Thursday, February 17, 2011

A space opera to fly with

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space opera, interplanetary politics

I was traveling cross country yesterday, a good opportunity to get a lot of reading done. A factual text isn't sufficienty engrossing for effective escape reading; I get distracted by the grim reality of being in an airplane seat the size of a floor tile. But a good space opera is just the thing to transfer me to far horizons and make the time melt away.

David Drake, a writer new to me, has a deft hand at interstellar politics and applying known concepts to a new idea for plying the space lanes. In What Distant Deeps, the latest of his RCN series, he pits Captain Daniel Leary of the Republic of Cinnabar Navy and his friend the spy Adele Mundy—both aristocrats who choose the military life—against an ambitious autocrat, the Autocrator Irene, who is taking advantage of an exhausted peace between two formerly warring empires to promote her own agenda of attaining a mini-empire from a few planets on the fringes of civilized space.

Both Mundy and her bodyguard/companion Tovera are described a few times as murderous psychopaths, not by enemies, but in the ruminations of Mundy's own mind; there is a lot of stream of consciousness twined amongst the action. Yet by nature Lady Mundy is a librarian, happiest when digging meaning from the data she is continually harvesting from any computer system she can break into, such as the planetary archives or an entire naval fleet's ship systems. She uncovers traces of a secretive "Farm" that is really a military camp being set up for an expected invading army. Leary recognizes the potential for such an invasion to destroy the fragile peace accord, and sets about short-circuiting the process.

To author Drake, the emphasis in RCN is on Navy. Space travel is a matter of inserting the ship into what is called the Matrix, where there are currents and forces that one can "sail" through using literal masts and sails on a starship's hull; this is followed by extraction into normal space. While in the Matrix, a ship can be guided by a skilled person who knows how to interpret the vision of an infinite array of bubble universes, and the swirls and currents that accompany galaxies, stars and starships within our own universe. There are mental and physiological effects of insertion and extraction, and a little of the drama rests upon their potential to debilitate people at critical times, such as extracting into the middle of a pitched battle. Only one major scene hinges on these effects; the author could have done more with it, and perhaps he has in prior RCN novels.

The author has done a competent job of interpreting the tropes of naval warfare into a space setting. The missiles and the plasma cannons that answer to the torpedos and cannon of water-based battles provide plenty of drama, as long as one refrains from thinking too deeply. The narrative really kept me going at times I sorely needed the escapism. Quite an enjoyable reading experience.

No comments: