War Dogs by Greg Bear – Book Review

War Dogs greg bear

 

A trove of questions with a booty of intrigue (4/5).

I’ve been well through the thick and the thin of Greg Bear’s bibliography, through the old and the new, through the series and the stand-alones. I was quite keen on his last stand-alone novel Hull Zero Three (2010) but loathed his slightly earlier City at the End of Time (2008). These ups and downs span more than twenty years: Hegira (1979) was pretty good while Psychlone (1979) was not; Darwin’s Radio (1999) was also great while its sequel Darwin’s Children (2003) was not. He’s one of my favorite authors—also perhaps my favorite “Killer B” of Brin, Bear and Benford—because I first started reading SF thanks to Greg Bear (I’ll always remember my first—The Forge of God [1987]).

When I learned that Bear was penning another series (a sequel is currently being written), I had mixed feelings. Aside from the fluctuations of quality writing from Bear, one of my main gripes with actually picking up the novel was my avoidance any novel with the word “war” in it, that being an instant turn off; the glorification of wars and soldiers doesn’t fill me with patriotism; rather, it makes me pity the state of the country and its blind folk. I experienced dread when I saw the dedication page: “to all those who served … in WW2, Korea, and Vietnam”.

Inside flap synopsis:
“One more tour on the red.
Maybe my last.

They made their presence on Earth known thirteen years ago.

Providing technology and scientific insights far beyond what mankind was capable of. They became indispensable advisors and promised even more gifts that we just couldn’t pass up. We called them Gurus.

It took them a while to drop the other shoe. You can see why, looking back.

It was a very big shoe, completely slathered in crap.

They had been hounded by mortal enemies from sun to sun, planet to planet, and were now stretched thin — and they needed our help.

And so our first bill came due. Skyrines like me were volunteered to pay the price. As always.

These enemies were already inside our solar system and were moving to establish a beachhead, but not on Earth.

On Mars.”

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I mentioned in the introduction that I have a low tolerance for hero worship, especially blindly worshiping soldiers who are simply agents of war, many of whom probably don’t even want (or deserve) the title of “hero”. Thankfully, Greg Bear doesn’t get all sentimental about the Skyrines and doesn’t pump the same soldiers full of bravado, like Michael Venn. Most of the male Skyrine are down on their luck on Mars and live hour by hour near death, only to be saved repeatedly by women—first, Teal; then, their “sisters” of the Skyrines. The men hardly get off a single shot to glorify their status as a Skyrine. The premise of War Dogs strongly suggests that the novel is one punctuated by the terror/excitement of war, but the reality of the novel is the boredom of having life stretched and stretched on Mars.

Michael Venn isn’t explored to a great deal—not his loves, his likes, his dislikes, or his open emotion. Like a toughened soldier, he keeps to himself, mostly. He was once the average American WASP—“a white boy from Moscow, Idaho, a blue-collar IT wizard who got tired of working in cubicles” (5)—but he got burnt out in the corporate world and made the decision to join the Skyrines under the united flag of International Sky Defense (ISD). Rather than sit at a desk wasting his life away on Earth, he now sits underground wasting his life away on Mars. Not much of an improvement, but hey, the benefits must be great.

Also downplayed is the limelight on the two competing alien races; the Gurus are only referred to and the Antagonists are only given a brief burst of importance.

Gurus
The Gurus first landed in the Yemeni desert, away from so-called civilized humanity. They accessed communication networks and amassed assets while anonymously posting online “a series of pretty amazing puzzles that attracted the attention of the most curious and intelligent” (8). From these puzzles, technological improvements were discovered and the Gurus made their presence known to world leaders; however, their physical presence had never been seen as human Wait Staff act as their intermediaries or liaisons (Wait Staff), limited to a few dozen. Most importantly, the Gurus bought technological gifts and “a thorough understanding of our own biology, chemistry, and psychology” (189). Humanity didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth and blindly accepted the gifts without asking what, exactly, the so-called benevolent race expected in return.

Gurus were not just being magnanimous with their gifts of tech. They needed our help, and we needed to step up and help them, because these enemies were already inside the far, icy margins of our solar system, were, in fact, trying to establish their own beachhead, but not on Earth. (10)

Antagonists
Michael Venn and all of humanity, aside from the Wait Staff perhaps, don’t even know what either race looks like or what their intentions are. The Gurus are completle unforthcoming with their information about the Antagonists: What do they look like? What are they enemies? Where are they from? What are their capabilities? Nothing. Enticing, right?

