How I got into Gothic fiction: Getting out of your comfort zone

Two or three years ago, for whatever reason, I felt compelled to read Dracula. Now I’ve never been a huge fan of classic fiction (though I’ve read plenty and enjoyed some) or of horror (though I’ve tried and enjoyed less than classic fiction). But hey – it’s one of those books that any real SFF fan should at least consider reading.

I was glad I did. Though it was a bit of a slog at first, once I got used to the style, it was enjoyable if slowly-paced. Not only was it interesting to get a look at an older portrayal of the modern vampire, but it was informative to note the differences between the source and the stereotypical Dracula character. For instance, he could of course transform into a bat, but he could also turn into a wolf, and indeed had power over all manner of “creatures of the night.” Though there was a seductive element to his powers, he wasn’t a suave Adonis. Rather, he was an old mustachioed man with stinky breath.


Gleaning the older source material and inspirations for contemporary Scifi-Fantasy has become a pleasurable pursuit. My foray into Appendix N has been part of this, but that’s just one small component, one nook.

My next encounter with Gothic horror was prompted by HP, who was reading Frankenstein for Halloween. This one went down a little easier because of my experience reading Dracula. Although once again the pacing felt a bit slow (which may be characteristic of the genre or the times), I felt much less impeded by the old-style prose. Frankenstein was an interesting read, indeed, for the changes and inaccuracies he and his monster have suffered at the hands of Hollywood and successive lazy writers are particularly notable.


Recently I’ve been reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which is a much shorter book. Although it’s not my usual cup of tea, I find myself acquiring a taste for the flavor. And so I’m glad I stepped out of my comfortable zone when I did and opened myself up to a type of story I had little interest in. There’s a lot to be appreciated here!





Asimov was an asshat, but so what?

Time to write another tedious defense piece. But I feel compelled to argue with people on the internet – thus is my curse.

I’m not going to go into an explanation of the Pulp Revolution right now (though that warrants a post in the near future), but suffice it to say there is a growing contingent of bloggers, tweeters, indie authors, podcasters, and literary critics who have come to know and love classic and pulp Scifi/Fantasy. Like any group of enthusiasts, we spend a lot of time chewing the cud. When we’re not reading or writing, we tend to be reviewing, discussing, and/or trying to preach the gospel.

And while the other activities in which we engage can contribute to the last one, I think spreading our message and drawing new fans into the fold is the most valuable service we can render. I suppose we go about this in different ways. I see positivity and enthusiasm as the most effect recruiting tools. When I found the Cirsova blog and then Jeffro’s, I felt like I’d struck gold. Here were a couple of guys who clearly loved the stuff they were writing about, and it was infectious. Jack Vance sounded awesome, and as a result I wanted to read him.

Now if the first blog posts I had come across at those two excellent destinations had been about how Harry Potter is trash, or maybe a top ten list of overrated authors listing five of my favorites, well, fair or not I probably would have been turned off and clicked away. And then, because I am a frail human being who is susceptible to hurt feelz, I would have lost out. My awakening to the classics could have been prevented (or thanks to Kaiju’s influence, perhaps just delayed). In most cases, shitting on something that someone likes isn’t going to attract them to try out your brand.

And so I first put forward that we as a movement and even as individuals are at our best when we’re touting the great and the good. Criticism and righteous indignation of course have their place. But if we want to draw more people to us – not just the disillusioned scifi fans of decades gone by, but fresh blood robbed of this stuff by the SFF generational gap – let us also exercise restrain and thoughtfulness. If you see yourself as a solider in a literary war, I’m not proposing you offer your enemy succor. Rather I am pointing out that when throwing bombs or fireballs, you may not have full view of the blast radius. If that doesn’t give you pause, or if you deem the payoff greater than the risk, or if flinging fireballs just feels good and you don’t care because they have it coming, well. Not much I can do about it – wage on, I guess.

So let’s get to the title of this particular post.

Among some fans of older SFF, Asimov has been a popular punching bag for a while. They say he doesn’t deserve to be called one of the “Big Three” scifi writers. They say that the Golden Age of scifi is a misnomer. And you know, I don’t disagree.

