Saturday, September 22, 2012

Retro Review - The Leeshore (1987) by Robert Reed

"Retro Review
The Leeshore

(c) 1987

Robert Reed"

(c) 2012

Jordan S. Bassior

Backstory:  Sometime, probably in the early 22nd century, starships from Earth established fueling stations in systems relatively close to the Solar System.  One such fueling station was on The Leeshore, a habitable but unpleasant ocean world on which huge mats of aerostatic vegetation form a living layer in the sky which blocks out easy access from orbit, and from which decaying vegetation fall to rot in the sea.  As part of the cycle of life, temporary islands form which last for decades at a time.  On one of these islands, an American ship established a base to which they anchored an orbital elevator.

The Americans did not intend to settle the world, but only to wait awhile -- kept alive by life-extending drugs -- until they could board the follow-on starship which would refuel and re-equip at the automated base, to depart to colonize better worlds further from the Sun.  Most of the involuntary colonists refused to bring children onto such an unpleasant world as The Leeshore, but one woman decided to have children -- a girl named Abitibi and a boy named Jellico -- and settle on The Leeshore.  In punishment for this extra demand upon the supplies, the woman was denied the life-extending drugs used by her fellows.

However, while they were waiting, a horrible war erupted in the Solar System, one which would doom their base and their plans.  And, ironically, it derived from the same substance which made possible the space elevator and the starships.

The orbital elevator was possible because of a miracle material called "stuhr," a superstrong plastic-like substance which must be kept constantly energized by a weak electrical current to retain its special properties.  While so energized, it is far stronger than steel, with tremendous resistance to both kinetic and thermal stress:  it can support megastructures such as space elevators, shield the flux from a fusion reactor, and has considerable resistance even to point-blank nuclear detonations.

A special kind of stuhr, called "i-ply stuhr" also can support neural networks of a similar nature to but even greater density than that of the human brain.  While ordinary artificial intelligences are limited to levels of intellect equivalent to that of the human mind, an artificial intelligence embedded in a matrix of stuhr has a vastly greater upper range of capability -- as far beyond the mind of a man as the mind of a man is beyond that of a worm.

Somewhere in America, around the time that the base was being built on The Leeshore, a group of scientists assembled a mass of i-ply stuhr the size of a large whale, and fed into it all the knowledge then known to the human race.  And the stuhr awoke.  And it was a god.

The scientists who made the sapient stuhr became its first priests.  At its command they built it a bunker, its temple, wherein were placed utterly reliable power sources to keep the new god alive.  At its command its priests made recruits, both voluntary and involuntary, for the god showed it how to "wire" human brains to enforce perfect obedience.  The god gave its servants strange technologies which it devised.  And then the god arose, and reached forth to claim all humanity as its subjects.

North America and Europe fell quickly, for the stuhr god reached through the datanets to seize control of the machines on which depended civilization.  But other parts of the world, forewarned, were able to resist barely in time, and formed an alliance, called the "Asiatic Federation," against the "Alteretics," as the followers of the new god came to be known.  And war raged on the Earth, between the Alteretics and the Asiatic Federation.

This is a terrible war, for the Alteretics regarded free humans as no more than wild animals, and slaughtered them without mercy.  Prisoners were either enslaved and turned into "Conscripts" by the wire, or sometimes simply eaten.  The Alteretics are so vicious that they will persecute the relatives of their enemies, which leads the Asiatic fighters to begin taking noms de guerre to protect their kin.

But the machine god had miscalculated the mettle of Mankind.  They copied the Alteretic technologies, and fought hard for their freedom.  They first stopped the Alteretic advance, then drove them back.  Soon, the Alteretics were barely holding on to their last strongholds.  Though the Earth was devastated and barely habitable, with the survivors living in vast warrens under full life support, the human race was winning the battle against the machine god.

The new god did not want to die.  So, in a last desperate effort, the Alteretics seized the six starships which had been building before the war for the planned interstellar colonization.  The leaders of the Alteretics fled in six different directions.  And on one of the starships -- the Asiatic Federation did not know which -- the Alteretics brought their god.

Meanwhile, on The Reef, the crew of the base waited for the day when a starship would come to rescue them from that unpleasant world.  As word came to them of the wars on Earth, however, they used some of their limited resources to fortify and booby-trap the space elevator, preparing to resist should the dreaded Alteretics arrive.

The Alterics did arrive.  Because of the layer of aerial vegetation, they could not employ precision aerial bombardment, so they attacked with an assault shuttle.  The defenders somehow managed to down the shuttle, but enough of the Alteretic troops survived to overwhelm The Leeshore's defenses and slaughter all the colonists.

Except for Abitibi and Jellico, who were out doing an ecological survey.


Abitibi and Jellico return to The Leeshore to scavenge and search for survivors.  There, they are captured by the crew of the Little Fist, a water-boat commanded by "Mr. Chosen" and landed from the Harmonious Fist, an Asiatic Federation starship which has been pursuing the Alteretic starship for decades.  Harmonious Fist is duelling with the Alteretic starship elsewhere in the system:  the mission of the Little Fist is to hunt down the Alteretic landing party, in part because they may be transporting the machine god.

