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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Wheels within wheels, bluffs within bluffs

After enjoying the not-very-serious Call to Arms (Alan Dean Foster), I thought I might as check out the sequels, the last two novels in the trilogy known as The Damned. I was of course expecting the sequels to be worse, but ended up being pleasantly surprised. In fact, the sequels showed quite a bit more depth than their progenitor (note "more depth" is speaking in relative terms).

In The False Mirror, the Weave alliance has finally begun to make progress against the implacable Amplitur and their telepathically-enslaved allies. Humans, the species equivalent of galactic psychopaths, have been fully integrated into the war effort, although not the political structure of the Weave. (Not surprisingly, civilized races, who can barely contemplate violence, are wary of granting full status to their bloodthirsty allies.) In order to turn the tide, the Amplitur breed genetically-modified Ashregan troops, equals to humans in stature, strength, and capacity for violence. The newly-unleashed forces devastate the unprepared Weave troops, but one of the new soldiers is captured and shown the extent of the Amplitur modification. Ranji is troubled by the revelation that the Ashregan race is not, in fact, a willing partner of the allegedly benevolent Amplitur. And even if he believes the Weave scientists, what should he do about it?

The war nears its end in book three, The Spoils of War. The Wais are the most culturally sophisticated and least able to tolerate violence. It is no wonder that Wais scholars have large ignored studying the barbarous and inferior humans. However, Lalelelelang wonders what will happen when the humans no longer have an outlet for their aggression; she suspects they will turn against the remaining Weave civilizations. Lalelelang develops unique meditational and pharmacological interventions to enable her to study the humans, and ultimately she begins to study interspecies relationships even on the battlefield. In time she befriends a human soldier, one Colonel Straat-ien, but he begins to wonder whether Lalelelang must be eliminated in order to preserve the human race.

I still think all the books in the series are quite pulpy, in a pejorative sense, but definitely there is much more sophistication in these latter two. For starters, they question seriously the nature of humanity (are we as a species inherently violent?), and true science-fiction should always be anthropologically reflexive in this way. (Alas, expect no answer from Mr. Foster.) The opening novel, A Call to Arms, largely avoided this kind of analysis in favour of merely developing the humorous conceit of humans as hell-world denizens.

Also, interspecies relationships are less cluttered and therefore more sensible. A Call to Arms had far too many species working together on one ship, and the author, I think, struggled to coherently and plausibly deal with such a complicated premise. Mr. Foster took a few steps back in the latter novels and succeeded all the better for it.

Finally, the readers begin to see the larger picture, as the time frame skips forward several hundred years with each novel. In The False Mirror, we begin to wonder whether the Ashregan soldiers were intended to be captured and de-programmed by the Weave; are they pawns in a far more subtle plot by the inexpressibly patient Amplitur? And in The Spoils of War we find several of the Weave species engaged in subtle conspiracies, even treason, for reasons unique to their temperaments. "Wheels within wheels" -- a cliche repeated by one of the conspirators, but very appropriate.

I still cannot take these books too seriously; the writing is not masterful. But in fairness to Mr. Foster, writing from the point of view of aliens is certainly extraordinarily difficult (although one asks: should it even be attempted?). But even with the obvious flaws, there is depth and intricacy. If you find the premise at all interesting, I should think that you will find The False Mirror and The Spoils of War to be worthy sequels.

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