Sunday, January 2, 2011

Steph Reads Baened Books: Capsule Reviews II

Citizens: Military Science Fiction by Military Veterans
ed. John Ringo & Brian M. Thomsen

Steph's Comments: No premise section on this one because this is an anthology. The majority of the short stories featured here pre-date 1976 (which made it perfect reading material for Dad while he was in the hospital recovering from his foot infection), but they encompass a wide variety of moods. On one end of the spectrum, you have Allamagoosa, Eric Frank Russell's Hugo Award winning comedic tale of a military bureaucracy going horribly wrong; on the other end of the spectrum, you have The Price, a story by Michael Z. Williamson written especially for this anthology in which the three main characters must sacrifice themselves in order to ensure a major victory against the "United Nations of Earth and Space." The collection's stand-outs - besides the two stories mentioned above, of course - include Keith Laumer's Field Test, in which a giant sentient war machine (called a "bolo") stops an invasion at the cost of its own life "for the honor of the regiment", and Jerry Pournelle's ironically-titled Peace with Honor, in which the main character resorts to framing a political opponent to prevent a war.

Only occasionally did I question a choice made by editors Ringo and Thomsen. I am unsure, for instance, whether Exploration Team is a good fit for this collection; it is a terrific story, certainly, but not especially military in nature. Generally speaking, though, this anthology is well-constructed. Thanks to the aforementioned diversity in the editors' selections, the reader is treated to a picture of the military that is genuinely panoramic in nature. All ranks - and all views on war - are well-represented.

In sum, this is a good choice for military sci-fi fans -- particularly those who've lost touch with the genre since the late 1970's.

Steph's Rating: 8.5

Children No More, Mark L. Van Name

Premise: "No child should ever be a soldier.

"Jon Moore knew that better than most, having learned to fight to survive before he’d hit puberty. So when a former comrade, Alissa Lim, asks for his help in rescuing a group of children pressed into service by rebels on a planet no one cares to save, he agrees. Only later does he realize he’s signed up to do far more than he’d ever imagined.

"Jon’s commitment hurtles him and Lobo, the hyper-intelligent assault vehicle who is his only real friend, into confrontations with the horrors the children have experienced and with a dark chapter from his past. The complications mount as Jon and Lobo rush straight into the darkness at the heart of humanity to save a group of child soldiers -- and then face an even tougher challenge:

"When we’ve trained our children to kill, what do we do with them when the fighting is over?" - from the book jacket.

Steph's Comments: Unfortunately, I have not read the three preceding Jon and Lobo novels, so I am unable to put Children No More (henceforth abbreviated CNM) in its proper context. I picked this one up on a whim at Dragon*Con 2010 because it was featured at the Baen Road Show and it sounded interesting. Still, despite my lack of knowledge regarding the rest of Van Name's series, I was able to follow the story in CNM just fine -- and it is a good story.

According to other reviews, CNM is less action-oriented and more focused on character development, which probably contributes to my ease of understanding and my enjoyment. The message - that minor children should never be recruited to fight our battles - is pretty obvious, but it is presented with noteworthy psychological realism in both the A and the B plots. I've no doubt that those readers who have gotten to know Jon Moore through the other novels will especially appreciate the backstory told in CNM; heck, even I found that half of the book very illuminating.

There is one question that Van Name leaves hanging, however: what about the Child of Pinkelponker who was supposed to be among the child soldiers of Tumani? Who was he? What were his special abilities? It seems odd that one of the primary reasons for Maggie's mission to Tumani should be ignored in the second half of the book, but I suspect that we will be introduced to the child in question in a later novel. And at any rate, the drama that unfolds at the former rebel camp as the traumatized children struggle - and sometimes fail - to adjust to their new circumstances is compelling enough that I am largely able to ignore any dangling threads.

Steph's Rating: 9.0

The Road to Damascus, John Ringo & Linda Evans

Premise: "When a ruthless political regime seizes power on a world struggling to recover from alien invasion, a former war hero finds herself leading a desperate band of freedom fighters. Kafari Khrustinova, who fought Deng infantry from farmhouses and barns, finds herself struggling to free her homeworld from an unholy political alliance, headed by the charismatic and ambitious Vittori Santorini, which has seduced her young daughter with its propaganda and subverted the planet's Bolo, using the war machine to crush all political opposition. To free her homeworld, Kafari must somehow cripple or kill the Bolo she once called friend. Unit SOL-0045, Sonny, is a Mark XX Bolo, self-aware and intelligent. When Sonny's human commander is forced off-world, Sonny tries to navigate his way through ambiguous moral and legal issues, sinking into deep confusion and electronic misery. He eventually faces a dark night of the soul, with no guarantee that he will understand - let alone make - the right decision. And caught in the middle of this volatile battlefield is Yalena Khrustinova, Kafari's young daughter. Will she open her eyes in time to save herself - and millions of innocents - or will Santorini's relentless brainwashing campaign continue to blind her while the tyrant engineers the ultimate destruction of a helpless and enslaved population?" - from Baen's site.

Steph's Comments: "Sonny," the Mark XX Bolo featured in this novel, is a very interesting character in its own right. The conversations it has with Jefferson's tyrannical leaders are hilarious, and its internal thought processes are deeply sympathetic -- even tragic. I also found myself drawn to Yalena's evolution from spoiled, brainwashed child to competent and thoughtful soldier.

The reviews for this one are mixed, but I enjoyed it. Yes, the antagonists are definitely "Darth Vader bad," as one reviewer put it, but real-world history is certainly not lacking in truly evil, genocidal dictators. And if you think it's not possible that a government would use compulsory public education to turn a nation's children against their parents - or that a government would encourage class warfare in its policies and its rhetoric - then you simply haven't been paying attention.

Moreover, contrary to the complaints found in most of the negative reviews, I don't think the central conflict of this novel is drawn entirely in black and white. There is at least one Granger character who advocates forcing urban welfare recipients to work in the fields, a proposal that "Sonny" correctly identifies as a promotion of slavery. And when an urban rebellion finally erupts in the wake of acute food shortages, said rebel group promptly destroys an entire neighborhood, murdering many relatively innocent bystanders. Bottom line, even those who fight on the "right" side don't always come up smelling like roses.

Steph's Rating: 8.5

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