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War Stories edited by Jaym Gates and Andrew Liptak

September 6, 2014 6 comments

war stories

War Stories edited by Jaym Gates and Andrew Liptak (Apex Publications, 2014) begins with a thoughtful introduction by the editors and then reprints “Graves” by Joe Haldeman which is as good a war story as you could hope to find (it did win the 1994 Nebula Award). It’s always pleasing when the editors say something interesting. It’s also incredibly daring of them to put “Graves” out front as a yardstick against which measure the success of all the new stories.

The book is divided into four parts, each with its own illustration to start. This is a pleasing design choice. I like to see an artist’s take on the content. Part 1 is titled Wartime Systems and it explores the various practical and ethical problems when creating different ways of engaging in combat. One trend is clear. Telefighting is the preferred option. Warriors are too valuable to waste in direct combat. It will be much better if they are sequestered away somewhere safe. If a human must go, he or she must be cocooned in metal the better to escape the bullets and explosions coming their way. “In The Loop” by Ken Liu is an ideas story that comes over a little cold because of the need for a significant amount of exposition to get started. It holds the interest but the emotional impact is not as sharp as it could have been. “Ghost Girl” by Rich Larson is a rather beautiful story which again deals with the relationship between a human and a machine. This time, we have the aftermath of a war in which operators could sometimes become close to their drones. “The Radio” by Susan Jane Bigelow continues the theme of a human and machine, this time with a reanimated body at the heart of a cyborg. It comes slowly but there can sometimes be hope when the extremists on all sides leave the field of action. “Contractual Obligation” by James L. Cambias reaches a nicely ironic conclusion as the link between automated units and the human commander is reconfigured in the light of exigent circumstances. “The Wasp Keepers” by Mark Jacobsen is slightly polemical, but it does convey the age-old truth that you can fight a war and never achieve a victory. “Non-Standard Deviation” by Richard Dansky gets the balance exactly right as we enter a simulation intended to teach soldiers how to fight only to discover that the AI doesn’t do war no more. The result is a delight.

Part 2 is titled Combat, but instead of this referring to major battles, we’re either dealing with local engagements or the role of individuals in situations where they have to fight. “All You Need” by Mike Sizemore is an elegantly told story of a girl assassin and her intelligent gun as they pursue targets and aim to survive in a threatening environment. “The Valkyrie” by Maurice Broaddus finds the Church Militant out to exterminate the atheists and heretics. There’s just one problem. Inflicting so much injury and death take a toll on the mind of long-surviving soldiers. Sometimes, they crack. “One Million Lira” by Thoraiya Dyer is a fascinating future history of a world without fossil fuels in which the rich literally take to the air and leave poverty behind them on the ground. Except, of courser, technology is not infallible and accidents happen. When a sky city crashes, the poor come to scavenge. This story wonders who will fight over the remains and why. Then “Invincible” by Jay Posey invites us to consider the difference between invincibility and invulnerability. A crew of highly-experienced soldiers kills a group of “pirates” who have taken a ship. Some people die. Others survive but not necessarily in exactly the same form. It’s quite good but feels as thought it’s a part of a longer piece. “Light and Shadow” by Linda Nagata pursues the discussion about a human’s machine interface with combat armor and the extent to which this might affect the mind. Humans, as the title suggests, have minds filled with light and shadow. What happens if something disrupts this delicate balance?

Part 3 is titled Armored Force and begins with “Warhosts” by Yoon Ha Lee. This sees us in a distant future where war has been ritualised into a series of trials by combat. Whichever group of champions prevails wins the designated territory. It’s all a matter of scale. Dragons may be unstoppable, six-legged antagonists and the two-legged dream of their defeat. The question, as always, is whether the dreams of the human inserts will affect the armour that carries them into war. “Suits” by James Sutter has both exoskeleton fighting machines and cloned technicians to keep them in repair. As for all soldiers and those who support them, the question is always whether the cause is just. If it is not, what are the options for conscientious objection? “Mission. Suit. Self.” by Jake Kerr asks what heroism is when the human is enclosed in a suit that effectively makes him or her invulnerable. For some, the answer would be the ability to overcome fear, but the real question to be answered is whether the mission itself is worth dying for. “In Loco” by Carlos Orsi wonders about the man inside the armour. Does he still have the cojones to go mano-a-mano when he has a chance for freedom?

Part 4 is titled Aftermath with “War Dog” by Mike Barretta an outstanding story which strikes the perfect balance between emotion and the hard world in which vets find themselves when the fighting is done. The threat left for the civilian population to deal with is genuinely innovative. “Coming Home” by Janine Spendlove is a PTSD story which shows a decommissioned captain trying to adjust to life after serving with the marines, while explaining the operational background of her flying the wounded out of the battlefield when the threats were hot. “Where We Would End a War” by F. Brett Cox takes a different view of PTS (it’s bad PR to describe it as a disorder) and wonders what returning vets might do for kicks if they found the world too boring. “Black Butterfly” by T.C McCarthy demonstrates a completely coldblooded way of fighting an alien race. There’s just one problem. It takes rather a long time to work. “Always the Stars and the Void Between” by Nerine Dorman is a touching story of a soldier’s return. She thinks she will resign and return home but, as seventeen years have passed, things may not be quite as she remembered them. “Enemy States” by Karin Lowachee is a desperately intelligent and yet sad story of the man left behind when the man goes to war. Because their experiences are not the same, they change as people. Perhaps love can transcend minor differences. Perhaps not. “War 3.01” by Keith Brooke is a completely delightful way to end the war to end all wars just so long as you believe what you read on the internet. Put all this together and you have a superior anthology with one or two genuinely outstanding stories. That said, none of the modern stories are as good as “Graves” which captures a moment of horror on the battlefield in a way that has only rarely been equalled. This is not to take anything away from the modern stories, but simply to reflect on the editors’ decision to include a yardstick against which to measure how far we’ve progressed in the fiction writing stakes over the last twenty years.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast by Jack Campbell

