Vernor Vinge's latest novel, The Peace War, is one of the best of the novels that were nominated for the 1985 Prometheus Award. A story of scientists fighting against an anti-technological tyranny; it is not only well written, but it is also plausible and exciting. Even better, the cultures portrayed in this near future are well thought out and rich with detail; the science is absorbing and authentic.
For all of The Peace War's virtues, however, the book's conclusion is a crushing disappointment. After winning the war against "The Authority" the tinkers (scientists) hope to recreate the participatory democracy of the late 20th century U.S.
In a few ways this goal would be a step up from their lives under a government that allows no technological advances. In many other ways they were freer under the Authority than they could have been under Uncle Sam. The Authority levied no taxes, drafted no sons, granted no licenses (nor withheld the grants), and printed no money.
Since Vinge's book True Names led me to believe that he thought all governments were a jungle of inept bureaucracy, I had much higher hopes for the aspirations of his characters.
If The Peace War is one of the best of the nominated novels—even one of the best of the finalists-what hope do we have for this year's Prometheus Award? To be blunt, very little.
Certainly all of the finalists nod more than once toward freedom. All of them are competently written with plots that are worth reading. But are any worth our award?
Gordon Dickson's The Final Encyclopedia might have deserved the award if it had lived up to the blurb Ben Bova erroneously bestowed on it: "A fitting climax to the grandest epic in the history of SF." A grand epic it is; a climax it isn't. Spanning decades, touching the lives of countless characters, the story of a man who tries, almost single-handedly, to save humanity from a foe whose "god is stasis" Encyclopedia is grand indeed. But its lack of an adequate conclusion leaves the reader sniffing around the last chapter like a worried hound looking for a lost trail, an ending, some satisfaction.
This is not a novel, this is part of a novel, even if it is 685 pages long. (The last of the Childe Cycle series is already out I understand.)
Perhaps in a few years someone will nominate the entire Childe Cycle for a Hall of Fame award. Dickson's Dorsai characters are definite anarchists; unfortunately, this book cannot stand on its own.
In the Fall, 1984 issue of Prometheus I reviewed a book that is able to stand on its own: Lee Correy's Manna. But as I said then, though it has a very libertarian plot and the anarchist culture is interesting, the book is basically a shootem-up with wooden characters who either lack depth or haven't time to show it.
L. Neil Smith's latest, Tom Paine Maru, is fun (it was reviewed too harshly I think, by Neal Wilgus in our Winter, 1985 issue), but it isn't Smith's best work. It's not difficult to see why F. Paul Wilson's The Tomb was nominated. It too, is competently written and also is a suitably frightening horror story. Its hero, Repairman Jack, is a fixer, a man entirely outside bureaucracy's clutches and outside the law as well. Because he doesn't exist in a legal sense he is admirably suited for his vocation. Usually for money, but sometimes for free, Jack takes care, like Charles Bronson, of perpetrators of injustice.
Vengeance is popular right now: and in this sense, Repairman Jack is a hero, though a brutal one. At least his victims exceed him in brutality and deserve what they get. Would anyone cry if Mengele had been handed over to his "patients"? But should we encourage vengeance as an Ideal? Shouldn't we insist on less brutal means of compensation, not exactly turning the other cheek-we have no right to demand forgiveness from the victims of inhuman crimes—but a restraint of the capacity for violence in ourselves and others.
All advisory members must ask themselves whether any of these books deserves to win the award this year.
Are a fast-paced story and a libertarian plot enough? Should a book without an ending receive the award? Do any of these books lift your spirits, make you want to sing, or otherwise impress the hell out of you? Should you vote instead for a favorite libertarian candidate: None of the Above?
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