S.M. Stirling
The Stone Dogs (1990)
Reviewed: 2001-06-11

The third novel set in the alternate timeline of the Draka sees the Protracted Conflict between the Domination and the United States-led Alliance for Democracy throughout the second half of the 20th century. The end of the Eurasian war (equivalent to WWII) has left the remaining two world powers with the threat of mutual nuclear annihilation and a corresponding stalemate.

The outset of the book drops us into the 1960s, when the next generation of the opponents from Under the Yoke is growing up. On the Draka side, we follow the life of Yolande Ingolfsson, niece of Eric von Shrakenberg. For the decades to follow, her existence is intertwined in deadly ways with that of a pair of twins fighting for the Alliance, Frederick and Marya Lefarge.

In ultimately futile attempts to outdo each other, the Alliance and the Draka expand the arms race of the Conflict into space, first into Earth orbit, then to Luna, Mars, the Belt, the Jovian Moons, and beyond. Far away from the vulnerable planet, violent skirmishes between fusion-driven war craft and even outright piracy become commonplace. And both sides work on secret weapons that will imperceptibly spread behind the enemy lines, to be called into action when the final war breaks out.

Much of the novel is written from the viewpoint of the Draka, and again they come across as more likable than they should. Their advances in the bio-sciences lead to disturbing results: the creation of the ghouloons, semi-intelligent, ape-like beasts as cheap infantry; the use of "brooders", slave women to gestate Draka children; and finally their own speciation. Where previous generations merely appeared superhuman due to upbringing and training, the New Race is genetically engineered for actual superiority, and purposely infertile with the serf population.

This should give readers pause to think, beyond the universe of a novel. The fundamental problem with traditional racism is that the claimed basic superiority of one ethnic group over others just doesn't hold water. However, in the Draka universe the illusion is turned into biological fact. The Draka engineer themselves into a new species of the genus Homo, a superior predator preying on H. sapiens. This raises profound ethical questions, and simply disqualifying the Draka as evil, much like sheep must judge a wolf, does not do justice to the problem. While I don't consider a path like that of the Draka plausible in our world—that particular time window has probably passed—humanity will evolve or perish, and some kind of speciation is a very real possibility. See Greg Egan's Diaspora for a more delectable scenario.

Let's return to The Stone Dogs. Stirling also throws in some food for thought about how much choice an individual has, and whether the choices of an individual can shape history. Few may feel a need to contemplate this, but image your finger resting on the button that may unleash the war to end humanity.

So, what do we have here? A competently written military SF novel, set in a meticuously crafted alternate history universe, and offering unexpected inducement for further reflection.

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Christian "naddy" Weisgerber <naddy@mips.inka.de>