Home > Books > Hex by Allen Steele

Hex by Allen Steele

Well, here we go again. I keep hoping the next Allen Steele will be a return to the glory days of his early books so, with some trepidation, I open Hex (Berkley Publishing, 2011). My first impression is less than encouraging. The passive-aggressive alien culture calling itself the Talus recognise that humans have made contact with the danui. This is one of the more enigmatic races and somewhat reclusive. Except this race has made what can only be described as a grand gesture to the universe. They have constructed the tanaash-haq (which translates the “the living world”) and, in their off-hand way, offered its potential as a habitat to races considered actually or potentially worthy. Through the nord acting as third party intermediaries, a small group of humans from Coyote is invited to view this engineering marvel which turns out to be a massive Dyson sphere completely enclosing the danui sun. They have dismantled all the planets to provide the raw materials for the construction project and, now that it’s all done, they have relocated to part of this new habitat. With more than enough space to go around, other races are also moving in.

If we go back to the days of Big Dumb Object science fiction like Ringworld by Larry Niven and Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C Clarke, we had Earth exploring alien objects not knowing who had built them. They were just there and our “boys” went around poking everything with sharp sticks to see whether anything reacted to the poke (a bit like Facebook, really). The problem with such novels is that, without finding someone immensely old who could tell our explorers where these Objects had come from and how they came to be built, we were often left with little better understanding than when we started. That’s why they were “dumb” objects. In this case, it’s obvious who built the thing and, to some extent, why it was built. More to the point, it’s already filling up with different races all of whom have developed societies capable of interstellar travel. Dumbness should not an issue here. What should happen is that the Talus should provide facilitators or, if you prefer, ambassadors to give us the cultural background and introduce us to the right people so we can be allocated habitat space and smoothly integrate into the neighbourhood.

Allen Steele promoting the idea, "Full steam ahead!"

But no! There would be no story in that. So everyone must act dumb to generate the maximum potential for misunderstanding, bloodshed and political brinkmanship. None of the alien races must be allowed to contact the humans before they arrive in the system and give them any useful information about what to expect. The team therefore arrives “dumb” and “blind” hoping to play a mean pinball. Once at the relevant coordinates, they continuously send out messages asking what they can or cannot safely do. Naturally, no-one answers. As to the crew, they have been picked with an eye on complete dysfunctionality. The leader of the away team is fundamentally incompetent. Fortunately, he’s quickly killed when contact is made with one of the alien races. Another member of the team, Sandy, also has a kind of death wish whether for herself or others. The captain of the starship is mother to one of the away team, but they don’t speak to each other. There’s also a problem in the chain of command because the only one who might be considered an expert in alien contact and negotiation is not in charge. The best he can do is offer advice to the captain. So, instead of having a well-trained team capable of acting with a reasonable chance of survival when under pressure, we have a group of people who don’t get on with each other and are prone to do daft things. As you can imagine, this rapidly degenerates into a chaotic situation that tests the reader’s patience. I have no problem in watching something go wrong when everyone is doing their best. I get extremely annoyed very quickly when stupidity gets people into difficulty and then, instead of learning from these mistakes, they go on to make yet more stupid decisions. There comes a point when you just wish the aliens would go off and do stupid alien things without seeking to involve us, and we humans would all commit suicide to save the aliens the trouble of killing us when we repeatedly do stupid things.

