Fiction Reviews

War Dogs

(2014) Greg Bear, Gollancz, £16.99, trdpbk, 291pp, ISBN 978-0-575-10099-2


We did not know that the aliens had arrived. They came just 13 years ago, hunkered down in the Yemeni desert before making contact with a group of camel herders who thought that they were djinn. Then they reached out to the rest of humanity. They hacked into telecoms and, setting up anonymous trading accounts, raised a pile of money. They then posted an online series of amazing puzzles that attracted the attention of the most curious and intelligent. Recruiting a few, they gave them a cover story about some sort of brain trust setting up offices in the major capitals. They were the Gurus and they started providing information leading to technological breakthroughs. Only then did they properly reveal themselves. They came in peace, and slowly the world order changed.

The Gurus did not want much. One of the things they wanted was for people to stop using sexual reproduction profanity. Everyone objected. The Gurus simply stopped providing their knowledge. Slowly behaviour changed. Now it was 'fidge that' and 'fidge off'.

But the most disturbing information the Gurus provided was that they, and we, were not alone in the depth of space: there were others, enemies! These were the Antags. Little was known about them other than they were totally bad and that they had hounded the Gurus from star system to star system so that now the Gurus were spread thin. Worse, the Antags now had a presence on Mars and, apparently, Titan. Mars had years earlier been sparsely, and expensively, colonised. But the small population of colonists could not pay their way and so had been cut off from Earth; left adrift to make the most of their new world.

All the above is given by page ten of War Dogs: this is a book rich in SFnal concepts.

Leaving the above aside, and this we must, the main thrust of War Dogs concerns Sergeant Michael Venn who has just returned from a military mission on Mars: War Dogs focus is very much firmly centred on this operation. The mission – we are told through flashbacks and Venn recounting to a supposed woman friend of a comrade – went very wrong from the start. Their carrier ship was destroyed shortly after they began their drop to the Martian surface and many of the drop shuttles were also hit. But Venn and he fellow team mates made it to the surface albeit short of kit and supplies. If they could survive they might even live to get killed by the Antag. But then the greatest enemy might well be Mars itself…

Given that this story is told in flashbacks we already know that Venn survives his mission and so the reader knows not to focus on that. Nonetheless, such are the obstacles Venn and his comrades face, that the reader continually wonders how on Earth (or Mars) are they are going to get out of whatever fix it is they are in at that particular juncture. Instead the reader has to tease out from a stream of clues, both from the mission action and the on Earth recounting, as to what it is that might be really going on?

This is adrenaline-fuelled, military SF. Make no mistake, while this is adrenaline-fuelled, it is not testosterone drenched military SF such as we might get from, say, Gavin Smith: this equally pulls SF levers as it does action adventure ones. Indeed, Venn does not get to fire his weapon until well over half way into the novel. Nonetheless, there is plenty of action and the story simply bowls along with growing momentum right from the moment when Venn's team is about to drop down to Mars.

That Venn does not get to fire his weapon until well over half way into the novel in no way detracts from the novel squarely being military SF; much of a soldier's life involves getting from 'a' to 'b', wondering where the next meal is coming from, checking weapons, pondering strategic matters (often, as the perspective is grunt end, in ignorance), tactics before finally, often taking the least of time, engagement.

That this novel draws on real military experience is revealed in an introductory acknowledgements page. Greg not only dedicates the book to those of his family who served in the US forces but also those who helped him with the novel's military background ambience and who in turn acknowledge by name, rank and theatre of operation. These include one Vietnam vet who cites four of his family including a great-great-uncle who served in Company D of the 155 PA Infantry in the US Civil War. (Which also, to a Brit reader, reminds that US history – unlike that of Scotland, England and Ireland – is so very short and that human history is as a whole very much steeped in blood.) These acknowledgments provide a sober start to the novel that gives us pause to consider the novel at more than face value: this is not just military SF. The causes of war are all too often far from the harsh, front-line grit. So with War Dogs, while the story is that of the soldiers, the novel's real underpinning lies far from the front line and in this case against the backdrop of great aliens (a political superpower if ever there was one) effect on the rank and file (average subjects/citizens/comrades).

And then there is the novel's provenance. Those who have read a number of Greg Bear novels will come to see some clear thematic resonances with his earlier works. I will not detail these (no out-and-out spoilers) but will mention: Blood Music (1983/5) a terrific SF novelette/novel; Darwin's Radio ???, The Forge of God (1987) and its sequel, among other candidates. I will not dwell on this, suffice to say that there are joys for Bear veterans when considering this novel against the rest of his oeuvre.

The bottom line is that this is a great novel that scores on a number of levels. In terms of military SF with the SF ramped up, this surely ranks alongside the likes of Cherryh's Rimrunners and Haldeman's The Forever War. It is reasonably self-contained, but there is more than enough scope and play for a sequel let alone the rest of the promised trilogy. 'Trilogy'? Yes, while neither the book nor its cover blurb suggest that this is the start of a trilogy, the press material accompanying the review copy makes it clear that it is. If you are not aware of this then you might be disappointed that the novel's conclusion does not tie up all the loose ends. And, as said, while the plot is reasonably self-contained there are loose ends, especially with a number of the book's hard SF dimensions, so that there will be a sequel is most welcome. Bring it on.

Jonathan Cowie

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