Wed
Aug 29 2012 1:30pm

Romans and Aliens: R. M. Meluch’s “Tour of the Merrimack” books

Romans and Aliens: Jo Walton rereads R.M. Meluch’s “Tour of the Merrimack” booksA long time ago, I asked readers on my Livejournal for recommendations of books with aliens and spaceships. I was already reading everything people recommended, except for Julie Czernada and R. M. Meluch. I had read some Meluch—I’d read Jerusalem Fire back in the eighties and thought it was promising. I’d lost track of her since, but I started to keep an eye out for the Merrimack books. They were hard to find. They’re not in the library. The first one, The Myriad, has never ever been in stock in Chapters/Indigo in Montreal. If I know I want something I’ll buy it online, but this stayed on my vague pick-it-up-sometime list for the last five years. I finally picked it up at Powell's in Portland this past January, probably the best bookstore I have ever been in. I read it on the train, and I bought all the others and read them all in a matter of weeks. I’ve just re-read them.

There are five of them The Myriad (2003), Wolf Star (2005), The Sagittarius Command (2007), Strength and Honor (2009) and The Ninth Circle (2011).

There are a number of things about them that are absolutely wonderful. There are also other things about them that are just cringe-inducingly terrible. I can’t think of anything else offhand that needs me to forgive so much but which remains worth it.

No spoilers yet.

To start with, there are Romans in space. And there are American marines in space. And in a logical universe they’d be fighting each other, but in the universe they find themselves in they are allied against amazingly horrific FTL tentacled aliens. Now, if that doesn’t already have you sitting up straighter in your chair, these books are probably not for you. But there’s also an awesome narrative element in play in these books, which is what makes me really like them.

You know why there are Romans in space, in our future? It’s because the Roman Empire never died, it just became a huge underground conspiracy, running the world in secret until there was a suitable terraformed planet, whereupon they grabbed it and sent out the call and lots of doctors and lawyers and classics majors up and left Earth to head for Nova Roma to re-found the empire. (The only reason I know that this conspiracy doesn’t really exist is that if it did, I would be in it. See you on Palatine!)

Meluch likes her Romans less than I do, which means that my sympathy is sometimes in the wrong place. And she has them reinstitute slavery and gladiatorial games, which is extremely unlikely as well as unpleasant. But still, I’ll put up with a lot for Romans in space.

The aliens are good, too. The Hive are genuinely incomprehensible aliens and they are well thought through and work. As alien menaces go, they’re an impressive one. They’re not just an excuse for having swords on starships, cool as swords on starships might be. There are other aliens too, some just mentioned and some seen, and they help to make the universe feel like a fun future.

This is military SF, and all her American military characters are out of the stock box—John Farragut, the commander who’s so sincere and such a real man that he can actually express his emotions; Kerry Blue, the female marine who Helen Wright summarized on a Farthing Party panel on these books as “a tart with a heart”; Steele,  the marine leader who secretly loves her; Callista Carmel, the lieutenant whose fatal flaw is that she’s too beautiful; Glenn “Hamster” Hamilton, the other lieutenant who the captain pretends he doesn’t love... They’re just paper thin sketch outlines of characters, and that’s fine, because look, an alien swarm! The plot always moves fast and there are aliens to kill. But there’s also a Roman character, Augustus, who is a patterner, and who is sarcastic and clever and just wonderful. Augustus is the one who I’d be reading the books for. He’s not black and white and two-dimensional, and the other characters really are.

If it wasn’t for the amazing narrative element that makes these books awesome, what I’d say about them is that they are fun military adventure SF with Romans in space. They’re readable and fast moving and keep drawing you onwards; they have lots of plot and just enough character to pull you through.

And then I’d talk about the awful things—the archetype/cliché characters and the really iffy gender stuff. A friend of mine stopped reading The Myriad after a line describing Kerry Blue as being so easy it wasn’t possible to rape her because she didn’t know the word no—I could get past that because it was a character saying it and not the authorial voice, but really that’s just not acceptable. They also have caricature politics. I groan every time the “League of Earth Nations” is mentioned. There are other problematic things about them too—I may find the idea of a future American selling himself into slavery in the Roman Empire so he can have education and healthcare perfectly plausible, but did that character have to be black?

So what I would do is give a qualified recommendation—they're not good books but they’re good enough for the kind of day where what you want to do is lop the tentacles off everything in sight with a sword while standing on the outer hull of a spaceship. Don’t tell me everyone doesn’t have days like that.

So I was reading The Myriad and taking it on those terms, and then about eighty percent of the way through the book it takes an abrupt left turn into being brilliant.

SPOILERS ahead.

Real book-destroying spoilers! But it is nevertheless these spoilers for which I commend these books to your attention.

There are some people, aliens actually, who very early on in the history of the universe colonized a planet via a wormhole. They plan to send a message back through the wormhole that could change all the subsequent history of the universe, so our intrepid heroes try to stop them. It’s the last minute and it’s a race to the wormhole and... they don’t. And the entire history of the universe gets changed! Only the characters don’t realise it, because for them it has always been that way. This section of the book is called “a logical universe” and in a logical universe the Romans and Americans would be at war, and so they are. Augustus isn’t with them on the bridge. A CIA political officer is there instead.

