The World Before

Reviewer: Jake Beal

Author: Karen Traviss

Published: 2005

Reviewed: 2006-06-25

Publisher: HarperCollins

This book did something that few do to me: it challenged my ethics in
a way that really made me think. "The World Before" is actually the
third in a series, and I missed out on a lot of backplot coming in
as late as I did. But Ms. Traviss is good at keeping you in the loop,
and since her characters spend a lot of this book agonizing over what
happened in the last couple, you get caught up pretty well.

Anyway, the ethics. Basically, the book centers around conflicts in
ethics. Conflicts between duty and desire. Conflicts between loyalty
and wisdom. Conflicts between betrayal and guilt. Conflicts of all
manner and intractability. But most of all, it centers around a
conflict between species on a collision course because of a
fundamental difference in ethics. One set, including the humans,
believe that intent matters. The others, including the tremendously
technologically superior group, believe that only outcomes matter.

As the reader, you never really get a break between it all. The book
opens with a view of genocide, and most of the characters are either
war criminals or wonder why they aren't considered war criminals.
There is no right and wrong, only differing ethical standards that
each uses to judge their world. And they're all quite valid, often
no more than slight exaggerations on common ethical views we hear
today. It's quite painful, actually.

I think, though, that it's what compelled me to finish the book. It
was hard going, frankly. It started slow, as I was trying to catch up
on everything going on, and it took me about 100 pages---one quarter
of the book---before it hooked me. Even then, it wasn't an incredible
page-turner, but dragged me on at its own, inevitable rate.

This is not a book to read for escape. This is a book to read and be
confronted with the terrifying lack of evil in the world. Man, was it
good. It was a terribly unpleasant experience, and I'm glad I read
it. All these horrible questions become a lot more manageable and
real when you're thinking about them in a fictional context. Did it
leave me with answers? No, but the questions are much clearer to me
than before I read it, and all because they play out through the eyes
of a few exiled humans, lost in an alien world with their own guilt
and the necessity to keep on living despite it.

I'll bet she's going to write another, but I'm not sure if I want to
read it. Mark me, I don't want to impugn the quality of this work at
all, but the nature of her world is dark and disturbing in a way that
reminds me far too well of our own.