Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Review - Fire with Fire by Charles E. Gannon

Short review: Caine Riordan is involuntarily frozen in cryosleep for more than a decade. Then the people who froze him thaw him out and make him a secret agent. Oddly, Caine goes along with this.

Reluctant agent
Best at almost any job
Plus some aliens

Full review: Fire with Fire is the first book in the Caine Riordan series, which, naturally enough, features the polymath and generally capable at everything hero Caine Riordan. The book seems to really be two books more or less smashed together with varying degrees of success. One of the two books is an interesting two-stage first contact story in which humans first make contact with another race, and then find out that they've been under observation all along. The other book is a military science fiction story that feels a bit like a high tech Frederick Forsythe novel that seems at times to be just a little too happy to gaze at its own very detailed navel.

At the outset of the novel, Caine Riordan is a nosy reporter poking his nose into mysterious goings on on the moon. His investigations land him in trouble and lead to his being put into cold storage for several years. Eventually, Caine is thawed out by the very same people who put him on ice to be quickly trained as a somewhat unwilling intelligence operative and sent to investigate possible industrial malfeasance on a distant planet. This entire situation feels incredibly contrived, as several elements to it simply don't make sense other than as an artificial means to justify a reluctant protagonist for the story. Leaving aside the fact that the explanations as to why Riordan would consent to work for people who effectively imprisoned him for more than a decade seem quite flimsy, before he was taken out of circulation it seems that Riordan was reasonably well known. It seems quite odd that someone would try to organize a covert operation around a somewhat famous news reporter who suddenly turned up after being inexplicably absent for twelve years. The reasoning the Institute of Reconnaissance, Intelligence, and Security (IRIS) uses to justify using Riordan seems somewhat suspect as well: The claim is made that Caine is a "polymath", and thus suited to outside-the-box problem solving, but with the vast range of people available for them to recruit, it seems odd to pick someone who has a justifiable ax to grind against IRIS on such weak reasoning.

Riordan's assignment, which IRIS pulled him out of mothballs to send him on, is an investigation on the planet Delta Pavonis, at which point the dual nature of the book becomes apparent. On the one hand, Riordan finds himself embroiled in a cat and mouse game with both the corporate interests controlling the planet and at the same time presented with a collection of clues concerning the nature of the local inhabitants and some mysterious ruins of seemingly off-world origin. Oddly, Riordan's cover story is blown as soon as he reaches Delta Pavonis, rendering the reason that IRIS supposedly chose him for completely moot. He still forges ahead anyway, and after some moderately drawn out intrigue he gets to the meat of the mission, exploring the planet and making contact with the local fauna. But it is through this portion of the book that the cracks in the story begin to appear: The sections about making contact with alien humanoids and exploring strangely out-of-place ruins are excellent and interesting, while the at times incredibly (and almost tediously) detailed espionage story feels like it is simply an obstacle that sits in the way of getting back to the exploration and discovery parts of the story.

The dichotomy between the two elements of the book is what makes Fire with Fire so oddly frustrating. I have read many books by Frederick Forsythe, Tom Clancy, and others written in a similar vein and enjoyed them greatly. However in this book, the sections that are reminiscent of the novels by those authors seem flat and uninteresting, in way, almost intrusive. When Riordan sets out to return to Earth from his expedition to Delta Pavonis, the novel focuses heavily on the military intelligence aspect of the story, first covering the various attempts by shadowy forces to prevent the protagonist from delivering his report about his intriguing findings, and then the various other intrigues that result in assassinations, kidnappings, and rescues. These events are all presented with a fair amount of detail, but even so they lack impact. One weakness of the intrigue plot thread is that the villains opposing Riordan and IRIS are so far back in the shadows that not only is who they are unclear, what they want is entirely opaque, so when they show up, they seem to be almost a random occurrence rather than an organized force to be dealt with. There are a few points in the novel where the aims of this cabal could have been explained: A mysterious olive-loving assassin appears in a few scenes, and when one character is kidnapped, one of the kidnappers could have been used as a mouthpiece for the nefarious plotters. But the olive-lover brusquely bats away any inquiries of any kind, and the kidnappers are all mercenaries kept entirely out of the loop by their employers.

