Monday, May 14, 2012

Vortex by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch

Our hero, Sten, has become the Emperor's prized ambassador, being sent from one trouble spot to another, as he tries to hold things together after the devastation of the war with the Tahn's and the privy council's incompetence have begun the slow descent into division and barbarism. Sten's new assignment is the Altaic Cluster, with the capital world of Rurik.

In creating the Altaics, Cole and Bunch draw from fairly contemporary history of Asia and the Middle East. The parallels to India's multicultural and often warring factions are mentioned, but one can also see glimpses of Iran and Iraq in the latter half of the twentieth century, as in the Khaqan's (ruler of the cluster) incessant and obsessive building of monuments to himself "from a grateful people", to the Emperor's choice of successor to the Khaqan, Dr. Iskra, a scholar in exile - think of Reza Pahlavi and Ayatollah Khomenei. Oh, don't forget the violent supression of student riots, as in Tianamen Square.

Wherever they got all their sources of information, the cluster has traditionally been ruled with an iron fist to keep the four major races and factions from acting up too much, and when the Khaqan passes away suddenly, most beings hope that a new era is at hand, without the oppression, for a change. Alas, it is not to be. Dr. Iskra turns out to be an even more ruthless tyrant than his predecessor, and Sten must try to put a good face on things for public consumption back in the Empire, while simultaneously letting his boss know the truth of matters on Rurik.

A great quote from one of the rioting students, that almost perfectly sums up the attitude of progressive scholars,

"Most beings - meaning the, well, uneducated classes - want to be told what to do", He leaned forward, impassioned, "They feel...uncomfortable with weighty decisions. They want structure in their lives. It makes them...."

"Comfortable?" Sten helped.

"How astute of you, Sr Ambassador. That's the word exactly. Comfortable. And happy, as well."

"Educated ones know best." Nirsky said.

Unfortunately for all concerned, the returned Emperor is slipping rapidly into megalomaniacal paranoia. The controls placed on his incarnations by the ship beyond the veil of the alternate universe are slipping, and he and his ally, Poyndex, take further steps to keep that control from returning. Sten and Alex and Mahoney are left trying to mitigate the damage and chaos from the Altaics.

This one has some biting political commentary, leavening the usual spying, treachery and adventure.

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