Reviews: Military Speculative Fiction That Doesn't Suck

A Thief in the Night

Going Dark — Linda Nagata
Red, book 3

2015’s Going Dark is the third and final volume in Linda Nagata’s Red Trilogy.

As far as the world is concerned, James Shelly died when his space plane was blown out of the sky. But he isn’t dead; he’s just gone undercover. He’s a member of ETM Strike Squad 7-1, an elite strike force formed to combat existential threats.

7-1 is beyond covert, not listed in any official records, staffed by the officially dead, funded with a fortune stolen from a mad billionaire. Missions are selected by the enigmatic Red. In theory, all of them involve crises that could end human civilization. But there is a catch:

The Red is not infallible. It is not all powerful. It is not even human.

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Tell me why can’t I just reach up and simply touch the sky

Law of Survival — Kristine Smith
Jani Kilian, book 3

2001’s Law of Survival is the third novel in Kristine Smith’s Jani Kilian series.

Jani Kilian has had a tumultuous life. Framed for a murder, cashiered from the service, doomed to life as a fugitive … but eventually she achieves a soft landing. She has been cleared of the murder and is no longer hiding from the law. Well, cleared of that particular crime. Life as a fugitive meant cutting a few legal corners. The smart thing to do would be to find some unobtrusive niche in which she can exercise her considerable bureaucratic skills1 and lay low.

But poor Jani is drawn, willy-nilly, back into human-alien conflict.

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Suh’s People

Outriders — Jay Posey

Although professional-game-designer-turned-SF-author Jay Posey has been publishing novels ever since 2013, 2016’s Outriders is the first novel of his that I have read.

Given a choice between two very different career paths, Captain Lincoln Suh took the one that led him to join the 301st Information Support Brigade’s 519th Applied Intelligence Group. The unit’s name may seem to promise days of riveting paperwork and nights spent staring at glowing screens, but names can be deceptive, particularly in the intelligence game.

Thus the suit of powered armour the 519 th issues Suh.

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One of my tinfoil hat theories

The Ted Quantrill Trilogy — Dean Ing

Dean Ing’s Ted Quantrill trilogy—1981’s Systemic Shock, 1983’s Single Combat, and 1985’s Wild Country—is an odd relic of Cold War America. Many authors presented us with various versions of Cold Wars Gone Hot, but few took the tack that Dean Ing does in this series.

It’s not just that this is explicitly a sequel to someone else’s book, General Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War. Or that Ing teeters on the edge of inventing the technothriller genre (before Tom Clancy, if one considers The Hunt For Red October the first technothriller; please feel free to debate genre history in comments). Or even that one of the books features a lovingly depicted Segway, decades before those were invented. Ing brings an … ahem … unusual political sensibility to this trilogy. I believe that’s what has kept this series out of print.

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Whatever happened to Jani?

Rules of Conflict — Kristine Smith
Jani Kilian Chronicles, book 2

Kristine Smith’s 2000 novel Rules of Conflict is the second volume of her Jani Kilian Chronicles.

Jani Kilian is a cautious woman for very good reasons. Until now, her caution has served her well, keeping her out of the clutches of Commonwealth military services. This time her healthy paranoia betrays her. Fearing her allies, she walks into a trap and is recaptured.

Although “recaptured” is not quite the right word. She wakes to discover she is not a prisoner. She is a patient.

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“Back to your caves and your dust!”

The Star Fox — Poul Anderson
Gunnar Heim, book 1

Poul Anderson’s 1964 fix-up The Star Fox has been on my to-review list ever since I started the Military Speculative Fiction That Doesn’t Suck series. And it took me less than a year to get to it!


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Every Step You Take

The Trials — Linda Nagata
The Red, book 2

2015’s near-future MilSF novel The Trials, the second volume in Linda Nagata’s The Red trilogy, picks up where First Light left off.

SPOILER WARNING: if you haven’t read the first book yet, this review may reveal too much. You may want to minimize this browser window, buy and read the first book, and then return to the review. Just saying.

In First Light, James Shelley’s Apocalypse Squad, a unit of elite, enhanced soldiers, acted resolutely to punish the highly connected billionaire who orchestrated Coma Day, a series of tactical nuclear strikes on the US. Heroes all! It’s kind of a shame that soldiers taking it on themselves to kidnap an American and transport her to a foreign court so that she can be tried for crimes against humanity is what the army calls “highly illegal,” The surviving members of the LCS are be rewarded with what the army calls “a court martial.”

And the penalty for conviction is death.


