Fiction Reviews


(2010) Gavin Smith, Gollancz, £18.99, hrdbk, 471pp, ISBN 978-0-575-09409-3

This is Gavin Smith's debut novel and it is a rollicking, fairly hard, military SF novel with bags of grit and a fair dollop of testosterone: it has shades of Richard Morgan with perhaps just the tiniest hint of Greg Egan and/or Joe Haldeman, though these latter nuances maybe be little more than my imagination. However it is most certainly an action-packed yarn that barely pauses for breath.

Set in the future where humanity has gone to the stars, a de-mobbed Jacob Douglas is living a grimy life in a ghetto near Dundee, spending his time, and his pension, as much as he can in virtual reality booths to escape the memories of his time at war with 'Them': 'Them' being the aliens against which Earth has been battling. Like many veterans he had been genetically as well as cyborg enhanced. Having been demobbed, many of his abilities have been curtailed and so not only does he have to contend with his memories, he also is half the man he once was during active service.

Jacob's 'retirement' comes to an abrupt halt when he is called to investigate a landing of one of Them nearby, outside of Dundee in the national park. Reactivated, he goes on the trail unknowing that this would lead to a confrontation with the officer who had previously sent him and his comrades on a virtual suicide mission, as well as with the faceless folk who call the shots purportedly in the name of mankind. What is soon apparent is that the alien incursion is not an attack as such, but whether it is espionage, for assassination or, a psycho-propaganda operation or something else (not to mention some combination of the afore) remains to be seen…

Veteran is well-plotted and a decidedly above-average military SF novel. Hard SF fans will on one hand enjoy the aliens, but one the other perhaps be frustrated that the science explanations as to their nature, evolutionary history and so forth are not further examined; sadly the author is not a scientist and so though many of the SFnal ideas he has created are neat, they are a little embryonic. (And of course, Veteran has plenty of standard tropes such as FTL and space elevators.)

As the story proceeds the author ramps up the pace and the violence. On one hand this does make the book something of a page-turner, but on the other (and this may just be me) it did seem to get more than a little over-the-top in the book's final quarter (though you might like that). Yet towards the end enough of the story – and indeed the back-story as revealed through flashbacks – had been elucidated that I was easily carried through to the book's conclusion. Along the way we explore Gavin Smith's high-tech dystopic future world, leaving Dundee and see a bit of England's NE before heading across the Atlantic to N. America,.

As said, this is Gavin Smith's first book. The next few will tell us whether or not he will become a major force in British SF. Meanwhile this first offering certainly lets us know that we might at least do well to keep an eye on his progress and I for one will not hesitate to read whatever he decides to let us have next.

Jonathan Cowie

Also you can see Ian's review of the paperback edition of Veteran.

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