Diann Thornley's Military Science Fiction Novel: Echoes of Issel Book 2 in the "Unified Worlds" Series
Thornley's Echoes of Issel is shockingly good. What's shocking is that such a refined, compelling novel was written by an essentially neophyte author who remains a relative unknown. Thornley's perspective and voice may be unique within science fiction, or are at least rare. She is an experienced military officer writing clearly military fiction. Her perspective is feminist yet at the same time traditional, rooted in conservative religious and cultural values.
Thornley displays depth in her understanding of humanity beyond that of most inexperienced writers. She is unafraid to find authentic goodness in all types of people, even people from politically incorrect factions such as military leaders, politicians, hunters and fathers. Thornley's characters and their concerns resonate strongly with the reader. She breathes uncommon life into even the most minor characters. These are people we can recognize, but nobody is a caricature.
Echoes of Issel is the sequel to Ganwold's Child, and is set in about the year 3300 in a group of planets (the Unified Worlds and neighboring regions) populated by descendants of colonists from Earth. The main characters are Tristan Serege, a young man about seventeen years old, his mother Darcie Dartmuth, and his father Admiral Lujan Serege. As Echoes opens, Tristan and his mother have recently been reunited with Lujan and the rest of Unified Worlds civilization after many years of being stranded on the pre-technological world of Gan followed by imprisonment by Unified Worlds enemies on Issel. (These events were described in the previous book, which I have not read.)
Much of Echoes deals with the recovery--both physical and psychological--of Tristan and his mother after their ordeals in the previous book. A major challenge is healing the rift between Tristan and his father. Tristan has now spent most of his life raised in a strongly matriarchal society on Gan. He fondly recalls growing up on the low-tech but mostly idyllic world. This was followed by his recent months of abuse at the hands of Admiral Lujan's enemy, the despotic general/dictator of Issel. (Coincidentally, the situation has echoes of the real-life story of Senator John McCain, who was captured and imprisoned in Vietnam while his father was a top U.S. leader.) Tristan can remember no examples of a supportive father of the type that Lujan wishes to be. The Isselan general who tortured Tristan on Issel had convinced him that Lujan, also a military leader, was just like him (the general).
In addition to his initial fear and deep distrust of his father, Tristan also struggles to come to terms with having killed an enemy soldier while escaping the Isselans. He was raised in a peaceful hunting culture, and feels strong guilt for having killed a man, yet he also feels hatred toward the people who tortured him and killed his best friend. When the Isselans' alien allies turn against them, a truce is declared between Issel and the Unified Worlds. Tristan is called on to be the scout in a mission to rescue Isselans from the very same prison fortress where he was held captive by them only months earlier.
A large number of overlapping but distinct cultures are deftly described in Echoes. Thornley paints vivid and memorable mental pictures of life in the Unified Worlds, but never disrupts the flow of the story to do so. The various cultures seem organic, believable, as if they've truly developed over hundreds of years in the settings described. Their philosophies and activities are woven together without tightly, and mesh with what a reader knows about real people.
The most fully described culture in Echoes is the Topawans, the people of Topawa, Admiral Lujan's home planet. They are based primarily on Thornley's own distinct family heritage and background. This results in a fictional society which is very realistic, yet which will also seem unique and intriguing to most readers. The Topawans are settlers on a world which is still mostly rural. They prize their continued connection to the land, despite having access to advanced technology. The Topawans are considered somewhat archaic by those without firsthand experience with them. As an apparently typical Topawan, Admiral Lujan is a religious man, yet his faith is so eminently practical and positive that he is respected by all those who actually know him.
One of the most striking scenes in Echoes is comes right before Tristan is about to set out on a dangerous military rescue mission. In a Topawan ritual beautifully and simply described, Admiral Lujan gives him a father's blessing. Then he gives Tristan the electronic book he wears on a chain--a book similar to the one Tristan remembered his mother had read to him from before theirs was washed away in a flood while they were stranded for so many years on Gan. The scene is infused with a palpable sense of holiness and tradition. It may remind readers of Drac sharing his revered scripture/book of philosophy with Captain Davidge in Barry B. Longyear's novella "Enemy Mine" (or the movie version with Louis Gossett, Jr. and Dennis Quaid).
The science in Echoes is also very good. Thornley has thoughtfully and realistically considered everything from the alternative physiology of alien fish to futuristic field medicine to weaponry solidly grounded in real-world physics. These details are a real treat for any fan of nuts-and-bolts "hard sf" such as one might find in the works of Niven, Bova and Clarke.
One of the book's strengths is its carefully considered military planning and operations. The behind-the-scenes war room scenes with generals and resulting on-the-ground effects are described with uncommon clarity and realism. Thornley's realistic and straightforward description of nobility as well as depravity within warfare is reminiscent of Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Haldeman's Forever War. But Echoes of Issel is much more than simply an echo of these and similar works. Along with the military training and campaigns, the novel also offers detailed looks at how various civilians are affected by the war.
A significant and impressive aspect of Echoes of Issel is the detailed look at the family life of the main characters. The book is not only about Tristan, the young man whose military training and first mission are at the heart of the novel. His admiral father and physician mother are given nearly equal treatment as characters. The emphasis on the validity and importance of family life for these characters is rare and fascinating. The difficulties, strengths and ultimately positive values arising from Tristan's relationship with both his mother and father are a central element of Echoes of Issel. I can think of no other science fiction novel in which a character, in his role as a father, has been so realistically complex, yet so worthy of emulation, as this book's Admiral Lujan. Thornley's accomplishment here surpasses even Mia Havero's father in Panshin's Rite of Passage and the adult Ender Wiggins of Card's Xenocide. One might have to imagine the senior Alma combined with Mosiah to find an apt comparison.
Granted, in Echoes "family" is a potentially good thing, and many traditional values such as loyalty, equality and peace are clearly appreciated. But this book isn't "Father Knows Best" or "The Brady Bunch" and this is not a polemical or didactic work. The alternative family structures of the matriarchal Gan were also a positive, healthy culture. While Lujan's role as a father is ultimately affirmed, it is also challenged, weighed and considered. The faith-based Topawan culture is described in a positive light, but it exists alongside other cultures which function well, but which do not share all the same traits. Even the enemies of the Unified Worlds are often described from their own perspective, revealing a different, sometimes frightening value system, but one which is internally consistent and understood as positive by those within it. Thornley, amazingly, especially for such a young writer, has captured the differences and ambiguities of real life, yet at the same time has affirmed real truths and traditional values and hasn't fallen into any illogical relativism.
All of these elements raise the novel far beyond boilerplate science fiction. This is very human literature, worthy of consideration alongside the works of Card, Le Guin, Bujold, Cherryh, Henderson, and others.
Echoes of Issel should be considered a "must-read" for any fan of military SF and/or Latter-day Saint SF. Anybody looking for exciting, well-executed science fiction with believable, ethical characters and (rare for SF) an appreciation of parent-child relationships will certainly enjoy this novel. Although certainly written for an adult audience, this is an appropriate book for youth as well.