Thursday, June 30, 2011

Review - Primary Inversion by Catherine Asaro

Short review: The Rhon are all that stand between the Traders and dominance, and now the Traders have a Rhon of their own.
Saucony is Rhon
She must choose love or power
While war rages

Full review: Sauscony "Soz" Valdoria possesses a special power that grants her superior abilities as a combat pilot. Her enemies feed upon that power, and should they ever get their hands on her they will torture her because that enhances their enjoyment while they mentally and physically rape her. Soz discovers that the only suitable genetic mate for her is one of these enemies. Add in the complicating factor that she and her potential mate are both highly placed political figures in bitterly opposed nations. Throw in some fairly imaginative, but well-supported science speculation about faster than light travel and artificial intelligence and you end up with Catherine Asaro's Primary Inversion.

Primary Inversion was the first novel written by Catherine Asaro for her Skolian Empire series, which now spans thirteen novels. Sauscony Valdoria, is a Jagernaut, which means that she is also a telepath, as only telepaths have the mental abilities necessary to mentally meld with their squad mates and act as one during the chaotic and stuttering form of space combat imagined by Asaro. Among the Jagernauts she is a "Primary", essentially the equivalent of an admiral, but even more, she is an Imperial Princess, potentially in line to succeed to the throne of the Skolian Empire. She was also abducted and used as a "provider" by an Aristo some years prior to the events of the book while she was conducting a covert operation.

Which leads us to the Aristos, who are the implacable enemies of the Skolian Empire. Asaro lays out the components of telepathy in her fictional reality, with some humans possessing the ability to send out an empathic or telepathic signal, and others possessing the ability to receive such signals, and some few who are true telepaths - able to send and receive thoughts. Soz and her fellow Jagernauts, as well as a small number of others in the Skolian Empire fit this final category. But the ruling elite of the "Traders" (or more formally, the Eubian Concord), who are dubbed "Aristos" can only receive, and only are able to empathically perceive thoughts such as fear or pain which gives them pleasure. The Aristos covet empaths and telepaths as "providers", seeking to enslave, rape, and torture them to fill the need they have to experience the pain of others through their ability to receive emotions empathically. Aristos also have a stranglehold on political power in Eubian Concord, as all other inhabitants are regarded as slaves who exist to serve the whims of their masters.

Given this background, one would be unsurprised at Soz's bafflement when, while on leave on the neutral planet Delos, an Aristo approaches her and behaves civilly, and is even clumsily friendly. Circumstances lead Soz to conduct an impromptu raid on the mysterious Aristo's rented residence, where she learns an array of explosive secrets: the Highton is named Jabriol, is a critically important Eubian political figure, and also turns out, for plot specific reasons to quite possibly be the only man who Soz could have a satisfying personal relationship with, a fact obviously complicated by their respective political allegiances, but also by the fact that Soz had established a personal relationship with a member of her squad. But during her raid she also learns potentially explosive information about the Eubian plans for the inhabitants of the rebellious planet Tams. One interesting element of the story is that although the reader, seeing the world through Soz's eyes, is likely to consider her cause righteous and the Eubians to be truly evil, Jabriol is not so easily convinced, making a patriotic case for his nation.

After a brief detour through the Delosian legal system following her breaking and entering spree, during which she happens upon a mostly closeted telepath (an interesting wrinkle in Asaro's fictional future is that the neutral Allied worlds don't acknowledge the existence of telepathy), Soz sets about acting on the military intelligence she gleaned as a result of her late night foray. And this leads Asaro to throw in some more exposition, explaining how the much smaller Skolian Empire is able to resist Eubian might - through the reliance upon the psiberweb to allow for swifter than light communication. But this also reveals the Skolian weakness: the psiberweb is powered by the mental abilities of the Rhon, powerful telepaths all of the heretofore known examples of which are members of Soz' own immediate family, and who are nigh irreplaceable. In effect, the psiberweb is powered by the overpowering telepathic capabilities of a single family of telepaths, who consequently wield almost unassailable political power within the Skolian Empire, but whose powers also make them the most coveted prizes of the Eubian Aristos. The very power that makes the Rhon capable of providing the Skolian Empire with the means to resist the Eubian threat is what makes them such a tempting target for Eubian aggression. Because the Eubian's consign their telepaths to the lowest rung of society to serve as sex slaves for their elites, they have no hope of establishing a similar communications web of their own.

