Friday, September 28, 2018

Poor Man's Fight By Elliott Kay

Poor Man's Fight
By Elliott Kay

Elliot Kay was born in the United States and grew up in Los Angeles. He has since then lived in Phoenix (What is up with Phoenix? Is it the heat? Does it warp our brains and turn is into authors?), Seattle and various other places. Before turning to writing Mr. Kay served in the Coast Guard and taught High School, as well as managing to pick up a bachelors in History. He also managed to survive at least one motorcycle crash and several severe electric shocks. His first novel was the kind that can't be discussed on a review series trying to avoid an adults only rating (Give us the title at least come on! Probably straight smut though? Gross.), it was published on Amazon in 2011. Poor Man's Fight, the first of a five book series was his first science fiction novel and was published in 2015 under the Skyscape imprint of Amazon Publishing. It is one of fifteen such imprints that Amazon maintains. This has a been a mixed blessing for some as a number of bookstores flat out refuse to carry Amazon published books, seeing Amazon as a competitor and the publishing company is seen as under-performing in its first decade. I kinda see this as a good look at the radically changing world of writing and publishing, but we're here to talk about a specific novel.

In the far flung future, humanity has expanded to the stars and colonized hundreds of star systems in a grand expansion across the galaxy. We have found ways to extend the human life span and perhaps more importantly extend our youth for decades if not more. Advances in medicine, infrastructure, and computer technology have made life easier, longer, and better then they have ever been. Also? We have for some profoundly bizarre reason completely privatized our education system (GGAAAAAAAHHH!). As far as I can tell, every human government contracts its education system out to a multi-planetary corporation who in exchange provides education to every citizen and when you're 18 and have finished high school, you take a test. How well you do on the test determines your debt. Do extremely well and you can walk out completely debt free, do poorly and you could be in the kind of debt that only PhD students can tell you about (*Editor Weeps* I’m probably never buying a house. Also what the fuck kind of exploitative bullshit is this? Without reading any further, this is going to trap billions into a cycle of debt because the ones who do poorly in school get the crappy jobs, and as a result can’t pay off the debt.). There are ways to adjust your odds of course, if you're a good student whose parents can pay the monthly dues for a corporate sponsored honors society, why you can get the kind of study materials and tutors that will ensure a pleasant test taking experience, as well as a test tailored for you. If not, well your test will still be tailored to you, just not in a way that's beneficial to you. My good readers, if you are smelling a rodent here, it's because the system has been so infested with rats that they have built a society and are plotting our downfall from the shadows!

Enter our hero, Tanner Malone; intelligent, helpful, good natured, and an utter nerd. He also has parents that aren't wealthy, and have informed him the night before the biggest test of his life that they are moving out of system (Jesus Christ, they couldn’t wait a day?). So he'll have figure out his own living arrangements if he wants to stick around for the unpaid internship (yeah it's not bad enough you're in debt for your bloody high school education, but we still have unpaid internships in the future!?! This shit keeps up and I'll start singing the Internationale at this rate! [Hi there.  I’m here to tell you the good news about the most important economist and political philosopher in all of human history, Karl Marx.] At least Lenin would just shoot me and get it over with!) that will seal the deal on an academic future of success and glory. Tanner, being 18 and middle class handles this stress about as well you would think. Facing a test rigged against him, with no sleep and no breakfast... He's now always 70k in the hole, will have nowhere to live in a week and no way of supporting himself while laboring for free in a lab. Tanner of course calmly and coolly considers his options while being a nervous wreck and joins the military on the advice of a girl he has a crush on. I should note that I do actually like the relationship between Madelyn and Tanner, she knows that he has a crush on her but isn't interested in that way. He takes the rejection and moves on without being an entitled ass about it and as such leaves himself open to relationships with other girls who are actually interested in him. In other ways though Tanner has a lot of growing up to do (Well he is eighteen. He’s still a child no matter what the law says. He hasn’t even finished neural pruning yet.) and he doesn't handle stress very well. He also has trouble standing up for himself. To be fair, Tanner is a product of a system that doesn't do a good job teaching people how to handle stress, despite it making stress an everyday part of life. Put a pin in this because I'll come back to that.

