Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Space pirates, smelly aliens, space battles, and the Chief Justice of the Commonwealth of Kentucky: The Ninth Circle, by R.M. Meluch.

Raucous, breezy, tongue-in-cheek, yet also thoughtful and filled with insight into both big ideas and human relationships, R.M. Meluch's "Merrimack" series continues in The Ninth Circle.

First and foremost, this is a book about people. Rebecca Meluch has a deft touch when it comes to creating and bringing to life characters. Earlier books like Chicago Red, Wind Child, and Wind Dancers were very much character studies, sensitively drawn and interesting, and wove those characters into complex and well-thought-out future settings. Meluch's "Merrimack" books do the same, but somehow the tone is light, often comical, yet there is a solid backbone of human truth in them. She takes the tropes of grand adventure military space opera, and replaces the usual two-dimensional characters with complex, thinking human beings.

One of the major conceits of these books is that the Roman Empire never fell. Oh, this isn't an alternate history...quite. The Romans went underground, biding their time as the centuries passed. They educated themselves, amassed fortunes, placed themselves in key positions, and took on important careers like those of doctors and scientists, waiting for the right time to assert, once again, Rome's primacy over Earth. Mankind's spread to the stars gave this shadow society its chance to finally step out of the dark and declare itself openly, with Rome claiming a planet they named Palatine, and asserting their claim on Earth as the domain of the Roman Empire. Opposing Rome is the good ol' U.S of A., which duels both with Rome, and the United Nations, renamed in this book the League of Earth Nations, or the LEN. It's a premise that makes me laugh with its sheer audacity, and sets the stage for some incredible fun.

The Space Battleship U.S.S. Merrimack, pride of the American spacefleet, is now commanded by Calli Carmel. Commodore John Farragut is now an admiral, and has happily moved back home to Earth and busies himself with, along with his duties, raising a family. I dig that Meluch didn't contrive some way for Farragut to remain at the helm, along the lines of Star Trek's Kirk. Farragut's presence still looms large, and how could it not? Farragut is one of the most colorful, larger-than-life characters I've ever seen in science fiction. I can imagine him and Kirk becoming fast friends and swapping starship stories while throwing back some beers. Yet he's still real.

At the end of Strength and Honor, it felt like Meluch had drawn the tale of the Merrimack to a conclusion. Like a Roman comedy, everyone ended up married. The Hive, one of the most terrifying and interesting alien menaces I've ever seen in science fiction, was defeated. Rome's threat to Earth had been averted. There was an elegiacal feeling to it all, though, despite the happiness of the characters. This was due more to me, as a reader, mourning the end of a story that I'd eagerly read, than to the book itself. Meluch gave the "Tour of the Merrimack" a satisfying conclusion, yet that satisfaction was tempered with a wistful desire on my part for more stories in this wonderful setting.

That's why I was tickled to learn that the Merrimack would return. The Ninth Circle is a great new beginning, delving into the increasingly rich future setting Meluch has created. Glenn Hamilton, officer on the Merrimack, saddled by Farragut with the nickname "the Hamster," is on leave and with her husband as he joins a scientific expedition to a distant planet. In another part of the galaxy, a band of Roman recruits are exiled for cowardice. The Chief Justice of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, a larger-than-life figure even in a universe where larger-than-life is the rule, visits his eldest son, John Farragut, without explanation. Pirates begin to plague the spaceways. Numa Pompeii, Emperor of Rome, goes on an unprecedented tour of the galactic hinterlands. It's all woven together skillfully, creating a larger narrative that brings all these elements together. Meluch doesn't overdo the mystery, and characters figure out much of it when they should, but the human side of it all is what stands out in this book. Great science fiction, in my opinion, is always about huge ideas and how humans interact with those ideas. The Ninth Circle covers that territory well.

Meluch tackles head-on many of the tropes and inconsistencies inherent in space opera. She has addressed time travel and quantum physics, in some cases in spectacularly story-changing ways. She does not handwave away the implications of extraterrestrial life, and squarely grabs the concept and pulls it front and center, making the reader think about what constitutes extraterrestrial life, and how it could impact every aspect of society. She also makes the presence of DNA in supposedly alien life a plot point, when most writers and filmmakers would simply gloss over it or not even understand why it's important in the first place. To me, it's nothing short of amazing how Meluch never neglects any aspect of her narrative - neither scientific concepts nor human interactions suffer a lapse of attention in this book.

Overall, this is a great book. Pure fun, and that includes how it deals with big scientific concepts. The door has been left open for more, and I sure hope to see more soon.

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