BOOK REVIEW: “Scat” by Jim Graham (2011)

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Regular readers of Republibot (Assuming any survived our recent flame war) may recall that a few months ago I reviewed a book called “Birdie Down” by Jim Graham ( http://www.republibot.com/content/book-review-%E2%80%9Cbirdie-down%E2%80...
). I called it the best independently published science fiction E-book I’d read. As that book was a sequel, I decided to give the first book in the series a shot, and I’m happy to say it, too, is a really good book. Mr. Graham has some genuine talent.

Sebastian Scatkiewicz - known by the semi-unfortunate nickname “Scat” - is a former US Marine. We first meet him at the tail end of the “Resource Wars” on earth a few generations into the future. The major power blocs and nations are fighting each other for earth’s declining goodies. The conflict is inherently corrupt, with nations and megacorporations screwing each other left and right even as they fight the enemy in order to gain advantage. The marines - and presumably the population as a whole - are caught in the middle. “Scat” is a somewhat legendary leader in the field, with a history of taking matters into his own hands, even if it’s not particularly politically wise for him to do so.

Jump forward several years: Scat took matters into his own hands one time too many, and he’s now a civilian attempting to make a new life for himself in the off world colonies. The colonies are mostly corporate, and there’s an “Owe my soul to the company store” nature to them, though it’s not nearly so oppressive as that. Still, there’s a feeling of nominal indenture hanging in the air. There’s also a kind of cultural sterility: the companies are pretty strict about whom they allow to emigrate. There are no religious folk, there are no Chinese on any of the worlds we see, because the Chinese have their own space empire and are a political threat, as are the religious. This isn’t one big happy Star Trekian future. The colonized planets are mostly only marginally habitable (Which is a rarely-used plot device that I love), and existence is relatively hardscrabble.

Much of the first half of the book revolves around a mining asteroid, and “Go Down City” on one of the colony worlds. It’s built in a cavern that’s been roofed over, and it’s a really fun location. It feels completely developed and thought out, and feels lived in, like a real place. As a guy who’s written a few books myself, I’m here to tell you that coming up with a location that actually *feels* like a location is no mean feat, but we get such a sense of Go Down that you can almost map some of it in your head. I actually feel like I learned a few literary tricks from that, which I hope to steal in the future.

The plot involves Scat meeting new people like Andrew “Birdie” Goosen and others, and getting embroiled in a revolutionary movement intent on throwing off the shackles of corporate dictatorship. The author is English, and I know that’s going to sound horribly socialist to many readers of this site, but it’s not. It’s more like an “American Revolution in Space” much like The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (Minus the creepy line marriages) or The Island Worlds or any number of other books. It’s a trope. It’s not a bad trope, however, and the wheels within wheels machinations that lead to the somewhat-spastic not-entirely-successful revolution are pretty interesting, particularly as Scat ends up embroiled in several of them at the same time, and not all on the same side, either.

This reaches a peak, we jump forward five years, and then what basically amounts to a second novel begins.

Something that always fascinates me is how technology changes life in ways we don’t anticipate. Let’s take, for instance, medicine as a random example: let’s say there’s a pill that will double the average human life span, from about 80 years to about 160 years. What effect will that have? Well, for starters every life insurance company in the world goes out of business overnight. Why? Because their profits are based on mortuary charts based on very specific statistics about average longevity. If human life is doubled, then that goes out the window. That means an entire industry is gone, and several hundred thousand people are out of work in the US alone. Meanwhile, the population of the world expands startlingly because people don’t have 2 or 3 or 4 kids and die off. Rather they have kids for twice as long, and don’t die for a very long time themselves. Forget ‘population explosion’, this is more like a ‘population supernova.’ Which means resources would be used at a much greater rate….well you get the idea, right?

That’s *not* what happens here, it’s just an example of something I’ve always been fascinated by: Technology changes life. Sometimes it changes it so much and so rapidly that all our values and struggles get put on the shelf as completely irrelevant. The second half of the book surprisingly explores that: a new technology emerges that makes the revolution more-or-less meaningless. Scat and his buddies are effortlessly captured, and put to work by their previous enemies (and not-entirely-friendly bosses) in the hazardous testing and exploration of this new technology. It’s such a game changer that it threatens to completely re-define the interstellar economy, and the balance of power for all humanity. Beyond that, I can’t tell you more without ruining it.

