I was reading this on my laptop while riding the bus to work. A guy sat down next to me, looked at my screen and said, “That’s not sci-fi. That’s Vietnam.” Indeed, indeed. There are a number of interviews with Drake on the web, all of them touch on Vietnam, and all of them are interesting reading. I don’t know what went down during his Vietnam years, but according to him, it’s still right there with him 40 years later. None of this is meant as criticism. In fact, Drake is one of those authors (see James Ellroy) at his best when treading the edge of madness. There is a big difference in books before and after Redliners, but more on that later.
Despite my fellow commuter’s comments, Redliners is not directly Vietnam. The army people are dropped into an unknown jungle where everything is trying to kill them, yes, but that is about where the similarity ends. It’s more about the aftermath of Vietnam, or any war, and what to do with all of these people that scrambled themselves psychologically in the name of freedom or democracy or The Fatherland or whatever. In this case, the soldiers work through their demons by battling real-life demons; Drake and his fellow vets faced their demons in the US, where people were angry at the military, angry at the government, angry at the returning soldiers, but everyone had to stay civil and not actually blow up buildings. I’m not sure which is more difficult.
On to the story. The plot is fairly straightforward. A bunch of soldiers on the brink are assigned to guard a new colony. Things don’t go as expected, violence ensues, a lot of things blow up. Drake is a complicated literary guy, and I say that without sarcasm, so this had to be an intentional decision. Some of his other novels are dense retellings of classical literature or complicated alternate history, but Redliners feels more like a story that a grunt would tell. Their officers don’t let them in on the big picture, so why should they tell us? So things move in a fairly straight line from beginning to end, as the nearly crazed soldiers try to protect a gaggle of civilians from The Forest Jungle Planet of Death. Whether or not they succeed is never really the issue. Rather, how the civilians and military interact, how they adapt to the hostile environment and each other, and whether or not any redemption is to be had for people like these are the questions that Drake chooses to address. That he does it with a lot of explosions and violence is part of the fun. Drake gives his own perspective on why and how the book was written here.
Promised broader repercussions: by his own admission, something in Drake unclenched itself when he finished this book. Whatever turmoil it was that provided his muse may have resolved itself somewhat. I don’t doubt that his ghosts still trouble him, but it sounds like they may not be as immediate as they were before. As for Drake’s writing, I won’t say that it is weaker now, but something is missing from his newer books. Some of it is no doubt a conscious decision to focus more on a couple of long running and happier series, but the newer stuff I’ve read lacks that whiff of danger. Reading Drake has always been a brush with demons and madness; not just on the battlefield, but all of the emotional carnage that goes with it. The demons are further away now. This is probably good for some people, but I kind of miss it.
To sum up, Redliners is an important book. I’m not a vet, will never touch the military or violence as a willing participant, and have no real idea what this kind of life is about. However, Redliners matters to Drake, apparently it matters to other vets, and is a relatively transparent window into a warrior’s soul. It’s a good read to be sure, and a seminal bit of military sci-fi, but it also puts the author’s soul on stage. Reading Redliners is having a front row seat to watch Drake battle for, and presumably win, his soul.
Rating: A Boca Juniors – River Plate match in Buenos Aires. Wild times to be sure, and something is almost guaranteed to end up on fire, but best enjoyed from a safe distance.