Reviewed by Matthew Appleton
This review originally appeared in the January 2001 issue (#149) of The New York Review of Science Fiction.
After reading the first 50 pages or so of Jack L. Chalker’s Balshazzar’s Serpent, you find yourself in something of a shock. Here you are reading a book published by Baen, the leading publisher of militaristic sf, complete with the obligatory cover art denoting it as part of the militaristic subgenre, and there isn’t even the threat of a battle looming on the horizon. What gives? Well, in religious terms, patience is a virtue if you’re looking for the standard Baen fare of a macho military leader taking a group of hardened men into glorious battle in which they utterly smite the enemy and then move on to their next conquest.
After a lot of setup, that finally happens around page 150.
The novel starts with a bit of backstory about a legendary star system which contains three habitable worlds, known as the Three Kings. It provides the legend’s source and all the surrounding details such as the great riches on the planets, the possibility that an intelligent alien species once lived or may still live there, and the theoretically impossible configuration of planets and moons of the system. But despite the evidence of its existence, no one has managed to visit the Three Kings and return. The focus then shifts, with the backstory neatly tucked away and neglected for the first two-thirds of the novel.
Balshazzar’s Serpent is ostensibly about Dr. Karl Woodward, a former physicist who experienced a religious vision that turned him away from science and towards a religious mercenary life, and his quest to bring Jesus and the word of God to as many colonies as possible. This is no easy task since the partial collapse of the wormhole system that originally allowed humankind to travel to the stars. While ships capable of using the remnants of the network still try to maintain a network of trade, many of the colonies remain relatively isolated, existing in a sort of medieval vacuum. Dr. Woodward, driven by his calling, uses The Mountain, a massive interstellar ark, to spread the faith as far as possible.
The action commences when The Mountain discovers a nameless lost colony, which is apparently an agrarian-based, libertarian society. While preaching to the primitive colonists, Woodward and his followers discover that the society is secretly dominated by the technologically sophisticated survivors of a pirate ship which crashlanded approximately 30 years earlier. Desperately seeking any means off the planet, the pirates launch a stealth attack and take hostages. After negotiations break down, Woodward orders an attack by his security forces which, while ultimately successful, ends in many deaths and, more importantly, shakes the faith of many aboard The Mountain. However, as part of his victory, Woodward is given the coordinates of the Three Kings, a prize which the doctor determines is his next mission from God. Deep soul-searching leads him to believe that recent events acted to test his worthiness of such glory.
Ultimately, the book paradoxically both succeeds and fails in its attempt to portray a group that is truly mercenary in every sense of the word. As military sf in the vein of S. M. Stirling or David Drake, the book will probably land with a resounding thud for most fans of the mercenary subgenre. There is only one true battle sequence in the book, and that is more of a hostage-rescue sequence than a real skirmish. Despite the quick pacing, there are no giant displays of pyrotechnics, no breathtaking military cunning, and very few outbursts of bravado. Very little explanation is spent on military tactics or capabilities. In fact, when the fighting does occur, it happens only as a last resort, something that occurs because there was no other available course of action.
Balshazzar’s Serpent cannot be considered a serious exploration of religion either. This is no Case of Conscience or Canticle for Leibowitz. Chalker seems to sense that deep theological discussions and statements would bog down the rather direct, keep-the-action-moving style he employs. As a result, the Christians in this novel seem rather simplistic in their faith. Almost none of them display a deeply personal testimony one would expect from someone in an evangelistic organization. Despite the emphasis placed on the importance of maintaining faith, only one character, Eve, a mercenary taken hostage by the pirates and horribly abused, is shown truly questioning the firmness of her personal faith. For everyone else, faith just seems to exist and is acknowledged only briefly.
However, it’s also worth noting that despite the two-dimensional representation of the characters’ faith, Chalker presents the Christians in a mostly favorable light, something not done in a lot of secular fiction today. While pious, Woodward is nonjudgmental, and his evangelism is very non-confrontational. He makes it clear to the inhabitants of the colony that no one faces forced conversion. If they do not want to follow the path he describes, they are welcome to ignore him. To paraphrase comedian Dennis Miller, he understands that there will always be a few Satanic heifers who insist on throwing themselves over the cliff. Furthermore, while his primary objective is evangelism, Woodward and his followers are also on a humanitarian mission, offering aid to improve the colony. Even though the colonists must attend services to receive the humanitarian aid he offers, nothing else is expected in return. Finally, the only time they resort to force is after the elimination of all other means of resolution.
Interestingly, despite the relative pacifism of Woodward and his group, Chalker manages to show just how closely the military and the religious disciplines parallel each other. While some of it is blatantly obvious, such as naming the ship’s security detail “Gideon’s Arm,” the rest is in the details. Woodward employs a militaristic chain of command for both the vessel’s crew and the mercenaries. That he keeps a standing security unit and requires all to partake in at least rudimentary military training symbolizes the internal battles that can besiege one’s faith. Furthermore, just as a military leader would not lead wounded men into battle, when Woodward finally attempts to reach the Three Kings, which he believes may harbor tests of faith, he removes from The Mountain everyone he feels had their own faith shaken too badly by the skirmish on the colony.
Yet, these successes and failures are secondary to the fact that Balshazzar’s Serpent is clearly intended as an introduction to a story that will probably arc over several novels. The novel concludes in an open-ended manner, with Woodward having his faith tested one last time, and the mysteries of the Three Kings left wide open. As an introductory novel, certain aspects can be downright puzzling. Despite the obvious set-up nature, there is very little character development. By the time you reach the end of the book, only four characters have been fleshed out in any significant detail: Woodward, Eve, Eve’s fiance John Robey, and Thomas Cromwell, the head of Gideon’s Arm. This lack of characterization leaves you with the feeling that given the situation the crew of The Mountain faces at the end of the novel, some of them will not last long in the upcoming sequel.
Additionally, Chalker’s introduction of the Three Kings legends is rather clumsy. The backstory just hangs there awkwardly without additional reference for most of the novel. He should have woven the Three Kings legends into the story as expository information rather than leaving it hovering like a specter over the story.
In and of itself, Balshazzar’s Serpent doesn’t stand out as anything special. Despite a noble attempt to produce something more than run-of-the-mill militaristic sf and a positive portrayal of Christians, Chalker’s novel contains flaws that would ordinarily drag down a stand-alone book. However, events in later books may give importance to some of the more mundane events here. Sequels can also correct flaws such as the lack of characterization, and the mysteries concerning the Three Kings system, and the plight in which the crew from The Mountain finds itself, provide ample material for an interesting series of books. With such potential, Chalker can conceivably develop a series that transcends this rough beginning.