Thursday, August 4, 2011

Review - The Last Hawk by Catherine Asaro

Short review: Another heir to the Skolian Empire gets lost and finds Rhon where no one thought to look before.

Crashing on Coba
Women are in charge, men play dice
Shall we play some quis?

Full review: In the third book of the Skolian Saga, Catherine Asaro takes up the story of Kelric, the youngest brother of Sauscony from Primary Inversion, and the uncle of Althor from Catch the Lightning. Like all the other members of his family that we have seen who are not members of the Triad that power the Psiberweb, Kelric is a cybernetically enhanced Jagernaut, and it is this profession that leads him to crash land his critically damaged starship on the restricted planet of Coba, leading to decades of exile among a tradition bound matriarchal society that has forgotten most of what it once knew. And Kelric acts as a wild card, upsetting the careful balance of Coban politics and driving what was a stable albeit primitive and reactionary culture to the edge of self-destruction.

As The Last Hawk opens as Kelric, Jagernaut, Rhon telepath, and youngest member of the Imperial family of the Skolian Imperialate, finds himself in a dying ship following an battle against the forces of the Eubian Concord. Desperate to find a planet to set his disintegrating spacecraft down upon, he sets course for nearby Coba. Unfortunately, Coba is a restricted world, off-limits for reasons that are not entirely clear. No matter the reason, Kelric is in dire enough straits that he simply doesn't care and heads there anyway, which results in a sharp change of course for both his life, and the lives of most of the inhabitants of Coba.

Because Coba is restricted due to a deception played by the inhabitants upon the Imperial representatives who visited the planet years before. Unwilling to sacrifice their independence and become part of the Skolian Imperialate, the inhabitants convinced the Imperial emissaries that there was some sort of danger on their planet and earned restricted status, resulting in the Imperial presence being confined to a single isolated space port. And this background element raises some questions - how does this comparatively primitive world manage to acquire their information about the nature of the Skolian Imperialate? One also wonders how they managed to acquire this information quickly enough to organize a planet-wide conspiracy sufficient to fool a more technologically advanced civilization replete with telepaths. The asymmetry of information - with the primitive Cobans apparently well-informed about Imperial politics, but the Imperialate in the dark about Coba, seems somewhat implausible, and is unexplained in this volume. And because Kelric is in the line of succession to the Imperial throne, a fact that the Cobans discover quite swiftly, he is not permitted to travel to the spaceport despite serious injuries that require off-world medicine to correct, and is held instead as a somewhat coddled prisoner. Kelric's situation becomes even more dire when it becomes apparent that the Coban environment is slowly poisoning him.

As one might expect, Kelric attempts to break free of his imprisonment, which inexplicably seems to surprise his captors who apparently expected him to accept being held against his will with equanimity. This may be due to the fact that Coban society is a culturally rigid matriarchy, and thus being held in splendidly comfortable captivity seems reasonable to the powerful women of Coba. And in the course of his escape attempt, Kelric's fundamental humanity results in his taking an ultimately self-destructive course of action to save the lives of his captors. Because his captors don't understand him at all, or understand what he did, they condemn him to a lifetime of imprisonment in their penal colony.

But even this turns out to be a temporary condition. Because it turns out that Kelric is a genius at the game of quis. This sounds less impressive than it actually is supposed to be, because quis means everything on Coba. Politics, economics, science, and every other aspect of life is centered on, and dictated by quis. Disputes between rival estates are settled by quis matches. The culture of entire cities can be affected by the patterns embedded in the quis played by its inhabitants. The emotional states and personal histories of the participants are revealed in their quis patterns. And, eventually, it becomes apparent that quis can be used to uncover the theoretical underpinnings of scientific thought and guide the development of engineering applications based on those principles. In short, quis is a universal language that can be used for anything, and is the underlying framework upon which Coban society is built.

What is strange is that quis underlays the matriarchal society of Coba, but it is formulated primarily by men because each estate (which is the basic political unit on Coba) has a Calanya populated by men kept in a splendid cage cloistered from the outside world. These men, called Calani, are charged solely with playing quis to try to create patterns that can be inserted into "wild" quis that would prove advantageous to the estate they are sworn to serve. And members of the Calani can only be men. Indeed, the husband of the manager of each estate must, by tradition, be chosen from the ranks of her Calani. Consequently, each estate is dependent upon men who are, as a class, treated as second class citizens. Coba is technically run by women, but apparently guided by small cliques of pampered men.

