All You Need is Kill

All You Need Is Kill
Hiroshi Sakurazawa

All You Need is Kill, one of the earlier titles released by my favorite publisher Haikasoru, is rather like what might happen if Hammer’s Slammers crashed the set of Groundhog Day. Other reviewers have disagreed on which iconic military SF comes in the first slot, but everyone agrees on the Groundhog Day part. (To be pedantic, Steakley’s Armor is probably the best fit. The Slammers drive tanks rather than one-man suits, but Starship Troopers isn’t nearly bleak or bloody enough.) Further, while Groundhog Day is a no-brainer as a comparison, All You Need is worlds away from the positive, uplifting message that Bill Murray stumbles upon. Instead, the book is heavily informed by video game conventions, as the author explains in an interesting afterword.

The first part of this review will address the usual: plot, execution, characterization, etc. The second will look more at Japan and its place in the book, since that is what interests me at least as much as the story. Anyway, onward and upward. Keiji is a new recruit and we join him in his first ever battle. He and his battle suit are quickly obliterated by the Mimics, a bizarre alien invader. I’m not spoiling anything here, as Keiji lies dying on the ground within a few paragraphs of the opening. Then, suddenly, he is alive again, preparing for his first battle. Then dying yet again. And again, and again. It is clear by about page 15 that something strange is going on; Keiji is trapped in a loop, doomed to fight this battle over and over.

Things proceed from there, as Keiji slowly learns how to survive longer in battle, meets allies and enemies, and finally learns “The Secret” that explains, more or less, what on earth is going on. We see the changes developing in Keiji as the story goes on, watching as he changes from a grumpy noob to a hard-bitten veteran who crushes all comers. Some of these are obvious, as he keeps careful track of survival time and kills through each run, and others are less so. For example, early on he comments liberally on female characters’ breast size. I took this as typical Japanese fan service and wondered why the author would waste sentences on something misogynist and pointless. Later in the book though, he pushes admiring women away, saying he needs every moment to train, even though he will in all likelihood repeat the day anyway and could probably afford to dally one time through. By the end, the women are all but invisible to Keiji, intent as he is on becoming a killing machine that will survive the battle.

As long as everything is kept mysterious, the book rolls merrily along. It falls down a bit when Sakurazawa has to explain why everything works the way it does. Clearly this is a video game, with Keiji the player struggling to learn the rules, the cheats, and the secret combinations that defeat the level boss, but it is also science fiction, so there needs to be a reason why this would happen. (One reason that Groundhog Day works so well is that nobody has to explain why Bill Murray is trapped. He just is, and when he finally gets Andi MacDowell to fall for him, he isn’t.) This explanation, and the way it justified or forced the twist at the end, didn’t work so well for me. It was alright, but didn’t illuminate and enhance what had come before, just kind of explained it.

On to part two. I would really like to read this in Japanese, not just in translation. The reason, besides the original language fetish some of us have, is that All You Need has very little Japan in it. The main character is Japanese and the book takes place somewhere on the Japanese coast, but if one changed a couple of proper nouns, it could be anywhere. This is not to say that I expect everything written in Japan to somehow involve ninja or Mt. Fuji or something, but most things I read/watch from Japan maintain a distinct cultural outlook. The relationships between the characters and the unspoken worldview underlying the stories are just different from US-UK fare. Not so here.

I wonder if the translator somehow whitewashed this when he brought it into English, or if the original is similarly free of Japanese-ness. Certainly the swear words are new, as there just aren’t that many ways to curse in Japanese. Sakurazawa reads like a disgruntled Vietnam vet, airing his frustrations through the voice of an unfortunate grunt. There are deeper questions though. The book is utterly lacking in the anti-war sentiment that underpins so much of Japanese culture. Keiji has no use for war, but it is because he hates Army life, doesn’t want to get killed, thinks his commanders are morons, and other typical reasons. Likewise the senior-junior human relations that define so much of Japanese life are utterly lacking. This may just be a function of the plot, but is interesting nonetheless. For comparison, many of the anime I have watched (Gundam, Macross, etc.) are war stories, but reflect Japan much more than All You Need.

This isn’t a long read, so I have no qualms recommending it to all and sundry. Sakurazawa’s goals are modest, exploring military sci-fi through a video game prism, and he succeeds. He’s not looking to make a grand statement or change the face of literature, so no reader should expect much beyond entertainment. If it was a bit more of an investment, time-wise or emotionally, I might scale back my rating a bit, but for a couple of hours All You Need is Kill is worthy and plenty of fun.

Rating: The Kashima Antlers. Japan’s most decorated professional team, the Antlers (besides having a strange name) are utterly clinical. Not extravagant, artistic, or dramatic, they just win in the most efficient way possible.

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Redliners

Redliners
David Drake

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.

Old Man’s War Series – John Scalzi

Old Man’s War
The Ghost Brigades
The Last Colony
John Scalzi

What better inaugural post for Two Dudes in an Attic than John Scalzi’s subversive military sci-fi trilogy? Since publishing Old Man’s War, Scalzi has rocketed to fame among the SF community, which can’t seem to get enough of his Heinlein-ian prose, snappy repartee and gleeful violence. This trilogy, like a Pat Metheny Group album, is easy on the palate and engages both the core and casual fans. Like Metheny’s pleasant melodies though, the sugar-coated action masks underlying complexity. The reader may anticipate a breezy shoot-‘em-up, but quickly finds upended tropes careening madly through the space battles. Scalzi starts out small, with Old Man’s War content merely to tweak the conventions of mil-SF. He follows with a veiled meditation on identity and consciousness, before opening up a broadside against an entire worldview in The Last Colony.

