26 February 2008

Locus Magazine's Russell Letson reviews Chris Roberson

from Locus Magazine, February 2008

The Dragon's Nine Sons, Chris Roberson (Solaris 978-1-84416-524-7, $15.00, 329 pp, tp) February 2008. Cover by Chris Moore.

In The Dragon's Nine Sons, Chris Roberson returns to the alternate-historical future in which China never turned inward, so that in the year 4689 (our mid-21st century) it is one of two great powers on Earth and a space-faring empire with colonies on Fire Star (Mars). Nearly 30 years after the events of The Voyage of Night Shining White (reviewed in February 2007), the early exploratory stages are past and the extraterrestrial colonies are well established, but a longstanding rivalry with the aggressive and ambitious Mexica Dominion has flared into a war in space and on Fire Star itself.

The template for the story is the same as The Dirty Dozen, with slightly different arithmetic: a crew made up of condemned men is sent on a dangerous-to-the-point-of-suicide mission as an alternative to execution. The leaders of this gang of misfits are Zhuang Jie, a reluctant warship captain guilty of cowardice, disobeying orders, and flight in the face of the enemy; and exemplary career soldier Bannerman Yao Guanzhong, guilty only of stubbornly investigating a massacre and discovering facts that the authorities do not want known. Their crew — which includes a gambler and thief, a prank-pulling drug smuggler, a couple of murderers, and a philosophical conscientious objector — is hastily trained to operate a captured Mexic ship renamed Dragon, given passcodes that with luck have not yet changed, and instructed to infiltrate an enemy base hidden in the hollowed-out asteroid Xolotl, where they are to plant and detonate a thermonuclear bomb — the Dragon's Egg.

The storyline is a kind of transmogrified military-SF adventure in which familiar tropes (accounts of briefings and training, presentation of equipment and weaponry, descriptions of military procedures and folkways) are re-imagined for this alternate-historical setting that mixes space elevators and abacus-wielding navigators and where every Imperial space crew includes a Minister of Rites. The most strange and exotic features, though, come not from the Chinese side but the Mexic warrior culture, thanks particularly to the centrality of human sacrifice in all aspects of their operations, right up to ship's controls. A sacrificial altar is standard equipment on every Mexic military spacecraft. On Dragon,

the circuitry and ridges on the platform surface combined to form a fierce tableau, an image of the Mexic moon goddess being cut into pieces by the warrior god of the sun. The platform was not a separate component [. . .]; this was an integrated part of the bridge controls, without which the rest of the ship would not function. And the circuitry and ridges on the platform's surface were not purely decorative, but incorporated sensitive instrumentation capable of detecting the presence of [. . .] hemoglobin. Without hemoglobin, the ship would not function. . . .

Also on the bridge is a pair of cages for the spare sacrificial victims needed to reboot the control systems should there be a failure. The Chinese have hotwired a bypass into the altar circuits on their captured ship and also stored away a few liters of blood in case of emergency, but the sacrificial machinery remains a gun-over-the-mantlepiece presence throughout the voyage.

Even before they face the Mexic warriors at Xolotl there are problems — the ill-disciplined crew wrangle and fight, unexpected events force desperate improvisations, and the ship's half-adapted control systems fail in a way that requires the altar to revert to its original function. But the most serious modification of plans comes after they arrive at Xolotl, when they find that civilian prisoners are being held on the station, at which point The Dirty Dozen gets mixed with aspects of The Magnificent Seven.

Perhaps more interesting than the adventure-plot events are the gradual revelations of the paths that brought each crew member to disgrace. The various crises along the way offer opportunities to tell those stories of moral weakness or enlightenment or youthful indiscretion or trauma, and finally of the details of how Bannerman Yao came to know things far above his pay level. And, unsurprisingly, the crewmen's flaws and fears, and the ways they accommodate them and each other, affect their performance in the encounters with the enemy that climax their mission.

The narrative voice and emotional stance of this book remind me strongly of L. Sprague de Camp — discursive, explanatory, and rather cool, even in the face of considerable unpleasantness (the Mexic weapons of choice are the liquid-magnesium-spitting "fire-lance" and the obsidian-studded club, so close combat is anything but pretty). This removes much of the edginess of the dirty-dozen template, replacing it with the ironies of the ways in which the crewmembers' flaws contribute to their heroism. Here, as in The Voyage of Night Shining White, character, character relationships, and cultural background are at least as compelling as the melodramatic action in the foreground. In fact, those are the qualities that would have me return to this charming and oddly-retro-feeling alternate future. (And maybe I'll find out how they construct space elevators and make orbital calculations with only the abacus to do the figures.)

Read more! This is one of over two dozen reviews from the February 2008 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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