Safehold, Schism, and Continuum

One of this summer’s projects has been a return to the Safehold books by David Weber.  The second book, By Schism Rent Asunder, is also named after a line from a famous old-fashioned hymn.  Like the hymn, themes of faith and conflict pervade the second book of this sci-fi-turned-military-history action adventure.  Unfortunately, the second book in the series is like an unfamiliar hymn in church.  Full of often brilliant lyrics and thoughts, it can be clunky and strangely timed.

David Weber continues his Safehold series in the months after the titanic battles of Off Armageddon Reef, when the Kingdom of Charis, and the semi-human android among them named Merlin, deal with the looming global religious war.  A historian, particularly someone with an interest in military or church history, will find a lot to love about the second book in the series.  The last human world, Safehold, has started on its own Reformation and Industrial Revolution rolled into one.  Weber is nothing if not technologically consistent, and his novel is rich in detail.  I sailed with my family from the earliest of ages, so the nautical descriptions and naval setting kindle fond memories for me.  Weber’s dedication to technological accuracy didn’t just entertain me, it is critical to the plot.  One small island kingdom (that is totally not named England) must hold off the rest of the world under the sway of an oppressive church (totally not run by the Hapsburg family), and to do so it must rely on its navy, and its technology to overcome all the odds.  Weber really had to include a lot of scenes where people discuss iron smelting, labor and transportation costs, and the factors of pressure stress in rifled barrels as opposed to smoothbore guns.  Fortunately, he flavors the technobabble with friendly jokes and bold characters.

There’s a lot to like about this series for the non-historian as well.  I mentioned in my review of Off Armageddon Reef that Weber’s characters don’t change as much as those from other authors, but Weber does start to show his alternative payoff: plot and situational rewards.  The plucky ensign from the first book shows up as a surprisingly-secure pre-teen.  Bit characters inherit ships, and their commands matter.  Merlin Athrewes, the protagonist, faces some surprises of his own buried in local history, surprises that add hope and interesting new challenges.  Of course, the heroes aren’t the only one growing and reacting.  The antagonists for the series are a group of four corrupt church officials who run the world from behind the scenes, or at least they used to.  They get more dastardly as they step out into the open, which works just fine in the technological military operas that make David Weber famous.

Schism highlights Weber’s weaknesses as an (successful) author as well.  The largest problem for Schism is plotting.  The novel is full of dramatic events.  In fact, at least a third of my favorite moments in the series so far take place in this novel.  (No, I’m not telling.  Find our yourself!)  That being said, the novel could never stand alone because it lacks a strong individual arc.  By Schism Rent Asunder presents us with a series of chapters in a longer novel, not unlike a collection of television episodes on an individual DVD.  It has no real beginning or end, and when I finished reading it the first time I wanted to shout because it would be a year before I got any real resolution.  If David Weber had set out to show how much plot advancement he could provide without a real satisfying climax, this novel would be his masterpiece.  Similarly, the perils of dictating a novel instead of typing it loom large in his prose.  I loved hearing Merlin’s tortured reaction to local music that mixed symphony, banjo, and bagpipes in the same work, but I got all the amusement I needed in the first two paragraphs of a five-page description.  A science fiction novel that lacks flavor is like eating oatmeal, but half a cup of oatmeal under a half-gallon of brown sugar just isn’t right either.  Normally this is the sort of thing that an editor jumps all over and red ink hits the walls, but Weber is one of Baen’s real cash cows, so it’s tragically hands off on this easily-corrected problem.

Because of the plotting and pacing, By Schism Rent Asunder isn’t a book to read when you’re in a hurry.  If you want fast popcorn the works of Jim Butcher or Simon R Green will work much better.  But on a rainy day, a long airplane flight, or a Minnesota winter night By Schism Rent Asunder is large and detailed enough to take you away and give a nice break from reality.  The best part is that the next few books are already out, so if you are like me and reach the end wanting a bit more satisfaction then book three is a page away, and all of Schism’s build-up bears fruit.  Highly recommended.

***

I notice that almost all of my reviews so far have been positive.  Part of that is because I want to highlight the strength as well as the weaknesses.  A lot of my overall positive reviews come from the fact that I’m mature (definitely not old) enough to have a good idea what I like before I spend money to read or watch something.

