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Monday, November 22, 2010

Reading List: Fires of Freedom

Pournelle, Jerry. Fires of Freedom. Riverdale, NY: Baen Publishing, [1976, 1980] 2010. ISBN 978-1-4391-3374-3.
This book includes two classic Jerry Pournelle novels which have been long out of print. Baen Publishing is doing journeyman work bringing the back lists of science fiction masters such as Pournelle, Robert Heinlein, and Poul Anderson back to the bookshelves, and this is a much welcome addition to the list. The two novels collected here are unrelated to one another. The first, Birth of Fire, originally published in 1976, follows a gang member who accepts voluntary exile to Mars to avoid a prison sentence on Earth. Arriving on Mars, he discovers a raw frontier society dominated by large Earth corporations who exploit the largely convict labour force. Nobody has to work, but if you don't work, you don't get paid and can't recharge the air medal everybody wears around their neck. If it turns red, or you're caught in public not wearing one, good tax-paying citizens will put the freeloader “outside”—without a pressure suit.

Former gangster Garrett Pittston finds that Mars suits him just fine, and, avoiding the temptations of the big companies, signs on as a farmhand with a crusty Marsman who goes by the name of Sarge. At Windhome, Sarge's station, Garrett learns how the Marsmen claw an independent existence from the barren soil of Mars, and also how the unyielding environment has shaped their culture, in which one's word is a life or death bond. Inevitably, this culture comes into conflict with the nanny state of the colonial administration, which seeks to bring the liberty-loving Marsmen under its authority by taxing and regulating them out of existence.

Garrett finds himself in the middle of an outright war of independence, in which the Marsmen use their intimate knowledge of the planet as an ally against what, on the face of it, would appear to be overwhelming superiority of their adversaries. Garrett leads a bold mission to obtain the game-changing resource which will allow Mars to deter reprisals from Earth, and in doing so becomes a Marsman in every way.

Pournelle paints this story with spare, bold brush strokes: all non-essentials are elided, and the characters develop and events transpire with little or no filler. If Kim Stanley Robinson had told this story, it would probably have occupied two thousand pages and have readers dying of boredom or old age before anything actually happened. This book delivers an action story set in a believable environment and a society which has been shaped by it. Having been originally published in the year of the Viking landings on Mars, there are a few things it gets wrong, but there are a great many others which are spot-on, and in some cases prophetic.

The second novel in the book, King David's Spaceship, is set in the CoDominium universe in which the classic novel The Mote in God's Eye takes place. The story occurs contemporarily with The Mote, during the Second Empire of Man, when imperial forces from the planet Sparta are re-establishing contact with worlds of the original Empire of Man who have been cut off from one another, with many reverting to primitive levels of technology and civilisation in the aftermath of the catastrophic Secession Wars.

When Imperial forces arrive on Prince Samual's World, its civilisation had recovered from disastrous post-collapse warfare and plague to around the technological level of 19th century Earth. King David of the Kingdom of Haven, who hopes to unify the planet under his rule, forms an alliance with the Empire and begins to topple rivals and petty kingdoms while pacifying the less civilised South Continent. King David's chief of secret police learns, from an Imperial novel that falls into his hands, that the Empire admits worlds on different bases depending upon their political and technological evolution. Worlds which have achieved planetary government and an indigenous space travel capability are admitted as “classified worlds”, which retain a substantial degree of autonomy and are represented in one house of the Imperial government. Worlds which have not achieved these benchmarks are classed as colonies, with their local governmental institutions abolished and replaced by rule by an aristocracy of colonists imported from other, more developed planets.

David realises that, with planetary unification rapidly approaching, his days are numbered unless somehow he can demonstrate some kind of space flight capability. But the Empire enforces a rigid technology embargo against less developed worlds, putatively to allow for their “orderly development”, but at least as much to maintain the Navy's power and enrich the traders, who are a major force in the Imperial capital. Nathan McKinnie, formerly a colonel in the service of Orleans, a state whose independence was snuffed out by Haven with the help of the Navy, is recruited by the ruthless secret policeman Malcolm Dougal to lead what is supposed to be a trading expedition to the world of Makassar, whose own civilisation is arrested in a state like medieval Europe, but which is home to a “temple” said to contain a library of documents describing First Empire technology which the locals do not know how to interpret. McKinnie's mission is to gain access to the documents, discover how to build a spaceship with the resources available on Haven, and spirit this information back to his home world under the eyes of the Navy and Imperial customs officials.

Arriving on Makassar, McKinnie finds that things are even more hopeless than he imagined. The temple is in a city remote from where he landed, reachable only by crossing a continent beset with barbarian hordes, or a sea passage through a pirate fleet which has essentially shut down seafaring on the planet. Using no advanced technology apart from the knowledge in his head, he outfits a ship and recruits and trains a crew to force the passage through the pirates. When he arrives at Batav, the site of the temple, he finds it besieged by Islamic barbarians (some things never change!), who are slowly eroding the temple's defenders by sheer force of numbers.

Again, McKinnie needs no new technology, but simply knowledge of the Western way of war—in this case recruiting from the disdained dregs of society and training a heavy infantry force, which he deploys along with a newly disciplined heavy cavalry in tactical doctrine with which Cæsar would have been familiar. Having saved the temple, he forms an alliance with representatives of the Imperial Church which grants him access to the holy relics, a set of memory cubes containing the collected knowledge of the First Empire.

Back on Prince Samual's World, a Los Alamos style research establishment quickly discovers that they lack the technology to read the copies of the memory cubes they've brought back, and that the technology of even the simplest Imperial landing craft is hopelessly out of reach of their knowledge and manufacturing capabilities. So, they adopt a desperate fall back plan, and take a huge gamble to decide the fate of their world.

This is superb science fiction which combines an interesting premise, the interaction of societies at very different levels of technology and political institutions, classical warfare at sea and on land, and the difficult and often ruthless decisions which must be made when everything is at stake (you will probably remember the case of the Temple swordsmen long after you close this book). It is wonderful that these excellent yarns are back in print after far too long an absence.

Posted at November 22, 2010 21:54