1989’s A Small Colonial War is Robert Frezza’s debut novel . It is also the first volume of Frezza’s short lived Small Colonial War sequence, a military science fiction series that would bookend Frezza’s career as an SF novelist.
All the world’s problems finally came to a head in the great calamity known as the break up. Four billion corpses later, Japan emerged as the remaining dominant power on Earth. Not especially humanitarian in purpose, the empire seems no better and no worse than the empires that came before it.
By the 22nd Century, Japan’s empire reaches to the stars. But there’s a catch: their ships may be faster than light, but they’re still slow. A combination of time dilation and time spent in hibernation means that travellers return home to Earth to find that decades have passed while they have only aged months or years themselves. As a result, the Japanese Diet has only the vaguest ideas as to what its imperial tendrils are doing, way out in the stars. A second consequence is that interstellar travel is exile, something that those in power avoid if they can.
Which brings us to Lieutenant-Colonel Anton “the Veriag” Vereshchagin and his command, the 1st Battalion, 35th Imperial Infantry.
He and his soldiers, many but not all Finnish, are to the Japanese what the peregrini were to the Romans, useful but neither respected nor valued. The Variag and his men have spent their lives bringing order of a sort to the Imperial worlds, not because they serve some higher purpose, but because being soldiers is what they do.
Among the many worlds of the Imperium is a distant, isolated world known to at least some of its inhabitants as Suid-Afrika. Suid-Afrika is remarkable because it happens to have resources that justify the expense of shipping them back to Earth. Because Japanese citizens had no interest in moving to a distant world to grub in the dirt, United-Steel Standard turned to other groups, each one more troublesome and poorly suited to the needs of USS than the last. First were the sects, religious extremists who proved unable to adapt to the ecological realities of Suid-Afrika. After starvation thinned out the sects, the company turned to virulently nationalist Boers, survivors of the Bantu Wars in Southern Africa. When the Afrikaners proved intractable, USS had the bright idea of turning to the so-called cowboys, a collection of American ranchers, as a counterweight to the Boers. USS even imported mercenaries to bolster the ranchers.
Inexplicably, arming mutually hostile factions has not improved productivity. Instead (nobody could have predicted this at all!) USS seems to have fueled a slow civil war, a quiet but deadly struggle for control of the planet, one in which the company seems fated to be expelled.
It’s an unpleasant surprise to the Suid-Afrikans when an Imperial Task Force shows up in orbit, ready to force order on the world. Unfortunately for the Empire, the task force is almost as divided as the feuding planet. The competent soldiers are counter-balanced by time servers, chiselers, thugs, and the kind of soldiers who get sent to distant worlds to protect the home world from their well-meant but disastrous services.
As inept as *some* of the Task Force members may be, units like the 1st are, on the whole, good at their jobs. The Task Force itself is the greatest concentration of military power on the planet and it doesn’t have much trouble taking control of the situation. The inevitable skirmishes, testing Imperial power, are dealt with swiftly and brutally. It seems, at least at first, that simple, direct action has finally brought peace to a divided world.
A Small Colonial War showcases a nice assortment of Frezza’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as the pitfalls that await any SF author who ties their continuity too firmly to the near future.
Remember the Cold War? Remember how we expected a catastrophic nuclear war? Remember how overpopulation and environmental degradation were going to push the world to the brink? Vereshchagin’s world is imagined as a post-WWIII planet, one in which the four billion dead have dialed back the environmental threat.
A Small Colonial War was published in 1990. By early 1992, it became increasingly unlikely that any global conflict would involve a violent resolution to the Cold War.
A Small Colonial War is a relic not just of the Cold War but also of the time when Japan was seen as an unstoppable rising power . It’s not entirely clear to me how Japan managed to navigate through the break-up more or less untouched.
The lesson here is “be vague about how the next [however much longer the author expects to live]” when creating your future history.
I am going to assume that the paucity of female soldiers is an artifact of the era when this was written. The odd disconnect between how the Variag reacts to lesbians (positively) and gay men (with increasingly spittle-spraying loathing) seems to be specific to Vereshchagin—or perhaps to the fact that the lesbian officer is a friend, while the gay guy is an obstructionist, incompetent subordinate to an equally obstructionist, incompetent rival.
The fact that the unit cannot send home to Earth for replacements means they can only replace losses by recruiting from the local population, which in turn means that the unit’s newer soldiers are a mosaic of the ethnic and cultural groups with whom the unit has clashed.