Well, some of my Pulp Rev friends have been taking a turn with Asimov. Some people are even writing stories about the evils of his ilk. And you know what? We’re each entitled to our own opinions.

I think the grievances being put forth against Asimov can pretty much be condensed thusly:

  1. He was a pompous asshole
  2. His name has been undeservedly hoisted above better writers
  3. He was a godless leftist punk
  4. His stories didn’t uphold traditional heroics
  5. His stories were boring and he was untalented


As to the first accusation, I would say that from what I’ve read and gathered, this is the case. But so what? Most typical SFF fans don’t go digging for quotes and manifestos and essays. They want to read an entertaining story, and being an asshole doesn’t disqualify one from spinning a good yarn.


Second – this is also probably true, but difficult to objectively prove. Maybe an argument can be made based on sales numbers or some such metric, but this would be a purely quantitative indicator. Though I agree with this second statement, I wouldn’t assert it as fact.

Third – Again, yes. But again, how does this matter? There were godless, leftist punks whom the Pulp Rev crew likes. I like to point to Fritz Leiber.

Fourth – This is true, and a great argument for why you don’t like Asimov, or how he’s brought down the genre. But does it lessen his writing talent or the impact he’s had upon science fiction? I’d say not. And while many of us may prefer stories with a traditional good guy who beats the bad guy and gets the girl, there are other forms of entertainment. Silence of the LambsBreaking BadThe SopranosScarfaceOcean’s ElevenFight Club; Beetlejuice. There are plenty of popular stories and characters that don’t conform to the formulas we most enjoy.

Fifth – This is purely subjective. Many people, including myself, have enjoyed some of his stories. “A fan of the pulps cannot enjoy Asimov’s garbage” you may say. Then how do you explain me? I am a fan of the early Foundation books and the Daneel Olivaw/Elijah Bailey stories.

To me, the war between pulpy, actiony raygun romance and hard SFF is asinine. It’s like telling someone they can only like hard-boiled detective crime fiction or else legal thriller, but not both. One cannot enjoy both epic fantasy and fairy stories.

Say what you will about Asimov, but his writing was interesting enough that he still has many fans.

The fact that Asimov was a petty, obnoxious, intellectual, craphead of a man doesn’t matter to people who just want to read a fun scifi story. I’ve read that Lovecraft held and voiced many anti-black and anti-Catholic opinions. But that doesn’t make the Cthulhu mythos any less cool. Nor should it. I hold the same to be true for Asimov. Where a sharp mind (probably honed by regular political and literary analysis) may see Foundation as a story of an intellectual class lording over a people incapable of ruling itself – the ultimate elitist big government! – others of us just see a future story with cool fake science, planning, and problem solving. Doesn’t have to be sinister.

If the messaging you dislike is in your face, I can understand and respect taking a pass. No one wants to fork over their cash to someone who’s spitting in their face. But for many of us, Asimov and a lot of these writers aren’t in our faces. Maybe that’s because we’re blissfully unaware, but you know what they say about ignorance.

If you don’t enjoy Asimov because you find his stories boring or overbearing or loaded, I can understand that. But that doesn’t make him a bad writer, nor unworthy of literary accolade and recognition. For my part, I find Stephen King to be highly overrated. I found the Stand, for example, to be way too much buildup for a disappointingly paltry payoff. But I also recognize that he’s a SFF giant, and I’m not about to tell millions of people that they’re wrong and I know better. Just rubs me the wrong way.

And putting my money where my mouth is, I guess now I have to acknowledge that, HP, the Force Awakens isn’t garb. I simply didn’t care for it, on the whole. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


Update (9/28/17): Related.





Into the Dying Earth

It’s been a long time coming – I’ve finally gotten underway on Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth.


Having sampled the first entry of his Demon Princes series and the standalone the Gray Prince, and noting that he’s perhaps best known for Dying Earth…well, I’ve wanted to read it for quite a while, and it’s been perched near atop of my queue for some time now. But I kept veering off to read something less widely-reviewed or topical of conversations being had within the online SFF community. No further delay can be abided!

