Earth Strike: Star Carrier: Book One
by Ian Douglas
Cover Artist: Gregory Bridges
Review by Ernest Lilley
Eos Mass Market Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780061840258
Date: 01 March 2010 List Price $7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Star Carrier Book One: EarthStrike fuses elements of a number of SF traditions (space opera, mil-SF, post-apocalypse, singularity/post-humanism and of course, new-kids-on-the-galactic-block) with a number of tried and true SF technologies (artificial singularities, localized space warp FTL, zero-point energy, AI, nanotech, and autonomous personal avatars) and mixes in a real appreciation of how naval carrier operations (translate to deep space) are actually done to create one of the best pieces of mil-SF I've seen, complete with some serious character development in the mix. Not only does the author blend this complex list of ingredients together into a coherent narrative, but he adds some new tricks to the genre, or at least makes some favorite tropes plausible, like how fighters can follow curved paths in space.
I won't be surprised to find that Ian Douglas can cook as well.
Eta Bootis IV, 37 light-years from Earth, is a planet described as a "wet-Venus" with nearly 2g gravity. For reasons that nobody in the Earth fleet can understand, it's been colonized by human Muslims who refused to sign on to the tolerance rewritten version of the Koran offered up at the end of the cycle of Islamic wars on Earth. Be that as it may, we'd sent Marine troops to defend it against the alien Turush, who'd decided to evict the tenants. That hadn't gone too well, evidently, and the book opens with the UNSA Star Carrier America and its battle group popping and out from FTL space 70 AU out from the planet, and here to evacuate the Marines, as well as our first alien prisoners of war, a major intel coup. Oh, and as many civilians as we can manage.
What follows is as fine a slugfest as any in mil-SF since "Doc" Smith put super-dreadnaughts of space toe-to-toe in the Lensman days. The only action we don't see much of here is ground fighting, which the author is more than capable of writing, but this is all about space-war, and specifically about strike fighters.
Douglas' comment at the outset that "In strike fighter combat, speed is everything," is a core truism in fighter ops, and here he's talking about near relativistic speeds, which is exactly what you need to put the feel of Top-Gun into a space battle. To get the thousands of gravities of acceleration needed to make space combat using real distances anything but tedious, Douglas drives his fighters with artificial singularities, mini-black holes, created by tapping zero-point energy for power. He throws in a clever touch as well by allowing his fighters to bank around the singularities to perform high velocity turns and incidentally to keep from mashing the pilots into goo. Singularity drives don't get a lot of play in SF, the only one I can recall offhand being in James Hogan's Gentle Giants of Ganymede but then in really big ships. Using high mass attractors to generate localized gravity fields was a trick brilliantly displayed by another of my favorite authors, Robert Forward, in his story about a visit to a neutron star (Dragon's Egg and Starquake).
One of the things I like about the authors use of tech is what he doesn't give himself to play with, notably magical artificial gravity. The America has counter-rotating habitat modules, including flight decks, which lets them launch fighters by opening the door and letting them fall out. Or if they're in a hurry they can go for the classic magnetic accelerator launch tube, which puts the Top-Gun back in space combat so nicely.
I said at the outset that there's actual character development, and really, there is. The action follows three primary characters, or more realistically one with two others getting a fair bit of air time.
Lieutenant Trevor Gray is our main personal interest character throughout the book, though the story shifts between numerous loci and characters. The story isn't so much about him as his story is folded into it. Gray comes from the rough side of the tracks, actually he's from a feral squatter community in what's left of drowned Manhattan, independents that didn't want anything to do with the "technic" civilization that pulled itself together after a century or so of climate change, Islamic war, and a minor asteroid impact. Gray's happy with his life in the ruins, at least until his wife has a stroke and needs the sort of medical attention that requires civilization to back it up. So he goes to the Confederation and pleads for help. Seeing in the squatter the rare aptitude for 3 dimensional thinking that marks good pilots, they offer her treatment if he joins their Navy. That's not quite the way he remembers it though, and when we meet him he's deeply bitter at having been dragooned into the service, not to mention that the therapy cured his wife, but also cured her attachment to him. Fixing her brain made her a different person, and one who didn't care for Gray.
So, our boy has some serious issues to sort out, and between the pot shots that the enemy and his comrades take at him, he's one angry loner looking for a place to explode, or so the psychs decide, taking him off flight status after the battle at Eta Bootis.
This gives the author a chance to explore the workings of Gray's mind and the clash of cultures, as well as to hold back one conflicted pilot from the coming attack on the Solar System promised in the title.
The other two we see a lot of but who don't get much development are Rear Admiral Alexander Koenig and Commander Marissa Allyn, Flight Leader of Gray's group. They're both good characters, but though they come out of the story rather worse for wear, they don't go through the transformational stuff that Gray does.
What keeps Ian Douglas' writing from jumping over the literary hurdle is his lack of social or political angst. Prior military himself (Navy corpsman) he just doesn't channel the kind of anti-Hobbes rhetoric that he'd need to be taken seriously. To him, galactic nature is "red in tooth and claw" or other alien appendage, and when it's kill or be killed...send flowers. Feminists might consider Douglas' perspective on the integration of women into the military as an example of side-stepping the issue by making them masculine, but the reality is that if war fighting has a gender, that's undoubtedly the one it hews to. Professionalism requires the folks on the pointy end of the spear to be aggressive, play down their doubts and fears, and regard human life as a consumable asset. Of course, alien life doesn't count at all. Perhaps it could be otherwise, and I'd be interested in reading solid mil-SF where it is, but can't think of any offhand.
Granted, the entire trope is predicated on aliens who want to wipe us out, or at least subjugate us, which is a pretty artificial setup, even if it does channel most of human history.
Speaking of the aliens, the motivation of the alien overlord race, kept offstage, turns out to be that we're on the brink of the singularity, where we leave our human qualities behind, and become something else. We manage to get some insight from the pair of aliens we brought back from the battle at Eta Bootis, who share what's no doubt hard won intel of their own:
"Technic species evolve into higher forms. When they pass beyond, the leave behind...death."
Which we're left to ponder over the next few books.