As we come to the end, we find human impulsiveness at its best or worst depending on your point of view. Having been clearly told of a rule, the ship’s captain deliberately ignores it. None of this, “When in Rome. . .” rubbish for her. It’s “My way or the highway!” for her and, by association, the whole of humanity. Personally, I was less than indifferent by this time. I hoped the aliens would just wipe us all out and feed our molecules back into their living world system. I’m not sure what message Allen Steele thinks he’s sending to readers in this book, but it seems to be that recklessly going forward all the time, no matter what the circumstances, is always the right thing to do. This also seems to be the thinking behind the stand-your-ground laws that are causing so much national and international interest in the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida. Essentially these laws permit gun-totting Americans to shoot each other without any duty to retreat or first explore peaceful options to resolve the crisis. They get an immunity to prosecution so long as they reasonably believe they are being threatened. Perhaps I’m wrong, but Allen Steele seems to be promoting exactly this NRA-backed approach in all dealings with aliens, even if they have superior technology and could eradicate our species without blinking. It also underpins the notion of American exceptionalism which is used to justify unilaterally interfering in the affairs of other sovereign states. This is hardly the right law for a civilised country and certainly not the right approach in a technologically sophisticated galaxy. So unless you feel like having a slow-motion lobotomy, give Hex a miss.

For reviews of other books by Allen Steele, see:
Angel of Europa
Coyote Horizon
galaxy blues
V-S Day

  1. April 30, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    Fun review; I have always had a problem with balls-to-the-wall types of adventurers–the look great on paper only if you don’t think about the situation to much.

    I do have to chuckle about the “American exceptionalism which is used to justify unilaterally interfering in the affairs of other sovereign states” observation, though. Use some imagination and put yourself inside the American psychology; we have the biggest damn military machine in the world, supported by a share of 25% of the World GDP. So when people are starving in Somalia because local warlords destroyed their agriculture, getting killed by genocide-hobbiests, taken hostage by pirates, or massacred over political/ethnic/religious differences, who does everyone expect to help out?

    Naturally a lot of bleeding-heart Americans call for intervention, but so does a large part of the international community. President Obama is being vilified right now for responding to the blood flowing in Syria by forming an Anti-Atrocity Committee instead of sending aid to the rebels. Imagine that.

    If we use our military power only to protect our national interests, we get accused of empire-building and get all sorts of nifty slogans like No Blood For Oil (and yes,we’re insane not to drill for it more here at home). But if we use our military power to act as a kind of Global Cop, it almost never ends well; usually the best use of our super-military is as a credible threat–don’t make use come over there! But for the threat to be credible, we have to come over there once in awhile, so I wish we’d pick our targets better.

    The diversion was unintentional; I meant to mention, we had been talking about alternate-history authors a books, and I forgot to mention Eric Flint’s book, Rivers of War. You should check it out. I loved his take on several historical characters (Sam Houston, General Jackson, etc). If you know much about American history around the War of 1812 then you’ll get more out of it, but regardless it’s a fun read.

    • April 30, 2012 at 2:11 pm

      I understand the philosophy perfectly. I grew up with British gunboat diplomacy which threatened third world countries with dire retribution unless they bowed and scraped to the Empire and its sovereign. But therein lies the crux of the matter. It’s perfectly rational to threaten someone with overwhelming force if you know they can’t fight back. When we come up against equals, we get into MAD (mutually assured destruction) and both sides will modify their behaviour to avoid the unfortunate consequences of actual combat. But, with the exception of the delightful novels by Leonard Wibberley in which the Duchy of Grand Fenwick takes on all the superpowers and wins, the sleeping-dogs-lie approach is safer when you know you’re outgunned. That’s why Hex is so tiresome. When the Captain knows from the outset that she and her crew are the “primitives” with spears against the high-technology aliens and, more importantly, that everything she does is being monitored and judged, her behaviour is just crazy. She’s like a bull in a china shop when the shop owner can kill a bull as easily as swatting a fly.

      As to alternate history, my favourites remain Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee and Pavane by Keith Roberts. I’ve read some Eric Flint. He writes quite well — Rats, Bats and Vats is amusing although the sequel is less so — I though the Belisarius books with David Drake were interesting.

  2. April 30, 2012 at 9:20 pm

    Exactly so. And an Oblique Approach and its sequels are some of my brother’s favorite stories.

    • May 1, 2012 at 12:20 am

      Changing one of the team, Killer by David Drake and Karl Edward Wagner is a magnificent Roman vs alien novel. Here’s a link.

  3. May 1, 2012 at 12:25 am


  1. May 15, 2014 at 12:37 am

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