Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Mission of Honor (David Weber)

Mission of Honor

-David Weber

David Weber is one of my favourite authors. And yet, he seems to be going through a very bad patch. First, he started to write the Safehold books, which have started to drag (and the good guys have so many advantages that it’s hard to see how they can lose). And then there was Out of the Dark, which ended with a Deus Ex Machina that came right out of left field. And now…there is Mission of Honor. Like the books I mentioned, it is a frustrating mix of utter brilliance combined with heavy-duty dragging.

The second war between Manticore and Haven has come to a pause, following the savage Battle of Manticore in At All Costs. However, the SKM is on the verge of a confrontation with the Solarian League, the galaxy’s 7000pound gorilla – and totally unaware that an insidious agenda for galactic domination is finally ready to come into the light. As Honor sets off on her peace mission to Haven, Manticore becomes the first target in a new and deadly war…

Now, I may as well get my first gripe out of the way. This book should really have been titled Meetings of Honor. I think that at least half of the book consists of meetings between various key players, all repeating the same conclusions over and over again. Some of those meetings are clearly very important – particularly the ones on Old Earth – but others seem to be there more as a shout-out to various characters from earlier in the series. A second part of the book consists of peace talks on Haven…again, most of them could be addressed in two-three paragraphs. We don’t read Weber for his meetings.

This has its odd aspect as Honor comes across as a bit-player in her own series. We see more of the bad guys and the newly-good guys (Haven’s Committee of Public Safety was replaced by a far better government in Ashes of Victory) than we do of Honor. And for much of her time, Honor seems content to waffle on at the peace conference, rather than simply dictating an acceptable peace.

The second problem is that the events in the book are telescoped. As I understand it, Weber’s original concept was to have the war against the Alignment (which has plans to create a new era of human genetic engineering) several years down the line, after Honor’s death and her children reach adulthood. Instead, he altered this plan – and while it keeps his lead character alive, it also creates an impression that the universe is simply too big to explore. We get what is, effectively, a secret history of the original war, something that is often difficult to believe.

Even so, Weber’s combat scenes are as good as ever, even though he keeps giving the readers massive information dumps. The utterly outclassed Solarian League Navy’s encounter with the RMN is very well detailed. So, too, is the sneak attack launched by the Alignment, although its codename is an utterly groaning pun. (Oyster Bay…)

Overall, this may well be the weakest book in the series, serving more to put an end to one war and start another, rather than exploring Honor’s life and career. I find it harder to get excited about the next book than I did before reading this one – and that is a crying shame.

Friday, 3 June 2011

A State of Disobedience - Tom Kratman

A State of Disobedience

-Tom Kratman

Oddly enough, I only discovered and read this book by accident. I’d seen the preview chapters, but I hadn’t intended to read the whole novel until I was forwarded a copy by a friend. I read the entire book and discovered that I enjoyed it. Score one for Jim Baen’s liberal philosophy on electronic books.

It is roughly 2014 (for some reason, the book’s blurb claims that it is actually set much later in the century). The American Government has won the war on terror. American troops are garrisoning parts of the Middle East and oil supplies have been secured. Unfortunately, in doing so, the government has assumed vast powers over everything from internal security to the economy. And, with the election of the unscrupulous and power-hungry Wilhelmina Rottemeyer (a thinly-veiled Hilary Clinton), the tools designed to fight terrorism are turned against the American people.

Passing new laws against ‘Emotional Terrorism,’ the government starts to clamp down on freedom of expression, culminating in attacks on anti-abortion protesters. In hopes of providing a salutary example to other protesters, federal agents arrange for the massacre of protesters in Texas, ending with a siege uncomfortably reminiscent of Waco. Unluckily for the government, they are besieging a mission operated by the brother of Governor Juanita Seguin, who – eventually – is forced to send the Texan National Guard to intervene. They are too late, however, to prevent a bloody slaughter.

Fuelled by a burning desire for freedom and revenge, Texas separates itself from the federal government. The President, however, cannot allow them to leave the union, knowing that it would break both the country and her personally. The military is prepared for an invasion of Texas, despite considerable doubts as to the wisdom of siding with the President. As the odd war rages on, the President’s grip on power – and events – begins to weaken, until she goes too far. Her power collapses, threatening the integrity of the entire country – and she is assassinated by one of her victims.

The book’s main weak point is that it takes too long to get to the interesting sections – the start of the war itself. Once the crisis has well and truly begun, it picks up speed rapidly, with both sides preparing their forces and plans of campaign. The characters don’t just focus on the military, but also the economical, propaganda and logistical side of the conflict, giving the book a sense of realism lacking in many other books. The military options make sense and the viewpoint characters are realistic. Mind you, the federal agent in command of one of the operations clearly didn’t even study the left-wing version of World War One. Walking up to a defended building in the open is just asking to get mown down.

Using abortion as the trigger event is something of a gutsy move, although I can see how it could be spun by the bad guys and used to justify a very disproportionate response. Personally, as an outside observer of American politics, I am not particularly impressed by either the right or the left’s response to abortion. Both sides engage in too much wishful thinking and hypocrisy. I have a feeling that there is room for both sides to find a compromise, although the loudest voices on both sides would doubtless be horrified at any concessions. That actually illustrates one of the book’s points quite nicely. Politics are becoming so poisonous that losing becomes actively dangerous to one’s future.

The book does have a missed opportunity, for President Rottemeyer is unquestionably evil, with no redeeming values at all. She will do anything to maintain her power. This is something of a pity as the book’s point could have been made quite nicely by using her as a tragic figure of sorts, a true believer in social engineering who convinces herself – every time – that the ends justify her means. The outside observer, on the other hand, would see her sliding down a slippery slope to hell. He would get to see why the President and those who share her beliefs are so badly wrong. Instead, we have a woman who murdered a man standing in her way, organised her husband’s jailing and is quite happy to wade through blood to get what she wants.

Another interesting point about this book is the issue of moral choice. Rottemeyer herself has no morals – she even continues her desperate attempt to cling onto power in the wake of her lover’s resignation and departure. Other characters make hard choices right from the start. Father Montoya risks (and loses) his life by giving sanctuary to a priest who would challenge the government’s version of events. The Governor risks her entire state by standing up to the federal government. Some soldiers and pilots make the decision to resign or go on strike rather than fight the Texans; even General McCreavy, the President’s lesbian lover, eventually leaves her rather than stay by her side. Sometimes this seems more than a little arbitrary; the USAF’s refusal to support Rottemeyer is necessary for the plot, but the soldiers and marines remain faithful until much later.

There are absolutely no shades of grey in this book, although there is some unintentional irony. Liberals are bad and are either true believers who refuse to see the chaos they leave in their wake, or are total hypocrites whose inner feelings are effectively fascist. Conservatives are good guys, always. The bad guys do stupid things for no sensible reason. The list of proposed amendments to the constitution at the end would offend pretty much everyone in the USA.

I confess that that leaves me a little puzzled, if only because the more extreme factions on the American Right wouldn't create a better world than President Rottemeyer and her followers. There isn’t much of a difference between fascism and communism when it comes to the bottom line. They both insist on massive state control of everything. And even though they would find it offensive, I don’t see any real moral difference between those who would insist on multiculturalism and those who wish to ban homosexuality.

Overall, it is hard to rate this book. Some sections are truly excellent. Other sections read very weakly. But it is definitely worth at least one read and serious consideration.  For a first novel (Kratman has written several more since, including three Posleen books) it isn't bad at all.