Tales of the Dying Earth is a collection of Vance’s four Dying Earth books – The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel’s Saga, and Rialto the Magnificent. The contained stories take place on an ancient, decaying Earth far in the future. Although related to and maybe overlapping with the “post-apocalyptic” tag, these tales properly fall into a subgenre named after Vance’s creation – “dying earth.”

Vance’s Dying Earth draws heavy inspiration from Clark Ashton Smith’s contribution to the genre in the Zothique cycle. I haven’t read any of his stuff yet, but soon enough.


What I have read of CAH’s work suggests that he’s another one of the greats that’s fallen into unjust obscurity. Together with Robert E Howard and HP Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith was a contributor to the Cthulu Mythos and one of the “big three” of Weird Tales magazine. If cosmic horror is your jam, he’s required reading.

I believe Kaiju is going though some of Smith’s material now. For my part, I’m hoping soon to dig into Zothique – the tales of an earth on its last legs. Technology has been lost, the sun has dimmed and reddened, and horrors roam the world. Sounds fun.

So far this is also the flavor of Vance’s Dying Earth. Ghosts and demons abound, and men scrape for wealth and power. Technology is lost and magic, while common, is on the decline. As for horrors, well.

Chun the Unavoidable is a scary guy.

The Dying Earth and Zothique make me think of Final Fantasy VI. Though the SNES classic initially presents more of a post-apocalyptic world than a dying one, there are many similarities.

FFVI’s protagonists encounter all manner of terrible and demonic creatures; abominations; cultists; crazed sorcerers and evil horrors. So too is the world littered with bits of forgotten and ruined technology and proofs of lost magic and powerful artifacts. Espers take the place of gods and demons, though ultimately in a sadder, more servile role.

Image Source


After the collapse of the floating continent and Kefka’s rise to small “g” godhood, the world is changed. The seas become blighted and the land wastes and new terrors are unleashed upon the earth. Strange cults arise. A horrible demon even roams the skies.


The reach of the dying earth subgenre extends far and is observable in all manner of succeeding media.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that Jack Vance and the Dying Earth are cool. Clark Ashton Smith is cool. Final Fantasy VI is cool. And you, friends – you are cool.




In Defense of Harry Potter

I know, I know – does Harry Potter really need defending? Well, I’ll get to that.

First of all, hat tip to Jeffro for picking this up on his Google+ page. ClarkHat of former Popehat fame periodically includes nerdy bits and bobs like SFF books and movies in his tweets. Recently, he went off on Harry Potter.

You can read the whole chain here. Now that’s fine. And I have also noticed that there are many on the left who seem convinced not only that everything in politics can be accurately compared to Harry Potter or Star Wars, but that those who disagree with them are Voldemort/The Empire/The First Order.

I’m going to leave Star Wars alone for now, as my thoughts and feelings on that particular property are tangled and complex. As for Harry Potter – yes, JK Rowling is a leftist. That in and of itself isn’t, or shouldn’t, be disqualifying to those of us on the other side of the political spectrum.

After all, Asimov was a leftist and he wrote lots of great stuff. Ok, perhaps he’s a bad example, as Asimov is also much-maligned in certain conservative literary circles. How about Fritz Leiber or Michael Moorcock? Of course individual tastes vary, but these two are honored by broad swathes of pulp and classic SFF fans. And you know what? Lefties.

Now one might argue that Leiber and Moorcock didn’t push their politics in their works. I’ve only sampled a smattering of each, but I believe I can safely say the influence of their own values and beliefs was no more obliquely impactful on their storytelling than it was in Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

Hell, in Leiber’s Gather, Darkness!, the “good guys” are a bunch of faux-Satanist revolutionaries fighting against the evil Church. If you think Harry Potter is subversive and riddled with liberal messaging, I say this – at least the story is coherent and well-written, and the insidious messages well-couched.

For my part, I don’t think Harry Potter preaches liberal values. Sure, there are messages about inclusion and diversity, but these are only harmful ideas when taken to the extremes, which we can observe today in the modern Left. Dumbledore being gay? This was something Rowling commented on outside of the books. The great wizard’s sexuality was of no importance to the story and was rightly left alone in the text.

