Six observations on Vatta’s War by Elizabeth Moon

The five books that form Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War series are enjoyable in the way they combine capable female characters with a fast-paced plot and familiar space opera setting with just enough unique features to hold interest. The following six observations contain spoilers for the entire series, although only a few general things and two major plot points. So if spoilers truly spoil a reading experience for you, it’s probably best to move on. If you’re like me and a couple of reveals (and really there is a ton that happens that isn’t mentioned at all below) don’t ruin a reading experience or you’ve already read the series, then read on.

  1. The abundance of female characters at the core of the narrative are both there because they are female, but the fact that they are female is not their primary/dominant attribute, which is cool. In other words, they come across as strong female characters because that who they are rather than that is what the story needs them to be. In addition to Ky Vatta, the lead character in the series, we get a substantial number of POV characters from Ky’s cousin Stella and her aunt Grace. They are the three family members who keep Vatta Corp. a viable enterprise. They are able to do so because of ingenuity, bravery and luck, but also because they were underestimated by their enemies who focused on killing the overt [rather thank covert [Grace/Stella] or emergent [Ky/Stella]) leaders of the family, all of whom were men. My only complaint is that Stella fades a bit in the later books. I would have liked to her have a slightly larger role, although I understand why the focus so much is on Ky, who is the main character in the series.
  2. I enjoyed the mix and scope of commercial and government entities. The Vatta-verse largely mirrors our own in the way that the private and public overlap and collide (productively or not) with each other. Justin Landon’s comments about the way politics and economics are dealt with in the first book is what originally led me to read the series, and I agree with his comments. I’d also note that it seems correct to me that an inhabited sector of the universe that is connected only by FTL jump points wouldn’t have strong cross-system government entities (a fact that the terrorists in the novels leverage) but would have a corporate monopoly for communications. Distance (and thus time) creates fragility.
  3. The first time a male authority figure worries about Ky Vatta being influenced by a possibly untrustworthy man because she might be sexually attracted to the cad, I thought that Moon was saying something interesting about sexism and patriarchy and how male authority figures are reluctant to grant full agency to precocious young women in command (like Ky [precocious because she is young to be a ship captain]). But then it happened again and then again and again, and it became such a tic that I don’t know what to think now.
  4. I also don’t know what to think about Moon’s psychologizing on those who are capable of killing and get a certain thrill out of it. It becomes a secret between some of the main characters in the book. Moon seems to be saying that it can be a necessary pathology of those fighting on the part of good (so long as it is kept in check). Ky is ashamed or scared of it at first, but as it manifests in other characters (Rafe, Grace, etc.), Moon appears to destigmatize it but at the same time seems to see it as a necessary condition of those who can be ruthless. Now I don’t doubt that people—even good people—can get a rush from killing a bad guy. But it is mentioned so often—but not complicated enough by Moon—that it comes across as a natural law or something. There are killers and then there are not. I don’t know enough to disagree, but this was another thing where it came up so often it seemed like a writerly tic.
  5. This is again something that I don’t know a whole lot about, but the way Moon handled Ky’s PTSD-triggered breakdown (due in part to all the trauma she experienced, but also to the haphazard way in which she had received her command implant) and the treatment of it struck me as realistic, interesting and inevitable.
  6. I also really like that as much of the action is about building resources and allies and dealing with government and commercial entities as it is about fighting bad guys in space.

Tolstoy in Space!

Tolstoy in space — because space opera needs less action and more reverie: He could not at this date delude himself, that he, a washed-up former military man turned mercenary commander stuck on a tub of ship with a crew of misfits and castoffs was not on anything less than a suicide mission.

Because space opera needs less action and more reverie:

Captain Arkady was a truthful man in his relation with himself. He was, in fact, incapable of deceiving himself and persuading himself that he was going to return from his current mission. He could not at this date delude himself, that he, a washed-up former military man turned mercenary commander stuck on a tub of a ship with a crew of misfits and castoffs was not on anything less than a suicide mission. All he repented of was the fact that he had not succeeded better in negotiating hazard pay in the slim chance there were any survivors. Death benefits would have been a good idea too. But he felt all the difficulty of his position and was sorry for his XO, his crew and himself. Possibly he might have managed to conceal the nature of this mission from his XO if he had anticipated that the knowledge of it would have had such an effect on him. He had never clearly thought out the subject, but he had vaguely conceived that his XO must long ago have suspected what the true mission orders were. He had even supposed that he, a worn-out man no longer young nor spry, and in no way remarkable or interesting, merely a good second in command, ought from a sense of fairness to take a pragmatic view of the situation. It had turned out quite the other way.