The Heretic by Tony Daniel and David Drake
Well off we go with another of these military SF novels that adds to a growing series, this time based on the exploits of Byzantine commander Belisarius. As you’ll probably guess from the source material, the basic plots have been supplied by David Drake which, in the first instance, were written into full novels by S M Stirling, We’ve watched humanity conquer the stars and develop a high-technology civilisation only to fall again. There was a glitch and, without warning, all the infrastructure and most of the machines that had depended on that technology failed. This plunged each of the worlds into chaos. The first series under the heading of The General told the story of Raj Whitehall who reunited the planet of Bellevue with the help of Center, a pre-Collapse battle computer. Once that world was restored, they sent out interstellar probes to all of the worlds occupied by humans. Each of these probes contained a download of Raj Whitehall’s personality and Center. Once a probe lands, it can communicate with one individual and attempt to guide that planet back up to full civilisation. The Heretic by Tony Daniel and David Drake (Baen, 2013) is opening a new front on the planet of Duisberg, creating a third follow-on series.
The result of this effort is successful because of David Drake’s unifying presence. Even though there are now three partner authors, the overall plot development remains under coherent control. Too often when multiple authors make individual contributions to a shared universe, the compromises between the authors and the editorial staff produce spotty results. This time, the vision remains consistent and the variations in style are less intrusive. Indeed, this particular book has a quite intriguing political context for a reconnaissance mission and set-piece battle. The level of technology has been manipulated by a surviving planetary defence AI. This machine has determined the ideal approach to maintaining the planet is to deny the humans access to any advanced technology. The military is restricted to ball muskets fitted with bayonets, and untempered knives and swords. All manufacturing is under the control of the priests who have been taught to worship the AI as their god. This means every command is obeyed with zealous enthusiasm. To limit progress, the AI cycles two competing societies. One is agrarian and based in the valleys. The other is desert-based and nomadic. Periodically, the nomads mass and cull the farmers. This keeps the overall population numbers steady and inhibits development as the raiders kill off all those showing any signs of independent thought.
Raj and Center enter the mind of a six-year old boy. He’s the son of a provincial military commander and the book is a form of coming-of-age story as he grows up and slowly accumulates experience out in the field. What makes the book interesting is the interaction between the boy and the two quite different personalities inhabiting his mind. Despite the ability to give him stunningly different intellectual experiences, the boy remains slightly sceptical of the voices’ motivation. As someone born into a nontechnological society, the idea his “god” is a machine and, worse, actively manipulating its worshippers to their detriment is not easily accepted. Although he relies on the voices for help and advice, he’s really just biding his time until evidence comes from an independent source to confirm or deny the truth of what has happened to his world. The result is a team effort to survive the various military challenges without giving himself away to the watching priests. In the end, our boy becomes a young commander in the field and faces an invading force from the desert. He’s outnumbered two-to-one but, despite the religious limitations, he comes up with strategies to even the odds. The problem is that all uses of unsanctioned technology represents heresy and the priests burn heretics. So even if he wins the battle, he could still be chained to a post and burned.
Overall, Tony Daniel does a good job in expanding the plot outline supplied by David Drake. There’s a vivid quality to his descriptions of the different physical and political challenges that carries the reader through to a well-paced battle at the end. The Heretic is a good addition to the series as two AIs ready themselves to square off against each other through human agents. I confess that I’m not always impressed by military SF, but this is one of the best I’ve read for a year and more.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.