Wednesday, November 29, 2017

"Valiant Dust"

A former United States Navy officer and a well-known game designer, Richard Baker is the author of over a dozen novels, including the New York Times best seller Condemnation (2003) and the highly acclaimed The Last Mythal trilogy (2004–2006). He is a lifelong devotee of science fiction and fantasy, a history enthusiast (particularly military history), and an avid fan of games of all kinds.

Baker applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, Valiant Dust, and reported the following:
This struck me as a really interesting challenge, just because I tend to do this when I’m deciding whether to buy a book in the store (although I don’t pick a specific page number to check). Anyway, I had no idea which scene I’d find myself in by flipping to page 69 of Valiant Dust until I looked.
Lara gave Randall a sharp look, but a moment later she smiled coolly and intertwined her arm with Sikander’s. “I am sorry if it was not clear before, Mr. Randall, but Sikander is my date for the evening. And I certainly wouldn’t refer to a culture so rich and artistically mature as Kashmir’s as disadvantaged in any way.”

“If you say so,” Randall replied. “I suppose primitive belief systems are quite fascinating. The fact that they have survived up to the modern day says quite a lot about human nature—although not much that is complimentary, I am afraid.”

“Oh, here it comes again,” Magdalena Juarez said. “Hiram, no one cares what you think about their beliefs. Leave it alone.”

“I don’t mean to offend,” Randall said. “I am sincerely trying to satisfy my own curiosity. What exactly is the nature of Ms. Dunstan’s interest in this arrangement? Political? Charitable? Anthropological, perhaps?”

“Ms. Dunstan’s interests are none of your business, Mr. Randall,” said Sikander in an icy tone.

“I don’t see that they ought to be yours, either.” Randall gave a small shrug and took a level sip from the highball glass in his hand.
Well, that’s an interesting spot to land on! It turns out that this is the scene where Sikander North, the protagonist of the story, stands up to his shipmate Hiram Randall when Randall does his level best to provoke Sikander into taking a swing at him. It’s a social occasion—the Governor’s Ball on the planet of New Perth—and Randall has made it clear more than once already that he doesn’t believe Sikander North, a Kashmiri, is qualified to serve in Aquila’s star navy. Hiram Randall is a mean drunk, and Sikander is just about ready to slug him when all of Hector’s officers are summoned back to the ship by an emergency recall.

The reason this scene is in the book is that it offers a glimpse of the social life of serving officers. Many military SF books show the characters only in the context of the military challenges they’re facing—they rarely seem to leave the bridge. But fleet life isn’t just about being on a ship 24-7; what you do on your off time is also important. I also meant to convey something about the refinement and genteel manners of high-ranking officers in the Aquilan Navy (although Hiram Randall is currently acting like an ass). Finally, the scene illustrates the smugness and elitism of Aquila’s atheistic monoculture; people like Randall are contemptuous of the culture and traditions of more isolated planets such as Sikander’s homeworld.

Is page 69 representative of Valiant Dust? I think my answer is sort of. The central conflict of the story revolves around Great Powers fighting for control of a valuable colony world. The Governor’s Ball of New Perth doesn’t directly figure into the unrest, chaos, politics, and military conflicts roiling the planet of Gadira. But it does help to establish who Sikander is and what sort of challenges he faces from his own side when he has to begin making choices between what’s good for Aquila—the Great Power in whose navy he serves—and what’s right for the people of Gadira, whose plight is very familiar to him.
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--Marshal Zeringue