Back in 2004, a period that seems several generations removed from the present in so many ways, I reviewed the debut novel by Robert Buettner, Orphanage. (I’d point you directly to that piece now, but, as part of the SF Weekly site, it disappeared into the aether when the SciFi Channel, as it was known then, no longer lent support to their own archives. Sic transit gloria internet.) I found Buettner’s maiden offering to be a compelling slice of military SF, with a lot of humanism about it, full of realistic warfare and politics, nice characterizations, pathos, heroics and thrills. I went on to cover the next two books in the series (ditto regarding the online survival of those two reviews), Orphan’s Destiny and Orphan’s Journey, assessing them as equally well done.
Then, as these things frequently happen, I lost track of the series in the press of other assignments. But now, thanks to the miracle of Wikipedia (like Homer Simpson concerning doughnuts, I ask, “Is there anything Wikipedia can’t do?”), I discover that Buettner concluded the saga with two more books—neatly synopsized at his entry, to satisfy in a very limited way my curiosity about sheer plot—and that he launched a follow-up series that takes place a generation later. Those later books each have a handy précis as well.
Balance Point is the third entry in this new “season,” and so in some respects not perhaps the best place for me to reinsert myself into Buettner’s mythos. But you know what? Every SF book is someone’s first SF book, as the saying goes. Some reader somewhere is just discovering Buettner in 2014 and will happily work backwards if the new book intrigues them. And it can be somewhat labored and pedantic to try to encapsulate a whole saga in one small review. So let’s just dive into Balance Point and see what we find.
The book kicks off with a dramatic incident calculated to snare newbies and oldtimers alike. Our narrator, Jazen Parker, a Captain in Earth’s interstellar military, is summoned to the Okefenokee Swamp to negotiate with a rampaging alien behemoth. We instantly get a sense of the backstory with the introduction of General Hibble, a character from the earliest books, and mention of Parker’s mate, Kit Born. The colloquy between the telepathic alien troublemaker, Mort, and Parker grounds us as well, itemizing villains and allegiances.
The next chapters shift scene and point of view to another planet, Rand, and also inform us that humanity’s empire now consists of 500 worlds, with Earth possessing a monopoly on FTL ships. (Considering that in Orphanage an Earth-limited humanity was nearly on the point of extinction, this triumphalism in one generation’s time represents an optimistic philosophy indeed, partly explained and buttressed by the assimilation of previously unknown human colonies established in prehistoric times by kidnapper aliens.) Omniscient narration tracks a meeting between Bartram Cutler, a rich traitor to Earth’s interests, and Max Polian, a government man from Yavet, a planet looking to get out from under Earth’s thumb and expand their power. After getting a glimmer of their machinations, we’re back to Parker’s milieu, and the game is off.
And so, with deft touches Buettner succeeds in welcoming one and all into his tale, leaping any barriers to involvement and understanding. What the happy reader gets is not the heavy-duty combat of the first series, but—given the “Cold War II” conditions that prevail—more of a spy-type adventure, mixed with a personal and emotional odyssey for Parker. Think of it as a version of Eric Frank Russell’s Wasp, or some of the Poul Anderson Flandry adventures.
First, we have the machinations of Polian that threaten to upset the “balance point” of Cold War II. And by allowing us to sympathetically inhabit the Yavet mentality, Buettner makes us perceive these as honorable, if ultimately misguided and undesirable schemes. Then we have the undercover doings of Parker and Kit, who actually move on separate tracks for most of the book, given an unfortunate falling out between the lovers. And thirdly, we get a bit of comic relief that is still integral to the spying, what with the actions of the elephantine “grezzen” named Mort, who must be returned to his native planet of Dead End in order to mate.
Without delivering too much of a spoiler—it is revealed before we get deep into the narrative—I will say that Jazen Parker proves to be the son of Jason Wander, the hero of the early books. Jazen’s drive to reunite with the birth parents he never knew while being raised on Yavet by an adoptive mother add a particularly poignant twist to the realpolitik threads.
Buettner builds an agreeable and believable relationship between Kit and Jazen, reminiscent of the husband and wife spies in Heinlein’s “Gulf.” He fashions some attractively gritty steel beach venues. He conducts his thriller action with suspense and plausibility. All the separate threads balance neatly, as if in homage to the book’s themes of balance between antagonistic polities.
In short, Buettner carries forward nobly a kind of core SF tale pioneered by writers such as Anderson, Gordon Dickson, Christopher Anvil, James Schmitz, and C. J. Cherryh, offering entertainment aplenty with thoughtful meditations on how humanity can get along with itself—or not!