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Thursday, December 17, 2009

The BLTN Series, 1: {The PKD Award Nominees, Part 6 - Judge, by Karen Traviss}


This may as well be one of the most difficult reviews I´ve ever wrote here. Not because of the density of the prose, but solely because of the length of the series. Karen Traviss´s Judge is the SIXTH (and the last) installment in a long-running series. Dubbed the Wess´har Wars, this series started with another PKD Award nominee, City of Pearl, in 2004 , and went on with Crossing the Line, The World Before, Matriarch, and Ally.

Of all those books, only the first takes place on Sol System - and even so, only on Mars´s orbit. In 2299, Superintendent Shan Frankland of the Environment Hazard Enforcement in co-opted by Foreign Office of Earth to go on a rescue mission to the lost colony of Constantine, orbiting the distant Cavanagh´s Star - or that´s what she is told. She is innoculated with a Suppressed Briefing - a drug under which influence she would understand what she was being told, and her compliance with the instructions would be voluntary, but she would not consciously recall what information she´d been given until circumstances triggered its release - and sent to that world just in case, because, according to Foreign Minister Eugenie Perault, who drafts Frankland, the colonists are probably dead, but the planet is environmentally viable for humans. There is only one problem: the trip will take 75 years.

Naturally, this is far from being the only problem. Not only the colony is alive and thriving, but the planet was already inhabited when the first humans arrived there - by the Wess´har, a humanoid species who managed to find balance with the ecossystem and, though more of an isolationist kind, want only to be in peace with its new neighbors - which doesn´t mean they don´t know how to wage war if it´s necessary. Especially with the isenj, old enemies from next-door planet. And - by a series of unfortunate misunderstandings - with the new group of marines and scientists led by Shan Frankland.

The first novel ends with a bang (spoilers ahead): Frankland gets killed in an exchange and is saved by Aras, the designated guardian of the planet. A Wess´har himself, Aras no longer resembles one - in fact, he´s more similar to a humar being, because of a c´naatat, a parasite tailored as a bioweapon which infected him centuries ago and made him ultrastrong, extremely resilent - and immortal. He infects Frankland with the parasite to save her. She ends up accepting this gift of sorts, and she is even accepted in the Wess´har people without having to leave her human heritage - but not without many conflicts along the entire series.

In fact, what follows, in the next installments, is a study on responsibilities. Ethics and morals are discussed all the time, sometimes forcibly, sometimes in a very interestingly way, but always urgently. What is being discussed, after all, is a matter of survival - survival of several species, and coexistence among different alien races. Death and immortality, its pros and cons - everything is discussed all the time, from the POVs of humans and aliens.

What begins as a military SF of sorts slowly takes a kind of ecological view not dissimilar to that of Octavia E. Butler´s last novels. The relationship between a genetically modified Shan Frankland and her new alien family reminded me of the Lilith´s Brood trilogy. Instead of Lilith Iyapo difficult life with the Oankali, however, Shan manages to be in control most of the time (or at least that´s what she thinks). She wants to get rid of the cnaa´tat, that she perceives as being more of a curse than a blessing, but at the same time she can´t shy away of her newfound responsibilities as a new matriarch of the Wess´har. In a few years all her worldview changes. She meets more alien races - some of them more self-righteous and even more bloodthirsty than humankind - from the peaceful wess´har to the spidery, diplomatic (if even more warlike) Isenj to the frighteningly fascist-like Skavu, who consider themselves a kind of cosmic ecopolice, and who will have no qualms about eradicating whole civilizations if that means avoiding contamination of agents.

I´m writing this on the fly, not even knowing what the result will be - even though most probably this review will be published after the results are already known, but that´s the nature of our fast world for you.

