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The Domination by S. M. Stirling

Cover art by Steve Hickman

Cover design by Carol Russo

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

This volume is not the long-awaited sequel to Drakon. Rather, it is an omnibus volume that compiles the three original Draka books, Marching Through Georgia, Under the Yoke, and The Stone Dogs, woven together by a framing narrative that continues the story of the timeline Gwen Ingolfsson and Ken Lafarge battled over in Drakon (unfortunately Creative Differences with the publisher seem to have 86ed the planned sequel which would've carried that storyline forward a generation).

The framing story of Henry Carmaggio and the reporter serve to give us a slight introduction, the idea that we are going to be tossed straight into a world in which a self-appointed Master Race sought to rule the world. And then we are thrust into the middle of an ongoing battle and introduced to Centurion Eric von Shrakenberg, who is preparing for a parachute drop into a hot landing zone. He's one of the elite even among the Draka, the son and heir of a plantation family that goes all the way back to the beginnings of the Domination, when it was just a Crown Colony on the southern tip of Africa.

Yet he's a man profoundly uncomfortable with the society in which he lives, deeply aware of its flaws. The endless conquests, the brutal repression of the ordinary people, the serfs, who are slaves in all but name. At the same time he's historically aware enough to understand the forces that drive these things, the abyss upon which the Draka teeter every day, kept from falling in only because they are willing to expend every bit of their strength to hold themselves back. His deepest longing is to find a way to end the madness, to allow his people to be at peace and live their lives instead of being living weapons.

He is accompanied by Bill Dreiser, who's pretty clearly a roman a clef figure for William Shirer, who was author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in the Primary World. Dreiser is acting as an embedded reporter, although the term is not used, but his purpose is the same -- to convey the experience of the war from the front, and in this case to make the very alien culture of the Draka at least palatable enough to American readers to get them to support the alliance with the Domination against the Nazis and the Japanese, never mind that it's a deal with an even worse devil than the alliance with Stalin's USSR in the Primary World.

After that initial chapter, we stop for some backfill, taking Eric back several months to his last visit home. It's a rather clumsy technique, but this was one of Mr. Stirling's very first published novels and there is evidence that it may have been written far earlier and published only after he'd established his street cred from several collaborations in another fictional universe.

These chapters give us a sense of what the Draka homeland and their society is, first through the eyes of one of its own (albeit disaffected) and then those of someone from a culture more like the reader's, as Eric plays host to Dreiser. We get the fundamental juxtapositions of beauty and cruelty, of tremendous virtue in the service of monstrous evil, that make the Draka so chilling. They aren't your standard cackling, gloating villains of melodrama and comics, or even the cynical, venal villains that cyberpunk has made popular. In fact, on a personal level most of them would seem like nice people to have around -- until they say something that reminds you that they serve a political and social system that regards only their own caste to be people, and everyone else to be cattle, either already under the Yoke or ferals yet to be Yoked.

After we've seen firsthand what Draka society means, it's back to the story-present of the first chapter. Things have gone wrong, and Eric's unit has been cut off from the main Draka attack. Worse, the German forces they're facing aren't just ordinary Wehrmacht, but the elite Waffen-SS.

Here we have a fascinating study in All Hats Are Gray in the Darkness. We're looking at the clash of two empires that are based upon the monstrous belief that some races are superior and thus have the right to crush those they deem inferior. Yet the individual point-of-view characters from each society are oddly sympathetic people, ordinary guys who are acting out of understandable motives such as duty rather than any grandiose For The Evuls. Many readers have reported struggling with their discomfort about rooting for one or the other side, as if the question were whether it's better to be exterminated or enslaved by one's conquerors. Only a very few readers can break free of the deeply conditioned need to take sides and say Why Can't You Both Lose?

The remainder of Book One is Eric von Shrakenberg's internal struggles with his identity as a Draka as he battles to keep himself and his unit alive by using local assets and improvised redoubts to hold off the Waffen-SS. In that battle he finally reaches his own personal moment of transforming clarity, even as his enemy within the Security Directorate, the Draka police apparatus, are coming to arrest him for having encouraged unsound elements, their euphemism for giving hope to people who are to be enslaved. If you'd entertained any hope that Eric might get fed up enough to turn against the Draka, forget it. In the end he's a patriot, unwilling to abandon his homeland however flawed it may be. Instead he has some vague hope that something good can be built from the courage and loyalty he's encountered in the army, if they can get rid of the moral rot of the security state.

