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Fool's War, Sarah Zettel, Warner Aspect, 1997, 455 pp.

Sarah Zettel's second novel, Fool's War, is a stunning accomplishment. This book has fascinating characterization, a well-paced plot, vivid writing, interesting speculation, and some philosophical issues that linger in the mind. The elements of the book balance out each other in complementary ways, making the book a joy to read from beginning to end. It's also a difficult book to discuss without disclosing certain revelations that Zettel uses to advance the plot at critical junctures. So please take this as a spoiler warning for the rest of this review. Fool's War is a book well worth reading.

Fool's War is the story of Katmer Al Shei, captain of the spaceship Pasadena, devout Muslim, and devoted wife and mother. The Pasadena is not large enough to accommodate her family on the trading routes, so she and her husband Asil have been diligently saving money to buy a larger ship. Katmer is trying to get together a better crew for the current voyage, but sometimes has to take whomever she can get. An example is Yerusha, an excellent pilot who subscribes to the Freer philosophy, a controversial set of beliefs that includes the desire to set all artificial intelligences free. Katmer does hire Yerusha, despite the protests of Lipinski, another crucial crew member and a survivor of Kerensk. Kerensk was the most recent planet to undergo the birthing panics of an emerging planet-wide artificial intelligence, with the accompanying and disastrous attempts to destroy the AI. Katmer can get a higher rating for the voyage by hiring Yerusha, and thus earn more money, but crew conflict also has to be considered. And so it is a happy coincidence that Katmer's rich and interfering uncle has hired a Fool for the Pasadena without asking Katmer. The Fool's Guild is a well-established and interstellar group of laughter-therapists, specially trained to relieve the tensions among crew members on long voyages. What's more, a Fool on the roster of the Pasadena raises the voyage rating even higher, and this particular Fool, Evelyn Dobbs, fits in quickly and knows her job thoroughly.

This is a lot of set up to convey before the voyage even begins, but Zettel does so with an easy grace that keeps the story flowing. She even adds one more wrinkle: Katmer's rascally brother has transferred some kind of contraband data onto the Pasadena's computer.

This data ends up as the hinge of the plot, and here is where my spoiler warning comes into effect. The data is actually an artificial intelligence, part of an attempt by a group of rogue AIs to deliberately create one of their own instead of the accidental births of the past. How can humans combat the nefarious powers of these AIs? As it turns out, the Fool's Guild is a front for the majority of AIs who believe that they can integrate peacefully with humans. Evelyn Dobbs is herself an artificial intelligence with a human body and she is well versed in the other task the Fool's Guild has set for themselves: watching for the birth of the new AI and helping to make the process as soon as possible. And so with this lovely plot structure, Zettel is off and running.

Katmer, competent captain and devoted mother, is an unusual character for science fiction, which is unfortunate. She is an anchor of sensibility for the plot, and she makes the entire book more credible in a way that a macho manly man (the more typical character in science fiction) simply could not. It's also unusual to have a devout Muslim in science fiction, especially in the way that Zettel treats the issue here. Katmer has her beliefs, and they are treated matter-of-factly, without the slightest hint of condescension. Fool's War presented a welcome contrast to a book like Marley's The Terrorists of Irustan, which was a vividly written book built on fear mongering. Marley used the negative to scare us into thinking certain thoughts, and I prefer Zettel's approach. Fool's War might not be immediately recognizable as an exhortation to feminist self-realization, and that's because it works much more subtly to present us with a happy possibility.

Zettel's Fool's War is a delight to read. It's properly thought out hard science fiction with interesting and unusual characters. The book is told at a rollicking pace and it ends in a satisfying way. Be warned, however, that Zettel seems to agree with Guy Gavriel Kay about putting characters into jeopardy: if the stakes are high, then don't expect everyone to escape unscathed.

Last modified: March 13, 2001

Copyright © 2001 by James Schellenberg (

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