Five SFF Books Driven by Terrible Choices and Appalling Judgment

Many people can assemble the available evidence, weigh it carefully in the light of past experience, and make a rational, sensible decision. Many more of us are sensible…most of the time. Then there are those who cannot turn down a dare, cannot gauge risks rationally, cannot listen to useful advice. Bad for them, but sometimes amusing for observers, and often just what an author needs to generate plot, suspense, and excitement.

Here are five SFF novels that involve appalling judgment.


Fortuna by Kristyn Merbeth (2019)

The crew of the trading vessel Fortuna struggle to survive in the Nova Vita system. There is little room for independent traders here. And if the Fortuna were to go bankrupt, none of the rival worlds on the brink of war would offer refuge. Still, one would think that the Kaiser family (who own and crew the ship) would have each others’ backs when governments disappoint. Alas, Captain Scorpia Kaiser is nothing if not unreliable, whether she’s drinking on the job or indulging paranoid suspicions that her estranged brother’s return means the loss of that which Scorpia covets most: command of the Fortuna.

Appalling judgment: Scorpia.



River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay (2013)

One might expect the fact that eleven of Kitai’s dynasties have tottered to their doom would inspire Twelfth Dynasty Emperor Wenzong to embrace caution. Yet the Emperor is deaf to caution; he’d rather indulge martial dreams of regaining territory lost to barbarians. One might expect the military prowess of the neighboring barbarians to inspire Kitai’s nobility to focus on common defense. Instead, they revel in endless plots to gain power at the cost of rival aristocrats. The empire as a whole has a bad habit of killing off their competent generals (who might threaten a coup).

The warlike Altai have enough sense to see that the empire is ripe for the plucking.

Appalling judgment: everyone but the Altai.



The Wreck of the River of Stars by Michael Flynn (2003)

The interplanetary trader River of Stars has been lucky…so far. It works low-profit routes, has little cash to spend on repairs, and neglects maintenance. Eventually maintenance arrears catch up with the craft when a critical pump is disabled by asteroid debris. This setback might not be fatal for a competent crew. Unfortunately for the River of Stars, Captain Hand has assembled one of the least competent crews since the Méduse set off for Africa. This is all that is needed to turn calamity into catastrophe.

Appalling judgment: Captain Hand.



Golden Witchbreed by Mary Gentle (1983)

The whole of the galaxy is within reach of the ships of the Dominion of Earth. Earthlike worlds are not rare and neither are alien civilizations. Faced with the task of contacting millions of worlds, the Dominion’s diplomatic services are perpetually understaffed. Thus, the decision to dispatch naïve, inexperienced Lynne de Lisle Christie as ambassador to Orthe. After all, Orthe is just another primitive world. How much trouble could Lynne get into? Since the Dominion has fundamentally misread the situation on Orthe, the answer is “quite a lot.”

Appalling judgment: the Dominion AND the ambassador.



Stray Souls by Kate Griffin (2012)

A city the size of London requires constant upkeep, physically and supernaturally. Its occult community does its best to keep London life on an even keel. Well…it usually does its best. In this case (a god has vanished), Midnight Mayor Mathew Swift probably should have asked the most experienced and powerful adepts to handle the problem. Instead he hands the problem off to inexperienced shaman Sharon Li. She’s newly imbued with shamanic abilities and her occult support group (a hypochondriac vampire, an art-loving banshee, a necromancer with skin issues, a socially awkward troll, an off-model exorcist, an almost-shaman who never quite passed his exams) doesn’t inspire confidence.

Appalling judgment: Mayor Swift, and possibly Sharon Li and her pals for taking on the task.



No doubt there are even better examples of bad judgment that you are even now leaping to the keyboards to mention in comments. In my defense, I believe that I can opine on poor judgment from a position of lengthy personal experience.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.


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