And if you thought the next part of the story would be Eric von Shrakenberg's struggles to bring about change as the war grinds on, think again. He hardly even appears in Book Two, just a brief cameo in the end.

As Book Two begins, the War is over and Europe lies crushed. We're in a Security Directorate holding facility in Lyon, where Sister Marya Sokolowska shares a cramped cell with the Communist activist Chantal Lefarge and a number of other women. There's nothing to do but wait through each day, trying not to listen too closely to the executions in the courtyard outside, or the screams and whimpers from the interrogation rooms down the corridor.

And then everything changes. A Draka, accompanied by a pair of Janissaries, arrives and picks out Marya and Chantal. They are taken through a maze of buildings old and new to an office. There they are examined by a stern Draka woman.

She is Tanya von Shrakenberg, a cousin of Eric, a member of a branch of the family that established a plantation in the Levant after the previous war's conquest (the Draka timeline's equivalent to our World War I). She and her husband, a younger son of yet another branch of the family, are establishing a plantation of their own in the French countryside. The fieldhands came from a mass roundup of the local villagers and farming folk, but the von Shrakenbergs need serfs with specialized skills for technical and maintenance work, hence the trip into town to make purchases.

It's a chilling scene, as Tanya methodolicly grinds Chantal and Marya's faces in their powerlessness, in the Draka's redefinition of the entire political and social landscape of their world in the Draka's favor. And yet there's no overt cruelty, and even a little solicitude in the loosening of the brutally tight chains that were put upon the two women for transport. But all of it is means toward her ends of protecting and increasing the value of her living assets, not any acknowledgement of them as human beings, ends unto themselves.

The rest of book two is a very up-close and personal experience of a land being beaten into submission and remade into the mold of Draka society. In the first book we saw life on a plantation, but Oakenwald was in the Old Territories, land held for so many generations that even the folk memory of freedom had been erased from their culture. Here, in a newly-conquered land whose inhabitants still think of it as France, things are far harsher, from the field-improvised execution of the Resistance fighters that attack the von Shrakenberg caravan on its way home to the various methods of discipline used on the serfs to maintain acceptable levels of work.

But the really disturbing thing isn't so much the physical brutality, however stomach-turning, as the psychosocial. Draka culture is marked by intense virtue turned to profoundly evil ends, and part of their process of breaking their serfs to the Yoke is to warp and distort their virtues into a moral obligation to serve and obey their aggressors, even against their own self-interest, until rebellion isn't merely an offense against power, but against the moral order. All the good-adjustment virtues of making the best of one's situation and avoiding self-pity are enlisted to forbid the newly enslaved to feel negative emotions toward their exploitation, and instead instill an obligation to have a positive attitude, to stop seeing it as wrong, but Just Part Of Life.

Some years ago I was critiquing a story and commented that the alien conquerors of Earth in it felt like the Draka. When the other first readers objected that the alien society was nothing like the Draka in structure, I could offer no reasoned response, only the inchoate sense that these aliens got my back up in exactly the same way the Draka did. Now that I reflect on it, I have reason to believe that my intense gut-level response was a reaction to a sense that virtues and moral values were being Big-Lie distorted to create a sense of moral obligation for Earthlings (and thus myself) to identify with the aggressor, to call oppression good and exploitation a privilege, and to generally treat the subjugation of humanity as something positive to be embraced rather than an evil to be endured and if possible fought.

However, the experiences of Marya and Chantal as the von Shrakenbergs transform a piece of what was French countryside into a Draka plantation of serfs and Masters are not the only storyline of Book Two. Just to let us know that the United States and its newly-formed Alliance for Democracy has not forgotten the people who were caught behind the lines as the Draka advanced, they are sending an agent in to investigate and connect with various resistance groups operating in the vast warrens of serf-operated industry.

Fred Kustaa is ethnic Finnish, descendant of a family that moved to the Upper Midwest in the last years of the previous century. He retains enough cultural connection to the Old Country that he's a good choice for making connections with the Finnish Resistance groups who are holding out in the deep forests. We soon see what a desperate rearguard fight they've been reduced to -- even their attack on a supply convoy and their destruction of a helicopter using a primitive heat-seeking missile Kustaa's provided are but a pinprick injury, quickly replaced, while their own forces have taken such grievous harm that by the end of those chapters we're left wondering if Kustaa's aid was in fact a form of unwitting betrayal, a subtle poison pill that lured them into an untenable position so they could be attacked and destroyed.

