If you seek peace—prepare for war
A rule as true in the 24th century as it is today. When 75 planets—from savage tribes to outlaw tyrannies to star-spanning mega-powers—totter on the brink of the hell that began the day Earth destroyed itself. When only one military outfit has the experience, strength, and firepower to deliver rapid deployment justice to the galaxy—the Planetary Union Peace Force.
This is the frontline.
Peace Company Group 14, New Frontier Seventh Peace Brigade. The 900 shock troops of the battle-cruiser Ark Royal. Knife-honed vets, men and women, commander to crew. Elite commandos ready to wage and win war, anytime, anywhere. Under any conditions. On any world.
For a book with such a fantastic cover, it sure turned out to be a really boring read. I just don’t understand it. It had everything going for it. All that pink, the soldiers in their totally rad 80s uniforms, that spaceship that is made mostly out of spikes and prods, and a rock formation that looks suspiciously like two fingers giving either a peace sign or the British equivalent of The Bird. Luis Royo did the cover, and it shows. It’s so totally 80s that I bet if I sniffed it really hard I’d fail my next mandatory drug test. “Thomas,” they’d say, “you have more cocaine in your system than a Cybernarc villain.”
And I’d say, “That’s totally because I sniffed the cover of this book.”
And they’d say, “You will never work in this town again.”
So let’s avoid that and talk about how difficult I found it to finish this novel.
This is yet another case of a book that isn’t bad. It had some good ideas, some good science fiction, and the writing was really quite competent. But it didn’t grab me. It’s another one of those books, the sort that I sit and stare at, turning the pages, for a few hours, and then when I set it down to pet the cat or grab a slice of pizza I realize that I have absolutely no memory of what I just read or why I should care about it. The characters all blend together, the situations they’re in don’t feel like they matter, and I have to flip back a few pages to remind myself of just what the crap is going on.
This is a phenomenon I’ve been trying to articulate to myself and others for quite a while. What is it that just makes a book boring? It wasn’t bad, although I’ve read my fair share of bad books that do this too.
The explanation I’ve been coming to, and I owe part of this to Roland Green’s entry on the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, to quote:
…though Green’s good-humoured efficiency is always evident, it is difficult to pin down any strongly individual tone.
And I think that really nails the problem. There’s very little in the way of anything special in the writing in this book. It’s got little to no soul, nothing I can pin down as emotion. Emotions are described throughout the book, to be sure, but never once did I feel any kind of empathic response. I never shared the emotions, at best I was able to acknowledge that yes, at this point in the story someone would probably feel like that.
Personality is the word that I’m thinking of. It’s what this book, and plenty of others I’ve struggled to read, lack. It’s dry, it’s dull, and it runs together. I’ve even read licensed fiction based on classic and wonderful characters that fell that same way (anybody else read the Star Wars Corellian Trilogy? I didn’t think so, so take my word for it).
And all this bleeds over into the characters. At best we get physical descriptions for some of them. On the whole they’re just names that do some things and I guess I’m supposed to support the things that some of them are doing but oppose the things that some of the others are doing, although I can’t keep them straight so it’s like “I thought he was the bad guy?” occasionally.
Reading this novel was like watching a flock of sheep fight a war against another flock of sheep.
So the main guy in this book is Sergeant Major John B. Parkes. We meet him as he’s just reporting for duty at Peace Company Group 14, which is I think supposed to be a new group. Parkes isn’t a grunt, but he’s also not really in charge. I think he’s basically the space army equivalent of middle management.
One of the first and most memorable—not that that’s saying much—characters he meets is a Lieutenant named Katherine Forbes-Brandon, who is described as blond and “agreeably mammalian.” She’s that sort of female character that is in all ways attractive except for one small flaw to make it more “realistic,” in this case she’s got a big nose. Still, she’s supposed to be a hottie.
Their relationship is almost immediately antagonistic, so of course we all know they’re going to bang eventually. That’s just the way these things work.
Parkes isn’t there for long when everybody gets sent out on what I guess is supposed to be their first mission. There’s a crisis on a planet named Bayard, a human colony that’s not got much in the way of high technology but they’re an important food producer or something. Even if the planet’s not all that important, I get the feeling that preventing a war is exactly what Peace Company is supposed to do.
One of the few things I actually did like was the description of how Peace Company was formed and how they work. Back in the 21st century Earth blowed itself up and the rest of the galaxy just about finished off the job on the rest of humanity. I guess it’s supposed to be a parallel to the Fall of the Roman Empire, in a way. The lesson learned from that was that peace is always always preferable to war, no matter the scale. That’s where Peace Company comes in. They’re trained, experienced, and well-equipped peacekeepers. Their unofficial method is to make peace so much more profitable than war that people will choose the first option because they can’t afford the second. It’s a pretty decent idea.
Not much of that comes out in the book, though. Really all they seem to do is shoot people and help out a bit when they’re needed for non-shooty things.
