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There Will Be Dragons by John Ringo

Cover art by Clyde Caldwell

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

In the distant future, the technophile dreams of universal prosperity and leisure have been attained. A veritable Eden has been created through sophisticated computer management of every aspect of the natural environment, all carefully balanced to bleed off strains such as tectonic movement without allowing catastrophic destruction. No one needs to work to survive, which means that human activity more closely approaches art than labor, even for those who set themselves to difficult projects such as the return of entire ecosystems to their prehuman state.

But not everyone agrees that this state of affairs is a good thing for humanity. In particular, a man by the name of Paul Bowman has come to believe that too much ease is actively bad for humanity, and that if something is not done to force humanity to exert itself once again, the human race will end up going out with the proverbial whimper. Specifically, he believes that because humans as individuals have become so focused upon their own personal pleasure, they no longer wish to put up with the inconveniences inherent in reproducing and childrearing. However sophisticated the technology of artificial gestation may have become, nothing can substitute for actual human attention in turning a baby into a functional adult member of society. Although robot nannies may be able to perform the routine chores of food preparation and waste cleanup, strict limits on artificial intelligence means that they cannot provide the social interaction that the growing human brain requires in order to develop properly.

Determined that drastic action needs to be taken if humanity is not to become extinct within a matter of centuries, he conceives a plan to force people to labor once again in exchange for the necessities of life. His hope is that if luxury becomes a privilege rather than an entitlement, people will become less selfish and more willing to undertake other disagreeable tasks, including the raising of sufficient numbers of children to sustain the population.

Had he been just another ordinary citizen, he would have been little more than a blowhard, and probably would have gotten his fifteen minutes of fame at a party or two before he was shunned by everybody who knew him. But Paul Bowman is not just an ordinary citizen. He is a keyholder, a member of the governing Council that holds the electronic keys by which the controlling computer's programming can be altered. When he puts forward his proposition in a meeting of the Council, the result is the fracturing of that body along philosophical lines, and the entire world is thrust into civil war.

In a computer-controlled utopia, the sudden loss of that control means catastrophe for the ordinary citizens whose lives had depended upon the easy availability of both energy and material goods. Floating palaces crash to the ground when the power to their antigravity generators is cut, killing their inhabitants. Weather control comes unglued, resulting in violent storms that tear apart buildings not designed to resist them -- and the people within them have no training or mental preparation to protect themselves.

In short, it is a sudden and violent return to the Hobbsian state of nature. Suddenly released from the social restraints that had previously governed their baser passions, some people turn into two-footed wolves, preying upon those they perceive as weak and unworthy of respect. But not everyone abandons the virtues of civilization, as witnessed by young Herzer Herrick's refusal to join a gang rape by the leaders of the rough band into which he fell during the immediate aftermath of the collapse. Instead he flees to find a rude weapon and returns to defend his friends, although they misinterpret his actions and relations between them remain tense for some time.

It is from little acts such as these and small communities such as Raven's Mill, a group of re-enactors who formerly played at ancient skills, that a new civilization will be developed. But it's not easy to redevelop the habits of working for one's survival after generations of ease, and the problem is made worse by those who would tear at what little fabric of civilization remains. But as is true in so many of John Ringo's stories, there are a few brave and hardy souls who will stand up and form that thin line that protects civilization from the wild.

When John Ringo was writing There Will Be Dragons, he was quite unaware that S. M. Stirling was also working on a book about the sudden collapse of technological civilization back to a pre-industrial state, And Dies the Fire. Only when they were at a panel together and started talking about their respective novels did they realize that they had both been working on the same fundamental idea, but had been approaching it in very different ways. Since then, it has been used as a counterexample for beginning writers who are worried about somebody stealing their idea.

Review posted January 15, 2009

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