Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Road to Damascus, by John Ringo & Linda Evans

This week I'm tackling another Bolo book, but one which I had heard rumors of bad things beforehand and found myself rather worried about reading it in the first place. The Road to Damascus is cowritten by John Ringo and Linda Evans. Now, Evans has appeared on this blog before as a contributor to Bolo stories, but Ringo so far has not. From what I've been able to gather, Ringo has some fairly strong conservative political opinions which slip into some of his books, Road to Damascus included. In addition, this book clocks in at about 750 pages, nearly twice as long as any other single Bolo book in the series, which gave me serious apprehensions about going into this book. I will say that in the end it didn't turn out as bad as I thought it would be, but it still comes across to me as a little bit dumb.

Plot wise this book is also set in the days of the Final War between the Terran Concordiat and the Melconian Empire, but in this case on the distant planet of Jefferson. Located on the border between humanity's on-again off-again enemy the Deng, Jefferson merits the strategic investment of a Bolo for its protection. However, due to its remote location from the major battlefronts of the escalating Melconian War, all the Concordiat can spare is a practically antique Mark XX Bolo named Lonesome Son, and his commander Major Simon Krushtinov. Sonny and his commander prove his worth rather quickly, defeating a Deng incursion on Jefferson in the space of a few days, but at the cost of most of Jefferson's infrastructure. (This all happens within the first hundred pages, by the by.) The majority of the book is focused on the growth of a political movement known as POPPA that advocates economic and social equality for all, decreased military spending, and environmental protection. The book then follows POPPA's ascent to power, dramatic restructuring of Jefferson's social and economic fabric, and then ultimately a revolution. Deprived of his commander, Sonny becomes a tool of the increasingly corrupt POPPA regime, utilized in quashing protests and rebellions, until he finally has a change of heart at the very end of the book and joins the side of the rebels in the last ten pages. And then the book...ends. Just like that.

My apprehensions about this book were centered around Ringo's... I'll call it an attempt at political commentary which had been described to me in other reviews as strongly pro-conservative and anti-liberal. (Under current American definitions of the terms anyway.) The reason that I call it an attempt at political commentary, with some space ships and a Bolo thrown in, is that the bad guys of POPPA are never remotely anything like the Democratic party, to the point where it's practically political satire more than anything else. Towards the beginning of the book POPPA wants to basically abolish the military, enforce stronger environmental protection measures on Jefferson, and remove government investment in the reconstruction of Jefferson's agricultural and industrial economies. The military abolition looks silly simply because there's still a very real threat of Deng invasion. (And Jefferson had maintained a military despite experiencing roughly a century of peace.) The government investment in agriculture and industry just comes across as stupid, and the heroic characters flat out say as much, because people are still rebuilding from the Deng invasion, yet no one makes an effort to try and convince the masses otherwise. Like the people getting taken in by POPPA are just too stupid to understand the truth. Finally the environmental protection measures, which remain a sort of undercurrent through the book, are really an apples to oranges comparison. Jefferson is a planet with a population of ten million people, sparsely settled, and with large areas of land still not under human habitation. While it makes sense to want to protect some of that unsettled land for future generations, it's just plain dumb to try and return already terraformed land into Jeffersonian wilderness because, hey, we need that to live on. Furthermore, Jefferson isn't the only planet with humans on it in the neighborhood, nevermind the galaxy. Running out of resources isn't too much of a problem. However, in real life we have a population of over six billion on one planet with an environment that appears to be heating up considerably and an ultimately finite amount of resources. It makes sense on Earth to return unproductive and unprofitable farms back into wilderness, as some people have done, to help preserve species with less and less space to live. As a Take That to environmentalism, Road to Damascus simply doesn't work.