But there are times when a good literary scathing is in order.

I started to watch the CBC series Continuum when ScyFy got the rights to distribute it in the USA.  The premise is slightly heavy-handed, that in a dark future corporations have taken over the world so no one has any civil rights, but terrorists slaughter thousands fighting back.  They escape into the past to prevent the corporate world, and a lone law enforcement officer is pulled back with them.  Kiera is played convincingly by Rachel Nichols who turns in a surprisingly physical performance without sacrificing tenderness and empathy regarding her family and her goals.  She teams up with her world’s version of Thomas Eddison, who in 2012 is a teenage boy (Erik Knudsun as Alec Sandler) and a tough modern homicide detective (Victor Webster as Carlos) to stop the terrorists before they can destroy the future, and with it the family she’s fighting to see once more.

There is a lot to love about the series.  The technology is innovative, the effects are believable and frequently impressive for a CBC-budgeted production, easily the equal of anything coming out of the BBC these days.  The villains really do steal the show as the most bold, dynamic, and interesting characters by far.  Tony Amendola’s role as the rebel leader Kagame is as charismatic and dedicated as anyone could want.  His mismatched and stranded revolutionary idealists all have their painful back-stories, believable reasons for why they’ve reached the level of mass-murder.  Frankly, the series won me for that, since too many writers skimp on characterization for their protagonists.

It was a pleasure to learn the stories of the characters, to see Alec grow into an independent adult, Kiera’s growing assimilation into our culture played by the increasing desperation to get home, and Carlos’ trying to keep up with the mysterious happenings around him.

I was initially irritated with the binary morality system presented in Continuum, as if the only choices are between bloodthirsty socialists and soulless corporations.  After all, everyone knows that no corporation exists to provide customers with a quality product and the best price so that they and their employees can eat that night.  They all exist to take as much power as they can, and you can either be a mindless follower of the system like Kiera, or a bloody murderer to stop it.   One of the things that made the series enjoyable was watching Kiera’s exposure to the modern world show her a slightly less oppressive way of life, and hope that she returned to the future to start a third, better path.

But the last few episodes of season two have done the opposite.  The cops who played the good guys in season one are willing to throw out every semblance of morality as long as the person on the other end is called a terrorist.  They kidnap a teenage boy and beat him bloody.  It’s like the producers want to pull a Game of Thrones and prove that no one is ever good, except perhaps Alec who is merely deceived.  It’s the worst possible answer I’ve ever seen to the “would you go back and shoot Hitler” question.  “Why no, but I’d torture him, strip him of his every civil right and liberty without due process, and hold a gun to his head so that he’ll never believe in the system ever again.”

The premise of a hero cop show is that, among other things, your cop be a hero.  But for three episodes now Kiera has beaten, drugged, kidnapped, and aided in the torture of a barely-legal boy as well as playing the felony-of-the-segment game.  It turns out that the police are willing to run a police state if that’s what lets them win.  So by episode 11, which I just purchased at Amazon, the only thing I want to see are the credits.

The story-based crime here isn’t just the hero-cop willing to commit so many crimes they have earned life in prison, though that made me nearly sick to my stomach at Gangster Squad as well (though in that movie the redemption of the story comes when it is a civilian woman who hasn’t thrown the law out the window who takes down the boss all the thug-murderer-cops couldn’t quite reach.)  It’s the more critical problem of verisimilitude, which is a fancy English Major way of saying “believability.”  There is no justification given for the entire police department turning into child-beating kidnappers in a single episode’s time.  The presentation in the first season is one of a valiant, noble police team dealing with something out of their league.  Now it’s a story about a group of murdering criminals with idealized mandates (the Liber8 terrorists) fighting a group of murdering criminals with government mandates (the precinct.)  That would be distasteful enough if the writers hadn’t made me care about the heroes before killing their characters’ integrity and identity onscreen to make an episode more interesting.

Shame on you, CBC.  And I want those hours of my life back.

Highly not recommended, although I may need to write a book fixing the premise just so I can sleep at night.  I want a squeegee for my brain.  Continuum begins on a pretty path, just like every other trip to hell.

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