In the coda, the new technology proves to have a horrifying price that I honestly didn’t see coming, that I’ve never seen used before in a lifetime of reading SF, and which - hopefully - will be the setup for a sequel.

OBSERVATIONS

The sequel, “Birdie Down” (Available here: http://www.amazon.com/Birdie-Down-Rebellion-ebook/dp/B007C24EWE/ref=la_B... ) takes place in the five-year gap between the two halves of this novel. What do we call that? A “Sidequel?” An “Interquel?” Something like that.

On a lot of levels, I actually liked this book a lot more than I did “Birdie Down.” That’s not at all to contradict what I said in my review of that book, which I still believe is the best self-published SF E-book I’ve read. It’s just that this one is so much more ambitious. There’s a ton of world-building here, a lot of characters working at crossed purposes, several major plot twists. “Birdie Down” is more episodic. “Scat” is more epic. There are many balls in the air, then someone shoots the juggler and grabs the balls before they fall, and then it happens again. It’s just kind of neat. The first half of the book is engaging, but as I said above, it’s a trope and nothing we haven’t seen before, even if it’s more fun than we generally see. The second half of the book takes a completely-unforeseen (but logical) hairpin turn into far-less-explored territory, and the coda is…well, I was drop jawed. I don’t get drop jawed often, though I must caution Christian readers that the finale will undoubtedly be pretty disturbing. Conservative Christians may want to give this one a pass, at least until we find out exactly what all this means in the (Eventual) third book in the series.

That said: “Birdie Down” is a better *written* book than “Scat.” This isn’t to say it’s unreadable, simply that this is Mr. Graham’s first book, and he’s a bit less polished here than he is in the next one. It’s an experience thing, but it’s also only incremental, not distracting. He’s got talent, and he’s simply more comfortable with his artistry in the second book than he is here. That minor caveat out of the way, this is a fun book, and a good read.

I particularly liked that this vision of the future doesn’t involve a utopian world state in which everyone gets along. Instead, the earth is much like Europe in the age of empires, with each nation desperately trying to grab on to, and exploit, more territory beyond the continent. It seems to me, logically, that given human nature, that’s likely the way things will play out.

I recommend the book, and eagerly look forward to seeing what Mr. Graham will do next.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?

Yes, unless you’re an extremely conservative Christian, in which case the conclusion will disturb you.

The book can be purchased here:
http://www.amazon.com/Scat-Universe-ebook/dp/B006OM9GX0/ref=la_B006OZL5Y...

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Holiday bots

Scorpious's picture

>>Regular readers of Republibot (Assuming any survived our recent flame war) may recall...<<

I imagine flame wars would jack up the page view numbers. It's true that it's been a little quieter than usual here since it died down, though. In particular, no bots in the comments.

I assumed you was all on vacation :-)

Sigh. Shake head.

10000li's picture

Should I start an economics class for the 'botitude? or just for R3?

"let’s say there’s a pill that will double the average human lifespan, from about 80 years to about 160 years. What effect will that have? Well, for starters every life insurance company in the world goes out of business overnight. Why? Because their profits are based on mortuary charts based on very specific statistics about average longevity. If human life is doubled, then that goes out the window. That means an entire industry is gone, and several hundred thousand people are out of work in the US alone."

Actually the opposite would happen.

Life Insurance profits are derived entirely from how long they hold the money they get in premiums. The longer you pay your premiums - the more money they make, because they invest the money (obviously). When people live longer, premiums become lower (as they are now, compared to say, 1952) because a person who lives longer is cheaper/more profitable for the insurance company to cover.

It's people who die near the beginning of the policy that cost the companies the most money. If I sold you a policy today and dropped dead next month, my company would have to pay at least a percentage of the policy right away, and usually the whole thing after we had determined that you were not trying to rip us off.

How much of a population explosion there would be depends almost entirely on how healthy the old people are, and how well cared for are the old and sick. If 100 is the new 30, then people will quickly realize they do not need so many kids, since the primary function of children in most of the world is to take care of the parents in their dotage. It has been shown time and time again that people from countries known for lots and lots of kids quit having so many when they come to developed nations, or when they start having lots of discretionary income in their own countries. The basic rule is this: Poor people who have lots of kids are still poor. Rich people who have lots of kids decrease their lifestyle, so they have fewer. The vast majority of babies in North America, northern EU and Japan are born to new immigrants (by percentage of population). The second-generation immigrants usually have one or two kids only.

