Honor’s Reserve by Michael La Ronn: A Book Review

I’m sorry. This just did not hold my attention.

More than a year ago, I read Phantom Planet, which is the second book in the Galaxy Mavericks series but came out before the first one. Near the end of that, Grayson, the main character in Honor’s Reserve, shows up to rescue Keltie (he’s in the space equivalent of the Coast Guard). At the time, the vibes I got were definitely eyebrow-raise-what-have-we-here-man-in-uniform-potential-romantic-interest-alert. So it’s disappointing to find that Grayson’s back story is, so far, more boring than Keltie’s.

I don’t have a problem with the fact that this space opera takes liberties with science. In fact, the author includes a hilarious disclaimer at the beginning announcing that he is planning to do just that. Some other Goodreads reviewers actually DNF’d this book because of perceived inaccuracies with hyperspace travel and the like. I would just like to remind my fellow science-fiction readers that hyperspace travel, no matter how convincingly it is “explained,” is FICTION. Travel that even approaches the speed of light probably physically destroys the object traveling. All hyperspace travel is fiction. So is evolution. And boy, is there some fictional evolution in Honor’s Reserve!

Scientists think that the nanocraft [carrying a selection of DNA from humans and various animals] collided with an asteroid that had some kind of molecular life on it, and that that asteroid crashed onto an Earthlike planet that supported carbon life. The two life forms mixed, rapidly evolved, and Arguses were born.

Honor’s Reserve, p. 36

Arguses are aliens that basically have human bodies and the heads of pigs. And this entire, intelligent species evolved in … how long? “Nine hundred and fifty years.” Actually less, if you count the transit time for the nanocraft. Wow, that really gives a new meaning to “rapidly evolved.” But frankly, if you look into molecular biology, an intelligent species evolving from bacteria at all is just as unlikely as it evolving in 950 years. So, why not? Remember, this is science FICTION.

I also don’t mind the things in this series that might be considered anachronisms. The year might be in the 3000s, but human nature remains the same. So, Grayson and his fellow crewmembers getting onto a private spacecraft and giving it a bureaucratic-style safety inspection seems refreshingly realistic. I’m sure bureaucracy is not going to decrease with the advance of technology. And, perhaps my favorite moment in the book is when the heroes are trying to jump into hyperspace to escape the villains, and the computer keeps asking them, “Are you sure you want to jump into hyperspace?” and making them click a bunch of permissions, causing them to get caught by the people chasing them.

So then, why did this book keep losing my interest and why did I nearly DNF it at about 40%? Maybe it’s something about the writing. Although I am willing to put up with unrealistically easy jumping into and out of hyperspace, I do like the logistics of my action scenes to be nice and clear, and in Honor’s Reserve, they often weren’t. For example, it was sometimes not clear to me that a character had put their helmet back on (or never taken it off) before, say, the airlock was depressurized. That seems kind of important. There’s a scene near the beginning where Grayson is holding on to the outside of a space ship (or the edge of the airlock door, which is open? Not sure?) where the logistics were just not clear. The scene moved too fast. Show, don’t tell is great, but sometimes with sci-fi we need a little telling, or the scene actually loses drama.

Speaking of losing drama, there was definitely some untapped potential for character development here. I am speaking of Rina, the female villain of the story. [spoilers ahead] She is found to be human trafficking: helping the odious Arguses to kidnap people so they can enslave them. Then we find out that she is doing this in exchange for a promise from the Arguses to protect her and her family. She was at first enslaved, and she has the burn marks to prove it. Well, even if it’s not ultimately excusable, this seems like a pretty understandable motivation. It might bear looking into a little further. Rina has evidently been through some pretty heavy trauma recently and is in a desperate situation. We might want to examine that, no?

No. Rina is consistently portrayed as a sociopath. “You can’t trust anything she says.” She even comes right out and says, “It didn’t really bother me to enslave a bunch of other people, as long as it wasn’t me.” So Rina is thoroughly bad and we can safely hate her and turn her over to the Arguses.

Even this character arc might have been OK if it had been written with a little more complexity: if, say, Grayson had been tempted to feel sorry for Rina when he heard her tragic back story, had tried to turn her, and had then been double-crossed and we find her doubling down on her evil. But that’s not how it goes down. It’s as if Rina is barely a character at all.

To sum up: a bland, one-dimensional villain (and consequently, hero); aliens that don’t seem spooky, just like grosser, evil-er people; and action scenes that sometimes felt rushed and inadequately explained are all the reasons that I found the author’s notes at the end, about his philosophy of space operas, much more interesting than the book itself, and the reasons I am sadly giving this book two stars.

