Saturday, November 13, 2010

Book Reviews: Semper Mars, Luna Marine, Europa Strike

For a few years now some space entrepreneur friends have been trying to get me to read the Heritage Trilogy by Ian Douglas, as they see the story as their in-house vision of what they'd like the future to be. Semper Mars, Luna Marine, and Europa Strike are adventure stories that show gradually escalating and challenging U.S. Marine combat scenarios on other worlds, paralleling with equally challenging space-alien archaeology puzzles.

What I liked about these books is that they took the unique environments of Mars, the Moon, and the Jupiter satellite Europa seriously--from the thin air and unique soil chemistry of Mars to the low gravity of Luna to the high radiation and (presumed) glacial environment of Europa. While I'm not a rocket scientist or astronomer by any wild stretch, I appreciated that the author at least takes some time to do some calculations and put actual numbers into his work. This is particularly evident when he describes the trajectories of spacecraft or capabilities of various space-based weapons. The details aren't intrusive, however, and don't slow down the story.

I do not know if the author was ever in combat (neither was I), but the battle sequences move along convincingly and briskly without some of the technobabble that can slow down Tom Clancy novels. While not a Marine, his HarperCollins bio notes that he's a former Navy corpsman with obvious respect for the breed.

These being action/combat-oriented vehicles, the Heritage trilogy stories don't expend a great deal of page space on characterization; but they throw in enough that you find yourself caring about the main characters' fates. Douglas also takes time to show the "bad guys" (often U.N. or other U.S. political adversaries projected 50 years into the future), though puts his thumb on the scale enough to let you know who the good guys are. And I must say that compared to the last space combat story I read (The Machinery of Light), Douglas's books were infinitely more readable and his lead characters more likeable.

One thing I should point out about this trilogy is that it was written in the late '90s/early '00, when we didn't have the same high-definition images of the Cydonia "Face on Mars" mesa that we do today. This becomes important to the reading, as that Face turns out to be an actual artifact with serious implications for human history (and, presumably, our future as there is another trilogy after this one set in the same universe). If you can get past that bit of "alien astronauts" mythology, the rest of the xenoarchaeology picture is put together pretty convincingly. Douglas mixes ancient astronaut theories with mythology to put together an intriguing "what if" alternate past of Homo sapiens.

The places where Douglas's trilogy stumbles most often is back on Earth. Somewhere around chapter three of all three books there's a gratuitous and wince-inducing sex scene, none of which are rendered well. Fortunately those scenes appear once, and are soon replaced with good old fashioned war stories.

I believe the reasons my space entrepreneur buddies like these stories is because they depict a multi-layer technological world, where everything from personal electronics to commercial aircraft (air-breathing hypersonic craft, more to the point) to spacecraft and weapons all show parallel development. Marine weaponry ranges from lasers to hypervelocity kinetic weapons. Personal electronics move from stuff slightly ahead of what we have today up to artificial intelligence programs. Spacecraft advance from fission to fusion to anti-matter-powered continuous-thrust vehicles. And while I'm not sure I buy the realism of most of it, political alignments shift over the course of the three books as the Marines win battles and archaeologists learn more secrets and technologies from long-ago visitors to our solar system.

One last aspect of these books that cannot be overlooked is their reverence for the U.S. Marine Corps. If the reader has any doubts on that score, the characters will set them straight every few pages on the courage, dedication, and fabled tough history of the Corps. Douglas seasons the books with several battles or anecdotes from USMC history to help the reader see connections between all this space stuff and the Marines of today. The message from the author is clear: The Marines are a good, important thing to have now, and they will be in the future! I won't argue the point, as I happen to agree with the author. However much like John Scalzi on Atlas Shrugged, the Heritage Trilogy is a pulpy, fun read, but not very good as a foundational document for a philosophy of life.

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