Inferno – Mike Resnick

A quick book review for you of Mike Resnick’s lightning-quick read, Inferno. In a nutshell, this book functions as a ringing endorsement of Star Trek’s prime directive, where you’re not supposed to interfere with an alien species. Personally, I never really got the “prime directive.” Why are Kirk, Picard, and the rest of the capitans tooling around the universe exploring, boldly going, if they’re never supposed to get involved. I guess it created tension for the series.

Inferno is the story of human intervention in a land called Faligor, peopled by an alien race dubbed “jasons” because of their golden fleeces. (Get it, a little Greek mythology thing going on there). But, head’s up, that is no random classical allusion. Resnick plans to use his book as a critiquing of the Western ideals that are foisted on other races on our own planet, and the “jason” name is just one facet of that.

Two humans are the central characters of the book: Arthur Cartwright and Linda Beddoes. Arthur is an idealist who wants to build a world the right way, keeping the human Republic out, while also introducing democracy, medicine, education and all the other trappings of (western) civilization to the jasons. (In effect, he’s biting half a loaf of the prime directive!) Linda is his best friend – an entomologist who comes to planet first to study insects, but is the voice of skepticism throughout of the story of Arthur’s firm belief that Faligor can become the model planet.

Short answer: it cannot, and does not. In fact, within a generation the alien world descends into the worst kind of totalitarian state. In short order, Faligor is led by an overly humanized leader who is a traitor to his race, a dictator who tries to wrench the population back to being more “jason-esque” but starts the mass grave thing pretty quickly, a military leader who takes torture and mayhem to a level that would make Mao and Stalin blush, and finally a teacher with a student army who sets things right.

What I found stimulating about the book is how much it comments on our current events. The jasons have tribes that never seem to coalesce into a single race, an echo of the nationalism currently sweeping Europe and the US. Whenever a jason leader takes over, he immediately begins to favor his own tribe. In a clear allusion to what occurred during WWII, a third alien race figures into the Faligor story in a minor way. Deemed “moles, these creatures come in and set up businesses and work in mines. They are an obvious stand in for Jews, an itinerant species that follows opportunity. They are massacred at different points during the narrative, getting blamed for the problems occurring when the dictator needs a scapegoat for what’s ailing the planet.

The final leader, James Krakanna, leads a student army and puts the planet on the right path by the end of the book. Cartwright has died helping Krakanna take power, but with the sad caveat that he never realized his aim of having a perfect planet. Krakanna renames the jasons as Faligori, and even makes it a crime to refer to them by the former Greek-inspired name. Linda Beddoes, Cartwright’s best friend and the constant skeptic, returns to the planet for his funeral and, during the final chapters of the book, interacts with a doctor sent to help the planet recover from the latest dictatorship. By the end of the book, it’s clear that it would have been better if humans, the Republic, had never arrived on Faligor.

How does this jibe with what is going on around the world? How are cultures changed by those who come into them? Is immigration different from invasion in the lasting effects it has on the host/conquered country, particularly if the original population is subsumed by a new one? In Inferno, the humans have nothing but the best of intentions, but still their help leads to a massive death toll within one generation. As humans, we can’t live in bubbles, never interacting with each other, but if we allow a nonnative species to “help” us, does that make us better? It’s an old science fiction question. Star Trek wanted to have it both ways with its prime directive. Inferno appears to argue there is no happy medium – “help” native cultures at their peril.

In the end, the book made me ask – what attempts at nation building have gone well for the US? Further, did Napoleon have any lasting effects on the countries he conquered? In any case, Inferno is a well-done cautionary tale worth your time. Question for the readers out there – have you read anything recently that really made you think about what’s going on in the world? Let me know what it is and if it’s worth reading.

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