I will say that Phantom Planet, while it had some of these same problems on a smaller scale, was better than Honor’s Reserve. It had some spooky, unexplained things that promised more terror later in the series. I might give this series one more book before I give up on it.

Present Company Excepted

Blomquist went on and on about his pet interests. Vitamins. Diets. Exercise regimes. Origami. His mind could be relied upon to dart off into the most curious byways–and dwell there for hours, exhausting the possibilities of whatever subject it had alighted upon.

Alexander McCall Smith, The Man with the Silver Saab, p. 37

Let’s Learn World Building with Thomas Sowell

This is a brief review of the book Black Rednecks and White Liberals, by Thomas Sowell. Full disclosure: I am writing the review before I’m finished with the book. But given that it’s a series of historical essays rather than a novel, I doubt there’s going to be a twist at the end.

Contrary to what you might expect, not the entire book is about Black Rednecks and White Liberals. The book consists of five essays:

  • Black Rednecks and White Liberals
  • Are Jews Generic?
  • The Real History of Slavery
  • Germans and History
  • Black Education: Achievements, Myths and Tragedies
  • History versus Visions

As you can see from the titles, Sowell pokes directly at the eyes of all the sacred cows he can find. Like every Sowell book I’ve read so far, the essays in this book destroy popular misconceptions with facts and logic. But by “facts and logic” I don’t just mean bon mots and statistics from the last ten years. These essays offer detailed history lessons that cover social phenomena from around the world. As someone with an interest in anthropology, I am finding them fascinating. Sowell has drawn from the literature (he has 63 pages of endnotes), but he had also done some research in person. At one point, he mentions in passing something someone said to him “When I was traveling to research the economic conditions of different ethnic groups around the world.”

I’m not going to get in to the political and economic implications of these essays. Instead, I’m going to come at this like a fiction author.

I really recommend that anyone who wants to do worldbuilding for a fictional society read some or all of the essays in this book.

For example, the essay “Are Jews Generic?”. Kind of a weird title, but it turns out that what the piece is about, is economic middlemen. Sowell starts out talking about how, in WWII P.O.W. camps, a black market would immediately spring up around goods that people had saved from their Red Cross packages, such as cigarettes, jam, etc. Some people consumed these right away; others didn’t. Some people were nonsmokers. They needed to be able to barter things. And, just as quickly, up sprang economic middlemen. They knew who had what, and they could help the parties communicate and broker trades. And, they took their cut, which led the other prisoners to look on them as parasites who weren’t producing anything of value, even though they were clearly providing a service that was needed.

It turns out that there have been people, and groups, that fill this economic role in many places in the world throughout history. The Milesians in the ancient Levant, the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, the Lebanese in Sierra Leone, the Igbo in Nigeria, the Chinese in Southeast Asia, Koreans in inner-city America … and the Jews in Eastern Europe.

Middleman groups have a lot in common. They tend to be more enterprising than the population around them; they start small, in businesses that don’t require a lot of initial capital, and work their way up; they make great sacrifices to get their children educated; they tend to be clannish, as they must be in order to maintain the distinctive cultural characteristics that make them so well suited for the middleman role. They also tend to be hated: accused of corruption (often true, especially in countries where one must be corrupt to survive in business) and of extortion and hogging resources (often not true, as usually they started out very poor and rose to middle class). Interestingly, middlemen tend to be most hated in economic situations where their role is most vital. Sometimes they are driven out or genocided, which then causes the local economy to suffer because that vital middleman role is not being filled, or is being filled poorly.

Hence, the title “Are Jews Generic?” asks the question whether Jews are hated because they are Jews, or because they are, in a way, the ultimate example of an economic middleman ethnic group, whose intelligence, diligence, and drive tend to arouse the envy of others.

If all this isn’t useful for worldbuilding, I don’t know what is.

Readers will also benefit from this historical perspective. If a fantasy writer includes an economic middleman character who is clannish, a sharp bargainer, and very frugal, for example, it does not follow that the writer is employing a transparent stereotype of a Jew and that the book or movie is therefore anti-Semitic. There have been characters like this all over the world and all throughout history. It is good for readers and viewers to be aware of this.

As always, Thomas Sowell comes highly recommended.

