Sunday, September 21, 2014

Steph Reads Baened Books: Charles E. Gannon's Trial by Fire (Caine Riordan, Book 2)

In Chuck Gannon's Fire with Fire (which I reviewed back in April), journalist and polymath Caine Riordan discovered that mankind was neither alone nor safe in the universe. In Trial by Fire, the sequel released just last month, hostile alien forces finally arrive on our doorstep -- and what results is a very intelligent take on the "alien invasion" trope that rivals some of the best works I've read in the genre.

If you have read Trial by Fire and you know me, you can probably guess what I liked best: the aliens. I just go absolutely mad when an author thinks through his alien physiology and psychology and invents a society that is both utterly foreign and utterly comprehensible. And yes: Chuck's careful rendering of the Arat Kur in this novel rivals the work of Vernor Vinge in A Fire Upon The Deep -- or the work of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in Footfall or The Mote in God's Eye. Darzhee Kut and the other invaders are not faceless bugs; they are, instead, worthy adversaries with clear and sympathetic motivations who are honestly struggling to understand the humans they fight. The scenes in which the Arat Kur and their allies debate their tactics and their goals are all among my favorites.

The other thing that makes this novel very interesting is that it doesn't assume human solidarity. Indeed, the Arat Kur are able to establish a beachhead on Earth because certain human interest groups invite them in the belief that these aliens will give them power or coin in the new world order that will result from man's capitulation. Which brings us to the novel's dominant theme: the fact that man is divided within his very nature. On the one hand, we can be utterly ruthless guards of our own self-interest -- even to the point that we'd consider genocide or treason against our fellows. On the other hand, we are also capable of great virtue and compassion -- and can even build bridges with civilizations that are quite different from our own. I won't spoil it for you, but the way Chuck dramatizes this conflict - and, ultimately, externalizes it - is absolutely amazing. This, guys, is what "literary" science fiction should do: grapple with universals, not obsess over transitory "causes."

Fair warning: This is not casual beach reading. It's thick, it's meaty, and it takes a while to finish and absorb. However, it is definitely worth the extra time required.

Final Verdict: Highly Recommended.

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