms of "saving face".) So how to stop them? Well, apparently it's a whole lot easier to land a covert force on Earth than it would have been on this tiny colony world…

The long delay in reading makes me unsure whether this book really is much worse than the first, or whether it's just that my taste has changed. (I'm now edgy about rereading the first one again to check, because I have positive memories of it which I don't want spoiled.) Vereshchagin is a cipher here, present purely to make the right military decision without any sign of personality. Other senior officers get a bit of characterisation, but it's never deep.

There is a third volume, Cain's Land, in which Vereshchagin is apparently sent to negotiate with aliens and ends up doing a hostage rescue. But I feel no urge to find or read it, and the story really is completed by this book.

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Previous in series: A Small Colonial War | Series: Colonial War

  1. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 11:21am on 03 November 2022

    I clearly read a different book to the review offered here.

    I'm also going to state for the record that I think reviews and critiques of any work have to start with what is good about the work. YMMV.

    Or, phrased another way, what is important enough about the author's work to be worth expending time and effort discussing it; for both the reviewer and the consumer of said review?

    Frezza's trilogy, with its Japanophobia, is unarguably a product of the time.

    However, the story showed a writer with potential to break out and deliver good stories. If only because while writing one book is an achievement, writing three shows true determination (and he wrote two more books before he was chewed up and spat out of the system).

    The idea that the editorial team Del-Rey would provide editorial input to him is blind to the realities of the time. If only because this book was written before the internet as we know it began, it was written in the age of Compuserve and AoL; before Google made searching the internet easy.

    He was also (like many other authors of his time) a victim of the publishing system.

    Denied the chance grow and mature with the promised support that traditional publishers were reputed to provide.

    Also, Frezza fall from writing further books was a result of Del-Ray purging their authors a few years later.

    In hindsight, the signs and portents were on the horizon of the oncoming financial crisis traditional publishing houses faced, that led to the merges. Another signal of the death throes of traditional publishing.

    So, Frezza never had the opportunity to become a better writer.

    Arguably, another portent of the same issues that turned author contracts into IP ponzi schemes. But, that as they say, is another issue.

    TL;DR: Hating things is easy. Historical context matters.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 11:50am on 03 November 2022

    It did not take the Internet for a publisher to say "yes, we like your writing about this stuff you clearly know about, but we're going to be selling this to SF fans, and some of them actually know how orbits work. So maybe you should too, or work with somebody who does."

    In fact, it's mostly since the Internet has become widespread (though probably by coincidence; I think it's probably more due to the great consolidation of publishers, putting the accountants in charge, and the quest for the next top seller rather than developing several authors over time), that editorial oversight from formerly-reputable publishers has fallen off sharply.

  3. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 09:19am on 04 November 2022

    I agree that it does not take the internet to know that orbital dynamics don't work like that.

    Absolutely agree, but to assume that 'Arts' majors who work as editorial staff at publishing houses know either, is I think a question one should ask, along with how many SF readers care about orbital dynamics.

    You and I do, but I would posit we're the exceptions (or part of the exceptions group), for the same reasons, we're interested in technical accuracy.

    I hope I've assumed correctly that this is true of us both?

    Another question that one could ask is, what portion of SF books with space travel in them have plausible descriptions of orbital dynamics, Hohmann transfer orbit etc, etc?

    For that matter, how many MilSF books have proper chains-of-command?

    It's not that these things shouldn't be critiqued, but for the most part critiquing them is like shooting fish in a barrel. Not much fun.

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