Tuesday, September 5, 2017

March Upcountry, by David Weber and John Ringo

Today I'm looking at the first book in a series co-written by David Weber and John Ringo. If you've spent any time at all looking at my blog, you're probably aware that I've spent a lot of time reading Weber's books. Specifically anything related to the Bolo franchise he's written, and a significant number of the Honor Harrington books. I have a little bit of experience with John Ringo as well, since he wrote Road to Damascus, one of the Bolo books which I had mixed feelings about. But since I could get this book for free from the library, I figured it was worth at least the time to check it out and see if it was any good.

March Upcountry is the first in the Empire of Man series, which I presume follows the adventures of Prince Roger MacClintock. Roger is third in line to the throne and will eventually be replaced in the line of succession by the children of his older siblings, so he's always been superfluous to requirements for the royal family. As a result, Roger has grown up to be a spoiled dandy, more obsessed with his good looks and clothing than anything particularly useful. Much to Roger's dismay his mother sends him on a diplomatic mission to a backwater planet of the empire, mostly to get him out from underfoot. But an assassination attempt on Roger's ship results in Roger and a company of his bodyguards being stranded on an even more remote planet, Marduk.

Marduk is only barely part of the Empire, most of the planet being covered by dense jungles filled with populations of hostile indigenous aliens. To make matters worse, the Saints, environmental extremists and enemies of the Empire, have sent a fleet into the system, which means Roger and Bravo Company of the Bronze Battalion have to land secretly on the surface of Marduk, and somehow manage to trek overland to the tiny space port to call for rescue.

This book is mostly about the challenges Bravo Company faces trying to survive on Marduk and make its way halfway across the planet to get to the spaceport, and Roger's growth from a spoiled dandy into a responsible and capable military officer. Both plots are pretty interesting and handled competently, so I have nothing to complain about there. Having read a ton of military sci-fi including the always diverse Warhammer 40k universe, I'm pretty familiar with both of these plots but I at least enjoyed them. I do kind of wish, considering how darn long this particular book was, that they had gotten Roger and Bravo Company off of Marduk at the end of the book, rather than leaving them only partway to their first goal. I'm just not sure how much more different the second book can be since they'll still be making their way through the jungle, trying to get to the spaceport.

There are some signs that this is definitely Weber and Ringo's work, if only because the native fauna on Marduk has six limbs each. (Dave seems to really like giving creatures six limbs.) And the space combat felt almost like I was listening to an Honor Harrington book. Since I was actually reading an Honor Harrington book at the same time it got more than a little confusing for me because I had to remember which book I was reading!

Plus there's also the Saints who I'm sure will become more important in later books in the series but had at best a cameo in this book. The Saints are extremely militant environmentalists who are pretty much a combination of the worst parts of the People's Republic of Haven in Honor Harrington, and the bad guys in Ringo's Road to Damascus. Apparently they have chaplains whose goal is to minimize harm to the environment and override a spaceship captain's decision if it would cause too much harm. Also the Saints apparently have worlds they've actively been de-terraforming and basically run them as slave labor camps where starving political prisoners attack dandelions with wooden tools. I just feel that they're almost too cartoonishly villainous to be taken seriously, especially considering Ringo's pronounced conservative streak and Weber's strong pro-military and vaguely libertarian streak as well.

On the flip side, the protagonists definitely influence the development of several indigenous cultures on Marduk and give them access to pieces of advanced technology. The characters also mention bringing sociological adjustment teams and more advanced technology to Marduk to help integrate the native population into the empire. This is seen as a good thing but I'm not entirely sure that it is. On the one hand, there are definite benefits to bringing advanced technologies, especially medicine, to areas without as great a technological base to improve the local quality of life. On the other hand, this has a very strong imperialist ring to it and I'm not sure I like the reasons why the main characters are interested in helping the inhabitants of Marduk. It does leave me with a feeling of ambivalence regarding the book's politics.

Overall, the book is okay but there are some warning signs that it might go into some very unpleasant territory later on with crazy environmentalists. Out of the many other military sci-fi books I've read, this one was at least enjoyable. If you like this sort of crazy pulp, maybe you'll like this as well.

- Kalpar

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