The Hidden War

the-hidden-warThe Hidden War by Michael Armstrong
TSR, 1994
Price I paid: 90¢

Thanks to the wonder of the hide, no one starves or freezes or gets sick on the perfect worlds of the Solarian Alliance. Like a synthetic skin, the hide protects and heals, and can transform people into anything they want to be. Nothing threatens this wondrous utopia until an extraterrestrial message of unspeakable horror is received. An evil race terrorizes the galaxy, and it’s coming toward Earth….

Into this world the Solarian Alliance frees Krim, the last survivor of the Beat asteroid known as the Jack and a prisoner since he saw his world vanish into that strange other space known as Ur. Disgusted with this utopia, Krim enlists in the distant fight at the edge of the solar system, the battle no one on Earth may know about, lest it disrupt their perfect peace…the Hidden War.

This book has a heck of a lot going on and I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to cover it all. There were, as you can probably tell, lots of reasons why this book looked like it would be bad. The front cover is a little on the boring side, the back matter text is just a mess, and the publisher, TSR, is better known for being the folks that released Dungeons and Dragons material, among many other properties, before going broke and being sold to Wizards of the Coast in 1997.

Once again, though, it appears that I’ve hit upon a pretty darn good book disguised as one that should have flopped. I really enjoyed this read, but it packed an awful lot into its 250 pages.

The author, Michael Armstrong, seems to like setting stories in his home of Alaska, but The Hidden War in an exception. It’s set in an undefined future, in space, and it manages to hold itself to fairly hard science fiction for most of the book. There are some concepts that are a bit out there near the beginning and the end, but the middle, specifically the dynamics of the titular war, manages to use some hard sci-fi concepts in intriguing ways.

Our hero, Krim, is a Beat. We don’t get a decent explanation of what that means until nearly the end of the book, but off the bat we know that he hails from an asteroid named the Jack. What we eventually find out is that the asteroid was colonized by folks with a deep appreciation for the Beat Generation. The asteroid is named after Jack Kerouac, for instance.

Perhaps one of the most telling things about this book is the explanation that the asteroid was originally meant to be colonized by Latter Day Saints, and their ship was named the Orson Scott Card. This book was clearly influenced by Ender’s Game, and it was nice to see the author name-check that influence.

The book begins with Krim, a fighter pilot, defending his home from something called the Ameruss. Right away we get mentions of something called Ur, some kind of otherspace that the Beats have access to. The battle goes badly and in a last ditch effort to save his home, Krim ends up causing an accident that sends the entire Jack asteroid into Ur, seemingly destroying it. Krim mainly despairs because his girlfriend, Corso, is there, and now she’s gone forever along with his home. He gets captured by a ship called the Kirkpatrick and thrown into prison for fifteen years.

A lot happens in those fifteen years. Krim is finally released into a world he knows little about. The Ameruss, defined at one point by its “Marxist-Reaganist” policies, has evolved into the Solarian Alliance. Krim is released because his skills are needed once again. It appears that there is a new threat to the solar system, and they need him to fight it.

Krim refuses, but not before he’s issued a “hide,” a sort of symbiotic skin that protects and nurtures its wearer, and a “slate,” a portable AI that allows him to interface with his hide. He goes out into the world and explores Earth for a little bit.

This part felt a little tacked on until the end when it was revisited. I felt the same way about whatever Ur was supposed to be. On Earth, Krim meets a lady who has been “hacked” by a “Zoetrope,” who basically takes control of her body via her slate. Krim frees her and decides that if this is what Earth is like, he doesn’t want any part of it, so he heads back out into space to fight the new menace, hilariously named the Terrorons.

The Terrorons aren’t here yet. The Alliance has received broadcasts from an unknown source showing video of the hideous monsters killing and destroying other alien species, most notably a race of what looks like teddy bears, because subtlety. The Alliance is concerned that if the solar system is ever found, the Terrorons will destroy humanity, so Krim’s mission will be to fly around the Oort cloud and make sure that no Terroron probes ever get into the inner solar system.

The middle section of the book is primarily training montage. We learn a lot about how all this is supposed to work, and it’s pretty great. Fighter craft are called poddies, which is short for something, and they’re controlled by telepresence. An ansible is mentioned. The ships themselves are pretty simple. They fling kinetic charges―literally just rocks―and they’re not meant to be recoverable. Once the pilot has finished the mission, he or she jacks out and kamikazes the ship into whatever it’s fighting. This is supposed to be very safe, but of course we find out that it’s not all that safe after all. It turns out that if the pilot’s ship is destroyed before the pilot can jack out, he or she dies in real life, too. At first I thought this was just a way of raising the stakes, but it turns out to have a real impact on the story later on, so I have to give some credit for that.

Oh, and there’s no FTL travel in this world, so the poddies are launched months or years in advance before anybody interacts with them. They are launched with a combination of railgun-type thing and “Dyson drive,” which is exactly the same thing as Project Orion. I give major props to anybody utilizing nuclear propulsion of that sort. It’s a soft spot for me.

By the time a pilot jacks in to the poddy, it’s hurtling out of the solar system at about a quarter the speed of light.

The plot is pretty formulaic for military science fiction. It can be broken down into

  1. Enlistment
  2. Training
  3. Suspicion
  4. Combat
  5. Big reveal
  6. Denouement

I’m not ragging on the book for this. It worked.

