Rapture in Everything

Vatta's War, by Elizabeth Moon


I've picked Trading in Danger by Elizabeth Moon more or less at random. It's the first instalment in the Vatta's War pentalogy. It's what I'd describe as a space adventure - it's set mostly in spaceships and stations. Definitely no hard sci-fi here. And don't think too hard about the "science". (Feel free to read on - no spoilers here.)

One minor qualm I had was that the plot took a while to get going, but then it told an engaging story about Kylara 'Ky' Vatta, a young daughter in a merchant family. She didn't want to join Vatta Transport, the family business, and instead enrolled with military. The book starts when she selflessly helps a fellow student and unwittingly creates a political problem for her superiors; so she's fired from the academy only a few weeks before graduation.

Struggling to come to terms with her new situation, to find her place in her family and the world at large, and to recover from a broken heart, she sets out to run a family errand. Before she finishes, she discovers shocking truths about the people around her, and most importantly - about herself.

The heroine is a good example of a "strong female character" - she avoids many clich├ęs, while actually having to deal with people expecting them. Yes, she can be cool and composed in danger, and won't panic easily. She can always control her heart and won't be falling head over heels just because she meets a handsome man. Yet everyone keeps expecting her to do just that, and she has to convince - over and over again - that her young age doesn't imply she's an incompetent airhead with a romantic streak. And she manages that without coming off as uncaring or lacking femininity. (So she dodges the typical cliche of "I am strong woman! Let me prove by dominating all men! *flexes butch muscles*")

Reading on

A couple months back, I decided to give the second book a try. I ended up getting hooked and finishing the whole series.

The overall experience was good - I liked every one of the books (though my favourite probably is the fourth one, Command Decision). The characters were well established and likeable, and the world interesting. I especially liked how the stakes were quite low in the first book and increased throughout the pentalogy. While much depends on the protagonist's actions in the last two books, at no point is the reader faced with a typical (and boring) "you have to save EVERYONE because REASONS!"

Each book fit nicely into a coherent whole, but every one of them had a complete story arc in itself. The author cleverly avoided the disappointing situations some longer series get into, when the last chapter leaves you with the bitter feeling that the whole book was just set-up for the next one, nothing really happened and there's no sense of closure.

Just one minor annoyance: in most books, there was a part where I thought a character is behaving stupidly. It seemed especially jarring, considering they were usually believably smart. But those parts ended relatively quickly and didn't end up spoiling the books for me.

I've read complaints about the protagonists' behaviour in some GoodReads reviews (can't seem to find the link now, sorry.) They complained e.g. about how "unrealistically they behaved - because when two people, purportedly in love, get in touch again while one of them thought the other is dead, there's NO WAY they'd just talk about military strategy!"

When I got to that part of the book, it turned out that a) they were engaged in combat and under attack at the time, and b) both of the characters in question have been established over and over as prioritising their agendas over their feelings. I happen to think that this was exactly the correct response to the situation, given the backgrounds of the characters. Your mileage may vary, I guess.


I've listened to the GraphicAudio's renditions, and I'm more than satisfied. They always have good actors and impressive sound effects, but they do a lot of editing to make the book fit their format. Which is understandable, of course - there's no need to have every "he said, she said" in the narration, when the characters are clearly recognizable by their voice, for example.

I find that while I do like it in books with simpler prose, where I expect fun more than any literary flourishes, I prefer unabridged, word-for-word readings for anything more complex and/or stylistically challenging or unusual. (Ahem, Stand on Zanzibar.) Vatta's War fell squarely into the former category, and the voice actress matched Ky Vatta's voice and nature perfectly. I can only recommend it.

The world, and the rest.

There are no plot spoilers here - just some musings and inferences on the world building. They might be, and probably are, completely wrong. I wouldn't consider them spoilers at all, but just in case you do: you've been warned.

You clearly shouldn't dwell too much on the technology - it's basically like magic, inasmuch as the characters don't know how it works and don't really care. No hard sci-fi here. But one of the parts that define sci-fi for me - application of technological concepts to their logical conclusions and implications - is done well here.

When it turns out that ansibles can, despite decades of contrary claims, be made small enough to mount on ships, there are serious implications for warfare. When you're sending messages over distances so big that communications are slowed because of the limited speed of light, the party that has instant communications anyway has a huge tactical advantage. This is not just written off in a couple sentences, but actually becomes an integral part of the story.

The human society at large (thankfully, no aliens here) doesn't make much sense, if you think about how functioning galaxy-spanning one might be organized. Most worlds fend for themselves, or join relatively small alliances. They employ privateers to deal with space pirates and other minor threats. Guns are routinely allowed and used even in crowded, civilian space stations. There are systems with weird rules, restrictions or legal systems - like the one where they value propriety so much that being rude in court can be a capital offense.

But if you think about the whole system as the successor of a more sane and realistic one, but now in decline for many decades, it suddenly kind of fits. All of those things - weird customs, absurd rules about armaments, privateering and piracy - might arise from a society falling into chaos, where there just isn't any authority to keep everyone in order. And that actually seems to be the case.

So that's my preferred interpretation: not that the universe is just conveniently made "just the same as on Earth, but in space", but that it has arisen from a far more capable society that's now crumbling.

The various individual systems (and by that I mean a planet, or a few inhabited planets, in a single star system) remind me of city states. They present themselves as a single entity, deal with their neighbours, hire their armies as mercenaries or use privateers.

The parallel, however, can be stretched even further: when you measure distances between combatting ships in light-minutes (or even light-hours) and give one of the warring sides FTL communications, I imagine the result is similar to what might have happened in a good ol' terrestrial war, when one of the sides had access to radios and looking glass, and the other still had to rely on human message carriers.

Your interpretation might, of course, vary from mine. (And I haven't made any effort to find out whether the author has addressed any of these questions outside the books themselves.) But for me, the sole fact that the book even raises these questions - that it's interesting enough to make me pause, think, and even write - is a huge plus. And even if you're less inclined to overanalyse fictitious environments, the books are still enjoyable.

Cover image obviously stolen from GraphicAudio.