Nor can the Eubians create soldiers like the Jagernauts capable of communicating during the heat of space combat, as Asaro explains the mechanics of space travel in her imagined future by invoking imaginary numbers, and interesting mathematical concept that is given a central place in how the Skolians and Eubians manage to exceed the universal speed limit of the speed of light using a process called "inversion". But traveling faster than light comes with drawbacks, and these drawbacks can only be overcome by psions working together. But even the psiber edge enjoyed by the Skolians is not always enough, which is amply illustrated when Soz leads her squad into a desperate battle with Trader forces in the space over the planet Tams with millions of lives at stake. A battle that also results in some fairly devastating personal consequences for Soz.

Which leads to the second portion of the book in which Soz is sent to recuperate from her ordeal by teaching at the military academy on the planet Forshires. And this "down time" allows Asaro to explore the psychological consequences of the enormous amounts of stress she has piled upon her heroine. As one might guess, as a former provider and an empath who has been required by circumstances to kill and who has seen her own squad mates maimed and killed, Soz is a mess. It is in this section where Asaro seriously focuses on what her books are known for - melding strong science fiction with romance, as Soz takes halting steps towards establishing a relationship with a lover to replace the relationship smashed by the events of the first section of the book. It is also in this section that we meet the various members of Soz's family, including her imposing brother Kurj, the Imperator of Skolia. And it is in this portion of the book that Asaro reveals that she isn't going to let her heroes off the hook - an inhabitant of Forshires that Soz comes across suggests that the Skolian Empire may not be as altogether benevolent as Soz believes, and makes a strong argument for that position. And Kurj's actions with respect to a pretty young hospital worker seem to show a disturbing parallel to the behavior of Aristos. Granted, he isn't going to torture her, but he doesn't seem to care that her desires might or might not coincide with his own, nor does he care about the consequences his actions have upon her. The point is made fairly subtly, but it seems that Kurj may not be all that different from those he despises. And that the Skolian Empire may not be all that much better of an option than the Eubian Concord.

All of this builds to a head in the third section of the book as political obligations and personal desires collide - and Soz is forced to choose between her patriotism and ambition and what may be her lone chance at finding a compatible life partner. In effect, Soz must choose between her country and her lover, and whichever choice she makes will have potentially explosive consequences. Once again, Asaro doesn't let her heroine off the hook with an easy choice, or an easy path to the choice she makes. But the choice she makes, though difficult to make, seems natural when made. And then Asaro turns the story from an exploration of Soz's emotions and ramps up the intrigue and action to a high pitch as Soz tries to make her choice reality. In the end, she gets help from an almost entirely unexpected source (actually two fairly unexpected sources), and ends up with an ending that, while not exactly perfect, is at least good enough for Soz to live with.

In the end, Primary Inversion turns out to mean something different than one would have thought at the outset of the novel, being more of a descriptive play on words than a description of a fictional faster-than-light technology. This was Catherine Asaro's first published novel, and it is clear that she hit the ground running. Asaro created two interesting opposed camps, and despite the temptation to make the good guys all good, she didn't shy away from the implications of having an elite few possess such unique powers that they also control the levers of politics, and how this would be resented (unlike, for example, the Lensman universe, where most people seem happy to have a super powered elite run the show). Although it seems a bit mystifying why the Traders would exalt what seems to be a genetic defect as a symbol of their rule, it does make the source of the conflict clear, and gives what could have been a bland set of wooden villains a clear motivation for their perifdy. With a strong character driven story, a little bit of romance and intrigue all backed by well thought-out science fiction elements placed in an interesting setting, Asaro's story delivers an enjoyable read. As a bonus, the novel has enough loose ends and interesting wrinkles to provide fodder for a number of interesting stories to follow.

Subsequent book in the series: Catch the Lightning

1996 Locus Award Nominees

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