A small digression (but with a point): I have seen both the Western The Magnificent Seven and The Seven Samurai, the Kurosawa movie it was based upon. I hold to the somewhat maverick opinion that The Magnificent Seven is a better movie, based mostly upon the existence of the character Calvera, who leads the bandit gang. There is no comparable character in The Seven Samurai, and the bandits who threaten the Japanese village in the movie are mostly presented as an undifferentiated mob. By including the character of Calvera, the makers of The Magnificent Seven gave the villains a face that the audience could latch on to and dislike. But Cavlera also gave the bandits a mouthpiece to tell their side of the story. Granted, their side of the story was reprehensible, but it was also understandable. When the bandit gang did the things they did, their actions didn't seem random or inexplicable - they had goals that the audience could see, making their actions seem more dangerous than they would have otherwise. To bring this back to Fire with Fire, one of the weaknesses of the book is the lack of any kind of Calvera style character to serve as a mouthpiece for the opposition. We are told that, for example, the evil-doers want to prevent Riordan from presenting his findings at an international conference of world leaders, but we have no idea what they hope to accomplish by doing so. Well, we know that they don't want Riordan to personally deliver the information (although they can't hope to prevent the information from getting to its destination by other means), but what benefit will accrue to the villains as a result is completely unknown.

Despite this weakness, Fire with Fire remains a good book, saved by the science fiction ideas at its core, and after meandering for a bit through the doldrums of military intelligence and intrigue, the story gets going again as the first contact elements return to the fore. After some seemingly needless secrecy, Riordan, along with a cadre of other characters, meets up with the alien Dornaani at a prearranged location deep in interstellar space. Although he is not a trained diplomat, or a government official, and has no real qualifications for such a task, Riordan's presence is justified by the first contact he made with the primitive denizens of Delta Pavonis, making him the only human to previously interact directly with an alien. Before too long, the human delegation finds itself embroiled in a diplomatic tug or war between a veritable menagerie of alien factions, with humanity's potential induction into an interspecies cooperative organization as the putative bone of contention. In contrast to the middle portion of the book in which the intrigue dragged, the interstellar diplomacy is riveting, despite the fact that most of the various players spend their time isolated from one another in sealed rooms. The only problem with this part of the book is that it ends too soon, and the action returns to Earth space for a bit more of the comparatively uninteresting human military intelligence intrigue in the final pages.

My mixed response to the book is in part due to the character of Caine Riordan. As noted before, Riordan is journalist with no particularly applicable skills and a legitimate grievance against IRIS, and yet the organization decides to assign him to one of their most critical missions. Riordan proves to be remarkably adept at pretty much everything, despite being at most a partially trained neophyte with respect to most of his endeavors. Riordan is almost preternaturally capable, and is able to make the correct deduction pretty much every time, outshining even experts in their own field on occasion. He is, in short, very close to the Platonic ideal of the competent man, which ends up justifying all of the contortions the others in the book go though to involve him in events that his actual resume doesn't really suggest he would be qualified to meaningfully participate in. At the same time, while we are told that Riordan is an independent-minded man who resents authority, he goes along with authority at almost every turn in the book - even when the enormous, and for IRIS pretty damning, secret of his mysterious missing one hundred hours is revealed he still elects to continue serving as an agency operative. The various contradictions resulting from the dichotomy between what we are told about Riordan and what his actions actually show him to be combined with his nearly supernatural ability to be right all the time make Riordan seem less like a character and more like a plot contrivance that the author pushes around to make the story move forward.

Fire with Fire is at times quite enjoyable, and at others quite frustrating. One can see why it was nominated for a Nebula Award, but one can also see why it didn't win. When the book is firing on all cylinders, as it does whenever dealing with the first contact story line, it is excellent. Whenever Riordan is driving the action, the story moves along at a fairly rapid pace. On the other hand, when the book runs off the rails, usually whenever Riordan is merely reacting to events, or when others are trying to manipulate Riordan, the story tends to run off into a ditch and get mired down in a morass of detail. The book contains tantalizing mysteries that beg to be followed-up upon, such as the mysterious ruins on Delta Pavonis and the primitive aliens who seem to know more than they should about humanity, but the book simply drops them to go back to the cloak and dagger plot, and the characters apparently forget about them as well. That said, even at its weakest, Fire with Fire remains fairly decent, and the high points of the novel more than make up for any deficiencies elsewhere. Overall, if you are looking for military science fiction with some interesting ideas mixed into it and an improbably competent and forgiving protagonist, then this is just the thing you are looking for.

Subsequent book in the series: Trial by Fire

2014 Nebula Award Nominees

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