Elizabeth Moon, Hunting Party (Baen Books: Riversdale, NY, 1993). Later released in an omnibus as Heris Seranno.
Calgary is a hard town for the poor and pedestrian, but when I lived there I discovered some authors in the few hardy used bookstores which held out like poplars in draws along the rivers. One of those was Elizabeth Moon. I had read a few of the Kylara Vatta novels and not felt inspired to finish the series, but when I read some of her earlier novels and short stories I was very impressed.
In some ways the Heris Serrano stories are fairly conventional adventure novels in space. The cast is small and drawn in bold strokes. The main science-fictional elements are a crisis in the ship’s life support systems, and some speculations about future computers in the days of MS-DOS. People often imagine life support in a very sanitized way, but Moon has a degree in Biology and lived in rural Texas, so she knew that any way to recycle human waste would involve tanks of sludge and bacteria and gasses which can kill the unwary. The luxury yacht Sweet Delight does have hydroponic gardens, but they are much earthier than in Heinlein’s Space Cadet! The future cultures draw inspiration from 19th century Britain. I think that these novels were the first in the genre “Nelson’s Navy in Space” which many people associate with David Weber’s Honor Harrington books. If you believe that a science-fiction story must be one which could only be told in the future, I’m not sure whether this novel would qualify. But it is other aspects which make this novel so remarkable.
I think of the Heris Serrano stories as the “horse aunt in space” books. The stories centre on aristocratic but not moneyed Heris Seranno, ex-Regular Space Service, and Lady Cecilia, a rich woman of a certain age who focused on equestrian sports rather than finding a husband and giving her extended family another flock of feckless heirs. Feminist science fiction is a major tradition (Margaret Atwood, Suzette Halgin Elgin, Ursula K. LeGuinn, Alice Bradley Sheldon), and a science-fiction story where the main characters are two woman over 40 is unusual, but feminist military science fiction is almost unique. Elizabeth Moon’s land armies and space navies offer a career open to talents and without prejudice of sex, and they channel the energies of able young men and women away from self-destruction. Elizabeth Moon respects some conventions from the middle of the 20th century, finding amusing circumlocutions for cursing and sex. And she dutifully expanded the novel into a trilogy when it sold well. But she takes those conventions and produces something which the famous men of the previous two generations of authors could not have. Where lesser writers copy the forms of earlier stories and produce dull slices-of-life-in-space, Moon imitates what those stories did to their original audiences, and preserves enough tropes to talk to the earlier stories but not be chained to them.
One of the best things that light science fiction can do is challenge pieties and remind readers that their customs of their tribe are not the laws of nature. Moon chose to skewer US sexism, homophobia, and nudity taboos, as well presenting young people in the meritocratic 1990s with a casually aristocratic society of flamboyant eccentrics hunting neo-foxes on horseback and talking of honour. Where many writers and fans use science fiction to embrace some of their culture’s momentary madneses, Moon does her best to deflate them and present decent people living by other values. Its not as necessary to address these things through fiction and allegory as it was in the 1950s, but doing so can avoid alerting angry people on the Internet with a barrage of pre-planned speeches ready to unload on anyone who seems like they have hurting wrong opinions.
Elizabeth Moon dropped off the Internet and into the Bad Place (as
@emoontx) a few years ago, but I hope she has some years of health and writing left. She has had a remarkably varied life with service in the US Marines, journalism, parenting, public office, science fiction and fantasy writing, fencing, music, paramedicine, and hobby farming. Like T. Greer warned, writers who just write and lecture tend to fade into parodies of themselves telling and retelling the same stories. And I hope I have time to track down some more of her short stories and probably The Speed of the Dark.
(scheduled 14 April 2021)