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Drakon by S.M. Stirling

Cover art by Stephen Hickman

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

This volume is the fourth installment in the Draka series, only with a nasty twist. In the first three books of the series the Domination of the Draka systematically overwhelmed every other polity in their timeline, crushing or outwitting every potential enemy that could have checked their expansion. At the end of the Final War, in which they overwhelmed the Alliance for Democracy (the United States and its various allies), they allowed the starship New America to escape to Alpha Centauri only because the Draka wanted to make sure they would always have an enemy to measure themselves against, even if only a distant one they could not attack directly because of the nature of interstellar distances in a universe limited to relativistic speeds.

One of the most poignant scenes in the ending of the third volume, The Stone Dogs, was Gwendolyn Ingolfsson watching the New America depart and weeping with envy. Although she was a member of the post-human New Race Draka, genetically designed to be the Draka ideal embodied, in that act she showed that peculiar touch of humanity that again and again makes individual Draka so sympathetic in spite of their dedication to a society and ideal that is in every sense of the word monstrous.

In the beginning of this book we meet her once again, enjoying a vacation of a sort only her peculiar post-human species can. Almost five centuries have passed since the Final War, and the destruction it wrecked upon the Earth has become a distant memory. Most of North America has become wilderness parklands, allowed to revert to a wild state under the gentle yet firm management of the Conservancy Directorate so that it may serve the Draka as hunting grounds.

For the past several months Gwen has been living as a Paleolithic hunter, with nothing but the simple tools she's made herself of wood and stone and leather tanned from the creatures she's killed with her own hands. For a people with a genetically implanted need to test themselves against adversity, it's a challenge on a personal level to pit herself each day against hostile wildlife and an unforgiving landscape.

But now it's time to return to the civilized world and her duties as a Citizen of the Domination. In a moment she reconnects to the Web through the implanted transducer she's allowed to lie dormant for these past months and reclaims the tools of a member of the ruling elite of the Sol System. And in the next several pages we get a quick overview of the world the Draka have created for themselves and their subject races -- or more correctly, species.

Although there may still be a few surviving old-type humans carrying out a hardscrabble existence in the nature preserves, allowed to survive because they make good hunting, in the civilized parts of the Sol System there are only the post-human Draka and their creatures -- natural-slave servus, baboon-like warbeast ghouloons, ornamental centaurs, fauns, and the like. The Draka have traveled to several other star systems and colonized them, but the limitations of relativistic travel mean that they are effectively autonomous, only linked to the Sol Domination by the tenuous ties of common cultural values. There's very little purpose in bringing anything back from any of those worlds, for the simple reason that almost nothing material has sufficient value to make it worth the cost of traveling so far, even for a sybaritic elite who treasure exotic rarities. (One thing Mr. Stirling got right was the sheer commonness of planets around Sol-like stars -- even as late as the early 1990's when the first extra-Solar planets were discovered, the most widely held theories of planetary formation still held that planets might well be rare, but in the second decade of the 21st century, we have been finding exoplanets by the dozens, to the point that planetary systems appear to be the rule rather than the exception).

However, things may be changing, as Gwen discovers when she receives a priority assignment to take over a research station built on the location of the old American capital of New York (in the Draka timeline, Washington DC was never developed as the capital, perhaps because the presence of the proto-Domination meant that the southern planters were a weaker force in the early Republic and thus couldn't pull the political center of gravity southward from the powerful commercial cities of the Middle Atlantic and New England states). The Samothracians, the descendants of the New America, have been experimenting with quantum physics, and particularly moleholes (their timeline's terms for a cosmic wormhole), which have properties that would effectively give their makers faster-than-light travel. The eternal stalemate between the Draka and the Samothracians could be broken -- which means the Draka can't afford to fall behind.

Their first experiments were undertaken on a station deep in the Oort cloud beyond Neptune. However, something went wrong, and the data they got before the station was completely destroyed suggested some things they can barely understand. The Draka have never been good at theoretical physics. Even before the speciation into drakensis and servus, Draka society never lent itself to the development of first-rate theoretical minds, since Draka education concentrated too heavily on the practical skills needed by a warrior elite, while the serfs couldn't be trusted with more than the barest minimum training necessary to do their jobs, and that kept as much as possible to rote skill-learning rather than the broad-based education that allows for creative connections and intuitive leaps. And now the drakensis seem to have lost a certain element of creativity, while the servus are so focused on on being good servants that they lack the capacity for risk-taking that is essential to striking out on one's own into a new mental field.

In the old days, the Draka relied upon their network of spies and their ability to compromise enough Alliance researchers to steal their research. But now interstellar distances and the biological differences between the Draka and the unaltered humans of Samothrace and its daughter systems makes such approaches far more difficult. So the Draka are groping in the dark, a situation that can lead to desperate measures.

In particular, they've decided to take the risk of conducting their next set of experiments on Earth, hoping the stronger gravitational field will help them anchor the molehole and thus control it better. They're not completely reckless -- they're not going to set up their experimental station right next to a major population center. But they hope that locating it in the vast nature preserve that is post-Pacification North America, on a coastal location that will allow them to use the Atlantic Ocean as a heat sink will ensure that if something goes catastrophically wrong, the damage won't wreak too much havoc.

