tl;dr: It’s David Weber. FTWLTSOT,TITSOTTL1

I finally slogged through the entirety of David Weber’s Safehold series. "Slogged" is exactly the right word. These books are doorstops bar none. I vaguely guess there’s somewhere between 3 million and 3½ mililon words total in these nine books, most of them clocking in somewhere between 700 and 850 pages. They’re so full of David Weber tropes it’s almost like Weber fanfic: war, blood, heroism, swashbuckling derring-do, angelic heroes of the most upright standing and mustache-twirling villains of foregone depravity.

It’s not a spoiler to reveal the setting and basic plot: It is The Future. Humanity has all but been wiped out by mindless alien xenophobes, and Safehold, the last human colony has been hidden far away from the interstellar warfront. To make it even more invisible, the colonists have been mindwiped and dropped into a 15th century tech level with a book, The Holy Writ Of Langhorne and the Archangels, which explains how God wants them to live: healthily (the books explain everything: animal husbandry, antiseptic would care, terraforming, even some cognitive psychology) but simply (there are proscriptions against invention and innovation, with absolutely hideous death-by-torture punishments for anyone daring to experiment with electricity, backed up by an automated orbital death machine that will rain down Mjolnir-level death on any city that starts to use electricity extensively), the better to avoid putting out the radio and neutrino signals that the aliens used to track Terran vessels down. It’s a clever conceit that lets Weber have his beloved sailing ships and broadside-to-broadside battles, but it reads like "Hey, what if someone wrote Honor Harrington but like, on water, with sailing vessels?"

A thousand years later, into this mess awakens Nimue, the last surviving woman of the Terran Federation. She’s been reincarnated in a robot body (Weber does a lot of handwaving about posthuman technologies to explain why H. sapiens hadn’t NerdRaptured™ to deal with the aliens), and learns that the "hideous torture" part wasn’t actually in the original plan. There was a coup among the colony commanders, and the "No tech, ever" team murdered the "We’ll have to deal with the aliens eventually" team. She formulates A Plan to invalidate the Holy Writ, and touches off a massive World War™ between the liberal (read: England and the better, more Protestant, parts of Europe) and conservative (read: The nastier, more Catholic, parts of Europe, plus a few Chinese thrown in for good measure) parts of the planet. Without using electricity, Nimue bootstraps the most liberal political entity (the one that had banned slavery and adopted universal literacy, etc. etc.) on the planet from rowed galley ships to, well, that would be spoiling.

The problem with the Safehold books is twofold. The first is what David Brin calls the spearcarrier problem. Safehold is a Great Game story. A few people in positions of power send millions out to die in their battles. We get names of many soldiers and sailors who get killed within one or two chapters, with details about their wives, friends, parents, and children thrown in to remind us that these are real people who get killed when the Great Gamers start to roll the dice. They still get killed nonetheless.

The second problem is one that’s familiar to readers of long series from Weber: While we want the heroes to win, we don’t want the winning to be easy. The winning on Safehold is easy. The main characters are rarely, if ever, in any real danger of losing. Nimue is an immortal, nearly indestructible, well-trained killing machine who can provide satellite-based, world-encompassing reconnaissance, complete with audio and video recordings of (almost every) conversation the enemies are having to her allies, and who has a very large library stashed away in her Fortress of Solitude, including all the war history and every technological improvement she can supply. Most of our World War One was fought without electricity, after all, and by the end of the series her generals and commanders are quoting Patton and Clausewitz at each other. Despite the overwhelming numbers of soldiers the bad guys have, the good guys always pull out a technological advance that wins that day.

Weber is reluctant to kill his angels. Almost none of them die, all of them have the author’s hand of forebearance atop them. The main characters of the first three or four books become distant givers-of-orders, and the last five books are a painful series of watching ordinary people go out and get killed for them.

One thing that might turn off people is how Weber uses religion. He is a Methodist by training, and his characters engage in a lot (and I mean a lot) of talking about What God Wants. The God of Safehold is a deliberately twisted, distant syncretic deity meant to supply the post-mortem muscle behind what the coup survivors wrote in the books of their Writ (the major leaders of the coup: Langhorne, Bedard, Schueler, Chihiro, etc., all have their own books in the Writ), and Weber’s point is that "the real, human knowledge of God will shine through even their twisting of it," as the first Archbishop who comes to know Nimue and the true origin of the Writ says while retaining his faith. Nimue in passing mentions that she is a Christian, but it’s never belabored much, and she says she’d be thrilled if she could get past all the brainwashing and let all Safeholdians know about Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and all the rest. It isn’t badly handled; in fact, I rather enjoyed how deftly Weber made his Case For God without ever once having to rely on supernatural intervention as a reason to believe.

If you like Weber, you’ll probably like Safehold. If you don’t like Weber, you probably shouldn’t bother.


1 For Those Who Like This Sort of Thing, This Is The Sort Of Thing They Like.

I have completely revamped the story sites (do people still call them minisites?), and completely done away with the Django-based application that drove them.