From there Kustaa travels across Draka-conquered Europe, witnessing first-hand the horrors of a continent in chains. From the pretty young waitress being beaten black and blue yet again for some trivial fault to the man taken from his machine and torn on hooks, then left to die in slow agony for everyone to see, Kustaa becomes witness to it all, and with him us the readers.

And inevitably the two storylines must intersect, as Kustaa comes to the plantation upon which Marya toils. She was supposed to be his contact to facilitate the extraction, but everything goes wrong, and the best they can do is try to salvage some fragment of the situation. So they've won a moral victory, but in the face of Draka conquest of half the world, it's a very small victory indeed, a mere token.

The third book jumps ahead a couple of decades, to an Italy now a generation under the Yoke, its plantations and towns settled into the ways of Draka life after those who could not or would not adapt to it have been weeded out. And yet another new point of view character, this one a child -- Yolande Ingolfsson, daughter of Eric von Shrakenberg's sister Johanna, whom we met way back in the first book.

There's something particularly chilling about watching the formation of a Draka child from within. In the first two books all our point of view characters have been adults, their characters fully formed. Yes, we did have Tanya's daughter Gudrun in the second book, but we never had any scenes through her eyes. But as Yolande goes to school and meets with her peer group and her teachers, we see how young Draka are inculcated with both their astonishing level of virtue and their belief in the absolute rectitude of the monstrously evil system they will live and die for. None of the young women in the clique Yolande joins herself to are overtly cruel or abusive, although they are rather offhand at times in being rough with the serfs of the school. And they all are quite loyal to one another, and self-police away tendencies toward petty bullying (the scene in which the clique leader reprimands two girls who were excessively harsh in applying peer pressure to a laggard is particularly telling). They're also prudent and conscientious, not to mention quite industrious in their studies -- they have math courses in their equivalent to high school that are typically advanced undergraduate-level work in US universities, such as tensors and differential equations.

And that just makes it all the more chilling to see how these polite, intelligent young women are being turned into living weapons in a system that exists to crush every competing system and grind it to powder, reducing all the rest of humanity to rightless slave meat. Given some other social system, one that inculcated the same level of virtue but in the service of a social system dedicated to the preservation of the rights and dignity of all humanity, they would be admirable people, the sort you'd want as your very best friends.

And then we get to meet the representatives of the polity that in name at least is dedicated to those latter values, although the Protracted Struggle has necessitated the development of a security state. The Alliance for Democracy, and the United States at its head, are all that stands against the Domination in the post-Eurasian-War world. Fred and Marya Lefarge, whom we saw as newborns at the end of Book Two, have dedicated their lives to the long fight against the Draka, and now they are embarking upon their professional careers as agents of the OSS, which in that timeline never turned into the CIA.

Their mission is to take out a traitor, a nerdy computer genius who was lured to switch sides by the promise of a harem of pliable serf concubines and a chateau in France. Of course he has only Metic Citizenship, and is kept isolated in the midst of a hunting preserve and closely watched by agents of the Security Directorate. Part of it's to keep him away from regular Citizen society, since he has no social skills to speak of and would probably get himself killed by offending anybody and everybody he encountered. But it's also to make sure his former compatriots don't carry out the death warrant that's now out against him.

Gaining access to the hunting preserve could be tricky, except they encounter an aristocratic woman, one Alexandra von Shrakenberg, who is a scion of one of the local Landholders and was planning a hunt there with some family and friends. In order to cozen her, Fred has to seduce her -- and unbeknownst to either of them, she is in fact his genetic half-sister, the acknowledged daughter of the man who raped Fred's mother.

Given the strictness with which the incest taboo is regarded in almost every human culture, and how harshly even unwitting incest is punished in traditional narratives, it becomes easy to wonder if the tragedies that follow, both personal and national, for the Lefarges and the Alliance for Democracy, are the result of his seducing his half-sister in the course of his mission. Presumably the von Shrakenberg family and the Domination as a whole were spared the effects of Alexandra' sin because she died in the firefight at the end of the mission, when Fred and Marya's cover was blown and they had to fight their way out, and thus she expiated her own sin in full.

