Acts of Conscience by William Barton
Cover art by Don Puckey
Published by Warner Aspect
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
At first glance, it almost looks like the standard cyberpunk future: nations have ceased to exist and instead are replaced by megacorps, while household appliances have developed the ability to anticipate their owners' desires. But first-person narrator Gaetan du Cheyne isn't the usual world-weary cyberpunk hero with the mirrorshades and two-day growth of stubble. No, he's an idealist who's had to grow up and realize that he isn't going to attain his childhood dreams of adventure among the stars -- not because the stars are unreachable, but because he's not one of the lucky people who get those few slots in the economy. So he's downsized his dreams to working as a mechanic on those starships while they're in drydock, and he's been banking some of his pay in the form of stocks.
And then one of those companies hits it big with a revolutionary new invention -- a faster-than-light starship. Suddenly the stock he bought for next to nothing is incredibly valuable. Except the company wants it back, so they try to bully him into selling the shares for a sum they think large enough to overwhelm him. However, heis sufficiently annoyed by their refusal to answer his questions that he refuses..
Suddenly he is informed that he is being fired from his job -- his employer is a major stockholder in the FTL company. Although the value of his stock is sufficient to ensure that he can live for years, even decades, without having to worry about money, he finds he's not really cut out for idle wealth. Wanting some kind of useful work, he approaches the company about getting into FTL starship maintenance, only to discover that it's so different from the work he's been doing that he'd basically have to start over.
Instead, they offer him an extraordinary deal. They need some money to get started on building the ships that will actually make their bread and butter, so they'll sell him one of the prototypes. Suddenly those old dreams look a lot less unattainable, although he still has to hire a pilot to satisfy the legal requirements, and he takes paying passengers in order to defray the operating costs. But the reality of being on the world of Green Heaven in the Tau Ceti system brings back longing for rough-and-ready adventure, and when he sees a couple of toughs beating up someone in an alley, he confronts them and drives them off.
Their victim proves to be a Kappelmeister, a telepathic alien being from the world of Saleri. Although the Kappelmeister custom of rejecting any form of individual identifier makes it difficult to relate to the being, Gaetan develops a sort of working friendship, and discovers that the Kappelmeisters are a race ancient almost beyond measure.
But he also comes to the realization that owning a starship means ongoing expenses, and if he wants to keep it in the long term, he has to make it pay for itself. However, the regular passenger runs aren't going to be a longterm solution, for the simple reason that those big passenger ships are going to soon be coming out of the shipyards back in Earth orbit and pushing his marginal operation right out of business. Thus he allows himself to be drawn into a deal to transport a cargo of dollies, native lifeforms that vaguely resemble little girls, but with a catlike face, which are used in the sex trade.
However, the shipment isn't ready, so he decides to go on a trip into the wilderness. There he makes discoveries about both the dollies and the wolfen, with whom they have a symbiotic relationship, that shakes the very foundations of his worldview. As a result, he begins to seriously question the actions of humanity not only on Green Haven, but on all the other worlds where settlements have been established. So when the Kappelmeister reveals that its species is divided on the question of whether to use weapons of ancient and terrible power to exterminate humanity, Gaetan is in a position to argue humanity's case. He's no saint, and he knows his own shortcomings, which ironically may well serve him -- and humanity -- better than someone of more sterling character.
It is interesting to see in this novel many of the same themes that have appeared in his more recent collaboration with Michael Capiobianco, Alpha Centauri. Most striking is the idea of a world with three different intelligent species, some of which prey on others, and one of which has domesticated another as food. But there is also the element of ancient technology, although this time from even more ancient Precursor races, which makes it seem almost like The Transmigration of Souls, an earlier book which featured ancient technology and whole civilizations wiped out root and branch. For the alert, there is also a homage to Pohl and Kornbluth's The Space Merchants in the name of one character.
Review posted March 30, 2009.
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