When Diplomacy Fails …
Author: Michael Z. Williamson
Publisher: Baen Books
This is the seventh novel in Williamson’s Freehold interstellar action-adventure science-fiction series, which started with Freehold in 2003; or the third novel in his Ripple Creek Security subseries, which began with Better to Beg Forgiveness ….
The series is set about two hundred years in the future, in a human interstellar civilization in which most planets of the galaxy are divided among a tyrannical socialistic United Nations union (the villains), the lone-planet freedom-loving Freehold of Grainne (the heroes), and various worlds loosely aligned in a Colonial Alliance. After the first couple of novels, Williamson began concentrating on the exploits of the Freehold-based Ripple Creek Security Service, a commercial company of mercenary bodyguards who hire their services to the president of an independent planet in the throes of civil war (Better to Beg Forgiveness …, 2007), and the Richest Person in the Universe (Do Unto Others …, 2010). In other words, these novels are a s-f extrapolation of the private military companies such as Blackwater Security that contracted their services to the U.S. government in Iraq during the 2000s.
In this third novel, Ripple Creek is hired to guard and protect their traditional enemy! Well, politics has no personal enemies, and Ripple Creek has the reputation of being the best in the business. Ripple Creek is asked to assign its ace team of Alex Marlow, Jason Vaughn, Eleanora Sykora, Bart Weil, Horace Mbuto, and Aramis Anderson to protect the U.N.’s Bureau of State Minister Joy Herman Highland, a bureaucrat with very many enemies, both professional and personal.
There is little padding in Williamson’s prose. His team know each other well and are personal friends, but their conversation is heavy in shop talk; and the third-person narration is heavy in tech talk:
“[Alex] said, ‘We’re protecting a high-ranking UN bureau official out of system.’
Bart asked, ‘Are there specific threats?’
‘Some. We’ll be able to cover those during transport. We’re traveling together.’
Elke asked, ‘What restrictions do we have on weapons and gear, and rules of engagement?”
He understood she was asking if she could have explosives. ‘Unknown yet, but I do know the usual security contingent are armed.’
‘Then why us?’ Bart asked.
‘The threat level is perceived as higher than typical.’
‘So the free market is better at protecting the government than it is at protecting itself.’
‘We’re going to Mtali for the Environmental Summit and some other meetings.’
Bart raised his eyebrows. Yes, if they were up to date on newsloads, that pretty well gave away who the principal was.
‘Perhaps I will like this person,’ Elke said. ‘I respect ruthlessness.’” (p. 11)
“Their quarters were quite comfortable for the field. They had billets on par with officers or other high-end contractors: hard buildings, private rooms where enlisted personnel would have three to five, basic bunks and lockable closets. The problem, of course, was the weapons, which in theory were supposed to be secured whenever they were not on escort, which would mean a lot of back and forth to the armory. In practice, they usually left someone in the billet to watch things, armed. He also knew Aramis concealed a small pistol when out. He was sure Jason did, too, though he’d never seen it. He made do with a knife.” (p. 63)
For interstellar political reasons, the Environmental Summit is on a planet with a lot of factional religious groups fighting each other; so Alex and his teammates do not know whether they are protecting Highland from “incidental” Mtali religious violence, a specific assassination attempt against her by the partisans, an attempt by one of her political enemies back on Earth, or if they are there to guard her as just a publicity stunt. What they quickly find out is that, unlike their previous assignments where they were working with the full cooperation of their principals, Highland seems determined to make their job as hard as possible. Anti-terrorist security depends largely on secrecy and keeping as low a profile as possible. Highland wants maximum publicity for her political career and appearances, and even publicizes the names and portraits of her security team without their knowledge. The Ripple Creek team soon come to despise their current principal, who is clearly prepared to sacrifice some or all of them for her publicity’s sake.
Alex and the others are determined to not let this affect their professionalism. Besides their own self-honor, Ripple Creek’s reputation is at stake. But as the attacks against them increase, three patterns emerge. There are genuine non-deadly factional protests against Highland as a symbol of the U.N., assassination attempts against Highland presumably by her political rivals, and attacks designed to discredit the Ripple Creek Security team by causing civilian casualties that can be blamed on them. Alex and his teammates must become detectives to outwit and expose their adversaries, while protecting Highland despite her attempts to exploit them for political gain. The lengthy climax provides surprises and lots of military violence.
According to the “About the Author”, Williamson is an ex- military veteran of the U.S. Army and Air Force with considerable Middle Eastern experience, and a current weapons tester and reviewer for several firearms manufacturers. His professional expertise shows in this well-written military s-f series.