This book also spends a good amount of time with our villain. The Space Pirate Captain Casey. (Really? Because it looks like the Villain is the entire society in which this poor kid lives.{Yes, but Captain Casey throws children out of airlocks, it's hard to top that}) Unlike modern media, which has a tendency to whitewash what pirates actually do, Casey is the kind of guy who attacks a luxury liner and tortures the passengers and officers for their money and then throws them out an airlock, including the children. In short, while Captain Casey uses rhetoric about the awfulness of the corporate system, he's honestly just a faster, less restrained, more charismatic version of it. Mr. Kay actually shows his history chops here as the pirates in his book operate a lot like the actual factual historical pirates. The ship crews are democratic, with the Captain only having authority when they're on a combat operation, the loot is divided fairly and they're as likely to attack a port or city as they are a ship in the void. Mr. Kay takes us through the process of recruitment and how the pirates operate actually letting us get to know the pirates. The result of this is when Tanner and the pirates end up fighting each other for their very lives, it's not Tanner Malone versus a bunch of faceless mooks, it's Tanner Malone versus a group of villainous viewpoint characters that we've spent chapters with. This actually is a pretty good twist, as it increases the weight of the confrontation and brings home rather vividly the human costs of violence. That said I can't sympathize with the pirates too much here. This is because the story makes it clear that the pirates aren't rebels against the system, they are parasites on that system; using the excesses and abuses of the corporations as a recruiting tool while never actually doing anything to undermine or overthrow the system because they're too busy criminally profiting from it. This is also something that real life pirates and bandits would do; claim to be heroically resisting very real oppression while in fact just using it as a cover for their own benefit. Ironically in doing so they help the forces they claim to be against by providing a justification for their oppression. In this case the corporations can claim that increased costs are necessary for greater security because of pirates, who use the great costs to claim their own aroticities as heroism and thus we go around and around.

Ironically, if there are any rebels to be found here, it's in Tanner's own government. Throughout the book, we see the elected government of Archangel pushing back against corporate power and abuse. We see the President and his staff privately and publicly maneuvering to provide services and protection to their citizens over the objections of foreign states and the multi-planetary corporations who see them as just another revenue stream. While they're not angels, they do come off as authority figures who are actually interested in serving the interests of the people who elected them. In fiction with super powerful corporations that's a rare thing to see. More often it's that the corporations have captured the government and turned it into a lackey (although I should point out that Max Florschutz's book Colony also had government/corporate conflict). So Mr. Kay presents us an honestly good elected government led by thoughtful people struggling to do right by the common voter in a complex and dangerous system.  Even when doing so arrays them against powerful actors who are willing to operate on several fronts to destroy this resistance. I honestly enjoyed seeing this for a change, as all to often the power of a national government or the desire of elected leaders to do well by their voters is often cynically dismissed as mere posturing. This book also doesn't glorify or villainize the military, we’re shown that the ship that Tanner serves on isn't full of good people, in fact a number of them are jerks. However, we do see good people in the military trying to do a demanding and dangerous job under circumstances that they have no control over. Speaking from experience that's pretty much true to life, you'll find good people, you'll find terrible people, and every kind of person in between while serving in uniform. By presenting a military full of human beings Mr. Kay gives us a balanced view of what the service is like.

Which leads me to the system itself which is really just an exaggeration of our own system in a lot ways (I say looking at my college debts, that I racked up despite having the GI Bill, which isn't nearly as generous as y'all might think). Tanner lives in Archangel, a religiously founded colony system that has turned into a more or less secular nation state where the population is wracked by heavy debate over the role of corporations in their public life. He's driven by economic necessity and an ambition to better his life to enlist in the military despite his misgivings about the role the military plays in politics. If you're an American, you might be forgiven for feeling a sense of deja vu on reading that, as Poor Man Fight's is not only a good adventure story about a young man coming of age but a really pointed commentary in a lot of ways on our own system. Tanner emerged from a schooling system that did not really prepare him for the test that would determine his life's direction nor did it prepare him for dealing with stress. (Something that the school system is very likely systematically designed for.) It's also a system that provides advantages to people who already have them and disadvantages to those who are already struggling. Poor Man's Fight uses an action adventure set in space to hold up a mirror to elements of the modern day and ask us if we really care for what we see. That's something that science fiction can do really well and while this wasn't a story of deep political thought, preferring to focus on things happening on the front lines, it still pulled off its commentary rather well.

Poor Man's Fight is basically the story of Tanner Malone coming to age in some of the worse possible circumstances and then he has to fight pirates. It's a fun story with plenty of action, good characters, and fairly solid world building. Mr. Kay's choice to follow along with the pirates and giving us a peek at what is going on in the corridors of power provides us with a wider view of Tanner's world and gives us context for his actions. I honestly recommend this to anyone interested in science fiction or anyone just interested in a good book. Poor Man's Fight by Elliott Kay gets an A. I’ve got high hopes for the other four books in the series.  I'd also for no reason what so ever would like to remind everyone that I am not responsible for my editors comments, nor do I always agree with his statements.

Next week, I'm kinda feeling good about this streak of self published books and it is Halloween, so I suppose we should get spooky. So next week, we examine The People's Necromancer by Rex Jameson. Keep Reading!

Red text is your editor, Dr. Ben Allen. 
Black text is your reviewer, Garvin Anders.

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