UPDATE 06 / 12

Such is the nature of fluid things - and immutable, solid human beings and their all-too-concrete affairs. Evidently I messed up. Two months have passed and I not only couldn´t be able to review the PKD Awards as I also couldn´t review almost NO OTHER AWARD, expect for the Hugos. (for now, that is.) I still intend to make up for it in the case of the Hugos, but I can´t turn back the clock in the case of the other awards. Even so, a book is a book. We live in fast times, we live in Internet times, but we still read, and books are still in our bookshelves (and in our iPhones, and in our Kindles, it doesn´t matter in the end)

UPDATE 07 / 21

As you could evidently see by now, things got pretty much out of hand - but not entirely out of control, for, even though most of the awards have already be given, the Hugos still remain to be seen, and, yes, there WILL BE a good coverage of Anticipation right here, on PWT, along with Convention Reporter.

This last volume of Shan Frankland´s odyssey is almost everything I expected. But, after all, what the hell did I expect? What can one expect when reading a story dealing with immortality, a not-so-undiscovered country, a very beaten path, a well-traveled road?

I´m not a cynic. I´m not going to tell you Traviss could have done better. Everyone can do everything better if he/she has time and the will to do so. She did very well. More than that, she did the logical thing; and that´s what you, my faithful reader, will really want to read in a good story. You don´t want to see things always ending well. If you want that, you don´t want a story: you want a wishful thinging, a fantasy of wish fulfillment*, something a Freudian psychoanalist can give you much better than a writer - but, caveat lector!, at a greater cost.

Most of the action of Judge happens on Earth - but we don´t see much of it in fact. It´s a good plot twist for Traviss: the ships land in the Australian outback, so we don´t have to see how much the world changed - in fact, we don´t even know how far Earth had already strayed from our time in City of Pearl, the first installment of the series, which already was almost 300 years in the future. Nicely done.

In the beginning of my reading, I was almost tempted to compare in a way the Wess´har Wars Saga to Dune. Easy, easy. In a way, I said. We have complex characters, byzantine plots (even though sometimes Traviss tries to convince us, via her characters, that everything is simples, A = A, as in an Ayn Rand book). The story itself teaches them - and us - a bitter lesson. Life is not like this. Life is not a Dr. Phil session. Life is hard, life is difficult, life is complex, life sometimes means you have to compromise, you have to do things you don´t like to, but you must for a greater good (or whatever else), otherwise things can turn out to be far worse.

Sometimes I wanted to kick Ade Bennett´s butt for being such an ass. The marine who also gets infected by the cnaa´tat and is madly in love with Frankland seems to do all the wrong choices along the story, and, as a good marine stereotype, he is all about doing what he thinks it´s right, not what he´s told to (come on, even Third World military personnel usually follow orders, and they´re good at it - look at all the terrible Latin American dictatorships we´ve had in the 20th Century).

I also wanted Eddie Michallat to accept somehow the "gift" of the cnaa´tat so he could also live forever, for he was a jolly good fellow after all, far from the newsman stereotype Hollywood tries to sell us so very often. I should know; I graduated in Journalism and worked as a member of the press for almost two decades.

Judge did not end the way I´d rather have it - but it certainly ended in one of the possible, rational ways it should end. It is a good novel, and the all-too-human Shan Frankland is definitely entering my personal gallery of strong SFnal characters for good.

UPDATE 12 / 15

This REALLY WAS one of the most difficult reviews I´ve ever wrote here. I reread parts of the series to rewrite parts of this post. (90 per cent of it, though, still remains the same as it was in the first draft.) But it was worth it: Karen Traviss did a hell of a job indeed, and reading the series gave me great pleasure. Highly recommended.


Salt-Man Z said...

I read this series for the first time this summer (mid-June to mid-July). Fantastic. Traviss really did a fantastic job of staying true to the characters and the situations, and never taking the easy way out.

And I loved Ade Bennett, except for when he would get all emo.

Nate said...

Is it me or is most difficult reviews "I've ever wrote here" extremely awkward?

Why "I've ever written"?

Fabio Fernandes said...

Yep, I felt exactly the same about Ade. How much emo a marine can get??

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