The Ion War by Colin Kapp
Ace Books, 1978
Price I paid: 90¢
When Major Dam Stormdragon was chosen to serve as part of Castalia’s military tithe to the Mother World he had no choice but do go—much as he loathed Terra and everything she stood for. He knew that given the combination of arrogance and paranoia that Terrans displayed towards all Colonials he was at best in for a miserable year—at that at worst he would find himself taking part in a military action against his fellow Colonials. He also knew that the increasing ferocity with which the Terrans responded to the slightest balking of the Imperial Will meant that one day soon the Hub Worlds would have to fight, or that Terra’s madness would destroy them all.
What Stormdragon could not know was that the Mother World was already set on obliterating her children, and that he himself would be Terra’s secret weapon in the most dreadful conflict in the History of Man.
Man, if that synopsis had anymore Ominous Capital Letters, that’s all it would be.
Also, are em-dashes used anywhere outside of back cover synopses? It seems like that’s their main function, and I didn’t really notice them until I didn’t have the capability to just use an alt-code to throw them in (my laptop just won’t do them). I have to use WordPress’s custom character button, which really breaks up the flow of transcribing the lies from the back cover of a crappy novel.
What we’ve got here, folks, is some military science fiction. In the fine tradition of Starship Troopers and The Forever War and Armour and Ender’s Game we get a completely forgettable pile of crap.
See, where the book falls short is that it’s at first glance military sci-fi, but it lacks the fact that military sci-fi, at its finest, is really about Earth problems, namely the horrors of war, or the questions of citizenship, or the limits one might go in order to preserve one’s beloved home. What we get in The Ion War is none of that. It is instead a book that hinges on a Stupid Villain Plot, a character that just gets shoved through it, and a sort-of interesting bit of technology. All of that hinges on the “twist” that the bad guys are Earth, or as this book calls it, Terra.
Calling Earth Terra has a long history in science fiction. You see it fairly often. What gets me is that at some point people in this universe just sort of decided that “Earth” wasn’t cool enough and we needed to use the Latin name. How did that decision come about? Was there a vote? Did it just happen? I get that calling people from Earth “Terrans” just feels classier than “Earthlings” or “Earth People” or “Earthinoids,” but why change what we call the planet? If that change ever comes up in my lifetime I will stand staunchly opposed to it. I am pro-Earth.
Our hero, Dam “Ridiculous Name” Stormdragon is from the planet Castalia, a colony world. He’s a member of the Castalian Space Army and has been selected to go to Earth and serve in its military as a part of some kind of military tithe that I guess is supposed to hearken back to the idea of feudalism or something. He starts off the book in the company of a forgettable woman we never see again, but is supposed to represent the home he’s leaving behind, I guess. He expositions her and then sets off for Earth.
Meanwhile, we get a different plot revolving around a guy with the equally ridiculous name of Liam Liam. I assume that his parents like Liam Neeson SO MUCH they named him after him twice, in which case I support their decision. Liam is a leader of the resistance movement against Earth and does all sorts of Han Solo stuff in an effort to halt their increasing hostilities to the colony worlds. This book was released a year after Star Wars, so I get the feeling that yes, he is in fact doing explicitly Han Solo stuff. He’s our viewpoint character for why the bad guys are the bad guys.
Dam, almost immediately after arriving on Earth, forgets about his Castalian girlfriend and starts mackin’ on some chick he meets at a bar. He goes home with her and then, uh oh, it turns out that the wine she gave him is drugged. They both go down, and when Dam wakes up he’s under arrest for murdering this girl. The evidence is pretty convincing and he’s sentenced to death. Just before his execution, though, a guy named Abel shows up and gives Dam a choice: either he can “volunteer” for a special military project or he can be executed. Dam takes the time to think about it for a bit and decides to let the plot advance.
This special military project turns out to be a little bit interesting. Through the magic of technology, scientists have figured out how to essentially transmute the human body into something else while still maintaining the consciousness of the person involved. The process is extremely painful, though, and boot camp turns out to be something completely ridiculous.
Once at boot Dam actually receives an even more ridiculous name. His commander names him Lover. His commander, incidentally, is a dominatrix named Absolute. Man, this just keeps getting better and better.
Absolute’s goal in training Dam is to help him learn to overcome pain to such an extent that he can survive the process of being turned into living gas or whatever. That’s what they do. The person is turned into some kind of compound, something already in the area so in most cases it’s just a nitrogen-oxygen mix, which grants them super strength and the ability to walk through forcefields. We get a pretty long technobabbly explanation of the process itself, which is really stupid, but not of why it actually grants people these powers.
The process, as it is, hinges on the idea that life is not a a result of a combination of elements and compounds, but rather the organization of those elements and compounds. So what this process does is changes the constituent molecules of a person to something else, but keeps the underlying organization there so that the person is still alive and aware. Does that make sense? No? Then let’s continue.
Dam’s training regimen takes up the bulk of his part of the story, while at the same time we see Liam doing his thing at the Hub of the galaxy, tricking Imperial officers and getting into all sorts of shenanigans with his spaceship that can do point five past light speed and make the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs. Meanwhile, it turns out that some of these Ion Warriors are already in service, so Liam gets to see them do bad things first-hand as well as try to develop countermeasures against them. He eventually captures some of them so the rebels can learn how to do the process themselves.
