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ReReadable Books

February 2012

"Justice: Part II, The False Hobson’s Choice"


Jacqueline Lichtenberg



 To send books for review in this column email Jacqueline Lichtenberg,jl@simegen.com  for snailing instructions or send an attached RTF file.  
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Legacy of Wolves by Marsheila Rockwell, Wizards of the Coast, June 2007

WWW: Wonder by Robert J. Sawyer, ACE HC April 2011

Echo by Jack McDevitt, ACE HC Nov. 2010

The Truth of Valor by Tanya Huff, DAW HC Sept. 2010

Crusade by Taylor Anderson, RoC HC Oct 2008

Distant Thunder by Taylor Anderson, Roc HC, June 2010

The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught by Jack Campbell, ACE HC, May 2011

Betrayer by C. J. Cherryh, DAW HC April 2011


Last month, we looked at Harry Dresden, Hero of Jim Butcher’s novel, Ghost Story.  I hope you’ve read that by now.  We ended off with this observation about that novel:

“Having found his killer by discovering what he’d had his apprentice wipe from his memory, Dresden must choose between two “doors” into his future–one dark, the other light.  He chooses to confront the consequences of his actions head on, and ends up in the biggest, deepest, sourest pickle he has yet been in.  But if you’ve read all 12 previous books carefully, you know he knows this is Justice. 

As readers, though, we also know he’ll hack the MUD and change the world-game.”

The “hacking the MUD game” reference was to an article I pointed you to free online at:


We’re looking at the world as a “game” as in video-game and in the branch of mathematics called Game Theory.

I don’t generally recommend Wikipedia as a source, but it does give you an overview of how those interested in a topic are thinking.  That gives you a window into the Group Mind focused on that topic.  So take a look at this index:


There are several book publishers that have arisen after the explosive popularity of Dungeons and Dragons.  Today they are publishing novels that read like that kind of game and are aimed at players of such games.  They hire many writers to create new stories in well-defined universes. 

One of the best I’ve run into lately came to me via Gini Koch, a writer who is a twitter-friend, and whose books I have recommended to you.  Gini introduced me at Coppercon in 2011 to a writer who does tie-in novels for games and TV shows. Marsheila Rockwell.  Her novel #3 in  Eberron The Inquisitives series titled Legacy of Wolves is an especially good example of a Werewolf Fantasy, though it doesn’t have any real Romance in it. 

Rockwell has picked up the science fiction writer’s knack for creating convincing characters who, like James Tiberius Kirk, when faced with a false Hobson’s Choice, create another alternative. 

In War as in Game Theory, the rule is always “do the unexpected.”  Don’t accept any alternative on the dropdown menu handed you by your opponent. 

If someone says, “You have to do this or you’ll be responsible for people dying,” ask yourself what that person is trying to prevent you from considering. 

The old adage, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” is the philosophical principle upon which most science fiction heroes build their plans.

The “Hobson’s Choice” is a choice of “Take what I offer you, or nothing.” 

Here is a United Kingdom website that explains the origin of this reference in the livery stable keeper, Hobson. 


Hobson rented horses to Cambridge students in the order he chose, as a “choice” of “Take this horse, or no horse.”  That’s the Kobayashi Maru choice that Kirk beat by hacking the computer and changing the rules. 

In other words, this businessman who had students “over a barrel” generously provided them with the choice to comply with his agenda or be deprived of what they needed. 

It is the way villains try to gain control over Heroes.  Heroes (at least in Science Fiction and most of the Fantasy I review here) do not use this method, and never choose from the villain’s menu, never do business with Hobson. 

Of course, no one in real life would ever let their adversary set their agenda or limit their choices to a menu.  The plot thickens though when the adversary portrays him/herself as a friend, advocate, lover, ally, teacher, servant contractor, or just a businessman like Hobson.

The defining characteristic of the Hero in most of the novels I review here is the talent for peeling away layers of deception to distinguish friend from foe – even if that “friend” happens to look somewhat, well, “alien.” 

