Saturday, 18 February 2012

A Soldier's Duty (Theirs Not to Reason Why) - Jean Johnson


One of the persistent problems in writing military fiction is the temptation to make one’s main character a Mary Sue – basically, someone improbably perfect, as in the Flight Engineer or Starstrike books. Jean Johnson has fallen into this trap, to some degree, but she has a very good underlying reason for her main character’s supreme competence. Ia is a precognitive, perhaps the most powerful known to exist in the book’s universe. She is capable of seeing her own future in such detail that she can generally pick the most optimal course of action, creating the impression (to her superiors, who don’t know about her talent) that she is literally the near-perfect Marine.

Knowledge of the future is actually the core concept of the book, and I have to admit that it is pretty cool. Ia has visions of a future when society is almost completely destroyed in a few hundred years – and sets out on a one-woman mission to prevent it. So far, so good – her competence is well-explained. But she becomes irritatingly perfect very quickly, something that is at least partly noted within the book. There is little true dramatic tension because the outcome is already certain.

There are scenes where she engages in lecturing her superiors as to how the military works, which make her sound like a smart-ass, and scenes where she puts her fellow recruits in their place – sounding rather like an older veteran rather than an recruit. I don’t blame her fellows for getting annoyed with her – I would find her irritating as hell too. She also has friends in weird places who help her along her way, friends who aren’t particularly well explained.

In short, she’s a very thin character. I can understand why the author went that way, but it rather grates on me. Maybe it would have done better if told directly as a first-person novel, or through the eyes of one of her friends.

The universe isn't also well-defined either. If precognition exists – and she isn't the only one, with a notable historical example cited – why is she the only one with visions of disaster? Or, for that matter, why doesn't she start telling more and more people, or using her gift more widely. I could see several ways to build a commercial empire, or a stronger military machine if the threat was from outside human space.

In fact, wouldn't that make a cool story? She gets to the top and mounts a coup, convinced that military rule is the only thing that would save humanity. But it turns out that she’s actually making the threat worse...

The truth is that there just isn't anything very original about this story – except perhaps for the core idea. And that alone can’t make the book work.

No comments:

Post a Comment