Tag Archives: Scott Westerfeld

Succession, Scott Westerfeld

<em class="BookTitle">Succession</em>, Scott Westerfeld

(Also known as The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds)
SFBC, 2003, 530 pages, ??.?? hc, ISBN 0-7394-3801-8

By now, Scott Westerfeld is best known as a massively successful author of Young Adult science-fiction.  His “Peeps” trilogy has earned him a large teen following, and most of his books since then have been aimed (by choice, with compelling arguments) to the younger set.  Given this, it’s easy to forget some of Westerfeld’s earlier works, especially those that were aimed at the adult market.  The last of those was the space-opera diptych The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds, known together as Succession.

Part of why Succession continues to escape notice can be traced back to the Westerfeld’s publisher.  When Succession was first published, Tor felt market pressures to split the complete story into two volumes, severely harming the novel’s shot at awards and even readers’ attention.  It’s no secret that a split novel costs more to buy, but it’s also true that a split novel creates frustration: Here, The Risen Empire ends on a cliffhanger, while The Killing of Worlds makes little sense if you haven’t read the first volume.  (Amazingly, I see that Tor doesn’t seem to consider this a problem, since it’s currently re-publishing Succession in separate volumes.)  This makes the hard-to-find SFBC unified version the only good way to read the story –albeit not the perfect way, as their edition is marred by a sans-serif font choice and the SFBC’s usually unreliable binding.

Kvetching about the publishing industry aside, the novel itself is worth some attention.  Fully embracing space-opera, Succession delivers a vacillating empire, courageous characters, strong battle sequences (including a bravura space battle that takes place over a quarter of the story), fully developed science-fiction aesthetics and personal stories with galactic implications.  Much of the setting doesn’t make sense except in the rigidly constrained frame of space-operas, but never mind the plausibility aspect: this is a novel that plays around with SF tropes to deliver a reading experience that readers versed in SF protocols will enjoy to the fullest.

Much of the novel rests on two characters: Opposition politician Nara Oxham and military hero Laurent Zai.  Ironically enough, neither of them actually meet during the story aside from a few flashbacks: Zai is the point man of the Empire’s forces on a small backwater planet during an enemy attack, while Oxham has a privileged outlook on the political fallout of that attack.  Several characters surround them and tell their part of the story, from various men and women under Zai’s command to an enemy agent dropped behind the Empire’s lines.

It’s a measure of Westerfeld’s contemporary genre-awareness that Empire and its Rix opponents are evenly matched in our affections:  While the ultra-optimized Rix is portrayed as being contrary to everything our protagonists’ Empire stands for, the Empire itself doesn’t seem particularly appealing from the get-go.  This ends up placing our affections with the characters rather than their social structure, a distinction that a number of space-opera writers can’t be bothered to study.  It’s also a good choice given how much emphasis is placed on the characters themselves.  The last line of the story makes it clear that this is, aside its military SF language, a romance.

But Succession does stand on its own as a hard-tech Science Fiction story:  Westerfeld’s use of contemporary infotech jargon can be as good as his contemporary Charles Stross (high praise indeed) and the showpiece of the story ends up being a meticulously conceived, impeccably presented space battle between two ships that owes practically nothing to naval battles of the past.  It doesn’t make complete sense (there’s a “run silent” scene that evokes bad memories of “stealth in space”), but it’s a lot of fun to read, and the detail in which blows are described will warm the heart of the techno-geeks readers.

For everyone else (and overlapping sets of readers), Succession is a good story presented in the overblown style of grandiose space-opera.  Numerous gadgets, clean prose (albeit with a sense of humor) and a conclusion that doesn’t quite wrap up all the threads end up making a clear case for Westerfeld’s return to this universe.  If you’ve missed Succession so far, it’s worth a look: It holds up admirably well half a decade later, and it may even drive you to read some of Westerfeld’s novels for the younger generation.

So Yesterday, Scott Westerfeld

<em class="BookTitle">So Yesterday</em>, Scott Westerfeld

Razorbill, 2004, 225 pages, C$25.00 hc, ISBN 1-59514-000-X

At this point, I don’t have to be convinced anymore that Young Adult fiction can be just as enjoyable than adult fiction for older readers, but Scott Westerfeld’s So Yesterday clues me in that there are some issues that are best discussed within the frame of a YA novel.

I’m not necessarily talking about novel about specifically teenage issues. Obviously, YA is a natural choice for discussing first loves, teen angst, coming-of-age narratives or high school odysseys. But there are issues of universal importance that are best tackled by teenage protagonists.

The issue of cool, for instance.

Or, more specifically, the issue of how cool is identified, formalized and marketed to the population at large. How individual quirks can be marketed as counter-cultural icons and end up defining a demographic category. How culture is co-opted for strictly commercial goals, and how the landscape of our identities is shaped by other people. This is the kind of material that is important to all of us, no matter our age, gender or social demographic. But if you’re going to look at cool, what better protagonist than a teenager whose quest for cool occupies a significant chunk of his life?

Meet Hunter Braque, New Yorker. His job is to spot the new trends, and report them back to his employers. If something new walks down the streets of the Big Apple, it’s up to him and his colleagues to pass it along so that marketing directors and ad agency designers make use of it. From New York to the rest of the world is just a matter of data transmission: It’s not a stretch to say that Hunter has the power to alter culture around the globe.