June 28, 2014 4 comments

The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast by Jack Campbell

Back when I was young and still somewhat naive, I was rather taken by the idea of history following a cyclical pattern. I think I first encountered the idea in The Voyage of the Space Beagle by A E van Vogt. At the time, I was studying the classical languages at school and had read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which was a somewhat ironic book for a European historian to be writing as the then major European powers were full of optimism and engaged in creating their own Empires. But the idea of a man writing about the fall of one empire as all the other emergent empires were doomed to fall seemed eerily prescient. Anyway, my understanding of history did seem to register Golden Ages followed by Dark Ages as different civilisations rose, prospered, and then fell. It also seemed attractive to believe that, after each Dark Age, the next civilisation would be better than the last. Young people always want to believe the later generations learn from the mistakes of the earlier. Sadly, that’s rarely the case. As each society reaches the point where agriculture and raw material resources can no longer support the local population, there tend to be wars and social collapse (if climate change wrecks enough of the world’s agriculture, the next collapse may not be very far away).

The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast by Jack Campbell (pseudonym of John G Hemry) (Ace, 2014) is rather elegantly playing with this idea as John “Black Jack” Geary begins the book doing a tour of Earth (as the cradle of the now interstellar civilisation). Appropriately, he’s visiting Hadrian’s Wall in the North of England close to where I was born (not, you understand, that I was there when Black Jack visited). There’s much for him to chew on as he considers how the wall came to be built and, more importantly, why it was later abandoned and largely allowed to collapse over the centuries that followed. He also views other sites where the damage caused by the collapse of an empire remains as a reminder of past failure. He sees this alongside his own experience of helping the Alliance beat the Syndicate and then fight off aliens who might have done considerable damage. The state of the two human combatants remains fragile with the Alliance caught in a difficult economic situation as their worlds try to shift from a war to a peace footing. The Syndicate has fragmented with many planetary systems going through local rebellions against the old regimes who continue to holdout. No-one is doing well in this situation.

Jack Campbell (John G Hemry)

Jack Campbell (John G Hemry)

The book is full of discussions and insights into the collapse of order on both sides of the political divide. Before the war, there were political tensions but, along the border between the two sides, there was considerable trade and movement of people. Now that the war is technically over, there are the usual problems of recovering prisoners of war and dealing with refugees and economic migrants whose arrival from Syndicate space is stressing the resource-poor economies on the Alliance side. This leaves Black Jack with two major issues to address. The first is the enigmatic presence of six ship from the alien race called the Dancers. Their command of standard English is no doubt good, but they choose to communicate in a very odd way. Indeed, the retired general who’s been given the job of liaison officer finds trying to get anything approximating a straight answer out of them a challenge. Nevertheless, there does seem to be some method to their alien strangeness as they suddenly take off on an apparently random tour of human space with the general in tow. Fortunately, it becomes clear towards the end of the book that they have been able to see signs all is not well in human space.

The second issue relates to the extraordinary secrecy surrounding some of the activities of the Alliance. It seems factions have been taking long-term decisions without any public disclosure let alone discussion. Until the end of this book, it’s not entirely clear exactly what’s been done. Now we have a better view of the outcome, it’s obviously a disaster that’s waiting to rampage out of control. As a warning sign of the capacity for decision-makers to believe they are doing the right thing, we get an early visit to the moon of Europa where a secret lab was trying to create the perfect bio weapon. Unfortunately, it escaped the lab and everyone of the moon died. A permanent exclusion zone has been established and no-one is allowed to visit. This latest discovery may well be characterised as an infection of sorts. It will be interesting to see how Black Jack deals both with the politics of how such a thing came to be created and, more importantly, what’s to be done about it now. Putting the problem shortly, the Alliance and the Syndicates had some degree of stability through maintaining the status quo of the conflict. When Black Jack broke the impasse, the Alliance feared for its own stability as victor. Those who had been leaders on a wartime footing might not maintain their hold over power if there was a return to peacetime democracy. For some this would be unendurable. Such is the way in which leaders sow the seeds of their empire’s fall. Putting all this together, The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast is rather a thoughtful book with quite a lot of fighting for those who like military SF.

For review of other books by “Jack Campbell”, see:
The Last Full Measure
The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught
The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

To Sail a Darkling Sea by John Ringo

March 7, 2014 2 comments

To Sail a Darkling Sea

To Sail a Darkling Sea by John Ringo (Baen, 2014) is the second in the Black Tide Rising series following on Under a Graveyard Sky and features survival after a zombie plague has overrun the land. In military terms that just leaves isolated bases in the US, Russia and China, and a reasonable number of people in submarines. Obviously, once the plague hit, the rich and more enterprising took off on small boats. Others were already at sea on cruise liners. What’s now called the Wolf Squadron is now slowly growing itself by finding boats, clearing the zombies and rescuing the few survivors who could shut themselves away with enough food and water to survive.

 

I’m obliged to start this review with the usual disclaimer that I know absolutely nothing about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the various types of guns and rifles discussed in the pages of this or any other military book. Those that have this interest will no doubt be fascinated by the detailed evaluation of stopping power and generally utility. I skipped through these passages as part of the price to be paid to get on with the story.

 

I should also note the rather odd view of gender displayed as the story unwinds. Faith and Sophia, the two Wolf daughters are both shown as ruthless killers of the zombies. Having set up two of the main point of view characters as female, it’s a little depressing to have another set of scenes which trap five men and one woman in a compartment, leaving her in the role of comfort woman. Alarmingly, she gets to enjoy the sex including threesomes. It’s a sad commentary of the five men that they have no self-control and believe the best way of passing the time while waiting for rescue is to persuade the only female that sex is wonderful (as often as they want it, of course).

