Monday, February 28, 2011

Book Reivew: HARDFOUGHT (1983) by Greg Bear

The true end of history . . .

In the novella Hardfought, humans are at war with the Senexi, a strange alien race with a hive mind consciousness that gives them true racial memory. Any branch of the Senexi has access to all of the memories and experiences of the whole. They have evolved as a vast, sentient organic computer. They don't build their technology, they grow it as a part of their life cycle. Humans and Senexi are so strange to one another that meaningful communication is impossible.

When both races seek to colonize the same expanse of interstellar turf, war is inevitable. Human beings must adapt themselves via cellular machine technology and genetic experiments to the harsh conditions of deep space travel and combat. At first, homo sapiens are at a distinct disadvantage. The Senexi are naturally adapted across billions of years of cosmic evolution to exist in extreme environmental conditions that are instantly lethal to unprotected and unmodified humans. The Senexi also have a profound unity of culture and thought that allows all of them to be rapidly mobilized in defense of the species. But humanity is a quick study, and they are more experienced in war and genocide by many thousands of years.

A slim lead, to be sure, but it just may be all they require.

Hardfought tells a strange and complex story of a human/alien conflict, well-worn terrain in science fiction literature. Greg Bear works some brilliant changes on the formula. It is told in an unusual fashion using a kind of pared-down language which efficiently incorporates superscience and slang to reflect the integration of human brains with vast technologies of artificial intelligene and combat apparatus. The human protagonist is a young female soldier named Prufrax, who is trained to operate a high tech battlesuit that is a kind of highly evolved version of the armor used in the human/insect skirmishes of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. Prufrax is known as a Hawk, a warrior, and she undergoes extensive genetic, cybernetic, and psychological modification and indoctrination in order to merge with her machine and to be able to battle the Senexi on their own turf.

The Senexi protagonist is Arryz, a segment of the hive mind known as a Branch Ind. Arryz is designated by the controlling consciousness to become human, to become an individual, so that the Senexi can better understand their enemy. The Senexi do not understand human culture or psychology. They come to find it repugnant, and as Arryz becomes more human, he becomes more alienated from the hive mind. It causes him much pain, distress, and confusion.

Bear doesn't really take a side in this conflict. The Senexi aren't a stand-in for America's enemy of the moment. They are not science fiction analogues for the Soviets of the 1980s or the terrorists of the twenty-first century. Rather, Bear is attempting to explore, as best he can, what a war between humanity and a truly alien and all-but-incomprehensible species would be like. Bear takes this exploration to places beyond the intergalactic war zone. He asks tough questions about the consequences of a human or alien culture that evolves to be built around the perpetration of total war against an enemy.

Bear packs a lot of detail into this novella. It could've easily been a full length novel or a whole franchise of books chronicling the derring-do of battlesuited human warriors, but the author has something else in mind. Instead of an adventure story, he wants to simulate what it would take to wage intergalactic warfare. His central concept is that as humans further refine the war machine they become less human. They become more like the Senexi, the very thing they claim to oppose. On the opposite side, the Senexi find themselves pressured to become more human, and less Senexi.

The farflung command and control apparatus of the human war machine begins to select out the finest warriors to be rapidly cloned and decanted for combat. Individuality is only useful as it relates to the war. Only those individuals who fight the best are preserved. Soon, there are only three or four types of people replicated over and over again. Such is the logic of human militarism carried to a far future extreme.

In the long term, only the essential elements of human culture and history are preserved, lest the clone warriors start surfing the online libraries and asking tough questions that don't fit the logic of the war machine. The intellectual and historical heritage of humankind is systematically edited and propagandized to legitimate the ongoing, everlasting conflict.

Hardfought isn't just some high concept rehash of Starship Troopers. It's a rebuke to Us vs. Them sci-fi sagas of intergalactic conflict.
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