One of the best series in Science Fiction I’ve seen lately is Robert J. Sawyer’s “WWW” series where the internet spawns a living consciousness which only one blind girl is able to detect – until Canadian and USA government investigators find out.  Then the “distinguishing friend from foe” part comes into play, and their “Hobson Choices” close in on her.  The WWW trilogy is WWW:Wake and WWW:Watch and now finally WWW:Wonder  In the final book of this marvelous trilogy, the reader is challenged to think of a choice that isn’t on the menu.

Jack McDevitt, in Echo, gives us humanity’s 8,000 year search for other life in the galaxy – resulting in finding only one non-human intelligence.  One scientist, possessed by the hallmark stubbornness of all scientists who have contributed major discoveries to human history, searches his whole life long for another sentient civilization.  After he dies, others wonder, stubbornly, if he hadn’t actually succeeded and the result is being hidden – on purpose.  When someone tries to kill them, it arouses their obstinacy.  Guess what they discover!  (oh, read this book!)

I’m a particular fan of Military Science Fiction, especially stories set in space.  Tanya Huff, one of my favorite authors, brings us another Confederation novel, The Truth of Valor, about Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr, the Confederation Marine who discovered the truth behind the war they had been fighting for generations – and left the corps.  Now as a civilian salvage operator being victimized by “something,” she discovers yet another truth, and it isn’t the truth on the menu presented by “Authority.”

The Destroyermen Series by Taylor Anderson is about a WWII Navy ship and other vessels from the South Pacific conflict, swept into an alternate Earth where some very non-human creatures have taken over the Islands and maybe more.  As hostilities break out among factions in place, the US Navy brings 1940’s technology and know-how to bear on the problems, creating whole new choices.  These folks knew how to refuse a Hobson’s Choice. 

Another series I’ve been reviewing here (everything I mention here is 5-star) is Jack Campbell’s The Lost Fleet series.  The story now moves into another phase titled “Beyond the Frontier” and begins with the novel, Dreadnaught.  This is military SF at its best, just as good as the Destroyermen series but with technology light-years ahead of our current world.  Still, the Game continues trying to force a Hobson’s Choice onto our Heroes and they just won’t budge.  You gotta learn to admire obstinacy to enjoy these stories. 

Another slippery Hero who just won’t budge no matter what moral force is brought to bear on him is Bren Cameron of C. J. Cherryh’s long running Foreigner Series.  In the 3rd book of the 4th Trilogy, Betrayer, Bren is faced with an insurgency around his own estate, the land for which he is personally responsible. 

Cameron will keep his employees safe.  He will keep the peace in his neighborhood, even if it means changing the very shape of Atevi (aliens of the planet where the human colony became accidentally stranded) society and culture, technology, and geography.  He simply will not accept that he must choose the option provided by either Atevi or Human authority or custom, or do nothing and watch his people die.

Bren Cameron exemplifies the fact that science is a creative artform.  His science is linguistics and all the cultural psychology that is behind language.  His creativity is backed up by his intransigent obstinacy, his flat refusal to accept limits laid down by those who don’t want to be inconvenienced by his creativity. 

It’s a “False Hobson’s Choice” when someone insists this is your only viable option.  “There are always alternatives,” as Spock pointed out in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode, Galileo Seven.

So what has Hobson’s Choice to do with Justice?  What does the Hero facing a Hobson’s Choice feel about risk?  The adversary (livery stable operator) makes it seem safer to take what’s offered (a nag).  If you risk trying to find another livery stable in time to get where you’re going, you must rely on Divine Providence, or the tendency of the universe to harmonize events into Poetic Justice.  Do you trust the universe to do you Justice?  Do you dare reject Hobson’s Choice?

To send books for review in this column email Jacqueline Lichtenberg,  jl@simegen.com for snailing instructions or send an attached RTF file.  



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