John Ringo

John Ringo

 

There’s also an interesting discussion of the psychology of leadership and the necessity for ranks with a defined disciplinary code. This becomes a essential matter to settle because the only group functioning on the surface is the Wolf Squadron and it’s civilian. So we have the few military survivors hiding in bunkers on land and lots of submarines who don’t dare undog their hatches near anyone even vaguely human in case they contract the zombie-causing virus. The rump survivors of the military must therefore fit these “people” into a command hierarchy so that, as and when the scientists in the Wolf Squadron produce more of the vaccine and can protect the crews of the submarines, everyone will know how to relate to each other and co-ordinate their efforts to retake the land. Less successful is the discussion of whether the mechanism for the Wolf Squadron’s cohesion is a form of communism. Regrettably, when you measure the US in international terms, even its supposed left-wing liberals are woefully right wing when compared to almost all other countries. So when a US author of military SF, adapted in this case to cover a zombie apocalypse, starts talking about whether the organisational dynamic is communist, you know to suppress mirth.

 

So is there anything to like about this book? Well, for all the facile politics, the endless discussion of weaponry and overemphasis on military jargon, the underlying story is actually quite interesting even though it does get somewhat repetitive. The marines led by Shewolf are shown clearing boats and ships of varying size. They then move on to land in the Canary Islands. Knowing they will need to move to safer waters as the winter storm season approaches, they require more transport for the increasing number of people they have been rescuing. The Canaries are convenient because there are a number of cruise ships there, together with a significant number of motor yachts and zodiac-style power boats. The plan is to put together a flotilla capable of wintering successfully and then moving over to Guantanamo where they hope to find the facilities to resume manufacture of the vaccine. All this has virtue in thoughtful plotting terms. Overlook the extermination of zombies on an industrial scale when they can be confronted in relatively controlled situations, and the spirit of the book does maintain a reasonable momentum. I suppose the fans of military SF will think this wonderful. As it is, I rate To Sail a Darkling Sea as not too unbearable.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught by Jack Campbell

The Lost Fleet Beyond the Frontier Dreadnaught by Jack Campbell

The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught by Jack Campbell (pseudonym of John G Hemry) (Ace, 2011) sees me going back in time to satisfy my curiosity. I was intrigued rather than impressed by the meticulous way in which The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight was put together. Although the political situation as described was rather laboured, the military SF element was pleasing. It therefore seemed a good idea to go back a couple of books to look at the story from the main protagonist’s point of view. Black Jack was part of the practical mythology that informed the activities of the ex-Syndic world. Why not see how and why he had made such a name for himself?

The basic premise is not in any sense original. It assumes an individual from one culture can have a massive impact when he or she is transplanted into a different culture. Simply the fact of difference is enough to raise the hackles in the new culture. There’s always been deep suspicion of strangers. If they are also “foreigners” this doubles the paranoia that their very presence will change the world, and not for the better. This particular variation has a military leader who was “frozen” when his exploits had made him famous. Politicians over the decades then found it convenient to refer back to this man as having been a leader in their culture’s “golden age”. They mused how tragic his “death” had been. If only. . . and then his body is discovered and he’s reanimated. This is, of course, deeply embarrassing to the generations of politicians who have lauded his name. It gets worse when he’s able to start winning battles again. I’m coming into the story just after Black Jack has beaten the Syndic fleet and brought peace to this part of the galaxy. The man’s status as a hero is now undeniable. So what are the politicians to do with him?

Jack Campbell (John G Hemry)

Jack Campbell (John G Hemry)

They could arrest him, but what would the charges be and would the people tolerate a trial for the man who has ended the civil war? They could quietly arrange for him to meet an accident. If he “died” before, he could do so again and save all the corrupt from having to account to this man of honour. Yes, he’s the epitome of everything good about the military. Willing to serve but scrupulous both when it comes to accounting for his own actions and holding others accountable when they fall short of his high standards. People in power would be lining up to pay for his assassination so they could weep crocodile tears at his funeral and berate fate that had snatched the hero away. . . his legacy would not be forgotten, it would become an inspiration to all. . . and so on.

So we open as Black Jack and his new wife are on their way to rejoining the fleet after their short honeymoon. They are not sure what they will find but are convinced it will be dangerous. Indeed, their arrival coincides with an attempt to break the unity of the fleet. This is political suicide, because if unified command ceased to function, ships returning to their own sets of home planets might produce a balkanisation of human space, each warlord claiming sovereignty by virtue of local military power. To avoid this, the fleet is to be sent off to investigate the strength of the aliens in the adjacent part of the galaxy. This plays to the old political ploy that, if you can’t frighten your people with the threat of humans on the other side of a civil war, you threaten them with aliens at the gates. Despite various attempts to sabotage the mission, a strong fleet does set off and is soon in what used to be Syndic space.

Of course, this is no more safe than alien-controlled space. The fact peace might have been imposed does not mean old resentments have been resolved. Thus begins a significantly more interesting journey through local politics. Here’s our hero, a man with the reputation for righteousness and honour, suddenly forced to begin dealing with people who have little or no interest in compromise or even considering what might, objectively, be the right thing to do. It’s back to the good old days of dog-eat-dog power-broking with selfishness uppermost. And this is not just in Syndic governments. It also affects the operation of the fleet itself, particularly when it liberates some prisoners whose view of how the world should operate is very “different”.

At some point, the fleet crosses over into alien space and there’s some fascinating world building on the nature of their culture. This is a very brave attempt to formulate something inexplicable by our standards and, to a considerable extent, this part of the book is a success. I can’t recall anything quite like this in any other media: books, television, cinema, anime, etc. In part, this reflects the essential paradox in what the humans “see” and a real part of the fun is in listening to their attempts to understand it. Indeed, the strength of the paradox lies in reasons for the “first contact” which suggests I have not gone back quite far enough in the series. Perhaps, I should have read the book earlier than this.