Teal Veyre Interviews Me

Teal Veyre is really interesting thinker whose blog I’ve been following for a few years now. (She’s the angry bespectacled cartoon gal on the left.) In this episode of her Viridescent Storms book podcast, she and I talk about dinosaurs, giants, utilitarianism, worldbuilding, and of course, The Lord of the Rings. Many of the topics are ones that faithful Out of Babel-ites will recognize, but with Teal’s unique perspective, it’s all fresh! Plus, you get to hear our voices. The interview with me takes up about the first 30 minutes, and then the Storms offer a tutorial on a program called Notion and how it can be used by indie authors.

I notice that so far, the video has only one like, which is of course disgraceful. Get over there and like it and club some sense into those YouTube algorithms!

Dorothy Sayers on Sacrificing for your Work

To feel sacrifice consciously as self-sacrifice argues a failure in love. When a job is undertaken from necessity, or from a grim sense of disagreeable duty, the worker is self-consciously aware of the toils and pains he undergoes, and will say: “I have made such and such sacrifices for this.”

But when the job is a labor of love, the sacrifices will present themselves to the worker — strange as it may seem — in the guise of enjoyment.

Moralists, looking on at this, will always judge that the former kind of sacrifice is more admirable than the latter, because the moralist, whatever he may pretend, has far more respect for pride than for love.

I do not mean that there is no nobility in doing unpleasant things from a sense of duty, but only that there is more nobility in doing them gladly out of sheer love of the job. The Puritan thinks otherwise; he is inclined to say, “Of course, So-and-So works very hard and has given up a good deal for such-and-such a cause, but there’s no merit in that — he enjoys it.” The merit, of course, lies precisely in the enjoyment, and the nobility of So-and-So consists in the very fact that he is the kind of person to whom the doing of that piece of work is delightful.

Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, pp. 134 – 135

We Are the-Book-as-Read

This threefoldness in the reader’s mind corresponds to the threefoldness of the work (Book-as-Thought, Book-as-Written, Book-as-Read), and that again to the original threefoldness in the mind of the writer (Idea, Energy, Power). It is bound to be so, because that is the structure of the creative mind. When, therefore, we consider Trinitarian doctrine about the universal Creator, this is what we are driving at. We are arguing on the analogy of something perfectly familiar to our experience. The implication is that we find three-fold structure in ourselves (who are the Book-as-Read), because that is the actual structure of the universe (which is the Book-as-Written), and that it is in the universe because it is in God’s Idea about the universe (the Book-as-Thought). Further, that this structure is in God’s Idea because it is the structure of God’s mind.

There is nothing mythological about Christian Trinitarian doctrine: it is analogical.

Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, pp. 122 – 123

I’m Reading a Horror Story …

… I sure hope it ends well.

But I don’t think it will.

Because I wrote it.

I recently got the third book in my trilogy, The Great Snake, back from my editor. The next step for me is to go through it, noting all her comments, making all the changes that are called for.

I am having a grand old time. I was really unsure about this book during, and even after, writing it, perhaps because, to paraphrase Jordan Peterson, “The artist should not know exactly what it is that he is doing.” Now, reading through it with fresh eyes after an absence of several months, things are clicking in to place. I feel that what this book has done is right.

I think you all are going to like it.

Meanwhile, we have a brand-new war raging somewhere in the world. Women my age, with children the age of my children, are being forced to flee their homes or hunker down in their basements. Grandmothers are preparing to do first aid. War-fever is sweeping my own country. People are going bananas with demonizing the bad guys, and talking about WWIII.

That doesn’t count the crises we have long been praying about, which still have not abated, notably the Uyghurs being imprisoned in concentration camps, but there are a lot of others too.

Real life is a horror story.

Which raises the question: Do I have any right to enjoy myself reading over my little story of fictional horrors? Do I have any right to post about it, and about paintings and sunsets, or about anything at all except the current crisis?

It is time for me to pull out again C.S. Lewis’s wonderful speech “Learning In War-Time,” which addresses these very questions. I posted a quote from it, and a link to it, almost exactly two years ago. Here they are again:

[We] must ask [ourselves] how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology. If human culture can stand up to that, it can stand up to anything. To admit that we can retain our interest in learning under the shadow of these eternal issues, but not under the shadow of a European war, would be to admit that our ears are closed to the voice of reason and very wide open to the voice of our nerves and our mass emotions.

I think it important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective. The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal.

The insects have chosen a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumably they have their reward. Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on the scaffold, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.

C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War-time,” a speech given in Oxford in autumn of 1939

Read the whole thing here.

