Tuesday, October 3, 2017

March to the Sea, by David Weber & John Ringo

Today I'm looking at the second book in the Empire of Man series, March to the Sea, which follows Prince Roger and the dwindling survivors of his marine bodyguard as they cross a mountain range and make the long trek towards the ocean, where hopefully they can get passage on ships that will take them to the continent with Marduk's only spaceport and get Roger safely back to Terra. However, since nothing else about this trip has gone smoothly it should be no surprise that this portion of their journey is fraught with difficulty as well.

On the other side of the mountains the Bronze Battalion discovers that a collection of nomadic tribes called the Boman have joined together into a mighty warhost and are systematically destroying every city as part of a campaign of revenge against the despot of Sindi. If they're going to get to the ocean, they're going to have to pass right through the ongoing Boman invasion. And if they want help crossing the ocean, they're going to have to save the cities targeted by the Boman as well.

I think my biggest complaint about this book is it really could have been divided into two separate books, and I'm actually a little surprised that it wasn't. There are two distinct halves to the book which are honestly the same storyline repeated, at least in very broad terms. In both books the marines arrive at a city-state which is under imminent attack by the Boman and they are utterly unprepared to defend themselves. The marines agree to help train an army for the city-states in exchange for help in getting to their final objective of the starport. Racing against time, the marines introduce new military technologies to the Mardukans and manage to create semi-professional armies. They then engage the Boman and through a combination of their newly trained and equipped allies, as well as the marines' insanely advanced technology, they manage to win a crushing victory against the Boman. Perhaps at great cost, but the Boman shall bother the people of the city-states no more.

So I honestly feel that this could have been split into two books instead of being crammed into one because it feels like the book repeats itself. Although that might not have been a good thing because then you'd have two books that would be very similar instead of one book with similar halves. I just kind of wish that Weber and Ringo had managed to come up with a slightly, slightly different storyline for one half of their book instead. I did find it really boring when the marines were complaining about supply bottlenecks, again, which were preventing them from getting the troop mix they really wanted.

I'm tempted to go into the politics of this book but I'm hesitant for a few reasons. First, it's not really a major part of the book. Most of the book is spent talking about the problems training and equipping an army in a short amount of time and then fighting the Boman. When the characters comment on the political structures of Mardukan societies it's usually little more beyond, ''Theocracies don't like change.'' or ''Our constitutional monarchy is great.'' So it's not like it's even a full argument for me to analyze, refute, or support. Plus, I'm trying to not complain about books having politics I don't like because while I may not like the politics, the author has every right to put them in there. I may disagree, but the book can still have redeeming qualities.

And it's the same with the pro-imperialism argument made by Roger. He says that some people think humanity shouldn't interfere with alien planets that haven't developed interstellar flight because it could affect their culture and identity. Roger counters by saying that the Empire of Man has lots of benefits to bring alien races like the Mardukans who are at a lower technology level. He specifically mentions ending malnutrition and bringing adequate dental care just as examples, but the benefits could be even greater. The humans of course also introduce pike warfare, breech-loading rifles and artillery, and new tactics which revolutionize warfare on Marduk.

Honestly, this is a really complicated question and if any of the dozens of episodes of Star Trek with the Prime Directive are any indication, it's not an easy one. Everyone seems perfectly fine with not mucking about with pre-warp technology civilizations in the abstract and it certainly seems like a fine idea, but when it comes down to the specific people have a really hard time letting a species die because of a supervolcano eruption which they can easily prevent with some graviton particle beams or what have you. So obviously there is some good to be had by bringing the benefits of advanced technology to less developed areas. Even on our own planet I think it's safe to say people across the globe benefit from modern dentistry regardless of where they are, just to stick with the dental example.

But I think we need to also recognize that there are also disadvantages which we may still not be able to fully understand. And we can look at our own history when Europeans came in contact with native peoples in the Americas and Australia. The Europeans brought steel, firearms, livestock, new methods of agriculture, printing presses, just to name a few of the technologies. However contact with Europeans also introduced disease and alcohol, economic exploitation of native peoples and their land, war, social and economic marginalization, attempts at cultural destruction, and a situation where life is still pretty bad for a lot of native people into the twenty-first century. And considering the marines are mostly introducing military technologies which promise to dramatically shift the balance of power on Marduk, I'm hesitant to say this is entirely a good thing.

Unfortunately Weber and Ringo never really get into a detailed exploration of these issues. It's really mentioned once and dropped once again. But I feel like this is still important enough that once it's been brought up we really can't ignore it. Maybe the other two books will be able to go into more detail about these questions, but that remains to be seen.

As military sci-fi fiction I think this is pretty good, especially if you put aside some of the moral questions for a minute anyway. It does get really repetitive because it's the same plot recycled twice in the same book, more or less, but there are lots of good moments.

- Kalpar

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