The City Who Fought by Anne McCaffrey and S.M. Stirling
Cover art by Stephen Hickman
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Before Anne McCaffrey became known primarily as the author of the Dragonriders of Pern series, she wrote a number of works in other fictional universes, some of them stand-alone, some of them interconnected. Among them were several stories about a young woman who was born so severely disabled that her condition was effectively non-survivable without extensive medical intervention, and who was subsequently made the cyborg brain of a starship, where she pursued her talent for music as an avocation. These stories were later collected into a fix-up novel, The Ship Who Sang
Although the story of Helva was complete in itself, fans found the world interesting enough that they started pestering Ms. McCaffrey for more stories of the Brainship universe. However, by this time Ms. McCaffrey had enough different successful universes that writing large numbers of sequels in all of them really wasn't an option any more, especially now that Pern was becoming her flagship series and she was no longer as young as she used to be, and thus simply didn't have the energy level she had in her younger days when she churned out enormous reams of romances under various pseudonyms.
In the 1980's publisher Jim Baen had a notable success with the Man-Kzin Wars anthology series, which had grown from Larry Niven's reluctance to oblige fans who wanted to read stories of the oft-referenced era in which humanity and the felinoid Kzinti engaged in open warfare. Niven had demurred on the basis that he had never served in the military, had never seen any combat, and as a result anything he might produce would be derivative of other writers' military fiction and thus inadequate. Baen had suggested that perhaps he might invite a few carefully selected professional writers with military experience to write in that particular section of his fictional universe. It would of course have to be done in a way that would not endanger Niven's copyrights, but that was a matter of writing the contracts in the right way.
The series had succeeded so well that Jim Baen saw an opportunity for other established authors to enlist other writers in the process of extending universes that for one or another reason they no longer were going to be writing additional solo volumes for. Furthermore, there was no reason to restrict it to established name authors on the same level with the one who created the fictional universe. Instead it could become a way of building the careers of relatively junior authors in his stable, authors who in most publishing houses were taken on with the understanding that most of them would get one or two books to prove themselves, books that would be tossed out on the racks to live or die by good luck and the author's necessarily limited efforts. A lot of publishing houses were running through one beginning author after another, viewing them as essentially disposable, but Baen was positioning himself to be the successor to John W. Campbell, who was famous for having built the careers of many well-known Golden Age science fiction authors, including Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein.
Among the authors Jim Baen approached was Anne McCaffrey, who was a perfect fit for this project. Her wild success with the Pern books gave her instant name recognition that fairly ensured any book with her byline on it would sell enough copies to make back the original investment and allow a comfortable profit. At the same time, she had a number of fictional universes lying fallow that had good potential to become open-ended series in which an endless number of novels could be written as long as there was a market for them. Baen decided to focus upon two in particular, those begun with Dinosaur Planet and with The Ship Who Sang.
For The City Who Fought Jim Baen brought in S. M. Stirling, who was already the co-author of several novels, most notoriously the Draka novels.. The result was a collaboration that could be summed up as "The Ship Who Sang meets the Domination of the Draka."
The titular city is Simeon, a brain in charge of a giant orbital station in orbit around a star that lacks any habitable planets but is full of rich resources, particularly a large asteroid belt. He enjoys playing war-game simulations and dreams of being a brainship, imagining that it would be quite heroic to fight pirates and other enemies.. When we first meet him, he's getting a new brawn (normal human assistant, who interfaces with the normal-human world and takes care of things waldoes and other robotic elements can't), and immediately Channa Hap's personality draws sparks. Just to make things complicated, Simeon's discovered a young orphan living in the ductwork of the station, wary as a feral cat. She calls herself Joat, for "jack of all trades," and shows considerable technical talent, ability that could enable her to make considerable contributions to the community, or that could lead her into extensive trouble. Simeon's gained her trust and wants to adopt her as his own, but runs straight into resistance from an Obstructive Bureaucrat who simply cannot see a shellperson as a suitable adoptive father for a normal human child.
Meanwhile, the peaceful world of Bethel, settled some generations earlier by a minority religious sect that wanted to follow its peculiar beliefs without continual friction with unbelieving neighbors, is attacked by space pirates. When it becomes clear these Kolnari have come not just to raid, but to conquer and brutalize, Amos ben Sierra Nueva leads a group of likeminded young people to make an emergency refit of the colony ship that brought their ancestors to Bethel, a vessel that's been used solely as an orbital station ever since. It's a desperate measure, especially since their supplies of hibernation drugs are far too old and there's no guarantee they'll work, but when the alternative is a massacre and the enslavement of the survivors, it's a chance these refugees will take.
