Torch of Freedom by David Weber and Eric Flint
Cover art by David Mattingly
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
This novel continues the side story of the battle against genetic slavery which was spun off from the main Honorverse series as a result of the success of Eric Flint's novella "From the Highlands," which originally appeared in Changer of Worlds. Some threads of fallout from it appeared in War of Honor, but that novel was so long and complex that it became overwhelming at times. It may well have been the perception that the sheer complexity of the imagined universe was rapidly escaping the author's control which led to the decision to break out the Mesa thread into its own series, beginning with Crown of Slaves.
In that novel, the attempted kidnapping of a Manticoriean princess who was traveling in the company of Berry, the young woman Anton Zilwicki adopted in the aftermath of "From the Highlands," set into motion a series of events which culminated in the overthrow of Mesa's control over the notorious world they called Verdant Vista, but the opponents of genetic slavery called Congo, in reference to King Leopold II of Belgium and his appalling treatment of his colony in the Congo. For the first time, genetic slaves had a homeworld, a place to call their own. Think of it as Liberia done right, with real support from star nations such as Manticore and Haven that oppose genetic slavery rather than little trickles more intended to assuage the donors' guilty consciences rather than to actually engage in nation-building.
But their position is still precarious, particularly given that Mesa cannot possibly ignore such a blow to their prestige. Not to mention that the political situation in the vast Solarian League is becoming steadily more precarious, for it has spent far too long comfortable and secure in its position as the galaxy's hyperpower, bigger and stronger than all the other star nations put together. As a result of this lack of any serious competition, it has not been forced to keep on the cutting edge of development. Corruption has worked its way into every aspect of government and society, with far too many people doing nothing but skimming off the cream of other people's labors. And in the vast space called the Verge, full of weak star systems that were settled by ill-prepared speculative ventures that often fell massively backward technologically in the first few generations, the people who are getting their labor skimmed are growing increasingly resentful.
On the surface, it may seem like these are two completely unrelated storylines, and that they really don't belong in the same book. But remember that Mesa, the creators of genetic slaves, is within and completely surrounded by the Solarian League, enjoying a certain level of protection from the Sollies in spite of its nominally independent status, and the League also provides a major market for its products. Not to mention that the Mesans have raided many planets of the Verge for genetic material, particularly those where extreme environments and high infant mortality have placed a heavy selective pressure on the inhabitants and led to rapid changes in their characteristics. As they are becoming better educated and more integrated into the mainstream of galactic society, far too many of them are becoming uncomfortably aware that they probably have cousins toiling under the lash.
And that lash is one of the most peculiar things about the Mesan system of genetic slavery -- why are they using such primitive and brutal methods of labor management when they supposedly are raising their slaves from conception in controlled laboratory conditions? Maybe they don't have quite the sophisticated technology of psychosurgery we see in C. J. Cherryh's Cyteen, but it's pretty broadly suggested in that novel that the earliest azi were raised by far more primitive systems of tape-teaching, stuff that probably would be well within the reach of the Mesans if they just wanted to develop it instead of focusing on breaking their slaves' wills through brutality. It starts to feel like it's more of an effort on the part of the authors to recreate the horrors of antebellum Southern chattel slavery in a science fictional situation -- even the Gattica-style genetic engineering of slave lines for given types of labor is openly acknowledged to be a fraud by characters within the series, and everybody knows that the docility of the sex slaves is the result of so-called phenotypical conditioning that is nothing more than vile abuse.
Early in this novel, the leadership of Torch's newly formed government are talking about the contradictions of Mesa's notorious genetic-slave producing corporation Manpower. Not specifically the lack of any efforts to incorporate real developmental psychology into their methods of raising genetic slaves so they wouldn't end up with so many of them promptly escaping and turning against them, but the way in which the market for forced labor should be steadily shrinking, yet Manpower is continually doing a booming business. In fact, it is progressively acting more and more like an agency of a real star nation's government.
And that leads to the real meat of the story, namely the covert mission by which Anton Zilwicki and Victor Cachat penetrate Mesa itself. It's a pretty involved story, which starts with the liberation of a failed space station which had become a base for the semi-piratical independent ships that ferry genetic slaves to the smaller markets. The family that had originally created it, the Parmleys and their various side branches, have been trying to covertly resist the slavers but really lack the military capacity -- so the Beowulfan commando team who kill off the current batch of slavers make it plain that their only hope of keeping their freedom for the long term is to make a deal to serve as a base for Torch's military to carry the fight to Mesa.
It doesn't take long for Zilwicki and Cachat to realize that they've got a ready-made cover to get them onto Mesa, by masquerading as members of a family running a tramp freighter. So for the first time we actually get to see a face of Mesa other than their nasty, creepy brutes creating people for the sole purpose of being disposable labor power.
Not that the part of Mesan society that doesn't belong to Manpower and its buddies is all fluffy bunnies and sunshine. There are some pretty nasty things, including the permanent underclass known as the seccies, short for second-class citizens, who are the descendants of the earliest genetic slaves, before laws against manumission were passed. Unlike the azi of Cyteen, who are intended to ultimately become citizens whose descendants have all the rights and privileges enjoyed by citizens who trace their lines back to the founding families, the seccies are treated like unwelcome stepchildren, tolerated for their usefulness in doing things citizens would rather not dirty their hands with but denied access to social and economic advancement.
But even among the elite Star Lines of Mesan society, there are still families who love one another and try to make the best lives they possibly can. And when the Mesan bureaucracy tells a loving father that his daughter's medical situation is hopeless and pulls the plug, he not just begins to question the society he's hitherto taken for granted, but actively begins to hate it. An anger and bitterness so intense it leads to doubts in a senior Security officer, doubts sufficient to lead him to use his considerable power against his own star nation.
The story of Herlander Simoes and his daughter Francesca is in my opinions one of the real strengths of this book, because it puts a human face on the horrors of Mesa. It's easy to hate villains who sit around rubbing their hands gleefully as they plot wickedness and cruelty, figuring out more ways they can make helpless genetic slaves suffer. But when we learn that Mesa didn't start out as a monstrous regime, that it was originally founded on noble goals of genetic good health and of an elite of everybody, but that it got corrupted along the way with ends-justify-the-means thinking, it reminds us that Evil isn't always the Other, but that we can fall into its snares if we don't keep a close and careful watch over our own moral choices.
Review posted September 2, 2010.
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