Emerald Sea by John Ringo
Cover art by Clyde Caldwell
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
After John Ringo finished the Posleen War trilogy (which turned out to be four books as a result of the 9/11 attacks, which induced in him a writer's block of such epic proportions that even two deadline extensions couldn't enable him to turn in When the Devil Dances on time) he decided to turn his hand to fantasy. Except the fantasy world he created in There Will Be Dragons was more clearly based upon Sir Arthur C. Clarke's famous dictum "any sufficiently advanced technology will appear as magic to the uninitiated."
In the far future, limitless energy and sophisticated nanotechnology have abolished poverty and disease. People can transform themselves at will into the fantastical beings of myth and legend. They can teleport or fly, and many of them live in palatial mansions that float in the air. Most people occupy their time with various leisure activities, particularly historical re-enactments, but also artistic creations and an endless round of parties and other social gatherings.
To many it would be paradise, but for Paul Bowman it's an abomination. He is certain that idleness has turned humanity into a society of lotus-eaters, doomed to dwindle and ultimately become extinct as a result of the loss of the drive to achieve, and the shrinking birth rate which permissible life-extension technologies have not kept pace with (there are hints that some people have access to various illegal ones, some of which may well involve personal transgressive acts against other individuals rather than simply transgressions against the agreed-upon boundaries). He has decided that it is time to take action, to force people to work once again in exchange for their sustenance in hope that it will restore their will and drive, and has gathered up a group of like-minded people. It wouldn't be much of a problem, except that he's one of the thirteen Key Holders, the council that has access to the worldwide control computer known as Mother, and he's been able to get just enough of his followers on the Council to win a narrow majority.
Thus was paradise destroyed and humanity was thrown back into the dark ages, as the Key Holders, the wizards who ran the world, sequestered all the energy sources for themselves to carry out their war over the future of humanity. Suddenly ordinary people were thrown back on their own muscular strength, which meant that the strongest and the most ruthless were able to bully their way into domination over the weak -- and then had the gall to tell their new serfs that this was the right and proper order of things. Worse, just as people were cut off from their normal sources of food, shelter and clothing, the weather control systems broke down and the weather ran wild, making a bad situation even worse.
However, on the good guys' side there were a few people who believed that the purpose of strength was not to exploit the weak, but to protect and defend them so that they could attain their full potential in safety. Among these was a re-enactor known as Edmund Talbot, who ran the village of Raven's Mill. He was able to gather around him enough people with vital pre-Industrial and early Industrial skills to form a cadre that could teach the enormous flood of refugees how to not only survive, but actually thrive, in this harsh new world. It was rough at first, especially for people who took for granted that any injury could be casually regenerated (regeneration being accomplished by nanotechnology rather than genetic alteration to give everybody the ability to regrow lost body parts at need), but the community survived and held its own.
And then it turned out they weren't just dealing with local bully-boys throwing their weight around. Paul Bowman and his followers had set up their own establishment, which they call New Destiny, and are using the very Change technology they claim to abhor to modify their unwilling subjects into forms better suited for surviving the ugly new world they live in. They send a vast army of orcs, humans changed to be tough and aggressive, under the leadership of a man known to be using illegal Change technology to make him more like the elves, a construct species ordinary humans are forbidden to imitate.
However, the good guys' victory over that army was in fact one very small battle in a war that has only just begun. As Emerald Sea begins, we learn that Paul Bowman's cronies have barely noticed the setback. In their stronghold of Raposa (Europe), they're planning new conquests with even more horrific monstrosities. Celine, their medical specialist whose temperament and imagination seem reminiscent of Alice Hong in S. M. Stirling's Island on the Sea of Time series, is coming up with new abominations, including a Change that uses up a whole group of people in order to create a single gigantic monster.
And New Destiny isn't the only problem the good guys face. Even in paradise, where no one ever wanted for any necessity of life, and even the luxuries of life were well nigh free for the asking, there were still criminals. Although nobody needed to steal to survive, there were some for whom things had value only because someone else did not wish to part with them. In a world without sexually transmitted infections or unplanned pregnancies, where casual sex was everywhere for the asking, there were some who felt desire only for those who would not give of their own free will. To be true, such aberrant individuals were few and far between, but in a world where travel was instantaneous, even one percent of a billion was a troubling number. Particularly when one considered that for some of these criminals, finding ways to get around all the technological protections each individual could deploy had become a sort of game they played against one another, seeing who could come up with the most sophisticated means to transgress against the happy citizens of paradise.
And where there are criminals, there will be police. Given the minute size of the criminal class of the world now lost, the cops were few in number, but the Council Investigators wielded sophisticated investigative tools. Among them was Joel Travante, one of the elite Special Inspectors who pursued the most cunning and difficult of the career criminals, the ones so subtle and slippery that they often left their victims either disinclined or unable to even register the complaint that would result in an investigation. When the Council Wars began and the Fall destroyed paradise, he was pursuing a notorious sexual predator who had apparently decided to go into hiding by turning himself into a Kraken and hiding in a deep oceanic trench.
His pursuit has been hampered by the loss of his technological tools of investigation, but so heinous were his subject's crimes that he has not abandoned pursuit, only continued them by slower, less efficient means. In particular, he has been watching a group of humans Changed into orcas, who he has reason to believe are in contact with his quarry. When he discovers that they are also in contact with New Destiny, he decides it's bigger than bringing one evil-doer to justice.
As a result he comes to Sheida, the Key Holder who led the faction which believes that human beings must remain free to determine their own destiny, not have it directed by a dictator, however well-intentioned. It doesn't take her long to realize that they're dealing with something very serious, and that if something isn't done soon, it could grow from a little subversion around the edges to a major aquatic assault on the United Free States that she and her re-enactor allies are struggling to build in the ruins of the lost Golden Age.
