Echoes of Honor by David Weber
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
The impossible has happened: Honor Harrington has been captured by the forces of the People's Republic of Haven, and executed on television. With a flourish of triumph they paraded this before the populace of her native Star Kingdom of Manticore, making sure that the brutal visuals hit home. Griefstricken, the peopleof Manticore mourn and set about making sure that her memory will be preserved.
And Grayson faces an even greater dilemma -- the succession of Harrington Steadholding. Honor's cousin Devon who inherited her county is a complete unknown to them, and doesn't have her record of heroism in battle to offset the problem of being an offworlder. As a result, the Protectorate and Conclave of Steadholders, not to mention the Sacristy, the governing body of the Church of Humanity Unchained, suddenly face a political crisis for which they must painstakingly study what slender precedents exist.
At length they manage to convince Honor's parents to have another child, and to come to Grayson for his birth so that he will be a Grayson citizen. It's not exactly something Dr. Allison Harrington had expected at her age, when she's already griefstricken about the loss of her only child. But after she overcomes her initial resistance to the notion, she realizes the logic behind it, not to mention the political necessity of avoiding a possible rupture between Grayson and the Star Kingdom of Manticore in the middle of a war
But Honor Harrington is not in fact dead. The vivid imagry of her hanging is a fake, a sophisticated descendent of the computer image manipulation that combines photographs to make Marilyn Monroe dance with Abraham Lincoln.
Badly wounded during her crew's valiant strike against a ship full of State Security goons, Honor is taken to the notorious prison planet of Cerberus, commonly known as Hell. It's supposedly inescapable, but there's a long literary tradition in science fiction of the inescapable prison planet proving to be a challenge rather than a barrier for the protagonist.
The prison planet is often conflated with the planet of exile. However, a planet of exile is generally little more than a dumping ground for troublemakers or the unwanted. Generally there is little or no effort to regulate the lives of the exiles once they are delivered. The important part is that they be removed from society without requiring the state to take their lives, so that if the state should have been incorrect about the person's guilt, it has not shed innocent blood. For instance, the eponymous planet in Orson Scott Card's Treason is really more of a planet of exile than a true prison planet, even if it is called a prison planet in the text. Similarly, the four prison planets of Jack Chalker's Four Lords of the Diamond tetralogy are really planets of exile, and particularly nasty ones because there can be no possibility of clemency and a return to society as a result of the Warden organism's insinuation of itself into the bodies of the prisoners.
By contrast, on true prison planet such as Cerberus, the polity that removes the persons to that planet exert ongoing control over the activities and movements of the individuals being held there. As a result, there is generally a system of guards to monitor the activities of the prisoners, and some form of accommodations provided for them, whether formal cell blocks or simply encampments, in which they are required to remain. Needless to say, a true prison planet requires a far greater expenditure of resources on an ongoing basis than a simple planet of exile, but it may well be the preferred method when there is a strong possibility that the state may need to retrieve a given prisoner and return him or her to society, for instance if policy has changed.
In the case of Cerberus, the Peeps use the hostile environment of the planet to keep the prisoners in their encampments as much as they do any formal system of barriers or guards. Cerberus is hideously hot, and its ecosystem is sufficiently different biochemically from that of Earth that humans can derive little or no nutritional value from the local plants and animals. Even the one species of nut that is marginally edible becomes neurotoxic in large doses, so people who try to escape soon experience brain damage to an extent incompatible with survival on a wild and hostile planet. As a result, the prisoners have no real choice except to remain in the encampments where they are fed marginally palatable but nourishing food bars on a regular basis. And if they should try to do anything, the Warden can simply cut off their food supply and leave them with the choice of starving, rotting their brains on native food, or begging forgiveness in order to get food supplies going again.
However, Honor and her crews aren't going to let an inhospitable planet stop them from doing their duty of escaping and getting back home to Manticore. They've got one huge advantage over most of the political prisoners who have been sent there by State Security for disrupting the status quo on Haven: namely, a strong espirit de corps that will allow them to trust one another and accept temporary disadvantages knowing that they will not be taken advantage of or casually abandoned as suckers when the time for the jailbreak occurs.
And it's going to be a big jailbreak, because she's not going to just stop at getting her own people out. She's going to blow the whole place wide open and clear it all out. And as soon as the trials of the abusive State Security goons are complete, she's taking everybody home with her.
Review posted September 2, 2010.
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