Given the limited amount of information provided in the narrative, the two alien races had to take a backseat ride (though very interesting occupants they may be) to four heavy elements, each as rich as uranium: (1) Colonization, (2) the Muskies, (3) capitalism and art of the twentieth century, and (4) the Drifter.

Colonization

Prior to the Gurus public arrival, mankind sent a first wave of colonization, funded by the pooled resources of Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk. Each of the original colonists paid in the 8-9 figures for their historical moment and later became known as Muskies (after Elon Musk), but the half of them died in transit through the vacuum of our solar system. The “idealism and pioneering spirit” (133) of the colonization drew solid backing for the enterprise but soon parallel grievances struck: the investors never got a return and “the last reserves of [the colonists’] sanity dwindled” (134). Isolated from Earth, Mars became a different sort of ideal—that of a dumping ground for malcontents:

Then arrived the third wave, including hard-core folks who found Earth too civilized, too restrictive—too stupid. Rugged individualists, political fanatics, IQ theorists seeking to isolate and improve the human gene pool. Diehard bigots and supremacists, happy to turn Mars into a spaghetti western … Mars was pretty much a lost cause. (79)

The hard-core attitudes of the first three waves eventually became distilled and purified by later generations of settlers, transmogrifying utopian idealism into “a tale of patriarchal tragedy, rigorous discipline—or hypocrisy and cant” (100), their ethos “statistical, mathematically sound … Atheists by law, strict dogmatists, reductionists … Techno-racists. Libertanianism pushed to the ultimate extreme” (185).

The Muskies

One confusion I experienced when reading War Dogs was the timeframe. Michael Venn identifies the narrative as taking place in “the twenty-first century” (1) but there are some facts about the Muskies which stretch the timeframe.

A one-way trip to Mars looks like it could be a reality by 2025 for the Mars One Project. Bear doesn’t mention the Mars One Project, so he could be speculating a later date for mankind’s first colony of Mars. Let’s speculate that the colony is set for 2040, a year which would make the three primary investors fairly geriatric: Jeff Bezos (1964) at 74, Richard Branson (1950) at 80, and Elon Musk (1971) at 69. As a projection for the future of the world’s richest people, this seems a bit shortsighted.

Enough time passes on Mars that a third “wave” of colonization occurs and enough time has passed that language has changed: “there are now several kinds of accents and dialects and even some newly birthed languages” (74). This is the most interested part of the Muskies. The spoken language of Teal (whose name origin I’ll come to in a bit) is called “thinspeak… pronunciation adapted for high altitude or thinner air” (72). This makes the dialogue a tad difficult to understand, but I found it easy to adapt to and follow.

The readers first exposure to thinspeak comes via Tealullah Mackenzie Green—Teal for short—who is a self-exiled member of a community on Mars. For her safety and theirs, she guides the Skyrines to the Drifter (which we’ll come to shortly).  Having rescued Michael Venn and his squad from certain death on the surface of Mars, he feels indebted to the Martian girl for her timing, thereby introducing the title of the novel:

Those of us who can, follow her directions … I am deliriously grateful. I feel the way a pound mutt must fee, rescued just before they seal the hatch on the death chamber.

We’re all War Dogs, adopted by a very tall, strong ranch wife. (75)

Interestingly, Tealullah Mackenzie Green an amalgamation of three names: first, Elon Musk’s wife’s given name, Talulah; second, Jeff Bezos’s wife’s given name MacKenzie; and last, the surname of Sir Philip Nigel Ross Green, currently the sixth richest British by net worth (just ahead or, surprise, Sir Richard Branson). This leads credence toward the speculative fact that the Mars in the later part of the twenty-first century was, in fact, heavily inspired by the efforts of some of the investors… and perhaps a shared fixation with Michael Venn’s obsession for brand names and nostalgia.

Capitalism and Art

At first, as I was reading through War Dogs and recognizing so many company names, brand names, and references to pop culture, that Greg Bear simply dumped these in the novel for  a fixed reference to the past which readers could identify with. This is about 50% true. The other 50% of my inkling rests with Tealullah’s name and its own references to billionaires. Venn mentions some modern big companies or their products: Roomba, Starbucks, Maersk, Jeep, eBay, Perrier mineral water, Walt Disney, Tootsie Roll, Cheez Whiz, and Tinkertoys. Further, Venn also delves into movie history and trivia: All About Eve (1967), Wind and the Lion (1975), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Castle Keep (1969), and Kelly’s Heroes (1970)—all films within a span of eight years (Greg Bear would have been sixteen in 1967). Author indulgence, perhaps?

