As so often is true, I reread an old book to discover what I remembered about it is not necessarily what it is about. I remembered this as a romance set against a plot about overthrowing an oppressive order but that’s not exactly correct.
Near the beginning with a fairly contrived history lesson framed as a good-bye from a beloved teacher to his two priviledged students; this allows the author to drop a fairly weighty infodump about the next twelve centuries. Short version: a combination of resource shortages, ecological crises, plagues and the odd nuclear war bring our civilization down and what replaces it is the Concord, a star spanning feudal society divided into three castes: Elite, Fesh and Bond. This culture is able to provide a high standard of living for the hundred thousand or so Elite and a fair one for the somewhat larger class of Fesh, the trained class who keep the wheels of civilization turning in two different stellar systems but the cost is the brutal exploitation of the Bonds who make up the vast majority of the population.
Most of the Elite are surprisingly comfortable with treating the Bonds like animals but as the regular uprisings by the Bonds show, the Bonds are surprisingly lacking in the fore-lock tugging gene. I’ve occasionally asked where the SF equivalent of the Jacquerie or the Jōkyō Sōdō are and here’s an example I completely missed.
[Huh. LJ recognizes Jōkyō Sōdō but not Jacquerie?]
Complicating the issue of what to do about the exploitation of the Bonds is the fact that the last time someone tried to do something about it they ended up triggering a civil war that killed a billion people, ended extraterrestrial travel for decades, left the colony in the Alpha Centauri system with an unfortunate memory of independence and very nearly brought civilization on Earth down. In reaction to this, the current regime is determined to crush any sort of liberal political deviancy and being Elite will not get one a pass.
[In case the titanic infodump at the beginning is not enough, history lessons are sprinkled throughout the text]
Into this walk two comparatively decent Elite brothers, Rich and Alex DeKoven Woolf. Much of the book follows their gradual political awakenings, driven both by personal offense at what is being done to the Bonds but also because the system has costs for them as well; Rich is too sicky to be expected to carry out his duties but Alex will have to serve in the military putting down the endless uprisings and when he marries, as he must, it will be to a wife who can provide the Woolfs with something valuable, not someone he just happens to love.
Rich, who we are told up front will be dying young thanks to a incurable disease, finds a way to use his short lifespan to maximum effect, leaving his brother to carry the duty of playing protagonist more or less alone (I seem to recall his One True Love the Lady Adrien plays a larger role in latter books but here she is mostly the perfect person whose love Alex craves).
There is a rebel organization called the Phoenix and it has a use for people like Rich and later for Alex. As it turns out, the Phoenix is not merely driven by the desire of a more equitable society – more on that later – but something more pressing:
“I think I made it clear that the very reason for our existence is to prevent a third dark age. When we haggle, it will be over the means of maintaining civilization. […]”
In fairly short order Rich is dead, Alex commits class treason, just one of the betrayals whose consequences he agonizes over, and we are taken on a tour of the Phoenix, who use their technological edge over the Concord to fairly good effect when they are not sabotaging themselves.
I was puzzled by Jean M. Auel’s claim that this “Has the sweep and power of Asimov’s Foundation,” because I completely forgotten the whole save civilization angle in favour of the romance and a struggle for universal human rights. In fact the romance is fairly low key despite the opportunities for drama presented by the setbacks Alex and the Lady Adrien encounter along the way and I am not 100% convinced any struggle for universal human rights is actually going to materialize. The problem is the Bonds:
“Perhaps he hoped to establish something like the old Pre-Disasters republics, but the Bonds aren’t capable of the responsibilities. They couldn’t keep the wheels of civilization turning for a single day without the Fesh and Elite to tell them what to do. But they can’t be blamed for that.”
“No,” Rovere replied softly. “Who must take that blame?”
“The Lords, I suppose, because they — we keep them illiterate and restricted. Or, rather, enslaved. Perhaps that’s a more accurate term.”
