Defending Angels

It is arguable that we live in a post-colonial age. We no longer see major powers moving into previously independent places and usurping the land and the people and declaring them to now be part of some empire. Not the way we did in the 18th and 19th centuries. (We wink at smaller-scale examples of roughly the same thing, but while Ukraine may be prey to Russia, we don’t see Russia trying to occupy New Zealand.) The scramble for Africa was the last eruption of such hubris. And there are now plenty of studies indicating that it was never a profitable enterprise anyway, that every power that indulged its imperialist urge did so at great expense that was never recouped, not in the long run. At best, such endeavors paid for the re-formation of both the imperial power and its colonies into more modern forms independent of each other.  At worst, it was pillage that benefited a few individuals and large companies and resulted in short-term wealth-building and long-term grief for everyone involved.

Yet the impulse drove relocations of population, experiments in applied bureaucratic overreach, and an ongoing debate over the ethics of intrusion.  One could argue that the Aztec civilization was a horrible construct with human sacrifice at its aesthetic center and the world is well rid of it.  On the other hand, it is equally true that the Spaniards who toppled it had no right to do so and unleashed a different sort of ugliness on the indigenous populations. Every European power that followed them into the so-called New World bears the same weight of shame for the wanton destruction of things they could not understand.  If here and there something positive came out of it, that something was by accident and had no real part of the initial decision to Go There.

With what we now know—ethically, scientifically, behaviorally—if given the chance to do it again, would we?  And if we decided to go ahead anyway, would we do anything differently or would we still be dominated by a subconscious obsession to exploit for resources to fuel a growing population trapped within an economic system that seems custom made to produce the necessary excuses to do what we want with whatever we find?

We seem forever to be doing things that go sour on us and then having to clean up the mess and apologize and figure out how to prevent a repeat performance. The problem with that is, one situation is not so exactly like another that the lessons do not come with big loopholes and the opportunity for rationalizing our hubristic avarice.

In short, we never learn.

At least, not in aggregate.  We understand this as well and so a good part of our political theorizing is geared toward a place wherein the individual moral insight can be effectively balanced against the rock-stupid momentum of the group; and in which the common wisdom of historical experience as exemplified by the group can temper the less enlightened passions of the individual.  In other words, to find the point at which we can allow for the individual who is correct to trump the so-called “will of the people” and conversely where that common will can morally check the individual who may only be thinking of him or herself, the group be damned.

Underneath, threaded into, and informing Marguerite Reed’s Philip K. Dick Award nominated novel, Archangel, we find this ongoing debate carried on at several levels.

Ubastis is a world seemingly ideal for large-scale human settlement.  Two waves of advance “scouts” grounded to do extensive surveys, impact studies, and established trial settlements. It became clear that this was a vital ecosphere and that, compatibility aside, questions of too much too soon drove the negotiations that prevented a rush to fill it with human excess.  Dr. Vashti Loren, widow of the spiritual and moral leader of these two waves, is one of the principle advisors on the ad hoc committee overseeing Ubasti, which exists as a kind of protectorate.  The rest of human polity is hungry for it to be opened for a larger human presence, which the people who live there know will mean the ruin of a unique biome. Vashti becomes the focus of all the efforts to forestall such open colonization.  As the widow of a slain “hero” she carries great weight.

She is also a problematic figure in this culture.  She is a genetically unmodified human in a larger culture where modification has become so widespread that “Natches” are special. That she is a protector of an “unmodified” ecosphere is only the first layer of what becomes a deeply meaningful representation of not only human moral responsibility but also human potential in an alien cosmos.

Reed gives us a civilization where aggression is being gene-modified out of individual humans, even though wars are ostensibly still fought, uprisings happen, and certain strain of bloodlust remains a given in controlled contexts. That Vashti is wholly unmodified adds to the irony that she also hunts native species as part of her job as an exobiologist and as a kind of PR component to assuage outworlders who are curious, acquisitive, and need persuading that Ubastis requires the time to be understood before the exploitation full-scale human settlement will bring. She takes outworld visitors on sdafari to hunt the local big game.

Her deceased husband, Lasse, was murdered by a renegade “soldier”—a Beast, a BioEngineered ASault Tactician, a member of a clone experiment in super soldiers—as a result of trying to prevent poaching.  The Interests trying to discard the treaty that keeps Ubastis inviolate have all along been probing at the defenses, trying to engineer excuses for open incursions.  Vashti kills the Beast.  That action calls into question her sanity, but she effectively defends herself from charges that would see her “re-educated.”

What she did not know was the deeper game her husband was playing to bring about a future independent Ubastis—and that it involved the Beasts, the lot of which have been presumably destroyed as too dangerous. Vashti begins to learn what her husband never told her when she is confronted with a Beast that has been smuggled onto Ubastis by the governor’s wife.  She vows to kill it, but that impulse itself gradually morphs into powerfully conflicted responsibilities, the details of which comprise the plot of this densely-detailed and finely-realized novel.

Vashti. The name has history. She was the Queen of a Persian ruler who requested she appear naked before a banquet he was holding in honor of other kings.  A “higher politics” was obviously going on and his demand of his wife was obviously part of the impression he was trying to make on his fellow kings.  Vashti refused.  Harriet Beecher Stowe later declared that Vashti’s refusal was the first blow for women’s rights.  She followed her own code.  Her husband’s request was deeply inappropriate even in that culture.  Vashti stood by her own values.

Make of that what you will.  Reed’s Vashti is a woman dedicated to a set of principles which are sorely tested in the course of the novel.  Watching her come to terms with political, ecological, and moral realities and steer a course between the shoals of competing colonial, imperial, and personal demands makes for a compelling read.  She is a superbly realized, flawed character, and the questions she raises, wrestles with, and reacts to lend themselves to consideration long after the last page.

This is excellent science fiction.  It takes the abstract, the conjectural, and the epistemology of human systems and moral dictates and makes them personal, the stakes high, and answers often problematic, leaving us with a great deal to think about.

Traditions and New Eyes

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.