Frezza has an unfortunate fondness for characterization by nationality. It’s not so bad when he deals with individuals (although the Irish mercenary character is a strong argument for the strict regulation of Americans authors who write Irish characters). I can see why an author might want to save time and effort by xeroxing stereotypes, but it’s a lazy gambit. Too bad that it became more pronounced in Frezza’s books over time. That said, Frezza does manage to create a fairly sympathetic cast of characters here, When named characters die, (even antagonists), it’s not just chess pieces being swept off the board.
There was one mind-boggling line that I had forgotten entirely:
Even with the devastation of the crack-up, Earth is a rich planet. […]
This is a basic and undeniable fact that I imagine provokes lamentations amongst the more lucid space boosters. When you combine that with a setting in which space travel is expensive …
The laws of supply and demand being what they are, gold, silver and precious gems scattered like sand on a beach would not bring men so far into space.
even Imperial Japan can’t afford to ship heavy battalions. Tanks would be nice, sure, but for the same cost as shipping one battle tank, the Imperials can move
two companies of light infantry or two light attack platoons
Even the Imperial navy seems comparatively lightly armed, at least as compared to the navies in other milSF series. On a par with paratroopers, the Variag and his soldiers are are also at the end of a very long logistical trail. Should something happen to their orbital support—if, say, a greedy officer accepts a cube of platinum which turns out to be a remotely detonated nuclear weapon—reinforcements will be a half-decade or more coming.
Of course, the question the other side should have asked themselves is “Once we make retreat impossible, just how far will the Imperials go to stay alive?” Another excellent question that didn’t get asked is “So, assume a population of radiation-damaged but still functional soldiers who know the local resources won’t be enough to keep them from a painful death; how enthusiastic are they going to be if they come face to face on the battle field with the faction that doomed them?”
The Variag is willing to employ unconventional methods (popularly known as crimes against humanity) to keep his soldiers alive. Not a surprise in MilSF. He does eschew gratuitous nastiness. While Vereshchagin himself has come to terms with his own tactics without ever convincing himself they are good, it’s interesting that some of his subordinates have pronounced moral qualms when they eventually discover what they have done.
It’s been about twenty years since I last read this; I had remembered it as faster paced. The deliberate pace of the first two thirds of the book took me by surprise. Although there are clashes throughout the book, Frezza doesn’t focus on a series of set pieces. Instead, Frezza opts for a slow, inexorable build-up of tension, providing the reader with enough glimpses into what is going on in the cowboy and Afrikaner camps to let readers know that that any Imperial peace is going to be temporary.
I did remember the scene in which a local functionary assumes an officer named Robert E. Lee would have to be a fan of the Confederacy, only to find himself face to face with a grumpy Korean officer. That’s not the only comic element. A Small Colonial War is generally funnier than you might expect from a novel about cynical soldiers enforcing the rule of a corrupt empire, despite the efforts of an assortment of gun-waving extremists.
Robert Frezza has not been a prolific author; his career (thus far) has spanned just nine years, from 1987 to 1996. He published one short story and five novels (in two series, Small Colonial War and the comic McLendon’s Syndrome duology), then, like so many other authors of this period, fell victim to the Great Del Rey Purge of the mid-1990s. Other Del Rey authors migrated over to Tor and others founded their own companies. Frezza seems to have vanished completely  … at least several hours of searching online turned up no one named Robert Frezza that I could be sure was the same person.
A Small Colonial War, if submitted today, might well be published. It would fit nicely into a publisher’s milSF line-up. Yet this novel, together with the rest of Frezza’s back list, is very much out of print. Pity.
1: 1989 by copyright date, 1990 by publication. “Max Weber’s War”, published in Amazing in 1987, was his debut and only short story.
2: One does see modern series like Lumpkin’s The Reach, in which Japan is depicted as a great power, but it’s not as if this were still the 1980s and early 1990s, when Western authors expected Japan to keep eating America’s lunch forever.
A Small Colonial War is also a relic of an era when an author might unironically refer to an Asian as having “yellow” skin.
3: One commenter on John Scalzi’s blog made the rather silly claim that what killed Frezza’s career were the unfortunate close parallels between the heroic actions the protagonists carry out at the end of the second Small Colonial War book, Fire in a Faraway Place, and the somewhat less popular actions carried out by members of Al Qaeda on September 11, 2001. Firstly, heroic atrocity is a core part of MilSF. Secondly, Fire in a Far Away Place wasn’t Frezza’s final novel, 1996’s Cain’s Land was. Thirdly, Fire was published in 1994, seven years before 9/11. Nothing about Del Rey’s abysmal performance in the 1990s suggests that they had access to a time machine.