Thursday, March 01, 2012

I Read Books: Stark's War

1. Nomenclature
The Stark's War Trilogy, consisting of Stark's War, Stark's Command and Stark's Crusade declare on my Titan Books (UK) edition that they are by Jack Campbell writing as "John G Hemry". I have, of course, complained about commented on the covers of the previous Jack Campbell novels I have reviewed, and see no reason to change my methods here. So brushing aside the confusion of naming a trilogy after the first novel[1], it does entertain me that the author's name is actually John G Hemry, which is why he wrote as John G Hemry. The nom de plume Jack Campbell came later, with the change in emphasis of his writing in the Lost Fleet series, which were (and are) wildly popular. Clearly Titan Books don't want me to go "John G. Hemry? Who's he? I only popped in to see if there's a new Jack Campbell novel, but I guess not." The (re?) release of these earlier novels is a pleasant side effect of the success of The Lost Fleet.

2. Lunacy
In the late 21st Century the US dominates the Earth as the sole superpower. Companies get politicians elected, who then turn round and use the US military to protect the companies interests in other countries. Meanwhile the army has been in a long slow reduction in force, which has lead to good officers being retired while those able to game the system remain. New technology let's them plan operations down to the last detail, then micromanage the soldiers to keep them on the timeline. The military tends to recruit from the same families, leading to mil families around bases and the rest of the country being civs.

As might be expected the whole shambling edifice is kept together by the sergeants, and, less expectedly[2] foreign companies relocate to the moon to keep their resources and so forth out of the greedy grasping American hands.

Enter Sergeant Ethan Stark, scion of a civ family, now a member of the lunar expeditionary force. He asks awkward questions, pushes the boundaries of his orders and keeps his squad alive. After some initial successes the war bogs down in stalemate. Officers good, bad and worse are rotated in and out in order to get the correct list of assignments for promotion, so never learn anything about fighting on the moon. Finally a general comes with a plan for a war-winning offensive.

"As Napoleon once stated, the moral is to the material as three is to one." Colonel Penter swung his laser pointer triumphantly, outlining a portion of the display with quick slashes. "In this area, application of Synergy Warfare[3] in it's most rudimentary form would allow concentration of our forces to achieve a three-to-one material superiority. By applying the higher-level paradigm clustering inherent in properly focused Synergy Warfare, we re-create and enhance the basis for Napoleon's greatest victories. In short, with this material advantage magnified by employment in accordance with Synergy Warfare, we automatically enjoy the equivalent of a nine-to-one advantage!"

An audible murmur ran around the room as one Sergeant stood to speak. "Excuse me, sir, but are you saying three soldiers equal nine soldiers in your planning?"

The Colonel nodded with obvious satisfaction. "That is correct, if highly simplified, as far as it goes. Of course, when other superiority-enhancing paradigms are applied and multiplied by our own technological superiority, conservative estimates indicate an effective virtual superiority of twelve to one."

"Three soldiers equals twelve soldiers?"

"No, no, no! One soldier equals twelve soldiers!" Colonel Penter gestured grandly. "This is, as I said, a conservative estimate that does not even factor in the obvious huge advantage granted our forces by our overwhelming superiority in leadership by our senior officers."
- Stark's War, pages 253-4
3. Stark Truth
General Meachem's war-winning offensive goes exactly as wrong as we would expect. Unable to watch the massacre of the attacking troops, Stark disobeys orders to rescue the pinned down force in front of him. To get them out, other sergeants follow his lead, ending in a full scale mutiny. The consequences then play out over the rest of the trilogy.

4. Unfair Comparisons
Jack Campbell novels are easy to read with a page-turning momentum from the interplay of immediate and direct threats followed by longer-term and indirect problems that often flare up when least expected, but feel inevitable nevertheless. Themes I identified in The Lost Fleet, such as the relationship between military and civilian authority are addressed here, although generally less subtly. The books are well plotted and examine their ideas with some depth as well as entertainingly.

The characters feel less well formed than in Lost Fleet, and the ending wraps up far too neatly. The moon and technology work fairly well, and consistently, and the command of the sergeants has many rough spots and problems; too much focus on getting the work done today, not enough on the big picture. All in all I enjoyed the books. Not as much as The Lost Fleet, but Campbell has clearly improved as a writer since Stark's War.

Inevitably with politically tinged military SF, the back cover has a comparison to Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Haldeman's The Forever War. Comparisons like that are rarely flattering[4], and Stark's War hardly makes a third to go with the two mil-sf colossi. But what does? Nothing, that's what[5].

Read This: If you want some relevant, interesting military sf, or if you read and liked The Lost Fleet (and if you haven't why not? They're in all good bookshops, and if not, I'll lend you mine).
Don't Read This: If military stuff, or SF or violence or thrillers aren't your bag.
Note that: The non-commissioned rank structure of the US Army seems to have been significantly flattened for the purposes of the novels.

[1] Something fans have a tendency to do anyway.
[2] Is that a word?
[3] Colonel Penter has spent the past three pages explaining what Synergy Warfare is. I don't know exactly what it is, but we are made very aware of General Meachem's genius in coming up with it.
[4] Stark's War does compare favourably with Forever Peace, the thematic follow on to Forever War, and even more so with Forever Free, the interesting but flawed sequel.
[5] Unless you're a big fan of Drake's Hammer's Slammers. But that's much less politically tinged.
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