Thursday, January 22, 2009

Short SF Review #1: "Roachstompers"

Nota bene: The post below first went live on a previous weblog of mine, which has since pixellated into the electronic aether, in September 2007. I republish it here with minor additions.

I've got a thing for short stories. As I would very much like to be writing them for money in the near future I'm considering putting down my used bookstore purchases as "employment research" once tax time comes around. One of the recent additions to my accumulation of shelves is Baen Books' New Destinies: Volume VIII, published in the autumn of 1989. I bought it mainly for the cover - a huge fire-breathing dragon viewed from inside a fighter jet's cockpit.

Not only do I love that sort of genre-mashing stuff, it has a fair chance of making mundane sf purists' heads disintegrate, and I love that as well.

In this review, the first of what I hope to be many, I'll be looking at one of the seven short stories in New Destinies VIII, "Roachstompers" by S.M. Stirling. I'm well aware of the maxim that the technical definition for a person who confuses the opinions of an author's fictional characters for the opinions of the author is "an idiot," but in this case, considering the greater context of reality, I think I'm justified in feeling a bit sandpaper-rubbed by it.

As far as times go, the late 80s and early 90s weren't bad ones to live through, and I mean that in terms of not just experiencing them but surviving them. That intersection of decades was, I think, the last time the world was close to going through a deliberate nuclear war, rather than one started on the say-so of bogus radar contacts and Norwegian rocket tests. Living as we do in the time of wars on terror and the steady crumbling of the last superpower standing, it's almost a different world - especially for me, considering that my tenth birthday was in 1992.

"Roachstompers" starts with the 1989 we know and runs off in a direction drastically different from the course history ultimately took. In its universe, the cold fusion process demonstrated by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann in March of that year produced actual, immediate, and reproducible results. The story is set in a darkly futuristic 1998 that bears little resemblance to the one I grew up in, where the Soviet Union still exists and the development of cold fusion has cut the knees off every petroeconomy in the world. Oil can be got at fifty cents per barrel there, but the price was a global economic meltdown that makes the Great Depression look like a warm bath by comparison.

When I first started reading the story, those limited clues I got from the first couple of pages made me think that I was dealing with some kind of alien invasion scenario. Any thoughts I had of good old-fashioned Earth justice were forced to their knees and shot in the neck when, beyond wonderfully dehumanizing terms like "illigs" or the characters' standby, "cucuroaches," it's made clear that the story revolves around a quasi-military unit that exists to keep the southern US border sealed against the armies of desperate souls trying to escape the hell Mexico has become.

The story itself pulls no punches, and is greatly informed by the biases of the protagonist, Captain Laura Hunter, who struck me as familiar when I first read it through. In retrospect Hunter feels like a prototype of Marian Alston, an equally hard-ass, tough-as-nails female military protagonist character that Stirling would introduce nine years later in Island in the Sea of Time.

Still, even though I can accept that the narrator is perched on Hunter's shoulder and giving us a digest of the world as she sees it, I can't help but think that the story is a bit casual in its slaughter of starving Mexican refugees, and in fact it seems a lot like a post-industrial Edisonade. It relies for its conflict upon the same sort of "surrounded by barbarians" mentality that was used with far greater justification in the ISOT series.

Granted, the end of the story wasn't what I was expecting at all, and I like the way Stirling pulls the rug out from under my feet, and "Roachstompers" was a well-written piece of work. If it had ended there, I would have just moved on - but it doesn't end there. The context of reality intrudes. I can't help but be skeeved out every time I think of it - mostly because of an opinion Stirling expressed on the Usenet newsgroup soc.history.what-if, and later ended up defending in a boondoggle of a thread on, with regard to how he might achieve peace in the Middle East.

Date: Fri Jan 22, 1999 5:08pm
Subject: Re: Agree to Disagree

In a message dated 1/22/99 2:41:00 PM Mountain Standard Time,

mralls@w... writes:

Let's say you have a magic button in front of you. If you push it, it will kill every Islamic person (using your definition of Islamic vs post-Islamic) on the planet. Do you push it?

-- we're talking adults here? Hmmm. Well, if it's _male_ adults, like a shot.

The thread in question is available here. Personally, I feel that Randy McDonald's response says all that needs to be said.

I don't think there's much more that can be said - aside from the fact that I don't care what the introduction to Conquistador said - except that I think "Roachstompers" skeeves me out with good reason.

1 comment:

  1. as all the bands of that age Roachstompers start with a huge success, but for disgrace time kill everything, and in this occassion, was a victim that many miss until now.