In Robert J. Szmidt’s Easy to be a God, humanity has been expanding through the universe for 300 years, and not once has it encountered any other form of intelligent life – until a rough-and-tumble salvaging crew stumbles upon the 50,000-year-old remains of the first…and comes to regret it.
It’s not the last time humanity encounters alien life, though the next is significantly different – two civilizations that are still so planet-bound and primitive that humanity hesitates to interact with either, lest it negatively affect the development of the two. Trouble is, the two civilizations are about to engage in a war that could end up being genocidal for both, and some of the observers cannot let that stand. Acting under the name – and in the capacity of – Gods, they deliver messages and technology to the aliens under the humans’ watch, hoping to avert an atrocity.
In the midst of all this is Henryan Swiecki. He’s been assigned to thwart those interfering Gods, but his own situation is not so simple. He secretly agrees with the logic behind Gods’ actions, but if he fails, he’ll be sent back to one of the most psychologically oppressive prisons in human history, with no hope of escape. Between challenges to his morality and threats against his very life, he has quite a task ahead of him…
I read Easy to be a God on the recommendation of a friend and found it to be well worth the recommendation, but it’s a book that requires some effort. I had to read it twice to fully appreciate it, first because it’s divided into three wildly different parts that don’t seem to have any connection to each other until halfway through the book, second because it features two of the most truly alien cultures I’ve encountered in sci-fi. Neither of these are flaws in the long run, but if you don’t know to expect them, they can make for a challenging (and sometimes frustrating) first read. However, in the end, they all add up to quite an intriguing hard sci-fi novel.
The novel opens up on Nike Stachursky, a top graduate of the Federation Fleet Academy who, after some…ill-advised activity with the Admiral’s youngest daughter finds himself assigned to the Recycling Corps – a salvage unit with such a high casualty rate that it’s not-so-ironically referred to as the Recycling Corpse. There he finds himself amidst the ragtag crew of the FSS Nomad, beneath the coarse but weirdly charismatic Captain Henrichard Morrissey, as they search the wrecks of old battlefields for salvageable loot, and soon happen upon something altogether unexpected.
This section sets up a fun space adventure with a colorful, irreverent cast that could have easily carried through the whole novel, so you can imagine my disappointment when, just after the most exciting part of their own story, they’re dropped for a story and setting so alien that I first thought I’d accidentally opened up a different book (more on that later). Still, the characters make great use of what little time they have in the novel. Nike is a smart (if not exactly sensible) protagonist; Captain Morrissey is one of those odd characters who is a total asshole and yet so hilariously written that he becomes likable; and all the characters in between bounce off each other like a close-knit pirate family (which is essentially what they are).
It’s when their story takes a turn for the dark, though, that it becomes truly intriguing. What starts as the discovery of the “El Dorado” of spaceship hauls reveals that humans aren’t alone in the universe – and maybe haven’t been for a long time. Recollections of other salvage teams that were silenced after certain discoveries leads the crew to wonder if this perhaps wasn’t humanity’s first encounter with alien life – if the Federation has, in fact, known and been covering it up for some reason.
That dark thought aside, certain circumstances of the discovery lead the Nomad‘s chaplain in particular to have a distinct crisis of faith, with even darker implications for humanity.
Unfortunately, the novel never explores those characters or their discoveries beyond this point.
Instead it rockets without preamble into a meeting of the alien Suhurs, who are dealing with their own religious experience – a “Thunder Sower” gifted by the “Spirits of the Mountains” to one of the lowest-ranking members of their society (as opposed to a priest). Here Szmidt has created one of the most fascinating alien species and cultures that I’ve read about in recent sci-fi, with anatomies so unlike those of earth creatures that all Suhur sections necessitate multiple readings. Szmidt doesn’t hold the reader’s hand through these sections either, introducing the aliens with an avalanche of unfamiliar terms and expecting us to rely on context to figure out the relevant information. In retrospect, it’s a pretty cool way to make the reader realize, “Oh hey, these aliens are really alien, not just humans in prosthetics and makeup.” However, on the flipside, it did make for a frustrating initial read, especially since the shift comes out of nowhere following a group of characters we’ve grown to like and whose story has no connection to that of the Suhurs.
And especially since, immediately after, we’re introduced to yet another brand new set of characters. It was at this point on my first read when I began to wonder if any of the stories in this novel would actually connect, particularly because the fourth major shift seems to introduce another new character. (It doesn’t, just an established character using a pseudonym.) Fortunately, except for the first, most of the storylines ultimately do connect, but the abrupt way in which the novel as a whole is structured and the fairly slow reveals of how it all comes together might be enough to turn impatient readers off.
This is perhaps the novel’s greatest flaw; though it is an interesting novel, its very structure risks frustrating readers before they even get to the heart of the main storyline.
That storyline centers around Henryan Swiecki, who was a captain in the Federation Fleet before a corrupt officer allowed forty-two soldiers – including Swiecki’s brother – to die in a depressurization incident solely to hide evidence that he’d been involved in illicit dealings. When the officer escapes justice, Henryan takes it into his own hands, shooting him point-plank and killing him instantly.
This lands him in the Sturgeon Belt, perhaps the cruelest penal colony in the universe, with a warden so sadistically harsh that his prisoners routinely strive to commit suicide…but rarely get the chance in the colony’s tightly-structured and technologically-reinforced schedule (another element of the warden’s sadism). When Swiecki eases himself further onto the warden’s bad side, his punishment is to be in charge of preventing attempted suicides, which does nothing to endear him to the other prisoners – but what choice does he have when his failure results in unimaginable torture? The warden takes enormous pleasure in making Swiecki suffer in whatever way he can, physically and psychologically.
Which is why Swiecki is surprised to suddenly be summoned away from the Sturgeon Belt on orders that even the warden can’t ignore.
Under a new name, he’s been assigned at the space station Xan 4 to help with a secret project: The Federation Fleet has discovered its first (that is, “first”) two alien species and is observing them from afar – never interfering – as the Suhurs and rival Gurds prepare for what is sure to be a genocidal war. That’s not his only secret project, though. As mentioned earlier, the real reason he’s been summoned is to help root out the dissidents acting as Gods and interfering with the operation. His situation becomes even more complicated when Gods tries to recruit him, and he has to decide which he values more: his sense of morality, or avoiding the torture prison at all costs.
What follows is a complicated tale switching between the Suhurs and Gurds as they prepare for battle and Swiecki as he plays both Gods and the Federation to his advantage. At points, it’s almost like reading a spy novel with aliens. Though not as fun and likable as the human cast on the Nomad, Swiecki is capable and fierce, fueled by the disproportionate injustice done to him (and his brother and fellow soldiers), and determined that no one’s going to take advantage of him. If you’re looking to read about a character who takes no crap, he’s it, and you can’t help but cheer when he sticks it to anyone who tries to manipulate him.
All this said, Easy to be a God is ultimately a satisfying, entertaining read, albeit far from a leisurely one. It’s demanding of its reader; there’s a lot to unpack within its pages, and some readers will be frustrated by its structure and untied story threads. (As a small note, there are also enough translation quirks to notice – strange turns of phrase, unusual punctuation choices, etc. – which may be distracting for some). There are subsequent books, though, so one would expect that such threads are tied up in those. Unfortunately, as of this writing, the series seems to have gone out of print in English, but if you happen to come upon a copy, this one’s a challenging, recommended read.