Storm from the Shadows by David Weber
Cover art by David Mattingly
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
This novel continues the events of Shadow of Saganami, in which the Star Kingdom of Manticore first started operating in the Talbott Cluster and came into conflict with the machinations of the genetic slavers of Mesa. In that novel we first learned of the Young Lodges of junior executives who flaunted their pierced and tattooed bodies as a way of thumbing Mesa's collective nose at the disapproving star nations of the galaxy. Leading among them was Aldona Anisimovna, a scheming manipulator who set different groups against each other who should have been finding common cause.
However, given that the Honorverse is a complex place in which things are often intertwined in surprising ways, this novel also carries on threads from At All Costs and Crown of Slaves, to the point of some significant overlap. Although some scenes do cover the same events that are in those two novels, it is almost invariably from a different point of view and thus gives us a different insight upon those events, sometimes one that completely transforms our understanding of their significance.
The novel begins with Admiral Michelle Henke, Countess Gold Peak, in a battle against a superior Havenite force. Because her flagship carries new weaponry that absolutely must remain secret, she cannot surrender the ship. However, the boat bay was badly damaged in one of the early strikes, which means that she will not be able to flee before she sets off the scuttling charges which will blow it to fragments too small to learn anything from.
It's a very dramatic beginning, one that keeps our hearts in our throats all the way through to the point at which the boat bay is successfully cleared and the surviving officers and crew are able to safely evacuate. Of course the boats have no hyperspace capacity, so there is no choice but to surrender to the Havenite force.
However, this is not going to be the horrors of In Enemy Hands and Echoes of Honor. The leadership of the newly restored Republic of Haven are determined to distance themselves from the abuses of the Committee of Public Safety and its State Security goons. So Mike's prisoner status is something closer to that of honored guest, and she even has the privilege of a meeting with the Republic's senior leadership, in which President Pritchart seeks to convince her that the Republic's desire for peace with the Star Kingdom is indeed sincere -- and for Mike to convince her cousin the Queen of that sincerity, to the point of becoming a go-between to arrange a summit between the two star nations on the one and only planet both of them can possibly agree upon as neutral territory: Torch, the Liberia of the genetic slaves.
And then Mike's back home as part of a prisoner exchange, which gives her superiors an interesting little problem: how to continue to get the value of her considerable expertise without violating the terms of the exchange, which prohibits her from fighting on any front where she might encounter Havenite forces until the end of the current hostilities. At length they decide to post her in the distant Talbott Cluster, where Captain Aivars Terekhov has just won a significant battle against forces that were almost certainly bankrolled and manipulated by Mesa and its various rogue corporations.
Until recently the Talbott Cluster was an area far away from the main part of civilization and for the most part desperately poor. Most of the systems were settled by poorly prepared colonization efforts and as a result the colonies underwent significant declines in technological level, particularly in areas related to information technology, robotics, automation, and medical science, all of which are important to the quality of life of the ordinary people. These losses of technological capacity were subsequently exacerbated by the rapacious activities of various corporations and kleptocratic governments whose attitudes could be summed up as "I've got mine, screw you."
All that changed in War of Honor when the famous Manticore Wormhole Junction proved to have one more connection than had previously been known. Suddenly there was a direct connection from the home system of one of the wealthiest and most militarily advanced star nations and this crushingly poor bit of space. As a result, there was interest by many of the peoples of that region of space in close ties with the Star Kingdom. Not just trade agreements or alliance, but actual cession into their polity in order to enjoy the full benefits enjoyed by citizens of the old worlds of Manticore, Sphynx and Gryphon. A desire that Mesa's agents have been working hard to disrupt by every form of covert activity, even creating atrocities and trying to fix the blame for them upon Manticorean forces.
And those activities are the backbone of the conflict in this novel, a conflict which sets up one of the major events of Mission of Honor, which belongs to the main Honor Harrington sequence. In the Honorverse, nothing happens in isolation, not even actions in distant star systems. The repercussions travel like the waves from a distant earthquake to create a disastrous tsunami in an unexpected place.
As I'm reading the sections dealing with the poverty of the people of the Talbott Cluster and their anger at the kleptocrats who once ran their government, and the new hope that is arising as a result of investment in the area, I'm thinking that we have the potential for some long-term sociological dynamite. In particular, the long-term effects of the introduction of prolong treatments as a result of their cession into the Manticorean polity. It has been established from the beginning that there is a critical period before which prolong treatments must be administered for them to be effective, and even for the least-effective first-generation prolog treatments, it is relatively young (about twenty-five). So there is going to be a huge population of people who are going to be just a little too old to benefit, but who are still young enough to be able to amass significant fortunes in the next twenty to thirty years if they use the new economic opportunities well.
Resignation to being confined to the Biblical three score and ten years may have been their only choice when they were dirt poor and exploited, but once they are wealthy, will they all just accept that all their wealth cannot buy them extended life and they just have to surrender to the debility of age when their time comes? Even here in the Primary World, we spend enormous amounts of money fighting the progressive diseases of old age, to the point that eighty percent of a person's lifetime medical expenditures often go to the last twenty percent of their lives. And given the sheer amount of technological advancement that has to have taken place in the two thousand years between the present and the time of the novel, one would think there would be at least the seeds of all kinds of technologies that could offer life extension for those too old for prolong.
Yet we see no evidence whatsoever of any alternatives -- even the technologies that have been established to exist aren't put to the purpose of extending the lives of those who lost out on the chance to benefit from prolong, or even those who've been badly injured as a result of accidents. For instance, it's been established that they have sophisticated medical nanotechnology that can be used for cosmetic surgery to make two young women look like each other -- yet there's no evidence that anybody's using nanobots for cellular repair to undo the effects of aging. Similarly, they have extremely sophisticated prosthetics, but they're used only to replace a lost limb, rather than significant parts of an aging and failing body. And there's absolutely no discussion whatsoever of such transhuman technologies as copying one's mind onto a computer and leaving a worn out or irrevokably broken body behind for good.
Now it's possible that there are extremely powerful taboos against such things, to the point that even unscrupulous people would think twice about trying to obtain them on the sly. We know that Earth's Final War was extremely traumatic for all of humanity, and that it involved advanced biotechnology, to the point that the scientists of Beowulf have had to bend over backwards to convince people that their uses of biotech are firmly bounded by ethical constraints that will prevent abuse, and Mesa's creation of genetic slavery isn't helping those efforts at public confidence. That could also spill over onto other technologies with transhumanistic potentials, such that there are firm limits on how far one may go with replacing lost or failing body parts with prosthetics before one is determined to have lost one's humanity and become a human-imposter -- with suitably dramatic forms of destruction to be used on such an entity as a graphic warning of Don't Do This, Accept Death First.
It will be interesting to see where he decides to go with it, if he continues the storyline far enough that the whole cluster's lost generation gets to the point where it has to confront the limits of its new-found wealth to buy medical technology to fight its own mortality.
Review posted September 10, 2010.
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