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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Childe Cycle: Soldier, Ask Not

Soldier, Ask Not (1967, exp. from "Soldier, Ask Not" (1964)) is the story of Tam Olyn, an Earthman, and is the only one of the Childe novels told in the first person (though three of the Cycle's short stories are told that way.) Tam is a bridge across the entire Cycle; he's raised by an uncle who's a follower of Walter Blunt's call to destruction, he's there for Kensie Graeme's last battle, and in his extreme old age he's a colleague of Hal Mayne's.

Tam's uncle Mathias believes that the Splinter cultures have surpassed the men of Earth, who now have nothing to look forward to but slowly dying out. As a brief escape from his pessimism and despair, Tam and his sister Eileen go to St. Louis to visit the Final Encyclopedia, a structure intended to store all of the knowledge of mankind, and eventually to allow man to study himself in a way that wasn't previously possible. Naturally, it's funded by the Exotics, but the project was founded by an Earthman named Mark Torre. An old man now, he's still the Encyclopedia's director. Torre can directly experience the Encyclopedia as the voices of all mankind. Every visitor to the Encyclopedia is tested for this ability, but only a few others have ever been found, and all are Earthmen. Tam turns out to be one. Because of this, Tam is taken to see Mark Torre, who, together with an Exotic envoy named Padma and a beautiful young Earth-born Exotic woman named Lisa, interview him. Torre and Lisa want Tam to join the Encyclopedia, but Padma, who can see deeper into Tam, realizes that his uncle has warped him, never allowing him to develop the empathy or understanding needed for the work he would do there. This suits Tam, who is about to become a reporter for the Interstellar News Service, a very prestigious position. On returning home, Tam learns that Eileen had another motive for the trip to St. Louis. There she met a young man she'd become engaged to: Jamethon Black, a Friendly officer stationed on Earth. The two of them have come back to get Mathias's blessing for their marriage. Mathias refuses to make a decision, referring it to Tam, mostly out of malice. Tam, with equal malice, tells Eileen that the marriage won't work. Eileen is weak to fight him, and Jamethon is forced to leave without her. A few weeks later, Eileen goes to work on Cassida (one of the technological worlds), where she marries a Cassidan named David Hall.

Over the next few years, Tam rises in the INS. He gets assigned to cover a brush war on New Earth, largely fought by mercenaries; Friendlies one side, Cassidans the other, one of whom is Dave Hall. Tam decides (in one of the few generous things we see him do) to get Dave out of combat by asking him to be lent as an assistant. This requires a pass signed by both sides. To get this, Tam goes to a party which the Friendly commanders will attend. In fact, it's a party in honor of Donal Graeme, which we've seen before in Dorsai!. Tam sees Donal, William of Ceta, and Anea there, though he doesn't speak to them. He also meets Padma and Lisa. Lisa tries to persuade him to return to the Encyclopedia, but Tam refuses.

Unable to get the passed signed at the party, Tam goes to Friendly headquarters, where the first officer he finds refuses to sign the pass. Next, Tam calls Jamethon Black, whom he had recognized, but not spoken to, at the party. Jamethon also refuses at first, but on being told that Dave is Eileen's husband, he starts to relent. But on learning that Tam had already been turned down, Jamethon is unwilling to override the first officer, notwithstanding Tam's accusations that he's acting out of jealousy.

The next day, Tam and Dave go to report on the battle, the pass still unsigned. They wind up in the thick of the fighting, Tam wounded badly in his knee, and are captured by the Friendlies. With no pass, Dave is considered a Cassidan prisoner, and is moved from Tam's side over to sit with the other Cassidans. In the midst of the battle, a fanatic Friendly officer decides that the men doing guard duty are needed to fight, so he frees them from that duty by setting his weapon to full automatic and killing all of the prisoners, Dave included. He spares Tam, as if daring him to report what had just happened. Somewhat later, Tam is found by Cassidan troops.

Tam is taken to the Exotic worlds to be healed, where he sees Lisa again. They start to fall in love, but her wish for him to join the Encyclopedia comes between them. Tam then travels to Cassida to see Eileen, but she rejects his attempts to help her, blaming him for Dave's death. Tam, alone now, begins to plot revenge against the Friendlies. He manipulates the Blue Front, the out-of-power party on the small, Catholic world of Ste. Marie, into planning to overthrow the current government, controlled by the Green Front. (The Blues and Greens were, of course, the rival political parties in the early Byzantine Empire.) He also plants the seed in the mind of the Friendly leader that supporting a popular revolt on another world would be good publicity for the Friendlies. The result is that the Blue Front does take over Ste. Marie, supported by Friendly troops. This revolt fails quickly, but the Friendly troops stay, seeking compensation for their help to the Blue Front. Their commander is, of course, Jamethon again.

