The galaxy's two multi-species superpowers stand on the brink of yet another pointless war. Soldiers, draft-dodgers, smugglers and spies from both sides are rushing towards Cedar Commons, an uninhabited forest planet near the border. Everyone has some plan for fighting, avoiding, or profiting from the conflict.
None of these plans are going to work out: war destroys plans as efficiently as it does lives. But as the visitors to this once-quiet planet discover each other, they'll make new friends, new enemies, and new plans that have a chance to end the war before it causes the collapse of several civilizations.
Superficially a space-opera, Richardson's second novel is an intelligent, cynical exploration of the consequences of war. A large handful of varied characters are flung into chaos as galactic conflict rapidly envelops their lives. Rather than centering on the galaxy's movers and shakers; Situation Normal is about people of limited means and power coping as best they can with situations that are all... well, you know.
Situation Normal is frenetic and often tragic. Adrift beyond their control, characters often cross each other's orbits in improbable ways in order to push the plot, similar to Dave Barry's Big Trouble. But while often clever, humorous, and weird, Situation Normal is not a wacky comedy at heart and the stakes are high. No plan survives contact with the enemy, and the war is nobody's friend. Richardson's cast vary greatly in their ability to adjust to their mercurial predicaments, and no one finds their journey a pleasant one. And every one of them is interesting enough to be worth the ride.
Richardson's writing reminds me of the Asimov and Niven I grew up with as a child, but instead of exploring some novel facet of physics or astronomy, Situation Normal focuses on social examination instead - culture, government, and personhood are all on the table. The author doesn't preach but neither does he shy from illustrating grim extremes our modern values might lead to. I like the way Richardson thinks, and feel both educated and entertained having read his book.
I love the worldbuilding of Situation Normal. The physical setting itself could use more page space; even if the characters find things unremarkable the reader could use more description to assist with visualization. But this is more than made up for by the characters' interactions with the world and each other. Situation Normal's circumstances may be larger-than-life but its people feel real, so the setting feels tangible and lived-in. Also, Richardson has outdone himself with the "translated" dialogue throughout the book, giving a unique feel to each of multiple alien tongues by the particular way he translates foreign thoughts and words into English or (ostensibly) whichever language is currently point-of-view. It is astonishing, accomplishing via phrasing what I'd've thought would take multiple conlangs to do, and I can't praise his technique enough.
In summary, if you enjoy some grim space opera, clever sociological musings, meta humor, or clever use of language, you will find something to enjoy in Situation Normal.
If forced to slot Situation Normal into a sub-genre, I'd probably call it military space opera, but a single sub-genre doesn't even begin to cover what this book is. In addition to a stupid, tragic, snafu-laden war between two superpowers, we have sentient corporate brands, theological debates (more fun than that sounds), geek religious dogma (including cosplay), furniture making, interspecies sex, and a time share that someone actually manages to use. We have a huge cast of really fun characters of various species, ages, and motivations. It's a serious book, but the humor--dark as it might be sometimes--is never far away. And sometimes it's just laugh-out-loud hilarious.
Another review mentioned Joseph Heller's Catch 22. I don't disagree, but the authors I thought of were Iain M. Banks, Kurt Vonnegut, Catherynne M. Valente, and even Terry Pratchett. This is a very, very good novel.
The humans and their begrudging allies in the Outreach are falling into war again with their motley competitors for the galaxy, the Fist of Joy. But this time the Fist have a secret weapon, and none of those mysterious and uniquely Outreach skills — be it marketing, militaristic comaradery, or woodworking — are going to stop it. Or will they?
Funny, moving, a little weird (occasionally *very* weird): a modern meta-take on YA military SF that is parts Heinlein, Douglas Adams, and maybe even Robocop (in his/its role as comparable artistic work, not as authorial peer).
Richardson is seriously one of the smartest, subtlest, voices in SF right now. There’s nothing else like it.
This author delivered a great book in 2011 (Constellation Games) and nothing since so I was excited to see this appear. The bones of this are in Catch-22, it goes straight to the absurdity and waste of war. There is a nice mechanic through the book of where it starts with little to no consequence and the body count then starts to ratchet up as it goes along. Ultimately though, I feel this one got away from him a bit. At the end there are just too many strands to pull together and it lacks someone to root for which I feel is important in this kind of story. It's still entertaining and gets 4 stars from me on that basis. Recommended.
War breaks up between two multi-species space empires, the mostly human Outreach and the mostly not-human Fist of Joy. Caught up in the middle are the crew of a small smuggling ship, a worker on planet devoted to raising trees abducted by them, the son of a furniture worker whose space-ship community landed on that planet to avoid being dragged into war, and a few others, including some actual soldiers.
I bought this book because I loved the author's first published novel, Constellation Games, and have read it several times. So, although this is not set in the same universe, I was curious to see what he'd as a followup. So after my last reread of his last book I went looking to see if he'd done anything else yet, found he did, I bit the bullet and decided to buy this one.
