Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Review - Progenitor: Palak and the Sky Gods by Patrick T. German

Short review: Two technologically advanced races battle in the Contest to decide disputes between them. Palak lives on a primitive planet ignorant of the forces around him, until one day he is pulled into the conflict.

After the contest
Time to strip mine Medias
Let's get to fighting!

Disclosure: I received this book as a review copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Progenitor: Palak and the Sky Gods is a science fiction novel that has everything except for individually differentiated characters. Set on the primitive planet Medias that coveted by the technologically advanced Sucobers and Plamanics (albeit for different reasons), the story follows several native Median creatures as they deal with the changes to their world. The story is vast in scope, as the Sucobers and Plamanics both have galaxy-spanning interests, and at the same time extremely intimate in flavor, as Palak struggles to deal with the difficulties of feeding and defending his stone age extended family. Mixed in with these stories are interludes involving the genetically altered fauna of Medias, and frequent incidents of bloody, bone crushing violence.

The basic framework of the story is simple. Both the Plamanics and the Sucobers have star-spanning societies but very different ideas about how to use the resources of the galaxy. Rather than engaging in mutually destructive interstellar warfare to resolve disputes, the two races have agreed to settle their differences by means of trials by combat. To this end, they use one particular small featureless moon to deposit their chosen champions who have to fight to the death in unarmed hand to hand combat. The selection of the featureless moon, we are told, was in part to prevent any particular combatant from gaining an advantage in the ensuing combat, but as anyone who is reasonably astute will note, this merely results in the combat conditions giving in an advantage to combatants who thrive in a situation in which there are no obstacles, nowhere to hide, and no strategy other than punch harder and faster than your opponent.

Given that the Plamanics are half the size of the Sucobers, they cleverly inserted a provision into the agreement to mediate disputes via trial by combat that allowed the two races to select members of other species to represent them in these battles. Unfortunately, the Sucobers seem to have done a better job at recruiting and have won all of the recent combats on the strength of a creature named "the Captain". In the opening pages of the book, the Captain secures yet another win for the Sucobers giving them control of the planet Medias which the Sucobers want so they can strip mine it into oblivion and use the resulting resources to prop up their ravenous society. They turn the planet over to Lozerick, an individual who is apparently considered rapacious and unsavory even by Sucober standards, and for no real apparent reason give him the Captain and a collection of clones to help out.

The story then shifts to Medias where it introduces us to a collection of its inhabitants, including a tribe of "brunts", which are more or less like the neanderthals of our past, and interestingly, a collection of animals, including the bear-like brogar, the wolf-like hunz, and the lion-like linex. And this is the point where the novel seems to fall down just a little bit, because as the viewpoint shifts between this collection of diverse creatures, they all seem to think alike, and in most ways, behave alike. Being able to write characters each with their own voice is one of the more difficult things a writer has to do - some authors aren't even able to find their own voice when they write - but it is one of the most important. If the reader can't differentiate between the characters on the page, then there aren't really individual characters in the book. And once the various characters in Progenitor start making their appearances, the reader notices that not only do Lozerick and the Captain seem to think in exactly the same way, all of the inhabitants of Medias think almost the same way, and reason, evaluate, and react in more of less the same way too. They think about different things, because they are confronted with different situations, but they all seem to think about the things they encounter in the same way.

As the reader gets deeper in the book, and Euphenix the Plamanic shows up, the similarity in reasoning displayed by the featured inhabitants of Medias becomes explicable to a certain extent, but to the extent they have such similarities one would think the Euphenix's goal would be foiled. Euphenix, it turns out, had secretly visited Medias many years before and made changes to certain inhabitants in a effort to determine if any could be still further modified into a capable champion for the Plamanic race in the periodic trials by combat against the Sucobers. But Euphenix's program of modifying all of the various species that he has adjusted in more or less the same way seems to be kind of self-defeating, because what he ends up with are a collection of creatures that all seem to think in very similar ways, and are differentiated only by their anatomical characteristics (although all share similar looking eyes). But after making these changes, Euphenix had left them on Medias, subject to the vagaries of its untamed wilds, and of course, the possibility that his chosen incubator would be assigned to a Sucober mining operation that would strip mine the planet's core until the entire world was destroyed.

But both Lozerick's operation and Euphenix's experiments seem oddly slapdash. Lozerick, for his part, plays the role of god to overawe the Leeni tribe on Medias and get them to assist in his operation. But this seems like a poor choice, since he brought along fifty presumably much more technologically proficient clones to help him run his mine, and further, the mining work, to the extent the reader sees it, seems to be more or less completely automated. Why Lozerick needs the assistance of primitive tribesmen is unclear throughout the book. Lozerick also seems to go out of his way to needlessly waste the resources he brought, jettisoning all of the clones into space to make more space for cargo. One would think that he would have been better off using the clones on the planet for whatever he needed the Leeni for, and then abandoning them there when the planet inevitably broke up from the stress of having so much of its core extracted. Instead, Lozerick goes through a complicated charade with the Leeni, annoys "the Captain" for no apparent reason, and then kills off the crew he brought across the light years.

For his part, Euphenix's attempts to find a potential Plamanic champion seem to be haphazard at best. Given that he's already monkeyed with the genetics of the various creatures, one wonders why Euphenix simply leaves these presumably valuable test subjects on an uncharted and dangerous planet. Presumably the idea is to let the hazards of the wilderness challenge the chosen creatures, but one would think that the project would be far more successful (and far less politically dangerous) if Euphenix simply took the chosen subjects to a controlled environment and proceeded to test various options on them. Euphenix's testing process becomes especially perplexing when one realizes that the only true challenges for the genetically altered test subjects are the other genetically altered test subjects, calling into question the utility of leaving the subjects to be hardened by exposure to the harsh wilds of Medias.

In a certain sense, all of these elements: character, setting, and plot, are just a framework designed to support a collection of hand-to-hand combats. Every couple of pages, the plot stops so a couple of creatures can square off against one another in almost every conceivable combination, confrontations that are described in extended and lovingly bloody detail. Palak runs about bashing animals on the head while hunting. The brogar grabs animals and people for lunch. The hunz asserts his dominance over a pack of other unmodified hunz. The linex kills in pursuit of females to mate with, an effort that goes spectacularly awry. Eventually the creatures come into contact with each other and with the Captain. The brogar fights the Captain. The Captain fights Palak's unmodified adoptive father Urlak. The brogar fights the linex. Palak fights the brogar. And finally, Palak fights the Captain. If you are looking for a book that has a collection of people and animals clawing, bashing, and biting one another then this book will deliver exactly what you want contained within just enough plot to make the fights not entirely gratuitous.

In many ways Progenitor is a book that is smarter than it aspires to be. The focus of the book is clearly the bone crunching skinned-knuckles action that permeates the entire story. On the other hand, there are a collection of plot points that, if explored, would have presented interesting issues. One has to wonder why a valuable individual like the Captain was sent on an expedition with a fairly obviously untrustworthy individual like Lozerick. The Sucober method of mining planets, which is horribly destructive for story purposes, raises several questions, including the question of why mine planets like Medias at all given that it would be much easier to loot the needed resources from asteroids and other locations that would be easier to access than deep inside of a gravity well. But these questions are skimmed over in favor of creatures clubbing one another over the head. There is potentially more to the story than that, but to the extent this is true, it is not well-developed in this volume. Simply put, if you are looking for a collection of cage match style combats on a primitive world with somewhat interested technologically advanced observers, then this book is exactly what you have been waiting for.

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