Monday, February 02, 2009

Ex Libris

Spoiler Warning: Lurch, don't read this. I promise I'll reread, and I want you to approach the book unbiased.

Oh. My. Lord.

I just finished The Last Centurion by John Ringo. It's an excellent near-future novel (military sci-fi? Maybe, thos the Sci os just barely fi. More on that in a moment) set about 120 years from now. In the novel, a new Ice Age and a flu epidemic have rocked the world. The protagonist hero of the book is Bandit Six, a U.S. Army captain left with his unit in the Middle East when the Eflluent hits the Aerator. The book is written as his blog memoirs of all that transpire.

The book is part Michael Crichton, part Tom Clancy, and I found it all gripping. I lost a lot of sleep reading it, since the only time I've had to read it was late at night. Whether it was the explanatory chapters or the action, it all had me engrossed, and was written in a believable, approachable, no-nonsense (Bandit Six would probably say no BS) tone. Mr. Ringo is an Army vet, so I trusted his representation of members of our military, and although it was fiction, it gave me deeper respect for our troops and all they do.

The book isn't for everyone -- particularly not for those of a particular political or philosophical bent, and especially not for those of that persuasion who don't like their assumptions about What Is So being challenged. It is politically and philosophically unambiguous, and the parallels to current events and politics is intentionally obvious. A couple of political figures in the book are brazenly patterned after real life politicians. The names are changed, but you'll recognize theem right away -- I'm sure this is "a feature, not a bug".

But if you're open to looking at things from a different angle, or if you happen to agree with Mr. Ringo which I admit to, (although I also admit I'm not quite as stark in my holding of those opinions as he is), it's a good read, andit might just make you think. It might also scare you, sicken you, sadden you, but also move you, inspire you, and challenge you, all in turn.

I only had two minor quibbles with the book.

The first has to do with the "crichtonesque" parts of the book, particularly those addressing the climatic shift and flu epidemic that are the backdrop, as well as the agricultural ramifications. At certain points, the data and processes that are explained seem to be taken from currently available, real-life data. At others, it is obviously future-occurring fiction, albeit extrapolated fro mreal life hypotheses. The problem I have is that the way Bandit Six (and thus Ringo) presents the information makes it difficult to distinguish the two. To a certain extent this is good storytelling, but I fear both what I call the "Left Behind" effect -- readers who take the extrapolation as being reality -- and a "guilty by association" reaction by those who disagree with Ringo, who will reject the current data as being just as speculative as the future fiction data. As an aside, I think the extrapolation is not only possible, but plausible. However, as the dustcover iteslf says, this is just one POSSIBLE future. Since I already saw some similarities between Ringos and Crichtons works, perhaps Mr. Ringo could have taken a cue from Crichton and used footnotes for the real life data.

The second nit is even more minor, but it leads me to some reflections on the nature of "near-future fiction" and sci-fi in general. Let me explain the reflections first, and then the minor nit with Mr. Ringo's work:

There was a time when science fiction was, if you will, the prophet of technology. From Jules Verne's Nautilus to the Star Trek Communicators that became today's cell phones, what one generation's sci fi authors would dream up, another generation's scientists and technicians would make reality. Often it took a couple generations, and by then, science fiction had moved on to bigger and better things. Scinece had to move fast to try to keep up with science fiction. But as technological progress increases in pace, science seems to not only be keeping up, but catching up with science fiction, and may soon pass it. This is especially true of near-future sci fi. Unless you go the Greg Bear route and write about life a thousand years from now, and instead write about things "the day after tomorrow", you run the risk that by the time you go to print, your day after tomorrow will look more like the day before yesterday (I'm reminded of an episode of Viva Variety! in which Johnny Blue Jeans proposes a futuristic action movie set in "The yearrrr Twoooo Thouuuuusand......" -- the show was aired in the late 1990's). The "prophet" may soon be just a historian.

Case in point from The Last Centurion:

At a couple of points in the book, while Bandit Six is describing military engagements involving the Strykers under his command, he notes that the machine gun cupolas of the TC (Track, or vehicle Commander) positions are up-armored and thus safer for the TC's.

This left me wondering why, if it's 2019, the Strykers aren't equipped with CROWS, since at least some vehicles deployed in real life in Iraq since 2004, 15 years earlier than the book, were already deploying them and the systems wre in more common use by 2008.

This is not to disparage Ringo's book or his skill as a writer -- I'm assuming that given that the book was published in 2008, and it may have taken Mr. Ringo a year or so to write the book, and it may not have yet been readily apparent that CROWS systems would be so widely adopted.

Despite those minor irritants, the book was a thouroughly good read. I hope we can look forward to reading more about the world, and exploits, of Bandit Six.