The prism of fiction is shot through with many lines. There are lines on the edges that touch few works—outliers that are highly unique. Others shoot through the middle, touching upon a seemingly endless line of books and stories that feel extremely similar. The prism refracts light such that externally most stories appear different, but when when one looks closer at the network of lines, commonalities presents themselves. Today I’ll be reviewing two books whose surfaces appear radically different, but at heart are almost the same story: Linda Nagata’s 2013 The Red: First Light and Chris Wooding’s 2009 Retribution Falls.
One military sci-fi and the other steampunk, First Light and Retribution Falls are incomparable in broad terms of genre. Nagata’s novel tells of futuristic soldiers fitted out with armored exoskeletons, fighting in wars they know not the reason for but who do their duty, anyhow. That is, until one day a squad member discovers that… Wooding’s novel tells of a retro-tech planet wherein dirty deals are being had left and right, and the crew of the pirate ship the Ketty Jay seem always to be in the thick of them. Everything goes relatively smoothly for Captain Frey, that is, until he gets an offer too good to refuse…
Prime specimens of entertainment, First Light and Retribution Falls keep the pages turning, not super fast, but steadily and satisfactorily. Both authors deal out info conservatively to build the backdrop, all the while keeping the focus on familiar characters and bursts of plot to prevent matters from bogging down. While I would consider Wooding the cleaner of the two writers, they come across very similar in style: get the story down on the page with little fuss, and keep it moving. From firefights in First Light to dogfights in Retribution Falls, neither author can be said to have failed to divert the reader from the humdrum of day to day existence. Intellectually stimulating? Well, that’s another story (har).
And the similarities perservere. First Light may feature a squad of super-soldiers, and Retribution Falls may have a motley crew of a pirate (space)ship, but both are comprised of characters the reader is readily familiar with. Lt. James Shelley is leader of mega-upgraded soldiers who comprise the standard military group, wisecracker to newbie. Like Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, et al. the reader has met them before. Captain Frey is a rogue whose own interests most often outweigh those of his crew, including his stammering young pilot timid with the ladies and new navigator, a tough, spunky young woman who always seems to know the right thing to do when the men around her don’t (aka “genre’s take on feminism”). Naturally, of course, in both books the groups find a way to come together for the V when the going gets tough.
The fact that First Light begins by operating inside the law and Retribution Falls from without, does not prevent an overriding feeling of cynicism regarding the competency and incorruptibility of government from also shining through in both. Lt. Shelley a reluctant soldier, his beliefs regarding the Defense Contractors he is employed by fray to the point of… well, you’ll have to read. And while Captain Frey is technically an anti-hero, he remains an anti-hero the reader ends up cheering for on the rather standard grounds of justice and revenge against a rotten political system. Like the best of contrived entertainment, in both books the reader is bumped and pushed until they are standing on a path labeled: the only ethical way forward is to take matters into my own hands to make things right. Not very realistic, but classic.
The last similarity I will build upon is the exposure to stereotype. Nagata and Wooding both tread the sharp line between empty stereotype and stereotype detailed to the point it doesn’t initially appear as stereotype. The cyber-linkage of Nagata’s soldiers, for example, has been done before (see Haldeman and others), but with confidence and a few fittingly descriptive words, it seems to take on a life of its own in the novel. The same holds true for Wooding’s airships: done before, but done well in his case. Both writers are fully conscious of the mediums they were working in, and rather than try to subvert them by inverting expectations with cheap tricks (e.g. Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy), they ride the wave in the belief they can do it in standard fashion but with justice.
Taking all this into account, it’s difficult for either Nagata or Wooding’s novels to escape middle of the road status. What they’ve done with the basic components of mainstream fiction and to effect aesthetics (military sci-fi and steampunk respectively) is stereotypical at the bare bones level but alive on the page due to the relative richness of detail. But they are not ambitious beyond these points. Silver screen tales in novel form, I can easily imagine either being picked up by Hollywood, and as long as producers are willing to invest the money needed for the sfx, would most likely be successes. Otherwise, the two novels fall along the same line.