March 02, 2005

The Ethos Effect, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Modesitt's books are invariably about the ethical use of power, and The Ethos Effect is (unsurprisingly, given the name) no exception. More bluntly, The Ethos Effect concerns this question: if in the 1930's you could foresee the rise of the Third Reich and all of the associated pain, suffering, and death it would cause, would you be justified if, given the capability, you were to nuke Germany off of the map? It's all cast in the far future, and the players are different, but that's more or less the question.

Spoiler Warning: I don't usually include spoilers in my reviews, but I feel I need to in this case. In case you don't wish to read further, I'll give the bottom-line: this is a weak story well-told, and not up to Modesitt's usual standards.

Van Albert is a commander in the navy of the Taran Republic, one of a number of large space-faring powers. The political situation is too complicated to go into, but the most serious threat is a theocratic totalitarian space empire which supposedly grew out of some unholy union of Islam and the Mormon church--

I digress. Modesitt really seems to have it in for the Mormons, as this is the second series in which they've been the bad guys. I don't see it myself. I don't buy Mormon theology, and I find the origins of the LDS church to be highly suspect, but there are lots of Mormons here in the Foothills, many of them folks I grew up with, and they've never struck me as any more prone to jihad than, say, the local Methodists.

But anyway, the Shepherds, as they called, have been expanding slowly for a couple of centuries. They've avoided a major war in that time, choosing to take over small systems one by one, first economically and then politically. And where ever they take over, the populace are sent to re-education camps to learn to be good little Shepherds. As such, they make a nice bugaboo for 21st century blue-staters. It's always dangerous to guess an author's views from a work of fiction, but I have to believe that Modesitt doesn't like or understand religion very well (certainly, a sythesis of Islam and Mormonism strikes me as unlikely in the extreme) and thinks that strong religious feeling is dangerous. It's telling that throughout the book we never really get to know any of the Shepherds.

I digress again. None of the other major powers are willing to stand up to the Shepherds; the last time any tried, the result was an enormously bloody war that left both sides reeling (that story is told in The Parafaith War). A man Commander Albert comes to esteem highly has devoted his life to strengthening the smaller systems on which the Shepherds feed so that they can avoid been swallowed, but reluctantly comes to the conclusion that his best efforts are insufficient. The Shepherds cannot be turned from their path by ordinary means; and so he uses advanced alien technology to trigger a solar flare that renders the main Shepherd system uninhabitable in a matter of hours. Billions of Shepherd civilians lost their lives, both then and during the political aftermath.

Later, Commander Albert determines that his home star-nation, the Taran Republic, has become fascist, racist, xenophobic, and expansionist. His home planet is known for being the most freethinking and friendly to the arts in the entire Republic; it's also the only one where gay marriage is commonly accepted. (Albert himself has two fathers, a lawyer and an opera singer.) As the fascists take control, Albert's homeworld is is brutally suppressed.

There's an odd hint that the Taran Republic has become so through an over-reliance on free market economics and soulless capitalism, which frankly makes no sense to me; fascism breeds in bad economic times, not prosperous times as indicated here. In Albert's view, the Republic has become just as corrupt and evil as the Shepherds at their worst. Albert's friend left behind a second solar-flare device...ought he to stop the problem before it starts by destroying the Taran capital system? And would doing so make him a horrible monster or a savior ensuring the greatest good for the greatest number? As to the first question, he eventually decides that he must. As the latter, you'll have to decide for yourself. Modesitt's answer seems to be that Albert's action is, if not completely justifiable, at least understandable.

Frankly, I don't think Modesitt makes his case. As I read it, it seemed to me that the subtext was, "I don't like free-market neo-cons, and I don't like religious fundamentalists; both kinds of people are fundamentally flawed and since I can't fix them and though it's probably wrong of me I wish I could just blow them all up." I don't know that this is what he was thinking; but that's the impression I got, and the only explanation I can give for the general weakness of the book relative to his usual standard is that political rancor got the better of him.

If there are any other Modesitt fans in the audience who think I've misread the book, I'd be glad to hear from them. I read this during the first week of a really nasty physician-mandated diet (think Atkins with the good parts left out), and I was in rather a jaundiced mood. But Modesitt doesn't usually strike me this way.

Posted by Will Duquette at March 2, 2005 07:04 PM