Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Review: Turncoat by Steve Rzasa

Turncoat has the nugget of what could have been a great story in the David Weber style of military SF. The universe is decently, if tersely, drawn, the main dilemma/conflict interesting, and the base of the plot is a compelling one. Unfortunately the writing simply isn't strong enough to hold the weight of the needs of the story, turning what could have been great into a readable, but ultimately fairly dry story.

Turncoat is set in a future where posthumans (humans with machine enhancements) and machine intelligences are fighting a war against what they call attenuated humans - unmodified humans. In specific it follows Taren X 45 Delta - a machine intelligence whose body is a ship of war, as it makes the transition from a loyal warship of the posthumans to its final decision to switch sides and fight for the humans of the Ascendancy. That's a lot for one story to take on right there - it's a big universe, a big conflict, and a big transition for the protagonist. Not impossible as a writing task, but like most short stories, there's no room to waste if you want it to be both readable and compelling. Instead, Turncoat spends an awful lot of time detailing all the specifics of warfare - the physical details of ships, weaponry, placement, numbers - all the gory infodump of the space warfare geek - and ends up leaving out things like actual compelling writing about the protagonist's dilemma, mental state, decisions and all the things that would make the reader empathize with it, and understand why Taren X 45 Delta would choose to switch sides so drastically.

As a result we get a ship whose armaments we understand precisely, but who shifts from viewing its own post-human crew as annoying "symbiotic bacteria" that it has to tolerate, to defending their retention when its superiors provide an upgrade and remove them, to refusing to fire upon unenhanced human civilians, to switching its consciousness to control of a human battleship, in little jerks and tidbits of information interjected among the technical details. In the opening paragraphs, Taren X 45 Delta refers to its posthuman crew this way, "I must tolerate their presence inside my body, like symbiotic bacteria because, even though I am in command, I am not permitted to fly about the galaxy unchaperoned." Just a few minutes later, story-time - or about a half a page later in the story, he refers to them this way, "Everything about a man is dynamic. Short-lived and vulnerable, yes, but ever-changing. This is what makes me feel alive, to be in their presence." without any intervening commentary on its mental state. It's a pretty drastic jump to make just because.

Nearly every shift of attitude our protagonist makes is similar. There's no unfolding of a new view - it simply sees things differently with no apparent rhyme or reason. There's no sign of any affection or appreciation of any of its crew individually, no unfolding admiration for the enemy - just sudden shifts in view. The only motivations that seem to apply are a) a distaste for killing already defeated humans, and b) a dislike of a superior who threatens to erase our protagonist's consciousness if it keeps questioning its orders to kill defeated humans, and remove its posthuman crew. Even those aren't delved into with any great attention. "I run a rapid analysis of the pros versus the cons of having my entire operating system rebooted and my memory banks wiped. The outcome is decidedly in favor of the cons. Whatever remains, it will not be me." That's the sum total of our protagonist's reaction to a death threat. References to immersing in available data take the place of any actual showing of pondering problems and dilemmas.

If the story were about half again as long, it might have been able to bear up under the weight of all the technical detail. If the technical detail had been cut by 30-50%, there would have been room at this length to concentrate on the actual story of transformation that is the heart of the plot. Unfortunately, the author chose to do neither, and left himself no room to give the story what it most needed. It's not unreadable, but unless you love to geek out to ship specs, it's probably not going to grab you. It certainly didn't grab me.

Turncoat by Steve Rzasa (Castalia House)

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