That said, the slightly convoluted title The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught delivers a thoughtful book on the politics of war and the management of the subsequent peace. What to do with standing armies has always been a headache. And I find myself recommending this to the broader SF community. This is not just military SF. Braces for strong reaction from ghetto fans. It’s better than that! Indeed, committed military SF fans may think the first half of the book has too much talk and not enough fighting.

For review of other books by “Jack Campbell”, see:
The Last Full Measure
The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast
The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Heretic by Tony Daniel and David Drake

July 11, 2013 2 comments

the_heretic-drake_david-21073476-frntl

Well off we go with another of these military SF novels that adds to a growing series, this time based on the exploits of Byzantine commander Belisarius. As you’ll probably guess from the source material, the basic plots have been supplied by David Drake which, in the first instance, were written into full novels by S M Stirling, We’ve watched humanity conquer the stars and develop a high-technology civilisation only to fall again. There was a glitch and, without warning, all the infrastructure and most of the machines that had depended on that technology failed. This plunged each of the worlds into chaos. The first series under the heading of The General told the story of Raj Whitehall who reunited the planet of Bellevue with the help of Center, a pre-Collapse battle computer. Once that world was restored, they sent out interstellar probes to all of the worlds occupied by humans. Each of these probes contained a download of Raj Whitehall’s personality and Center. Once a probe lands, it can communicate with one individual and attempt to guide that planet back up to full civilisation. The Heretic by Tony Daniel and David Drake (Baen, 2013) is opening a new front on the planet of Duisberg, creating a third follow-on series.

The result of this effort is successful because of David Drake’s unifying presence. Even though there are now three partner authors, the overall plot development remains under coherent control. Too often when multiple authors make individual contributions to a shared universe, the compromises between the authors and the editorial staff produce spotty results. This time, the vision remains consistent and the variations in style are less intrusive. Indeed, this particular book has a quite intriguing political context for a reconnaissance mission and set-piece battle. The level of technology has been manipulated by a surviving planetary defence AI. This machine has determined the ideal approach to maintaining the planet is to deny the humans access to any advanced technology. The military is restricted to ball muskets fitted with bayonets, and untempered knives and swords. All manufacturing is under the control of the priests who have been taught to worship the AI as their god. This means every command is obeyed with zealous enthusiasm. To limit progress, the AI cycles two competing societies. One is agrarian and based in the valleys. The other is desert-based and nomadic. Periodically, the nomads mass and cull the farmers. This keeps the overall population numbers steady and inhibits development as the raiders kill off all those showing any signs of independent thought.

David Drake and Tony Daniel do signing duty

David Drake and Tony Daniel do signing duty

Raj and Center enter the mind of a six-year old boy. He’s the son of a provincial military commander and the book is a form of coming-of-age story as he grows up and slowly accumulates experience out in the field. What makes the book interesting is the interaction between the boy and the two quite different personalities inhabiting his mind. Despite the ability to give him stunningly different intellectual experiences, the boy remains slightly sceptical of the voices’ motivation. As someone born into a nontechnological society, the idea his “god” is a machine and, worse, actively manipulating its worshippers to their detriment is not easily accepted. Although he relies on the voices for help and advice, he’s really just biding his time until evidence comes from an independent source to confirm or deny the truth of what has happened to his world. The result is a team effort to survive the various military challenges without giving himself away to the watching priests. In the end, our boy becomes a young commander in the field and faces an invading force from the desert. He’s outnumbered two-to-one but, despite the religious limitations, he comes up with strategies to even the odds. The problem is that all uses of unsanctioned technology represents heresy and the priests burn heretics. So even if he wins the battle, he could still be chained to a post and burned.

Overall, Tony Daniel does a good job in expanding the plot outline supplied by David Drake. There’s a vivid quality to his descriptions of the different physical and political challenges that carries the reader through to a well-paced battle at the end. The Heretic is a good addition to the series as two AIs ready themselves to square off against each other through human agents. I confess that I’m not always impressed by military SF, but this is one of the best I’ve read for a year and more.

For reviews of other books by David Drake, see:
Monsters of the Earth
Night & Demons
Out of the Waters
The Road of Danger

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Battle Los Angeles (2011)

Battle_Los_Angeles_Poster

When I first began going to the cinema, we were still regularly recycling the WWII propaganda films. The message, obviously, was how great the Allied forces were and how quickly they were going to defeat the Evil Axis. Fortunately, history was on their side. Then came the wave of American films dealing with the Korean War. Fortunately, the arrival of MASH and others rebalanced the view. The essence of most of these films is that iconic figures like John Wayne (who’s mentioned in this film) in The Fighting Seabees demonstrate adaptability and toughness as men. This individual skill set makes them inherently superior to the enemy, i.e. no matter what the numbers or the difference in access to resources, “our boys” will always triumph because they are better soldiers. It’s a comfortable myth to build because, once established, it acts as a deterrent to other countries who might wish to challenge American dominance.

 

Battle Los Angeles (2011) is one of these simple-minded science fiction action films in which technologically advanced aliens splash down in the seas just off eight major cities around the globe and then proceed to rollover the local defensive forces. This is not surprising since, if these alien guys can construct interstellar craft, they should have military superiority over our backwater planet. Anyway, this is all put to the test in Los Angeles where a few of America’s finest (and one or two others) are thrown into the battle. It’s a bit like Custer’s Last Stand except, this time, Earth can’t afford to lose. If Los Angeles falls, that’s it for the whole of Earth’s defences (no matter how far inland they may be based). You just can’t help but admire the loving care that goes into crafting the plots of these films. So here we go with the Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) who’s had enough after his last tour of duty in Afghanistan where he lost a lot of the men under his command. He tenders his resignation just as Earth’s scientists are warning of the approach of a meteor shower. His reputation sucks but as the meteors start slowing down before entering the atmosphere, he’s the experienced sergeant sent out to babysit the new lieutenant.

