Book Review: The City Who Fought by Anne McCaffrey and S.M. Stirling
What do you call someone else’s nostalgia?
As, to be honest, I never read much McCaffrey when I was a kid. Like, maybe one or two of the Pern books, but they just didn’t hook me as they did to a lot of other folks. Still, a friend of mine from college mentioned liking The City Who Fought, many many years ago.
Fast forward a decade or so, and I stumble across The City Who Fought in a Half Price books. At which point I notice that it was written not just by Anne McCaffrey … but also S.M. Stirling.
It’s quite an odd combination, to say the least. S.M. Stirling is kind of an odd author for me; I really enjoyed his steampunky alt-history adventure, The Peshawar Lancers. On the other hand, I just can’t bring myself to read a lot of his other work, as the premises are entirely too contrived. His Draka books can be summarized as “a super-racist slaveholding country in southern Africa conquers the world BECAUSE REASONS.” As, y’know, slavery based economies without an industrial base are such powerhouses. Then again, the premise for his Dies the Fire series is even more contrived, coming down to “gunpowder and steam engines and the general laws of physics stop working BECAUSE REASONS so now everyone has to fight with swords now.”
But, with The City Who Fought, Stirling is playing around in McCaffrey’s sandbox, so I figured I’d give it a look, since there would (theoretically) be less chance for Stirling to go off on a whackadoodle premise. Not to mention the combination of McCaffrey’s more relationship-based fiction with Stirling’s more actiony Mil-SF is one I was somewhat curious about.
So yeah. The City Who Fought is set in McCaffrey’s “The Ship Who … “ series. I hadn’t read any of them before (at least, not that I can remember), but the premise is pretty easy to get one’s head around. Basically, the setting revolves around “Brains,” people with debilitating diseases who have been wired into cybernetic interface modules that let them use their brains to control spaceships- or, in the case of this novel, space stations. Each Brain gets partnered up with a Brawn, an able-bodied person assigned to act as their hands in the real world.
The City Who Fought is SSS-900-C, also known as Simeon.
Simeon is a huge fucking nerd.
At the beginning of the novel, Simeon spends most of his free time playing insanely intricate wargames, which of course he always wins at. He’s smug and arrogant and constantly making references to shit that nobody else gets. Hell, he’s even got a sword collection. What use swords are to someone who technically doesn’t have hands, I got no idea. I bet you knew somebody like Simeon in high school or college- just trade out the terrible fedora for a cybernetic life-support pod with an internet connection.
And, like many nerds, Simeon is absolutely terrible when it comes to women. To the point where his first words to Channa Hap, the woman who’s been sent to take care of him and work with him and make sure he doesn’t die, are as follows:
The dark eyes widened slightly. “Excuse me?”
He laughed, “That’s ancient Earth slang for ‘sexy lady.’”
“Yes, of course,” she said coolly. “It’s just not a type of compliment that I’m particularly fond of receiving.”
She’s got a nice voice, Simeon thought uneasily. Pity she seems to be a bitch.
This is on page ten.
I bet Simeon would tell you it’s really about Ethics in Space-Wargaming Journalism, too.
Does a protagonist need to be perfect? Hell no. I mean, hell, one of my favorite characters is Sir Harry Paget Flashman, who’s about as terrible a womanizer as they come. But, here’s the thing. Fraser writes Flashman knowing that what he does is awful. Here, McCaffrey and/or Stirling (really, my money’s on Stirling) tries to make Simeon come off as a “charming rogue,” or something but he reads more like a misogynistic “nice guy” dork. Yeeaah. I know McCaffrey and Stirling were trying to set up conflict between the characters early on, but Simeon consistently comes off as skeevy througout the whole damn book. Like, “chatting with Channa over her comlink when she’s in the middle of having sex,” skeevy.
Of course, Simeon and Channa get over their differences and fall in luuuuurve, and it’s all kind of generally horrible in that dated-scifi kind of way. Makes me kinda glad I never read this book as a kid, really, as I’ve got no rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia to worry about.
