1981’s1 Lilith: A Snake in the Grass is the first volume of Jack L. Chalker’s The Four Lords of the Diamond quartet.
The human Confederacy utterly dominates its region of the Milky Way. All known alien intelligences have been either subjugated to serve human needs, or where that was not possible, exterminated. Unbeknownst to the Confederacy, there are rivals. The first inkling the Confederacy gets that a new player has entered the game comes in the form of a failed infiltration of a defense facility by a sophisticated android double of a Confederacy functionary.
The android eludes capture. The Confederacy lets it flee in a stolen starship (at the cost of some expendable red-shirt lives), hoping that the android will lead humans to the alien home world. The mysterious rivals have technology equal to or perhaps superior to that wielded by humanity. The fact they have not fallen on humanity zap-guns blazing suggests that the aliens are not certain they would win, even with surprise on their side. If the Confederacy can find the aliens, they might be able to crush them.
The android does not flee to the alien empire, wherever it may be. Instead it leads the navy to the Warden Diamond, human worlds apparently in league with the aliens. Human worlds from which escape is impossible!
Dispatching an agent to the Warden Diamond will require a special agent and some extraordinary measures.
The Warden Diamond — Charon, Lilith, Cerberus, and Medusa — are four habitable worlds in a single star system. Habitable worlds are extremely rare, and four would be an exceptional treasure … if it weren’t for the fact that a micro-organism native to Lilith enforces stasis. On the plus side, this means humans on Lilith are very healthy — even amputated limbs will grow back. On the minus side, non-Lilithian technology quickly breaks down. As soon as this became clear, the four worlds were quarantined .
This makes the system an appropriate oubliette for those the Confederacy wants to exile but not kill. No one can return from the four worlds.
The Warden Diamond is ruled by powerful Lords, who oversee a vast criminal empire. This empire is apparently an ally of the aliens. The Confederacy believes that it must quash the conspiracy by assassinating the Lords of the Diamond. The problem: an agent sent to the system will be forever marooned. Who would be willing to make that sacrifice? The Confederacy has a solution.
The chosen agent has his mind copied and implanted into four appropriated bodies. Each body is implanted with an organic communicator that will permit the host bodies to transmit their experiences to the original agent.
The copy now hosted in the body of Cal Tremon, a hulking brute once notorious as a bank robber, is dispatched to Lilith to track down and kill its Lord, Marek Kreegan.
As one might expect, there are problems.
Some of the humans on Lilith have shown a knack for controlling the micro-organism. They can inflict excruciating pain on other people with no more than a thought; they can use off-world tech because they can convince the organism to leave the tech alone. As one might expect, these lucky folks have risen to the top of Lilithian society. The world is a brutal meritocracy: a few on top, the many forced to obey the few. Cal, the arriving agent, must begin at the bottom of this brutal system.
But … he has a better chance at learning to control the organism than the native-born humans on Lilith. Immigrants seem to succeed where natives fail. Since people only get sent to Lilith if they are criminals or malcontents, this means society is dominated by gangsters. Such people make unpleasant rulers.
However, Marek Kreegan was no criminal. He was an agent very much like the man whose mind now wears Cal. He turned against the Confederacy for reasons unknown, fled to the Diamond of his own will, and proceeded to take Lilith for his own. He is a formidable opponent. To make matters worse, nobody knows what he looks like.
Humanity’s fate may depend on Cal’s success. He has no choice but to search for a man with no face, but god-like powers.
I read a fair amount of Chalker back in the day and I expected that at some point I would review one. This is not the Chalker I would have expected to be my first Chalker. I would have expected Midnight at the Well of Souls
or perhaps And the Devil Will Drag You Under.
Possibly Dance Band on the Titanic,
which I see to my surprise is a 1988 offering and not the late 1970s I assumed. Nope! Mysterious are the ways of patrons.
As the author no doubt intended, I found myself intensely disliking the Confederacy. They see non-humans as assets, to be used or discarded as necessary. Mass graves are always an option.
“The Confederacy,” the commander stated needlessly. “Seven thousand six hundred and forty-six worlds, by last count, over a third of a galaxy. Quite an accomplishment for a race from a single planet out there on that one little arm. Planets terraformed, planets where the people were adapted to the place, even planets with sixty other intelligent native life forms on them, all now nicely acculturated to our way of doing things. We own it, we run it our way, and we’ve always had our own way. Not a single one of those other races was ever in any position to challenge us. They had to accept us and our way, or they died in much the manner our own native world was pacified so many centuries ago. We’re the boss.”
The mysterious aliens have good reason to be cautious where the Confederacy is concerned.
As it turns out, the ruling classes regard their human citizens with much the same amoral utilitarianism as shapes their treatment of aliens. People should fit into useful niches. Genetic engineering ensures that few will fall outside the permitted norms. The empire is based on ruthlessly enforced conformity.
[An] interstellar empire so vast that only total cultural control could keep it together. The same system everywhere. The same ideas and ideals, the same values, the same ways of thinking about things — everywhere. Flexible, adaptable to different biomes and even, with some wrenching adjustments made mercilessly, adaptable to alien cultures and life forms. The formula was all-pervasive, an equalizing force in the extreme, […]
The common folk may think they live in a meritocracy but it’s their betters who decide who gets the genetic heritage and education needed to excel, and who gets to benefit from the Confederacy’s advanced medical technologies.
This book is rife with characteristic Chalkerisms. The powers that be can meddle with human bodies. They can torture. They can shape colonists to fit a new planet. They can shape teenaged girls to order:
A pretty, sexy young woman, you might say — except that her face was amazingly young and innocent, the kind of face not seen on a body like that in my experience. It was a pretty face, all wide-eyed and innocent. But it was the face of a child, one no more than eleven or twelve, atop that well-developed body.
Cal for his part objects to this sort of thing, but one notes that the author imagines (and tells us about) a lot of things that squick Carl. And being upset at how the girl above has been sculpted doesn’t stop Cal from banging her like his favourite drum.
As far I recall from my reading Chalker, the deranged lesbian feminist Satanist cult leader who shows up in this book is not a stock Chalker character. Yay?
Because this is the first book, the one that establishes the setting, the pacing is rather odd. It takes a quarter of the book for Cal to reach Lilith. It takes a fair amount of exposition to bring Cal and the reader up to speed.
This is the only book in this particular Chalker series I have read. In fact, I think it was this specific book that moved him from an author whose books I would check out if available to one I didn’t. At least, the Chalkers I’ve read mostly predate it.
I found the setting unappealing, the characters largely unsympathetic, and the lack of resolution (not just any real progress towards the big questions but a decision by a supporting character that places the answers further away) annoying. I wasn’t at all curious as to how the plot might have been resolved.
1: Why isn’t this a Because My Tears Are Delicious to You review? Because the cut off for those is March 1981 and this was published in October 1981.
2: At least in this book we aren’t told much about the other worlds of the Diamond. I think that technology works on those planets, but it’s not clear how this is possible if the micro-organism is contagious.