Monday, July 21, 2014

Mao, recycled

kw: book reviews, science fiction, environmentalism, political fiction

Many, many years ago I read Dune by Frank Herbert. I think I read part of another one, perhaps Children of Dune. I ignored all the rest of the series, whether by the original author or by his son Brian and a couple of co-authors. I liked the sweeping saga of Dune but I didn't care for the sequels.

Brian Herbert is at least as accomplished as his father, and has in recent years branched beyond the Dune realm, first with the Hellhole trilogy, written with Kevin J. Anderson, and now on his own with The Little Green Book of Chairman Rahma. Where Hellhole can be thought of as a sideways extension of the Dune milieu, Little Green Book breaks new ground. Set about 50 years in the future, it posits an Earth quite different from what we know, but based on certain trends.

Of course, Chairman Rahma is a conscious mirror of Chairman Mao, as the two little books are mirror images. Where most consider Mao Zedong to be unequivocally evil, Herbert goes to some length to present Rahma as a man with a conscience, striving to "save the planet", and in a position with the power to do it. As I have written many times, the Devil doesn't know he is evil, and neither did Mao. Little Green Book lays bare the soul of an unknowingly evil man trying his mightiest to do good. Another similarity is the incessant womanizing that characterized Mao, and drives certain plot lines of this book.

Herbert writes of compellingly complex characters. Even the "good guy", Joss Stuart, is a rounded person, not a flat smiley face who cannot fail. The ending gets rather saccharine, but I can tell where the author is trying to go.

An anti-corporate revolution in the 2040s brought Rahma Popol to power in North and South America, where he as instituted a Green Revolution. Now, two decades down the road, most Americans of both continents have been gathered in Human Reservations and land not needed for agriculture to support a primarily vegan populace is being restored to some semblance of its natural condition. A substantial reduction in population because of civil war has "helped" in this regard, as have further reductions from "recycling" of millions of dissidents, or even tens of millions.

Here is where it gets interesting. The technology of recycling now-unused cities and industrial sites is based on "dark energy". Let's be clear, this bears no resemblance to the dark energy of cosmology, which theorists claim is causing acceleration of cosmic expansion. Herbert's dark energy powers cannon-like machines called Splitters, that break most or all chemical bonds in materials, yielding a blackish goo. Then a different kind of machine can re-form this into a basic soil in which seeds are sown to quickly regenerate a landscape. In later parts of the book, dark energy looks like a ropy or thready substance that emits darkness the way a glowing or fluorescent substance emits light.

Mention is also made of "gravity generators", with no particular technology stated, but dark energy is implied. It reminds me of a novel I read decades ago in which gravity was harnessed much as magnetism and electricity, yielding electro-gravitic and magneto-gravitic tools, with seemingly magical powers. Other technologies and some kind of super-battery are hinted at but not explained. That's OK, Herbert's aim is to follow the emotional progress of Joss Stuart and Rahma Popol (We are told his name is a pseudonym at one point, but never told who he was before), particularly after Joss is transformed by an accident with dark energy into some kind of triple hybrid. Thereafter he can use dark energy directly.

One very interesting application of splitter and re-former technology is machines called voleers that create "vanishing tunnels". They can travel through solid rock at speeds in the 400 mph (700 kph) range, and have obvious military applications. But a great many possible story lines are cut short by a technological disaster that leads to the unusual ending I mentioned. It seems Joss-type hybrids are to be the new humans. I won't spoil things further. I had to suspend disbelief a little more strenuously than usual, and greatly enjoyed the story as a result.

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