She then turns to Duke Edmond, whose response is to put together a naval task force, the first one in untold centuries. At least the arts of sailing don't have to be rediscovered afresh, since hobbyist sailors have been plying the seas all along, needing mostly to relearn skills such as stellar navigation in the absence of technological aids. But a warship is a specialized vessel, especially considering that they plan to have an air component -- the dragons and their non-sapient cousins the wyverns, both construct species rather than modifications of existing species. Some things can be learned from the ancient records of the semi-legendary days of aircraft carriers, but so much of the daily operational knowledge of a technology is never recorded, but is passed through on-the-job training from expert to learner, and may not even be possible to reduce to written records. That will have to be rediscovered the hard way.
Furthermore, they're going to have to recruit their own allies among the Changed who are adapted to an aquatic lifestyle. These people have transformed themselves into an approximation of the merfolk of folklore and fairy tale, with modified respiratory systems that can function as gills or lungs. However, things aren't always as simple as they seem, for the menfolk are as sexual as they are beautiful, which poses a problem for Herzer Herrick. During the Fall he was severely traumatized by witnessing the rape of two women he knew and finding himself unable to protect them, an experience that would subsequently become a driving force in his decision to become a founding member of an elite military unit, the Blood Lords. And although the beautiful wood-elf Bast did a great deal to convince him that consensual sex can be a joyous experience for both partners, he's found it easier to live a celibate lifestyle. However, he's still a young man, with all the drives that go with that stage of life, which means that a major plotline will be his own struggle with his drives and desires and the fear that he could turn into what he loathes if he lets go of his iron grip on himself the least little bit with a female who isn't as incredibly strong and self-possessed as Bast.
As a result, this novel is a complex net of interlocking threads that converge to give us the climactic battle. But while it ends in victory and several of the principal villains of the immediate conflict are dead or permanently out of action, they've done little to strike at the heart of Paul Bowman's operation.
In addition to the main story, Ringo has included a bonus, the novella "In A Time of Darkness." Much darker than Ringo's usual fare, it explores the psychology and psychopathology of captivity, and what people will do when all the normal social furniture of their lives has been knocked out from under them. This is definitely mature stuff, but it also sets up what is supposed to become a major character in future books in this series.
Megan Samantha Travante is the daughter of Joel Travante, the cop from the main novel who blew the whistle on the orcas' attempt to sell out to New Destiny and betray the mer communities. When Joel was talking with Shieda, he mentioned his family being trapped in Ropasa, and his concern for them being balanced by the possibility that anything he could do might actually serve as a spotlight on them, drawing the bad guys' attention to them. And he was right that they were in danger, for one day Megan is washing clothes by the banks of a stream when she is kidnapped.
It seems that Paul Bowman is using his wizard powers as a Key Holder to put together a harem. It's not just for pure pleasure, because he's actually pretty serious about that business of human beings needing to get their birthrate back up to beyond replacement levels again. As a result, he's looking for good genes as well as good looks.
The harem is run by Christel, who was the mother of one of his children before the Fall ended humanity's idyllic life and tossed it back into the state of nature, where life is nasty, brutish and short. She's the sort of person who sees authority as a license to bully, and enjoys exercising her mite of power on the other women under her. When she notices Megan's sharp situational awareness and lack of fear, Christel uses a neuronic pain lash on her, just to make sure Megan understands that she is dealing with someone far more powerful than herself.
And then there's the interpersonal dynamic of all these women together with no meaningful work to do, nothing but petty games of social dominance to while away the idle hours when Paul isn't summoning them to his bed. Megan's father taught her some serious unarmed combat skills, but she knows that if she beats the stuffings out of any of the other women, she's going to be in serious trouble herself. Thus she must use subterfuge, along with a knowledge of anatomy which allows her to inflict excruciating pain without leaving any visible injuries on her subject, to put a stop to some lesser bullies and make life easier for the women they'd been harassing.
But Paul is a far tougher nut to crack. Getting a handle on his personality means having to engage him enough that he'll open up, and that puts Megan in an emotionally vulnerable position. And Paul knows an awful lot of history and psychology, and is happy to use it to manipulate Megan into coming around to his positions on various things, and to identify with him, even fall in love with him as her sugar daddy. As a result, the scenes with him are often more disturbing for all their lack of any actual physical violence.
It's interesting to read the two works in tandem, since there are some references in the novella that make it clear those events are contemporaneous with the main novel -- and that Joel Travante's concerns about his family were indeed justified. And the whole can be read as a meditation on Hobbes' argument that government is necessary to restrain the base impulses of humanity and maintain the order necessary for civilization and the pleasant things it brings us. Of course there is also the problem of who will watch the watchmen, and how to make sure that the leadership cadre doesn't start viewing its privileges as its rightful due for being on top, rather than accommodations to allow its members the time to concentrate on their specialized leadership tasks.
Given some of the rhetoric coming from the right wing of the US political arena in the past few years, it's also interesting to note that in this novel the concern about people being lazy and not willing to work comes primarily from the least admirable characters. But if one takes a really close look at these characters' complaints, namely that these people are working only enough to gain the perceived benefits to themselves, not as hard as the speaker feels they ought to work to benefit him, it becomes a particularly telling bit of characterization. Maybe there's just a little bit of unconscious projection there, and even an unwitting acknowledgement of just how ugly these attitudes are. Maybe there are some people who generally are resistant to putting out any kind of effort, but for the most part, people like to have some sense of accomplishment at the end of the day, some sense that they've done something worthwhile with their time and energy, but they begin to balk when they're driven through endless meaningless tasks for someone else's benefit and see damned little of it for themselves.
Review posted January 1, 2013.
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