Ste. Marie asks the Exotics to help evict them. The result is, as Tam had planned, an Exotic-Friendly war, with the Exotics represented, as usual, by Dorsai mercenaries, in this case Kensie and Ian Graeme. Tam, whose intent is to make the Friendlies anathema to the rest of humanity, takes a few steps. First he visits the now-outlawed Blue Front, and suggests that they could help their allies the Friendlies by assassinating the enemy commander, Kensie Graeme. Next, Tam visits Kensie, telling him that the Friendlies are conspiring to assassinate him, and that Tam will negotiate with the Blue Front to confess to this and broadcast that news. When Kensie refuses this, Tam goes to see Padma, who knows what Tam is up to, and tries to persuade him to understand that the Friendlies are not evil as a whole. Padma fails, and next Tam goes to see Jamethon, with evidence that no reinforcements will be sent, and his command has been left to be sacrificed. He urges Jamethon to surrender, but without authorization he will not. Once more Tam accuses Jamethon, this time of being willing to sacrifice his men rather than admit that they've been betrayed. The next day, when the battle is about to start, the Dorsai discover Jamethon and a small group of Friendlies at a truce table. Kensie goes to discuss surrender terms, but the Friendlies attack him. It's hopeless, of course, for a few ordinary men to attack a Dorsai as superbly trained as Kensie, and he kills all of them. The Friendly troops, now leaderless, have no choice but to surrender.

Tam now travels to Harmony to cover Jamethon's funeral as the last piece of his reporting on the Ste. Marie war. Padma meets him there, and gives Tam some awful news: Kensie has been assassinated. The Blue Front, with no path to power once the Friendlies leave, murdered Kensie, hoping that if the Dorsai troops overreacted, they would be recalled by the Exotics. (The circumstances that prevent that overreaction are told in "Brothers".) It's quite clear to both men that the real responsibility is Tam's. When Tam protests that it's Jamethon who had conspired to kill Kensie, Padma forces Tam to admit to himself that he knew all along that Jamethon's attack was a form of suicide, and that it was the only way for Jamethon to save the life of his men.

Tam now realize that he has made the Friendlies a scapegoat for his own resentment of the Splinter Cultures, or rather, his uncle's resentment and his own feelings of inferiority. Tam is now ready to go back to the Encyclopedia with Lisa and work towards creating a humanity that integrates the strengths of all the Splinter Cultures, rather than trying to destroy one of them.

Soldier, Ask Not forms a thematic pair with Necromancer. In both, destruction is represented by Walter Blunt and the desire to simply obliterate what one find intolerable: over-mechanization in Necromancer, and the Friendlies as a stand-in for the Splinter Cultures as a whole in Soldier, Ask Not. The two show opposite forms of creation: in the first, it's to allow humanity to separate into different cultures; in the other, it's to begin weaving them back together. What makes Soldier, Ask Not more satisfying is that it adds redemption; where Walter Blunt is defeated, Tam Olyn learns better. Also, Tam isn't a superman who gets the initially ambivalent girl because she finally realizes what he is. Lisa always loves Tam, even though he often disappoints her; her love is a large part of what finally heals him.

The short version, "Soldier, Ask Not", begins with Tam's arrival on Ste. Marie to cover the war and ends with his conversation with Padma and subsequent moment of self-understanding. Dave's death on New Earth is described and explains why Tam so hates the Friendlies, but there's no Lisa and no Final Encyclopedia. Nor does Tam break up his sister's first engagement; he's never met Jamethon before Ste. Marie. This version is difficult to find these days, but it's actually the first bit of the Cycle I ever read (in one of Asimov's Hugo anthologies), and I prefer it, since it concentrates on what for me is the best part of the story, Tam's redemption.

In particular, I dislike the engagement between Eileen and Jamethon. To begin with, her pleading for either Mathias or Tam to tell her what to do is childish and pathetic; all by itself, it proves that she's not mature enough to leave him and marry. And even though the logic of the story tries to tell us that Tam is being cruel by telling her not to go, he's exactly right. Nothing suggests that she's religious enough to be successfully married to someone as devout as Jamethon or to make her home on Harmony, a home where, as Tam points out, she'll be on her own whenever Jamethon has to serve elsewhere. Also, the repeated meetings with Jamethon stretch credulity without adding anything important to the story.

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