As to Clark’s takeaway, I fail to see how this is unique to Harry Potter. Children’s literature is littered with “special” children who have adventures. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe features four such. A Wrinkle in Time does, as well. It’s no sin to conjure up an imaginary world in which you are special, privy to some magical powers or swept up by fortuitous and extraordinary circumstances. And Rowling was hardly the first to image what a children’s school of magic would be like.

Harry Potter has such a long and fleshed out universe that you can look to draw any number of lessons from its text. There are plenty of conservative ones ripe for the picking, as well!

How about Ron’s twin brothers Fred and George, who drop out of school and start their own small business, which through hard work develops into a wild success?

And although Harry is financially well-to-do, thanks to his inheritance, and a celebrity to boot, what is it that he really wants? We’re shown that. Above all else, he wants a family. His wealth and “specialness” is beside the point. And as HP pointed out (see below), once you venture down that path, LoTR isn’t all about the “common man” as the hero, either.

From those hardcore fans of the pre-80’s stuff, we often hear that too much SFF today lacks action and romance. Well Harry Potter has both. Granted, the series blazes a path from children’s story to young adult, to (arguably) adult fantasy, so you won’t find too much romance in the earlier books. But as the story progresses, it’s there.

Incidentally, another complaint I’ve seen of late is that too many SFF covers feature people standing around just looking cool, without any kind of action or interesting activity going on. Well, there are a few of those in the HP series, granted. But then there have been a lot of dynamic ones.


I guess what I’m driving at is that I don’t really get the ideological divide on Harry Potter, and I think it’s a flawed perspective. Sure, we can pick apart the messages a given story may or may not tell; as readers and critics, that’s what we do. But not everything in a story is a hidden nugget of gold or a landmine to be discovered. Great writers concern themselves with telling good stories foremost. It’s natural that to some extent their values will shine through. But I also believe that truth is observable in the imperfect, and we can find conservative messages even in “liberal art.” Beyond that, I’m content to separate a creator’s politics and works.

Brian Niemmer offers a different viewpoint on this conversation over at his blog.

Update: After some conversation in the comment section, I just want to add a note to make sure I’m not misrepresenting Brian — he says that he agrees with Clark on a micro level regarding the tendencies of liberals to prefer Harry Potter and conservatives Tolkien, but is not suggesting that all Harry Potter fans are entitled snowflakes or anything of that nature. I probably should have engaged with him on social media to confirm that he wasn’t indeed adopting such a facile position, and for that, mea culpa. I don’t think Clark was really making such a broad generalization either, but I still think it’s a topic worthy of discussion.

Anyway, a certain comment on Brian’s blog posted by anome stood out to me:


Exactly. We decry the expulsion of many of the great classic and pulp writers from modern SFF. Is the answer, therefore, to shun and batter down the stories told by those we don’t like, regardless of the quality of their works? I too am wary of being thrust into the “gatekeeper” role, and of those who would install themselves into it. But I suppose when you write reviews and share your opinions, it can become a tricky act.

The bottom line for me is this – there’s no accounting for taste, and we all like what we like. There are some who prefer newer or older works, or confine themselves to a particular genre or subgenre. To each his own. I just personally find it in poor taste to categorically dismiss something without having given it a chance, or to mock those who enjoy something you don’t (within reason, of course; feel free to mock me for the many hours I’ve squandered playing Mount and Blade).

I have a feeling I’m going to garner a reputation for being that contrarian jackass who rips on his allies as often as his antagonists. Sorry, friends. Brace yourselves for the post in which I explain why you’re all wrong about Star Trek Voyager, which was actually the best of the Star Trek series. It’s coming.





A winner is me

So last month Andrea over at the Little Red Reviewer did a “Blind date with a Vintage Book giveaway.” I never win these things, but I threw my name in for three interesting-looking, eligible books. And lo, I won! My prize just arrived yesterday.


Aaand the reveal…


Wasn’t familiar with Vinge, but she looks to have earned some accolades in her time, and a dedication from Heinlein in one of his books. Goood, good. Another one for the queue!

Once again, thanks to Andrea, and go check out her blog!





De Camp’s Tritonian Ringer



Last month, HP (over at Every Day Should Be Tuesday) and I agreed to read the same book for Vintage Scifi Month and do our respective write-up things. Well I’ve finished, and I think once again my feelings diverge somewhat from HP’s. It’s ok, though; he’s an attorney, so I’m sure he’s used to friendly disagreement.

