Volume 25, Number 3, Spring 2007

Command Decision

By Elizabeth Moon

Del Rey, 2007
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard

This novel continues Elizabeth Moon’s current series, Vatta’s War. In reviewing the first volume, I pointed out that one of its major themes was the tension between military and mercantile ethical values, referring to the discussion of these two viewpoints in Jane Jacobs’ Systems of Survival, which argues that applying ethical principles from one domain to activities in the other is destructive. Command Decision reads all the more as if Moon had studied Jacobs’ ideas: one of its major themes is the increasing sorting out of the two sets of concerns, and the attainment of the proper relationship between them.

On one side of the duality, we see Kylara Vatta, now in command of a small privateer force, moving toward an exclusively military style of organization and discipline. On the other, we see her potential love interest, Rafe Dunbarger, becoming involved with the management of his father’s corporation, ISC, which holds a monopoly on instantaneous communications, and discovering that its problems range from internal corruption to cumulative neglect of its own military fleet. Moon ingeniously focuses the attention of Dunbarger, Vatta, and Vatta’s cousin and aunt on the same space battle, as the large pirate fleet who have disrupted much of galactic civilization try to take advantage of the organizational troubles of their foes.

Possibly the strongest theme of this novel is the legitimacy of using force to defend onself or others. Dunbarger confronts a key incident from his earlier life involving that issue, and both Dunbarger and Vatta have to use force to protect the people around them. This in itself makes the story one that libertarians will approve of. Moon also explores several interesting issues relating to property rights. ISC discovers that people in various remote solar systems, including Vatta’s home system of Slotter Key, desperate for communication, are taking it on themselves to restart ISC’s installations, and has to decide whether to accept this or pursue the traditional policy of punishing it harshly. They also receive inquiries from Kylara’s cousin Stella, who wants to patent a new technology of miniaturized instantaneous communicators, small enough to carry on a starship, and is carefully first making sure that she is not violating ISC’s intellectual property rights by doing so. Finally, in an ugly incident, Kylara attempts to resupply her fleet at a remote space installation, only to discover that they have taken to cheating their customers, justifying their actions by crude racist and socialist arguments.

Vatta’s War is fun to read as a straight action/adventure series, with engaging characters. But it also has intellectual substance: a continuing concern with legal and ethical issues and with effective organization. Moon has clearly thought about her story and her setting, and she invites her readers to do the same. If you are looking for a series in the Heinleinian spirit, one that both entertains you and asks interesting questions, take a look at these novels.

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