Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"Threshold" by Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor

(cover shot borrowed from SF & F Books on Mars)

Threshold (2010) by Eric Flint and Ryk E. Spoor is the sequel to Boundary (2006), which I read before I started this blog (thus, no review). In the first book, shortly after an archaeologist discovers the fossilized remains of an alien, killed by dinosaurs 65 million years ago, a space probe to Mars discovers similar remains in an ruined base on Phobos. Immediately, the government sends a research team to check it out.

It's a great story, with Flint's trademark teamwork approach and optimistic outlook. However, most of the story occurs before the team gets to Mars, and it doesn't grab the reader as quickly as it could. And I'm afraid the characters aren't especially appealing, either. (I'll get to that below.)

Threshold has the same appeal and the same flaws. The Ares Project, the research team in the first book, is busy colonizing Mars, working with the United Nations, while there's a new space race among Earth nations. When Ares discovers a new alien base on the asteroid Ceres, complete with alien ship and fusion reactors, the European Union sends a ship to spy on them. And that leads to a race to Saturn and attacks that could mean the first interplanetary war.

Like Boundary, Threshold is slow-starting, but it really gets going in the second half of the book. For a space enthusiast, it seems really optimistic, too. Sure, all this technology is discovered in rather improbable alien ruins, but that's just how things can move so quickly. As long as it seems plausible, then we can assume we'd discover these things on our own, eventually. (Yes, this is fiction, but it's optimistic fiction.)

But with both books, I keep thinking that I really should like them more than I do. Oh, they're entertaining, and I'm sure I'll buy the final volume. But they really don't grab me like I'd expect. And I think the problem - as in Spoor's standalone novel, Grand Central Arena - is with the characters.

The heroes of these books are athletic, attractive over-achievers, superior in pretty much every way. They've definitely got "the right stuff," with seemingly no flaws at all. I can't dislike them, but I can't find them appealing, either. I just find it hard to really care about them. It's like reading a book about homecoming kings and queens who ended up meeting all the high expectations everyone had of them.

Now, I don't know how an author writes characters that I immediately like, characters who are so appealing I just can't stop reading, because I care so much what happens to them. If I did, maybe I'd be writing books instead of just reading them. But maybe I can give some examples.

Think about Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan. He's a military genius, a brilliant man with incredible talents. But he's also a weird-looking little runt with brittle bones, a man about as far from a recruiting poster version of a soldier as you can get, who's born on a military-mad planet - and one where mutants are feared and despised, as well.

If Miles looked like his cousin Ivan, he'd just be an obnoxious know-it-all. Well, he's still an obnoxious know-it-all, I suppose, but we really care about him.

In Eric Flint's 1632 series, Gretchen is a gorgeous blonde with an incredible body. She's also smart and determined, with an iron will. But when we first meet her, she's a camp follower, carrying a rapist's bastard, trying desperately to protect her "family," most of whom aren't related to her at all. Would we care as much for her if she'd been a lord's daughter, someone who'd had every advantage from birth?

Or look at Mike Stearns, from the same series. He's truly an exceptional man, a brilliant leader, strong, powerful, confident. But he was a black sheep when he was younger, returning home when his family needed him. Without the truly incredible event that began the series, he would have spent his whole life as just an ordinary miner and union negotiator - skilled, but nothing exceptional. Stearns was not destined for greatness, but he courageously rose to the challenge when he was needed.

I'm not saying that characters need flaws. Indeed, I'd be hard pressed to identify a flaw in Mike Stearns. But appealing characters overcome their disadvantages. In Boundary and Threshold, it's hard to find anyone with a disadvantage to overcome. None of them have nightmares that plague them during stressful times. None have risen from bleak beginnings. None turned their lives around, and none have accomplished the unexpected, because great things were probably always expected of them.

Indeed, when these characters have any unique characteristics at all, it's that they're also gourmet cooks or experts in unarmed combat, in addition to all their other skills. I don't know. Maybe it's the whole situation. The first people on Mars are likely to be truly exceptional people, without a single flaw anywhere. That's quite true. But as characters, they're just not especially appealing.

As I noted, I had a similar problem with Grand Central Arena. I hated to say it, and I hate to say it here, because there's so much I like about these books. In so many ways, they're just what I'm looking for in science fiction. But characters - appealing characters, people that I can really, really care about - are so important to me in any work of fiction.

And,... OK, as long as I'm being critical, I might as well add that I didn't much like the bad guys in Threshold, either. First of all, you don't need highly capable bad guys - super-villains - in a story, because it's usually easy enough for dumb incompetents to cause harm. Just look at any drive-by shooting. And a really capable man who's especially good at his job is probably going to enjoy his work and have his pick of lucrative assignments. So why wouldn't he be happy with that?

And so you're left with a sociopath as an enemy, and I've never liked that. I guess it seems too easy, maybe. Or too random. Or... I don't know. But give me a better reason than that, please! The fact is, I always preferred Hal Clement's idea, that the universe makes a perfectly adequate villain. And indeed, that was exactly the case in Boundary. It could easily have been the same way in Threshold, especially given all the alien technology they were using.

