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The Tau Ceti Agenda by Travis S. Taylor

Cover art by Kurt Miller

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

In One Day on Mars, Senator Alexander Moore was visiting Mons City on Mars right when the Separatists made their explosive strike prior to departing for some unknown destination, presumably outside the Solar System. Amidst the horrific brutality of a group willing to crash a space battleship into a domed city, Moore drew upon his fighting background as a US Marine to get his wife and daughter safely out of the nightmare as the Separatists fled the Solar System for parts unknown.

In the intervening years he's been elected to the Presidency of the Greater United States, which now encompasses the entire Solar System. At the beginning of this novel he's enjoying a rare family vacation in Florida, visiting Walt Disney World. For security reasons they've come early, before the park opens to the public, and he's surrounded by his most trusted bodyguards -- members of his old Marine unit, personally loyal to him.

Thus he's got the best possible protection when things do go wrong. They're riding a futuristic roller coaster when it goes out of control, with strong evidence of sabotage rather than malfunction. And things just keep getting worse from there, as the sadistic masterminds of the attack twist one after another iconic image of America's favorite playground into a deadly weapon against its Commander in Chief.

Meanwhile, in the Tau Ceti system a secret agent known only as Kira is trying to gather information on the intentions of the Separatists. She'd been operating under deep cover when the Separatists made their departure from Mars and was swept up in it. Since then she's been finding increasing amounts of evidence that the Separatists don't intend to just let bygones be bygones and make a new home for themselves here. But it turns out that she's fallen under suspicion for her peculiar curiosity, and the Separatists do not deal kindly with those they suspect of less than perfect loyalty.

And in the Oort Cloud, the carrier USS Sienna Madera has discovered a strange megastructure which exhibits peculiar quantum fluctuations. As they go to investigate, they encounter fierce resistance. Clearly this is no abandoned facility, and the Separatists have no intention of surrendering it without a very costly fight.

Although this book follows the example of the first in taking place over the course of a single day (other than the last few chapters, which carry through the consequences of that day's action), it thus has considerably broadened the setting, carrying multiple parallel storylines in disparate locations in a systematic and coordinated fashion. This is no mean feat -- the author must navigate between the twin perils of lingering too long on any one storyline, which can allow it to progress too rapidly in proportion to the other threads, and moving too quickly between them, which can lead to reader confusion, or even keep the reader from caring about any of the characters enough to keep reading to their next reappearance.

Of course the action-adventure aspects inherent to the military sf subgenre do provide one inherent advantage in giving us reasons to care about the characters and feel their situations are urgent. Namely, every sympathetic character is thrown into mortal danger within a few pages of the reader meeting them. President Moore's illusion of a safe, happy family vacation is shattered almost immediately, while the crew of the Sienna Maderia and her screening ships don't get to keep their illusions of a routine cruise much longer.

Given that Kira's a secret agent, we know she's in danger as soon as we meet her, and an unpleasant encounter with the Separatist leadership is fairly well guaranteed by the logic of a story of espionage. But then we get the real surprise -- the revelation of the true nature of the Separatist leadership.

In the conclusion of One Day on Mars we learned that the Separatists weren't Islamists, or Communists, or Fascists, or followers of any of the other myriad -isms that have threatened the US over the past century. Instead, they are American patriots who believe that the expansion of the US to include the entire Solar System was a gross mistake that has led to the abandonment of the ideals upon which this country was founded in favor of a transnationalist-progressivist welfare-state agends. Patriots who have come to believe that the danger to all they hold dear is so grave as to justify taking any measure at all against the enemy within.

Now we get to see the real story of its leader, Elle Ahmi. She is in fact none less than former President Sienna Madiera, who faked her death in the Oort Cloud and had herself seccretly rejuvenated so no one would ever connect her new identity with her old one. But just to make sure, she never appears in public without her red, white and blue mask to hide her face.

She fully believes that she will suffer in Hell for what she is doing -- but that the benefit to humanity of her actions will far outweigh even eternal damnation for herself and her inner circle. This is perhaps one of the most frightening parts of the whole novel, since it takes us right into the mind of a fanatic -- yet there's not anything of the sort that we tend to associate with villains, no feverant embrace of evil, just an absolute certainty that all the terrible things she's doing are for the greater good, like a parent forcing a child to do unpleasant chores for their own good.

Thus The Tau Ceti Agenda reads very much like an anodyne to the ends-justify-the-means pragmatism that has been propounded by fellow Baen authors John Ringo and Tom Kratman, especially in The Watch on the Rhine and Yellow Eyes. While I can appreciate the importance of not letting yourself be hamstrung by rules to the point you can't take action, you don't want to go right over a moral event horizon either. There has to be a final line somewhere that is not to be crossed, noble notions of self-sacrifice nonwithstanding.

On a lighter note, it's interesting to see how genre-savvy this story is. Most obviously, we have the mecha straight from the dreams of our favorite anime artists, but there are also plenty of other little in-jokes and homages to various authors, some with Baen and others not. There's even a new twist on the "kill Joe Buckley" meme.

And speaking of twists, the epilogue gives us another revelation that completely upends our understanding of the core conflict of this series. Only this time it's a personal rather than a philosophical one, and to even attempt to discuss it would be a spoiler. All I can say is that it left me really wondering about exactly where Alexander Moore stands and what he is trying to achieve. Either he's trying to work within the system to achieve the noble ends the other side betrayed by crossing the moral event horizon by their acts, or he's the world's greatest traitor.

Review posted July 21, 2011

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