I recently finished rereading a book from last year, preparing to read the sequel. I should cop to the fact that my reading has rarely been what you might call “timely” and I’ve gotten worse over the last several years. When I wrote reviews for actual pay this was not as much a problem, because I had to read current material. But left to my own devices, I pick and choose from my to-be-read pile at random, pretty much the way I buy books to begin with. So I might read an old Agatha Christie concurrently with a newer physics tome by Kip Thorne after having finished a very new history of the sinking of the Lusitania, then pick up a newish novel while at the same time rereading some Ted Sturgeon… So it goes.
So I am very much “behind” almost all the time. I served as a judge for the PKD Award one year and managed to read an unbelievable number of recently-published SF novels. I can commit and stay the course when required. But in general my reading keeps me in a kind of ever-imminent nontime in terms of how I encounter works. I don’t sort by decade when I start reading, not unless something in the text forces me to recognize it. So to me, it is not at all odd to see James Blish and Iain M. Banks and C.J. Cherryh and Ann Leckie as in some sense contemporaneous.
So when I encounter a novel like Charles E. Gannon’s Fire With Fire I have no trouble—in fact, take some delight—in seeing it as part of a continuous thread that connects Doc Smith to Poul Anderson to C.J. Cherryh to any number of others who over the past 70 + years have mined the fields of alien encounter/politicomilitary SF. And when I say I found the closest affinity with Poul Anderson at the height of his Terran Empire/Flandry period, that is, for me, high praise.
I loved Dominic Flandry. Not so much the character, though there is that, but the milieu Anderson created. One of the appealing aspects of his future history, especially those stories, was the authentic “lived in” feel he achieved, rarely duplicated by his peers, and seldom realized to good effect now. Gannon does this.
The story in Fire With Fire is nothing new. Earth has begun to settle other worlds around other stars and it’s only a matter of time before we encounter other space-faring civilizations. In fact, we have, only it isn’t public knowledge, and in some instances it’s not something the discoverers even want noticed. While Anderson had the Cold War to work with, Gannon has the transnational world, with all its disquieting ambiguities over what constitutes nations and how they differ from corporations and the undeniable motivation of profit in almost all human endeavors, leading to an ever-shifting array of allies and enemies in arrangements not always easy to define much less see. He takes us through all this quite handily. It’s not so much that he knows the pitfalls of human civilizations than that he recognizes that the field is nothing but pitfalls.
“All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing.” Hobbes’ dictum plays in the background throughout as good guys dupe both bad guys and good guys, people are moved around and used like game pieces, power is unleashed—or not—based on calculi often having little to nothing to do with ethics and morality. This is politics writ large and individuals learn to surf the swells or drown.
Into which is tossed Caine Riordan, an investigative journalist who is also a good man. He is unfortunately snatched out of his life through a security mishap, placed in cryogenic suspension, and awakened 14 years later with a hundred or so hours of missing memory dogging him through the rest of the book, memories having to do with the two men in whose thrall he seems now to be. Nolan Corcoran, retired Admiral, and Richard Downing, former SAS and often reluctant aid to Admiral Corcoran. Not reluctant in being unwilling to serve, but reluctant about some of their methods. They run a secret organization designed to prepare for exosapient first contact. It practically doesn’t exist, sort of in the way gravity under certain conditions doesn’t exist, and now Caine has become their tool.
Without going into details, which are a major aspect of this novel, suffice to say it is about that first contact and the political ramifications thereof. This is a not a new idea and much of the book may, to some, feel like ground well trod, but there is ample pleasure to be had in the trek over familiar ground seen through fresh eyes. What is done better here than the usual is the economic and political backgrounding and the debates over the impact of first contact. Furthermore, the seemingly impossible disaffection among the various political entities comprising the world we know are displayed to lend a plangent note of nailbiting despair to the very idea that we might pull ourselves together sufficiently for anything remotely resembling a world government.
To be sure, Gannon adroitly addresses the hoary old notion that when we meet the aliens they themselves will already have worked all this out long since and be in a position to pass elder judgment on our upstart species. They haven’t. They have a (barely) workable framework among themselves, but the advent of introducing another new race into their club proves to be an opportunity for old issues to be forged into new knives.
Gannon handles all this well. He clearly has a grasp of how politics works and has imaginatively extended that knowledge to how nonhuman species might showcase their own realpolitik. He has a flair for detail. He handles description very well, sets scenes effectively, and even manages to disguise his infodumps as conversations we want to hear. Most of the time, it has the pleasurable feel of listening to a good musician groove on an extended improvisation. Throughout we feel sympatico with Caine and the people he cares for and the situation is certainly compelling.
For me, this was a walk down a street I haven’t visited in some time. I read this novel with a considerable experience of nostalgia. It is part of a tradition. A well-executed piece of an ongoing examination over issues we, as SF fans, presumably hope one day to see in reality. We keep turning this particular Rubik’s Cube over in our collective hands, finding variations and new combinations, looking for the right face with which to walk into that future confrontation. One may be forgiven if this particular form of the contemplation seems so often to turn on the prospect of war. After all, aren’t we supposed to be past all that by the time we develop star travel and put down roots elsewhere?
There are two (at least) answers to that. The first, quite cynically, is “Why would we be?” Granted that most wars have at least something to do with resources. One side wants what the other side has, and you can do the research and find cause to argue that even the most gloriously honor-driven wars had deep economic aspects to them. Certainly the conduct of all wars has deep economic consequences. But while that is true and might be argued for most wars, it is also true that many wars need not have been fought as there were other means of securing those resources. But that didn’t matter. It was the war, for someone, that mattered more even than the well-being of the people, the polity. That ill-define and in retrospect absurd thing Glory is a very real ambition down through history. Wars get fought as much for that as for anything else. Suddenly having all your resources needs met would do nothing to dampen that. In fact, it might exacerbate the Napoleonic impulse in some instances.
Because the reality is that Going There will do that. Not survey missions, no, but if we assume the level of technology and capacity that allows for colonies on world in other solar systems, then we can assume a post-scarcity economy. It’s the only way it makes sense. We will not solve economic problems with an interstellar empire, the empire will be the result of those solutions.
So that leaves us with the second reason we may still face war. No less cynical but more intractable. Racism. Not the kind of small-minded nonsense we deal with in terms of skin color and language, but the real deal—wholly different biologies confronting each other over the question of intelligence and legal rights and the desirability of association. Deeper even than that is the history and tradition brought to the question by two civilizations with absolutely nothing in common, having developed in isolation more profound than any we might imagine on the face of the Earth.
Not that either of these are inevitable, and it may well be that sophistication of technology and its responsible use breeds requisite tolerances. But this is, as likely as it sounds philosophically, not a given, any more than war with aliens is inevitable. So we talk about it, in the pages of fictions with long traditions. There are certainly other possibilities, other scenarios, and there are other writers dealing with those. Gannon is dealing with this one.
And doing so with a thick cord of optimism that raises this above the level of the usual “Deltoid Phorce” clone in the tradition of Tom Clancy or some other purveyor of gadget-driven war porn. Gannon asks some questions in the course of this novel which keep it from descending to the level of the field-manual-with-body-count-in-technicolor. This is more like what Poul Anderson would have written, with no easy answers, and heroes who are not unalloyed icons.
It’s worth your time.
Nicely done, Mr. Gannon.