BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: Skyrine (Sky Marine) Michael Venn is dropped on Mars as part of an operation against an alien force. He uncovers a far greater set of mysteries in the process.
PROS: Intriguing if familiar basic premise differentiated by interesting worldbuilding touches; excellent grounding of reader into the action and universe.
CONS: Format of story and pacing dilute story to the point where the ending’s sting loses the emotional impact it should have.
BOTTOM LINE: An interesting world and premise weakened by a sadly and frustratingly flawed execution.
The Gurus, a set of apparently benevolent aliens, come to Earth bearing gifts, but there is a price. There are hostile species out there, aliens who would regard Earth and the Gurus as prey and opposition. In exchange for new technology, Earth needs to step up and provide soldiers to deal with the alien threat, which already exists on Mars. It’s time for Marine Michael Venn to become a Skyrine and do aerial drops on Mars to deal with that alien threat, tangle with the few humans who have tried to colonize Mars (including a love interest) and try to survive.
Based on this premise, you might expect slam-bang action and lots of technobabble — save the girl, save the planet, save the solar system, right? Well, the novel in question is from legendary SF luminary Greg Bear, and what you get instead is something rather different from expectations. What you get is War Dogs.
After spending a long time in the “wilderness” of more mainstream technothrillers, the slightly allohistorical Mongoliad, and Halo tie in novels, Greg Bear — whose SF pedigree stretches all the way back to the blazing Blood Music, Eon, The Forge of God and other books — has moved back into the Science Fiction sphere with novels like Hull Zero Three. War Dogs marks the start of a new sequence of books in a new science fiction universe.
Despite my facile description of the premise, the worldbuilding of the novel is top-notch Greg Bear at his best. Those technothrillers that he has been writing has given him a strongly grounded sense of plausible near-future technology very much unlike the higher technology seen his other novels. As a result, even with alien tech mixed in, the Skyrine experience on Mars comes to vivid and realistic life. This is, if there is such a sub-subgenre, very much hard Military science fiction. No unrealistic laser cannons, FTL drives, ansibles, or stargates, here. Venn’s experience on Mars is rendered in vivid, sharp, realistic detail. The squad and those they encounter come off exceedingly well, with a set of relationships that immerse the reader into an excellent band of brothers. Add in casually tossed-in bits about the aliens and how the Gurus arrival has changed world culture (and the ways its hasn’t), and there is a rich world simmering under the surface of the book. It feels very much like a lived-in universe, one the reader can imagine being part of.
The novel, unfortunately, has a flawed execution in what could have been a rich new world with fascinating characters. The structure of the novel, which is really a series of extended flashbacks set in the present, is a bit clumsily constructed. It’s an awfully slow burn to understand what Venn is doing in the present and why it matters. It’s a mystery to see him go about his post-Mars experience on Earth, but rather than an intriguing mystery, it feels a bit underwritten, and so it just seems to be a series of pallid actions without enough verve to hook the reader. On Mars, the slow and too-quiet burn continues. By the time the big reveal comes out, the subtlety of the novel makes the point of what Venn has to deal with feel a bit underdone. These pacing issues are something I found to be a problem for me in Bear’s Hull Zero Three as well.
War Dogs is simply too spare for its own good; it should be vociferous in its climax, not whispering. It’s a caesura that seems to be trying to get the reader to ponder what has happened, in the hopes of reading subsequent novels in the sequence to resolve the mystery, but it needs more punch to do so. Referring again to the structure of the novel and its flashback sequence format, combined with the pacing, ultimately makes what could have been a complete return to form into something only modestly good. What would be more than above average for a first-time novelist is, for a writer of Bear’s skills, a disappointment.