Passage at Arms by Glen Cook

August 3, 2015 at 12:13 am | Posted in 4 stars | Leave a comment
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Passage at Arms coverAs I write this, Glen Cook’s Wikipedia article consists of two paragraphs about his life and one paragraph about the Black Company series. That’s not really a surprise given how influential it’s been, but as best as I can count he’s written an astounding thirty-eight other novels. In the cruel reality of the book business, most novels are lost in obscurity the moment they are published, but while this fate is usually amply justified by their quality, there are surely a few babies in all that bathwater. One such was Glen Cook’s standalone space opera novel, The Dragon Never Sleeps, which is just short of a masterpiece. Having so enjoyed the one Cook standalone I had read, it seemed reasonable to move on to his best-known standalone novel, Passage at Arms, published in 1985 and usually characterized as Das Boot in space.

If that sounds appealing, then rest assured, Passage at Arms delivers amply on that promise. The novel is set on board a Climber, a spaceship that “climbs” into another dimension. The farther it goes, the less space it takes up in our normal three dimensions. By climbing far enough, a nine hundred ton spaceship can occupy the volume of a molecule in normal space. This means that it is impossible to detect, but it also means that if an explosion happens even vaguely nearby, it gets jostled by the shock wave. If an explosion happens close enough, the ship can be destroyed. Add in the fact that during the climb, conditions on the ship deteriorate due to heat buildup, forcing the ship to eventually “surface”, and it becomes clear that Cook is using some invented physics to get something that looks very similar to submarine warfare. Instead of going underwater, the Climber goes into another dimension, instead of being menaced by depth charges, it is jostled by missiles, and so on.

The obvious question is, if one is to read a book about submarine warfare, why not read a book about the thing itself instead of something like Passage at Arms that puts its submarines in spaceship costumes like it’s Halloween? Although readers of this blog aren’t likely to be sympathetic with that sort of complaint, it’s not a question that should be lightly dismissed, for it’s the basis of a common critique of science fiction and fantasy as a whole. Admittedly it’s an argument somewhat out of fashion at the moment as mainstream literature goes through a phase of borrowing genre concepts, but Passage at Arms makes for an interesting test case.

First, it should be stated that unlike some space opera based on past precedents, Passage at Arms isn’t an exercise in nostalgia. Glen Cook served in the US Navy (though not on submarines) and one constant across his fantasy and science fiction is his down-to-earth depiction of military life. There’s no glory or glamor to working on a Climber, just hard work, deprivation, boredom, and terror.

Second, Cook is after more than just a recreation of submarine warfare. He’s particularly interested in how men (and the Climber crew of Passage at Arms are all men, though we are told some Climbers are crewed entirely by women) cope with the intense stresses of warfare. A Climber crewman must serve on ten missions, then they are allowed to retire from fighting. Missions rarely last more than a month, so it’s not all that much calendar time, but the downtime between missions can be many months, waiting that takes its own toll. Everyone is acutely aware that Climbers are so often destroyed, whether by enemy action or through mechanical failure, that the few are fortunate enough to survive ten missions. Death is likely, then, but it’s not completely certain, so the men focus on their day to day activities, comfort themselves with superstitions, and cloak the gravity of the situation in euphemisms, such as calling the enemy “the gentlemen of the other firm”.

To better draw a psychological portrait of the Climber crew, Cook uses a narrator who wants to draw that portrait himself. The first person, present tense narrator is a space navy man but one who served on battleships, not Climbers. After leaving the navy, he became a journalist, and now he has requested the opportunity to embed with a Climber crew so he can capture what it’s like. He knows the Commander from the old days, but time has changed them both. The narrator hopes to hold himself apart from the Climber’s crew and just be an observer, but as the mission drags on and the situation deteriorates, he is forced to become more and more of a participant.

The psychological response of men to combat stress is the very core of the novel, but the results are strangely uneven. Cook is absolutely brilliant at the big picture. The mood of the men, the difficulty of their experience, and the diversity of their coping mechanisms are all wonderfully realized. I certainly have no experience with such things, but for me the novel was utterly persuasive. Yet as individuals, the characters never quite come alive. Cook elects to keep the two most important characters, the narrator and the Commander, as ciphers for much of the novel, and the supporting cast are little more than a series of names, differentiated but in ways that are hard to keep straight. The result is a narrative that is gripping and even fascinating, but not nearly as powerful as it might have been had there been just a bit more clarity and a little less artifice.

