Friday, 17 February 2017

War Dogs by Greg Bear

I think Greg Bear is at his best when he's going for a real mindfuck. I mean, this writer can mess with the brains of his readers like nobody's business, pulling them down uncomfortable and compelling paths. As a result, I think I am always slightly disappointed when he does something more mainstream. The last Bear I read (I think it was him, and hopefully I'm not confusing him with another author) was a fairly straightforward thriller. It was fine, but not idea-rich.

I sort of feel the same way here, although this is more straightforwardly SF than the last book I read by this author. This feels like it's on the outskirts of the Bear territory I like the most, or to be more precise, it feels like a prequel to the main event. I suspect there are more books coming, but if there are, this might have served best as something written after the meat of the story to flesh out the background, or to have been shortened and added to a book that got into what seems to be the good stuff yet to come.

What we have is a book set in the medium-near future - not the next couple of years, but not a whole ton beyond that. A group of aliens that I don't believe most of humanity has ever seen showed up and started to share a lot of marvellous technology, outlawed the word "fuck," and then, when we were dependent on the dribs and drabs of knowledge they gave out, dropped the bombshell that they were more intergalactic refugees than wise Guru masters, and needed us to fight their war, like, now.

That puts humans up against the Antagonists on the vast sandy plains of Mars, and they likewise don't know anything about what the Antagonists look like or want, but they are killing and being killed by them in great numbers. The main character is a "Skyrine" (my husband hated that name, arguing that a Marine is a Marine is a Marine), dropped onto Mars with a group of others during a firefight that leaves most of the men they travelled with dead.

At this point, I was griping a little about what seemed to be a narrative choice to assert women were treated exactly the same in the Skyrines but not have any female characters, except for a beautiful Martian settler (called a Muskie, in honour of Elon Musk. Muskie? Might have been slightly different) for the main Marine to fall for.

Then a whole squad of women Skyrines show up, and I was a little less annoyed.

This is all told in flashbacks from a time when the main character has returned to Earth, apparently burdened with a secret big enough to come back under another Skyrine's identity.  He tries try to drop off the radar immediately, waiting for contact from another Skyrine. This is emphasized every time we come back to the book's present, which raises expectations pretty damn high for the reveal.

When it comes, it's a bit disappointing. It's not a bad reveal, but it doesn't seem to match the level of expectation created by the structure - and worse, it's a reveal that really only means something when it's explored instead of just dropped as an answer. So, as I said, if this is the starting book of a series, it may get better from here, but this feels a lot like spinning wheels before the story, and then closing the last page just as the journey actually gets underway.

It's too bad. This books is fairly good, but there is the promise of so much more, and hopefully that better will be forthcoming and not given as short shrift as we see here.

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