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by John Maddox Roberts
Published by Tor Books, 1983
Suggested by: Greg Slade
Set two thousand years in the future, Cestus Dei describes a galaxy in which the various worlds settled by the human race are bound to Earth, not by political structures, but by religion. Effectively, each religion ends up with its own interstellar empire, and the supreme decision-making body in humanity is the United Faiths. Some centuries in the past, civilisation became corrupt and went into decline, and whole star clusters broke away. The Flavian System is one such group, which has become a sort of replay of the late Roman Empire, with slavery and gladiatorial combat, but also featuring starships, ray guns, and genetically engineered "constructs", which serve as gladiators, bodyguards, and other menials. When the Flavian System is rediscovered, Father Miles, a Jesuit priest from the order named in the title, is dispatched to return the Flavian System to the Roman Catholic fold before it is snapped up by the Medina Caliphate or the Sanhedrin of the Third Temple. The creation of constructs, or the "soulless", is an affront to all faiths, and since the Flavian System has largely slipped back into Paganism, it could be argued that it's no longer the responsibility of the Church, and thus forcibly converting the inhabitants to a faith any faith would be a public service. Miles, whose name means "soldier" in Latin, is a kind of cross between James Bond, Rambo, Machiavelli, and Dirty Harry: he's competent and dangerous, especially in hand-to-hand combat, has a keen grasp of political reality, and a disturbingly elastic attitude towards the rules under which he is supposed to be operating.
On the positive side, the story is fun. Roberts plays around in this world he's created, throwing in gladiatorial combat in the typical late Roman model of using "bread and circuses" to keep the population from getting too restive, and he throws in extra little bits of fun, like space pirates, court intrigue, espionage, and even boarding battles in space. In addition, he has a good deal of fun with his Re-established Church of Rome. At one point, Miles' superior is debriefing him. From the conversation, I can make guesses at the characteristics of the various monastic orders which are being gently roasted, but I suspect that I would have found passages like this funnier if I were more familiar with those orders:
"Let's see, now. I have a gaggle of Cluniacs left over from the Five Systems campaign. Maybe they could start a fine-arts college. I don't have a wall left for them to fresco or a spare floor to mosaic. Do they make decent wine here?"
"Too bad. I probably won't be able to get rid of my Cistercians, then. Plenty of wasted farmland, though. Maybe the Trappists can put it to use. Can't stand to have them around, anyway. Too quiet." (p. 179)
On the negative side, the book seems a bit haphazard. Most of the book is taken up with Miles' campaign to replace the Consul of the Flavian System with one more amenable to Rome. Then, just when it seems that the story has nicely worked to a climax and resolution, another campaign is tacked on at the end, and then yet another one after that. If the three campaigns are intended to form a sort of trilogy in one volume, it's odd that the first campaign takes up roughly three-fifths of the book, and the second only 37 pages. Then, too, some of the background isn't really believeable. Roberts gives various reasons why people who have spaceships and ray guns would find it necessary to use swords and shields in boarding battles, but those reasons don't really hold water, and it's clear that it's really just an excuse to combine the swords with the spaceships. Similarly, the new Consul dons a disguise and goes undercover during the third campaign, but doesn't really have anything to bring to the table, politically, militarily, or in terms of spycraft, and again, it's clear that Roberts wrote this in to make things more exciting, rather than because it makes any sense. And, as far as the Catholicism goes, even the presence of a Franciscan monk, who acts considerably more like one would expect a missionary monk to act, is not enough to counteract the majority of the Catholic characters, who never seem to give God a second thought. In other words, Catholicism forms a convenient framework in which to build the story, and is never really explored for what it is or could be.
In short, this is a fun little romp, but if you start taking it at all seriously, you quickly run into the limitations of the story. As space opera, it's fun; as serious science fiction, it just can't cut it. (December, 2006)
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