Sister Time by John Ringo and Julie Cochrane
Cover art by Clyde Caldwell
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
When John Ringo set forth to write the story of the Posleen War, he planned it as a trilogy, but the September 11, 2001 attacks disrupted that plan by rendering him literally unable to write fiction for the next several months. In spite of two deadline extensions, he was unable to write the final chapters of When the Devil Dances. Because he was already an established seller with the first two volumes of that series and two volumes in a series written in collaboration with David Weber, Baen decided to go ahead and publish the novel as it stood, with a cliffhanger rather than a conclusion. A year later, after Ringo vented his outrage in a sheaf of harsh editorials, he was able to pick up the storyline where he'd dropped it, although it meant that Hell's Faire had to be plumped up a little to make it a novel in its own right.
And while Hell's Faire did bring the Posleen Wars to a conclusion (although somewhat unsatisfactory to those who felt that the arrival of Fleet Strike from another embattled world was a little too much of a deus ex machine, rather than a triumph along the lines of the Hugo-winning Babylon 5 episode "Severed Dreams"), it left several threads dangling. Fans wanted to find out what happened next, and soon began to badger John Ringo to write the story. However, at the time he was quite written out on the Posleen universe, and had moved on to his techno-fantasy universe, beginning with There Will Be Dragons.
Finally he decided to compromise with his fan base. Although he was not interested in the labor of actually writing the story of the covert war against the Darhel which followed humanity's victory against the Posleen and the lifting of the siege of Earth, Baen had experienced considerable success in setting up collaborations by which junior authors would write novels on the basis of an outline by a senior author. Ringo himself had experienced an important career boost by doing such a collaboration with David Weber, whose Honor Harrington novels had become Baen's flagship series.
Thus Baen brought Julie Cochrane on board for what would become a trilogy of novels about that period. Because John Ringo had already pretty well established in the end of Hell's Faire that Mike O'Neal would spend that period off-world fighting Posleen infestations on other planets, this storyline would focus on the rest of his family, and particularly his daughter Cally, who had disappeared with her grandfather at the end of Hell's Faire, thanks to the mysterious Himmit and their stealth technology. In the first novel of this trilogy, Cally's War, Cally was showing the strain of decades of working undercover, to the point it seemed as if her very self were fragmenting into a collection of masks. And then she was sent on a mission to infiltrate Titan Base, and in the process of surviving a betrayal she got a new anchor for herself and her purpose in fighting the Darhel's efforts to transform humanity into tractable "soldier ants" much as they'd used debt to enslave the Indowy as "worker ants" grinding out products they themselves could never hope to afford to enjoy, all to ensure that even the lowliest Darhel lived in the lap of luxury.
However, there's been some unpleasant fallout from that mission. The human Bane Sidhe, the secret organization to which Cally belongs and which has been secretly fortifying humanity against alien subversion for centuries (ever since a previous interaction with Galactic society, now remembered only in legend, went very badly), is able to operate only because of assistance from the resistance organizations within the Indowy. And while the Indowy have suffered terribly from both Posleen predation and Darhel oppression, they are also philosophical pacifists. As such, they not only register their formal disapproval of the way in which Cally carried out her mission, but also withdraw their technological assistance, including the slab, the medical device which allows extraordinary regeneration, even resurrection. And that means that Cally's stuck in the overly endowed body of Sinda Makepeace, the officer she replaced to infiltrate Titan Base. And just when she thinks things can't possibly get worse, she gets a message straight from the past.
Remember Cally's little sister Michelle? The one who was so quiet and precise. The one who was sent to an Indowy planet as part of a plan for a reserve population of humans in case the Posleen invasion of Earth resulted in the extinction of humanity there. She's all grown up now, and she's exceeded everybody's wildest expectations. Given the privilege of training in sohon, the mysterious techniques by which the Indowy create GalTech, she not only succeeded, but even mastered it.
Unfortunately, that mastery has come at a price. Like the Indowy, she has become entangled in the system of debts by which the Darhel keep their workforce effectively enslaved. True, she knows techniques by which she could cause entire suns to go nova and destroy the hated Darhel, but her sohon training has also included inculcation in the Path, the Galactic philosophy of non-violence that makes effective resistance to the Darhel's endless machinations impossible.
However, her sister Cally has no such constraints. So when Michelle is in danger of having her debts called in by her Darhel masters as the result of betrayal by another Indowy-trained human, she turns to Cally for assistance.