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Enter Jani Kilian

Code of Conduct — Kristine Smith
Chronicles of Jani Kilian, book 1

1999’s Code of Conduct is the first volume in Kristine Smith’s Chronicles of Jani Kilian pentology. This review is almost certainly going to be one of my Military Speculative Fiction That Doesn’t Suck reviews … but only because it has some MisSF elements, not because it checks all the genre boxes. Code of Conduct is as much detective fiction as it is MilSF; it is definitely not the big-guns, pew-pew-pew variety of MilSF.

As far as anyone from the Commonwealth knows, Jani Kilian died when a military transport starship exploded. Everyone else onboard perished; Jani was only mostly dead. Immediate, cutting-edge medical intervention saved her life. Since her supposed death, Jani has been careful not to let her former bosses know that she is still alive. That would put her in legal peril, as she was confined to the brig was a prisoner(for having shot her highly-connected superior officer) before the explosion.

Jani’s ex-lover Evan van Reuter doesn’t believe Jani is dead. As a member of one of the Families who run the Commonwealth, he has the resources to find her. He is also highly motivated to track Jani down. He has a job for which he believes she is ideally suited.

Clearing his name.


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How Chi Kim Spent His Holidays

Duty After School — Ha Il-Kwon

This week’s unexpected discovery is Ha Il-Kwon’s webtoon Duty After School, recommended in one of the many, many, very long comment threads over File770, in the context of “works worthy of a Hugo.” I had planned to limit myself to a quick glance, which is how my archive binges always begin….

Being a high school student is stressful enough; if you’re not swotting to pass university entrance exams, you’re probably trying to figure out what real world job to try for after graduation. And you have to deal with crushes, friendships, and the adolescent pecking order. Happily for Chi Kim and his fellow students of Sungdong high school, life hands them an effective distraction.

Less happily, it’s in the form of an alien invasion.


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THERE IS NO GOD BUT GOD AND SKASKASH IS ITS PROPHET!

The Rosinante Trilogy — Alexis A. Gilliland

Alexis Gilliland is a four time Hugo winner—but not for his written fiction. Only his 1982 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer was for fiction; his fellow nominees were Robert Stallman, Paul O. Williams, David Brin, and Michael Swanwick 1. You may have heard of some of these guys. When he won, Gilliland had just two novels in print 2.

You may be wondering ”How did someone with such a small body of work manage to win the Campbell?”

Partly it’s because most Campbell nominees tend to have only small bodies of work when they win, due to the whole New Writer thing. Cynics might say that Gilliland’s long career as fan and lauded fan artist ensured name recognition. But I would credit his Campbell win to the fact that those two novels, The Revolution from Rosinante and Long Shot For Rosinante , really are fun little books, books I was certain I would not regret revisiting after a gap of twenty-two years 3.

(I do understand that’s like saying “Don’t worry, I know what I am doing” while playing with burning plastic.)

They are also the first two volumes in the Rosinante Trilogy, the subject of today’s review.

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“It’s about soldiers,” he said. “They fight, then they have sex, then they do drugs, then they fight some more.”

War Games — Karl Hansen
Hybrid Wars, book 1

It’s a good thing that the title for this review series is Military Speculative Fiction That Doesn’t Suck and not, say, Military Speculative Fiction That is an Exemplar of All That is Good in Fiction. I’m not sure that I would say that Karl Hansen’s 1981 War Games is good. That may be too positive a word for this enthusiastically nihilistic war story. The book has definite points of interest—but I am not 100% sure I would call it good.

But it sure is energetic.

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Lady Elaine, please remember to order your bride-sized fridge

Space Viking — H. Beam Piper
Space Viking, book 1

I will probably review all of my H. Beam Piper novels (or at least the SF ones) eventually. I have a specific reason for reviewing 1962’s Space Viking this week. A reason I will not explain until Friday. Foreshadowing! The mark of quality literature!

Speaking of foreshadowing, when Lady Elaine warns her husband-to-be Lucas, Lord Trask, Baron of Traskon that

“It’s bad luck to be called by your married name before the wedding.”

Trask should have listened. For that matter, every aristocrat on the planet Gram should have noticed just how crazy Lord Andray Dunnan was, and what a bad idea it was to allow Dunnan to assemble his own private army. Elaine and Trask in particular have good reason to be worried: through no fault of her own, Elaine plays a central role in Dunnan’s rich fantasy life. But … Dunnan is the nephew of Duke Angus, who is poised to make himself king of all Gram. Dunnan is too well-connected to be shot out of hand, so everyone tacitly tolerates his obvious craziness.

Then everything goes pear-shaped. Dunnan’s men hijack the starship Enterprise; in retrospect, the purpose for which Dunnan recruited all those mercenaries. Dunnan tries to assassinate Elaine (for rejecting him) and Trask (for winning her) before fleeing in the Enterprise. Dunnan’s mistake is to kill Elaine, but only wound Trask. While the aristocracy of Gram may not be inclined to pursue their vendetta into space, nothing will stop Trask from chasing Dunnan to the ends of the galaxy.