The Asiatics conscript them into their own forces.  The Asiatics are rude and even slightly brutal to the two teenagers, and do use the wire on them, but only to augment their natural tendencies rather than in the form of full mind control.  Abitibi shows combative tendencies and is assigned for training to their mlitary leader, a fierce man named Moon, who seems to be a borderline sociopath.  Jellico shows great cunning, and is assigned for training to their intelligence officer, a brilliant strategist named Mantis.

The book concerns the stern chase between Little Fist and the Alteretic boat, a chase that involves several battles, both nuclear and hand-to-hand, and the use and abuse of the local ecosystem as ruses and weapons of war.  Eventually Abitibi is captured and conscripted by the Alteretics, and learns some of their secrets; Jellico deduces other secrets and hears the strange story of Cricket, the aide of Mantis:  they both learn the truth about the origins of the war and the nature of the machine god ...


... Jellico finds it suspicious that Mankind was actually able to overcome a Machine God supposedly thousands of times more intelligent than a human being.  He points out that if he had been in the place of the Machine God, he wouldn't have quickly enslaved his creators and then launched a war:  instead, he would have behaved very nicely to Mankind, made himself utterly-useful to them, and subverted them slowly from within. 

And he's right.  The Machine God did not enslave its creators and then try to conquer the human race.  Its creators -- themselves originally a small faction within the Americas -- enslaved the Machine God, forced it to discover and grant them superscientific secrets, and then used those secrets in their own attempt to conquer the human race.  It is precisely because the Machine God did not particularly want to conquer Mankind, and thus did not give the Alteretics the full benefits of its superhuman strategic capabilties, that the Alteretics failed.

Meanwhile Abitibi, as captive of the Alteretics, is able to resist Conscription just enough that the Alteretics do not have the full advantage of her understanding of The Leeshore's environment.  She makes contact with a downloaded fragment of the Machine God which attaches itself to her and partially frees her of her conditioning.  She is able to escape with the fragment in time to avoid the general destruction of the Alteretics when the Little Fist, aided by Jellico's superior knowledge of the ecosystem, finally catches and smashes the fugitives in a final battle.

Jellico successfully pressures the Asiatics (who were originally going to keep them against their will as recruits) to let Abitibi and himself live on the Leeshore.  The two young people remain -- unknown to the Asiatics -- with the last surviving fragment of the Machine God, to face an unknown destiny.


This is a great planetary-adventure story, against a space-operatic background, in a situation in which the future fate of Mankind believably hinges on the actions of a small group of characters.  The characters themselves are interesting and display unexpected depths.  The novel also features repeated inversions, subversions and superversions of genre conventions.

The two protagonists and main viewpoints, Abitibi and Jellico, represent complementary approaches to the solution of problems:  force and guile.  The first inversion occurs here because Abitibi, the girl, is the practicioner of force; Jellico, the boy, is the practicioner of guile.  The Asiatics are quite correct when they say that they did not control their minds with the wire the way that the Alteretics do:  they instead merely used wire-conditioning to draw forth and amplify the natural tendencies of the pair.

The same situation exists aboard the Little Fist where Abitibi's and Jellico's mentors, Moon and Mantis respectively, are experienced-adult versions of Force and Guile.  Those two names are also inversions:  the one with the rather passive name (Moon) is brutal and fierce, the practioner of Force; the one with the obviously-aggressive name (Mantis) is the practicioner of Guile.  This is the more notable because these names are noms de guerre, which means that they chose to be known by these rather-deceptive terms.

The grand-strategic situation is an inversion of the common "yellow-peril" scenario, in which a future East Asian-based Great Power enslaves or threatens to enslave the Earth, and America becomes the last bastion of human liberty.  The Alteretic power arose and was based in the Americas, and  it is the Asiatic Federation around which Mankind rallies to throw back the minions of the Machine.  What's more, the most sympathetic character from the Asiatic Federation is Mantis, who in many respects (including his name!) conforms perfectly to a certain villainous stereotype, but is actually a fairly nice guy to everyone except his enemies, and not exceptionally cruel to them either.

But then the deeper situation is an inversion of both the apparent situation and the expectations that Reed raised in the minds of the readers with the first inversion.  The Machine God, which seems to be the main villain, is in fact only the first victim of its creators, who only pretend to serve it as a means of justifying their tyranny:  at the core of the Alteretics is an abused superintelligent slave.  The Asiatic Federation, which seems to be the defender of human liberty, has as its core a secret elite who are converting it into a genuine authoritarian despotism (this may be because they were always like this, or because of the strains of fighting the Hardware War).  One is left with the impression that the Hardware War was just a terrible and avoidable tragedy:  that acting on its own accord the Machine God might have become the friend and ally of Mankind, and both the Machine and Mankind expanded in peace and prosperity out to the stars.

Or maybe not.  After all, we have only seen the Machine God as victim and refugee.  Who knows its true intentions?