Aaron Eckhart being John Wayne

Aaron Eckhart being John Wayne

 

With the aliens swinging quickly into acton, the US helicopters fly over the beach so we can see the shelling and the fires. Guess what. The aliens are not supposed to have airpower. The fact they could fly to Earth and land in the sea means they are no good in the atmosphere, right? They are just coming out of the water and establishing a beachhead (sic). Our heroes are sent out into the smoke to rescue some civilians from a nearby police station. So there’s lots of shaky cam work as we move through the first phase with a brief sighting of a mechanised alien figure. Once they get to the police station, their rescue helicopter is shot out of the sky. Naturally, they find a wounded alien and, after stripping off its armour, try to work out where its vulnerable points are. Perhaps if we stick in a knife here. . . Fortunately one of the civilians waiting for rescue is a veterinarian and good with knives. To make their escape, they get a bus moving and quickly realise the aliens are in the air are and tracking their radio signals. This prompts the Staff Sergeant into the first act of individual heroism. He leads one of the alien craft away and, with a radio placed in a gas station, blows it out of the sky.

An alien emerges from a swimming pool

An alien emerges from a swimming pool

 

They see it’s a drone which means there has to be a centralised control centre — these damn aliens always have a weakness, right? So let’s take this step by step. They are a long way from home and that limits boots on the ground, so they use drone technology. The fact sane aliens would have developed death rays or killer bacteria tailored to eradicate humanity is not allowed. There would be no film if they could take over an empty planet. So they sit in their command centre and pummel Earth remotely. Except, in real terms, there’s not as much damage to property as you might expect. We’re not supposed to ask why US citizens, armed to the teeth courtesy of the NRA, are not lurking in cellars and underground car parks, waiting for the aliens to come into range. You see the use of drones only gets these invaders so far. At some point, they need grunts to clear the few human holdouts. With the characteristic arrogance you expect of aliens who have just pummelled LA from the air, they insist on coming on foot or tentacle (it’s hard to tell) and socking it to us mano-a-mano. Ah ha! They suddenly discover they are vulnerable to our bullets and explosives. Gee, that’s a surprise.

 

Because it’s a bit tiring to have nonstop explosions and shooting, our few human survivors get back to the airbase they started from to find everyone dead — it saves on the cost of extras. Once in a hanger, the civilian father dies from wounds and our hero has to comfort the son with inspirational words about the survival characteristics of the marine corps. It all brings a lump to the throat which make it difficult to swallow. The plot now calls for them to commandeer armored vehicles to get to an extraction point. This time the helicopter makes it to collect them. Every other bird may have been shot out of the sky but our boys have a ticket to ride. Except all the electronics go mad at one point. Hey, perhaps that’s the all-powerful control centre broadcasting to the area. Well let’s go see.

 

The ultimate model for films like this is Earth vs the Flying Saucers (1956) in which the aliens were winning so long as they stayed inside their force fields but got shot to pieces once they came out into the open. The only variation on display in Battle Los Angeles is the first-person shooter feel of some of the early sequences. Everything else is tired clichés. Even the CGI and special effects are unimpressive. Not, of course, that we should be expecting anything better. This is just bigger and louder than some of the films that went before. So if brainless science fiction militarism is your thing, this is probably a good film to watch when you have nothing better to do.

 

The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight by Jack Campbell

September 22, 2012 1 comment

Rather more years ago than I care to remember (although the fact I can remember is reassuring — it keeps my fear of Alzheimer’s at bay), I paid to see If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium. It was one of those faintly titillating films, rather popular at the time, in which the sexist behaviour of young men was gently satirised. More relevantly for our purposes, it showed a whistle-stop tour around nine countries in eighteen days. Let’s pause for a moment to consider how meaningful the stay in each country would be. Or, put another way, the title has it right when it hints that the country is irrelevant to the point of the journey. So here’s Jack Campbell, a pseudonym for John G Hemry. He’s a military SF guy and has been doing a tour of our neck of the galactic woods in The Lost Fleet series which has now gone Beyond the Frontier.

The simple version has the human area of this space divided between the capitalists and the communists (the Alliance and the Syndicate Worlds). As is required in all military scenarios, the actual politics of the two sides is largely irrelevant because all the author and his readers really want to do is deal with the fighting. In fact, the governments on both sides are corrupt and incompetent, and only a few good people at key times and places can keep the individual planetary systems going. The primary hero is “Captain” John Geary (better known as Black Jack) and he does his best to keep the hypernet system in play and so preserves the metatransport system for future generations. Things hot up when he’s sent to investigate the aliens who lurk on the border. So we’re now spread over the two declining “Empires” while Black Jack is battling aliens and/or allying himself with aliens. Although the questions of gender are reasonably well handled with women in government and the military rising through glass ceilings and performing as well as the men, the more general political systems are very superficial and reflect the prejudices built into the current American playbook, i.e. by world standards, it’s very right wing.

Jack Campbell (John G Hemry)

Of course, that does not of itself mean the books are essentially fascist and that, if they were fascist, this would be a “bad thing”. The humans on both sides have been caught up in essentially authoritarian systems with a high degree of mutual antagonism. As individual communities go through fairly convulsive changes, there’s a general need for a range of players to discuss the faults in the current arrangements and how matters might be rearranged to achieve better outcomes. In this, the relationship between civil authority and military command is a constant theme. The focus on the military also means notions of honour and duty are paramount. The civil authorities are more often interested in power for its own sake. There’s little sense of honour although, sometimes, fanatical levels of duty. Most government officials are intent on preserving their own positions even though this may not benefit the “people”. In this, it’s fairly obvious the author is pro-democracy but there signs of nuance in some of the scenarios and the associated discussions. There are also questions raised about the role of religion and the extent to which it should influence the behaviour of governments and the way in which the military operates.