The crisis on Bayard is that there are ranchers who produce a lot of cows and other, more native, animals. They feed most of the planet and meanwhile make a lucrative living exporting that meat throughout the galaxy. They’re at odds with some folks on the other continent who are fishermen. The seas of Bayard are teeming with fish and a well-organized fishing enterprise would put their near-monopoly in danger. It hasn’t quite gotten there yet, but things are getting tense.
They’re being egged on by operatives from some guy called the Game Master, who is sending third-level orcs and kobolds to harass the fishermen. Not really, but honestly it’s pretty close. The truth is that some operative of his, called simply Team Leader throughout the book, is training some ranchers in guerrilla warfare. They managed to sink an offshore manufacturing plant, a ship called the Celestine Auphan, and things are looking bad for our fisherfolk.
The Game Master doesn’t really show up in the book, he’s just a shadowy figure in the background somewhere. Peace Company is aware of his existence but he’s given them the slip for a long while. This book has a few sequels so I guess maybe the final showdown will be in one of those. His whole deal, for some unexplored reason, is to spread war and chaos through the galaxy because, well, he likes it? Money might be involved occasionally, but all anybody has to say is that war is the “Ultimate Game” and he likes it. Ugh.
Honestly the whole campaign on Bayard goes about how you’d expect a war between a well-equipped military force and a group of half-trained guerrillas to go, unless you know anything about the Vietnam War. The whole plot, and this is a common theme in books I’ve read (especially Penetrator novels), goes about like this:
- The bad guys make a plan that they think is foolproof
- They don’t expect Peace Company to be there
- Peace Company is there
- The bad guys lose
Every. Single. Engagement.
Even the things that aren’t outright battles go that way. A big deal is made because there’s a mole on the inside of Peace Force that might be giving away information to the bad guys, not that it helps. So somebody looks into it and finds out who it is and tells our protagonist. It’s one of the higher-ups and everybody’s worried. So they come up with this plan so they can confront this guy, only to find that he committed suicide and left a note explaining why he did what he did.
The most exciting part of the book is near the end, when Peace Company helps these fishermen raise up their sunken boat. It’s all patched up and they decide to fill it with air so it’ll come back to the surface. Team Leader and his minions attack and Peace Company shoots them and they die.
The exciting part—and I’m being generous here—is that a storm might be approaching. If it hits before the ship is in a safe place, it might capsize again and be damaged enough to be unsalvageable. This is a problem. Except it’s not, because the storm doesn’t hit.
The major thread running through the book is the relationship between Parkes and the Lieutenant. It’s actually kind of interesting to see how Parkes refers to her throughout the text. First she’s just “The Lieutenant,” then she’s “The Amazon” (because she’s very tall), and finally it’s Forbes-Brandon. Their relationship develops slowly. Usually it’s when Parkes sees how she’s pushing herself too hard because she has something to prove and he steps in and diplomatically helps her out. It’s the classic Friend Zone Stratagem, used since the Trojan War.
So yeah, all he really does is worry about her enough that at the end of the book he catches her celebrating the victory and goes out drinking with her. It never actually says they do the horizontal Mambo #5, and in fact I think it specifically has Parkes say something gentlemanly like “Not while you’re drunk.” I’d say this is because he’s such a nice guy with no flaws, but I can’t say that because I don’t think that’s the case. To have flaws would mean having a personality, and nobody in this book has any personality so they’re all flawless, basically. But that’s like saying the grass in your yard is well-kept when you live in Arizona and your yard is made of rocks and sand. It doesn’t count.
I hate to say I straight-up don’t like this book because it honestly was pretty competent. It had some hard sci-fi elements that, while not wholly original, where pretty decent. I particularly liked how the author handled spaceflight, although it wasn’t a major part of the book. Even though the ships flew across the galaxy at some undefined fast speed because of a “Yariv Drive,” the rest of it showed some research. Most of my knowledge of orbital dynamics and periapsis burns and course matching and all that come from playing Kerbal Space Program, but based on that I can say Green did a pretty good job of describing spaceflight. Even interstellar ships used detachable boosters to get them out of the home system (I assume it’s one of those “FTL doesn’t work in a gravity well” things) because they need to conserve the ship’s own fuel to make the return trip. Details like that, which I liked.
Oh, and shuttles lifted off via a hydrogen tank being shot by a laser, so the shuttles basically rode the laser up into space. I think I may have read about a theoretical launching system like that before, and I really like that image.
Anyway, apart from all that there just wasn’t enough in this book to catch my attention, one way or the other. And maybe it’s my fault. Usually when I read military science fiction it’s because it’s trying to make some kind of point, and this book didn’t feel like that. I’m not going to read about soldiers just because they’re soldiers. They either need to be affirming or challenging some philosophy of war so that I can either get mad or agree with it. Basically I mean to say that the very best piece of military sci-fi I’ve ever read is Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, so everything sort of pales in comparison to that. Even Scalzi’s Old Man’s War novels, which I absolutely love as well, don’t get me excited the way Haldeman did. So maybe I’m just not the right audience for this kind of book. I’m willing to accept that.