In the years that follow, the Alliance for Democracy suffers one reverse after another. Several times they have victory in their grasp only to have it slip through their fingers, most notably in the events leading up to the Draka conquest of India. That is also the first personal tragedy Fred experiences, the capture and enslavement of his sister Marya. Then, as space exploration and settlement proceed at a rate many critics have called implausible (although that may be based upon the single sample of the Primary World, in which America went to the Moon six times in four years only to stop, leaving humanity stuck in low Earth orbit ever since), Fred's wife and daughters are on an Orion-drive spacecraft that's captured by the Draka and are subjected to abuses before they can be rescued.

And of course there's the Crowning Moment of Despair in which Yolande starts the Final War for reasons of personal bitterness, leaving her uncle Eric, now the Archon of the Domination, with no choice but to use it or lose it. And although Marya reaches her brother in the Asteroid Belt in time to warn the Belters of the mind-warping bioweapon the Draka have seeded among the Alliance leadership, Fred still cannot prevail. He has the power to strike a final killing blow, yet he let's Eric von Shrakenberg convince him that such an action would be petty spite and thus immoral -- a final example of the Draka ability to twist virtue to the ends of their evil system and convince people that it's morally obligatory to support that system. Thus the starship New America leaves the Sol system, effectively abandoning the very people they were supposedly sparing by not striking the final killing blow against the Draka, and rationalizing the failure with the notion that they're taking a saving remnant of free humans away from the Draka's reach forever.

A lot of people have been very upset with the "bad guys win" ending (apparently including publisher Jim Baen, who by some accounts wanted the ending of The Stone Dogs rewritten so the Alliance won) -- and I have to admit a certain fondness for a fanfic in which the Eurasian War ends with the US President suddenly growing some guts and a spine and abandoning the alliance of convenience with the Draka to nuke the hell out of their major cities and put an end to their Domination.

But I don't think that Mr. Stirling was writing these novels to glorify evil, although the sheer sympatheticness of the individual Draka characters can give this impression. Instead I think he wrote them as an anodyne to a certain kind of story in which the bad guys are caricatures of pure malice and "being good" is effectively a Plot Coupon the good guys hand in to the author for the happy ending

In fact the biggest problem with the Draka is that they're too virtuous, to the point that if they were serving a good creed instead of an evil one, they'd be freaking saints. Other than Yolande in the end of the third book, we never see any of them screw up something important out of petty spite or to gain points over a rival. We never see a venal Draka who pursues glory on the cheap, or one who engages in nepotism or who covers up a buddy's failings to get him a good job. There's no evidence of real cronyism or corruption, which we should expect to be rife in a system in which personal connections rather than bureaucratic procedures are paramount. Take for example the Braxana in C S Friedman's In Conquest Born -- they too combine well-nigh superhuman self-discipline with sybaritic luxury, yet they have their expected share of incompetents, of crooks, of shirkers, of backstabbers, of generally flawed and venal characters, something we never see in the Draka.

At the same time, it's interesting to see how the experience of reading all three novels together differs from reading them separately. Most obviously, reading them together really points up how diffuse the third book is in comparison to the first two. Both of those are tightly focused on a small number of settings and characters, and take place over a relatively short period of time. By contrast, the third spans several decades and carries us all over the Solar System. Sometimes I wonder if it might've been better had Mr. Stirling written a number of books, each as tightly focused as the first two, telling the story of his characters in manageable stages.

Also, the absence of the expository matter (except for a couple of the chapter-opening excerpts from imagined books and articles of the Draka universe) makes for a different reading experience. On one hand, the various essays written in the voices of fictional characters within the universe gave it a verisimilitude that could be quite disconcerting, similar to the faux documentary materials in Tori Truslow's "Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's Day" in Clockwork Phoenix 3. However, the for many readers the timelines had the opposite effect of really drawing attention to some of the most implausible elements of the chronology, which are now obscured because we see them only as historical references within the narrative, rather than being laid out in sequential form.

There's also a bit of irony that's come about since the original publication of this omnibus novel. In one of the framing-narrative bits, the Japanese reporter makes some remark about how in their timeline the control-freaks lost out. At the time the passage was written, it seemed to be true. Since then, there has been cause to be less sanguine about the future of freedom and democracy, as America slip-slides into a security state of its own making. The big difference now is that the tyrants aren't out to crush us, but to protect us, and since all of this apparatus of identity documents and searches and restrictions is for our own good, we have an obligation to be grateful.

On the whole, The Domination is primarily a book for the completist, or for the person who missed the original paperback release and doesn't want to buy used copies of them.

Table of Contents

  • Marching Through Georgia
  • Under the Yoke
  • The Stone Dogs

Review posted October 31, 2012.

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