Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

A Few Comments on “Turncoat” by Steve Rzasa

Okay, you know I liked this one.

The fact that this is the Space Gaming Blog actually has nothing to do with that, either. Oh sure… this is exactly the sort of thing that ought to be in the science fiction magazines but which just isn’t there anymore. And yes, I did binge read David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, but I only read it for the space battles and I detested most of the characters even if I couldn’t set the danged things down.

But I really didn’t pay that much attention the technical details and the space combat in this one. I guess you’re like, “but Jeffro… that’s about all there was!” Eh, not really. All of that action and detail is there for just one purpose: to establish the setting and the background information without having the author brain dump on the reader. Really, it’s all there so that you can understand what is happening in the final scenes. And of course all of that is there to set up what this story is really about.

So let’s review this past week’s reviews in order to put what I’m about to say into perspective:

  • I have raked Thomas Olde Heuvelt over the coals for creating a setting that was little more than a gigantic navel for his protagonist to gaze upon.
  • I have patronized Kary English with a long-winded dissertation on how to capture and convey a moment of humanity.
  • I have teased Annie Bellet about her ridiculous cardboard cutout redneck bad guys.
  • And I have the audacity to lecture Lou Antonelli on how to depict what happens when real people have some kind of genuine encounter with the supernatural.

Everything that I felt was wrong with their stories…? Everything I’ve nitpicked? Everything I’ve winced at, mocked, belittled, dissected, and criticized…? After all of that pontification, I’m here to tell you, Steve Rzasa got it right. All of it. He just nailed it.

First, there is a setting… there’s something going on and in the midst of a large conflict, there is something significant at stake. That’s a very good start right there. There is no preamble. No prelude. No introduction. Rzasa starts with action and then raises the stakes continually from there.

Secondly, this artificial intelligence is surprisingly the most human character I’ve read about so far in any of the Hugo Nominated works. I mean, with the title like it is, you kind of know where everything is going from the start. But Rzasa actually conveys the sense of this thing going from “eh, just following orders” to convincingly facing a real moral quandary. I’ve seen action. I’ve seen awesome. I’ve seen all kinds of stuff. Have I seen someone that’s really on the horns of a dilemma? You know… until Steve’s story, I don’t think I have. Not in what I’ve read of this year’s Hugo noms anyway.

Thirdly… the bad guy. I guess we’ve seen this type of character before. General Scheisskopf maybe. But the guy is repulsive, right? Why…? Because of a racial slur or sexist remark? Nope. Because he’s trying to win a war by any means necessary? No, not even that. It’s the megalomania combined with his undiluted zeal. If you were in doubt about how much to hate this guy, it’s settled when he bullies our AI protagonist for asking an honest question.

Finally… this story is, whether the author intended it or not, about the most concise description of real Christian religious experience that I have ever seen. It’s far better than the usual weak tea devotionals or Sunday morning “feel good” sermons. Take out the chrome and the explosions, and all that’s left is the sense of this AI character having to count the cost and then ultimately “come out from among them and being separate.”

In fact… there’s a hymn that goes right along with this story that I think highlights the tone that comes across here:

Once to every man and nation,
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision,
Offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever,
’Twixt that darkness and that light.

This is one of those rare tales that I can wholeheartedly rate with five stars. The story just works. It’s impeccably well crafted, sure. But it’s the fact that it conveys some aspect of the sublime that gives the it its resonance and punch. Whether you think that’s a bunch of poppycock or not, you have to admit that there’s something admirable about this AI character, that it does the right thing, and that it is worthy of respect. How often do you come across characters that are that kind of compelling anymore…?

I’ve lately been assured that, “the future will not be made of the ideas of the 1970s, or the 1870s, or the 1770s, or before.” I’m not so sure about that, myself. In spite of the technological advances of the past few hundred years, I have to say that human nature has remained remarkably consistent. And it’s not like there is only one right answer when comes to how we imagine the future. One thing’s certain, however. There will be war. There will be good and evil, right and wrong. There will also be moral dilemmas that take on a spiritual dimension. All of us will face that. And there will be… more than just “good feels” and “bad feels” resulting from this, but actual consequences due to how people decide. That is after all a big part of what makes epics so danged epic. It makes for good reading whether you’re talking about elves or spaceships– and I’m glad this was on the shortlists this year.

12 responses to “A Few Comments on “Turncoat” by Steve Rzasa

  1. Rob April 24, 2015 at 7:26 am

    “In spite of the technological advances of the past few hundred years, I have to say that human nature has remained remarkably consistent.”

    So true. That’s why the oldest stories we know of still resonate with us (for example, the Epic of Gilgamesh).

  2. jeffro April 24, 2015 at 8:15 am

    After posting this, I realized that at moment of this character’s decision, it receives what 16th century Anabaptists would have called a “baptism of fire” and is subsequently reborn… as a battleship.

  3. Cirsova April 24, 2015 at 8:33 am

    My main gripe with this one was the prose style was kinda chunky. I get that it’s about “voice” but it doesn’t make it easy to read. It just felt like reading “I’m bored about being a super powered space battleship. Let me tell you how bored I am.”

    Stuff like: “I launch a spread of eight torpedoes, one from each tube. The orientation is ideal, allowing them to acquire an additional boost from the planetoid’s gravitational field. They accelerate at four hundred gravities, increasing to a blistering velocity. To the enemy, it will appear as if the torpedoes have appeared from an unexpected vector. The Ascendancy ships react predictably.”

    There were cool space battles, but it’s weird reading them as though someone is complaining about having to do a ton of useless paperwork at the office. Or worse, a cocksure dude telling his roommate “Yeah… I got laid by a lot of chicks last night. Some of them had big tits and pretty faces. It was about what I expected.” Action without excitement.

    • jeffro April 24, 2015 at 8:49 am

      Maybe blowing up spaceships just has more appeal to me than, say, watching kids get certificates for perfect attendance, but I just didn’t notice that.

      My main problem is… I can’t tell which one is better: this, or “Parliament of Beasts and Birds.” What a great problem to have, though!

      • Cirsova April 24, 2015 at 8:56 am

        Perfect attendance… mom is a brain in a jar… dad is never mentioned…. WHO WAS TAKING THOSE KIDS TO SCHOOL!?

        Mind… boggling… Science Fiction!

        [Jeffro: They’re erasing “dad” from history and I won’t stand for it! :shakes fist:]

  4. Pinball Sales | Pinbal Machines Sydney April 27, 2015 at 2:10 am

    Nice take on Riding The Red Horse. The cover looks interesting enough and your perspective just made me think seriously about it. Not sure about the Bad Guy being a bad guy by asking an honest question. I guess the creators rushed in creating the antagonist that the character is just lacking. A good game needs a good antagonist… without it, what’s the use?

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