In The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight by Jack Campbell (Ace, 2012), we’re dealing with a rebellion led by a political and a military leader who manages to overcome mutual suspicion long enough to seize control of the star system. For the record, this is the first novel told from the perspective of a Syndic world and it takes place at the same time as Black Jack is off meeting the aliens. We then get descriptions of both land-based and space battles as General Drakon and President Iceni collect military materiel wherever it can conveniently be found, and pick sides in a civil war in an adjacent star system. Since they have thrown off their Syndic yolk, they would prefer not to have a Syndic system in their backyard. Given the background, this is continuing the broader narrative thrust of the series and the descriptions of the military matters is done very well. Unfortunately, I find the broader political discussions rather tedious. I understand why the author wants to include this material. It obviously gives some depth to the shifting patterns of government power and allegiances. But I find the general tenor of the debates rather superficial and somewhat prejudiced. I could have followed the story and enjoyed the broad narrative flow if the text have been reduced by about 25%.

So for those of you following the series, The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight is more of the same and, if you enjoyed what has already been published, you will enjoy this.

For a review of other works by Jack Campbell, see:
The Last Full Measure
The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught
The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Road of Danger by David Drake

July 4, 2012 2 comments

Ahoy, me hearties and avast, ye lubbers! I’d recommend ye be looking fer a berth on the Bonny Lass. Why? Because no-one in their right minds would want to become one of the Sissies. Even being a eunuch is better in status terms. So, maties, we’re going to get into hot water to avoid me timbers shivering, and square off against pirates and warships of the line depending on which flag they’re flying for today. But, above all else, us macho naval men and women will avoid becoming sissies, i.e. people regarded as effeminate or cowardly, unless we decide to follow the Johnny Cash line and teach all our sailors to be butch by calling them Sue (after Sue Kerr Hicks, the man who prosecuted in the Scopes trial).

OK so I’m taking the Mickey here (not to be confused with a Mickey Finn and a free, all-inclusive pleasure cruise to Shanghai). By their nature, books that grow into series have an identifiable set of literary conventions. This targets a particular market niche where people are interested in those particular conventions. Take Patrick O’Brian for example. He’s well-known for the Aubrey-Maturin series which is based on actual historical events. If for nothing else, his fame rests on the incorporation of all the jargon and techniques of nineteenth century life under sail. You hear the rigging creek as the wind picks up and, if there’s anything you don’t understand, there’s always a dictionary. The author never explained any of the jargon for landlubbers. You’re supposed to pick up the mechanics of sailing through the experience of reading about it. So may your binnacles always glow even when you’re close-hauled, the spindrift races above you and you’ve got sprung butts lower down — you should always watch your butt.

David Drake warns, “Like my book or I’ll gut you like a fish!”

Now let’s come to The Road of Danger by David Drake. Like O’Brian, this author mines history for “interesting” situations and then recreates them in either fantasy or military SF. This novel is based on the exploits of Hamilcar after the Battle of Zama had forced the end of the Second Punic War. He was supposed to be a Carthaginian who was left behind the lines in Italy to provoke civil unrest. In fact, he turned out to be quite a successful military leader, so Rome sent a delegation to Carthage and demanded they repatriate their man, or else. David Drake translates this into the ninth outing in the RCN series for Captain Daniel Leary and Adele Mundy. They are given the no-win task of going to recover “Freedom”, the man leading an insurrection on a distant planet. You will understand the problems. No-one actually knows who he is nor how to contact him. He is, after all, the leader of an underground resistance movement. But the fact he’s managed to acquire some heavy-duty hardware and used it in some of the battles suggests he has the support of “governments”, so the politics of this proposed extraction are not going to be easy to navigate.

In describing the story in this way, I’m confirming it as fascinating. Although this relocation to space opera is not exact given this novel’s version of Carthage has not lost the war and so is not quite under the same pressure as the original, it nevertheless retains all the flavour of the problem. Immediately after the end of the Second Punic War, much of Italy and the greater European land mass was in a chaotic situation. Hannibal and his elephants had seriously disrupted the centralised control of Rome, allowing many of the original tribal units to quietly reassert their independence. So it is here. During this lull in active hostilities, many of the planets in this more distant part of human space have agendas that may diverge from the policy interests of both the major power blocs. Hence, there’s considerable lawlessness with pirates disrupting trade and corrupt officials feathering their own nests.

Had all this been packaged as a straightforward political thriller with military SF overtones, I would have been happy to explore the political ramifications and watch our heroes cut through the bullshit with a well-placed broadside of missiles when talking was no longer enough on its own. But the language used by David Drake kept getting in the way. The model of military cunning and brains borrowed from O’Brian works well in Leary and Mundy, but the transplantation of nineteenth century naval traditions and jargon does not. Let’s start with the gap between the officers and the crew. In the days of sail, you needed to be strong, fit and fearless to crew a ship of the line. Living in appalling conditions by modern standards, the men would have to cope with everything the sea could throw at them and then fight equally tough enemies. This did not require them to be well-endowed in the brain department. The primary requirement was they be loyal. The job of captains was to keep them motivated. Jack Aubry and Daniel Leary do it by giving rousing speeches and being supremely competent in battles — never sink a prize ship if it will pay the crew a big bonus when it gets back to port. So the people crewing the Princess Cecile (the Sissies) are as thick as two short planks. Interestingly, Lt Leary also has Hogg as his personal servant (and bodyguard). He’s one of these poacher/gamekeeper figures who steals to order and is not averse to shooting anyone who threatens the master. From this you will understand both Leary and Mundy come from the ranks of the nobility and so are used to telling the peasants what to do. Anyway, the crew is highly competent but intellectually challenged, while the higher class officers are continuing the training meted out by our two leaders. They are improving but still lack the spark of greatness. All this would be bearable if David Drake didn’t constantly distort everything to fit his nineteenth century model. People and machines have to conform to period linguistic conventions.

