Since I’m a terrible procrastinator, I just finished reading the book Shadow Ops: Control Point by Myke Cole. (The recommendation was from this site, which has a cool story in its own right.)
It’s an interesting story, fairly well-written, and I think it considers some interesting moral conundrums. It’s a bit like the X-Men, and loaded with military references. That said, it also has some serious flaws. As ever, here there be spoilers.
The Magic Is Awesome
It’s just like our world, except it’s the future, and there’s been a magical Reawakening. People have been popping up with magical talents for the last several years, at least — the precise details are vague. The magical powers come in several flavors, and each “Latent” person gets one of them. The most common are the typical cardinal element powers — Pyromancy, Hydromancy, Terramancy, and Aeromancy. They do pretty much what you think, although Hydromancy can be used to freeze pretty much anything, and Aeromancy allows flight, weather control, and lightning.
There are several other skills as well — Physiomancy, classical healing, and also anti-healing; Necromancy, which does what you would expect; and Negromancy, or Black Magic, which is magic of rot and decay. There’s also Elemental Conjuration, where you can make separately intelligent elementals out of pretty much anything.
Our protagonist, Oscar Britton, a US Army pilot, comes up with a talent which is so rare that there’s only one other person in the US with it: Portamancy.
Yes, it is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. On Earth, he can make portals to any location in the Source (a parallel world with stronger magic), or to anywhere on Earth, if he starts in the Source. It works pretty much like the portals in Portal, except he doesn’t need a portal gun or a surface to put the portals on, and he can also suck things through a portal if he puts some effort into it.
From a military perspective, Britton and his cohorts take pretty good advantage of his powers — instant insertion and backup, porting behind enemies, portal cuts… lots and lots of portal cuts, actually. Lots of things and people get sliced and diced. Whew.
However, as we discussed in the post for Portal, there are a lot of possibilities here for instant transport that really aren’t taken advantage of. Britton only needs a good picture to go to a location, and he can keep air/water/other fluids from going through the portal if he doesn’t want them to.
Instant transport to the ISS… the Moon… Mars… Titan… anywhere with good enough pictures. That would be awesome. Unfortunately, in this story, the US and numerous other counties have exhibited a rather serious problem…
Failure to Learn from History
Apparently, this is a problem in the US at the time of the story, as well as many other places. (Then again, it sounds like China is doing better.)
It’s the classic “New powers, dangerous and scary, must ban” thing. New Latents (the term for people with powers) typically manifest due to emotional turmoil, with their powers out of control. Making them more anxious (i.e., by sending the supernatural SWAT after them) just makes it worse. At some point, somebody (deliberately or as a nasty Manifestation, it’s unclear to me) destroys the Washington Monument. From that point on, all persons who manifest are required to report themselves and join a special Supernatural branch of the Army. Black magic, necromancy, and portamancy are all banned by US law. (And by the “Modified Geneva Convention”? What?)
Mandatory training makes sense, to help people keep their powers under control, but… beyond the draft, it gets worse.
In addition to being stuck in the Army for life, they black-bag anybody with banned powers for their special ops group. And their use the obviously explosive nature of Manifestation as an excuse to support their draconic measures. The problems with Manifestation would be a lot better if the military actually (a) didn’t go in shooting people when someone Manifested and didn’t immediately turn themselves in, and (b) weren’t keeping the Dampener drug top-secret. The Dampener helps people keep their powers under control, especially if untrained… you can see where this is going.
Plus, there’s a group of Native Americans who’ve effectively seceded and are actively fighting the government to be able to act independently and use their powers.
This is just… there are no words.
I’m not sure there’s a way to actually get the politics right for all of this, either.
Most glaring is one of the quotes at the beginning of a chapter. It’s essentially stated that France is under Sharia law and magic is completely banned (aside from Suppression, which blocks someone else’s magic). Um… what? At the present time, France has a population of about 66 million people. Of those, estimates on Wikipedia give somewhere around 3% as Muslim at the present time. Even if they were all extremists (which they’re not), that’s not nearly enough to rewrite France’s laws to such a serious extent as to have extremist Muslim view dominating. Erp.
Having religious fundamentalists of various stripes objecting to “black magic” and “demonic powers” makes perfect sense, but having the minority take over the government like that is… very odd.
The other weird bit is that they have the US Army operating domestically, which is prohibited by the Posse Comitatus Act and all precedent. Modifying the law to let people get out the big guns to go after newly-Manifested high school Pyromancers seems… very off. The US is pushing towards a police state, which is part of the point — considering the scary implications of these things on our characters. There have been times in history (and at the present) where classes of people have been persecuted, and placed in forced/slave labor situations. But in this case, it seems contrived.
Shh, It’s a Secret
There’s also the question of the clandestine base in the Source. Sure, there was foreshadowing of a leak that said there was a secret army base and goblins, but how on Earth could they keep that quiet? Especially given that, however rare Portamancy is, there will be Portamancers other than Britton and the other poor sucker working for the US military… and not necessarily in friendly countries. Plus, there’s another parallel here — they’re essentially trying to conquer the Source, and trying to steamroll a bunch of goblin tribes in the process.
At least Britton blows the whistle on the whole mess at the end by dumping the surviving villains on the White House lawn.
There Is No Section 8
There is also one other big problem with the Supernatural Operations Corp, which has all the drafted sorcerers.
Um, morale? Hello? Several characters show signs of Stockholm Syndrome after being drafted. They put a bomb in Britton’s chest to prevent him from just porting away to escape, and they keep a crazy Black Magic user trapped in hopes of bringing her around. They have one nasty doctor use Physiomancy to torture a prisoner… to death. They use over-the-top propaganda and psychological pressure to make the draftees cooperate, along with threats to harm their families. (In at least one case, one unwilling Aeromancer’s wife and unborn child were murdered when he was taken.) Genuinely evil drill sergeant included at no extra charge. Oh, and the friendly goblins are basically used as cheap labor, from hauling bricks up to medical aid.
What kind of army is this?! Seriously, this organization is just waiting for an opportunity to implode… and that seems to be in progress in this novel, but still. I want to know how things got this bad.