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Elizabeth Moon: Patrick O’Brian, But In Space

Years ago, I stalked the scifi section of a Barnes and Noble, seeking and not finding anything of interest. An older gentleman, in his 70s or thereabouts, had been browsing in the same area and finally asked me what I was looking for.

“I don’t know…I’d like to read something by a female author but they all tend to be…” I made a face.

The man nodded. “You want Elizabeth Moon, then,” he said, matter-of-factly, then glanced at the shelf. “Hm. They don’t have her here, but the next time you get a chance, definitely look her up. She’s fantastic. You prefer science fiction, or fantasy?”

“Fantasy, mostly…”

“Ah, well, her first books were fantasy, but they’re hard to find now. Paksenarrion ring a bell? No? Well, even if you’re not such a fan of scifi, I’d give her a try.”

In the summer of 2008, I did find Elizabeth Moon in a mainstream bookstore, and sheltered for 30 minutes in the cool of the air-conditioning to read the first chapter of Trading In Danger. Despite my reservations about the cheesy scifi paperback cover that made me feel vaguely like a trekkie, I enjoyed those 30 minutes. Kylara Vatta, our heroine, was no twit, and she had more important things on her mind than batting her eyelashes or texting her friends. But since I was due to leave the country in around a month, spending even the extra few dollars seemed foolish in the face of a vast sea of unknown expenses, and I put the book back on the shelf and forgot all about it.

Flash forward to three years later, and I am shuffling disconsolately through the stacks at Dawn Treader, recently divested of a master’s program with little to show for it and generally feeling impoverished and unemployable. The scifi section at Dawn Treader is by far the best part of the place; it’s right under the skylight so there’s always warm natural light pouring in, and it’s at the very back of the store so it’s quiet and relatively untrafficked. I plonk myself down on a stool to rest and there, right in front of me, is the collected trilogy of The Deed of Paksenarrion. And next to it are the piles of cheesy scifi paperbacks, one of which turns out indeed to be Trading in Danger, which I proceeded to read for the next hour.

The first page of the book opens with the Vatta girl getting kicked out of the space military academy for some diplomatic scandal that wasn’t her fault. She is shipped home embittered, betrayed, and feeling like she has wasted all those years she spent studying hard and earning top marks. Needless to say this is exactly what I wanted to be reading right at that moment. I skipped to the front of the bookstore, only to see behind the counter the same man who had advised me to read Moon in the first place, three years ago.

“Elizabeth Moon–she’s fantastic!”

“Yes…someone told me that once…” I murmured, surprised but unwilling to try and get him to remember something he likely couldn’t.

“Have you read any of her others? She’s got several series…the characters she puts in there are just great, all of them. Let’s see, who’s in this one? The Vattas? Oh, you’ll like them. Espeically Grandma–Moon does some awesome characters.”

I nodded, and though he handed me the book for free–I didn’t have enough cash on me, and it was too small a purchase to ring to a card–I ran to the bank first thing to pay him back. The same guy! Maybe he was in B&N scoping out the competition, I don’t know. But I’d recognize him anywhere; I keep track of the very few  You Can Always Depend On The Kindness Of Strangers moments I have.

Elizabeth Moon is fantastic, whether or not you feel like an embittered Kylara Vatta. Moon is an ex-marine and the reviews on the backs of all her books praise the realism of the military experience she gives her characters. And they all have it–whether Pakesenarrion in the fantastical Deeds series, or any of her (female) space marines, or the ex-military civ trader Vatta books. She spends less time spewing pomp and circumstance and more time–tons more time–focusing on the complexities of making ship life work. Keeping systems up, food up, negotiating pirates and greedy harbormasters and faulty signals and mercenaries unwilling to be blamed for terrorist activities they weren’t, this time, a part of–all this comes into play. And she sacrifices neither the humanity nor femininity of her characters. Just because Vatta is ex-military doesn’t make her a cold-hearted killer, but neither does she fancy spending the rest of her life drifting between being knocked-up and transporting children to toddler space soccer. Vatta’s got more in mind for her life, and Moon makes getting there enjoyable. We don’t have to suffer, for example, through excruciatingly detailed descriptions of wisps of hair plastered to sweaty foreheads as difficult decisions are made on the bridge. I don’t give a damn how wispy people’s hair looks; I want to know if they’re going to be able to recover control of their hacked ship before they run out of fuel, and she tells us.

I do tend not to be interested in space stories, and I think my persistent interest in Moon’s tales tells me why:  most of scifi authors are too busy trying to get you excited about SPAAAAAACE to make you at all interested in the humans navigating that space. They’re too busy yapping about five-armed aliens or furry toads who play trombones on lousy off-planet bars to make you care about the patrons in the bar. But with Moon, space is just the setting for a series of circumstances and acting players that resemble Patrick O’Brian’s series in no small way. The laws are important, the contracts and the clashes, but all this information is framed as information that has already shaped the worlds the characters live in for quite some time. We don’t get dumped with a pile of space codes and regulations, because all of the characters would know said rules, and when breaches in them come to us it is as nonstandard to us as if we too had known them the whole time. Primarily because they make sense. Diplomatic and legal entanglements, compensation for being forced to transport prisoners, the laws surrounding the tugging of a wreck–this is stuff that is logical in space or out. The only difference between this and the Mediterranean is the z-axis, really.

(Which raises a question I’ve always had about space travel–would people think about it as up or down, of course not in official terms but even in their heads, if they came of age in a world where tons-of-lightyears jumps were common? While technically this or that galaxy would be “above” or “below” you, would you even think in that way, when you’re steering your ship through a gravityless void, and where going from point A to point B, even without the jumps, would not make it plain to those in the ship on the artificial gravity that you are turning up or down?)

Dad, I recall what you liked best about Battlestar Galactica was that it seemed that some people with military pasts or interests had informed a large part of the script. You should read Elizabeth Moon. She’s cool in that way, too.

One response »

  1. Rick Wright

    Hmmmmmmmmmm…sounds interesting.


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