So there’s your choice laid out as fairly as I can. If you can bear to read a military SF novel written as if it’s describing a series of nineteenth century naval engagements, this is the book for you. It’s got everything including an ingenious way of shooting at an enemy that would not have been available to Jack Aubrey. But if the prose style is important to you, this is probably a book to avoid.

The artwork is by the ever reliable Steve Hickman.

For a review of other books by David Drake, see:
The Heretic with Tony Daniel
Monsters of the Earth
Night & Demons
Out of the Waters.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Contra Alliance: Shadows of the Past by Tom Kolega

Ambition is wonderfully inspiring when you see it up close. There’s a fire that burns with such brightness, you almost believe anything is possible. In this instance, we have Tom Kolega launching a new “universe” on to the market. Essentially the team behind the Contra Alliance project intends a multimedia approach to the development of the storyline. The basic plan calls for two trilogies to set up the current situation on Earth and then run the history prequel. There will also be a comic series. The longer term hope is for the narrative to be carried over into either an animated series or live action movies. Indeed, there’s no reason in principle why this should not be diversified into a gaming platform. Nor is there any reason why the universe should not be licensed to others to develop. This could be through new authors drafted in to write some of the novels or associated short stories as with Thieves’ World or Wild Cards, or a games developer brought in.

 

What makes this project unusual is the launch with a developed “universe”. The routine approach is for an author, film-maker or games designer to come up with the first novel, film or game, assess the market potential based on the number of fans, and so plan to diversify more aggressively. This uses the established base of customers in one medium to develop into other media. So, for example, Games Workshop began with games and then, through the Black Library, developed into print with novels, magazines and graphic novels. Tom Kolega is trying to establish interest in this universe before there’s a volume of content by which to judge it. Indeed, there’s a case to be made that it’s actually unfair to reach a definitive judgement on the first novel until more of the back story is released. You can’t get a feel for the texture of a “universe” until you’ve seen more than one book. However, since we only have the one the play with — Shadows of the Past — I will offer a provisional view.

Tom Kolega, the creator of the Contra Alliance project

 

A prologue is always a tricky way to start. When the intention is to set the tone, it can be full of hints and ideas to whet the palate. The danger is that it shades over into exposition which can be clunky. It’s always better to get straight into the novel proper. If there’s to be backstory, we can do flashbacks when necessary. As to the prose, it’s functional. This is not, of itself, a criticism but there’s a stripped down approach to the storytelling. While I’m not necessarily an advocate of more descriptive styles in military SF, this is particularly Spartan. There’s also a tendency to use dialogue to infodump which disturbs the flow. More generally, it’s saddening to find a number of grammatical errors and oddities of meaning — like unseen doors that retract into the sides of the corridor walls. You always hope that a new publishing venture will manage to maintain professional standards.

 

As to the plot, the backstory is well-worn. Two civilisations have already fought an interstellar war. The demonic lot took a beating and withdrew. Time passed and now both sides have discovered our planet. So we have a fifth column story with the evil aliens on Earth to destablise the world as a feint, expecting the angels to defend our primitive civilisation. Obviously, the demonic leaders think their new technology, some of it stolen, can now beat the angels, particularly if the angels divide their forces by sending a part of the fleet to Earth.

 

We are set a few years into Earth’s future and there have been some changes. It’s now 2035 and the Chinese have flexed their muscles to annex Taiwan. Rather than defend its ally, the US regrouped. As a result of ducking the fight, it’s no longer seen as the hegemonic power. So Shadows of the Past is the first set of engagements between proxy forces. Representatives of the angels left as guardians have encouraged the training of special NATO forces. The demons are naturally relying on Earth’s dark side with drug pushers, the Mafia and other criminal gangs recruited and equipped through third parties. This sets the overall tone of good vs evil, black and white, with the only shades of gray being that the Three, who are the demons’ direct representatives when talking to the criminal underworld, are captured angels now working under mind control. There are odd moments when they understand what they have become, but they are powerless. Their fall from grace and humiliation are complete.

 

The book offers us a twin-track narrative. Our long-term hero is kicking his heels, having been dropped from the NATO forces because of an indiscretion. The remaining members of the special teams are sent out on various missions. Needless to say, our hero is brought back into the fold for the final battle in this book. The descriptions of the fighting are well done. There’s a clear eye at work and no confusion in the choreography of battle as each engagement develops. The weaponry is only slightly more advanced than available today and easy to understand. I’m not sure the aliens would need to rely on Earth’s EMP technology but, given the cost of transporting materiel over vast numbers of light years, I can understand why they would aim to source their equipment locally wherever possible. On balance, the overall plot is well judged and we have reached a good interim moment to break. There’s now an overt attack on major Earth transportation centres and some help on the way from the angels. So far, the evil alien’s plan is working, although not quite as smoothly as intended thanks to the NATO squads. Everything is quite nicely poised for the next book in the trilogy with more of the detail to be filled in with the launch of the comics later this year.

 

The physical book is quite handsome, with the decision to use comic art for the jacket modestly daring. Although the typesetting is somewhat uneven, the overall effect of the design is reasonably pleasing and it’s good value for money in today’s market for those who like unpretentious military SF starting off with an Earth invasion in the offing. As an eBook, it’s excellent value.

 

There’s just enough in this first episode to pique my curiosity and I wait with interest to see whether this early promise can be developed into a sufficiently strong narrative to support Tom Kolega’s ambitions.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for a review.

