Prophets (DAW), by S. Andrew Swann, is an old-school space opera with machiavellian plots, tigermen, guns, interstellar empires, more guns, cosmic threats, and an anarcho-capitalist dystopia.
The novel is the first in a projected trilogy called Apotheosis. It's set in the same universe as the Moreau Novels and The Hostile Takeover Trilogy Swann wrote in the 1990s. Two hundred years have passed since the collapse of the Confederacy that once controlled all human-occupied space. Now, the hundred or so human worlds are divided into different factions of every political stripe. Chief among them is the Roman Catholic Church enjoying more power than it ever dreamed of in the Middle Ages. An Islamic state called the Eridani Caliphate is vying with the Vatican for control of unaligned colonies. The Caliphate may have the muscle to back it up with a huge new battle fleet.
Xi Virginis is a star seventy-five light-years beyond the volume of human space. A disturbing signal from there reaches the powder keg of interstellar ambition and sets off a furious race to investigate the potentially explosive anomaly. On the anarchic planet Bakunin, the top getaway destination for scum and villainy, a private expedition is assembled by Tjaele Mosasa. He's a manipulative sociopath with a bitchin' tattoo and dark past. One of the mercenaries hired to protect the science team is Nickolai Rajastahn, a "moreau" or descendant of genetically-enhanced animal once used as soldiers. A three meter tall, bipedal cyborged tiger, Nickolai is one Bad Cat with a dark past. Also on the team is Father Mallory, ex-marine colonel and undercover Jesuit xenoarcheologist with . . . well you get the idea.
While the Church and the Caliphate nominally appear to be theocracies, they have discarded much of the fundamentalist trappings of the past for raw, naked secular power. The Catholic Church in particular has embraced rational science. Long ago they reconciled evolution with Church doctrine and teach that all sentient biological life possess souls. All the more souls to convert, my dear. Despite this, there are still technologies that are considered absolute taboo by nearly all humans and neighboring alien races. The Three Heretical Sciences are: "1. Genetic-engineering of sentient-life forms; 2. Artificial Intelligence; and 3. Self-replicating nanotechnology."
Humanity has been severely screwed over by each of these in the past and now consider any further research along such paths to be anathema. This demonizing attitude has forestalled The Singularity or governing AIs so popular in excellent recent space operas by Hamilton, Reynolds, or Asher. Still, remnants some of the heretical sciences remain.
All moreaus were exiled from Terra centuries ago to settle their separate-but-equal Fifteen Worlds. They have no love lost for their one-time masters, calling them the Fallen or "naked devils". Nickolai's homeworld of Grimalkin has a whole homegrown Gnostic faith built around how much they dislike humans. The uplifted moreaus know who their Creator was-probably some asthmatic jerk in a lab coat who never paid child support and had an annoying laugh. With a flawed genesis like that it's no wonder that the religion of the tigermen has a grim view of the universe.
AIs were used in a genocidal war against Earth as stealthy sabotage weapons for wide-scale social engineering. That may not seem as scary as an army of shiny terminators, but they are remembered as incarnations of pure evil. At least one of these constructs is still online and shows up early in the plot, operating true to its programming.
The most feared of the heresies is autonomous nanotech. Worlds where it has been used were tectonically simonized with huge particle beams. The mysterious data from Xi Virginis hints at previously unknown human worlds, tempting lebensraum for hungry empires. But if there's even a hint of heretical science, it's Nuke the Site from Orbit Time.
Swann is a libertarian and makes that abundantly clear in his work: Organized religion and authoritarian statists? - really bad; hegemonizing collective consciousnesses with godlike powers?-probably even worse. But unlike most libertarian science fiction authors, Swann takes a more cynical approach to revered concepts like sovereign individuality. Originally imagined as a stateless utopia, the planet Bakunin has become a chaotic free-for-all where nothing is free. The heavily-armed inhabitants constantly struggle in "an economy constructed around criminal gangs, private armies, and an aggressive social Darwinism that [is] worthy of the Borgias." Bakunin's largest city Godwin (named for Mary Shelly's father?) is a eye-bending chaos of slums, bullet-proof clothing boutiques and corporate citadels. Gee, when I look at it that way, paying some taxes and following building codes doesn't seem all that bad.
There are some smart ideas and fun action scenes in Prophets, but I can only give it a lukewarm recommendation. At about 350 pages, this first of a trilogy feels too long. Granted, Swann has a lot to introduce especially to readers unfamiliar to the adventures he's written in this universe. I couldn't help feeling there were many passages that were padded out or repetitive. This pacing may be affecting the characterizations as well. There are too many characters with hidden agendas and troubled pasts still awaiting revelation. They all play it close to the chest and we really don't get to know them much. This volume sets up a lot of action for the next book, and that's cool. But Prophets really feels like the first third of a 600 page novel. If the second book picks up the pace The Apotheosis Trilogy will be a satisfying traditional space opera with a twist.
You may read Mr. Swann himself expounding upon his latest novel on John Scalzi's Whatever.
Grey_Area is known among the Gnostic kitteh peepul as Christopher Hsiang. He means you no harm – give him the books, already.