There are no new stories in the Journal Entries or anything else yet, although I have included a bit of fanfic I wrote a few years back and only put up on Archive Of Our Own, but I figured it was time to bring it home.

The big change here is simple: The stories are readable on your phone! For years, the site was not at all responsive or adaptive. Now it is. Now you can read your Elf-generated erotica, whatever your bent, from anywhere on the planet. Even better, “swipe left” and “swipe right” are now mapped to “next story” and “previous story,” which is kinda awesome.

Equally importantly, the Bastet stories are now readable. For the longest time, there was something wrong with the CSS and I couldn’t fix it. I finally decided to chuck it and go with a fairly consistent theme-and-variation framework.

Back-end changes which might require notice: The back-end is now written entirely in Hy, leveraging several libraries for Markdown-to-HTML translation and Jinja for producing the final templatized table-of-contents and stories. This eliminates a whole database of problems. Every story now carries its own metadata header that describes what series it belongs to, if there are arcs (Aimee and Visit To Pyu Rika are separate “arcs”, as is The Mystic Treefort, basically limited-length subseries), and where in the sort order it belongs.

Still unfixed: The footer is ugly. I’m working on it. I want to put contrast controls on the page, as well as Schema markings (you won’t see those) that tell Google what these stories are.

And now that I have control back from my unmaintained story engine, maybe I’ll finally get a few more stories up.

This weekend, I attended Norwescon, an SF convention held every year in the Seattle area, and in the dealer’s room, there were both general booksellers and individual tables for small presses. At random, I picked up Mira Grant’s Rise.

For some teachers, putting on the Kevlar gloves and strapping their service pistol to their waist would have brought a feeling of security, like they had finally put the world back in order. For Elaine, it felt like a declaration of failure.

This isn’t an opening paragraph. It’s not even a chapter header. This is some random paragraph deep inside a book that I picked up at random, understanding only that it was yet another zombie novel.

There is not a word in that extract that isn’t doing an incredible amount of work. With the transition from “teachers” to the incongruent “Kevlar guns and service pistol,” the mention that other teachers would enjoy the process but our heroine would not, every word in those two sentences is either telling you something, or is glue necessary to make the grammar work.

Contrast this with the opening paragraphs of Toy Wars, a middle-press book by Tom Gondolfi that has been sitting in my “to read” pile ever since I picked up it at last year’s Norwescon:

After my uneventful manufacturing process, I woke up. Where was I before that sleep? I didn’t remember deactivating my cognitive process. My memory sump revealed no memories that predated that moment. Life must begin and end somewhere, just as a line must have two points that define its position in the universe. My line started when I awoke.

My memories show only a notation of my origin. “Activation occurs, L+13y224d1h0s. Internal clock set to M+0. Awaiting command from Factory 55466″

“Stand by for shape and color recognition patterns,” came the intense voice of the Factory itself, both auditory and over the net. The voice vibrated deeply from the very walls of the 3-meter-high chamber as the voice over the electronic network mimicked it in tone and timbre. A large video display in front of me carried the image of my body being laser-scanned from the top of my big saucer-shaped ears down to the bottom of my broad, flat feet.

There’s a lot of extraneous noise in these paragraphs. They’re written by someone who understands that he needs a hook, and has a good idea for a hook, but the execution is weak.

The sad thing is that, with no memorable exceptions, every book on the small press / self-published tables was more like Gondolfi than Grant. Wordy, weak, and often grossly conversational. Gondolfi’s story has an interest conceit, which puts his heads above many of the books I contemplated. As a writer, I’ve been tempted to open paragraphs with words like “actually” and “indeed.” Every word must convey information. Those words don’t, yet beginning writers seem to love them. Grant doesn’t, and in those two sentences she somehow tells an entire story about Elaine.

The demise of traditional publishing companies will have some real benefits. There were gatekeepers who kept out women and minorities, privileging the white men who they resembled. There were capricious editors who preyed on their writers in all manner of unscrupulous ways.

The loss of editors will have a real impact on the quality of writing that gets put out there. Critics can plug some of the gap but not all of it. Someone needs to get paid to have good taste. Someone needs to be able to say, “With this writer, you’ll be in good hands.”

I’m sorry about this, I ran an upgrade and now the story engine has completely failed on me.  I have no idea why, and no idea when it’ll be back up.  I’m working on it, but I can only deal with it after I’ve actually met my professional obligations, so it may be a day or two before they come back.

EDIT: And they’re back up.  I have no idea who thought it would be a good idea to change the tokenation on template names as a “minor fix,” but we’re gonna have words.  That upgrade cost me a lunch break.

 

 

Milo & Ann

“Are you ready for this?” Ann asked.

Milo licked his lips. For some reason his mouth was suddenly drier than the morning after a bourbon-and-benzedrine bender, an experience with which he was intimately familiar. More intimately familiar, well, actually, than actual intimacy. He managed to curl his lip into a contemptuous sneer. “Bring it on.”