 

Space Battleship Yamato or Uchū Senkan Yamato (2011)

April 9, 2011 7 comments

Well, here we go crossing cultural boundaries again — this time into contemporary Japanese science fiction. Despite my advanced age, this is my first time into live action space opera with battles between an Earth and an invading alien fleet. Up to now, I had contented myself with memories of paying to sit through all fifteen of the Toho Studios’ Godzilla films up to 1975 with all the variations of monsters trampling pieces of Japan into rubble, sometimes under the influence of invading aliens as in Destroy All Monsters. Thereafter, I’ve contented myself with the sometimes excellent anime SF and fantasy. Now, I’ve come back full circle because Space Battleship Yamato or Uchū Senkan Yamato is based on an anime series that was distributed in the West as Space Cruiser Yamato or Star Blazers. There have been a number of different versions of a storyline based on a ship called the Yamato, some in a series and others as free-standing films, but all this has passed me by. I’m a beginner on this storyline.

Takuya Kimura looking dangerous

 

So we have an alien space fleet that stands off Earth around Mars orbit and starts slinging meteorites our way. This has slowly reduced the surface of Earth to slag and dramatically increased the levels of radiation. A Japanese space fleet engages the enemy, but is outclassed. Only the lead ship escapes and returns to Earth. There seems no hope until a message is received from the occupants of a planet called Iscandar which is located in the Large Magellanic Cloud. In the original anime, the star system had two habitable planets, the second being called Gamilas. In this version, the Gamilans seem to be a different political party on Iscandar. Thematically, the outcome is the same. Since the one or two planets is/are dying, there’s a need to relocate to a more desirable residence and, as always, with a little redecoration, Earth will do just fine. The message seems to indicate that the Iscandar faction will help defend Earth.

 

The question we now have to consider is whether films such as this need to make any sense. We start off feeling very real. The first CGI battle is impressively one-sided and, once you get used to seeing the Earth fleet as “naval” vessels adapted for space, it’s all good fun watching batteries of heavy gun emplacements firing broadsides much as the original Yamato-class battleships did in WWII. Once you’re in the vacuum of outer space where there’s no friction, a “ship” can be any shape and have any manner of kit hanging off its superstructure. Quite how you would fly such vessels out of and into Earth’s atmosphere without burning off all these fancy bits is not for us to query. Indeed, once the titular Battleship bursts from its underground shipyard in a series of controlled explosions to remove the surface protections, we have a conflation of submarine and surface battleship which makes for an even more confusing sight. I suppose manufacturing new ships on the surface is impossible, so they dig up old warships and refit them for outer space. Obviously, there’s no shortage of scientists and engineers for this work.

Meisa Kuroki out of uniform

 

As to the crew, it seems there’s a shortage of trained personnel so volunteers are re-enlisted and, without any obvious training, they fit straight back into the saddle even though there’s alien technology to master. The new weapon is great fun. The ship is pointed in the right direction and the “hero” holds a gun, rather like one of these electronic arcade rail shooter games, and, when the trigger is pulled, all enemies are blasted by the energy beam. There are also single-seater fighters in the Battlestar Galactica style, that seem to outclass the alien equivalents which is a surprise given the loss of Earth materiel in the first battle. Anyway, no matter how Earth has managed to produce such superior technology from the Iscandar message and train the engineering, navigation and weapons crews, we migrate across light years to Ascandar and a final series of fights. I’m always amazed at how long defending aliens are prepared to stand back instead of pushing forward in a steady wave until the invaders are overwhelmed. In this case, the aliens allow contact with the Ascandar faction, and fail to prevent the placement and arming of a bomb to destroy their primary facility. So much for superior technology when, as a dying civilisation, there are not as many able-bodied troops to call on.

Tutomu Yamazaki as the veteran Captain Okita

 

The major fascination, however, lies in the social interaction of the human crew. The dying captain taps Susumu Kodai, the wild child, as acting captain and retires to his cabin to await the inevitable. This is all rather slow-moving and, frankly, not very interesting. We have the re-enlisted fighter wing rebonding and the inevitable misunderstandings hindering the romantic interest between the wild child and his obvious partner, Yuki Mori. Some of the scenes where the crew call Earth as they set off on their mission of hope are mawkishly sentimental and set up tear-jerking deaths later on. Overall, these scenes offer an insight into the way the Japanese express their hopes and emotions. There’s so much suppressed and merely hinted at until occasional outbursts of sometimes violent behaviour demonstrates the reality of feelings. But the pace of the narrative runs out of steam between the battle set-pieces.

 

Had this been a romantic drama set in an office block threatened with demolition by a corrupt landlord, the office staff would have combined in a fight to preserve their way of life, and I could have accepted this exploration of the emotional subtext. But in the middle of a military foray to a distant planet, it’s a distinctly Japanese decision to spend quite so much time on the emotional lives of the crew. Structurally, I suspect this is a problem of trying to adapt a long-running series of stories into a single film. Where you have short individual episodes, you can focus on individuals and groups in the build-up to a big climax. This cannot be an ensemble piece. With only a short period of time available, the screenwriter Shimako Sato and director, Takashi Yamazaki should have redefined the focus on the hero and left out a lot of the detail on the crew.

 

As has been required in every film since Alien, there’s a great space cat carried around by the ship’s doctor. The human crew is required to perform against the CGI backgrounds and their delivery is efficient. The two principals are Takuya Kimura, charismatic singer, actor and the face of Gatsby, who swaggers insolently as Susumu Kodai and then leads with courage and a self-sacrificing dedication to Earth’s survival, and Meisa Kuroki, singer and actress, who is pleasingly tough as Yuki Mori at the outset and then prepared to overcome her prejudices to see the better side of our hero. This leaves us with Tsutomu Yamazaki as Juzo Okita, the ship’s captain. He’s been there, done that and now tries to do it all again in a last desperate throw to give Earth hope again.

 

So Space Battleship Yamato is a film with passable CGI space battles and reasonably good fighting sequences showing realistic rates of attrition, but it’s all dragged out a bit too long for my taste. Perhaps those of you hoping to see a reasonably faithful recreation of the original anime will be happier. After all, nostalgia makes the eye grow fonder.

 

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