Monday 23 August 2010

Book review: Veteran


By Gavin Smith

(Gollancz, 17 June 2010)

SF is dying, apparently. Yet it's difficult to agree with this statement when publishers like Gollancz are clearly committed to publishing debut novels from new talent in the genre. Especially when they're as good as Gavin Smith's Veteran. 

The novel is written in first-person, from the perspective of ex-special forces veteran Jakob Douglas. He's seen a lot of terrible things in his time. Done a lot of terrible things as well. And he's spent years fighting Them; the alien threat to humanity. Yet that's in the past now; these days he's his own man, and is only interested in drinking and smoking his life away, ensconced in his shack in what passes for Dundee in this bleak future-Earth.

Except that other people have plans for him. Recalled to service by his former commander - forced might be a better word - Douglas is given the task of tracking down and eliminating an alien infiltrator that has somehow slipped past Earth's defences. Yet what starts out as a relatively straightforward - if highly dangerous - job suddenly turns into something very different. For the infiltrator isn't quite what Douglas expects, and almost without realising it he's suddenly disobeying his orders - bringing down the considerable wrath of his superiors. He becomes a hunted man, on the run with a bunch of assorted misfits that all share the same goal: to reveal a terrible truth that may end the war with Them...or start a new human conflict that may be the final nail in humanity's coffin.

Veteran doesn't read like a debut novel; Smith's prose is accomplished and possesses a very cinematic quality; I could very clearly picture the characters and environments described in his writing. His prose is evocative without being overwhelming, and he strikes a fine balance between description and action - not something that first-time authors always get right in their debut novels. The pacing is also worthy of praise; the story unfolds swiftly, and there's no unnecessary flab; this is a lean novel, with a tight and relentless focus on its story. Exposition is handled very well - again, not something debutants often get right - and flashbacks serve to fill in the gaps in Douglas's background and add some depth to the conflict that provides the backdrop - and mitigating factor - for the story. Despite the bleakness of Smith's vision of a future Earth, and the brutality of the war against Them, Veteran is shot through with a wry, black humour that acts as a counterweight against the fear and anxiety that blights the lives of most of Smith's characters.

Much of that humour stems from Douglas himself, who makes for a strong POV - just as well, since as mentioned above the novel is entirely written from his perspective. He's a person that is easy to sympathise with, since he just wants to be left alone and instead is forced into action against his wishes. He's an intriguing character, since his physical prowess contrasts strongly with his emotional uncertainty. Fighting isn't a problem for him; he's a veteran, he knows how to handle himself. He's at home when he's surrounded by gunfire. Yet as his relationship develops with Morag - the prostitute-turned-hacker that he finds himself protecting - he struggles to understand his own emotions or deal with them effectively, meaning that he often finds himself out of his depth in this regard. It's an interesting contrast that lends his character depth and resonance.

Douglas's allies (and enemies) are also well-defined and developed. Morag in particular has an interesting progression arc; despite her increasing power and authority she remains a vulnerable figure. Her relationship with Douglas is believably handled by Smith, and aids the development and exploration of both characters. Mudge is memorable for his distinct humour, though on occasion it grates (I suspect this might be deliberate, given how Douglas often comments on this very point). Pagan, Gregor and Balor bring their own distinctive characters and complexities to the mix. Similarly, Rolleston makes for a cold, intimidating antagonist, as does the Grey Lady. In all, Smith's grasp of characterisation is impressive; he's created a dynamic bunch of personalities that really drive the story, and interact convincingly with each other.

Smith employs a good method of keeping the story feeling fresh: he ensures the action takes place in a variety of very different locations, from the bleak slums of Dundee to outer space, via a submerged New York and what once passed for the eastern states of the USA. Douglas's band never outstay their welcome in any of these locations, and this rapid transition from place to place assists the pace of the story as well as providing some evocative settings. The submerged New York is particularly striking, as is the roof-top commune that was once Hull. Smith's vision of a future Earth is grim, and life is cheap. Yet mankind - despite the advanced technology that means some humans have more in common with machines than other people - has not yet lost its humanity; that's a very important point that becomes apparent towards the end of the story. Yes, the world is dark - but there's real hope of a better future.

There's some intriguing ideas here too, many centering around the regulation of the global information network and political structure. Perhaps the most poignant question is what sacrifices are worth making for freedom. And is that freedom - from manipulative governments - truly desirable, or will it only promote chaos? Smith uses both his characters and their circumstances to explore these ideas, adding further depth to the story. It's far from just being an action-packed romp, though there's plenty of gunfights too.

Drawbacks are very minor. I felt the novel perhaps started a little too quickly for its own good, and that I'd have liked to have got a little more feel for both Douglas and the setting of Dundee before being launched into the action. Still, on the other hand this is better than being faced with a dull, drawn-out opening. On occasions some conversations between the characters do drag on a little, and perhaps could have been shortened. The ending is also a little abrupt; not a true cliffhanger, but still slightly dissatisfying as it doesn't bring the story to a true close. Presumably the next book will pick up exactly from where this one ends. Finally, I didn't feel the Grey Lady was enough of a threat; she's clearly a terrifying opponent, but her fleeting appearances don't lend her the aura of fear she ought to have.

Verdict: Veteran is an impressive debut, marking Gavin Smith as a talent worth watching in the SF field. It mixes action, intrigue and black humour very well indeed, resulting in an enjoyable read that - like the best SF - manages to be thought-provoking as well. Believable characters, vivid settings, prose that possesses a cinematic-esque quality, and plenty of frantic gunfights: you can't really ask for much more. As for SF supposedly being a dying genre; that's hard to accept when SF debuts of this quality are being published. Highly recommended.


Dan Smyth said...

I'm one that almost agrees with the concept that science fiction is "dying", but I'm also a staunch believer that the authors who do science fiction right will be its saviours.

Too much of science fiction these days (from my experience) has been to tout the awesome idea, to flaunt the perfect concept, consequently minimalizing the need for actual story and characters, when so much of what the market seems to want is character and story. And GOOD character and GOOD story at that. Your review seems to reflect this impression in that you tout the story and the characters for some time, and then add that it had some "intriguing ideas there too". :) It warms my heart to see that there are new authors out there that will write science fiction and give us good story and good characters along with the awesome ideas. They're the ones that are putting the emphasis where it needs to be. It's these kinds of authors, in my mind, that are going to save science fiction, that will keep it from its death. And I applaud them.

Will definitely be adding this book to my reading list. Thanks for the review, James.

James said...

Dan, glad you enjoyed the review.

I fully agree; doesn't matter how good an idea in an SF novel is, if there's no story there, or interesting characters. Veteran, as my review states, is a character-driven story with plenty of exciting action. But there's also some interesting ideas and these are explored without hindering the progression of the story. It's a balancing act, and Smith gets it right as far as I'm concerned.

As for SF being a dying genre, I know that the argument for that is more about sales than a lack of quality. But as long as there's quality new books being released, the genre's got a chance of surviving.