Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Thoughts on "Santiago: A Myth of the Far Future" by Mike Resnick

If you only read one space western, this is the one to read. Although it is technically science fiction, it really has nothing to do with science. Rather, Mike Resnick makes a commentary on human nature, and how legends are made.

Set far into the future, when faster than light travel has been developed and humanity has expanded to many worlds in many star systems, it focuses on the hunt for a notorious criminal called Santiago.

However, this is not a story of how the Good Guys hunt down the Bad Guys. In Resnick's universe, good and evil are not so clear cut. The bounty hunters chasing Santiago are not portrayed as angelic defenders of the law, nor is Santiago portrayed as a heinous villain.

In fact, it is very difficult to find much to like about the characters at all, at least until towards the end. This is not to say they are the embodiment of all that is evil, but many of them are killers, liars, thieves, and generally not the finest examples of humanity.

Giles Sans Pitie, for example, is obviously in bounty hunting for nothing but the money. He is very territorial, and threatens other bounty hunters who encroach upon said territory. He believes the one thing bounty hunters never lie about is Santiago, so it is probably safe to say that Santiago is the one thing he never lies about. Apparently, he believes that Santiago makes them all look bad, and that it is in the shared interest of all bounty hunters to share information about Santiago.

The Virgin Queen is a journalist who cares little for truth, and far more for her own fame and fortune. She'll cover for another journalist who is lying so that she can blackmail him in the future, when she needs a favor. That's not to say she's heartless; she does seem genuinely distressed when she sees people die gruesome deaths, but not enough to stop her from acting in her own self interest.

Altair of Altair is an assassin, although I'm really not sure if there's much difference in Resnick's universe between a bounty hunter and an assassin. Sure, one operates on the side of the Democracy, and the other against it, but I'm not really sure it makes much difference. Resnick doesn't exactly paint a brilliant future, you see. Throughout the book, we hear examples of how humanity has slaughtered entire races of aliens and exploited others. We hear how heavily polluted the more heavily settled worlds are. We hear of government corruption, and how the frontier worlds are exploited. So, if Altair of Altair kills corrupt world leaders for profit, it doesn't really seem like anything to waste any tears over. Not that it helps either. Altair of Altair herself remarks that failure to make a difference keeps hired killers, bounty hunters and assassins alike, in business. The corrupt world leaders she kills are replaced by new corrupt leaders. The criminals killed by bounty hunters are replaced by other criminals. The destructive cycle continues unabated. Indeed, it is the failure of hardly anyone to make a real difference that makes it difficult to strongly dislike the bad guys, or strongly like the good guys, or even to have an easy time telling them apart.

Black Orpheus is one of the better characters. Somehow, he seems to have escaped the greedy chase for money, material gains, or other vices. Instead, he wanders around the Inner Frontier writing a great ballad. He gives people fame; a tiny bit of immortality. The names he comes up for the people he writes up in his ballad are more memorable than their actual names. Some say he is foolish for not charging for his poetry, but he seems quite happy writing it, and the people of the worlds of the Inner Frontier seem quite happy hearing it.

The Angel, another bounty hunter, doesn't seem to be much better, ethically speaking, than Giles Sans Pitie. He is more talented, and lives by a hard philosophy. He kills only criminals and fools, which is an excuse to kill just about anyone. Ultimately, he is also a fool.

Most of the book follows Sebastian Nightingale Cain, or as Black Orpheus calls him, the Songbird. In the beginning he seems no better than Giles Sans Pitie. However, in a conversation between him and Halfpenny Terwilliger, gambling addict, we discover that he used to be a revolutionary. Apparently he was an idealist in his youth, but after three revolutions which apparently accomplished nothing beyond replacing one tyrant with another, he became jaded and stopped believing in anything but his gun.

The ending, although not strictly speaking a good one, is at least a hopeful one. Santiago turns out to be a sort of Robin Hood, and apparently his criminal enterprises fund good works. The Songbird finds something to believe in again. And Resnick makes a commentary about how legends are made. The difficulty or distinguishing fact from fiction, and how Santiago encourages much of the fiction. And how Santiago is not just a man; he's a myth. Men can be killed, but myths aren't so easy to kill. Santiago has lived for a very long time because a myth can be passed from one man to another.

P.S. Happy birthday, Smokey the Bear! :-)

No comments:

Post a Comment