Krim’s suspicion phase arrives when he’s forced to destroy something that looks an awful lot like a  friendly poddy. His AI insists that it’s an alien probe and that it needs to be destroyed immediately, but he hesitates. Then the thing turns and fires on him and he destroys it. His hesitation would earn him punishment, but the fact that he’s actually destroyed an alien craft means that he’s now an Ace and gets special privileges. The incident is enough to make him wonder what exactly is going on, and if he’s being told the whole truth.

On a later mission, Krim encounters another “alien” vessel. His attempt to destroy it fails, and when it comes time to jack out of the poddy, he is unable. The poddy and Krim get captured, and here we get the Big Reveal.

There aren’t any Terrorons. It turns out that the Jack is still around, and all of Krim’s Beat friends are on it.

I pretty much expected this turn of events, but I didn’t expect where it would go after that. My thoughts were that we would learn that the Beats were still out there somewhere and that the Solarian Alliance knew that and was using Krim to kill his old friends. This turns out not to be the case. Instead, the Beats were transmitting the videos of the Terrorons in an attempt to take Earth out of its hedonistic stupor by giving it a common enemy.

We learn a lot of this and then we cut back to Krim’s real body. He doesn’t remember any of this. It turns out that communications with his poddy were severed. Normally this would kill the pilot but we need to continue the story, so it doesn’t this time. We find out that the poddies aren’t so much “remotely controlled” as they are advanced AI brains that duplicate the pilot’s mind, or something like that. The upshot is that the poddies are basically alive and Krim is very upset about this. The reader now gets to realize that Krim’s poddy is out there with a duplicate Krim in it all along.

An alert sounds. Something has shown up at the base. Krim, who isn’t supposed to fly anymore after that last incident, finds an old manned poddy and flies out to meet the interloper. Some Ur stuff happens.

Okay, the thing about Ur is that I liked it and it also bothered me. We never find out what it is or what it can do or what it’s for or how it works, and I wanted to know. I liked it because of the usual reasons: there was no “as you know” dialogue and it was common enough for Krim, our viewpoint character, that he took it for granted. It bothered me because without any kind of rules hashed out in the text, it could do just about anything the author wanted it to. That’s not a major problem, but it does mean that the reader doesn’t know what to expect, so when the big finale happens, it seems to come from nowhere.

It’s also weird to me how the Beats are masters of Ur while nobody else, especially the high-tech Solarian Alliance, knows anything about it. It’s stated that the Beats keep knowledge of how to utilize it a secret, but surely if they figured it out, somebody else could too. It made the Beats into some sort of techno-wizards, and that felt unnatural.

So because some Ur stuff is happening, Krim starts to figure out that he’s dealing with his old pals. He and a fellow pilot named Minae get captured, and Krim’s suspicions are confirmed. He even gets to meet his old girlfriend, Corso, and they exposition each other a little bit. Krim then meets the poddy with the duplicated personality in it, which he calls Ship, and it seems they have a new mission now.

I feel like this plot is getting confusing. A large part of that is my own fault. I don’t think I’m summarizing it well. It made a lot of sense when I was reading it. Still, it occurs to me just how much is going on here. If this book has a fault, it’s that there are too many sci-fi concepts floating around to keep straight. On the other hand, those concepts did tie together pretty tightly. Nothing was just floating around being a neat idea. Everything was connected somehow, even though it took a while for all the pieces to come together.

Krim and Krim2 and Corso and the Beats all decide that Earth has become too contented and needs to be shaken up. Since everybody has a hide that can provide them with everything they need, there’s no incentive to explore and grow and all of those things you expect from the moral at the end of a science fiction novel. So Krim and his ship go back to Earth (Ur apparently allows FTL travel of a sort) and shake things up, sending out a virus that turns off everybody’s hides and probably killing lots and lots of people in the process when they don’t know what to do with themselves, but at least humanity is saved in a way.

Okay, so the ending didn’t do much for me. I think there are a lot of consequences to this action that don’t get examined or thought of, and the moral of the story is a little bit on the right wing side of things for me. Namely, it’s the idea that if people have their basic needs taken care of without cost, they will become entitled and apathetic. I fall on the other side of that idea: if people aren’t constantly struggling for bare survival, they will have the resources and time to make something of themselves. How many great works of art and science have been lost because somebody starved to death too early, or lost their home to a medical bankruptcy, or any one of a hundred other preventable situations?

On the other hand, people are now mentally connected through the Ur, because apparently that’s one of the things it can do, so there’s this newfound sense of community spread across all of humanity, so maybe I’m being a bit harsh in calling out the libertarian overtones in the end of this book.

This book presents us with one of the more common science fiction tropes, the hardscrabble and independent belters who fight hard for a living versus the indolent Earthfolk who don’t know how good they’ve got it. My question is, just why is it always belters? I’m not against the idea, just seems so common that it’s mystifying to me. Sure, we get libertarian moon people in Heinlein and I’m sure more than one book has a setup like this on Mars, but just what is it that’s so attractive about the Asteroid Belt in these stories?

I enjoyed this book and I recommend it, which is something I didn’t expect to say when I started. The beginning was a little bit touch-and-go for a while, but the book found itself eventually. Good characters with personality, which helps a lot. Perhaps most odd is the fact that this book, several times, refers to the character’s genitals directly, and when it does, it’s always really clinical about it. There are several mentions of the “penis” and “scrotum” in this book that were probably less than necessary.

Really, though, I think this is one worth checking out. Who’d’ve thunk it?

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