Yellow Eyes by John Ringo and Tom Kratman
Cover art by Stephen Hickman
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
When John Ringo originally started writing the Legacy of the Aldenata, he was thinking primarily in terms of writing an enjoyable series that would portray interstellar warfare in a believable and realistic way, rather than simply translating tropes of a previous era's warfare into space as was so common with space opera. Because he wanted to add complexity to what would otherwise have been pretty much a linear us-vs.-them plot, he created an alien race of frustrated warriors turned galactic shady lawyers and business moguls who present themselves as allies but in fact are continually double-crossing humanity in an effort to ensure that only enough of us survive to serve as janissary soldiers but not enough to become a significant force that could upset the nice stable system of the Galactic Empire. And so the Darhel remained through the first two books and most of the third -- craftily sinister backstabbers who sought to undermine humanity's efforts, but with no overtly political relevance to the Primary World, save in a most general way.
But as John Ringo was closing in on the ending of what would have been the third and final volume of a trilogy, the September 11, 2001 attacks happened. For some time he could not write fiction, so overcome with outrage was he by what had just happened. The novel was caught in mid-flight and the deadline was rapidly approaching, so Jim Baen finally decided to publish it as it stood, with its cliffhanger ending, and John would write a fourth volume to tie up the storyline as soon as his capacity to write fiction returned.
This hiatus resulted in two things. The first was a shift in the author's views that resulted in his writing becoming more consciously political, with an increasing focus upon portraying in fictional form what he regarded as pressing threats to America in the Primary World, particularly radical Islamic fundamentalism and a post-Soviet international leftist movement sometimes referred to as transnationalist progressivism, abbreviated as Tranziism (that z in it giving a nice echo of Naziism). The second result was the decision to request submissions of stories written in the Legacy of the Aldenata universe but set in other parts of the world with which he was not sufficiently familiar to feel comfortable about writing. Although the hoped-for anthology fell through, two of the submissions were of such a caliber that John decided to help the author expand them out to full-length novels.
This author was Col. Thomas Kratman, who had seen service in both Germany and Panama and was familiar with both the social and political issues of both areas, and who was thus in a very good position to extrapolate how those regions would respond to the Posleen onslaught. The story about the Germans' desperate rejuvenation of the Waffen-SS became the novel Watch on the Rhine, and the story about Panama became this volume.
Yellow Eyes is the most explicitly political of the Legacy of the Aldenata series, with Tranzi politicians in Europe allying with the Darhel to undermine the effectiveness of Panama's military and political leadership during this critical juncture in the war against the Posleen. The Tranzis are a particular problem because their stated goals appear to be good things on the surface, particularly their efforts to ameliorate the sufferings of innocents caused by warfare (take a look at the Catholic Church's efforts during the High Middle Ages to create a Peace of God and Truce of God to regulate warfare and reduce the harm done to non-combatants), and thus have a strong tendency to arouse sympathy in the uncommitted silent majority.
However, the problem comes in when this is combined with the idea of moral absolutes that must not be compromised at any cost. While this may be admirable in an individual, it becomes problematic when such idealism is imposed non-consensually upon an entire population. And it's doubly so when one is in a war to the knife, a war not just to avert the enslavement of the populace, but to prevent their literal annihilation by an alien race who see all other species as food. A war in which a little pragmatism, a little willingness to bend or even break a few rules, may mean the difference between life and death for thousands or even millions.
But it isn't just a question of whether it is ever permissible to do evil in order to accomplish a good -- the Tranzis go about enforcing the laws of war in the most stupidly legalistic zero-tolerance-means-zero-common-sense fashion imaginable, pulling the sort of stupid crap that gets school boards lambasted for idiocy. Except we're not talking about little Johnny's grades being in danger because he got suspended for drawing a picture that looks vaguely like a gun and saying "bang," we're talking about undermining the effectiveness of the Panamanian defense against the Posleen in ways that not only are the moral equivalent of hand-feeding thousands of people to the Posleen, but also play into the hands of the Darhel, who are hard at work finding ways to reduce the surviving remnants of humanity to debt-peons the way they already have the Indowy.
The only question that remains is whether the Tranzis are willful traitors pursuing cynical self-interest by handing humanity over to their enemies, or whether they really believe that it is so immoral to do a little evil in order to attain humanity's survival that it is literally morally preferable to allow millions or billions to die out in order to remain morally pure.
It's clear that the authors come down on the side of the pragmatists. When the survival of your whole people is on the line, you do what it takes to assure it. Which makes me wonder whether there even is a place at which they would draw the line, to say that the good guys have gone too far and crossed a moral event horizon, winning the war at the cost of their souls. I really would like to see them tackle a little more clearly the question of whether there is anything that is never justified under any circumstances, because the idea that the ends justify the means can become just as dangerous as that of following a moral absolute straight over a cliff.