Finally, there’s a nod toward some fiction which perhaps inspired Bear, too: Dune (1965), Lord of the Rings (1954), John Carter of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars (1917), Daniel F. Galouye’s Simulacron-3 (1964), Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer character in Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), and Jack London’s “The King of Mazy May” (1899), and Kim Stanley Robinson for his Mars trilogy (a colony camp is named after him along with Green [as mentioned above], Amazonia [Bezos], and McClain [source unknown]).

The Drifter

Mars is the hook of the novel, but the Drifter is the sinker. It’s casually explained that the Drifter is a subterranean mine which has been excavated by a few camps for its “big lodes of iron, nickel, platinum, iridium, aluminum” (102). But it’s strange excavation points to bigger mysteries, which are slow to unravel but are tantalizing when considering that War Dogs is but one book to a duology or trilogy (no official word). When the mysteries do begin to unravel, so many unresolved questions ricochet off the inside of the reader’s skull, definitely whetting their appetite for book two. I can’t spoil anything about the Drifter for the reader… just be sure, it’s the center point piece of War Dogs. Mars is like your mom’s poinsettia on the dinner table on Christmas morning; the Drifter is the ham on the bone that comes for lunch.

Michael’s squad is plagued by a number of questions during their confinement in the Drifter, but two top the heap: Why hadn’t the Gurus told them about the Drifter? Is this intrasolar war being fought with Antagonists for control of Drifter.

Not everything is a stone waiting to be turned over, however. Aside from my qualms about the difficulty of pinning down a date and the echo of corporate importance through the decades, there are only three annoyances.

(1) I love new words. Considering that War Dogs is a first-person perspective novel, perhaps the vocabulary is a tad high for the direct storytelling. Michael Venn describes Alice, the woman who has come to Seattle to debrief him, with a number of adjectives. Aside from small and pretty, Venn describes her as “zaftig” four different times. Hey, that’s a new word to me, but there are some synonyms which could be used rather than repeat it for fun: e.g., pulchritudinous, buxom, shapely, curvaceous, sonsy, and stacked.

(2) So, mankind finally learns it’s not the only species inhabiting the galaxy. Some nations accept the gifts the Gurus have to offer while others shun them. The end. The only repercussion of the contact is technological and its effect on the economy; there cosmological or spiritual side of learning this new ‘they are out there” truth isn’t even glanced at let alone touched upon. And it seems the humans are all too eager to go join another war—aren’t those human ever so predictable?

(3) Greg Bear puts a good effort into creating new technologies for weapons (e.g., weak-field disruptors and strong-field suppressors), but at times the reach for a new technology feels uninspired, unseen, or simply forgotten. I estimate the timeframe for the narrative to be around 2090, so it’s a little surprising when “Alice is speaking on her cell” (217). If there are automatic taxis and round trip trips to Mars, certainly cell phones would be outdated by then, or at least called by a different name.

Now… what’s the most tantalizing wisp of narcotic vapor from the plot? Well, consider that both alien races—the Gurus and the Antagonists—are barely explored on the superficial level and their motivations remain unknown. This should be enough to whet the appetite for most SF fanboys. Toward the end of the novel, a revelation is made which seems to wrap a few things up, but another enticing wisp lingers in the mind: the platinum slug which Michael found in the Drifter and brought back with him to Earth; it holds some significance but little attention is paid to it other than is has a “long, coiling string of tiny numbers and letters” (94).

[line]

If you’ve got patience for a constant struggle of a handful of soldier on the surface of Mars, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the bounty of mysteries buried in the Drifter and the repercussions it may have on mankind’s relationship with the Gurus, the relationship between the Gurus and the Antagonists, and, ultimately, mankind’s relationship with itself. Though the Guru’s have superior knowledge of humankind’s “biology, chemistry, and psychology” (189), only mankind can tell itself what its true place and purpose is in the mechanism of the universe…

…when’s that sequel coming?


 

This review was kindly provided by 2theD. You can find more of 2theD’s book reviews at his blogs: SF Potpourri and Tongues of Speculation.

SF Potpourri
2theD describes SF Potpourri as containing “Sci-Fi Reviews with Tyrannical Tirades, Vague Vexations, and Palatial Praises”.  This is an accurate description, but perhaps more importantly SF PotPourri is one of those rare blogs offering insight and genuine literary criticism rather than just straightforward reviews.

Tongues of Speculation
This website focusses on translated speculative fiction and is certainly eye opening. As the works reviewed here will be new to most western readers ‘Tonges of Speculation’ is an excellent place to start broadening your horizons.

For those of you who want to keep up to date with all of the author’s posts, you can find him @SFPotpourri  

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