So far it might seem like I’m dodging the question I said was fundamental, for all this could have been done in mundane historical fiction. But there’s one more element that I’ve purposefully left out until this point: the war itself. I left it out because Cook largely leaves it out of the novel. Although it’s a standalone story, Passage at Arms is set in the same world as Cook’s earlier Starfishers trilogy, so it’s possible such details are explained there. I don’t know, not having read them, but from online summaries it seems they don’t involve the Ulant war at all. Certainly there are none of the accomodations that are usually made for readers who likely (given the mediocre commercial performance of the earlier trilogy) aren’t familiar with the setting. All we get are the absolute essentials: humanity, it seems, is at war with an alien race called the Ulant.

Who are the Ulant? Why are they fighting humanity? What will happen if humanity loses? These questions aren’t really answered, beyond the narrator’s aside that they are “guys pretty much like us, only a little taller and blue, with mothlike antennae instead of ears and noses.” To the men fighting it, the war just is. Their lives are lived in present tense, just like the narration. They don’t want to think about the the past, full as it is of things lost, or the future, where they will likely die before their time.

This is where the use of science fiction becomes apparent. For most readers today, it is nearly impossible to think of World War II as anything other than a morality play. There’s Good Guys and Bad Guys. Even if the Good Guys aren’t always as good as we’d wish and the Bad Guys weren’t all as bad as their leaders, in the end it’s most people’s first (and sometimes only) example of a just war, a war where a soldier might give his life and have it really mean something. But in this respect World War II is by far the exception, not the rule. By setting his story amid a war between humans and aliens, Cook is able to tell a story in the simplest of terms. Us vs. Them. We are humans and so can readily identify with the characters, but are they the Good Guys? Is it a just war? We don’t know, and Cook’s point is that to the men on the Climber, it doesn’t matter. They didn’t start the war and they can’t end it either. All they can do is try to survive, and that means doing their job and somehow being lucky enough to live through ten missions.

Its opaque characterization means Passage at Arms isn’t a complete success, but it’s one of the best and most psychologically realistic novels of space combat I’ve ever read. Its focus is too narrow for it to be universally recommended as a must-read for any genre fan, but it’s well worth the time of anyone interested in the psychology of combat.

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The Dragon Never Sleeps by Glen Cook

May 16, 2011 at 1:34 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 5 Comments
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Glen Cook is best known for the Black Company fantasy series he began in 1984, often cited as one of the first major steps toward the low fantasy approach that has become quite popular in the last decade.  He’s actually a quite prolific author, and for many years, his 1988 standalone science fiction novel The Dragon Never Sleeps was one of his most obscure books.  Shortly after it was published, some combination of poor sales and a troubled publisher sent it straight out of print.  Under these circumstances you would expect it to be forgotten by everyone except the author, but instead the book acquired a reputation placing it among science fiction’s greatest space operas.  When fans talk up a hard-to-find book as a masterpiece, one always wonders if this is just a form of snobbery.  A few years ago I searched out a copy to see for myself.

Almost immediately after I found it, the novel was reprinted for the first time in twenty years and it’s still in print today, so for good or ill the rarity is gone.  Does the book itself live up to its reputation?  Reading it a few years ago, I indeed thought it was a masterpiece.  Maybe it’s for the best that I read it during a lapse in this blog, because I was so impressed I doubt I would have had anything intelligible to say.  It’s a complicated book and from the moment I finished it, I was looking forward to reading it a second time, but rather than dive right back in I decided to wait so I’d have a little perspective.

I ended up waiting a little longer than I intended, but I’ve finally reread it, and I think I understand it a lot better now.  I’m afraid it’s not quite as great as I initially thought…that is to say, it’s “only” an extremely good novel.  This time, I was less awed by the setting and the ideas, so I noticed that the characters were thin, the plot was tangled and confusing, and above all the story’s pacing was all over the map.  The Dragon Never Sleeps is an epic space opera story that stretches across many years, and some of them pass in just a few pages.  Some online reviews say that Cook made major cuts to what was originally a much longer manuscript, and while I haven’t seen anything from the author himself confirming this, it certainly reads like this happened.  Genre books are usually accused of being too long, but this is one book that definitely would have benefited from being longer.  There are a number of brilliant scenes, most notably the battle in “end space” midway through the novel, which I think is probably the greatest space battle scene I’ve ever read, but these only make the points where the story suddenly lapses into summary all the more frustrating.