So before delving into my impressions, I recommend you go check out HP’s review, which was first published over at Castalia House.

I also invite you to read what Fletcher Vrendenburgh had to say at Black Gate. I think his feelings skew closer to my own, though I probably fall somewhere between him and HP.

If you’re aching for more and can still stomach reading my thoughts afterwards, there’s a great review at Grognardia from a few years ago, too.

Let’s try doing things a little differently this time — I’ll lead with an overall rating and then dig into the spoilery detailed thoughts. Here we go:

3/5 – recommended with some qualifiers

So calling the Tritonian Ring a “ringer” isn’t really fair, I suppose. I don’t think it’s a bad book, and it certainly falls in the SFF category. It’s popularly considered to be a “sword and sorcery” entry, though I’m not quite sure that’s accurate. It’s kind of heroic fantasy, but without the heroic element. If a book could be categorized as “sword and sandal,” Tritonian Ring would fit into that box.

De Camp is a somewhat controversial literary figure for his treatment of Robert E Howard’s Conan property. For my part, I have thus far limited myself to reading only original, name-band REH Conan stories (accept no substitutes), so I can only repeat what others have alleged: namely that while de Camp loved the Conan stories, he also found them lacking and disagreed with the underpinnings of REH’s storytelling.

In the Tritonian Ring, we get de Camp’s version of what a Bronze Age fantasy yarn should be. If you’re looking for a wondrous, weird, action-oriented tale in the vein of the Hyborian Age, well…there’s some of that. But this doesn’t quite hit the mark.


*Beware: There Be Spoilers Here*


Let’s start with my two major complains about the Tritonian Ring, which aren’t unique ones:

1. De Camp was a scholar and and a pedant. This isn’t an entirely bad thing (I’ll come back to this), but it makes for some tedious and confusing world building at times.

2. Despite his association with Fantasy, de Camp was a materialist. As a result, he seemed unable to restrain himself in poking fun of his own fantasy world. We’re left with a setting and characters that are alternatingly brutal and silly.

Unfortunately these issues became apparent immediately. Actually I wasn’t at first sure whether de Camp was making fun of the genre or was just info-dumping (like an academician, not a skilled fiction writer).

On the first two pages, the following are introduced or namedropped:

Drax, the Tritonian war god

Entigta, the Goronian sea god


King Zoser

The continent of Poseidonis

The kingdom of Lorsk

King Ximenon

Okma, the Poseidonian god of wisdom

Pusad, an alternate name for Poseidonis

King Zhabutir of Lorsk

Prince Kuros of Lorsk

Prince Vakar of Lorsk

The Coranians

Tandyla, another god of Poseidonis

Lyr, another god of Poseidonis

The city Sederado

The nation of Ogugia

The Hesperides

Queen Porfia

Minister Garal

A man named Vancho

Now I’m just a simple man of humble intellect, but I’m a relatively experienced reader. And my head was spinning after reading of all these people and places. Where the hell was the narration going? Which of these names were important? Was I supposed to remember them all for later?

This wasn’t just an early bump in the road, but a recurring trend. Take a look at this page below:

After a while, I started to ignore the names of people and places and languages unless I noticed them repeating (and then I sometimes forgot their initial context). I understand that de Camp was trying to build a full, cogent world here, but it often wasn’t very skillfully executed. A good writer shows us his world through his characters; he doesn’t read us maps and almanac entries. Or if he must, he spaces it out and lets his readers absorb.

Now so far as the story goes, we’ve essentially got a “McGuffin quest”, as HP puts it. A gamer might be more familiar with the term “fetch quest.” Vakar, our royal protagonist, must set out to identify and obtain a mysterious magical item feared by the gods in order to save his nation. Well and good.

De Camp’s Bronze Age setting is interesting when we are shown and not exposited at. Technology and civilization are primitive. Military tactics are all but undeveloped, the chariot seems to be the height of transportation, and iron for all purposes undiscovered. A note on that last part — I never put together that the “star metal” was in fact iron, and so iron is the death of magic and old gods. I’m a little disappointed that I missed this interesting and layered element of the story, but glad to have come across the observation in the Grognardia review linked above.