Long story short? You bet I have a right to post about art and literature and knitting and all the rest of it. Because when you get right down to it, all my posts are in some sense posts about Jesus. And He is exactly what we need, in this current crisis and in every crisis. He is wonderful. He really is.

A Month (Give or Take) of Nonfiction

Unrelieved grey, above & below? … Look closer, there’s a treat in the middle!

So, just as a personal update here, it’s been an odd six weeks since Christmas. First of all, there was … you know … Christmas, with all that implies when you are the mom and in charge of the festivities. Right before Christmas, I injured my shoulder doing a pushup (don’t laugh … I’ve injured myself by sleeping wrong), and that resulted in several weeks of nerve pain. Then around the time the shoulder/arm injury was becoming less intrusive, I got some sort of bug that wiped me out for about two weeks. Added to all this, it’s been really dark and cold, as it tends to be in the dead of winter. Even with our modern conveniences … heated car, warm house, plenty of groceries, etc., that deep chill can really make it seem like life is against you. (Honestly, how did our ancestors ever survive the Dark Ages? Imagine being sick, and having sick kids, in a hut where it’s not warm if you don’t keep building up the fire.)

With all of this, I haven’t exactly been tearing through the reading material. I do have a sizeable TBR of nonfiction … but even some of that, I wasn’t ready to face. I have a couple of nonfiction books about American Indians that promise to be eye-opening but depressing.

So I punted.

My nonfiction this past six weeks has been a reread, a book about the writing process (which is like candy!), and a journalistic book that goes down easy. Here they are.

The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers

A fantastic book about how the structure of the Trinity is reflected in the creative process. See my review here.

Rigged by Mollie Hemingway

A journalistic book that documents the various things that were done to ensure that T—- was not re-elected in 2020, including things like burying very incriminating evidence of B—–‘s corruption, changing (or ignoring) election laws in Pennsylvania, etc. I actually remember a lot of this stuff happening, because I get my news from the Daily Wire, although of course this book has more details, inside information, sources, etc. If you don’t get your news from the Daily Wire or a similar off-narrative outlet, it’s possible that the contents of this book might shock you. For me, it’s more of an entertaining ride, plus explanations of local election laws that a layperson can understand, plus just seeing that all this stuff is documented for posterity before it gets memory-holed.

I will probably give this book to someone as a gift later, but as per tradition, I must pre-read it first. (I haven’t decided who I will give it to, so if you clamor loudly, there’s chance that person could be you!)

Darwin on Trial by Philip Johnson

Here is the review I posted on Goodreads this week:

This is a reread. The first edition was published in 1991. I’ve read it a number of times over the years. This time, I got it out because my students are getting to the age when we are going to have to start wading in to these debates.

Johnson is a lawyer, so he has a sharp eye for spotting equivocations, ad hominems, and the unexamined philosophical assumptions behind even honestly made arguments. His writing is a pleasure to read. It’s a course in logic as well as a survey of the neo-Darwinian synthesis, or as he calls it, the Blind Watchmaker thesis. Now, on my third or fourth reading, I realize that I missed a lot on previous readings because there is just so much going on in this book. Also, perhaps, because when we are accustomed to hearing a debate framed in one way, it can be difficult to follow, on first reading, when someone frames it differently.

Scientific discoveries have changed a lot since Johnson wrote this book. The changes have not provided more evidence for the Blind Watchmaker thesis; quite the opposite. Soft tissue has been discovered in dinosaur fossils, for example. More and more “hominem” species that were thought to be sub-human have been discovered to have been, in fact, simply human. Stephen Meyer has published his books about the Cambrian explosion and the challenges it poses to the Blind Watchmaker thesis. Genetics gets more, not less, intricate the more closely it is studied. More “living fossils” have been found. However, the amazing thing is that none of this matters much to the thesis of Darwin on Trial. Johnson’s argument is that the Blind Watchmaker thesis is not an empirical claim that its adherents set out to test, but rather a philosophical position: a logical deduction from naturalism, or from strict materialism. To true believers in the Blind Watchmaker thesis, none of the discoveries I have mentioned will look like disconfirming evidence.

