Downing grabbed his dataslate, started making notes. "I still say he's not right for the mission."
"You mean, you're still pissed he got the better of your sim."
Downing rounded on Nolan. "No, I'm pissed that he's got a better soul than he should. He's too decent a bloke for this shite, and you know it."
"Of course. You saw the end of the sim: sooner or later, Caine's fine moral sensibilities are going to get him killed."
Corcoran leaned back, eyes assessing, "Rich, I can't tell if you resent him or admire him."
The above quoted passage is pretty emblematic of Fire With Fire by Charles E. Gannon, and as your feelings towards this, so to the novel. This whole passage is a special hell for me, from the comma slices to the cheesy Poughkeepsie future-tech. I can't even say why exactly I cringe when I learn that the protagonist's name is Caine Riordan. I know why I'm cringing when I listen to myriad characters discuss our hero Caine in the hushed tones of hero worship: I don't know if I want to be him or fuck him. I've seen a lot of characters hail from the sunny shores of MarySueLandia, but Caine Riordan is certainly the most recent. God bless his polymath soul.
Fire With Fire is the third novel I've read of the 2013 Nebula nominees. It's probably telling that I haven't been able to work up anything about the previous two -- The Golem and the Jinni and The Ocean at the End of the Lane -- because I can't quite get my hands around those, while here, that's all I want to do. (Get my hands around it, preferably the throat.) Certainly, some of this is reading proclivities: the fracture of mythology, whether personal or cultural, is always going to hit me harder than hard scientific wankery. Additionally, I find hard science prose somewhere between hilarious and excruciating. For example, just after the passage above:
"Have you settled on a code name for Riordan yet?"
Downing shook Corcoran's wide, strong hand. "Yes. He's 'Odysseus' -- who wound up getting lost and not coming home, you might recall. Not exactly an auspicious code name. Although it could well be prophetic."
Nolan smiled. "Odysseus was a proto-polymath, though. How does The Odyssey begin? 'This is a story of a man who was never at a loss.' We could do worse, I think."
Gaaaaaaahhhh. "Wide, strong hand": oh my fucking God. Odysseus isn't as bad as the endless ships named Icarus and Daedalus that dot the sf landscape, but it's a close call here. (There is a Project Prometheus mentioned, if you are playing Obnoxious Allusions Bingo.) Various other code names are assigned by Captain Obvious and his sidekick, Basil Exposition, throughout the novel -- though never, as far as I can tell, used -- which serve to stun us with intertext, apparently. SunTzu, Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln (referred to as "an American president", as if the context of the Civil War doesn't factor in his house divided quote) all get their requisite bingo spaces. As you know, Bob, here's the first line of that one epic poem...Jesus.
Anyway, to the plot, Caine Riordan (gah), intrepid polymath journalist extraordinaire, stumbles on some bullshit on Luna (this is the moon) and ends up getting iced in cryo for 13 years. He's woken up down the line by a shady Scooby Doo-ish spy agency because reasons, and has to go do some stuff MacGuffin exosapient technobabble etc. After a potentially interesting First Contact situation that's mostly squandered, Caine heads back to earth to do enact a bunch of painfully explicated spycraft slash political maneuvering. Everything ends up feeling like a pet theory about this and that -- my ideas about First Contact, let me show you them -- but without the real insight of, like, character.
The thing that killed me was how horribly without affect the story was, even factoring in First Contact awe and the usual wonder of the universe one finds in hard science fiction. For example, let's assume Caine Riodan (gah) is a person. Were I to wake up 13 years down the road, I might have have some serious bathtub-crying sequences because 1) my children are now both adults, without me having enjoyed their matriculation 2) my husband is 13 years older and has likely grieved for me and moved on 3) my parents are likely dead and 4) everything else is strange and impossible. I guess it's fine for Caine to shake this off like water off a dog, but it doesn't make me empathize with him - quite the opposite - and it certainly makes me question how a dude who's been on ice for over a decade has the outlandishly accurate geopolitical insights that he does. 9/11, for example, was 13 years ago, and I think zero people iced right after that event could accurately parse current geopolitics. Good gravy.
Just let this sentence sink in:
"Perhaps because Caine had never been conditioned to obey the unwritten rules of the intelligence community, he discovered a novel use for his [high clearance] access: locating and tapping dozens of covert operating funds."
Seriously?? I am not, nor have I ever been, a covert agent, but I can assure you that those assholes with clearance have thought to tap covert operating funds of errrrybody. I'm not even that huge of a conspiracy theorist -- mostly because I think most of the horrible bullshit in the world is occurring right in the open -- but the intelligence community is tapping all the phones right now. You don't even have to timeshift those shenanigans.
Here's the part where I confess I didn't actually finish this book. By 35 pages, I knew what I was dealing with, but decided to let it play to 100 pages to see if it would surprise me. I ended up ploughing through well past midway in some kind of masochistic spite-read. I don't even feel the need to work up a feminist froth about how shabbily the ladies are written in Fire With Fire, but I will note that everything about Caine's love interest is just wonderfully obtuse. The part where a dude notes admiringly that she "runs like a man" was my special favorite. I think the best by far was the pov sections by an assassin, whose major character trait is that he eats olives. I found this passage laugh out loud funny:
When [the waiter] was gone, the tall man smiled and picked up an olive. He rubbed it against his teeth, feeling it slide smoothly back and forth. He pressed harder: the slick skin of the olive began to squeak, like a trapped animal being tormented by a capricious predator. He smiled more widely and opened his mouth...
Just everything here: the ellipses, the adverbs, the adjectives, the questionable colon, and above all, the fact that eating olives is treated like it's ominous. I'm not even cherry-picking questionable sentences, I promise. This is the kind of puddle wonderful characterization you're going to get in this novel.
Hard science fiction, as the neckbeards keep telling me, is about the ideas, man. So the characters are not really people but more agents within a thought experiment; fair enough. The problem I start having is that the artificiality of all the human characters starts rendering the ideas suspect. Ain't nobody acts like that -- not individuals, not organizations -- so any conclusions drawn from these little automata only have bearing on the automata. You can shake a snow globe as hard as you want, but you're not going to learn anything about weather.