Ben Espen of With Both Hands beat me to the punch with an in-depth review of Galactic Outlaws. My review of this runaway fright train of action and adventure published right here on the Castalia House Blog tried to convince you, dear reader, to give this series a shot by taking the shallow, non-spoiler, route. Ben dives deeper into the plot and characters and provides a better look at the shades of gray with which Anspach and Cole paint their narrative. Ben’s is a great review, and you’re going to want to go read it, because what follows here is an explanation of why Ben is wrong.
Before we get to that, let’s take a moment to praise Galactic Outlaws as a novel complex enough to spark good-hearted disagreements like this one. It isn’t just that people can disagree about the work in question – I’ve seen people argue about the true meaning of a Bazooka Joe bubblegum comic – it’s that Galactic Outlaws makes you want to talk to other readers. This thing is so dense that you walk away from it with a host of questions about what happened, why this character did that, and what impact a few otherwise throw-away lines might have on the future books. My response to Ben revolves around the question of how good the heroes are versus how bad the villains are, but even this conversation only touches on the book’s depth.
Due to the nature of this discussion, we’re going to go deep into spoiler territory. You have been warned.
With all of that preface material out of the way…
Ben and I read the same book, and we each came away from it with very different interpretations, neither of which can be definitely argued as the One True Way. In fact, I’m grateful for Ben’s post for challenging my surface read of Galactic Outlaws. Here’s the relevant passage:
That hook is good enough to set in train a series of events that will change the galaxy. After Legionnaire, it was pretty clear that the galaxy needed changing. What isn’t so clear is that anyone in a position to change it, will change it for the better. The men I desperately wanted to be heroes had a disconcerting tendency to shoot repentant sinners and former comrades. The men who were clearly set up to be villains usually had a point about who needed to be shot. In at least one case, those were the same guy.
On the galactic scale, there’s no doubt about who the good guys are, and it ain’t either of the Republic or the Rebellion. Galactic Outlaws is the story of those caught in the space between the frying pan of the Republic and the fire of the Rebellion. With no geopolitical white hats around, it’s left to the individuals trying to maneuver their way through the wreckage caused by that large scale conflict to give the reader somebody to root for, and despite their flaws, it’s clear (to me, at least) that the odd collection of characters thrown together by fate really are the good guys.
No doubt Anspach and Cole have a gift for writing well rounded characters, for fleshing them out in a sentence or two, and convincing the reader to sympathize with them…before summarily killing them off. Take Captain Hogus, the man who smuggles Prisma Maydoon, her pet warbot KRS-88, and Skrizz the wobanki onto Ackabar in chapter one, for example. (Did you notice Skrizz had already met Prisma before he met up with her again as the co-pilot of the Crow? I didn’t until I went back to verify a few things for this column. Nice touch there.) He’s a thief and a scoundrel, but it’s hard not to like an underdog limping around the Dumpster Fire Galaxy in a bucket of bolts one lightning strike away from the scrapyards. Unlike other, more rape obsessed authors, the death of Hogus comes shortly after his introduction and serves as notice that the galaxy is a dangerous place. They don’t allow the reader chapter after chapter to fall in love with him as a character only kill him off for cheap shock value.
(They do kill off Rechs before all is said and done, but as a relic of another era who has been living on borrowed time, Rechs earns a death worthy of his years, and one pretty well telegraphed in advance. His death serves to introduce the reader to the full sweep of the powers that Goth Sullus commands, even as it allows for the escape of Prisma and Keel and company, hooray, and even General Devers, boo.)
That sort of gritty and holistic approach to showing the reader imperfect characters tempts the reader to look for the evil among the heroes and the good among the villains. That, and decades of effort by the moral relativists to train Western men to approach every moral quandary as a pragmatic issue, but that’s a topic for another day. The real question to ask in a story like Galactic Outlaws, is not, “Who is trying to fix the galaxy at any cost?” Rather, one should ask, “Who is trying to fix the problem right here, right now, and only on their own terms?”
Goth Sullus might be motivated to bring order to the galaxy, but consider the price of that order. He murders a diplomat, launches a crusade with the express intent to use that conflict to commandeer enough military power to conquer the Republic, and he has no compunctions about murdering an innocent child to ensure that no power in the galaxy can stop him. Forget motivations, the man’s strategies and tactics are those of the worst of history’s tyrants. In just this one book alone Goth Sullus causes the deaths of tens if not hundreds of thousands of deaths. He might once have been an admiral fighting to keep order amid a crumbling empire, but in Galactic Outlaws, he’s just another warlord with a big gun willing to burn planets into cinders to save them from the horrors of local rule.
On the flip side, Rechs has spent decades wandering around the rim of the galaxy, and how has he spent his time? As a bounty hunter, working to bring men to justice. The Republic’s Discount Store version of justice when available, and a more brutal and visceral form of justice when not. He slaughters his way through hordes of legionnaires and pirates, but for the most part all of his fighting is defensive in nature. He spends most of his time engaged in strategic withdrawals – his gunfights feature him trying to get away from men who want him or his charges dead. Perhaps his treatment of the catman Skrizz has blinded me to his true character. Perhaps I’m a sucker for a guy who’s nice to animals – even tall, walking, gun toting animals – but Rechs strikes me as a good man struggling to do the right thing.
Likewise, Keel breaks a lot of legal laws without breaking a lot of moral ones. While it is true that Keel guns a man down in cold blood, it isn’t clear from the text that the man he kills is repentant. He lies to Lao Pak in order to free the technician, Garret, for example. While this at first looks like a selfish maneuver for his own sake, Keel actually does this to allow his navigator, Ravi, more freedom – he ‘steals’ Garret to provide better projectors for his navigator, which proves wise in the long run, as Ravi’s martial prowess makes a huge difference in keeping Prisma alive through the battle of Andalore.
And that right there provides the key to the whole matter. In Galactic Outlaws there are two kinds of people – those who want to see Prisma dead for their own sake, and those who want her kept alive for her own sake. Perhaps I’m a sucker for a guy who’s nice to children – even the children of high placed Republic officials who might or might not be bad guys themselves – but everyone who fights to keep Prisma away from Sullus strikes me as a good man struggling to do the right thing.
One might criticize Mother Ree herself for abdicating her responsibility to strive to make the galaxy a better place, and arguments can be made that her decision to remove herself from the galaxy is a selfish one, but I don’t buy it. Mother Ree plays a vital role in the conflagration by providing a place of quiet rest for weary souls like Rechs. Her oasis of peace in the midst of the war torn galaxy gives Rechs the time he needs to understand that his role is hip deep in the fight, not seated lotus-style beneath a volcano and a mile of ice. Neither of them have to like what he must do, but as good people always do, they accept the sacrifices they must make to save Prisma from the hands of Goth Sullus.
Galactic Outlaws paints vivid heroes and stark villains with clear demarcations between good and evil. All of them receive the gray strokes necessary to feel like living, breathing people, but in the final analysis this is the story of good people fighting to bring justice to their own little corner of the universe and the evil machinations of men striving to force the universe to bend to their own will. Strip away the lasers and spaceships, and what you have left is a reminder for all of us that our own small struggles can have a profound effect on the world, and can play an important role in standing up to our own world’s Goth Sulluses. But then, like all of the best space operas, Galactic Outlaws is as much a story about us and the world in which we live as it is about spaceships and aliens and wizards and explosions.