Dam is, of course, really good at the training regimen so he gets accelerated through the program like an insufferable third-grader. All the while he’s being all rebellious against Absolute who promptly teaches him a lesson about discipline and stuff. Did I mention that she’s attractive? Probably I didn’t have to. Near the end of his training it’s revealed that he’s been selected to help test an even more super-secret project, which is really just an advanced form of the one he’s already working on.
See, the Ion Warriors have to wear what is essentially a metal mesh around themselves to contain the vast ionic energies or whatever the hell. Dam has been selected to become an elite form of this, where the metal mesh is surgically implanted under his skin and he can turn the power on and off at will instead of having to pass through a machine to do it. When they tell him to do it he’s all like “no” and so they beat him senseless and do it to him anyway.
Dam goes to war and immediately looks for opportunities to defect. Absolute is with him, incidentally, and he knows that if he gets caught by her he’ll have to answer for it, presumably in the dungeon. Surprise, though! It turns out that Absolute isn’t the total dominatrix she has presented herself as throughout the book! She’s a colonial infiltrator, tasked with creating the perfect Ion Warrior to turn against the very Terrans who created the project!
I both saw that coming and laughed at how stupid it was.
With this knowledge in hand, Dam and Absolute set about finding Liam and joining his war effort. In the meantime, Liam is creating some Ion Warriors of his own and managing to get whole units of Terran Ion Warriors to defect. This is where the Stupid Villain Plot came into play.
You see, Earth is striking out against the colony worlds because it doesn’t want any competition on the galactic playing field. The colonies are becoming independent and wealthy and strong, and that won’t stand, so the obvious answer is to just send out the fleets and the Ion Brigade to exterminate them. Furthermore, all the subjects chosen for the Ion Warrior project are colonists sent to Earth as part of the military tithe, like Dam was. So yeah, giving people superpowers and then turning them out to kill their own loved ones is a brilliant idea.
What makes that great is that a recurring statement in the book, from both sides, is that the Terrans aren’t as stupid as you think they are. Remember folks, your villain is only as stupid as the plot they set in motion, and in the case of The Ion War, I think maybe they should be sent to a special home without sharp corners so they won’t fall and hurt themselves.
Dam and Absolute escape the forces of Earth and join the resistance, along with a whole crop of Ion Warriors, and everybody celebrates while simultaneously saying stuff like “The war isn’t over, it’s only just begun.” Ending a book at the beginning of a war is a bold move. It takes a lot of guts to be that trite.
And there you have it. A military science fiction novel where most of the military action is not carried out by the protagonist and where nobody learns any lessons about anything.
What made this book weird to me is that fact that, apart from all the stupid, there were some genuinely interesting elements. Colin Kapp put a lot of thought into making this universe grounded, at least partly, in good science thought and extrapolating some neat things from it. For instance, one of the colony worlds under attack is a mining world composed mainly of nickel and iron. The miners of this world cut out big chunks of the surface and send them up to space, where special ships grab ahold of them, accelerate to near light speed, and then let go, allowing the chunks to reach their destination under their own inertia, where special catcher ships grab them and make them useful. Nevermind the fact that even at an appreciable fraction of light speed it would still take these chunks of metal a ridiculous amount of time to get anywhere. I still think it’s kind of neat.
Where the book really falls on its face, though, is less about the science and more about the ridiculous way the villains behave. The Terrans in this book are just so stupidly evil that its a wonder they managed to make it out into space, much less form the most formidable space military in the galaxy. (It is the nature of most-formidable-space-militaries to fall to ragtag rebel fleets.) They carry out mass exterminations of human-populated worlds based solely on the idea that they don’t want any competition. They create a super-soldier project that deliberately kills off something like ninety percent of its participants in an effort to find the “strongest,” and even when a person proves to be worth the time and money they keep threatening them with death for the slightest infraction of the rules. These super-soldiers are then set out to help exterminate their own planets and are expected to just go along with this. Which in most cases they do, until such time that our protagonist has absolutely nothing to do with convincing them otherwise.
The moral of the story is to treat your employees right so they won’t turn into super-powered animate gases, steal your planet-buster bombs, and turn them against you. I think we could all apply that in our daily lives.
2 thoughts on “The Ion War”
I just bought a copy of this the other day for my Kindle. OK, it’s not great literature, but it is a lot of fun. Kapp explained how the mining arrangement worked between the two star systems. The systems were two light years apart and the chunks of metal were accelerated to 0.1c, so it only took them 20 years to get to their destination. I found the idea of a 20 year long supply chain to be rather interesting. I had forgotten about the cover of the 1978 edition until I came to your site. That cover is a beautiful example of late 1970s SF book cover art fromage, and I love it.
Thanks for the great post, I love your summary of what good military science fiction is about, that’s brilliant. I would add Harry Harrison’s “Bill the Galactic Hero” to the list, which is about how inept the military is.
Thanks for reading! Oddly enough, I just recently picked up a copy of Harrison’s book, although I haven’t read it yet. I’m looking forward to it, though.