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The Parafaith War by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.3 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsSet in a distant future in which the Earth has long been uninhabitable and humanity has spread amongst the stars, The Parafaith War is — like so many of L.E. Modesitt’s books — a meticulously conceived and executed tale with epic aspirations. Its appeal will likely be limited to Modesitt’s fanbase, who will be used to his unhurried pacing, as well as hard SF readers for whom chapter after chapter of technical and military shop talk is catnip.

Trystin Desoll is a young lieutenant serving the Ecological Technocratic (Eco-Tech) Coalition, which is at war with the fanatically religious “revs,” the Revenants of the Prophet. Eco-Tech are, despite their devotion to science and technology, suffering from dwindling resources due to their commitment to environmental stewardship. The Revenants, who populate like mad and burn through resources without a care, require lebensraum.

We meet Trystin as he is stationed at one of several perimeter outposts on a world called Mara, which is undergoing terraforming, and which the revs have decided they must claim at all costs. The religious fervor of the revs is baffling to Trystin, who can’t understand why anyone would take on sheer faith the claims of some self-styled prophet, let alone go to war for them. Many of Trystin’s fellow soldiers have simply taken a dehumanizing view of the revs, delighting in the prospect of slaughtering them. Meanwhile, the revs have accelerated their war effort, employing new weapons (including genetically modifying some of their soldiers to be organic suicide bombers!) and cloaking technology.

The conflict is being closely observed by an alien race called the Farhkan, who are enigmatic in their motives as are all aliens in books like this. The Farhkan have what might be called a cordial relationship, if not actually an alliance, with Eco-Tech, and they’ve been observing (with the Coalition’s cooperation) several individual Eco-Tech soldiers closely, including Trystin. Ghere, a Farhkan emissary, pops up now and then to engage Trystin in Socratic dialogues about ethics that leave him baffled as to the aliens’ motives. The Farkhan have provided beneficial technology to the Coalition, and they promise more in exchange for these strange interviews. But everyone suspects they have a hidden agenda.

After singlehandedly repulsing a ferocious rev assault, Trystin gets a promotion of sorts and is assigned to undergo pilot training on the asteroid station Chevel Beta, to learn how to control “translation engines.” This is a technology for interstellar jump travel, and we’re treated to much infodumping on how it works, how mathematically complicated and risky it is, and so forth. Trystin is then assigned to the battle cruiser Willis, where he spends years solidifying his reputation as a combat pilot. This is where the book hangs up its “Hard SF Fans Only” sign, while readers more in the mood for lighter adventure fare will tap out in boredom. There’s no faulting Modesitt’s attention to detail. It’s just that so much minutiae (we hear so much about an energy drink called Sustain that I wish I could buy stock in the company) will exhaust the patience of all but a niche of fans. As a fan of hard SF myself, there were plenty of moments where Modesitt’s detail-obsessed prose created a real sense of immersion. Others made my eyes glaze. If nothing else, The Parafaith War succeeds wildly at capturing the mixture of tension and tedium aboard a spacecraft waging what seems an unwinnable war.

There’s some initial awkwardness in how the book explores themes of racism and sexism. In this future, Modesitt has had humanity fracture along racial lines, with the Revenants descended from white Americans, creating a theocratic culture drawn in part from traditional Mormonism. Desoll experiences prejudice from other Eco-Tech, mostly of East Asian descent, because his fair skin and blonde hair make him resemble a rev. Trystin laments the unfairness of it to himself, but never questions why it’s an acceptable bigotry to direct towards the revs, until, in a third act twist, he’s assigned to go deep undercover on the Revenant world of Orum to assassinate an enemy admiral. Rev culture, to put it bluntly, feels too unrealistic. It’s a fundamentalist idyll, where everyone calls each other “brother” and “sister,” and men can have up to six wives. This has led to the population problem that more or less motivates the rev war effort. But with so many young rev men lost to the war, Trystin — posing as “Brother Wyllum” — finds he is very appealing to single young rev women who don’t relish being married off to some patriarch.

Unless this society comes down like an absolute hammer on the slightest dissent or independent streak (and there’s a hint such revs exist, and are hurriedly shipped to the front lines), it’s hard to believe there are no religious dissidents among them, or that no women seem to have rebelled against their social status as little more than possessions and broodmares. Not even a germ of feminism has taken root in such potentially fertile political soil? Really? (Even Saudi Arabia, our present day’s most misogynist theocratic culture, has an active feminist movement fighting for human rights gains for women.) Societies that stomp on human rights always experience dissension, even outright revolution. But no, apart from a general weariness about the unending war against Eco-Tech, the revs appear to be a thoroughly brainwashed, groupthink culture.

Which is why, instead of exploiting internal dissention, Modesitt has Trystin cook up a plan that will, Trystin hopes, both fulfill his objective of assassinating his target while also exploiting the unshakable faith of the revs to turn the tide of public opinion against the war. I have to confess I could never quite believe Trystin’s plan, a Hail Mary pass if there ever was one, could work. But Modesitt finesses it all very cleverly, and the book’s final chapters are its most tense and entertaining. To whatever degree it satisfies your tastes as a story, The Parafaith War does offer a richly imagined future and some thoughtful reflection on the morality of war and the duality of human nature, how we use faith as an excuse to see our causes as righteous while we justify in ourselves that which we find unforgivable in others.

Followed by The Ethos Effect, a stand-alone novel set in the same future.