The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis
I’m going to break one of the unwritten rules about reviewing by mentioning a short story I read in the last book. Supposedly you only talk about the immediate book and don’t look back but, in this case, there’s a pleasing coincidence. “The Empress Jingu Fishes” by Kij Johnson* delivers a nicely judged parable about what almost every woman foresees for her life. She will marry a man who will most likely die before her or run off with a younger woman when he tires of her. This will delegate the fairly thankless task of bringing up her son knowing he will leave her as soon as he’s able to pay for his own independence. How can she love a man whom she knows will leave her? How can she care for a child who will abandon her as soon as he possibly can?
If we look to philosophy for help in answering these questions, ontology would have us not only consider whether such a woman exists, but what meaning her existence has. This ignores all accidental and transient attributes like her physical appearance or a state of mind such as love, and focuses on her essential properties, the most important of which is the role of bringing the next generation into being. This defines her identity in its current context. A slightly different and less abstract approach to answering similar questions comes in existentialism. It was Søren Kierkegaard who first suggested that it’s for each individual to give his or her life meaning and Friedrich Nietzsche who introduced the notion of Übermensch, i.e. moving up to society as a whole, the most important goal for humanity is to give meaning to itself by producing new generations of ever more perfect human beings. Of course, some people have interpreted this as a call for a formalised eugenics programme, i.e. you arrive at superbeings by selective breeding. But it’s equally the case that a society can slowly improve itself so that the characteristics we now deem signs of weakness no longer appear. This recognises you cannot breed for perfection of temperament. The nature side of the equation may be determined by genetic factors, but the nurture side encourages the development of intelligence, creativity and the other intellectual and emotional components we think part of the package comprising a superior person. In all this, note that the mother is not the Übermensch. As an individual, she’s no more than one of the many through whom children or grandchildren may become the Übermensch. She’s the means to the end.
The central character in The Coldest War, Volume 2 of the Milkweed Triptych by Ian Tregillis (Tor, 2012) has achieved an unmatched level in the field of of precognition. She has a precisely tuned ability to watch all the future possibilities play out and to see exactly what will happen. She can then be standing in the right place at the right time to give herself the opportunities to get the result she wants. This means she plays a very long game, planning and executing her behaviour to take advantage of the events on to the tracks leading to. . . Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it. In theory, she could be following us into a future in which the Übermensch are born and come to rule us. And who’s to say whether such a future would be good or bad? Even though we might fear what that future might be like, it’s entirely possible that many of the alternatives are far worse. Rule by superior beings may be humanity’s salvation and far better in this alternate history than the stand-off between the British, Russians and the other militarily-inclined nation blocks. So it’s premature to demonise her. We should always wait until her real motives are disclosed.
Indeed, I would go so far as to say most of the other reviews I have read which cast her as the series villain are entirely wrong. These reviewers seem to be assuming that she’s actually in control of humanity’s destiny. This denies the power of determinism. It’s assuming the future can be changed, that she has free will and her exercise of this will directs where the rest of humanity shall go. But, so far, we have not seen any causal determinism at work. All we have seen is a single chain of events from her point of view which has worked in the way she foresaw. Nothing she does necessarily implies she has control over cause and effect. She’s subject to the law of gravity and will always fall if pushed. Similarly, what has gone before determines what will follow and, to that extent, she’s subject to the passage of time. The other reviewers are confusing self-determination with determinism, assuming her motives and desires are somehow translated into reality for everyone else, no matter whether she’s aware of them. This would require her to be godlike and omniscient. So far, there’s no sign of this. But, of course, this excludes the fictional possibility of an eidolon ex machina, that a supernatural agency or Satanism, if you prefer, can have sufficient power to divert the future. Let’s put this another way. Let’s assume the future can’t be changed on this timeline. No matter what anyone does, this is a deterministic world. If that’s the case, you would need a way to cheat the system. And that’s why this book as book two of three is particularly pleasing.
The whole point of science fiction, with or without horror tropes, is that it allows us the opportunity to play with ideas. In particular, time travel stories can explore both the linear and nonlinear ways in which time might move. Although deterministic or multiverse scenarios may be given prominence in each story, they are really just a way of considering what prices we might be prepared to pay for changing outcomes. In Source Code, for example, we have the completely amoral extermination of people in sequential versions of Chicago until just the right combination of circumstances is discovered in which it can be saved. This is wildly contrary to Utilitarianism because the many die so that the few can survive. But that’s the price the developer of the system is prepared to pay. Ian Tregillis is asking a similar question in this trilogy and, in The Coldest War, we see the future to be avoided. This leaves our “hero” with the decision on whether he’s prepared to pay the price to avoid it. At every level and in every way, this is better than Bitter Seeds, the first in the series. But you absolutely cannot read this as a standalone. The way the plot fits together is like a finely crafted mechanism and you cannot understand the real significance of where we finish up in this book unless you started on page 1 of the first. Some of it is wonderfully coldblooded but, when you look back, you can see why it was absolutely necessary. Assuming, of course, that you approve of what our precog is trying to achieve.
For a review of another book by Ian Tregillis, see Bitter Seeds.
* The story is contained in At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson.