Mysteries of The Dohani War
by Don Webb
If you have not yet read The Dohani War,|
please do so before proceeding with this review article.
I. The Mysteries
Martin Kerharo’s The Dohani War technically falls into the category of science fiction space opera. But it’s also a mystery story that evolves into a social and political morality play.
The story revolves entirely around Jane. She is the driving force that eventually leads her chosen partner Dexter Zimski to resolve the human-Dohani conflict and open the way to a new future for both species.
The novel opens with a flood of questions. What are the Dohani? Humans know what they look like, but that’s about all. And why are humans and the Dohani at war in the first place? It’s not clear.
After Dexter Zimski captures Jane during a raid on a Dohani space station, he discovers that he has brought back an enigma. Was Jane a human captive of the Dohani? But then why does she have the Dohanis’ red eyes? And how did she acquire her formidable strength and her skill at martial arts? And why does Jane fixate on Dexter as a friend and perhaps more than that? Is she human, Dohani, both, or neither? Most puzzling of all, she doesn’t speak. Won’t she or can’t she?
II. The Procedure
Since the story is told almost entirely from Dexter’s point of view, his role is to follow the trail of mysteries like a traveling camera in a film as they cascade from each chapter to the next. Readers can imagine for themselves what he looks like. Rather, he provides what amounts to meticulous stage directions, and his narration exudes inexhaustible patience. And yet his personality is engaging: he refuses to jump to hasty conclusions, and he sometimes reflects on the action with a dry and ironic sense of humor.
In dramatic terms, Jane and Dexter are a team. Jane shows that communication between humans and the Dohani may be possible. And Dexter opens the doors to it from the beginning:
First he treats Jane not as a prisoner but as what she appears to be: a human being.
Then he consciously adapts a classic line from old movies: “Me, Dexter; you, Jane,” which impels her to communicate in her own way, not by vocalizations but by images formed telepathically on computer monitors.
Finally, in his role as an officer and a gentleman he teaches Jane that she must accept him as an equal human partner rather than act as a “dominant” Dohani female. Since Jane complies by making a great sacrifice in terms of physical suffering, his love for her grows from that of a protector to that of a spouse.
III. Role Shifts
Jane’s and Dexter’s roles evolve. Jane was originally designed to be an agent provocateur who would spread a gene-altering virus to pacify human “queens” in much the same way as the Dohani had pacified the Caterpillars. During her stay on Aubria-3, she learns the truth about human culture and becomes an intelligence agent. Kidnapping Dexter and taking him home with her proves to the Dohani that her original mission was ill-conceived.
In a supreme irony, Dexter ultimately assumes a role analogous to Jane’s. As Jane’s captive, he becomes quite inadvertently the first de facto ambassador from the Terran Federation to the Dohani empire. His mission, which he only dimly comprehends, is to make the Dohani understand how they and humans differ.
After Jane lavishes sympathy upon Dexter for his having spent long years in school, painfully learning without the benefit of a Dohani neural implant, Dexter proceeds to demonstrate what “school” is like by enthralling Dohani children with stories of old Earth.
As a result, the Dohani — whose society has by universal consensus no police, no criminals, no crime, nor even any laws — realize that humans are engaged in an eternal struggle between good and evil within and between themselves. Jane draws the obvious conclusion and resolves the initial mystery: why the war started and how it can end.
What is the function of Dexter’s giving the Dohani children a taste of a human “school”? The school is not the important thing, the stories are. The fact that human culture and morality can be illustrated in children’s stories is of paramount importance. If children can understand them, surely adults can, too.
IV. Open Questions
The Dohani War has occasioned an unusual — perhaps even unprecedented — amount of discussion at Bewildering Stories. And well it should: while it is familiar in some ways, in others it is quite unusual. A few points remain undiscussed so far; for example:
The story’s mysteries are resolved sometimes promptly, sometimes less so. In particular, why does Jane suddenly and inexplicably attach herself emotionally to Dexter in chapter 2? This quirk of Dohani psychology is explained at the end of chapter 11; the rest, in chapter 14. The Dohani females’ coup de foudre (literally: ‘lightning strike’ i.e. love at first sight) is apparently infallible between Dohanis, but what is so special about Dexter that Jane can instantly recognize him as her soul mate?
How do the Dohani neural implants work? Apparently they allow telepathic communication by radio waves. But what is the range of communication? It must be limited, but we do not know exactly to what extent. Evidently, universal communication can be accomplished only by a network of relays.
How can the neural implants bypass the process of education as humans understand it? Are the implants digital computers, and does Jane compute in binary?
No, that’s quite impossible. With only a very high-powered abacus for a neural implant, Jane could not possibly do what she does, nor could the Dohani be what they are. If the implants are to serve the Dohani as auxiliary brains, they must be biological quantum computers.
Why has Dohani society not frozen into permanent stagnation? Wouldn’t telepathic consensus induce rigid conformity? How have the Dohani managed to progress at all technologically and socially? Wouldn’t the distraction of incessant mental cross-talk make reflection, let alone creativity, impossible?
We’re not told, but the Dohani must have a way to shut down communication at will, when an individual simply needs time to think. Jane’s adoptive father could hardly have become a scientist, let alone an eminent one, if he were mentally locked into the equivalent of a lifetime of committee meetings.
What does Lucy — the first true human-Dohani hybrid — portend for the future? Evidently, humans can acquire Dohani neural implants at birth. But what will be the consequence? Future generations cannot continue functioning as before. Will human society then come to resemble the Dohanis’ or will it be a peculiarly human adaptation?
And what do the Dohani stand to gain? Some peace and quiet in the galaxy, for sure, without those pesky humans imperializing all over the place. But will innate human individualism introduce a serpent into the well-tended garden of the Dohani paradise?
V. The Dohani War and Western Films
Of course, all readers will interpret the novel according to the contexts with which they are most familiar. Previous discussion has evoked comparisons with the Wild West films of the early and mid-20th century. Let’s see how the analogy might work and hope we don’t stretch it too far.
Does Jane’s role resemble that of an Indian maiden captured by the U.S. cavalry? Wait a minute: we need to know first which are the “white men” and which are the “Indians.” Jane’s skin is pale in hue; only her eyes are red. But appearances count for nothing in The Dohani War.
On the contrary, humans play the role of the “redskins.” A chief, Dexter Zimski, goes on the warpath with his braves, who attack a fort held by the bigger, stronger, and better-equipped Dohani. Much later, Dexter learns that humans, like American Indians, are up against a much stronger enemy that outnumbers them ten to one.
In later, less benighted films, Native Americans come to be seen as real people with a point of view of their own. And a similar process takes place in The Dohani War:
At the beginning, neither humans nor Dohani have any real idea who their enemy is; they are simply dramatic pretexts for violence.
In typical Wild West films, white men seldom if ever speak a Native American language, and the “redskins” speak a caricature of English. Similarly, in The Dohani War, the humans “don’t speak English” nor can the Dohani talk to them. In fact, the Dohani and humans have an even bigger problem: what kind of language does the other use? That’s the central mystery of the first half of the novel.
And yet the Wild West films and literature — complete with cavalry riding to the rescue of white people besieged by obscure, warlike figures — are part of American cultural history. The genre can be seen in part as a side effect of a defensive reaction to the massive immigration from the “Old World” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Europeans might somehow be “Americanized,” albeit with great difficulty. But “Injuns”? Forget it.
And that closely resembles the preliminary conclusions that the Dohani reach before they hear Dexter’s children’s stories. Humans are historically warlike; therefore they have to be exterminated or at least neutralized before they can do even more damage than they’ve already done. Thankfully, the Dohani are peace-loving and Dexter inadvertently saves the day.
Could a novel like The Dohani War be written by an American? As long as “monolingual” is part of the definition of “American,” it’s hard to see how. Learn the Others’ language and treat them as equals? That goes without saying for some; but others may dismiss the idea as just a little strange... a little scary... even alien.
VI. The Morality Play
The novel’s status as a translation might make it a curiosity at most other publications. Bewildering Stories, being cosmopolitan with a world-wide audience, abounds in precedents. The very first is an early-modern classic of science fiction: Cyrano de Bergerac’s The Other World (or Voyage to the Moon), which began in issue 27, ten years ago.
Times have changed in some ways since the mid-17th century. Cyrano was writing for the intellectual elite of his time; Martin, arguably for a young adult audience of today. If that isn’t progress, what is?
And yet in some ways times have not changed. Now as then, both real and would-be power elites reap the benefits of science even as they fear the free thought that is at the heart of science. Cyrano very likely succumbed to wounds suffered in a failed assassination attempt. Voltaire was imprisoned in the Bastille. Rousseau was persecuted and his Emile went to the Place de Grève, where censored books were ritually executed. Will Martin Kerharo become one of various Authorities’ “usual suspects” for depicting a society that is advanced precisely because it wastes no time on secrecy, conspiracies and power struggles?
Since the time of Cyrano and his hero, Galileo, the Enlightenment persists. Cyrano announces its vision in the first scene of episode 1 of The Other World: Do you want to know what progress might be? Step outside, look up, and see the world from a new point of view. And that is what The Dohani War does.
Copyright © 2013 by Don Webb
for Bewildering Stories