Monday, February 15, 2010

A future more plausible than some

kw: book reviews, science fiction, political fiction

Orson Scott Card would make a superb teacher of political science. In his "Empire" series he has gotten past having heroes who are so pathologically altruistic they almost can't function. The transfer of the Starship Cape at the end of the "Homecoming" series, I believe, signaled a transfer of this orientation within him, a maturation if you will.

It is hard to discern a single hero in Hidden Empire. Is it the soldier Cole (Coleman), an effective field leader; is it Cecily Malich, widow of Reuben Malich, a hero of the prior book in the series and advisor to the President; is it the President himself, Averell Torrent, modeled by the author on a Platonic philosopher-king? The conundrum of the philosopher-king is how a power-averse philosopher (it's almost a requirement for the profession) can gain the power to put philosophy into practice.

Half of that dilemma was a major subject of Empire; the other half is found in Hidden Empire. Having attained not just the Presidency but the de facto leadership of both American political parties, Torrent is handed an opportunity on a silver platter by an epidemic viral disease that erupts in Africa. While the action taking place in Africa focuses on Mrs. Malich and her son and foster son, and on the exploits of Cole and his special ops cadre, the larger picture is the redrawing of the African map upon linguistic principles, and a readying of the world for dealing with the pandemic.

Each chapter begins with a homily that I soon realized was either an excerpt from a speech by the President, or his own rumination (perhaps a journal entry?). The most powerful is this, one of the shortest:
War will exist as long as any community desires to impose its will on another community more than it desires peace.

Coercive men see only slaves and rivals in the world.

If the meek refuse war to defend themselves against coercion, then they deserve to be slaves.

Peace-lovers can only have what they love by being better at what they hate than those who love war.

There is no road to peace that does not pass through war.
This summarizes the thinking behind a saying of mine, "True peace means having no living enemies."

Among the political dialogues and discussions in the book, I almost learned a few things about political philosophy. I say "almost" because political thinking simply doesn't fit into my head. I'd be a lousy leader; if I lead a horse to water and it won't drink, I tend to drown the horse.

So let us turn to some of the more technical ideas. A major substory is the HULC-type exoskeletons used by the special ops soldiers, including Cole. The present technology is impressive, and Card imagines significant improvements, particularly in the "smartness" of the processors, and in the density of the power supply. The soldiers then can leap short buildings at a single bound; tall buildings have to come later. Opposed to these is the EMP, or Electro-Magnetic Pulse weapon, which I've come to know as the HERF, or High-Energy Radio Frequency cannon. I won't put any links to that one here; YouTube abounds with DIY projects.

The EMP/HERF is easier to produce than the author imagines (or as portrayed in the novel). Most of the parts needed are found in a microwave oven. Large fast-discharge capacitors are pretty cheap. The battery from a laptop could power several pulses, though recharge time might be a few minutes (you'd need a smart charging circuit to avoid melting the battery as it charges the capacitors). I expect that one of the next hurdles faced by HULC's developers will be hardening against HERF pulses.

Compared to the author's vision, it is likely that the transition of the developed world to a post-petroleum economy will be very damaging. It is a sad scenario we've prepared for our grandchildren. Could a brilliant political philosopher attain sufficient genuine power to produce the changes needed, which shortsighted democratic institutions cannot effect? Such a one would be opposed by Christians as the Antichrist.

But another major element of the book is a much more sympathetic view of Christian faith and practice than I usually find in SciFi. It is based on a historical fact from the decline of the Roman Empire: during the two plague episodes that hastened the breakup of the empire, fearless Christians cared, not only for one another, but for their pagan neighbors. Those cared for were much more likely to survive the plague. Over time, this led to a favorable climate for Christian spread (It is a pity that a major result of this is politically corrupt Christendom. Fortunately there has arisen plenty of room for more benign Christian institutions). A replay of such a scenario threads through much of the book.

Now I need to go back and read the prior book; I missed it the first time 'round.

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