Fool’s War, Sarah Zettel

Warner Aspect, 1998, 455 pages, C$6.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60293-0

A few contemporary Science Fiction critics of late have bemoaned the tendency of contemporary SF to become entrenched upon itself. Rather than being stories about the effect of rational change on humanity, SF is now most about SF itself. Instead of fresh ideas, we get stories that are explicitly about SF gadgets, space adventures with robots, laser guns and aliens that refer only to other SF stories and not plausible development from today’s world.

This description of SF-as-SF certainly applies very well to the “media” segment of written SF, those bastardized written STAR TREK episodes, or infamous STAR WARS trilogies. These are not SF-as-literature-of-ideas, but SF-as-moneymaking-machine-for-media-corporation. The work aims at nothing more ambitious than giving existing fans a story in a predefined universe where sweeping changes are forbidden by license holders.

But one doesn’t need to go in media-SF territory to encounter SF-as-SF. The whole segment of space opera is arguably based on premises that will not be realized “in the real world”. Who can argue in favour of Faster-That-Light engines? Who believes that Galactic Empires are a viable form of government? For all we know, FTL drives will never exist and all of space-opera is fantasy.

So say the critics. And they’re mostly right: SF has acquired a specialized audience in its long existence, and many of these readers are perfectly content with good old-fashioned stories about AIs, robots, aliens and galactic empires. Where critics err, however, is when they assume that SF-as-SF is somehow less worthy than its more realistic counterpart. Which finally brings us to Sarah Zettel’s second novel, Fool’s War.

Judge for yourself from the plot description: “Katmer Al Shei, owner of the starship Pasadena, does not know she is carrying a living entity in her ship’s computer systems. Or that the electronic network her family helped weave holds a new race fighting for survival. Or that her ship’s professional Fool is trying to avert a battle that could destroy entire worlds.” The only missing thing is a few exclamation points.

But however conventionally specialized her setting may be, Zettel knows how to please her public. Fool’s War is clearly written (up to a point where it’s easy to skim and gloss over crucial details), her characters are pretty well-defined and the plotting maintains an adequate level of interest.

Her take on Artificial Intelligence is one of the elements that Zettel brings to the SF idea cauldron by writing a genre novel. In Fool’s War, AI self-consciousness is a product of sudden paranoia. Succinctly put, sentience happens as soon as a program realizes that it is susceptible to being turned off at any moment. The inevitable systemic crashes caused by newly-conscious paranoid AIs are cause of significant concern for many characters in the novel, and some barely-repressed anger from one particular character.

Distinctive touches like these, plus genuine dialogue skill, cause renewed interest in Fool’s War. Zettel’s attention to the people side make her space opera read far more like Lois McMaster Bujold than E.E Doc Smith. While some elements are unconvincing (Her inclusion of Islamic characters is understandable, but neither touching or impressive), the novel as a while holds up pretty well.

Though “merely” a genre novel, Fool’s War play the rules of the game very well. Experienced SF readers will find what they expect in here: A good plot, professional characterization and touches of humour mixed with a sprinkling of ideas. With just some more work, Zettel shows a lot of promise as an author worthy of attention.

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