Uh, so I totally thought I could rail against Space Wars regarding its treatment of gender and its handling of US exceptionalism. I was actually… really really surprised, particularly since I read this and the Mistborn trilogy at the same time. Sanderson’s mishandling of female characters really shone in comparison to a book where there are multiple female characters, all of whom in positions of governmental power, none of which are defined by her partnership with a man. This also stands in marked contrast to The Last Oracle, the last technothriller I read.
Plot plot plot. Okay, so the baddies (a drug cartel in Colombia and some radical Muslims in Iran) start knocking down US commercial satellites, crippling our economy, lowering the value of the dollar, and totally screwing up our collective GPS systems. That’s not just an inconvenience — that’s a serious nightmare for our military, since so much of our modern weaponry depends on GPS info for targeting. The US is now blind in the sky, and the knives are out.
Anyhow, a bunch of generals/politicians are all like OH NOEZZZZZZZZZZ!!!!!!
and basically arrange a war game that helps them problem-solve US defensive strategy, and figure out who the baddies are (unsurprisingly and disappointingly, it’s the only people identified clearly as POC — a Colombian narcoterrorist, a wicked angry Iranian cleric, along with some innocent Russians coerced into playing along because of debt and a chronically ill wife/mother). There’s another terrorist attack on US soil, and basically everyone learns that our dovey, dark-horse president (I think this is a reference to Barack) has screwed the US militarily.
I’m surprised that a book like this, that’s so wed to US military interests, patriotism, etc., would have several female characters acknowledged as the best in their field. Indeed, one, Jill, even flirts a little with her boss without that overwhelming her character or taking over her character arc. While I was disappointed that these characters weren’t their own bosses (they’re located high in the power structure, but are ultimately not at its pinnacle), I was impressed that they were present at all, particularly in comparison to Mistborn, where there are no other women with important skill-sets besides Vin.
What I took from this is that the defense that “Oh, this isn’t a book/TV show/movie/etc about gender/race/etc” is actually a pretty stupid one. The writing is inconsistent enough that the bits and pieces of technology riddling the narrative easily overwhelm the human characters — this is, after all, a technothriller, and in a very real way this book isn’t about humans. At the same time, female characters were present, acted as agents, and helped to save the day, all without distracting from that technology or making the story about something other than deeply cool planes. I found this a useful reminder that what a book’s about doesn’t have to limit what kinds of characters it includes.
The only thing I’d change in relation to female characters is that I’d ask the authors to include more women at different stages in the military power structure, since from what I recall, all the female characters were civilians. That’s silly, since American women have been serving in some manner since the Civil War.
I know I enjoyed this book in part because it was simply refreshing to see that even when nerds fixate on technology, and politicos fixate on the dangers of Iran, it’s possible to have vital female characters in technothrillers do things, without being defined by a man, romancing up the workplace, or falling down because of their heels.