The station's first warning of trouble is the ship hurtling toward them, out of control. It was supposed to be operated by the former Planetary Manager, Guiyon the shellperson, but he had only a makeshift connection to the ship's controls and they have frayed and broken. Although the station's people are able to rendezvous and board, it's a very risky maneuver because the engines are already redlined and in a critical state, ready to blow.
The would-be rescuers find a charnelhouse of dead and dying, many of the corpses in an advanced stage of decomposition. It's made even more horrific by clear evidence that many of the dead were children and their mothers, which is strong evidence that these people were fleeing something in considerable haste. However, the medical team is able to rescue a few of what is clearly a saving remnant, although Channa's nearly-suicidal efforts to save Guiyon prove futile, for the damage to his life-support systems are too profound.
As the medical team is nursing the survivors back to health, the leadership cadre of the station pore over the fragmentary records of the ship, trying to understand what just sort of threat the refugees fled -- a threat that may well be following them. In most cases it would've been a relatively simple matter of networking with the ship's computer and downloading their logs, but the refugees apparently were some kind of Space Amish who rejected dependency upon technology, for the ship was full of paper records -- and there was simply no time to get any of them when they were racing against the clock to get the surviving people out before the engines blew. So there's nothing they can do but wait until Amos ben Sierra Nuevo recovers enough that he can tell his story.
The Kolnari are space pirates, the descendants of a number of groups that were expelled from Earth for having been so violent that they could not be tolerated any longer by the civilized worlds. Groups dedicated to hatred of the Other, groups who believed that it was right to impose their philosophies on other groups by force, and outright racketeers. All were herded aboard spaceships to be taken to the world of a hellish star, a world that was so marginally habitable that the government that exiled them could let the planet kill them and thus wash their hands of responsibility for their deaths. Although enormous numbers died on the way as the disparate groups fought one another with their bare hands and teeth, and still more died from the horrific environmental conditions on their new world, they did not all die out.
The result of that brutal winnowing is a human subtype of extraordinary endurance, able to survive in conditions that would kill any ordinary human. Their DNA has been reinforced to make it proof against radiation-induced mutations, they are resistant to chemical poisons and in fact need certain compounds toxic to normal humans in order to remain healthy. Even their immune systems are so robust they are barely troubled by diseases that lay ordinary people flat. And they glory in it, regarding themselves as a chosen race with a natural right to rule, who have been forced to skulk along the margins by those whom they call "scumvermin."
Although the Kolnari resemble the Draka in many ways, they lack most of the Draka's more redeeming qualities, the tragic virtues that would make them great people to be around if only they served a good philosophy instead of an evil one. In particular, the Kolnari lack the Draka's stern and unbending sense of honor, their ability to be gentle and kind with obedient serfs, their love of beauty and their strong sense of responsibility toward the maintenance of the land. Those redeeming qualities made the Draka grayed vilians instead of purely evil ones, even if sometimes their sheer virtuousness and absence of the ordinary vices of venality and selfishness brought them dangerously close to becoming Villain Sues. But the Kolnari have few, if any, redeeming qualities -- their leader Belazir 'Marid Kolaren is an active sadist who enjoys tormenting his victims, and all the ship captains are constantly ready to backstab or betray one another for advantage, such behavior being kept in check only by stern law with harsh punishment.
There's also another major difference between the Kolnari and the Draka, which can be seen in Stephen Hickman's cover art for the book. While the Draka were an extreme version of European racism toward people of color, the Kolnari are most definitely not white. However, neither are they a simplistic inversion along the lines of Robert A. Heinlein's notorious Farnham's Freehold. While the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa, southern India, and other tropical regions are actually a very dark brown, the skins of the Kolnari are in fact a strange gunmetal black, making them look like statues of polished ebony. It appears that melanin has been replaced by an even more effective UV blocker -- but it does not extend to their hair, which is an even more striking silvery white, creating an impression reminiscent of the Drow elves of the various Dungeons and Dragons spinoff universes. From this comes one of the more humorous moments amidst the terrifying first encounter, in which Simeon characterizes the Kolnari as "the Ultimately Intimidating Elves from Hell."
As the Kolnari take over the station and begin to brutalize its inhabitants, Channa and Simeon begin a desperate guerilla battle, trying to buy enough time for the Navy to arrive and deal with the Kolnari -- or at least drive them off. In this fight, Joat proves her worth with her knowledge of the inner workings of the station and how to move between places unseen and unnoticed, harassing the Kolnari with an endless range of pinprick injuries and humiliations.
Yes, it is a story with a happy ending, in case you're worried after the downer ending of The Stone Dogs. However, it's not an ending without cost, and Simeon will never be able to enjoy his war-games quite the same way now that he has experienced the real thing and its terrible price on the lives of those he loves.
Review posted December 14, 2012.
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