Neapolitan ice cream with its three stripes of flavor, vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, was a favorite in my house when I was growing up. Charles E. Gannon’s latest novel Raising Caine reminds me of that. Do you like rollicking high-tech military SF? Get yourself a bowl. You want multi-planetary space opera with unusual environments and nonhuman exo-sapients? Dish up. You want a book that makes you think about the nexus of biological evolution and social evolution? Grab a spoon, because this one’s for you.
Raising Caine is the third book in Gannon’s TALES OF THE TERRAN REPUBLIC, and to get the maximum enjoyment out of it, you should first read Fire with Fire and Trial by Fire. I’ve liked all three books, and this one is my favorite. It has fascinating non-human characters, hate-able villains and twisty conspiracies, all playing out on Gannon’s broad intergalactic canvas. (Some spoilers for the first two books below.)
On the heels of Earth’s successful defense against an occupation attempt by the Hkh’Rkh, Caine Riordan barely gets a chance to recuperate before he is assigned by intelligencer Richard Downing to a diplomatic delegation requested by the Slaasriithi. Although the Slaasriithi are personally friendly with Caine — almost suspiciously so — they, like the other advanced species, have been keeping humanity at a discreet distance. Their request is startling, and a little unnerving, since the Slaasrrithi refuse to answer questions, saying only that the humans must see the Slaasriithi worlds in order to understand their race. The humans of the delegation jump at this chance to learn more. Before they learn very much, though, they are attacked by an unseen enemy and stranded on a planet whose entire ecosystem seems hostile to them.
In the previous books, Gannon gave us a villain we loved to hate: the olive-eating man. He has real competition in Raising Caine, though, in the form of Nezdeh, a rebel leader who is a member of a renegade family of the Ktor. As the rebels hijack a Terran ship, we see the rigid hierarchal culture of the Ktor, and learn the source of their animosity toward Terrans. Nezdeh is an intelligent, ruthless strategist, untouched by love or compassion, and those deficits are traits the Ktor have cultivated, and actually admire.
Gannon always creates interesting non-humans, and with the Slaasriithi he goes over the top. This species meets various social needs by bioengineering everything around them, including themselves. In a tightrope-walking dance, the Slassriithi intervene consciously in their own evolution. I’ll admit that my “suspension of disbelief” needle bumped up into the red with the Slaasriithi, but ultimately, Gannon persuaded me by making the Slaasriithi characters behave in a way that is consistent with their biology, even when they have emotional conflicts as a result of it. For instance, Thnessfiirm, who spends a lot of time with Caine and the other human, experiences cognitive dissonance and distress when her biological programming and her ethics conflict with her empathy. In other words, Thnessfiirm and the others we meet are people, grappling with life decisions and ethical decisions in a way we can appreciate.
The book is very “big picture” but it doesn’t ignore the personal. Caine, undisputed leader of the diplomatic delegation, faces a serious personal challenge when he reacts badly to some spores on the planet. His condition gets worse and worse, and soon he is risking his own health by continuing to lead, but his compulsion to protect others won’t let him stop. Nezdeh and the other renegade Ktor are acting out of a toxic form of family pride, and even the human mole in the delegation has motivations we can understand and even sympathize with.
Raising Caine unveils a lot of thought-provoking ideas but ultimately this is a space opera adventure. There are space battles, daring emergency landings, desperate quests, hand-to-hand combat and double-and-triple crosses. It’s an engrossing read. You owe it to yourself to read the two previous books in order. Then enjoy Raising Caine. It’s an intergalactic thrill-ride.