If there are problems with aspects as important as the plot and the characters, you’d be forgiven for wondering if this is really a good novel.  To that I can only say, I read a lot of books with good characters, and…well, somewhat less, but still a fair number, with good plotting and pacing, but books with truly interesting ideas are rare.  The Dragon Never Sleeps has a lot on its mind.  Like most such novels, it’s simultaneously in conversation with the genre’s past while pointing toward the future.  The connection with the past is in the book’s use of tropes from Frank Herbert’s Dune.  Like Dune, this is a novel of squabbling feudal houses who rest uneasily beneath the Imperial yoke and endlessly plot to advance themselves.  As for the future, the novel’s “Artifacts” (human-like people grown in vats with often fanciful physiological alterations) reminded me strongly of China Miéville’s Remade, although this book was so obscure I doubt there was any direct influence.

All that said, the closest association is probably with the fiction of Iain M. Banks.  The Dragon Never Sleeps was originally published in 1988, just a year after Consider Phlebas, so again I don’t think there’s a direct connection, but the two space operas cover a lot of the same ground.  I have purposefully delayed providing any kind of plot summary until now so that you can see how closely it tracks with Banks’ work, particularly Consider Phlebas.  Thousands of years in the future, humanity has spread across a huge span of the galaxy and no longer has a clear idea of its own origins.  Order in Canon space is kept via huge spaceships with idiosyncratic names that house powerful artificial intelligences.  Although billions of beings both human and alien live peacefully in human space, there are powerful alien species who not only do not share the values that animate Canon government, but actually despise them.  Given this antipathy, war is inevitable, a war that spirals into a clash of civilizations spanning many years and countless star systems.

If you changed “Canon” to “Culture” that would be a pretty good start to a summary of Consider Phlebas.  I really enjoy the Culture novels, particularly the early ones, so it’s not surprising I really enjoyed The Dragon Never Sleeps.  I also like Dune and Miéville as well, for that matter.  The Dragon Never Sleeps doesn’t have the elegant plot of Dune, the fantastic imagination of Miéville, or the humor and cynicism of Banks, but it’s at least as well thought out as the rest of them.  What makes it especially interesting is the fact that, once you get past the surface similarities with the Culture I mentioned, the two settings are completely different.  These days the Culture tropes are so strongly identified with Banks’ own thinking that it’s startling to see them deployed for Glen Cook’s very different aims.

I cheated a bit when I said Canon ships have “idiosyncratic names”.  The Culture is rooted in the values of our modern world, so the irreverence and irony of its famous ship names, like So Much For Subtlety or What Are the Civilian Applications, fit perfectly.  In contrast, here are a few names of the Canon’s Guardships: VII Gemina, XII Fulminata, and XXVII Fretensis.  The first time I read the novel I only learned the source of these vaguely familiar-sounding names after I had finished, but I’m sure Glen Cook expected his readers to recognize them as names of Roman legions.  Sure enough, the government of Canon space is rooted not in the modern world but in the declining Roman Empire.  It’s an old system that has outlasted the conditions surrounding its now-mythological founding and expanded with a series of  invasions until it’s overstretched and under significant pressure both from outsiders eager to tap the wealth of Canon space and from the presence of aliens within Canon space itself, where conquest and immigration have brought them in greater and greater numbers until they are now are a majority.

There’s nothing innovative about putting the Roman Empire in space, and indeed Dune did pretty much the same thing (albeit with the Byzantine Empire rather than the original Roman Empire as such).  But this is allusion, not allegory, and the Roman Empire was just the start of Glen Cook’s thinking.  For starters, there’s no Emperor.  At least, we’re never told of one.  There’s talk of a civilian bureaucracy, but the power lies with the legions…in this case, the Guardships…and they don’t pretend to follow any orders but their own.  Cook hasn’t made the mistake of just transplanting a primitive government into space.  The Roman legions were loyal to the person of the Emperor, a crudely effective mechanism but problematic when it came time for succession.  The Guardships’ allegiance is not to an Emperor or even a government, but to Canon law.  Canon law is only a few steps up from the law of the jungle, true, but the Guardships enforcing it are ruthless and, owing to a technological advantage that is enforced as part of that law, nearly invincible.  Warships of any kind besides Guardships are illegal in Canon space, so they have a complete monopoly on violence.  When an entity outside Canon space provokes them, they invade, destroy, and annex the offending civilization.