At first the experiment under Gwen's supervision seems to be going well. But just as it begins to draw significant power, something goes wrong and it becomes increasingly difficult to control. In the desperate efforts to regain control over it, Gwen realizes that the servus scientists are actually more valuable to the Race as a whole than herself, and orders them to flee while she struggles to contain the damage when everything does go. Yet again we have one of those creepy examples of considerable virtue in the service of utter evil that is so characteristic of the Draka. Garden variety evil is almost always selfish, insisting on its own privilege above all else, yet the Draka are time and again willing to sacrifice themselves for what would be the greater good in a normal society, but is instead the benefit of monstrous evil.

Gwen fully expects to die, but the next thing she knows, she's flung elsewhere. She's in a completely unfamiliar place, surrounded by hostile antique humans. Unable to orient herself, she responds the only way she can, lashing out against the perceived threat and slaughtering everyone with her bare hands.

Unbeknownst to Gwen, the experiment was being observed by a Samothracian spyship hiding deep in the Oort cloud. Their equipment and theoretical grasp of molehole physics are sufficiently advanced beyond those of the Draka that not only do they realize what the Draka are doing in their experiment, but they also understand the consequences. When a molehole is opened in strongly flexed spacetime, it goes sideways in time, into alternate universes -- and there's a strong probability that any Earth it opens into will be inhabited. Unless it's incredibly primitive, the Drakon that went through will be able to not only enslave its inhabitants, but bring the tech base to a point of being able to phone home, and thus open all paratime to its kin.

As a result, the Samothracians decide they have a moral responsibility to the people of that timeline. They can't take the entire ship through without alerting the Draka, and thus blowing the surprise on their grand plan, but the energy of their departure through the molehole that connects them to the Alpha Centauri system will cover the insertion of a single person into that timeline. So they send one of their own cyberwarriors, Kenneth Lafarge (apparently a descendant of the Lafarges of the earlier books, although the son had only daughters -- maybe one of them broke custom and gave her children her maiden name in spite of their social conservatism) after Gwen, hoping to track her down and destroy her before she can establish herself.

The world to which they have gone is pretty much a fictionalized version of the Primary World as it stood in 1995, so that the differences in the history come as a shock to them. Both make major blunders at first, Gwen because of her natural aggression toward any hint of resistance to her will and Ken because of his mindset being fundamentally unprepared to deal with a society that is simultaneously so familiar and yet so alien. But as they each begin to get their bearings, the story becomes an intricate three-way game of cat and mouse between them and a NYPD homicide dick who was so shaken by Gwen's original mass slaughter of the drug gang that he's determined to find out the truth in spite of higher authority's orders that he leave well enough alone.

Now and then there are a few scenes back in the Draka timeline, keeping us updated on their efforts to sort out what went wrong with their experiments. One of the most disturbing scene is the one from the perspective of Tolya, the servus physicist who was so critical to the Draka molehole project. Her mindset is so alien, so creepy in her happy acceptance of being dominated by the Draka and abject terror of their not being there to cover her will, that when I originally read it, the only comparison I could come up with was a dog given human-level intelligence. However, after having read the Harry Potter books, I find that she reads more like I would imagine a house-elf would be, although J. K. Rowling never allowed us to see the world through the eyes of a house-elf.

That scene also clues us in that the Samothracians made the attack they had planned, and that it failed. We don't know any details beyond a few hints that were mentioned by the Draka in the scene, since Tolya finds the very thought of violence so frightening that she's trying to think as little as possible about the battle. But I'm wondering if the attack failed because yet again they mistook niceness and harm-avoidance for true Good, and held back from the fiercest possible attack to avoid needless civilian casualties, still thinking of the subject species as if they were old-type humans from the time before the Final War.

Although the fight between the Samothracians and the Draka takes place out of our sight, there is plenty of action on-camera, some of it pretty brutal. That led one critic to question whether Lafarge is that much different morally than Gwen. I say yes because while Gwen sees the world and all its people as objects for her use and killing as a tool to get what she wants, Ken sees killing as a necessary evil to stop an alternative that is infinitely more horrible. Although at the end the world is saved, the epilog makes it clear that the Draka danger may not be eliminated forever.

Unfortunately, although the ending was pretty much a setup for a sequel, it appears that it will never be written. Although in the middle of the 1990's Mr. Stirling was soliciting ideas of the probable social changes that would result from the introduction of Draka-timeline tech to a world like our own, and even floated as a possible title Unto Them a Child, nothing has ever come of it. Creative differences with Jim Baen led to Stirling's departure from the Baen Books stable, and his new publishers have been uninterested in bringing out new books in a series where another publisher owns the rights to the existing books. Although it might be possible for him to regain the rights to the existing books if their Baen editions go out of print, it appears that he's so fully occupied with his other universes that he's effectively lost interest in continuing the Draka universe.

Review posted October 31, 2012.

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