The other mentat's name is Erick Winchon, and he stole a piece of ancient technology from a Tchpth museum, a piece originally from the semi-legendary Aldenata themselves, and developed it into a device that can effectively rape a person's mind, reading out the activities of the consciousness and overwriting them with the content the operator desires. Such a thing goes against everything the Path is supposed to uphold, but Winchon is either an undetected sociopath or clever in rules-lawyering the way the Darhel are. Michelle has been ordered to retrieve the device, but knows that she cannot outmaneuver Winchon, nor can she escape the ensnaring noose of debt by which the Darhel have enslaved the Indowy and their human students. Even if she uses her skills to escape as Cally suggests, her daughters are hostages to her good behavior and will have their debts called in. There's simply no way to rescue everyone the Darhel can use as levers to punish Michelle if she tries to fight back.
So Cally has to find a way to save her sister that doesn't make things worse, which isn't easy when you're dealing with a culture that was already ancient when the first Shang oracle bones were carved, a culture in which a thousand years is short-term planning and stability is of utmost importance. A culture that makes the Byzantines look like rank amateurs in the great game of political infighting and scheming.
And then it's time to meet our antagonists. Erick Winchon, so we can see that yes, he is indeed a Villain of the Blackest Dye, someone who does need to be taken out of circulation. When we first see him, he's receiving a report on the progress of a study by which their subjects are driven to eat previously unacceptable foods, starting with mildly distasteful things and moving into the culturally taboo, with the ultimate goal being to induce them to commit cannibalism. The idea is that if one can override an ordinary taboo which in its milder forms is as much about ethnic identity rather than the actual boundaries by which civilized life is maintained, one can then use the device to compel a subject to do anything, however heinous, upon command -- but Winchon believes that it will be used to erase what he regards as the barbarous habits of Earth humans through aversion therapy. Furthermore, we also learn that Winchon is not working on his own, but at the behest of a rival Darhel group, the Epetar.
As Cally and Michelle work together, they devise a plan to create a fake device that will appear to be damaged, so that Michelle can deliver it to her superiors and get herself out of her jam without actually handing over to the Darhel a technology that can be used to commit horrific atrocities not of the body, but of the fundamental selves of their victims. But when Cally watches a video recording of one of the demonstrations, this hardened assassin is so horrified and disgusted that she knows she will do whatever it takes to put a stop to this, even if she has to go up against the entire Bane Sidhe and their ethical objections to violence.
In doing so she sets in motion a chain of consequences expanding outward not only across Earth, but to distant star systems where the Epetar Group has business interests. As a result, we get to see a wide variety of crooked and merely shady practices the Darhel have engaged in to keep the other intelligent species of the Galactic Federation under their thumb, and are now trying to implement upon humanity in order to reduce the numbers of these troublesome carnivores, the better to domesticate the remainder so they will never pose a threat to Darhel political and economic dominance. It's a delicate and intricate game, and more than once Cally and her allies come dangerously close to bringing down the very things they want to save. But this is a Baen book, so we know that it's unlikely that we'll have a tragic ending, or at least one that doesn't have a moral victory at the end.
This novel also marks the first time that John Ringo has really delved into the psychology and culture of his Galactic races. In Cally's War we got to meet some of the humans who were raised by the Indowy but then discarded as unsuitable, and we got to see how even that exposure to Indowy culture had changed their perceptions. But in this novel we get to see two humans who've ascended to near the top of the Indowy social ladder, the Michon Mentats, and then we're let into the minds of several important Darhel -- not just glimpses, as was the case in the prologs of several of the early books, but extended excursions into their thoughts as they struggle to control the carnivore instincts that the Aldenata sought to remove from them and didn't quite succeed.
From the beginning of the series in A Hymn Before Battle we've known that a Darhel who commits violence goes into an irreversible catatonic state. However, at that time it was presented mostly as evidence of the Galactic Federation's inability to field an effective fighting force. But in this novel we get to see what it really means, in the climactic confrontation between Cally and the top representative of the Epetar Group on Earth.
And then, as Cally brings the horrid device home and prepares to destroy it to ensure that it will never get used for mind-raping anyone again, we get a lesson through the confrontation between the two sisters about the intertwined nature of tool and weapon, and how technologies almost never have only peaceful uses that cannot be turned to harming others. But it's clear that, although the immediate threat of Winchon's device has been nullified and the Epetar Group have been humbled, all is most decidedly not well. And the storyline continues in Honor of the Clan, in which Darhel manipulations will pit Mike O'Neal against his own father.
Review posed January 1, 2013.
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