Monday, October 24, 2016

Down the Stacks #38: There Will Be Dragons

This week on Down the Stacks, We’ll be looking at an interesting spin on science fiction and fantasy with There Will Be Dragons by John Ringo.

In the far-flung future, humanity has achieved Utopia via technology.  Voice-controlled nanites, teleporters, matter replication, flawless genetic tinkering, and personal protection fields allow people to travel anywhere, eat whatever they want, do anything, and even become something other than human, and thanks to a massive computer program called Mother overseeing the collection and distribution of energy and the health of the biosphere, there’s practically no need for human labor.  The world is one big vacation filled with elves, dwarves, unicorns, mer-people, and dragons, and with all needs and wants fulfilled there’s no need for any government except a council overseeing Mother which is mostly redundant.
Of course, genuine Utopia makes for a very boring story, so things do go bad not long into the story.  A faction of the council, led by a man named Paul Bowman, has become worried that the human population is on its way to extinction by low birthrate and the only solution is to enforce rations on power use and force people to actually work.  Oh, and if they could give up the Changes that render them into nonhuman forms as well?  That’d be great.
The rest of the council, led by Sheida Ghorbani, recognizes Paul’s proposals as essentially reviving fascism and being a generally short-sighted Bad Ideas.  When the factions end up essentially in deadlock on votes, Paul tried to assassinate his rivals and the Council goes to war with all the power on earth at their disposal.
For the rest of the world, the lights go out.  Nanites die, voice commands no longer work, all technology fails and Utopia becomes the Dark Ages.  Fortunately, one of the big hobbies of the era was historical re-enactments covering about every time period, including pre-industrial societies, and our book’s rela protagonist, Edmund Talbot, is an accomplished blacksmith and slavish scholar of history.  Together with his medically-inclined former wife, their daughter, and those among Edmund’s re-enactment buddies that can reach him without teleportation, Edmund sets out to establish a community complete with farmers, soldiers, and all the other professions necessary to survive without electricity.
Aside from the struggle inherent in gathering people unused to hard manual labor and motivating them to learn the skills they need, the only immediate threat to Edmund’s success is an arrogant bully named Dionys McCanoc, who modeled himself as a kind of Dark Elf before the power went out and spends his post-Fall time becoming a bandit king allied to the Bowman faction of the Council.

There Will be Dragons is the first book in a long series, and it’s mostly concerned with Edmund’s efforts to change his home of Raven’s Mill from a re-enactor’s gathering point into a real town while advising Sheida in her efforts to win the Council’s war.  In a lot of ways, it reminds me of 1632 without actual time travel.  Considering that John Ringo has worked with David Weber on some books, and Weber in turn has a close relationship to 1632’s Eric Flint, I think it’s safe to assume they all move in the same circles and help each other.  The book is long and full of great detail about the training programs Edmund set up in Raven’s Mill and some of the repercussions of losing the nanite-fueled birth control protocols humanity had been living with before the Council war broke out.
The world is interesting, and its Utopia form doesn’t overstay its welcome too much, although there are some scenes that seem a bit unnecessary and bring in characters that have little to no impact on the rest of the story.  The post-Fall world collapses to the scope of Raven’s Mill and wherever Sheida winds up holding up, which is never made clear, and occasional scenes with some of Paul’s supporters which only serve to set up problems for future books.
I feel like being harsh to There Will Be Dragons, but I also think I should hold back because it is clearly written as the first installment in a series.  It does tell a complete story, but that story is half-drowned in plot hook establishment and bogged by minute details about military training regimens.  A fair number of the heroes get enough screen time and development to be likable, although not to the point that I particularly care about their future.  The villains are, sadly, fit into a standard set of cliches: the unfettered Mad Scientist, the well-intentioned extremist, the guy who’s only goal is to incite chaos, and so forth.

It is not an unpleasant book to read, but I’d only recommend it if you’re willing to commit the time to look into the rest of the series as well.

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