Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Shield, by Peter Evan Jones

I want to begin this review by stating that I really did not enjoy this book so my review is going to be largely negative. However, I'm going to try and refrain from trashing this book in a bile-filled rant and instead try to focus on the specific elements that I did not care for in this novel. I hope that all of my readers will bear with me and understand my position.

The overall plot of The Shield follows an alternate history where during a state visit of the President of the United States to Saudi Arabia in 2009 a nuclear bomb is set off. This act is initially blamed on a lone terrorist, but it was only a prelude to dozens of atomic bombs being set off in key cities around the world. Eventually the major world powers engage in a full-out war using nuclear and conventional weapons. The resulting death toll for humans is devastating and a world population in the billions can now be measured in the thousands. Eventually the surviving humans manage to rebuild society and embrace a religion centered around the ideals of peace and unity. Although they maintain an Earth Defense Force and weapons research program, the EDF is little more than glorified scientists. The only real military force the humans have left is the hundred-strong group of Shields, warriors trained from birth to be the protectors of the Senate and its ideals.

The Shields really are the only thing the humans of post-War Earth have resembling actual soldiers, however many people question if the Shields are really needed at all. The plot of the book, however, focuses on the arrival of an alien probe approaching the human outpost on Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter. The prime minister and two senators are selected as a delegation to go meet the probe when it arrives at Europa. While the probe is sending out a message of peace and goodwill a Shield escort is brought along anyway, including the newly-promoted First Shield Grayson, tasked with protecting the prime minister. It was at this point in the book I already predicted the next step in the plot, and some of my more genre-savvy readers have probably already guessed it as well. Humanity has become an entire civilization centered around the ideals of peace and maintains only a very small corps of actual fighters. Suddenly, an alien ship appears in our solar system, proclaiming to be peaceful and on a goodwill mission. Oh no! The aliens are hostile and want to take over our solar system! Ahhhhhhh! 

I hope you'll excuse my flippant behavior but I honestly saw it coming a mile away. The rest of the book revolves around Grayson gathering and leading the human survivors, teaching them how to fight, and discovering that the alien attack might have been planned a long time ago. The aliens, referred to the humans as Diggers, managed to attack not only the human base at Europa but also Mars, Earth, and the human bases in space simultaneously. Clearly the aliens had been planning this attack for a very long time and once the token human resistance is crushed the Diggers begin using the surviving humans on Earth as slave labor, stripping the planet of resources. And could this be an interesting plot? Yes, certainly, but the way that Jones writes it is just kind of...dull. And part of that might be that I don't care for alien invasions in book form. I liked Independence Day, I liked Signs (so sue me), and for some reason for me alien invasions work really well in movie form. However, Jones has a tendency to be extremely verbose in The Shield and a lot of the plot trods the same ground that alien invasions have trod since War of the Worlds. The only aspect I find different in this case is humanity's embrace of peace which gives us very few weapons to fight the alien invasion, rather than humanity discovering that their weapons have no effect on the extraterrestrial invaders. 

I actually want to spend a little bit of time talking about the world that Jones has created and how I found it to be just damn creepy. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm all in favor of peace. If given the choice of living in the grim darkness of the forty-first millennium where there is only war or peace, I'd definitely pick peace. If nothing else it means I won't get eaten by Tyranids. Probably. However the post-War society on earth has all these little elements that hint something is not right. For example, all of humanity's population is concentrated in thirteen cities and all but two of them have large walls which are explicitly there to keep the population inside the cities and protect the earth from urban sprawl. Also, all of their cities are described as being made of concrete and steel and maybe that's all that survived the Digger attack but those materials seem to dominate this apparently peaceful and in-tune with nature society. The large walls to keep the population inside as well as their choice of building materials makes me wonder if humanity's cities are really nothing more than glorified prisons. On top of that Jones states that humans have embraced the religion of peace so much that there's very little crime anymore and most of it is non-violent offenses. It's at that point I'm wondering what the government is putting in the water to make the people so complacent. Maybe I'm just paranoid but this behavior seems kind of creepy to me. 

Another issue Jones seems to have in his book is numbers, and I mean that in a couple of ways. The first problem I noticed is that numbers get switched around a couple of times. An M83 rifle becomes an M82, or a three hour flight suddenly becomes a two hour flight. Small nit-picks but consistent enough that I began looking at other, larger details in the book. For example, as I mentioned there is a corps of one hundred Shields to protect the Senate and Prime Minister and it was implied that there were two Shields constantly assigned to each senator. So simple math I assumed there'd be fifty members of the Senate including the Prime Minister and so the bodyguard of only six Shields would be all that could be spared to protect the Prime Minister and two senators. Later in the book, however, it's revealed that the senate consisted of about seven or eight guys. Total. So basically the people of Earth sent one third of their government off to meet an alien probe and only sent six bodyguards along with them. I don't care how peaceful your society has become, on something as high profile as this I'd expect at least twenty or thirty Shields. Granted, I'm speaking with the benefit of hindsight, but even the President doesn't travel with only two Secret Service agents.

Another major issue I had with this book was the location of their population centers. One of the cities humanity created after the war was Delhi, which is explicitly stated to be based upon the ruins of the Indian city of the same name. After doing some brief research I discovered that New Delhi, the current Indian capital, is actually a sub-section of the larger city of Delhi. This presents a bit of a problem because India, along with their long-time enemy Pakistan, are two nations known to possess nuclear weapons and I'm pretty sure Delhi would be hit by an atomic bomb at some point. Even if most of the fallout radiation had been cleaned up by the the time people had rebuilt the city I'm left asking why they'd even bother building there. The same statement goes for cities like Brittania (founded on the ruins of Paris) and Petersburg, (I assume founded on the ruins of St. Petersburg, Russia.) The book has already explicitly stated that the majority of survivors were either on ships during the war or on small, out of the way islands. Probably most of those people would have no reason to rebuild an entire city from scratch, especially if they had never lived there. Furthermore, if the goal of the new world government was to keep the human population from expanding so the earth had time to recover, wouldn't it be wiser to keep the human population concentrated on islands rather than putting them on huge continents with lots of tempting room to expand? Maybe I'm overthinking this story but these are questions I'm left asking. 

In addition none of the characters are particularly interesting or for that matter memorable. I suppose that First Shield Grayson counts as a main character, but we are explicitly told that First Shield Grayson had most of his emotions beaten out of him from his thirty years of training as a Shield which makes him nearly impossible to identify with as a character. Even when he goes through emotions it's revenge or anger. The rest of the cast I sort of dimly remember as a bunch of people who have had their entire existence destroyed by an alien invasion and are trying to cope in a world now dominated by violence. And at multiple points we're told the human situation is entirely hopeless because they simply do not have enough weapons to drive off the reduced Digger garrison on Earth. Even if the humans managed to defeat all the Diggers on Earth, the main Digger force would probably notice the lack of resources coming from Earth and just come back to quash the human rebellion. At this point I'm just expecting the humans to have to rely on the common cold to kill the Diggers for them, making this a very stereotyped alien invasion. 

Ultimately this book doesn't explore any ideas that haven't been done in science fiction before and ends with a cliff-hanger. Unfortunately I can't be bothered to care about the characters or their plight enough to want to read the next book from Jones and expect some eleventh-hour deus ex machina to save them all in the end. I feel like the book kind of hinted that the Diggers had influenced human society from the shadows to make the humans easier to overpower, but I don't even know if that was intentional on the part of the author. I recommend everyone just ignore this book and if you really want an alien invasion go read something else. 

- Kalpar 

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