“Perhaps. But why do the Lords keep the Bonds illiterate and restricted — or enslaved, if you will?”
He replied dully, as if it were a rote lesson, “Because we depend on them for a labor pool, for one thing, and if we started educating them, it might foster dissatisfaction, and that could mean revolt.”
“Revolt. Considering that Bonds make up nearly three-quarters of the population, a Bond revolt is a frightening prospect; it could lead to total anarchy. Do you agree?”
The Peladeen Republic in the Alpha Centauri system was able to function despite universal suffrage because
…the original population was seventy-five percent Fesh and only twenty-five percent Bond. What was possible there — a monarchal republic — was not possible in the Solar System with seventy percent of the population illiterate Bonds.
I am sad to say “how do we educate over three billion people?” does not come in for detailed analysis, perhaps because the Elite don’t have any personal experience with mass education (although the billion and a third Fesh must have some system of for teaching their kids) and also despite the early focus on how badly the Bonds are treated the goal isn’t really to stop them from being exploited but to save civilization from collapsing again.
In fact, there are sympathetically presented Bonds and while the various abuses and massacres of Bonds are generally presented in a negative light, if any of the Bonds are invited to join the rebellion I have managed to forget it. There does not seem to be any analogs of Harriet Tubman in this world; the story is about how the Elite and the Fesh struggle to save civilization and the Bonds and their struggles are seem primarily as existential threat. While the upper classes do feel sort of badly about what a hard deal the Bond have, I get the feeling they’d sell the Bonds down the river in an instant if they thought that was the cost of saving civilization. I just hope nobody gets the bright idea of replacing the lot with machines and liquidating the surplus population.
As I recall, there is an old Orwell essay that touches on how Dickens and his ilk saw the poor masses as eternally Other, to be pitied but probably not to be saved. This is a lot like that.
It probably does not help that the Phoenix is as illiberal as the Concord: the word “democracy” appears only once in the text and not in reference to running governments. As for the Phoenix itself,
“For an organization officially classified as subversive, representational government is far too unwieldy. Still, we have vestiges of it in our Code of Law. For instance, we’ve provided for the removal of any councilor by a majority vote of the total membership. That rule has never been invoked, however.”
I bet it hasn’t.
The writing is competent enough, pacing and wandering infodumps aside. I do have to wonder if the three books were not written as one large book, divided by its publisher into three equal length volumes, because this book continues for a while after what I would have considered a natural break point. Still, I find myself curious how all this will play out. And if the Bonds will ever get a say in their own fates.
Trivia: we don’t get many details about how FTL works in this universe but however it does work, travel between known systems – basically the Solar System and the Alpha Centauri system – is relatively easy, whereas exploration of new systems appears to be a good way to vanish forever.
They seem to have given up on exploring other systems because they know feel encountering a habitable planet in the first system they explored was extraordinary good luck, since none of the systems they explored after that had habitable worlds.
I think the list of systems they’ve explored suggests a different explanation for the lack of living worlds. In addition to the Sun and the Alpha Centauri System, humans have reached Barnard’s star, Lalande 21185, Sirius A, Epsilon Eridani, 61 Cygni A, Procyon A, Kapteyn’s star, Kruger 60 A and B, Van Maanen’s star, and Altair or to put another way an ancient metal poor star, a dim, somewhat metal poor star, a high mass, young star whose companion would have blow torched the atmosphere off any habitable planet when the companion went white dwarf, an extremely young sunlike star where life would not have had time to appear if Earth is any guide, a pair of stars that actually are not that bad a bet, another system whose companion would have blow torched the atmosphere off any habitable planet when the companion went white dwarf, a pair of dinky red dwarfs, one of which is a flare star, another ancient metal poor red dwarf and a largeish star that while not as young as Epsilon Eridani is probably too young to have produced complex life. I think the main issue is that for the most part the Concord and its predecessors really suck at selecting target systems.