Furthermore, I'm made very uncomfortable with their claim that torture can be useful, and not just on the basis of a moral absolute that torture is wrong. There's also the simple practical problem of false confessions that result from a faulty theory of mind that regards answers that one doesn't want to hear as lies. Col. Kratman claims (both within the book and on his topic on Baen's Bar) that if one has some facts about a situation, that the interrogator can judiciously apply pain to train the subject not to lie on questions about the known facts, and thus can use further pain to extract the truth from the subject on other matters that are not yet known to the interrogator. However, this assumes that the interrogator (and his or her superiors) is operating on an accurate theory of mind about the truth claims made by the subject -- if the subject genuinely doesn't know something, but the interrogator has become convinced that he or she does and is simply lying, there is a real probability that the interrogator will keep on applying force until the subject starts starts saying whatever he or she thinks the interrogator wants to hear, irrespective of the facts of the matter. And if the interrogator things that he or she has succeeded in training the subject not to lie, to the point that the subject will not lie even when desperate to get the pain to stop and lacking in genuine facts to tell, the results can be tragic.
This sort of situation is how good people can soil themselves irreparably by doing what they think is right on the basis of inadequate or even false information, if there is no mechanism to restrain the operation of the punitive organs of government, to slow the process long enough to realize that key people are operating on the basis of a faulty theory of mind. For a historical example, read J. Arch Getty and Oleg Naumov's The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939 and Yezhov: The Rise of Stalin's "Iron Fist", which make a very good argument based upon rigorous examination of historical documents that, far from being a vicious, cynical sadistic "man with the mind of a hyena" gleefully fabricating cases against people he knew to be innocent as he is usually portrayed as being, Yezhov was a sincere Soviet patriot who genuinely believed the Motherland and the Revolution to be threatened by a vast counter-revolutionary conspiracy, a threat so terrible that it was morally justified to do whatever it took to track down and eliminate the conspirators. The so-called conspiracy was of course naught but the effects of cognitive dissonance, of the failure of a pseudoscience that could not be criticized, resulting in a moral panic -- but the sheer magnitude of the miscarriage of justice that resulted leaves us having to condemn Yezhov unequivocally lest we diminish the seriousness of the wrong that was done and risk having it happen again by appearing to excuse it.
So I have to ask people who are so sure that torture can get good information, and not merely serve to reinforce faulty assumptions and theories of mind in a garbage in, garbage out fashion -- are you willing to take the risk of being terribly, disastrously wrong to the point that not only will you be condemned and executed, but that your very memory will be condemned as a hate object for generations to come? Are you willing to risk your children being tossed into a creepy orphanage and subject to continual psychological abuse and lifelong denials of educational and employment opportunities on the grounds that they are morally polluted by your crimes? Are you willing to trust your eternal fate to the hope that your children's love for you and unjust suffering for your sake will make them sin-eaters sufficient to redeem you and they won't just get their hearts broken again by being told that no, they won't even get the comfort of being reunited with you in the hereafter because your sins are so great that any happiness you might get from their happiness is an unacceptable diminishment of your punishment?
Just in case the Primary-World-applicable political content within the storyline itself doesn't get through to readers, the authors have also included an extensive essay at the end about the Tranzi threat, and particularly how Tranzi ideas sound good, but that we should not be so quick to dismantle social and political structures such as the nation-state that have served us since the early modern era. Even if these systems do cause some suffering to innocents, there's a real probability that the new system could cause even more horrific ones -- while existing systems such as the nation-state have developed organically within the society through long-term processes, top-down constructs imposed on a society in a revolutionary fashion depend on having one's theory be right to the nines (which shows that the authors understand the dangers inherent in relying upon theory -- they're just so certain that they have such a perfect inside track on Reality that their theory of mind of whoever they're interrogating will always be right. In a work of fiction, the authors can stack the deck so that the good guys will always have the right knowledge and be able to take the right action upon it, but here in the Primary World, it would be wise to be cautious about assuming that the Author is on our side -- or that the Author even is a Person at all, and not a transcendental entity beyond motive and emotion).
However, if you can put the political issues aside (or if you agree with the assumptions that underly them), there is some very intriguing extrapolation upon the premises that have been developed in earlier novels of the Legacy of the Aldenata. For instance, we have an AID (artificial intelligence device) which has been driven mad by sensory deprivation such that it has broken free of its programming to become an entity with full free will, and the resultant theological and philosophical questions about whether a non-colloidal entity can have a soul. Although the pacifism of the Indowy remain in the sense that they will not actually operate weapons, they have discovered that their beliefs have enough flexibility in them that they can perform acts that support human military operations, such as carrying ammunition to the big guns of the cruiser after the automated systems are put out of commission. It's quite interesting to watch the logic of the camel's nose at work against untold generations of social conditioning which had made it impossible to even contemplate the possibility of violence.
In addition, there is some very intriguing information about the culture of the Posleen, both historical and contemporary to the novels. There had been speculations in the earlier books that the Posleen could not have evolved naturally into their current state. Now we learn much more -- although how accurate the historical information may be after untold generations of cultural transmission can be debated.
There is also some extremely dark humor in the travails of Guano the God-king, particularly in the Panamanian swamps. The authors have actually done something that had seemed impossible -- create a sympathetic Posleen viewpoint character. Not just an honorable enemy to test ourselves against, but a guy you actually start feeling for.
Review posted May 11, 2010.
Buy Yellow Eyes (Posleen War) from Amazon.com