This is de Camp at his best – the creation and populating of a historically plausible (except for the magic) world in an underutilized prehistoric setting. His scholarly, pedantic nature serves him well in this regard.

Unfortunately, I think de Camp’s strength (in his book anyway) is that world creation, and not the technical execution of his story, nor the development of his characters.

It’s been pointed out, but Vakar is not a particularly heroic hero. He owns a slave, who he beats and berates. Though of course he’s built like a truck (as all of his people are), he’s more of a lover and a scholar than a fighter, and he comes out of his many scrapes mostly through luck. And he doesn’t shrink from dishonorable deeds like sneak-skewering a kid to steal a village’s horses and make his getaway. He does possess some likability, though. He’s no coward. Although he is a spoiled rich kid, over the course of the story he learns to do with less, and he develops empathy for his servant.

Fual, Vakar’s slave, has some moments, but was largely unimportant. Too often his main two roles were – carry around Vakar’s stuff, and give voice to stuff that de Camp wanted to say. I mean this humble servant was supposed to be a simple thief when he was free. Yet he knows some things about poetry (why the hell does he know what “triolets” and “rhythmic alliterative verse” are?) and he seems to know a lot about sailing just from having looked at boats in port before.

De Camp wasn’t a bad writer, but he lacked the flourish and style of the Grandmasters. Robert E Howard’s prose was usually impeccable, and his poetry was effective, too. The likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack Vance, and Poul Anderson (I know I’m jumping around a bit) knew not only how to craft together beautiful sequences of words but how to economize. I simply didn’t get that from de Camp.

I also found the unevenness of his story somewhat jarring. There were scenes later in the book that struck me as well-done. The death of Fual was sudden, morbid, and final. Likewise I found the sacrifice of Abeggu to be poignant and indicative of what the Tritonian Ring could have been. I wanted more of this – brave, heroic sacrifice; selfless deeds; fights against injustice. De Camp had painted a dark world with petty gods and evil men (in one town an innkeeper tries to pimp out his daughter to Vakar). All it needed was a proper champion! But alas, we only received glimmers of this much-needed hero.

And interspersed, we got all kinds of lighthearted half-silliness. The plot point with the Amazons was superfluous; a war over the fact that a nation’s men wanted its women to stay in the kitchen and the wives were willing to fight and slay over their womyn’s rights! And the climactic barge scene where Vakar flees the women’s boat, kills the king, and then escapes to the men’s boat and tells them that they were betrayed. This was another of those scenes that I just couldn’t process in my head. Why was the men’s ship so far away that they couldn’t see what had happened? Why couldn’t the women yell to the men that Vakar had killed their king and escaped? Why did the strong, brave warrior women run around the boat screaming and waving their arms like cartoon characters?

I will give de Camp points for being unafraid to be irreverent. I’ll reserve judgement on whether or not it helped the story, but we’ve got plenty of nudity and some good old rape and rape-related japes. By today’s standards, this kind of thing could be highly problematic.


The Tritonian Ring was an interesting and educational look at some older fantasy writing, and for all its faults it wasn’t unentertaining. So far as satisfying, action-oriented, heroic fantasy, this introduction to de Camp’s Pusadian series doesn’t hold a candle to anything of Robert E Howard’s that I’ve read so far. Still, I’m interested in reading Lest Darkness Fall, which is probably de Camp’s most famous work. For the foreseeable future at least, though, I don’t think I’ll go out of my way to read any more of his fantasy stuff.




Some thoughts for the King: King David’s Spaceship

Last summer over at the Castalia House blog, Jeffro posted about A Spaceship for the King as a largely unrecognized inspiration for the Traveller pen and paper game. My interest was piqued by his exposition, and I later recognized author Jerry Pournelle as the same gent who co-wrote the Mote in God’s Eye – another great scifi novel I read some years back. As a matter of fact, the two books happen to belong to a larger series penned by Pournelle in occasional collaboration with fellow scientifictioneer Larry Niven.

