Allies & Aliens
by Roger MacBride Allen
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
The Torch of Honor was originally published by Baen Books in 1985, with the sequel, Rogue Powers, released the following year. In 1993, based on the success of Allen's second series of novels (The Ring of Charon and The Shattered Sphere), he was afforded the opportunity to revisit his first efforts for a combined reissue entitled Allies and Aliens, which was printed in 1995.
In the forward to this edition Allen recounts several sections of the books that were rewritten, some for purely literary reasons based on his maturation as a writer, others to correct scientific speculations concerning the binary star system featured in the second novel. I had been aware of MacBride for several years but until recently had not sampled any of his work (with the possible exception of some short stories I can't recall at the moment). When it came time to purchase some of his books, I took the opportunity to get Allies and Aliens first. Not only was I getting two novels for the price of one, I have always preferred to experience a writer from the first efforts of their career. Even if the work is not one destined to be a classic, there should be ample evidence of whether the author's work deserves further exploration. And that Allen's does.
The first novel could perhaps be criticized for subscribing to an outmoded literary style, that of the space-opera prevalent in the 1920s-30s era, but anyone who is a fan of the genre based on more recent SF films should feel right at home with this volume. Allen's excellent plotting skills, along with the fast and furious pace of the action, makes up for any other supposed lack of originality. The story is told in first person, the narrator being Terrance MacKenzie Larson, a lieutenant in the space navy forces of the Republic of Kennedy, a planet settled by colonists from the former United States of America. Whereas most reasonable speculations for interplanetary explorations point to the necessity for global cooperation, Allen presents a future in which different nations of Earth have successfully mounted colonization efforts on their own. The United Kingdom's primary base is a planet named Britannica, and another that figures prominently in the action is New Finland, settled by emigrants from that Scandanavian country. An alliance has been formed by these far-flung worlds, that of the League of Planets, to whose Survey Service Larson has been assigned, along with Joslyn Marie Cooper of Britannica. "Mac" and Joslyn have recently married, and they are fortunate to be assigned together aboard a survey ship, which Mac names the Joslyn Marie in honor of his new bride. The Survey Service's goal is to search for colony planets settled over the previous hundred years since interplanetary flight began, but from whom no communications have been received for many years.
As the book begins, the Larsons are in attendance of a memorial service for their comrades aboard the lost training ship Venera, all of whom are presumed dead. A friend of Mac's expresses his opinion that the ship and its crew may have been hijacked rather than destroyed, but before any of them can speculate further on that supposition, the Larson's embark on their initial expedition. While surveying the second solar system on their itinerary, they receive an emergency communication from a drone ship sent along their path through hyperspace, or what Allen refers to as "C² space." The message informs them of a distress signal sent from the New Finland system, reporting an invasion and occupation by forces that refer to themselves as the Guardians. The Larsons are instructed to enter the New Finland system in normal space since the Guardians have ringed the system with defensive weapons which are triggered by the unique signature of a ship as it comes out of C² space. Joslyn remains aboard her namesake on the farside of New Finland's sun while Mac travels to the artificial satellite Vapaus, in orbit of New Finland, in a smaller scout-ship. He is successful in gaining access to the inside of the hollow satellite, and makes his way to its hospital facilities. He is correct in supposing the hospital is the location of the majority of the satellite's centralized communications, and also that it is the focus of an underground resistance to the Guardians' occupation.
There are too many twists and turns of the plot to recount here, and I certainly don't want to spoil the story any more for readers who have yet to discover these books. Suffice it to say that Mac, in true heroic style, is always able to make the right decisions at the right time, and he quickly is regarded by the Finns as their best hope for success in an assualt against the Guardian forces on New Finland. The situation is complicated by the news of the imminent arrival in the system of the Guardian space navy's flagship, the Leviathan, not only the largest space-going craft in existence, but also one that can enter a planet's atmosphere. Its fighter ships are capable of both space and atmospheric maneuvers, and it is also the command and control center for the deployment of the automatic missile defense system. Unless Mac and his hastily trained fighter pilots can gain access to the ship and deactivate the system, no other ships from the League of Planets will be able to enter the system to join the battle.
Rogue Powers is somewhat different from the first book, being written in third person and also more slowly paced, although it is richer in character development and speculative detail. The first few chapters actually take place before the main action of The Torch of Honor, as they detail the capture and imprisonment of the crew of the Venera by Guardian forces. The survivors are transported to the space station Ariadne, in orbit of the planet Outpost, which in turn orbits Nova Sol B. The Guardian's main colony is on the planet Capital, which orbits the companion star Nova Sol A. Although technically prisoners, the League officers are pressed into service on the station as communication and technical support personnel since the Guardians are extremely short-handed of trained people due to the forthcoming invasion of the New Finland system.
There has been a recent discovery of a sentient species on Outpost, and the services of one of the League officers is requested for a First Contact expedition. Lucille Calder is the closest thing to a linguist in the entire Nova Sol system, and the opportunity for such an historic mission is enough for her to agree to the assignment. Leading the landing party is First Lieutenant Johnson Gustav, the Ariadne's executive officer, a former member of the Guardian Intelligence Force transferred to duty aboard the station following his vocal opposition to certain Guardian policies. Lucy and Johnson become close friends, and they work tirelessly towards a peaceful rapport with Outpost's native inhabitants. The Outposters vaguely resemble the fabled centaurs, with arms ending in hands with four mutually-opposable thumbs. Although they appear to have an ordered society, they primarily live in small, nomadic groups. The humans later learn that the groups are formed along the lines of spiritual and philosophical ideas, and any are free to end their association with a particular group and join another whenever they desire.
One startling discovery is of the Outposters' skill in gene manipulation, the talent of causing spontaneous changes in the genetic make-up of any species of plant or animal. The implication of such a discovery is not lost on Captain Lewis Romero, the commander of Ariadne. He secretly negotiates with one of the alien groups, and trades Guardian weapons to the Outposters in exchange for the development of bio-weapons capable of destroying the League of Planets fleet of spaceships. The aliens comply, and the weapons are delivered by the next available Guardian attack force. When Lucy and Gustav learn of this they in turn discover that the group that has negotiated with Romero are known as the Nihilists, a faction dedicated to the destruction of all other Outposter groups. They realize that if the Nihilists have so little regard for their own species, then certainly their plans will also include the elimination of the humans as well.
I'm not saying that these two novels will be considered classics of the field in years to come, but for the first efforts of a new author they are very impressive, and they make me eager to read more. It is apparent to me that Allen must be an SF fan of several years, since his work exhibits hints of the style and content of several others in the genre, not the least of which is Robert A. Heinlein. The character of Mac Larson is reminiscent of several of RAH's heroes, such as Johnnie Rico of Starship Troopers and E. C. Gordon from Glory Road. Allen's female protagonists also remind me of many of the strong, intelligent women that populate so many RAH books. The depictions of the strategy of the naval battles reminds me of A. Bertram Chandler, and the overall concepts of the story are like much of the Hard-SF of the early 70s from Frederik Pohl, Larry Niven, and Poul Anderson. Even though it is apparent that Allen has been unable to resist the financial incentive of producing stories based on works by others (both his Star Wars and Asimov robot novels), he has also written a significant number of original works. Another series of books, which began with The Depths of Time (2000), concerns time travel and looks very interesting.
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