RogerBW's Blog

Torchship Pilot, Karl K Gallagher 24 May 2018

2016 science fiction, second of a trilogy. Michigan Long continues to serve aboard the analogue ship Fives Full as tensions brew up into interstellar war.

(Disclaimer: I know Karl through BoardGameGeek, and he gave me a copy of this book.)

That's a tiny part of what's going on here, though. Even more than the first book, this is a whole bunch of short stories crammed together, and made to fit into the space by omitting anything that the author doesn't find of interest. So one moment our heroes are sitting on the ground complaining about the bureaucratic hassles they're getting, next moment that's all been dealt with and they're two star systems away starting on the next mission. Scenes always start with a location and an acceleration/gravity level, but never a timestamp, which might have been more useful.

The first volume tried to be at least a bit even-handed in its portrayal of the two major human powers and how they dealt with the rebel AI threat: the Fusion (heavy firewalls and monitoring), and the Disconnected Worlds (no networks at all). Here that doesn't happen; it's not just that our heroes are from the Disconnect, the narrator is clearly on that side too. There are attacks on the straw-man socialistic world-view which could have some straight out of Jerry Pournelle in the 1980s; more interestingly, one of the major reasons for wanting to end the war quickly is that the Disconnect is developing social coercion (shaming people into contributing to the war effort), and if that continues it will destroy everything the Disconnect stands for. ("If it keeps up they will start taking money at gunpoint. That's how tax laws start." But we know they already have taxes…)

Also, the Fusion has been standing up to AI attacks for many years. All of a sudden, when one of its worlds comes under attack, all its defences are completely worthless and it falls in minutes. Why? What was different about this attack? Later, an information weapon developed by the Fusion turns out to be completely ineffective against the AIs, but devastating against the Fusion's own warships. (Which could happen, sure, but again it could use some explanation.) The origin of the AI rebellion is solved in a few moments by wild speculation which turns out to be right. Meanwhile our heroes are very slow to pick up on some other implications of things they learn, which makes them look over-lucky and stupid at the same time. Major ethical questions are raised, then dismissed with "eh, it's probably OK". Huge world-changing plot devices are given out, dispense the Key Fact, and are then removed again. Perhaps because of the hugely accelerated pace of events, it all comes to feel like the author deliberately throwing things at the characters rather than each plot element developing naturally from what came before.

Characterisation is mostly minimal (but people like sleeping together, heterosexually and mostly monogamously of course). War is hard on people but still Great Fun. Mitchie casually commits minor war crimes and gets away with it, and only Nasty People would suggest that she should face any consequences, because combat is tough. (And anyway, the Fusion never signed the Geneva Convention, and if we treat their guys well it'll just give them an incentive not to sign. Um?)

In spite of all that I rather enjoyed it; there are many, many interesting things happening, as well as an ongoing sense of fun and some excellent ideas. There's even a little bit of heroic engineering. But the bitty style leaves me feeling I'm missing things, especially when it's combined with sudden libertarianism that wasn't as obvious earlier in the series, and I wonder whether actually having less stuff happening would have made for a better book. Followed by Torchship Captain.

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Previous in series: Torchship | Series: Torchship | Next in series: Torchship Captain

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