Book Review: The Mind of the Maker, by Dorothy Sayers

Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

Dorothy Sayers (1893 – 1957) was the author of the Lord Peter mystery series, numerous plays, and a translation of the Divine Comedy. She was part of the Christian literary flowering in the early 1900s which also encompassed T.S. Eliot, Charles Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. “She explored by-ways of knowledge, delighted in puzzles and enjoyed many a fight which she conducted with wit and good humour. Her formidable presence, magnificent brain and logical presentation put her in great demand as a lecturer.” (About Dorothy Sayers)

Me and Ms. Sayers

This particular book, The Mind of the Maker, turns out to have a personal history for me. I’ve been vaguely aware of it for years as a book “I really should read some time.” I first remember hearing it recommended by C.S. Lewis in one of his short apologetics books, where in the process of pointing out that any thinking about nonphysical things will necessarily be metaphorical, and that this does not mean that the thinker is taking the metaphor literally, he remarks that “anyone who wishes to think clearly about this topic must read The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers.”

My dad has a large personal library, and last year, while I was poking around in it looking to borrow some other book(s), I came upon TMoTM, and borrowed that one too. And lo and behold! According to the inscription on the inside cover, this very book was actually given to me by my dad, almost 30 years ago. Even back then he knew I was a creative writer, though at the time I was a very immature and inexperienced creative writer, and was apparently not ready for Sayers. I don’t know how TMoTM made it back into his library. Perhaps I left it there when I went off to university, or when I went to move overseas. Anway, now, after having done some living and some creating, I am ready for this magnificent work of Sayers’, and what a sweet reunion it has been.

I should mention that I have also read many of Sayers’ Lord Peter mysteries, which is helpful because she uses them as illustrations sometimes in The Mind of the Maker. I have not read her translation of The Divine Comedy.

A Must-Read for Artists

The first thing to know about this book is that it’s delightfully readable. Sayers was, after all, a good writer, and she had worked for some years in advertising. This book is full of bon mots, terrific quotes, and so forth, and in fact I plan to post quotes from it for a long time on the Thursday quotation post on Out of Babel. So, although the subject matter might seem kind of abstract, the book is not difficult to read or understand. If you want to read it, don’t be afraid: go ahead and read it. Ms. Sayers will not allow you to get lost or even bored.

The thesis of this book is easy to summarize, but hard to believe until you’ve seen it fleshed out. Ms. Sayers, an Anglican, asserts that we can understand the Mind of the Maker (i.e. God) by looking at the dynamics of the creative process in the minds of lesser makers (people, specifically creative artists). God is, after all, the ultimate creative artist. She talks about “the artist” a lot, but inevitably most of her examples are drawn from the art forms she knew best: novels and plays. Her insights about the creative process were instantly recognizable to this novelist.

Diving a little deeper, she maintains that we can understand the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity (yes, the Trinity) by looking at the dynamics of how an artist produces his or her work. The work itself, she says, is present in what you might call three persons. There is what she calls the Idea, which is the work as a whole, as author first envisions it when she “sees the end from the beginning.” Then there is the physical manifestation of the work (its incarnation, as it were), which is the only means by which any other person can know it. This is the physical book or play; and, in the case of a play, the stage, actors, costumes, etc. … the whole event. The process of converting the Idea into this physical form is hard work, and the artist carries it out by means of what Sayers calls Energy or Activity. Finally, there is the work as an experience that the reader or theater goer has as they read or hear the story. This too is the piece of art itself, and this Sayers calls the Power. Each of these states of the play or novel, Idea, Energy, and Power, can be legitimately said to be the entire play or novel, not just a part of it. Yet they can be distinguished from each other. All three have to be present if the reader is to have an experience of the novel, or the audience an experience of the play. In the Trinity, the Idea corresponds to the Father, the Energy to the Son or the Word, and the Power to the Holy Spirit.

I hope this does not sound blasphemous. As we read through the book, it is striking how well the dynamics of bringing a work of creative art into being parallel the doctrines of the Trinity, and help us to understand them. Sayers would say, of course, that this is no coincidence. It is because people are indeed made in the image of God, and when we engage in creative work, there is something in our structure that parallels His structure as a Maker.

There is, as you might expect, an interesting discussion of the process of the author creating characters that in some sense exist independently of herself, and how this relates to human free will.

Even if you are not interested in the Trinity, I recommend this book to any writer who wants to read the insights of another writer who is intimately familiar with reading and writing literature, including the dynamics of plotting and pantsing, and of being asked if your characters’ tastes and opinions are the same as your own and why you can’t “make X character do Y.” There are also some delightful examples of bad writing that Ms. Sayers quotes as she illustrates different ways in which the creative process can break down. I don’t know how relatable this book may be to artists in different media, such as music or visual arts, but I would encourage them to check it out as well.