From there POPPA goes directly into the nightmares of pretty much any conservative in the United States and fails to reflect American politics whatsoever. A system of childhood indoctrination begins with government-mandated daycare centers, regular inspections by government agents to make sure parents are "appropriately" caring for their children with the threat of losing their children to a foster care system, increasing regulation and restriction of firearm ownership, and widespread unemployment subsistence benefits which more and more people end up on due to a slowly collapsing economy. And said "Subbies" are left with nothing better to do but create more parasites on the government treasury. Certainly what Fox News claims is happening in the United States, but again, in no way a reflection of reality. Ringo then starts going into Soviet and Chinese agricultural collectivism where farms are taken over by the government, farmers are demonized as profiteering off of high food prices and hoarding food, and farmers are forced to work a minimum of fifty hours on state-run collective farms. Eventually a police state is established with its own paramilitary arm, any and all forms of dissent are brutally crushed, and work camps are established to hold the growing number of convicts. Pretty much every terrifying and awful thing gets thrown in until POPPA goes full-blown Nazi with actual, literal death camps, a "final solution" genocide, and plans to expand their regime to other planets. The result is like a slippery slope argument that just comes across as dumb more than anything like an actual commentary on American politics.

Ultimately the book just seems to play out like persecution porn for conservatives. I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that in real life conservatives are probably one of the least-persecuted groups in the United States. In fact, I think in some cases the conservatives are often the persecutors. However, nothing stirs up righteous indignation more than a good persecution story, which is why Fox News is still around. The Road to Damascus just reads as a story where dangerous, out-of-control liberals are out to completely ruin the world and it's only through the resistance of brave, gun-toting conservatives that the world is saved. There's even an Easy Evangelism moment where one of the characters slaps her POPPA-brainwashed daughter and shouts how everything's wrong with POPPA and her daughter pretty much instantly believes her. I'm almost left wondering who the heck this book is meant for because it's got all the traces of persecution porn, but I don't know how many conservatives are going to pick up a book about robot tanks.

Well ostensibly about robot tanks. The reviews that I had looked at before reading this had also mentioned that Sonny the Bolo was barely in the book. I feel like he's certainly in it enough to be a main character, but he doesn't seem to do terribly much. He does an excellent job of ending the Deng incursion on Jefferson, but spends most of the book sitting on his shiny behind wondering why anyone would listen to POPPA's demonstrably false manifesto and why POPPA would take actions which will destroy the planet's economy in six point seven years or so. Sonny feels no obligation to inform anyone of these facts (although they probably wouldn't listen anyway) and when he does get out of the maintenance depot, whether to crush some protestors in the streets, literally, or fight against some rebels, he comes across as not terribly clever. Now, there might be some leeway since he's a Mark XX Bolo and therefore of the first types to be fully sentient, but it's explicitly stated that Sonny's as good as a Mark XXIV or XXV because of his century of field experience to call on. But time and again he keeps getting outsmarted by the rebels and stumbles into their traps, making you seriously doubt his effectiveness as a Bolo. I think the title, The Road to Damascus, is supposed to be a reference to Sonny's ultimate conversion to the rebel cause because he realizes POPPA was committing genocide and simply "following orders" isn't good enough, but while we get to see Paul's work after his conversion on the road to Damascus, the book ends right after Sonny's conversion. It's ultimately very disappointing.

Finally, for a book that's nearly 800 pages, Ringo somehow manages to make me want him to show rather than tell. Important events are often described to the reader, rather than actually happening. For example when one of the main characters is assumed dead, the eulogy which practically canonizes her as a saint of the farmers resisting POPPA, it's described as incredibly moving instead of actually being written. There are dozens of examples like this throughout the book and while some exist to let the horrors of POPPA be left to the reader's imagination, it feels just plain lazy most of the time. In addition, the book has quite a few time jumps, which are necessary to an extent because the book's set over twenty years, but this feeds back into the telling instead of showing where we're told characters have developed over time instead of getting to see that development for ourselves. In addition, the book is divided into four parts, which do not in any way correspond with any developments in the book. It reads like one big long novel instead of a story told in four acts. It just further adds to the frustration with the book when it's already clearly persecution porn.

To its credit, the book is at least readable through the first five hundred pages or so. It wasn't until I got towards the end that I just wanted the book to be over already. But for the most part, this is probably the one Bolo book you can probably safely skip. As I've said in other reviews, when the Bolo series tries to talk about bigger issues it always seems to fall incredibly short. The Road to Damascus is no exception. It feels like an attempt at political commentary that's really conservative persecution porn with a Bolo thrown in from time to time. It's certainly proof I'm dumb enough to read anything with spaceships in it, but nowhere close to the fun, gripping, pulp action that made me fall in love with the Bolo series in the first place. Definitely not worth your time and can be safely skipped.

- Kalpar

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