Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Complete Hammer's Slammers: Volume One, by David Drake

I'm going to be completely honest, and I'm sure my readers will not be at all surprised, that I decided to get this book at the used bookstore based entirely on the cover. I mean, come on, big tank on the front, how was I supposed to resist something like that? You guys know me by now. Based on the cover and the blurb on the back, (as well as it being a Baen Books title) I expected Hammer's Slammers to be some gritty, two-fisted, pulp sci-fi action. While Drake certainly incorporates elements like that into his book, and the stories benefit from his military experiences in Vietnam, the overall result is a little discouraging to say the least. I am a little worried that I'm being a little unfair to Hammer's Slammers and judging it simply because it isn't the Bolo series, something I love very much with a deep and illogical passion. I will try to be as just as possible to this book and resort from simply whining that it doesn't have Bolos.

Structure-wise, this book is a collection of short stories written about Colonel Alois Hammer and his armored mercenary regiment. In Drake's universe civil war and conflict is a regular occurrence, generating a market for companies of highly trained and well-equipped mercenaries. Hammer's Slammers, with their core of 170 tonne battle tanks are the absolute cream of the mercenary crop, and while a government can only afford to hire them for a few months, those months could determine the fate of an entire planet. As a result Colonel Hammer and his men are in great demand and are constantly shifting from one battlefield to another and so a collection of short stories works as a means to tell many different stories across many different battlefields.

The problem that I noticed, at least in the first half of the book, is that the stories felt disjointed and disorganized. I'd finally start understanding what the heck was going on in a story before it'd end abruptly and we'd get shifted to another story. It may have just been that these were chronologically the first stories Drake wrote and so he was still developing his style and technique as a writer, but it made it very hard for me to get into the series. Weirdly enough about halfway through the book I started enjoying the stories more but I noticed the Slammers were often side characters rather than the main focus. I may have to just read the second volume at this point to get a better feel on the series, but I'm definitely left confused more than anything else.

I did have a couple of quibbles technologically, although the merits of debating technology in a sci-fi work where fusion generators are common place and interstellar travel is a routine occurrence may or may not be moot. Specifically the tanks of Hammer's regiment, and really most vehicles as a matter of fact, are all hovercraft that utilize large fans to create a cushion of air that supports the vehicles. Personally, as a fan of vehicles that stay firmly on the ground, this seemed rather impractical as a means of transportation, especially when the characters in the books mention the countless maintenance issues that these hover tanks require just to keep moving. Granted, vehicles with treads or wheels have their own drawbacks, but it feels like less of a headache.

The other big thing that bugged me technologically was the weapons technology. Drake actually includes little essays on various things in his universe like religion, politics, and technology. Pretty much anyone who can get their hands on them uses powerguns, which have zero recoil, are fairly simple to use, and small-arms versions will cut through anything unarmored and most lightly armored targets. The problem I have with powerguns is they're ridiculously complicated devices and the drawbacks seem to outweigh any benefit you'd get from using them. Basically, powerguns run so hot that they include tanks of liquid nitrogen to cool the weapon between rounds to keep the iridium from melting. And even then you can't holster a pistol powergun right away because the barrel still might catch your clothes on fire. Plus, the poweguns use plastic casings on their ammunition so if a gun jams the casing will melt all over the action of the piece, meaning you have to spend time carving the melted plastic away from the action to get the gun working again. (This happens a couple of times in the books, most characters just pick up another weapon.) And, on top of that, the weapons utilize a magnetic technobabble field to release a ton of energy at the enemy, which is awesome, but a slight irregularity in the manufacturing process means the weapon could blow up in your face instead. So powerguns basically can only be made on the most technologically advanced planets and cost an arm and a leg to produce. Yet all the mercenaries use them, and plenty of other people as well. I almost feel like this is an example of Drake over-explaining his awesome new technology which just raises questions about its impracticality. Personally, if he had just left it at "pew-pew, lasers!" I'd have been satisfied. As you can see by the length of this paragraph, the powerguns are probably the single biggest problem I had with this series.

I also noticed a certain amount of amorality with a few of the characters; people who were willing to get the job done, no matter the cost. Of course, that's what you'd expect from a band of mercenaries. They're not really interested in right or wrong or politics, they're just fighting for a paycheck. (And hopefully stay alive long enough to cash said paycheck) This might honestly just be a case of this series not being for me because I take issue with how casually some of the Slammers will kill civilians and prisoners or ignore collateral damage. And that's kind of the point of the Slammers. They're focused on getting the job done, as efficiently and ruthlessly as possible. I'm more a sucker for heroics and noble ideals, so the tone of this series just might not be for me. But this doesn't mean that other people won't enjoy it.

I will say that the stories seemed to be getting better as the book went on and I may have to check out volume two and see if I can get a better feel for the series. I do, however have some pretty serious personal reservations about the series as a whole. However, obviously this series is pretty popular among quite a lot of people so you may find it interesting yourself.

- Kalpar

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