Harry Turtledove is “The Master of Alternative History”, proclaims the cover of this book. The title page says: The War That Came Early: Coup d’Etat.
The list of “Books By Harry Turtledove” includes four other multivolume alternate history series, although three of these are arguably one ten-volume novel about a successful Confederate States of America that won the Civil War, and how this would affect world history for the next seventy-five years. (Turtledove has also written many non-alternate history fantasies.)
The premise of “The War That Came Early” is that World War II started in September 1938 following the failure of the Munich Conference. (Actually, Turtledove’s alternate history starts in 1936, when General José Sanjurjo returned to Spain to lead the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. In real history, Sanjurjo was killed when his airplane crashed, and General Francisco Franco ended up leading the Nationalists.) In Turtledove’s alternate history, the start of World War II in September 1938 leads to Germany and Italy withdrawing their military aid to the Nationalists to fight in the bigger war, with the result that the Spanish Civil War is still going on in 1941.
Coup d’Etat is the fourth volume of The War That Came Early. The publisher lists it as the fourth novel in a series, but I say that it is the fourth volume of a single novel, because none of the volumes have any resolution. They describe World War II during 1938, 1939, 1940, and 1941, with no end in sight. Turtledove postulates that none of the combatants were as ready for war in September 1938 as they were in September 1939, with the result that the fighting is more hesitant and drawn-out than it was in reality.
Turtledove tells the story in his usual style, through multiple “common man” viewpoints throughout the conflict. Everyone is battered by 1941. There are U.S. Marine Pete McGill, on one of the last U.S. ships to leave Manila for Hawaii to begin the reconquest of the Pacific (in the previous volumes, Japan has attacked the USSR and invaded the Pacific early); Peggy Druce in Philadelphia, who was vacationing in Czechoslovakia in 1938 when Hitler invaded, took two years to get back to America, and since then has been campaigning against isolationism and for preparedness; Sarah Goldman, a young Jewess living with her family in Germany under the not-quite-deadly Nazi regime; Theo Hossbach, a Wehrmacht non-com serving in a Panzer II tank crew in the USSR; Alistair Walsh, a British army veteran who has resigned from the military in disgust following the death of Winston Churchill and the new British government’s alliance with Hitler against Stalin; Hans-Ulrich Rudel, a Luftwaffe pilot flying against the Red Air Force; Ivan Kuchkov, Rudel’s counterpart in the Red Air Force who has just been shot down and is drafted into the Red Army; Vlacav Jezek, a Czech soldier who escaped after the fall of Czechoslovakia and is now fighting in Spain for the Republicans against the Nationalists; Luc Harcourt, a French non-com fighting in Russia as an ally of Germany; and several others in the German, Soviet, Japanese, and Spanish Republican military. All are low-ranking personnel or civilians, weary after three years of fighting, who fatalistically follow the new orders of their political and military leaders.
Since the title of this book is Coup d’Etat, and the previous volume established how unpopular the British government’s alliance with Hitler was, it is not much of a spoiler to reveal that the coup d’etat is in England and that the new government returns to fighting against Germany in alliance with the USSR. Aside from that, there are no surprises here. Germany and the USSR are still in a military stalemate; Spain is still divided between the warring Republicans and Nationalists; America is now at war with Imperial Japan in the Pacific but is still neutral towards Germany; and the Japanese viewpoint is that of another non-com, Hideki Fujita, who gets transferred from Manchukuo to Burma but never sees a larger picture of Japan’s goals. Like volumes two and three, Coup d’Etat begins in the midst of the story with no synopsis, and breaks off abruptly rather than coming to an end.
Coup d’Etat is fascinating for its plausible guesswork as to what starting World War II a year early would have meant in global political history. By focusing on “the little man”, Turtledove makes the point that no matter how the leaders may plan, it all comes to unavoidable warfare and misery for the masses. Readers who are interested in The War That Came Early are warned to start this series from the beginning: Hitler’s War, West and East, and The Big Switch before reading Coup d’Etat. This latest volume makes no sense by itself, and is obviously not the final volume in the saga.
“#9 in the national best selling RCN space adventure series.
Captain Daniel Leary with his friend–and spy–Officer Adele Mundy are sent to a quiet sector to carry out an easy task: helping the local admiral put down a coup before it takes place. But then the jealous admiral gets rid of them by sending them off on a wild goose chase to a sector where commerce is king and business is carried out by extortion and gunfights.
With anarchy and rebellion in the air, a rogue intelligence officer plots the war that will destroy civilization and enlists the help of a brute whom even torturers couldn’t stomach.