Chasing is easy enough. Actually finding Dunnan, on the other hand….


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Someone to watch over us

The Red: First Light — Linda Nagata
Red Trilogy, book 1

Linda Nagata’s Nebula-nominated The Red: First Light is the first volume in Linda Nagata’s Red Trilogy.

At first glance, life in Nagata’s near-future seems pretty sweet. Many of the civil liberties that have long been such an onerous burden to hard-working Americans have been set aside, allowing them to focus on more important matters. Lieutenant James Shelley is a fine example: in another life he might have wasted his life as a political activist, agitating against wars and other profitable activities. In this life, his first attempt at political activism prompted a firm response from the government that stands in loco parentis over all its subjects. One plea bargain later and Shelly became a hard-working member of America’s military forces serving overseas.

If that wasn’t wonderful enough, the same advances in neurological interfaces that allow Shelley and his fellow soldiers to function as a Linked Combat Squad allow his minders to keep an eye on what he is doing, or even feeling, pretty much 24/7.

There is, however, one glitch in the program.


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Trapped in a warzone

Trading in Danger — Elizabeth Moon
Vatta's War, book 1

If I am going to review MilSF that doesn’t suck, at some point I need to address the Elizabeth Moon issue. On the one hand her books (or at least some of them) are clearly candidates. On the other hand, many of them have been published by Baen, whose publisher is a willing participant in this year’s attempt to nobble the Hugos. Baen is a company whose works I don’t review. A company that’s dead to me.

However … thanks to various events that are Googleable, Moon moved over to Del Rey. That company is not colluding in an attempt to nobble the Hugos and is not dead to me. The system works!

2003’s Trading in Danger kicks off Moon’s Vatta’s War series. Well-meaning Ky Vatta is booted out of the naval academy when a well-meaning attempt to help a friend results in a PR-disaster for the service. The navy doesn’t consider “meant well” a defense. Former cadet Ky finds herself on the curb outside the Academy, waiting for a ride home.

This is a bold opening gambit if the series as a whole is supposed to be military science fiction.


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Whatever Happened to Robert Frezza?

A Small Colonial War — Robert Frezza
Small Colonial War, book 1

1989’s A Small Colonial War is Robert Frezza’s debut novel [1]. 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.


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The Girl in the Seven Trillion Tonne Refrigerator

Leviathan Wakes — James S. A. Corey
Expanse, book 1

I remember 2011’s Leviathan Wakes, the first book in the currently ongoing Expanse series by pseudonymous author James S. A. Corey, as a welcome breath of fresh air and a refreshingly upbeat novel. (I will return to the “upbeat” thing later.)

While Jim Holden’s job is suitably SFnal, the XO of the interplanetary ice transport vessel Canterbury, Detective Miller languishes in a far more mundane position, as a cop on the beat in Ceres. He’s that detective on the force with whom nobody wants to partner. This is not because he’s the kinda can-do guy who doesn’t let the rules get in way of justice, but because he’s long past his best days. He’s on the fast-track to career oblivion and obscurity.

Then Miller is handed the seemingly low-priority job of finding the vanished heiress and political idealist, Julie Mao. It is a case that will ensure that everyone in the Solar System knows Detective Miller.


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The Sleepers Wake

Slow Bullets — Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds may be best known for his series, such as the Revelation Space novels or the Poseidon’s Children books. However, he can also work in less expansive formats. 2015’s Slow Bullets is a standalone novella, one that fits nicely into my MilSF review series.


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The Peter Principle as an Adventure Novel

The Big Black Mark — A. Bertram Chandler
John Grimes, book 10

John Grimes, star of a long-running series of novels and shorter works by A. Bertram Chandler (1912–1984), has worked his way up through the ranks of the Federation Survey Service despite the enmity of various senior officers. He has a quality few others can match: he has been extraordinarily lucky. Every error in judgment or failure to follow the precise wording of regulations has been balanced by successes so noteworthy that his superiors have had no choice but to (grudgingly) promote him.

Eventually every run of luck ends. Which gets us to 1975’s Big Black Mark.


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Peacetime MilSF

The Ship That Sailed the Time Stream — G.C. Edmondson
The Ship That Sailed the Time Stream, book 1

I expect that WWII-era Marine José Mario Garry Ordoñez Edmondson y Cotton (1922–1995), who published under the name G. C. Edmondson, is filed under obscure by this point. Twenty years after his death, the only book he wrote that may still have some currency is The Ship That Sailed the Time Stream, first published in 1965. Even this book has been out of print since 1981. Sic transit gloria mundi.

