All is not well in the 23rd century AD. Wracked by centuries of conflict and environmental degradation, Earth's society has reverted to religious, military and civil ideas of discipline and authority that would frighten the overseer in a Victorian gaol. Worldwide political government under the partnership of the United Nations and a Reunified Christian Church has done little more than keep the lid on a boiling mess of social and ecological woes. Earth's many interstellar colonies are kept on a tight leash by the United Nation's navy which exercises an absolute monopoly on all commercial and military shipping.
What Feintuch has created here is a world of moral, ethical and legal extremes; serving alcohol to a minor earns the offender a one-way ticket to a penal colony, rebellion against the government is rebellion against God, Naval discipline is upheld by caning, reformatories practise flogging, heretics are burnt at the stake. In this setting, Feintuch is free to impose the cruellest dilemmas on his characters as a result of harsh rules and absolute obligations, and this is something he does very, very well indeed.
Rising to the challenge of confronting both his societies' enemies, and its own ingrained failings, is UN Space Navy Captain Nicholas Ewing Seafort. Seafort is a man as extreme as his time. His religious convictions are profound, his morality absolute, his ethics rigid. Feintuch's plots consistently push Seafort into situations where his set-in-stone beliefs provoke frightening confrontations, and yet at the same time those beliefs, in their righteousness and uncompromising devotion to true justice deliver him his victories. Almost unbelievably, when the dust settles, Seafort always continues to prove that he is a decent, honourable, caring man.
By the beginning of volume seven in the Seafort Saga, Seafort has had a wild roller-coaster of a career. He's been the man on the spot when humanity encountered the first intelligent (and hostile) alien race. He's fought duels against corrupt naval superiors, defeated rebellion in the colonies, and set colonies free as charter members of the UN. He's risen to be Secretary General of the UN (planetary president) and beaten down the entrenched interests of politicians and patriarchs. He's seen friends, family, colleagues and students pay the lethal price of his exploits again and again and the consequent moral burden has driven him close to madness. You'd think, after all that, the guy would deserve a little time off...
No such luck.
The seventh instalment in the saga is told from the perspective of the teenaged Randolph Carr, orphaned son of one of Seafort's oldest and best-loved friends, Derek Carr. Derek did not survive volume six (this is pretty typical of most people who get close to Seafort), and Randolph, bereaved and rebellious, blames Seafort for his father's horrific death. When Seafort's ship, Olympiad, the pride of the UN navy, arrives above Randolph's world, Hope Nation, Randolph grasps at the opportunity for revenge. The surprise for Randolph is that Seafort blames himself for Derek's death too, and after a few trifling, initial difficulties, the two characters grow close.
It's at this point that Feintuch begins to build up his favoured structure of competing pressures. Every possible angle of attack that can be exploited is piled on the hapless Seafort. The Church is out to get Randolph, and soon enough, Seafort too. His superiors are quislings, his subordinates become mutinous. Hope Nation's politics are a polarised struggle between progressives and conservatives, and to cap it all Seafort's nemesis, the sinister, alien Fish are lurking on the sidelines...
Through all of this, Seafort forges with the iron-clad determination to do what is right, never what is easy. There's a magnificent quality of 'bloody but unbowed' about everything the man does. One can quibble about minor plot points, one can grimace in disgust at a society that's guaranteed to offend every liberal sensibility imaginable and which he is dedicated to protecting, but one can't help admiring him. He's the sole, shining example of what real moral and religious conviction should be like, and his presence makes the self-righteous, small-minded, brutal bigots he confronts look all the more despicable. It all adds up to a book that is a compulsive page-turner.
Feintuch has done something really remarkable in creating and sustaining the character of Nicholas Seafort through seven novels (an eighth is certainly on the way) and some 40 years of adventures. Not since Thomas Covenant has the science fiction and fantasy genre seen a character so rigid, so obsessed, so pressured by his beliefs and circumstances, and yet so very credible. Excellent storytelling, not to be missed.
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© Simeon Shoul 1 December 2001