And, of course, it’s up to Leary and Mundy to put a stop to the madness.” (publisher’s synopsis)
Each of David Drake’s Republic of Cinnabar Navy interstellar adventures begins with an Author’s Note explaining where he got his idea. This novel is a space opera expansion of a brief mention in Livy’s history of Rome from its beginning to the death of Augustus in 14 A.D., about the chaos in Northern Italy following the end of the Second Punic War in 201 B.C. “Northern Italy at the end of the third century BC was a patchwork of Roman colonies and allies, Celtic tribes recently conquered by Rome, and independent tribes, mostly Celtic. A man calling himself Hamilcar and claiming to be a Carthaginian raised a rebellion against Rome. In the course of it he sacked cities and destroyed a Roman army sent against him. Nobody was really sure where Hamilcar came from. […] The point that particularly interested me was that the Roman Senate reacted by sending an embassy to Carthage, demanding that the Carthaginians withdraw their citizen under the terms of the peace treaty. […] Livy’s account got me thinking about the problems that the envoys would have had. […]” (pgs. ix-x).
The Road of Danger is a direct sequel to Drake’s What Distant Deeps. In it, the Republic of Cinnabar (Rome) and the Alliance of Free Stars (Carthage) have finally declared a truce to their long-running war; or more exactly, both sides are exhausted. But unlike the historic Rome and Carthage, Cinnabar and the Alliance are still equal in power. “Neither superpower could resume the conflict without collapse: forty years of nearly constant warfare had strained both societies to the breaking point.” (p. 1) Captain Daniel Leary and his subordinate, Communications Officer Adele Mundy, of the sometimes-RCN Princess Cecile (a space yacht that Leary has heavily armed) and their loyal crew, are sent to deliver an important message to a Cinnabar admiral in a backwater space region on the Cinnabar-Alliance border, and then place themselves under his orders. The admiral, jealous of Leary’s past successes, sends him on what is meant to be a potentially-fatal wild-goose mission. The Macotta Region of the galaxy is a hodgepodge of Cinnabar and Alliance planets, independent planets loosely allied to one or the other superpowers, and truly independent planets (that the superpowers do not consider worth annexing). The Funnel Cluster in the Macotta Region is mostly Alliance-controlled. When a revolt breaks out on Sunbright in the Funnel Cluster, it would normally be considered an Alliance internal affair, except that the Alliance charges that the rebel leader claims to be a Cinnabar citizen with backing from the Cinnabar government. The Alliance has formally protested and demanded that Cinnabar stop the four-year-old rebellion. The Cinnabar admiral commanding the Macotta Region sends Leary in the Princess Cecile, without any backup, to “solve” the problem. Leary recognizes that if it is genuine, it could force the Alliance for its interstellar prestige into resuming the war against Cinnabar that neither wants.
This is the background for another space opera adventure of interstellar derring-do and political intrigue. Instead of going to Sunbright openly as a Cinnabar government representative, Leary and his crew disguise the “Sissie” as a neutral Kostroman space yacht owned by a Kostroman noblewoman (Mundy in disguise), rich but of dubious morality, touring the stars; while Leary, also in disguise, joins the crew of an Alliance civilian blockade runner chartered to deliver a cargo of weapons to the Sunbright rebels. Leary and Mundy discover separately that Everybody Is No Damn Good: both sides of the “rebellion” are corrupt local politicians and merchants hoping to line their own pockets, or petty warlords building their own personal armies, or perverts out to destabilize society so they can practice their own perversion without any local government to stop them. The only honest party in the whole affair is the Sunbright rebel leader, a naïve young idealist who has gotten disgusted after realizing that the “oppressed peasants” are as brutal as their oppressors, and who has become a helpless figurehead of his corrupt subordinates. He is more than ready to return to Cinnabar with Leary, if the latter can figure out how to get them out of the hellhole and end the “rebellion” in a manner that will defuse the Cinnnabar-Alliance tensions. There is lots of bluffing, macho face-offs, outright murders and assassinations, deals and betrayals, and space naval action when Leary and the Princess Cecile confront a more powerful gunboat of one of their enemies.
The main complaint is endemic to this series: Drake does not convincingly dress up the various primitive tribes of pre-civilized Europe, or the Scandinavian viking societies, into futuristic interstellar nations. It is hard to swallow that a space-traveling multiplanet government would be controlled by so many independent trigger-happy local despots and ungovernable guerrilla warlords. But the action is non-stop, and Leary and Mundy and their crew are charismatic underdogs who always satisfyingly confound (or kill) their adversaries. The Road of Danger is #9 in a series that will probably go on for some time to come.