For all of the books from that point on, Meluch gets to play with an extra layer of irony, foreshadowing and things that the reader knows that the characters do not. The whole end of The Myriad had me bouncing up and down with excitement, as well as saying “Can you do that?” I was reading Wolf Star on the bus, and it kept making me smile with all of the double-layer narratives it was expressing and I kept reading and grinning more and more widely. A stranger said “Good book?” and I realised that I couldn’t possibly explain what it was that was making me so happy, because for somebody reading Wolf Star alone it would just be a fairly usual kind of MilSF novel. It was my shadow knowledge that was making me smile. I think this is marvelous, and I can’t think of anything else like it.

On a panel regarding these books, Alec Austin suggested that this “hard reset on the universe” is something that’s much more common in visual media, and that it seems cooler to me than it would to most people because I don’t enjoy visual media, and that TV and comics do this often. This may well the case. And I don’t want lots of books to do this, because it would get tired pretty quickly. But I love it here, because it lifts these books into a whole other level of enjoyment as the tensions play out against each other. She keeps some threads in play longer than others, and by the end of Strength and Honor they are pretty much all resolved.

 


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

14 comments
Chris Long
1. radynski
"The only reason I know that this conspiracy doesn’t really exist is that if it did, I would be in it."

Or you're just attempting to wave away speculation and there really is a conspiracy!
Fade Manley
2. fadeaccompli
I would totally be in that conspiracy if it existed. Or maybe I just need to take a few more Latin classes, and they'll finally let me in...
Scotoma
3. Scotoma
Meluch's 1989 War Birds is one of my favorite all-time greats. Everything is just perfect from characterization, to the aliens, the plot and other stuff. I sometimes think I'm the only one who knows the novel. Sadly while I thought some aspects of the Merrimack books made for good reading, the weaknesses were so cringe-inducing that I stopped after the second one. It boggles my mind that Meluch could write something as awesome as War Birds and then produce something as hollow as the Merrimack series.
Paul Weimer
4. PrinceJvstin
Bought "The Myriad" on Amazon (its on Kindle!). No hesitation.
Scotoma
5. Patrick M.
The author is truely one of the great underrated authors of SciFi.
Kristoff Bergenholm
6. Magentawolf
Augghh!

The Myriad absolutely caused me to rage when I got to that particular point of the story. It completely negated the entire book! Why bother writing it and forcing me to read it?!

I can admire it from a plot-centric point of view, but not from a technical 'is this any fun to read?' view.

If the two universes ever interacted, I could forgive him for it, but I don't remember it happening at any point...
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
Scotoma: I'll look for that. Thank you.
Paul Lewandowski
8. Snowkestrel
I devoured this series last year after finishing John Ringo's Looking Glass series, and wanting more space opera. I was actually pleased by the Merrimack's mere sketch of politics, mostly because Mr. Ringo uses much real-world politics in his books, and I sometimes find that it detracts from the story.

But that wasn't the best part. It seems to me that Meluch intentionally contrasts the Merrimack's technology and organization with Star Trek's tropes, just to do them in a more modern and more realistic (for space opera) fashion. I absolutely loved it.

Oh- and I really felt like the Romans were a counter to Star Trek's Romulans, but that could just be my prejudiced view of the tech talking.
Scotoma
9. cofax
I did enjoy reading these--I was impressed by the sharp turn at the end of the first one, and loved the aliens and the tech requiring swordplay on board space ships. But I had to stop after the third one, because the women were all either boring good girls or cheerful sluts, and there were some issues of racial representation I found quite disturbing (such as the one identified Asian character being a grossly-stereotypical sneak and traitor). Oh, and the complete unironic presentation of American exceptionalism and the weakness of international peacemaking efforts.

In my LJ review, I said, "if you're in the mood for a fast-paced adventure with rugged manly heroic types and you don't mind that the universe is apparently destined to be run by white American men, they're worth reading."

One last point: there's a highly slashy relationship between Farragut and Augustus, which some readers might enjoy. All issues of trust and enemy-attraction and so forth...
Mike Cross
10. MikeCross
Having read and, at least, enjoyed, all of her earlier books, I was delighted to see The Myriad appear after so many years of no-new-books. Unfortunately I couldn't get on with it at all, and can't recall why I didn't like it, or even if I finished it.

I highly recommend all of her pre-Merrimack books, especially Sovereign.
Sherwood Smith
11. Sartorias
Oh, yes, oh yes. That point that transcends to brilliance. After that I had to order them all.
Mike Scott
12. drplokta
Something else that (to me) is quite like the double-layered readings of the later Merrimack books is A Deepness in the Sky and all the extra things that we know and the characters never find out, because we've read A Fire Upon the Deep.
Beth Mitcham
13. bethmitcham
My reaction was similar -- Can you do that? And sometimes I miss the earlier characters. I haven't read the last one yet, and I haven't tried to reread them.

Does the first one read differently on reread? Because you know you are hurtling towards that cliff. It seems like it would be hard to keep on.
Jo Walton
14. bluejo
Beth: Yes. But I really enjoyed the roller-coaster feeling of heading towards that plunge.

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