Tuesday, October 24, 2017

March to the Stars, by David Weber and John Ringo

Today I'm looking at March to the Stars, the third book in the Empire of Man series by David Weber and John Ringo where Prince Roger and the survivors of Bravo Company manage to finally reach the spaceport with their band of Mardukan allies and start working on getting off of Marduk and back to Terra. I had expected this book to be a bit of a finale but it introduces some new plot threads and leaves a lot of things hanging which I presume will be wrapped up in We Few, the final book of the series. My opinion of this book is mixed for a number of reasons which I'll go into more detail.

In the broadest strokes, this book is really more of what we've seen before, just the details have changed. Roger and company arrive at a location on Marduk, there is some sort of obstacle in their way, usually a conflict among groups of Mardukans, and to continue on their way Roger and the marines have to fight their way through, leaving plenty of casualties behind them. Only in this case, they cross an ocean on ships, run into a sentient-sacrificing and cannibalism state religion, ally with some barbarians to fight the crazy religious nuts, opposed to last time when they joined up with the religious nuts to fight the barbarians, and finally, finally get to the space port.

I'll start with what I liked about the book, which is the pulp sci-fi action. As I've openly admitted plenty of times here on the blog, I am perfectly happy with the most ridiculous,  pulpy, sci-fi action you can conjure up for me. Spaceships, robot tanks, plasma weapons, I love the heck out of that stuff. And Weber and Ringo can write pulp sci-fi action. That's something they know how to do. So the result is good. And if you like the pulp stuff like I do, Weber and Ringo are good guys to go get your supply from and I highly recommend it. So that's the good part.

The bad part about the book is not one specific thing, it's a lot of little things that add up to some concerns on my part. The biggest was how everyone apparently couldn't figure out that the fire priests were sacrificing people and then eating them. (Granted, I didn't put together the eating people part, but I got the sacrificing people.) This is something that Weber and Ringo telegraphed pretty heavily with a lot of evidence. For example:

  1. The fire priests hold their ceremonies in secret, so the marines aren't told what's going on. Pretty suspicious from the get-go.
  2. Everyone in the city refuses to talk about the religion and getting any information beyond there being a fire god is basically impossible.
  3. During the religious ceremonies, everyone notices the smell of cooking meat, which means some sort of meat is being put on the fire, however, everyone also notices a lack of any livestock animals in the city at any point. The meat must be coming from somewhere but there are no animals to provide it.
  4. One of the only things the marines can learn about the religion is that there are servants of the fire god who are called to the temple for religious ceremonies, but the marines don't see a lot of the servants around the city.
  5. Most people emphatically do not want to be servants of the fire god.
  6. The city of the fire priests heavily engages in slavery, with a nearly constant demand for slaves despite no apparent labor shortage in the city.
I found myself screaming at the characters, ''THEY'RE SACRIFICING PEOPLE! HOW ARE YOU NOT PUTTING THIS TOGETHER?'' I literally went and asked several other people about this and all of them managed to connect the dots like I did. But for the characters in the book have to reboot their translation software to realize that servants of the fire god are actually sacrifices. Like, did they not think it might have been a euphemism? And the team actually has a historian/anthropologist/sociologist with them so she out of anybody should have been able to figure out what the heck was going on.

But that wasn't the only example. At one point in the book Roger makes a statement along the lines that when they get back home he intends to ask his mother to make him Duke of Marduk so he can rule the planet and help shepherd the Mardukans to civilization. It's a one-off line and Weber and Ringo spend basically no time talking about it after that, but it's very concerning to me personally because it feels incredibly tone deaf. We have Roger, a white man with blond hair and green eyes so he's super Aryan, making plans to bring the benefits of civilization to a backwards planet. The problem I have with this is it basically sounds like an argument for colonialism and imperialism.

Without going into a super lengthy explanation, during the height of colonialism in the nineteenth century European nations said it was their duty to bring the benefits of civilization to the ''backwards'', ''primitive'', and ''savage'' peoples, lifting them up to where they could govern themselves. In actuality, the European nations and states like Japan and the United States were just interested in extracting resources from their colonies and any infrastructure they established in their colonies were for the benefit of white colonials and/or the extraction of resources from the colonies. It is widely argued that colonialism and imperialism were not benevolent attempts to spread civilization but calculated moves to expand markets, resources, and power. So to have a white man in a sci-fi book say he plans to ''civilize'' the ''savages'' of Marduk smacks very heavily of colonialism. I don't think Weber and Ringo meant for this to be as tone deaf as I ended up taking it, but it's rather distressing to say the least.

There are a lot of other little issues like this but I'll end with retaking the spaceport towards the end of the book. It's revealed that the imperial colonial governor is not only corrupt but also incompetent and has left secret passages through the defenses around the spaceport so his messengers and smugglers can get in and out. Furthermore an imperial agent has infiltrated his staff and basically knows everything that's going on in the spaceport and is able to give information to the marines, as well as much-needed supplies. As a result, the spaceport, which has been this final goal the team has been working towards and has promised to be this super hard nut to crack at the end of the journey, ends up being a cakewalk. The marines walk through the holes in the defenses, take out the incredibly incompetent guards, capture the governor, and retake the port. It just feels like a massive anticlimax compared to how much Roger and Bravo Company have had to fight through just to get to this final challenge. I feel like Weber and Ringo built it up to be this huge challenge and it ends up being nothing. Of course, we then get with the whammy of a coup attempt back on Terra and now it becomes critically vital for Roger and company to get back to earth and rescue his mother.

Overall this book is okay. There isn't one major thing that is wrong with the book, but there are a lot of little things that add up and significantly detract from the book. In addition there are the classic Weber exposition dumps which can get a little tedious after a while, but I've grown to be used to those at least. If you like pulp sci-fi action, I'm sure you'll enjoy this, but I don't know if this is really the best pulp sci-fi I've read because of all the little issues.

- Kalpar

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