Trapped in a warzone
Trading in Danger (Vatta’s War, volume 1)
By Elizabeth Moon
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.
The Vattas are a fantastically wealthy, influential family, so Ky doesn’t have to look forward to pushing a broom or asking “do you want fries with that?” This is not as comforting as one might think; Ky had desperately wanted make an identity for herself apart from her family, as a captain on a navy ship. Instead she’s captaining one of the family vessels, the Glennys Jones, an ancient, obsolete, and rundown ship not worth the cost to refurbish.
Not only is she stuck with a ship that’s heading for the scrap yard, her father has seen fit to send a couple of senior employees along to provide much needed guidance to poor naïve Ky. The incident at the academy is only the latest evidence that Ky is kinder than she is wise (and while that’s not quite true, Ky has reasons not to dissuade her relatives of their misapprehension). While the Glennys Jones is a junker, it still has considerable scrap value. Vatta Pater loves his daughter, but he also respects the bottom line; thus the adults to keep an eye on his disgraced kid.
While Ky does her best to carry out her assigned task, a few things beyond her control go wrong. The first is that the Glennys Jones is even more run down than anyone realized; by mid-voyage, it’s clear either the ship gets some fairly expensive repairs or it will have to be abandoned in place. The second is that it is not clear if Ky can draw on the Vatta line of credit or if she’s on her own. The third is that the ansible network should provide Ky with the means to contact the head office has gone down.
Actually, that’s not quite accurate. What happened is that someone destroyed the local ansible node. This is a fairly bold move because I.S.C., the company that owns a monopoly on ansibles, takes challenges to its authority quite seriously. Think “The Phone Company” meets United Fruit, on steroids. Their policy is to ensure people who screw with the ansible network are never in a position to repeat their crime against I.S.C. Whatever it takes to do that. But nobody knows who blew up the local nodes and the people responsible are not taking credit.
Then unidentified warships, faster than the ailing Glennys Jones and heavily armed to boot, appear.…
The first thing I discovered on rereading this for the first time in thirteen years is that I had completely forgotten the plot of this book; the book I thought I was going to review is actually the second one in the series, Marque and Reprisal . I have read the whole series, so I know where things are going, or at least I think I do. The attack on the ansible network is part of something much larger and ambitious than is apparent from this novel. As far as this novel goes, this is a perfectly functional novel of a young woman trying to create a new identity for herself while keeping her crew alive, despite the efforts of mercenaries, pirates, and would-be hijackers.
Marque and Reprisal is definitely MilSF. Trading in Danger is more of an edge case, but one I would be willing to defend. There’s room for civilian-eye views of war in MilSF (in fact, some time in August I will be reviewing a Norton novel that seems to be a civilian-eye view of another author’s MilSF novel).
This book is something of an oddity for Moon, because her usual over-the-top antagonists do not make an appearance. It’s true that the would-be hijackers aren’t pleasant people, but they’re not around long enough to reveal all their unpleasant peccadilloes. Even the Makensee mercenaries who commandeer Ky’s ship are natural antagonist fodder but they turn out to be basically decent professionals. The most overtly unpleasant antagonists are for the most part off-stage: Ky’s ex-boyfriend sends her a dickish letter; Rocher, the supposed friend who got Ky kicked out of the academy, never appears again. Moon’s later books in this series, however, feature villains who are, literally (and I do not mean this as an intensifier) baby-killers. Just to make sure the reader understands that Team Black Hat is bad. Moon really, really doesn’t do subtle.
I couldn’t figure out how far in the future this is set. Long enough for a lot of planets to be settled and form regional associations; long enough for entirely new faiths to appear (although people in this era seem to be pretty religious and might be spawning new sects every other week). However, the technological background doesn’t seem to be all that advanced  and the names are of familiar forms.
I got the sense, reading this, that Moon and Del Rey weren’t a hundred percent sure Moon’s fans would follow her to Del Rey, although I have no idea if that is true. The story is structured so that it functions both as a standalone (which is not true of later books, according to my notes) and as an introduction to the series as a whole. If sales had not justified more books in the series, readers would still have a competent adventure. I think this works to the novel’s advantage; there’s no cliff-hanger, no obvious hook requiring the reader to purchase the next book, just a diverting little adventure.
Trading in Danger is available from Del Rey Books.
1: You may ask “if you have notes on the whole series of books, how is it you confused Trading in Danger with Marque and Reprisal?” The answer is that notes are only useful guides when actually read. Because I thought I remembered the series better than I did, I didn’t bother to dig them up until I was finished reading.
2: The high tech stuff is most stock SF props: FTL drives, brain implants, ansibles. But the real reason I created this footnote is to complain about the section where Ky muses that a particular backwater world might be better off dumping mechanized farming for a more … rustic model. Of course, there’s no reason to think any of Ky’s courses at the Academy covered agricultural economics. Mechanization, when applicable, tends to force out other models (save for the cases, such as Mennonite and Amish agriculture, in which non-economic factors are at work) and there are reasons for that.