~oOo~

The Alice, based in San Diego, is one of the odder ships in the United States Navy. She’s a small sailing ship better suited to the USN of the pre-Civil War era than to the atomic age USN. What the Alice offers the USN is the proper test bed for Professor Krom’s experimental hydrophone array [1]. What the Alice offers its captain, Ensign Joseph Rate, is a chance to earn some points with senior staff by catching its crew using the ship as a party boat. The Navy is certain something hinky is happening, but, to its utter frustration, cannot prove it. It’s almost as if the ship manages to be in two places—out at sea, filled with naked women, and back in its slip where it is supposed to be—at the same time.

There is a logical explanation but the senior staff won’t like it.


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Not Your Parents’ Flipper

A Deeper Sea — Alexander Jablokov

Between 1991 and 1998, Alexander Jablokov published five noteworthy novels, then vanished from the face of science fiction for an uncomfortably long time. It seems that, as has happened to other authors, he was distracted by real life. Happily, this is not another P. J. Plauger affair: Jablokov did return in 2006, in short form, and in 2010 at novel length.

1992’s A Deeper Sea sets out, yet again, a lesson empires have learned and learned and learned … and forgotten every time. Lesson: the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my long-term ally. Once the current conflict is over, the empire may find that the weapons it so considerately handed to its foreign cat’s paws are being turned on the empire itself.

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Surly Czechs and unlucky mercenaries

The Forlorn Hope — David Drake

In any discussion of MilSFF, David Drake’s name is likely to come up earlier rather than later. Partly this is because he is seen as one of the founding figures of military SF (at least as it developed in the US). Partly it’s because, the occasional off-note aside [1], his work is generally never less than competent and sometimes very good [2]. Against the backdrop of the dismal swamp that is the majority of commercial MilSFF, even his merely competent material stands out.

A lot of people—me, mostly—hold a grudge against Drake for his part in establishing the Heroic Mercenary trope in MilSFF, which is a bit unfair. Firstly, Jerry Pournelle and his literary spawn are far, far more responsible for the figure of the noble mercenary bravely gunning down dissidents in sports arenas [3]. Drake’s mercenaries are often not good people—some of them are very bad indeed—but they look good because the people around them are even worse.

Which gets us to 1984’s The Forlorn Hope.


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Drafts

The Forever War — Joe Haldeman
Forever War, book 1

This is a case of a commission dovetailing nicely with my themed reviews. For the most part I would prefer to stick to military speculative fiction that I think readers may have overlooked. There are a few classics, generally early ones, that I believe it would be illuminating to review [1]. One of those is Joe Haldeman’s classic 1975 novel, The Forever War.

When I reread this book, I remembered a more obscure work by the same author, an early short story called “Time Piece”, which was published in 1970. I don’t know of any other review that has compared the two. This may be because “Time Piece” didn’t win the Nebula, the Hugo, the Ditmar, and place first in the Locus, which The Forever War did. Something told me that it would be interesting to compare the two works; I’m glad I did.

The edition of The Forever War I am reading is the 1976 mass market paperback, first printing. I understand there is a later, somewhat different edition; I don’t own that one. The edition of “Time Piece” I am reading is the one in Reginald Bretnor’s 1980 collection The Future at War: Orion’s Sword.

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F-IW!

The Great Explosion — Eric Frank Russell

Military speculative fiction doesn’t have to be all pew-pew-pew and Stern People Who Do What’s Necessary. There’s lots of room for other approaches, including satire. The (or at least a) master of military satire was, of course, Eric Frank Russell, a British SF writer active mainly in the 1940s to the 1960s. His milSF story “Allamagoosa” won the very first Hugo Award for Best Short Story, in 1955.

Inaugurating my series of reviews of MilSFF That Does Not Suck with a classic like “Allamagoosa” strikes me as a necessary antidote to the blind military-worship that all too-often characterizes the genre. There are two catches: I actually inaugurated the series last week with Cook’s The Dragon Never Sleeps and I have already reviewed “Allamagoosa.” Here, have another worthy Russell work: 1962’s The Great Explosion.


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It’s a Cook book! It’s a Cook book!

The Dragon Never Sleeps — Glen Cook

The odds are fairly good that if you’re aware of Glen Cook, you know him for series like Garrett and Black Company; if you’re of a certain vintage, you might have read his early Dread Empire books, or perhaps the Starfishers space operas. The Black Company (novel, not series) would have made a fine inaugural book for my new review series, Military Speculative Fiction That Doesn’t Suck. However, it happens that I prefer SF to fantasy [1], so I will review something that (thanks to Stupid Publisher Tricks back in the Late Reagan) was unjustly obscure: 1988’s The Dragon Never Sleeps.

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