So, if everyone on earth could suddenly live to 160, there would be a bit of momentum leading to an increase in population. But pretty quickly, people alive today who do not have kids would realize that they could wait longer and longer to get married and have families, if they even wanted to at all. When you have three lifetimes of your own, you can inherit your own legacy.

What's more likely than a sustained population explosion is a big spike and then a decline. In fact, people will become so self-centered that they will have to be persuaded to have children at all.

old cliches

Scorpious's picture

>>The vast majority of babies in North America, northern EU and Japan are born to new immigrants (by percentage of population).<<

The "northern EU" is what I'm taking exception to. The truth is, the "mamma italiana" cliche has lived and died. Northern and Western Europeans now make more babies than southern Europeans to. The main reason is economical. It's northern European countries (Scandinavia, Benelux, France, UK, Germany) that have the most favorable child welfare policies and tax incentives.

This is coupled, especially the further north you go, with a very strong women's equality movement, which somehow managed to persuade women that "equality for women means having careers AND children" rather than something like "equality for women means having careers INSTEAD OF children," as in the US (I think). Because there are such generous state incentives for having children and raising families [[free healthcare, very lengthy mandated parental (for BOTH parents) leave, free childcare (and later, education), very hefty tax incentives for families + subsidies state services (electricity, train and bus fares, vacation packages, etc), a whole slew of child support cash benefits, etc,]] people actually do currently have a lot more kids in the northern EU than the southern countries that are mostly too poor to have implemented all or many of these incentives.

There's also the cultural factor that (especially the further north you go) single-parent and recomposed families are not stigmatized. It's not odd or awkward for women to have children regardless of their age, relationship status, or career choices.

As you can see from this fertility chart, Spain, Greece, Italy, Portugal, etc, are among the lowest countries, while Ireland, France, Sweden, Finland, UK, etc are the highest. Of course, it's true that in these countries recent immigrants probably still have more kids than the locals, but there's more to it than that. http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/statistics_explained/index.php?title=Fi...

***

I'm amazed that after decades of one-child policy, population is estimated to continue growing in China for decades. Of course, I realize that people are living longer, but still ... I'd have thought it would have evened out a lot quicker than it is. What would their population be like if they hadn't restricted the number of children?

Paying For Babies

Mama Fisi's picture

Scorpious please remind me which country you're from, again...? Is it Germany? I forgot.

My husband's paternal uncle and aunt lived in France for many years, and even though they maintained their American citizenship, they still were paid a stipend from the French government for having children.

Masquerading as a normal person day after day is exhausting.
Magpie House Comics
http://www.hirezfox.com/km/

Paying for Babies II

10000li's picture

Scorpy,

What you are describing is exactly what I talked about in the concluding line of my post:

In fact, people will become so self-centered that they will have to be persuaded to have children at all. (emphasis added)

It's because the middle income and high income people of northern Europe were focusing so much on themselves and not having kids that the governments decided to implement the incentives to child rearing. Those countries have been "losing" their native populations. Immigrants were starting to "take over."

What I didn't realize was that my prediction was already reality in northern Europe.

The same thing happened in Singapore. The government first "asked" families to have only one child. The Chinese, who control most of the government and businesses, obliged. The "lesser races" of Tamils, Malays and Indonesians ignored the government, as they usually do. Pretty soon, the Chinese realized they were going to lose control due to there not being enough of them. The government then begin paying rich, educated families (aka Chinese) to have more kids. So pretty soon you would see these well-to-do Chinese families with one older son and two very young children. Another thing the Singapore government did was create and agency called the "Social Development Unit," SDU. It was a government-funded matchmaking program to get more rich, educated Chinese to marry each other and have kids.

The popular name for the agency was:

"Single, Desperate and Ugly."

Origins

Scorpious's picture

I'm French. My dad is from Toronto, Canada, so I'm also (English) Canadian but I've never been.
My wife is American, and I've spent a few years all told in the States, but not enough to knowledgeably argue anything, heh.