But it’s not his job to worry about such things. He’s just supposed to live in the city and report on the new things that catch his eyes, snapping pictures along the way. Occasionally, he’s asked to comment on ad campaigns or walk around to demonstrate fancy new products. But everything takes a strange turn when his boss is kidnapped and he discovers a well-orchestrated marketing effort whose goals he can’t understand. A lavish launch party turns surreal when the invited jet-set is drugged and provided with party gifts of unexpected capabilities. Who’s calling the shot? And what are they selling?

If you’ve read at least one issue of Adbusters magazine (and you should), you will figure out that Hunter has fallen through the rabbit hole into the plans of a few culture jammers. The mystery soon turns to thriller as Hunter is chased for having discovered too much. Along with a few friends, Hunter is stuck between curiosity and paranoia as he comes to realize how cool is manufactured…

As a YA thriller, So Yesterday isn’t without flaws: There are questions raised about counter-culture financing that the novel never bothers to address, even when the answers would have been even more thematically pernicious. But on a surface level, this is a quick and efficient novel that rushes through a number of good ideas, features compelling characters and has more on its mind than a simple adventure through the streets of New York City.

By its nature as a YA novel, talking to readers whose identities are directly shaped by marketing forces, So Yesterday also manages to tackle its themes in ways that are far more intriguing than any adult novel may have been able to do. That’s quite an achievement, and it’s a good lesson for writers who may be tempted to submit a YA book proposal. In retrospect, the thematic links between So Yesterday and Cory Doctorow’s acclaimed Little Brother (also concerned with teenage cultural sedition) are intriguing, and quite specific to YA. You won’t find quite the same stories in adult fiction; why not see for yourself if what the kids are reading is all right?

The Uglies Series, Scott Westerfeld

<em class="BookTitle">The Uglies Series</em>, Scott Westerfeld

Simon Pulse, 2005-2007, ???? pages, C$??.?? tpb, ISBN Various

Uglies, Simon Pulse, 2005, 425 pages, C$10.50 pb, ISBN 978-0-689-86538-1
Pretties, Simon Pulse, 2005, 370 pages, C$10.50 pb, ISBN 978-0-689-86539-8
Specials, Simon Pulse, 2006, 372 pages, C$11.50 pb, ISBN 978-1-4169-4795-0
Extras, Simon Pulse, 2007, 417 pages, C$19.99 hc, ISBN 978-1-4169-5117-9

If we’re to believe those with access to Bookscan sales numbers, Scott Westerfeld has become one of the best-selling SF author of the past decade without much attention from the genre SF community. Cannily, he’s been able to pass unnoticed by tapping the young adult market: Thanks to publishing silos, most YA publishing used to pass unnoticed from the adult fiction pundits. Things have improved somewhat over the past few years as YA’s bigger sales have shamed adult SF numbers, and one of the landmark works in the field has been Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy, which was ideally poised to benefit from the success of Westerfeld’s previous Peeps series.

In the spirit of reportage, your fearless reviewer dared plunge into the unfamiliar murk of the YA section to bring back a boxed set of the Uglies trilogy (Uglies, Pretties and Specials) along with a standalone fourth book (Extras) set in the same universe. How does it stack up next to the adult fiction? Should we all make a stop at the YA shelves from now on? Are the kids reading this going to grow up to be good SF fans? Keep reading.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of YA fiction is that it usually features younger protagonists, and so the initial Uglies trilogy stars Tally Youngblood, a teenage girl living in a world where there’s been quite a few changes to human society: Isolated cities exist in a post-apocalyptic landscape, and the stages of life have been formalized into distinct stages: “Littlies” grow up to be “Uglies” until their sixteenth birthday, at which point they are medically transformed into “Pretties” who enjoy a vacuous life until they grow older and become “Crumblies”. The city in which Tally lives is segregated by age, which leads to the usual hijinks in which the young ones try to see how the glamorous older set lives.

But Tally’s not the kind of person to go with how things usually go, and so she quickly discovers life outside the city, along with hints of a past catastrophe, an underground for rebels and the disturbing secret of the medical procedures that transform Uglies into Pretties. In latter volumes, she goes through the “Pretties” transformation herself, then reluctantly gets recruited to become a “Special” operative to act on behalf of the city government. Before she’s through she’ll have time to love a few boys, start a war and completely re-shape the society she lives in. What fun!

(The fourth volume, Extras, takes place years later with a fresh new social system and involves a largely different set of characters, though its perspective on Tally is intriguingly detached.)

From an adult SF reader’s perspective, the series holds up a certain interest: The extrapolation of various trends in entertaining, and Tally makes for a good narrator. Where it differs from adult SF is that the explanations are more laborious and take far more time to be revealed: savvy SF readers will guess most of the twists ahead of time, and roll their eyes at the falsely-frantic pace that doesn’t lead anywhere. On the other hand, readers unfamiliar with SF in general may not find a better series to learn the particularities of the genre.

The first volume is most interesting, as the stakes are clear and there’s an entirely new world to understand. The second volume is a notable step back, as the protagonist’s goals are less clearly defined. The third volume is bigger and more interesting, while the unplanned fourth book is an acceptable epilogue with enough space for some new ideas.

If that’s the kind of SF that the kids are reading today, we’re in good hands: it’s not dumb, it’s not dull and it’s not fantasy dressed up in silver costumes. It’s also quite different from the Heinlein juveniles, and that ought to be a lesson for whoever wants to write SF for teens: they don’t want regurgitated ideas from the fifties, they want stories that speak to the hyper-connected present. One of the best legacies of Westerfeld’s success so far has been to open up the YA market to the adult audience, ensuring that we’ll be able to recognize the best SF authors regardless of who they’re writing for. And who knows; maybe the infusion of contemporary SF tropes will even invigorate the sometimes-moribund adult genre…