And y’know what? Simeon’s not even the most misogynistic character in the book. Because we soon meet Amos, a charismatic and handsome man who comes to the space station, bringing with him a ragtag band of refugees. He and Channa fall in lurve too, I should note. Even though Amos is from a primitive backwater planet whose attitudes towards women are best described as “Biblical.” In the Old Testament sense.
But hey, he’s a nice guy, even if he has trouble taking women in authority seriously! It’s not like he’s a rapist or anything. Because that niche is held by the space pirates who chase after Amos & crew, and wind up invading the station. They’re a nasty bunch of slavers, descended from literal Nazis (and a bunch of other horrible people), who look like D&D Drow, because why not? Might as well give the book a vaguely racist undertone. Though, to be fair, it’s not any more racist than the concept of Drow in general, so … it’s not as bad as it could be? It still feels like there’s a definite escalation of misogyny as the book goes on.
Anyway, faced with an invasion of Space-Nazi Drow Pirates, Channa and Simeon and Amos have to scramble and scheme to fend them off. Once the book starts focusing on the conflict against the Space-Drow Pirate Nazis, things get a bit more readable. Y’see, because Simeon’s a wargaming nerd, that makes him the perfect tactician to cook up resistance scemes. Which may be reaching a bit, but hey, I’ll allow it. The various plans Simeon & co. cook up remind me a lot of other mad schemes and plans my friends and I would think of while playing D&D, back in the day. Highlights include using the medbay to brew up biological weapons, and rather gruesome applications of monofilament wire.
So yeah, the Nazi Drow Pirates (from Space!) occupy Simeon’s space station, whereupon Stirling and McCaffrey use the whole rape thing to escalate their villainy. Oh, and Channa has to have semi (but not really) consensual sex with the Evil Commander Guy in order to distract him at a key moment. Because of course she does. I’ve heard S.M. Stirling nicknamed “S&M Stirling” before, and it definitely shows in The City Who Fought. Of the three major women characters in the book, Channa has to bone the Head Space Pirate Drow Nazi, another one is raped as an ‘example’ to the other prisoners, and the last one was sexually assaulted in her background before the book even started.
Rape’s a touchy subject to write about- I’m not saying that it’s a forbidden subject, but it should be handled with care. I mean, hell, you could just as easily cut all the rapey bits out, and just have the Space Pirate Nazi Drow, I dunno, just eat people, and you’d still have an appropriately awful villain without giving the book such a grody subtext. Leaning too hard on the rape button just comes off as lazy writing. Is it a double standard? Maybe. But then again, we don’t have a widespread problem with cannibalism in our culture, either.
The thing is, when the book focuses on the space adventure, it’s legitimately fun and exciting. Simeon’s plans are smart, and the Nazi Pirate Space Drow are fairly formidable bad guys who don’t fall into the ‘too dumb to live’ category of villainy. Oh sure, they die by the droves anyway, but it’s usually not due to stupid luck like it is in, say, some of the Honor Harrington books.
There’s a big bloody battle for the space station, not-Starfleet arrives just in time to blastify the Drow Space Pirate Nazis, and it’s a happy ending. Yaaaay. Only part of the happy ending consists of Simeon manipulating Amos into staying on-station because Channa’s in love with him (but also in love with Simon), and it just comes off as a really weird (and not in a good way) kind of love triangle. Bleh.
I didn’t go into The City Who Fought expecting to hack out a gender based critique of the book, but the whole thing’s glaring enough that I kind of had to. It’s certainly not the worst book I’ve ever read, or even the worst book I’ve read this year. I’m still a bit conflicted. I want to just enjoy the book as a piece of silly, fluffy space opera, but it’s hard to enjoy a novel when I start off hating the protagonist so much. I wonder which parts of the book were written by S.M. Stirling, and which by Anne McCaffrey- mostly so I can have one person to blame for the more WTF-inducing passages.
S.M. Stirling went on to write a sequel on his own, The Ship Avenged. I’m presuming Iron Man’s not in it. I’m kind of curious to see what happens to the characters next, but the prospect of ol’ S&M Stirling going off on his own into crazytown isn’t a very enticing one.