West of Honor

The Raw Feeds on Jerry Pournelle’s Co-Dominium series continue while I work on new stuff.

Raw Feed (1990): West of Honor, Jerry Pournelle, 1976.West of Honor

Pournelle is a master of deftly creating a plausible society, exploring the interaction between politics, the military, economics, and human psychology — in short, Pournelle explores the ecology of human society. Pournelle’s ideas are much like Robert Heinlein who he admires very much: rugged individualism, little government interference, the importance of honor and the military, and a hard headed realization that life must be lead according to pragmatic truths rather than pleasant fictions.

But I think Pournelle is a better, in some ways, propagandist for those values, better because his prose incorporates the moral and philosophical statements into the story better, and, while Heinlein is given to lecturing, Pournelle shows the human consequences of the argument. Pournelle is not given to straw men for the opposing side. Nor are the solutions to problems in Pournelle’s stories entirely good with no moral taint or bad consequences.

Often the solutions pose their own problems — they are just better than not solving the problems. In this story, Governor Swale is seen as corrupt, cooperating with the convict gangs to terrorize Arrarat and destroy the CoDominium forces and a client of Grand Senator Bronson. (Pournelle, in taking a lead from the Roman Empire, mentions clientage as a corrupting influence in the CoDominium). Yet, Falkenberg says he is right in saying the convicts must be cared for and that Arrarat, despite the religious colonists’ wishes, must be industrialized. The River Pack gang, defeated by John Christian Falkenberg, is seen as not just convicts but involuntary colonists forced to survive, and they are not the most brutal of the convict gangs. The colonists, when the convicts are defeated, institute a tyrannical commission on morals and conduct brutal reprisals against other colonists suspected of helping the convicts.

Falkenberg, in what seems to be an echo — especially given the date this book was written — of the Vietnam War asks of narrator Lieutenant Leo Slater (then Captain) if he insists the people they help be saints. In another section, the colonists say they don’t want the CoDominium’s help unless the gangs are utterly wiped out. Otherwise, the gangs will return when the CoDominium leaves and conduct reprisals. This is a commentary on America’s conduct of the Vietnam War. In what stands as a major thematical statement of this work; Falkenberg chides Slater for being upset by “Finding out that things aren’t as simple as you’d like them to be?” The CoDominium forces are mentioned, without providing details, as being used in brutal actions that are not just. (In The Mercenary, Falkenberg says justice isn’t something that soldiers concern themselves with, but they are good at providing order.) Swale says the Marines fought for the ethereal honor of the Legion, the convicts for their family, friends, and land.

Falkenberg tells Slater they are used for evil ends but occasionally, on Arrarat and other places, they can do some good. Their main virtue is that the Fleet keeps the peace and Earth alive. (Much like the corrupt legions of Rome did provide the Pax Romana.) Many critics see in Pournelle’s work a statement endorsing the value of feudalism or on a structured, hierarchical society. (People do revert to it in his co-authored Lucifer’s Hammer but that is not an explicit endorsement. The planet of Hadley in The Mercenary, a planet in dire straights, is said to be heading toward feudalism and barbarism by one character.) This novel does not address the latter questions in that much detail. But Colonel Harrington, head of the CoDominium garrison on Hadley, says that though the CoDominium isn’t in the democracy-building business others would like to try it and, implicitly, he wants to help. Nor does Pournelle advocate a military government as some have said. This is made very explicit in The Mercenary but not here.

Pournelle, again more explicitly in The Mercenary but also here, sees the military as being the solution that, rightly or wrongly, governments turn to after messing things up through ignorance, incompetence, or veniality. Often the civilians complain about the military’s actions or don’t understand the details and problems in bringing about political change by force. This shows up in The Mercenary and in this novel in the arguments by Falkenberg and Harrington with Swale on the best way to deal with the gangs. Swale balks at brutal measures, but his proposals would not solve the problem.

The honor of the Fleet is talked about in this novel, an honor that does not exist in the CoDominium as a whole. I’m not sure what that means exactly. Perhaps that the Fleet is honest as to what its violent, brutal job is, that it does not deceive its own members and cares for its own under any circumstances, that its members know they are there to die. It can be an alluring, comfortable way of life for some, but Pournelle does not imply it’s for everyone. Falkenberg calls the farmers good people and does not scorn them.

Pournelle does a good job at showing Falkenberg’s (the obvious voice of Pournelle) brilliance, dedication, thoroughness, and cunning. But Falkenberg is aloof and not the main character of this novel. Leo Slater is. Pournelle shows us a junior officer on his first command with all the accompanying doubts, indecision, ignorance, inexperience, and pangs at the people he orders to their death. While Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War take a recruit through the process of military initiation and indoctrination, Pournelle emphasizes the problems of first command and only in passing mentions the rest.

Kathryn Malcolm, the tough woman of the novel, is a nice touch. She shows the human, emotional consequences of the politics on Arrarat. I liked other touches: the mixture of high and low tech on Arrarat. It was quite plausible and a very valid point that using animals instead of machinery for farming on a colony world makes a lot of sense and works — no support industries required, self-replication, easy transport. I suspect Amos Malcolm’s statement that technology is fine as long as you use it and are not used by it is Pournelle’s sensible opinion. On Arrarat, technology is not put to frivolous use nor is there an emphasis on the latest, just what works. It’s sad, at novel’s end, to know that the industrialized, polluted world they fled must follow the colonists as well as the incorporation of corporations into the client-patron system of the CoDominium.


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