“Follow me, boy,” she said, grabbing the red silken tie that hung loose about his neck. One of the young men who frequently buzzed around him had tied it, but he’d refused to actually tighten it. That wasn’t his image. That wasn’t him. Ann used it like a leash, pulling him out of the tiny little media closet to which her texts had guided him. The corridor was cold concrete coated with thick off-yellow paint, the floor that industrial mottled grey all hotels and conference centers used to hide any unfortunate, incidental stains.

“We’re really going to do this?” Milo said, surprised that his usually strong voice, his only real tool, threatened to crack. He told himself it was only the dryness in his throat.

“You are,” Ann said. “I planned on it the moment I saw you. You looked like the kind of man who needs this sort of thing. Just like Dinesh.” She pushed open the final door so hard she may as well have kicked it and hauled him into the main conference hall.

At three in the morning, the lights were down low, just enough to keep someone from tripping over a step. The hall, which hours ago had been filled with the raucous glee of hundreds of delegates on the penultimate night of nominations, now lay silent. Milo looked up at the ceiling, where nets held back the balloons that would drop tomorrow night.

Ann led him up the stairs. The wide platform beckoned. The podium waited. “Here?” he said.

“Here.” She hauled him around until his back was to the auditorium. He faced her. In all the years he’d been watching her on the television, admiring her, learning from her exactly to inflame in enemies, he’d always admired her strong neck. “Down,” she said, and pulled on the tie again.

Milo fell to his knees. She wore her trademark black dress, the one that just covered her thighs. She reached down and grabbed his hand, pulled it up under her skirt. “Find it.”

His hand found the cold, blunt dildo waiting. His heart beat faster as his fingers told him how big it was, how textured, how veiny. With one hand she pulled up the hem of her skirt and revealed it to his eyes. She grabbed his head and pulled him closer. “Suck.”

Milo felt himself tremble inside ass that rubbery, big black fake cock reached his lips. The cold, flavorless plasticene thing smelled faintly of kerosene and lust, and he opened his mouth and slobbered on it. With both hands she grabbed his head and pulled him onto her cock. “That’s it. Good boy,” she murmured. “Good boy.”

His heart leapt at her skill, that ineffable mixture of kindness with her voice and cruelty with her hands. He was hers to command, he realized, something he had never thought with any other woman in his life. The dildo pressed against his throat and his body convulsed in a desperate desire to keep breathing, and she relented. “Up. Turn.”

He obeyed. She grabbed his hands again and put them on the podium. He looked out into the auditorium. The cameras of a hundred news outlets, most of them run by untrustworthy liberals, were watching this moment with, he hoped, cold, unpowered eyes. This room, this massive room where tomorrow their master, their god emperor, would be proclaimed as their leader and savior, was entirely Milo’s and Ann’s, tonight. She yanked down his pants.

“What a fine lily-white ass you have, Milo,” she said, and the jeering admiration made his own cock stir. “Shall I give it what it wants?” Her hands, her strong, broad hands, caressed his asscheeks. “Do you want it?”

“Yes,” he whispered.

“Yes, what?” she snarled.

“Yes… mistress?”

One hand slapped his ass so hard he almost fell against the podium. “Try again, idiot child.”

“Yes… sir?”

Another hard slap. “Closer.”

“Yes, Daddy.”

“Better.” He heard a metal tink as she snapped the dildo firmly into the forward ring of its harness, and another snap was the familiar bottle top of lubricant. At least she would be that kind. The cold wet head pressed up against his asshole. She wasn’t kind; his anus spasmed as the cock sank into him and he realized that the lube was that kind laced with capsacin and clove, the kind that made his hole burn, that hurt. He whimpered, “Oh, Daddy, oh, Daddy…”

“Yeah, Daddy’s here,” she said, her hands grabbing at hips. “Take Daddy’s cock. You love Daddy’s cock, don’t you?”

“Yes, Daddy, yes, daddy!” His asshole was inflamed, his guts filled with that massive dildo. “Fuck me, Daddy, fuck me.”

“Do it, Milo. Come. Leave your mark.”

Milo grabbed his cock and began to beat it. It didn’t take more than a few strokes from the two of them working in concert before he groaned loudly, sinking to rest his forehead on the podium where tomorrow a speech would be laid, a message delivered. His head sagged with relief as he ejaculated all over the platform floor.

Ann stepped back. He stood there, his knees barely holding him up, his body quivering, his asshole burning, his cock dripping semen. He heard a few tinkling sounds as she did something to put away the dildo. Finding strength in his arms, he pushed himself upright and turned. He looked down at the deliquescing blob that evidenced his own transgression. He was still staring at it when her heeled shoe blotted it from his eyes.

“We should get out of here,” she said. “But at least tomorrow, you’ll get to sit in the audience and you’ll know that both your Daddies have stood here and ground your worthless cum into the floor.” She grinned. “Right?”

He closed his eyes and saw it. The crowds. The screaming. “Make America Great Again!” they would chant. And then the orange-skinned, blond-haired man he called Daddy would stand there— stand here, where he stood this very moment— and his feet would be positioned over the smear of his seed. Milo shivered with exhilarated anticipation.

“Get some rest, Milo,” she purred. “You’ve got a big day tomorrow.”

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