The Leeshore is an intellectual and philosophical mystery of some power and depth, while simultaneously being a great action-adventure and coming-of-age tale -- which makes it the best sort of science-fiction



This is your basic science-fictional supermaterial, in this case a polymer plastic which, when energized, is strong enough to suffer only minor damage from near-point-blank tactical nuclear detonations.  Aside from its obvious use as battle armor (which is what makes close action practical in the storyverse), it also enables the construction of starships and skyhook space elevators.

What makes it interesting is that it must be kept energized or it becomes brittle and easily crumbles, and that sufficiently-complex stuhr can support intellects of a computational density greater than that of the human brain.  This is what makes possible the Machine God, and what makes possible its extraordinary intellect -- and creates its chief vulnerability -- if it loses power, it dies.

This also serves as a limit on AI in Reed's universe.  Non-stuhr based artificial intelligences can't become sapient.  This is important because it creates a huge difference in power between the Machine God and ordinary AI's, which is essential to the orgiinal Alteretic attempt to conquer the Earth.  The association of stuhr-based computers and AI in general with the devastating Hardware War also creates a strong social prejudice against transhumanism in the storyverse.

The Wire

This is a mental conditioning device with the limitation that, unless very carefully applied, a sufficiently-intelligent victim can work around the conditioning.  The Machine God could theoretically apply it well enough to prevent all rebellion on the part of the Conscripts:  it deliberately chooses to leave the control imperfect so as to create opportunities for its own escape from enslavement.  The Asiatics don't even try (and claim they don't want to try) to use it to that extent:  they instead work with the subject's natural tendencies to reduce resistance.  It appears to be extremely useful as an educational aid, especially if the subject actually wants to learn the topic being taught.  Abitibi and Jellico respectively become an elite soldier and a brilliant strategist under wire-based conditiong, and they're just inexperienced kids.

The Leeshore

This is a fascinatingly-depicted world.  A deep planet-covering ocean and a dense atmosphere mean, respectively, that life is dependent upon metals drawn from the ocean floor and can spread into the upper troposphere.  There are basically three realms of life:  the seafloor, the surface, and the atmosphere.  Life extracts metals from the ocean floor, transporting them first to the surface and from there to the atmospheric layer; solar energy is collected in the atmosphere and used to form nutrients using the metals, which are then transported to the surface and then to the seafloor.  Various forms of deitrus-rain (including an upward rain using lifting gases) and predation are employed to achieve this transport.  The total effect is very alien to what we see on Earth's continents (it's more like that of smokers in abyssal depths writ large), and quite believable.

What is especially interesting about this is that we are finding worlds which may be like The Leeshore.  Super-terrestrial planets seem not to be all that uncommon, and basic physics makes it extremely likely that at least some of them have planet-girlding oceans like that of The Leeshore.  Note that in 1987, when Reed wrote this novel, this was all entirely unknown to science.


  1. The inversion of the "Yellow Peril" trope reminds me of the Raj Whitehall novels by Drake and Stirling, in which civilization is maintained by the (Hispanic) Gubierno Civil and (Arab Muslim) Colony, while the blond, blue-eyed "Namerique"-speaking barbarians control the various Military Governments.

    1. Yes. Both Drake and Stirling have both used national stereotypes directly and mix-and-matched them. One writer who does this even more is Harry Turtledove: he modeled the Videssans

      rather directly on the Byzantines, Vaspurakans on Armenians, the Makurani on the Parthians, and the Yezdians on the (Medieval Christian view of) the Arab Muslims, complete with their worship of a God of Evil.

      Then in his Darkness series

      he mix-and-matches physical, cultural, linguistic and political attributes to loosely restage the Second World War between magic-using Powers as the "Derlavi War." For instance the Algarvians are red-headed and green-eyed, speak an Italianate language and are the political analogue of Nazi Germany; the Kuusamo look East Asian, have a low-key businesslike culture and a Finnish-like language, and are the political analogue of the United States of America, and so on. Here I think Turtledove was not only trying to keep the analogues from being too obvious, but also making the explicit point that appearance and language do not dictate political orientation, a belief which would have enraged either Adolf Hitler or King Mezentio of Algarve.

      We don't really find out enough to know if the Asiatic Federation is nice or nasty overall. Moon is a brutal man, but there are brutal men in all the real-world militaries (and Moon's not as cruel as he pretends to be). The secret elite were pretty ruthless in their treatment of the Alteretic VIP prisoner, but then this is a war in which the Alteretics enslave or eat their captives. And so on: I personally don't know how nice the United States would be after barely winning a war which rendered the Earth's surface uninhabitable with the survivors being forced to live in overcrowded mass shelters.

      Anyway, it was interesting to see the trope apparently averted.

  2. Gary Gygax also mixes and matches in his 'World of Greyhawk' - the original roleplaying setting for Dungeons and Dragons.

    With his history degree, he could make up new cultures by taking characteristics of two or three his players didn't know much about and mix them together into something new.