I'm sure I'm sounding more critical than I mean to be. But if there wasn't so much to like here, I wouldn't be so disappointed in its flaws. Well, I will freely admit that these might not be flaws for anyone else. Characters just happen to be hugely important to me, and I have some real pet peeves, too. But my pet peeves might not be yours.

And consider this: I'm still buying this series in hardcover, and I'm not waiting until I can buy used books, either. So that must tell you something. As I say, there's a lot to like here.


Anonymous said...

Well, it's hard to argue with a review that ends with "and I'm still buying them in hardcover". :) In the end, a reader voting with hardcover dollars is obviously getting his money's worth in SOME fashion, and -- as I know well -- it's ALWAYS a lot easier to write about the stuff that bugs you than about the stuff that doesn't. Thanks again for reading!

Chimeradave said...

Think the first book deserves a nomination for next year's group reads?

The hardest part is only being able to nominate a handful of books each year, right?

WCG said...

Well, Ryk, I'm glad it's not just me, since yes, I find it much easier to write about stuff that bugs me. And I don't like to put spoilers in my reviews, so that limits what I can say about the plot.

Still, this is the kind of book I'd really like to see more of. It's optimistic near-future science fiction, the kind of book that shows us our gloomy expectations aren't inevitable. Just a few scientific breakthroughs - heck, just fusion power alone - could change our outlook dramatically.

PS. I'm glad to see you commenting here again, but man, you must have a thick skin if you search out all the reviews of your books! After all, critics are likely to be critical. What we can't do ourselves, we find easy to pick apart when someone else does it.

And John, you're right that it's hard to nominate just a handful of books for the ClassicScienceFiction group. And I tend to shy away from nominating the first book in a trilogy, even when it can stand on its own.

So I really don't know which books I'll nominate for next year's reads. (As I recall, neither of my modern SF nominations this year made it through the voting process, although I had better luck on the classic side.)

Sea Wasp (Ryk E. Spoor) said...

Coming back to this after a while, I just wanted to let you know that the third book in the series, _Portal_, is coming out next year (around May), and wraps the trilogy up.

Yes, I have to have a thick skin. But I also WANT to see the bad reviews. I mean, I don't want there to BE bad reviews, but if there are, I want to know what's being said. Sometimes, of course, it just boils down to "I didn't like this book because it turned out to be the kind of book I hate"; that's not terribly useful to me, but also isn't particularly bothersome.

The bad reviews I *do* want to read are those that point out actual weaknesses in the books -- even ones that I may have deliberately accepted, but more the ones I may not notice. Doesn't mean I can always *fix* the problems ... some of my writing works a certain way because I write that particular way and I'm unlikely to change it... but it helps to know what flaws I should be watching for. (just found another new review on Grand Central Arena that hit all of those points, but balanced it with seeing the positive sides which made it easier to read)

It also helps keep me in perspective. I love gushing reviews, but too many of those and I might start thinking I was better than I really am.

(BTW, if you like epic fantasy at all, my new book _Phoenix Rising_ just came out this month)

Sorry I didn't get back on this one right away. Thanks for reading! :)

WCG said...

Welcome back, Ryk. And yes, I've been keeping an eye on your upcoming books. I see you've written a sequel to Grand Central Arena, too - at least, according to Wikipedia. When will that be published?

One thing to keep in mind here is that tastes vary. In our SF discussion group, that's abundantly clear. We all love science fiction, but we have different tastes.

Some people love books that I hate, and vice versa. Some people have tastes similar to mine - though never identical - so I pay more attention to their recommendations. Others, well, we agree sometimes, but not nearly as often.

But it's all good. After all, fiction is inherently subjective. I express my opinions here - rather more critically than I'd be face-to-face - but they are just my opinions, my tastes.

So just because I have a problem with something, that doesn't mean other people will. I know you understand that, and I think your potential readers do, too.

Sea Wasp (Ryk E. Spoor) said...

_Spheres of Influence_, the sequel to Grand Central Arena, will *probably* be out around this time next year. I say "probably" because I turned in the (hopefully) final version around the beginning of this month and it usually takes about one year for books to work their way through the process).

Oh, obviously tastes vary. And a good thing too; if everyone liked the same thing, most writers would be screwed, except That One Guy who wrote what everyone liked. :)

I like your reviews, actually, even though my ego might prefer a bit more focus on the stuff that you liked; you obviously READ the books, pay attention to what I'm doing, and your critiques are interesting and usually reasonably on-target -- even if sometimes what bothers you is simply a matter of the choices I've made.

I have a few readers who think I pretty much do everything right, a lot of them that think I do it "good enough", and of course quite a few one-time readers who think I'm an incompetent who shouldn't have been given the opportunity to kill so many trees. This is all an author can really hope for. :)