This dichotomy seems like it would be prime real estate for exploration, but it seems to be mostly overlooked in this book. The first element that hampers examining this is the blandness of the reverse sexism of Coban society. Coban matriarchal sexism is just standard patriarchal sexism turned around. Men have fewer rights. Men are expected to be chaste. Women are expected to be sexually aggressive. Men wear sexy clothes, or in some parts of the world, men must wear the equivalent of the hijab. Just imagine some element of sexism on Earth and reverse it, and you will have a good idea of sexism on Coba. This creates an uncomfortable environment for Kelric to adjust to, as a man used to a more male dominated society, but it is only mildly interesting as a story element in itself. Flipping the sexism in a story isn't that much more interesting than including standard sexism in a story. And as one might expect, a number of men in the story chafe at their devalued status, but the Calani who object to being treated this way don't think to use their ability to affect the language of quis to plant the ideas of equality, and the one who does only does so in the most half-hearted way possible. The one interesting part of the reverse sexism story seems to be that the men who are ostensibly subservient in this system don't want it changed because they prefer it to equality, which if reversed would be a somewhat surprising commentary on the subjugation of women.

But there are other things about the quis culture that seem to make little sense that go more or less unexamined in the book. Or elements that at least point to Coban culture unintentionally hamstringing itself. First off, the Calani are sworn to never read anything, for fear that they would contaminate their quis with unoriginal ideas. And the ranking of a particular Calani is determined by how many different estates he has worked for. This is supposedly because they can learn quis from different sources and add what they learned elsewhere to their new Calanya's version of quis. So a "first-degree" quis player has been in one Calanya, a "second-degree" in two, and so on. Third-degrees are rare, and fourth-degrees are almost non-extant. Fifth and sixth-degrees are unheard of. But if cross-pollination of ideas makes a Calani better at what he does, why shut out all other forms of knowledge? (One also has to question whether moving from Calanya to Calanya would actually make a Calani better at quis: this is a little like saying that a math professor who went from Northwestern to Tufts to Oberlin would become a better math professor at each stop, a proposition that seems dubious). As it turns out, the secrets of chemistry, physics, and the other sciences are contained in quis, and it seems relatively obvious that if we isolated scientists into small cliques, prevented them from studying the work of their predecessors, and only allowed them to see the work of their contemporaries via second-hand patterns in a game, that the progress of science would be seriously hampered. And that is exactly what happens on Coba. Because quis serves as both a political tool and a source of scientific knowledge, on Coba the two are inextricably intertwined, preventing the development of Coban knowledge. It seems that Asaro is subtly saying that politics and science make poor bedfellows, and also subtly making a point about the inherently rigid nature of Coban culture.

And this is made apparent once Kelric's influence on Coba starts to be seen. First placed in the Dahl Calanya, then after a period of imprisonment into the Haka Calanya, then to the Bahlva Calanya, the Miesa Calanya, the Varz Calanya, and finally in the Karn Calanya, Kelric's innate skill at quis coupled with his hitherto unheard of status as a sixth-degree Calani disturbs the careful balance of Coban politics and culture. But some elements of the story just don't seem to add up. Kelric perfects his skills at quis on his own while kept in solitary imprisonment by a vindictive rogue jailer, but those who play against him are still able to read his patterns clearly. But if his patterns have been developed without reference to the outside world, using rules he made up by himself, how are others able to read them? As described, quis seems to be a consensus derived language of patterns, which makes it strange that a set of patterns derived independent of the consensus would be so easily read. In any event, Kelric's influence seems to drive Coban science into overdrive while at the same time destabilizing Coban politics, in part due to his mere presence as the most influential quis player on the planet and apparently, most sexually desirable male.

And because this is a Catherine Asaro book, the romance is a critical element of the story. Kelric is seen as exotically beautiful by every one of the most powerful women of Coba, and the story for the most part involves his being passed from one powerful woman to another in brokered deals, sometimes for his quis abilities and sometimes for his sexual attractiveness. And in a pattern that has emerged in the first few books of the series, Kelric finds a heretofore unknown pocket of people carrying the Rhon telepath genes, and manages to have children with two of them, expanding the range of genetic variation available to prevent further inbreeding of the Imperial family. After his one attempt at escape, Kelric involuntarily travels about Coba, passed from estate to estate and claimed by various women, some willingly and some not. Through it all, Kelric seems to adopt a passive role, allowing events to take control of him. Despite resenting more than one of the situations he finds himself in, Kelric doesn't take any action or use his mounting influence in quis to try to better his own position except indirectly by accidentally destabilizing the entire planet and sparking a continent-wide war.

Using quis as a metaphor for war, politics, and science is an interesting idea. Adding in a rigid matriarchy in which men are second class citizens is a modestly interesting wrinkle. At this point, having a third member of the Imperial family find yet another undiscovered population that carries the vanishingly rare Rhon genes is starting to seem a bit too serendipitous. If this continues to happen, the series will start to move from improbability to implausibility on that front. The novel's exploration of Coban culture and politics is interesting, but Kelric's impassive nature seems odd for someone who is supposed to have been a highly trained space combat pilot and the scion of a family that presides over an interstellar empire. Even so, the interpersonal relationships established in the novel, which seem to turn full circle, make for a compelling story.

Previous book in the series: Catch the Lightning
Subsequent book in the series: The Radiant Seas

1999 Nebula Award Nominees

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