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Pock’s World by Dave Duncan

It’s slightly unnerving for old guys like me when you start reading a modern book and find yourself immediately infected by the notion you’ve read it before. You intellectually tremble. Thinking processes are briefly considered. Is this the start of Alzheimer’s disease where old memories resurface as we struggle to assimilate new information? So where’s all this angst coming from? As a sign of my misspent youth, I read A Case of Conscience by James Blish in the early 1960s. Although I’ve been an atheist for as long as I can remember, this has never stopped me reading books directly or indirectly about religions. So I found this exploration of a Jesuit’s reaction to a “godless” world completely fascinating, just as the exported alien’s reaction to our paranoid Earth was equally riveting. As a fix-up, the narrative structure of the whole was flawed, but the writing was good. If you are interested in the history of science fiction and you have not already done so, it’s a classic book you should consider reading.

So here we are all over again with Pock’s World by Dave Duncan. A team is sent out to decide whether this titular world is to be quarantined and, possibly, sterilised, or allowed to continue as a part of the human community. The members are a devout Catholic, a megarich businessman, an independent-minded politician, an intelligent investigative reporter, and a bureaucrat with an agenda. The decision depends on what it means to be human. We could treat this as a strictly genetic test. If the chromosomes drift too far from a statistical norm we define as “human” we can say this is a step too far and put a stop to it before the whole gene pool is contaminated. Or we could look beyond the biology to decide at a metaphysical level when a creature is classifiable as human.

In one sense, this is the old cuckoo problem. If the next generation is going to be a species evolutionary shift, you had better kill the cuckoos before they push you out of the nest. But if these new creatures are really us, do we want to be responsible for killing our own children? This signals the first distinction with A Case of Conscience in which the world is “alien” and the discussion of humanity is tangential until the alien child is brought back to Earth. In Pock’s World, the definition of humanity is centre-stage and made all the more difficult because, to help humans adapt to different environments, there has been genetic manipulation anyway. It has been easier to change humans to fit, rather than terraform the environments to suit our needs.

Unlike other books by Dave Duncan, there’s a slightly wooden quality about this. There’s a lot of infodumping and quite a lot of arguing for different points of view. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with a book trying to be about ideas rather than “mindless” action, I found this rather slow-moving and uninvolving. That’s not to say this is not clever. It is.

Dave Duncan still managing an entirely human smile

It’s at this point that I draw a second distinction with A Case of Conscience. The focus of the early take on this theme of quarantining a world is inherently religious. Without getting too deeply into spoiler territory, Pock’s World has a rather different perspective. Again the priest is an important character who must decide whether to pray for the world to be destroyed so that the spawn of the Devil cannot escape, or pray for the world to be saved so that the millions of innocent people have a chance to fight for their survival. Assuming, of course, that a fight will be required. But he’s not the primary character. In the end, this is a book about sacrifice, not to say martyrdom. No matter what people believe, they base their actions on instincts and emotions, on calculations and hope for the best outcomes. Throughout time, individuals have died in fear or out of love, for their beliefs in a higher cause and in the knowledge that their sacrifice will be recognised and valued by future generations.

In a way, such sacrifices are what makes us human. No-one can see the future. Nothing is ever completely certain. So when individuals decide to die for a cause, they are trusting their judgements as to consequences. Depending on your point of view, this is evidence of nobility or stupidity or both or of some other qualities I have not identified. Motives explain choices, but do not necessarily justify those choices when others see the outcomes. It can all come down to luck that it works out right. In this case, it’s all about the outcome of a coincidence when long-laid plans mature at the same time as an act of faith.

Overall, this is a book I admired more than I enjoyed. The story Dave Duncan sets out to tell is interesting once we get past the set-up. The problem is that the first view of the characters presents them as being quite unlikeable. I think, instead of a linear approach, it might have been better to start in medias res, and then have flashbacks to show relevant background information about the characters and how they got to the world. As it is, there’s too much delay in getting to the important interactions. In particular, the movement through the entanglement system to Pock’s World is unnecessary padding. When we needed to know, the characters could have explained the technology of movement between worlds, and introduced the basics of trade between groups of worlds. That way we appreciate salience and can relate to the information more meaningfully. So I express luke-warm support for Pock’s World as a clever bit of mystery wrapped up in a science fictional context.

For other books by Dave Duncan, see The Alchemist’s Apprentice, The Alchemist’s Code, The Alchemist’s Pursuit, Speak to the Devil and When the Saints.

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