Late last year I picked up a copy of King David’s Spaceship – an expanded version of A Spaceship for the King (which was originally a three part serial). You know, this one turned out to be a great example of why you sometimes have to force yourself through an opening chapter or two. I was initially a little turned off by what I was reading – a typical fantasy tavern scene, complete with giggling and squealing serving wenches being pinched as they served “countless” drinks to soldiers and other handsy patrons. To be fair to Pournelle, when he wrote this thing originally, it probably wasn’t such an overused trope.

Once past that somewhat clumsy opening, though, I had very little to complain about. To the contrary, I found King David’s Spaceship a most enjoyable read, with a lot to unpack. A few further thoughts, then, from my notes (*Spoilers to follow*):


1. Pournelle did a skillful job of crafting conflict without any real villains, perhaps aside from the Moorish barbarian horde, who were arguably relatively unimportant characters to the story. The Imperials and more specifically the Navy are painted as the chief antagonists throughout most of the book. But when we get a glimpse of matters from their perspective, what do we see? Bean counters and bureaucrats; a professor; a young sailor; a petty, stick-up-his-ass middling officer. These are flawed, but not evil men. Many of them are well-intentioned.

Physically, to MacKinnie and his band, Dougal and his fellow Samualans ultimately pose as much of a threat if not more.

2. This is a story of a determined group of primitives (“colonials” they are derisively called by one Imperial) triumphing, in a way, against an overwhelmingly technologically superior foe. In spirit, I found it somewhat reminiscent of Anderson’s the High Crusade.

“Superiority” is a slippery thing. Where the Empire is strong, rich, and advanced, it is also slow. The Imperials are constrained by their highly ordered bureaucracy, laws, and political intricacies. And because their Navy is staffed by men who are the product of such a society, they are prone to complacency and routine. They are vigilant of enforcing their rules, but often lack the vision to anticipate such as the “colonials” are able to pull off.

3. As Jeffro noted in his piece, the Catholic Church (referred to as “New Rome”) is featured prominently and without the malicious undertones or even explicit hostility that increasingly pervades much of modern SFF. Clerics in this story are practical yet seemingly sincere in their faith and benevolence.

4. I found the characters to be serviceable, but nothing to write home about. Our main man is a competent soldier and commander. We’re told that he attracts followings and engenders supreme loyalty in his men, though we’re not really shown very much of this charisma. His best buddy and manservant is a competent lieutenant and superb fighter. The protagonist’s eventual girlfriend is a competent…logistician? She’s certainly written to be a “strong” woman — brave, willful, not stunningly beautiful but attractive. The scientist and the scholar in the group are also competent, with a little bit of flavor text to tell us that one is portly and one is somewhat of a priss. The native captain and mercenaries that the protagonists recruit on Makassar are also competent. Haven’s spymaster is competent, as is the King and his minister and the head of the University.

That’s what we get – competent characters, some of whom are well fleshed out and some who are less so. And that’s fine. But come the end of the story, I didn’t really feel attached to any of them. They played their roles in the plot, and I suppose that was enough.

5. When it comes to the “realisticness” of what constitutes hard science fiction or military science fiction, I’m no authority. But still, this felt like a good example of both. A lot of science was discussed and implemented by the characters. Some of the most interesting parts of the story, for me, were the military tactics employed by MacKinnie to liberate the Temple from the barbarians.

6. There were a few scenes that felt a little sloppily executed. In particular, this scene kind of bothered me:

Now I readily admit, this is a such a minor story point…it winds up not even really being important to any of the proceeding events. Still – this assassin has time to rush through a crowd, lop off a pikeman’s arm, presumably slay several others, take a javelin to the chest and pull it out while still attacking…let’s for a moment set aside the improbability of one man with a knife being able to get so far through a crowd of armed soldiers. Hal , the competent lieutenant and superb fighter, has no time to draw his sword during all that? Come on. Even if the assassin was able to accomplish all that in a few seconds – how long does it take to draw a blade, especially for a seasoned soldier?

Still, it can be overlooked in light of the rest of the book. Since getting into Vance and Anderson and the like, I’ve become a fan of this implementation of science fiction – high tech mixed with low tech; swords and spaceships. It’s a lot of fun.

If I were rating King David’s Spaceship, I’d probably give it 4/5. Good stuff.