Blue War by Jeffrey Thomas
I was a Spock child. This does not mean my parents had pointy ears and a tendency to say, “Live long and prosper”. But rather they were followers of Benjamin McLane of that ilk, who did wantonly produce a book on child rearing. It swept around the world and, for better or worse, my parents adopted the idea that I should be raised as an individual. So, from an early age, I was treated as a young adult and consulted on how I would like to lead my life. Except, of course, when parents knew better. The main area in which they asserted better knowledge was how to grow up strong and healthy. I was therefore liberally dosed with cod liver oil. So, most of my circle of acquaintance quickly learned the power of the word “halitosis” as my exhaled breath came to resemble the output of the local fish glue factory. This ensured Spock’s individualism applied to me as no-one would come near me for fear I might speak.
All this, for now, brings me to Anthelme Brillat-Savarin who, in 1826, wrote a book called Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante in which he offered the profound remark, “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, et je te dirai ce que tu es.” This roughly translates as, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” The more modern version of the original French idea is, “We are what we eat”. By this circuitous route, we come to Make Room Make Room by Harry Harrison, and other novels about the ruthless exploitation of humans and aliens for food and other purposes. In modern terms, the saying now is, “Conspiracy theorists of worlds unite, you have nothing to lose but your urban myths.”
Science fiction enjoys speculating on the capacity of the human race for evil. This is not to say that there are no redeeming features in individual humans or that aliens are not just as bad. But the plot of Blue War by Jeffrey Thomas is built around an unfortunate discovery when the human race meet the Ha Jiin. It seems that, when buried underground, dead Ha Jiin bodies give off a gas as they decompose. This gas has vital properties for humans. They decide the burial grounds must be tapped. Worse, if there are not enough bodies, ways must be found to increase the death rate. So, just as humans on Earth go to war for access to water, agricultural land and minerals, future wars can be fought over gas. The cause and effect get morally interesting for a balance must be struck between life and death to ensure continuity of supply over time. The solution is to “liberate” an oppressed group who agree to allow humans free access to their burial chambers.
The immediate story is told as a PI investigation set some years after the end of the war. The fragile peace is being literally undermined as a new human terraforming system goes rogue and consumes land occupied by both majority Ha Jiin and the newly independent Jin Haa. The unstoppable expansion threatens to destablise the three-way relationship because access to the burial chambers is also blocked. Our hero, Jeremy Stake, moves between the human and Ha Jiin as he tries to understand exactly what forces are at work. There are conspiracies and corruption on both sides. There are also redeeming individuals prepared to do the right thing as old battle lines are redrawn and better understandings are reached. In a sense, the novel is a metaphor for a study of identity. People wear different faces as warriors and lovers, as governments and vested interests, as racketeers, terrorists and religious leaders. In some senses, these words have no fixed meanings. People may be labelled collaborator, warrior, terrorist, hero or traitor depending on who records the history and what their motives are in the telling. So when we meet these people, we can either take them at “face” value or look beneath to see their strengths and weaknesses.
Is this a perfect book? As if there ever could be a “perfect” anything. We can always find minor irritations. It suffers from the contemporary fad of being too long. Books like A Case of Conscience by James Blish are better for being short. But this is moderately economical as many modern books go and the narrative moves along at a reasonable pace. The exposition is kept to a minimum and well embedded. The social and cultural relationships on all sides are explored with surprising honesty. It is pleasingly uncompromising at times. More interestingly, it also defies genre boundaries. Although it is mainly an SF novel, there are elements which could be fantasy, bits which are plainly horrific and all told as an investigation by a PI. So, on balance, I recommend it.
This is one of the more underrated science fiction novels, managing to embed an interesting discussion on the meaning of identity in a framework blending SF with horror.