There's a lot to like from this book for people who liked the other. Or for people who haven't read it, and like cool worldbuilding, exploring some interesting ideas, a bit of humor, and fun characters. Richardson is really good at this trick of using alien pop culture to pass readers information on aliens societies and sometimes even biologies. I think he did it a little better in Constellation Games, but it's still pretty good work here. It's a solid, fun space opera/war story, with a few caveats.
The first is that it is a war story. And it's one of those war stories that attempt to illustrate how meaningless war is. That means characters you come to love might die absolutely senselessly before their story is 'complete.' Or in ways that don't seem fair (and yes, some of them are basically kids). And for some readers that might leave a bad taste in your mouth, or leave you unsatisfied -- even if you're okay with this in theory, having it actually happen is another thing. It can be especially jarring because of the tone set by the book as a whole... characters from different sides are often funny, sometimes in conception because the alien race is designed around some funny idea or philosophy, sometimes just because the individual interactions and dialogue are humorous. So when people start dying, there's a bit of 'wait, what? This wasn't the kind of book I thought I was reading.' It quite probably makes it better, as a book (without these choices and with a perfectly happy ending it'd just be a fun-but-forgettable space opera romp set in a warzone) but not necessarily as good an experience. Certainly not one for everyone.
My other issue is a small one. One of the characters is a lesbian... nothing wrong with that, of course. The problem is that at times, especially early on, it did read a little 'lesbian written by a straight guy', with her falling for the hot alien captain and drawing the reader's gaze to her butt and other body parts and mooning over her instantly, even though she's just effectively been kidnapped by her crew (in fairness, one of these parts where it was overdone is in service of a truly awful pop culture reference involving the character's name, which I heartily approve of...). At times it got a bit eyerolly, but I've seen a lot worse, and it's a small part of the plot of the book in total. It's even a small part of the subplot involving those two characters which, on the whole, turned out well, but I did notice it and yes, did a bit of eyerolling. (There are also explicit sex scenes with one or both partners being aliens that might bother some readers just for explicitness... not a big issue for me, but while I'm warning about things that might put people off)
Other than that, I had a lot of fun with it, but it didn't quite live up to my previous experience with this author. I'm almost more happy to have read it because buying it meant throwing a few extra bucks towards the author of one of my recent favorites than I enjoyed it for itself. Though, to be clear, I DID enjoy it for itself. So, 3 stars, maybe getting close to 3.5, but not quite enough to round up to a 4. One more thing to say... one of the things I did enjoy about the book, at first, was the small scale, these scenes didn't look like they were going to be key players deciding how the conflict would play out, they were just ordinary people trying to survive a war that was way too big for them. If it had stayed like that, it might have made it to a 4 for me, but the author couldn't resist dragging everybody to what turns out to be the big decisive battle in the war. Which probably works fine for other people, but I was really digging the vibe of these being the people who didn't really matter to the war (and were often rolled over because of it).
Leonard Richardson's inventiveness when it comes to distinctively alien yet relatable aliens is probably his biggest strength, maybe only rivaled by David Brin's menagerie in the Uplift War series - the brain merging rre and the pain debting uhaltihaxl in this book would definitely have held their own on that turf (as did several of the races in his previous ”Constellation Games”).
Unfortunatelly this time it's not enough on the by and large. This book is a mess, a hodgepodge with too many storylines and philosophies and protagonists to the extent that none of them really stands out. It's like a pizza with litterally extra everything including ingredients that tastewise cancels each other out.
For a short while I though he was going somewhere socially really interresting with the Sentient Brands subplot (an obvious take on the American business ”corporations are people” culture thing), but alas, it was just a necessary precursor to the Dues ex Machina slash Object of Power that finished the war. Max Barry's ”Jennifer Government” still rules that particular region of the sci-fi galaxy.
Four Kinds of Cargo (read it here) is one of my favourite short stories, so the prospect of a full-length space-opera sequel was exciting. And, it's a triumph. Thoughtful, cynical, at times brutal; and entertaining, both because of the rollercoaster plot and the laugh-out-loud gags.
Situation Normal reminds me a lot of Joseph Heller's Catch-22, except with a wider scope and a much bigger cast of characters. The dark humor that informs Heller's book is also at work here -- we see the effects that war and capitalism have on cross-galaxy civilizations, civilians, and soldiers, and a lot of it is very funny, yet at the same time horrifying.
Good writing, excellent characters, and a wild ride.
I couldn’t get into this book. I quit after the first part. I found the characters weren’t described well enough for me to visualize them and I didn’t understand a lot of the dialogue. I felt like I was always going “wait huh?” And rereading it to make it make sense or having to think about who was who. It shouldn’t be hard work to get sucked into a book. And I felt like this was hard work.
Hitchhiker's Guide with Catch-22 levels of cynicism. Interstellar war in which there is no noble side, and everyone bumbles along. If you liked Richardson's first book, you'll like this humor...but don't expect the same sweet ending. (Disclaimer - I was a beta reader for this book.)
Laugh out loud funny at times, hard hitting at others, and absurd most of the time. Not as moving as his last book, Constellation Games, was but then few books are. Same general genre as Redshirts but played a bit more straight.