Before his success in the ’90s as the leading purveyor of alternate history novels (which I consider their own genre apart from SF, but fans are free to debate the distinction), Harry Turtledove paid his dues with a string of reliable SF and fantasy stories, the former of which frequently graced the pages of Stan Schmidt's Analog. Noninterference, originally serialized in Analog, is a rarity from this period. And though it is fun to read, I was disappointed that a potentially brilliant story of culture clash on an alien world turned into a routine political thriller that abuses your suspension of disbelief with gleeful abandon.
The story unspools in a future in which humanity has spread throughout the galaxy, and anthropologists working under the aegis of the Federacy Survey Service conduct passive observations of rising, pretechnological alien cultures under a strict policy of noninterference in their development. But on the planet Bilbeis IV, Service observer David Ware takes pity upon a benevolent and progressive queen dying of cancer, and persuades his team to allow him to heal her. This clear case of interference, despite its compassionate motives, disturbs Ware's colleagues who worry about its long term ramifications as well as the precedent it sets. But the cure seems a harmless act of goodwill.
Fifteen hundred years pass. Bilbeis IV has become infamous among the Federacy. Ware's superiors in the Service took a much dimmer view of his actions when he got back, and history now remembers him as practically a villain. But no one expects how effective Ware's healing really was. When a new Service team arrives on Bilbeis to record the progress of its civilization, they find that the goddess all the locals are worshiping is the ancient queen herself...still alive after 1500 years!
The book is close to brilliant up to this point, effectively driving home the point that even the most beneficent of actions can have catastrophic consequences. But then Turtledove shifts gears and immediately returns us to Earth, where the comically villianous Chairman of the Survey Service, Paulina Koch, receives the report from the latest survey team about the startling situation on Bilbeis. Stressed out already because of pressure from the Purists, a group so heavily into noninterference that they want the Survey Service shut down altogether, she immediately morphs into a baddie straight out of a cheesy movie. She even has a sniveling but ambitious henchman to do her dirty work. She's basically a female Snidely Whiplash, lacking only a moustache to twirl.
Turtledove sacrifices a big chunk of his story's credibility here, as what was looking like a fascinating bit of speculative fiction about the rights and wrongs of influencing cultures turns into the kind run-for-your-life thriller that guys like John Grisham and James Patterson phone in.
Koch is panicked that, if word of the immortal queen on Bilbeis gets out, it will be the ultimate disaster that will destroy the Survey Service forever, so she spares nothing in trying to suppress it. When the news falls into the hands of a college professor, he gets whacked. Then, a passenger liner carrying the crew of the returning survey ship suspiciously crashes, incidentally killing 300 other people. Frankly, I had a teensy bit of a hard time believing that this organization dedicated to peaceful scientific study and governed by an altruistic, ethical notion like noninterference had suddenly transformed into a scarifying Gestapo-like entity (run by Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS herself) that murders anyone who might embarrass it in the slightest. And woe betide innocent bystanders!
The problem here, apart from goofy clichés, is that Turtledove is just telling the wrong story. It's amazing how indifferent everyone seems to the fact that the queen of Bilbeis has been made immortal (hello!?) by a cancer drug. Of course, some people are skeptical of the report, but Koch knows better. And she only cares about the Survey Service losing its appropriations and being closed for good.
Even our stalwart heroes, Stavros (a grad student of the slain professor) and Magda (the only survivor of the murdered survey crew, who's actually met the queen), are more concerned with exposing the violation of noninterference than they are with the fact that someone in the universe has lived in perfect health for a millennium and a half. It seems to me that's the main issue of concern, not some political policy. Hell, when word gets out, there are going to be riots in the streets, with one group of people demanding the drug be made to work for Earthmen, and another group equally opposed to this violation of nature wanting the drug destroyed. Who cares about petty politics when eternal life is in the offing?
Sure, this book is fun to read if you come into it with low expectations and the desire for nothing more than a light paperback actioner. But the early chapters of the book don't lead you to have such low expectations, hence the eventual letdown. Noninterference makes you wish, in the end, that someone on the editorial chain had been running a little interference after all.
Re-released by Baen Books in 2004 as part of the omnibus edition 3×T.