Half a Book Review: Eric Flint’s Worlds
Eric Flint is an author I’ve enjoyed in the past, but haven’t read in a long time. Back when I was in high school, I absolutely devoured his collaborations with Dave Freer– Rats, Bats, and Vats being a wonderfully mayhem-filled sci-fi adventure, and The Philosophical Strangler was an even crazier fantasy. And so, when I stumbled across a Worlds, a collection of short stories and novellas by Flint, I snatched that right up (where it sat on my to-read pile for a couple years, but still).
The thing is, at the very beginning of the collection, Flint notes how he’s more of a novelist than a short-story writer. Which is fine– everyone’s got their specialties. So instead of cooking up a brand new setting for each one, Flint just decided to play around in stuff that had already been established. Sometimes it was his own work, such as the 1632 series, and sometimes others, like David Weber’s Honor Harrington universe. Does it still count as fanfic if it’s permitted and published?
Thing is, while I’ve read a couple Honor Harrington novels, I’m not very familiar with 1632 or the Belasarius series … so I wound up skipping like half the stuff in Worlds. ’cause seriously, the book’s like 600 pages long. I guess you could consider this half a review– or maybe just a couple of mini-reviews, seeing as of how the stories aren’t connected, or whatever.
The typical Baen author tends to be on the right-ish side of the political spectrum. This can range from “I read some Ayn Rand once” to out and out “THE MUSLIMS WILL OUTBREED US AND IMPOSE SHARIA LAW AND STEAL OUR LITTLE GIRLS FOR THEIR HAREMS.” I wish I was making that last part up.
There are, however, exceptions. Eric Flint is waaaaay on the left. As in “Member of the Socialist Workers Party.” Probably makes writing conferences pretty interesting. Thankfully, Flint never delves into political screeds over the course of Worlds— though there is a pretty steady undercurrent of class struggle through Flint’s work. This usually takes the form of incompetent nobility/bureaucrats being shitty to the working-class protagonists. Even still, Flint’s more interested in whacky adventures than lecturing on Marx.
That sense of adventure is most evident in “Genie out of the Bottle,” a prequel to Rats, Bats, and Vats. This particular series is a Mil-SF comedy in which a colony planet is being invaded by horrible alien bugs … so the colonists use their genetic labs to create genetically enhanced, talking rats and bats in order to fight them. Oh, and the ‘vats’ are tank-bred cloned humans who are also an oppressed underclass, so they get sent off to fight too. Like I said, Flint’s a big lefty.
Oh, and it’s also worth noting that the rats had the collected works of William Shakespeare (along with some Gilbert & Sullivan to taste) downloaded into their brains for language purposes … and naturally the rats gravitate to (and name themselves after) the low comic characters. More Falstaff than Hamlet.
Like I said, this is a silly book.
Anyway, “Genie out of Bottle” is a novella bout Fitz, a “Shareholder” (basically human nobility) who winds up framed for attempted murder, and so he enlists as a grunt in the army to escape. And, of course, training and fighting alongside the vats lets him move past his class prejudices, etc.
The thing is, Fitz goes from a bit of an idiot to ‘competent Mil-SF officer’ in like, record time. ’cause the first thing he does when he gets his first shore leave is to go visit the woman who tried to frame him. It … doesn’t end well. Though the ensuing chaos (and arrest, and trial) at least get him to finally dump the gal, so there’s that. Even still, by the time he’s given his own squad to fight the bugs, Fitz proves himself to be a brilliant (or at least competent) officer. Then again, the pompus Shareholders kind of set a low bar. Fitz goes on to have some military-ish adventures, picks up some gnarly looking scars, and … kind of falls in love with a rat named Ariel? I’m not sure if Flint was trying to go for a romantic angle or a bickering sibling thing or what, but it’s … odd. “Genie out of the Bottle” is still a fun little adventure, though, and it’s got me wondering if I still have a copy of Rats, Bats, & Vats laying around somewhere, so I suppose it did it’s job there.
Unfortunately, the tie-ins to The Philosophical Strangler weren’t nearly as enjoyable. The Philosophical Strangler is set in Flint’s “Joe’s World” series (which consists of all of two novels, but still)– silly fantasy comedy. REALLY silly. “There is a character named Schrodinger’s Cat (who is not actually a cat)” silly. Think Discworld, only without the brilliant ruminations on human nature hiding below the surface. And again, comparing Flint to Pratchett is terribly unfair, but I bet they would’ve gotten along swimmingly if they ever met.
The problem with the Joe’s World segments is that the first one is straight-up the first chapter of The Philosophical Strangler, and the second one is a bizarre, nigh-nonsensical bit in which a bunch of characters (only a fraction of whom I could remember from The Philosophical Strangler) go to the Realm of Words, at which point a bunch of cheesy jokes are made, and then the story just sort of … ends. I guess it’s supposed to lead into some stuff in one of the actual Joe’s World books, maybe? At least Flint seemed to have fun writing the story– there’s a particularly shameless pun about italics that got me laughing out loud, so there’s that.
Finally (though it’s actually about mid-way through the book), Flint plays around in somebody else’s sandbox with “From the Highlands.” Instead of being “ships of the line IN SPAAACE,” like the main Weber novels, Flint goes for more espionage and stuff. The plot is fairly straightforward– some bad guys (a combination of Space-French Revolutionaries and Space-Slavers) kidnap a Space-British-Officer’s daughter as part of their eeeevil plot. Only the thing is, Space-British (well, I think he’s technically Space-Scottish?) is an Olympic level bodybuilder and martial artist in addition to being something of a spy, so it pretty much turns into “Taken, IN SPAAACE.”
“From the Highlands” definitely has one of the more amusing characters I’ve seen before. See, the 14 year old girl who gets kidnapped is also an expert martial artist (having trained since she was like 6) and quotes Von Clausewitz’s On War to herself from time to time. Because, y’know, teenage girls love military history, right? (My apologies to any teenaged black-belt historian girls who may be reading this blog). Oh, and the girl also kills three space-hobos with her kung fu– but it’s okay, because the space-hobos were trying to kidnap and rape her.
I guess Flint was just going with the ‘style’ of the Honorverse, in which the good guys are super good, and the bad guys are not only mustache-twirlingly evil, but also fairly incompetent. Thankfully, things never get explicit– though nowadays I look at the ‘rape as drama’ trope fairly askance. The Space-Slavers are pretty resoundingly awful as well– no doubt serving as a reason for the Space-Brits and Space-French to team up in a later Honor Harrington book or something. “From the Highlands” ties into the Honorverse somewhat– Flint mentions in a little author’s note at the beginning that his story actually inspired Weber to bring in the Space-Slavers into the main series as antagonists a lot earlier, so there’s that.
There’s still a good couple hundred pages of Worlds I haven’t read yet, on account of not being familiar with the respective series they’re based on. If I get ambitious and start reading a bunch more Baen books, I might even return to Worlds once I’m familiar with the Belasarius series or whatever. But that’s probably not gonna be for awhile yet.