Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Liberating Atlantis, by Harry Turtledove

Harry Turtledove's Liberating Atlantis is the final book of the trilogy, which covers the successful rebellion that ends slavery slightly earlier than in our own timeline. The protagonist is Frederick Radcliff, a slave and descendent of Victor Radcliff, himself a major character in both the previous books. Frederick Radcliff is the grandson of a slave woman "lent" to Victor between the battles in United States of Atlantis. Victor suffers a fair amount of angst in that story over the existance of a slave-born son when he has no surviving children with his wife.

Frederick is a smart and competent house slave who trips over a loose floorboard at an inopportune time and is given "5 lashes, well laid on" as direct punishment, and demoted to be a field slave. It doesn't take him long to be fed up with his new circumstances and luck soon feeds him an opportunity which he grabs and takes advantage of. A squad of soldiers are ferrying weapons and ammunition when they are hit with yellow fever; they stop to recover at the plantation where Frederick lives and toils. After the fever takes a few soldiers and their sentries get a little lax, Frederick leads a small band of slaves to grab the munitions and kill the soldiers along with their owners.

From there, the rebellion spreads, and Frederick proves an able leader. They find enough supplies on the nearby plantations and intercept supplies intended for the army that comes to suppress the rebellion. The army underestimates their abilities often enough that they are successful, and eventually negotiate terms with the national government.

Turtledove does a good job of presenting freedom-oriented ideas but in this book, they're in extremely non-controversial areas (everyone has an equal right to be free, governing is hard). His characters are all mixes of good and bad aspects, with even the southerners getting good points in occasionally, and not being any more consistently stupid than their opponents.

One of the ideas Turtledove explored in the series is the workings of the Roman consul system in which the power of the federal executive is checked by electing pairs of chief executives who serve in alternating periods and can veto each others' actions. The system worked alright for Rome for a long time, but as Turtledove portrays it, it falls apart in contentious times. In particular, the system calls for the consuls to serve in times of war as field generals alternating duties daily. The two consuls in this novel eventually figure out how to work together to make some progress, even when they disagree about their aims. It is more entertaining and instructive to see wild ideas demonstrated in fiction to argue that they might work, rather than to show that they don't work any better than we'd expect.

On the whole, a good read. Worthy of being a Prometheus finalist, and the first time, I think, that an author has had two finalists the same year. A few authors, most recently Charles Stross, had two novels nominated the same year.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Hidden Empire by Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card's Hidden Empire picks up where his previous (prometheus nominated) Empire left off.

A new virus has just made the jump from monkeys to humans in Africa and Averell Torrent, the new U.S. President, knows how to take advantage of the situation in order to cement his power and make the world a better place. The story flows more smoothly than in the previous book; the action is intense, and the characters are engaging and sympathetic. There are very affective depictions of loyalty and heroism. Card knows how to propel the story through the characters' actions, and without needing editorial explanations to clarify his point.

But in the end, it's an apology for strong-man politics. The underlying message is if the right (visionary, ruthless) man can get control of the levers of power at the right time, and he has the right motives, he can make everything better. Card is careful (through the characters' actions) to warn us that it's crucial to a free society that the strong man be watched carefully to ensure he isn't pursuing nefarious ends, but in the end, Card says, if he is pure of heart and has the right goals, then he should be allowed to proceed.

If Hidden Empire becomes a finalist for the Prometheus this year, I would read it more as an indication of a weak year for well-written libertarian novels than an endorsement of the political principals displayed here. Of the eleven novels nominated so far (of which I've finished only 7), I can only recommend The Unincorporated Man as both libertarian and well-written. Makers by Cory Doctorow is a wonderful story (review coming shortly) but not libertarian enough to qualify. The United States of Atlantis is nearly as good, but also weak on libertarianism. The Iron Web is stridently libertarian, but with cardboard characters and weak writing.