We’ve all got dreams. I grew up on Florida’s Space Coast and spent most of my young life watching rockets thunder off into space and cruising up and down the coast in small boats. I don’t suppose it would surprise anyone to learn that many of the dreams in my sun-baked mind involved plying the vast oceans of empty space in rocket-powered sailing ships. I’ve since abandoned the coastal waters of my youth but to this day I still can’t get my head out of the stars. What I mean to say is, I’m a sucker for the kind of big space opera that takes the painful realities of Deep Space seriously.
If you’re at all like me, and I’m willing to bet there are more than a few who are, then I think this week’s Stack Overflow will really tickle your CO2 scrubbers. Each of the books included here does its part to kick off an epic (in scale) series about humanity waging interstellar war. The thing that each series has in common is a fanatical attention to detail and scientific rigor that the author has embraced while imagining the harsh realities of war in space.
There’s no reason to pull any punches: Michael McCollum is a superstar when it comes to thinking about just how hard space is. He’s so serious about getting it right that he offers courses for other writers who want to learn more about the intricacies of writing scientifically accurate fiction. He has even published The Astrogator’s Handbook to help authors who are already versed in astronomy understand how to properly write about it from the perspective of people who are not on Earth!
In Antares Dawn, McCollum sets the stage for war by describing the appearance of an alien warship blinking into existence in orbit around the remote and isolated human settlement of Alta. When the Altan Space Navy sends a ship out to investigate, they are horrified to find that their interloper is a shattered wreck of a warship. Fear begins to overwhelm the Altans when they realize this alien ship could have single-handedly wiped out their entire navy, yet there existed a force somewhere in the deep unknown that had ripped it to shreds. What would happen to humanity if that unknown force found them as well?
This series is absolutely fantastic and McCollum is unparalleled in his ability to describe space travel and warfare in incredible detail while still engaging the reader. I can’t count the number of times I’ve thought to myself, “That hadn’t occurred to me,” while reading his books. If you’re like me, you’ll likely wind up reading everything McCollum has written about space.
John Scalzi is no slouch himself, and he ups the ante in Old Man’s War by exploring deep ethical and metaphysical subject matter. Scalzi is the author that really took my love of Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers in particular, to the next level. This novel feels like a modern adaptation of Heinlein’s masterpiece that explores deep subject matter while never forgetting to have fun.
Old Man’s War begins how you might expect. John Perry is a 75-year-old human approaching the end of his life. He’s lost his wife and doesn’t have a terrific outlook on life. He does have one thing going for him, however. Ten years earlier John and his wife submitted DNA samples and expressed a desire to become part of the somewhat mysterious Colonial Defense Forces (CDF) whose job it is to protect extraterrestrial colonies. How exactly John and his self-described group of “Old Farts” are supposed to protect the colonies at their age is a mystery to all of them, but the perks of signing away their retirement were too good to pass up on.
As the story unfolds, we learn that the CDF has mastered a technique for extending human life and reversing the scourge of aging. The only trade-off for John and his elderly crew is that their new lives are dedicated to military service. Scalzi does a masterful job weaving back and forth between the inner conflict that John struggles with as he tries to synthesize his new life as a space-faring infantry soldier and the memory of the peaceful life he has already lived.
While Marko Kloos may not have the technical chops that McCollum does or write with the deep undercurrents of meaning that Scalzi does, he does one thing better than almost any other author I’ve read. Kloos is a military veteran and writes about life in the future space navy like I’d imagine only someone who has been through boot camp can. I’ve never served myself, but I woke up from fevered dreams of scrubbing latrines and taking heavy fire from infantry platoons while working through these novels. Every page in these novels feels like a scene out of a Full Metal Jacket sequel set in deep space.
The most fascinating aspect of Terms of Enlistment is the way that Kloos is able to integrate the harsh realities of life in space into his narrative without ever giving the reader the feeling that it’s all new. It has the lived-in and slightly shabby aesthetic that the Star Wars universe has always conveyed and it does so in a way that makes the reader feel like they’ve been 75 light-years away from their girlfriend in an old beater of a space frigate, too. If you can imagine the opening scene of Band of Brothers and picture the soldiers instead clad in well-worn battle armor dropping out of a spaceborne troop-carrier, you’ve got a pretty good handle on what’s going on in this novel. The two warring factions are nominally the East versus the West; they’re portrayed as the North American Commonwealth and the Sino-Russian Alliance in the series, but there isn’t much given in the way of an explanation for why they’re fighting or what their disagreement is about. This series is all about soldiers dropping into battle and slugging it out; it’s gritty and intense and if that’s your cup of tea, you won’t be disappointed.
Last, but certainly not least, is the John Campbell epic Dauntless. After you’ve read this one you’ll in no way be surprised to discover that John Campbell is the pen name of retired Lieutenant Commander John G. Hemry of the US Navy. This series reads like a biography of someone who LCDR Hemry served with and absolutely adored. It also reads like a novel written by someone who understood everything there was to understand about naval tactics and had spent a fair amount of time thinking critically about how they would change in the inky black of space. After reading this novel you may not feel confident about your own ability to command an interstellar fleet but you’ll be darn well convinced that there are people who are already ready to go once we have the ships in space.
Dauntless follows the re-integration of John Geary into the Alliance fleet after his rescue from a suspended animation escape pod. Geary, nicknamed “Black Jack” during the century that elapsed between his legendary demise and his rescue, is thrust into the commanding role aboard the remnants of a tattered fleet that has barely escaped from a daring mission gone wrong in Syndicate space. Because of his posthumous promotion and his now 100+ year time-in-service, Geary discovers that he is no longer a junior officer but instead the Fleet Commander. Now he has to figure out how to win battle after battle as the fleet tries to return home with critical intelligence from deep within enemy space. The highlights of the novels in this series are Campbell’s detailed descriptions of Geary’s naval tactics, told artfully through the conceit that, in the century since Geary’s supposed death, the Fleet had such tremendous losses that they had relied too heavily on officers without proper training and so had abandoned complicated formations and maneuvers in space. It all works beautifully and you can’t help but continually wonder how old Black Jack Geary is going to get himself out of each battle.