Tor Books / 304 pages / May 1998
From book to book, certain questions return to confront the military science fiction reader. Is the sacrifice of the few outweighed by the survival of the many? At what price peace? What is the nature of reality? Tom Cool adds several issues to the mix. Do feelings of remorse assuage some of the guilt? Or should society even desire such emotions from killing machines?
The Tribe lives in a place called the World, where every day presents another battle to survive. Some of the fifteen members of the Tribe seem to exist to fight; others fight only to receive the necessities of life. There is an option not to fight, but the members learn quickly that the outcome is a negative in their environment of isolation bubbles and painless, temporary deaths.
Trickster is the spiritual leader of the Tribe, one of their greatest assets in the war games. If he and the others can keep the unit together, there appears to be no scenario they cannot win. Trickster, though, is a young man with questions and a hunger to know more than System, the battle fabricator’s avatar, is willing to discuss or allow anyone in the World to speak of. Nothing, not even the entreaties of Cat, Trickster’s closest friend, will dissuade him from searching for the truth. Not even the thought of separation from the Tribe, the worst punishment the members can imagine. Since infancy, they have known only each other. They are a strange mix of personalities and priorities, verging often on the brink of self-destruction, but helpless and lost and alone.
Secret Realms is a mental maze for the reader and the characters. And a puzzle of complex beauty, beauty which reveals itself even as the answers move farther away from us. Every thwarted effort and blind alley reveals another of the many faces of the World and of the characters. Even in the midst of battle, the actions of the Tribe and the lightning-fast leaps of reason present an unlikely grace that forms poetry in the violence and destruction.
In fact, Cool has pulled off many amazing feats in Secret Realms. (Let’s not even mention my personal prejudice against VR war stories, and the fact that I was captivated…) He juggles a large cast of characters who seldom retain the same physical appearance and, yet, each emerges as a distinct individual. He creates non-existent landscapes made startlingly real. And he writes of warfare with a complexity that pulls in the most ardent pacifist and reveals the deadly magnificence of brilliant strategy.
If we choose sides, I want Tom Cool on my team, or I’m not playing.
Perhaps most amazing is Cool’s ability to show the grey material that comprises all of us. Enemy or ally depends only on the choice of loyalties, not good or evil. Those we seek to destroy have often only made the unconscious and deadly mistake of disagreeing with us. It is enough to be born in another place. To be in the way.
And Tom Cool knows that. And that just knowing changes nothing.