None But Man
Reviewed date: 2018 Jan 24
Humanity has spread out among the stars. After a brief Frontier Uprising, there is a fragile peace between the Old Worlds (Earth, Mars, and Venus) and the Frontier planets of the Pleiades. Now an alien race, the Moldaug, have laid claim to the entire Pleiades and have demanded the Frontier colonists leave. The Frontier planets can't hope to defend against the mighty Moldaug fleet, and the Old Worlds might just cede the Pleiades to avoid war with the Moldaug.
Culihan O'Rourke When, from the Frontier world of Kalestin, made his name as a space pirate during the Frontier Uprising. A few years after the war the Old Worlds suspect him of being the ringleader of a plot to overthrow the Old World government and seize power, so they throw him and hundreds of suspected conspirators into prison. Cully was not, in fact, planning to overthrow the Old World government. But after talking with his fellow prisoners, he realizes that the Old Worlds are completely botching the negotiations with the Moldaug. The only way to combat the looming Moldaug threat is to seize control of the government and begin doing things properly.
Cully When decides to take charge.
Escape from Alcatraz
First, escape. The prison is on a floating platform at sea. Cully waits until a Space-and-Atmosphere ship makes a visit to the prison. While the other prisoners stage a riot, Cully and four others climb into garbage barrels and dump themselves overboard, then float unseen over to the SA ship. They hijack it, fly to the local spaceport, hijack a spaceship, and fly it back to the Frontier.
Fight to the Death with Knives
Back on his Frontier homeworld of Kalestin, Cully needs political support, but the corrupt local leaders refuse to back him. So he fights their leader in a duel. It's a fantastic sequence where the smaller Cully uses his knowledge of the terrain to outsmart his bigger, stronger opponent. It was all very predictable, but still was my favorite part of the book.
The Frontier planets give Cully an armed spaceship
Respectable and not-Respectable
Cully's friend Will explains that Moldaug actions are not based on a concept of moral right and wrong, like humans, but rather on a concept of Respectability and not-Respectability. If the Moldaug are claiming the Pleiades, there is a rational reason behind that claim. If Cully can figure out the reason, there's a chance of finding a solution that avoids war.
Now Here's My Plan
Cully refuses to tell anybody his big secret plan, even though there's plenty of time. That leaves us guessing until the final big reveal.
Demon of Dark
Cully sneaks onto a Moldaug world and makes a big show pretending to be a character from Moldaug legend: the Demon of Dark. In Moldaug legend the Demon appears and signifies a coming Change in Aspect of Respectability, an event that upends Moldaug society--a changed Respectability means the formerly Respectable leaders become not-Respectable and must resign by suicide. New leaders are chosen based on the new Aspect of Respectability.
The Moldaug are not fooled by Cully's theatrics, but that doesn't matter. The meaning of the Demon of Dark is embedded deep in Moldaug psyche, and the Demon comes in many forms. Who's to say the Demon isn't revealing himself in the form of a soft-face human being?
Space Pirating and Kidnapping and So Forth
After playing the Demon, Cully and his crew go pirating and hijack a few Moldaug spaceships. They kidnap the heirs to the Moldaug throne. They catch wind that the Old Worlds have offered up some hostages to prove to the Moldaug that the Old Worlds aren't planning any war, so Cully and the Frontier ships rescue the hostages. Basically, Cully does everything he can to precipitate the coming war.
Cully returns to Old Earth and through some shenanigans deposes the Council and takes charge. The Moldaug ambassador shows up to deliver one last warning before the war starts.
Let us gather 'round the conference table
It's the climax of the story, so Cully gathers everyone around a conference table and they have a nice long chat. The Moldaug accuse Cully of hijacking their spaceships and kidnapping the heirs to the throne. Cully admits to all that, but says that far from having a grievance against humans, the Moldaug are the guilty party. He explains that the Moldaug have made no attempt to understand human Right and Wrong, whereas humans (meaning himself) have been trying to understand Respectability.
The talk goes on for pages.
The Moldaug admit they never wanted the Pleiades in the first place. They demanded it merely as a sign of Respectability, expecting humans to issue a firm refusal. When the Old Worlds dithered and considered giving up the Pleiades, that was a sign of not-Respectability. The Moldaug didn't want war, but Respectability obligated them to follow through on their threat.
Eventually, Cully persuades the Moldaug that they are indeed in the wrong. He returns the heirs to the throne. War is averted.
There's a hole in Dickson's science. Space travel is accomplished by shifting across space in increments of about ten light-years. It's not possible to communicate faster than light, so messages are carried via ship. But the energy flare of a shift is detectable instantaneously at a distance of hundreds of light-years. Hey! A phenomenon detectable across light-years at instantaneous speed? Maybe somebody should investigate that. It sounds like a principle that can be leveraged as a communication method.