Since no force internal or external can challenge the might of the Guardships, the resulting system is extremely stable.  A person can be killed, a ship can be destroyed, but no one, whether an alien from outside Canon space, a human citizen, or even a Guardship commander, can change the system.  The dragon of the book’s title is not a real dragon, or even a person.  It’s the Guardships, or to be even more accurate, it’s the procedures the Guardships and their supporting bases follow.  The system is effectively immortal, but in maintaining itself it necessarily must hold the culture it protects in stasis.  Technological progress has been halted lest anyone acquire Guardship-equivalent technology.  Cities on a hundred planets are constructed from the exact same prefabricated habitats.  Power is concentrated in a quasi-feudal commercial nobility so that the only ones with any power have too much to lose to dare crossing the Guardships.

But nothing lasts forever, and Cook shows how the system has drifted over time.  Slowly the aliens outside Canon space are catching up to the Guardships’ technology levels.  When Canon law was written, humans were the vast majority and so were the only ones with citizenship and the franchise.  Now, millennia later, aliens are the majority, with much of the rest made up of Artifacts that by law aren’t considered human either.  Even the Guardships themselves prove not to be immune to the passage of time.  Although each Guardship has an artificial intelligence at its core managing the automated systems, they are commanded by human crews.  When not needed, humans are stored in suspended animation.  When they are killed, they are recreated from vats using brain scans.  This means that even the youngest soldiers were “born” thousands of years ago at the dawn of the Canon era.  Humans who distinguish themselves are “Deified” through personality uploading and serve as a sort of Senate to advise the two Dictats (read: Consuls) who command the ship in a manner reminiscent of the Roman Republic.  These two types of immortality have kept the Guardships from changing the way the outside world has over the long years…in theory at least.  Guardships aren’t often in contact with each other, and ship cultures have diverged.  Worse, the artificial intelligences have grown eccentric.  Most Guardship crew characters in the book are from VII Gemina, a ship that initially seems to have weathered the centuries more or less without major changes, but others are…different.  One character groups the various Guardships into “Normal”, “Strange”, and “Weird and Deadly”.

The Dragon Never Sleeps has a large ensemble cast, but ultimately the narrative is focused on Kez Maefele, who (like the protagonist of Consider Phlebas) is a longstanding enemy of the Canon and therefore gives us a detached perspective.  Most of the those opposing the Guardships do so out of a hunger for wealth or power, but he’s different.  Long ago, an alien species called the Ku fought a long war against the Guardships, and during their war they used increasingly elaborate genetic engineering to improve their soldiers.  Maefele was the culmination of this program, a strategic genius who led the legendary Dire Radiant, a Ku fleet that refused to surrender with the rest of the species.  Born too late to turn the tide in the war, Maefele watched first his species’ government but then his rebel fleet ground into dust by the implacable power of the Guardships.  He escaped the final defeat and has been in hiding for uncounted years, for his engineered genes are not programmed to age.

All that time has led him to question the morality of fighting the Guardships in the first place.  He hates the inequality of Canon society, but he knows that if the Guardships were overthrown, Canon space would be at the mercy of outside powers who would be significantly worse.  But when he is recruited by the latest faction hoping to destroy the Guardships, he finds himself agreeing to help.  Like the Mule in Asimov’s Foundation series, he is an individual of such genius he can destroy an otherwise invincible organization, but as someone who was created and not born, he is also a cog in the Ku war machine even a thousand years after their defeat.  Fighting the “dragon” is his purpose in life, something he ultimately can’t turn his back on even if the war will mean the unnecessary deaths of countless innocent people.

Reading Dorothy Dunnett showed me that the proper use of a genius character is not to simply face him off against lesser antagonists (surprise: the genius wins) but to leave the reader wondering if the genius should win.  Kez Maefele has both the desire and the genius to defeat the Guardships, but doing so would mean abandoning his moral principles.  This seems like a contradiction that’s impossible to resolve, but Cook has a solution.  Narratively, the ending to The Dragon Never Sleeps is a mess, but for readers willing to endure a few bumps on the road the underlying story being told is at least the equal of Iain M. Banks’ best works, like Player of Games and Use of WeaponsThe Dragon Never Sleeps is a novel that shows just how great space opera can be, even if in some ways it falls short of its own potential.

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