I’ll start with some general comments first, then move into more spoilerific territory. (If you, gentle reader, haven’t taken in Old Man’s War yet, and there must be a few out there, pick them up and start. It’s quickly becoming a vital part of the contemporary SF landscape.) Scalzi, by his own admission, writes accessible, smooth prose. No doubt it stems from a successful career writing non-fiction, as his books are refreshingly free of bloat. He says what needs to be said, leaves the rest to the imagination, and keeps the story moving. Don’t get me wrong – vast world building and intricate settings are great, but sometimes it’s pleasant to read something that just glides. It is important not to mistake brevity for simplicity, though, as these books offer depth to the reader who wants to look for it. Again, we’re not talking Tolstoy here, but if the reader wants to think, Scalzi will engage. Of course, if the reader is just looking for explosions and battles, Scalzi delivers there as well.

Scalzi’s future can be explained in a few broad strokes. Humanity has expanded to the stars and found intelligent life. The organization responsible for this, the Colonial Defense Force (CDF), has elected to keep Earth in a sheltered and ignorant state. Overcrowded nations provide colonists, while citizens of N. America and Europe see their lives continue more or less unchanged. At the age of 75, people are allowed to enlist in the CDF and head out for parts unknown. What happens after this is a carefully guarded secret; as a result, a bunch of old people with nothing tying them to Earth sign up and leave, never to be heard from again. On to the spoilers.

Much of the fun in Old Man’s War is watching Scalzi pervert the standard mil-SF tropes. No coming of age stories here – all the characters are wrinkly and, er, wise. Well, only wrinkly until they get their new super bodies and become awesome. This is not to say that the characters don’t change and develop: few of them were soldiers of any sort before, so adjusting from retired insurance salesman to superhuman warrior is a narrative all by itself. The hero, John Perry, is hardly the archetypal warrior hero. His big motivation, other than survival, is loving his wife. Not too bloodthirsty there. Nor is he especially stoic, honorable, or valorous. John Perry is a great guy, of course, but he’s not exactly what one might expect in a story of military heroism and killer aliens. Regardless, the narrative arc proceeds more or less as one might expect, but there are hints at the end that greater themes await.

The Ghost Brigades takes the story in a different direction. Were I to speculate, I would guess that Scalzi decided that Perry’s story was pretty much over, but still wanted to explore his universe. Again, fast-paced action abounds, but Scalzi’s philosophy background bubbles up to the surface. I would rank this much lower on the subversion register than the other two books, but the clash remains between gun battles and meditations on identity. There are again hints of imminent chaos, in greater strength and numbers than the first book, but Scalzi again refrains from showing his hand. I wonder how much was planned at this point, or if he looked back and discovered that he’d inadvertently laid the groundwork for a volcano in the third book.

The Last Colony brings back John Perry, this time with family in tow. They have become administrators of a clandestine colony set up by the CDF, in defiance of a broad treaty set up by The Conclave. The Conclave is a loose federation of races that are seeing institutional ways to reduce the constant warfare that uncontrolled expansion has set off. The CDF, in good human fashion, resents any infringement on human sovereignty and is using Perry’s colony as a way to strike a blow against the Conclave.

It is now time to be pedantic. Scalzi doesn’t strike me as a foreign policy wonk, but he must have taken a few international relations classes back in the day. Early in Old Man’s War, one of Perry’s instructors explains the universe as a dog-eat-dog universe, where the strong prey on the weak and humanity must fight and claw for every colony in a finite and shrinking pool of opportunity. Change a few words here and there, and we have a spot-on summary of the international relations worldview called Realism, which has dominated foreign policy thought as long as there has been such thought. Now in The Last Colony, The Conclave appears, trying to build a voluntary institution that creates opportunities for dialog, self-enforced regulation that limits conflict, and chances for cooperation that would eliminate the zero-sum nature of the galactic conflict. Here, in a nutshell, is Liberalism, the eternal rival of Realism.

I will leave political science alone for the rest of this post, except to say that Realism and Liberalism fight an unending battle through the global foreign policy community. Politicians argue about it, academics claw each other’s academic eyes out, think tanks go back and forth about it. Anyone plugged into the debate can recite its terms in their sleep. And here comes John Scalzi, who has built a Realist future history through two books, dropping tantalizing hints hither and yon of larger forces afoot, blowing the whole thing up in his third book and letting the Liberal Conclave run wild. I could barely contain myself.

I admit to being a foreign policy nerd. If I could stand to live in DC, I’d be on the East Coast slaving away at a policy analyst desk for the Council on Foreign Relations or something. I read books like Man, The State, and War when I go to the beach, so one might imagine why I would pee my pants at this kind of sci-fi. The Last Colony speaks to me on a level that most readers may not appreciate; this is why I label the whole thing “subversive” and get such a kick out of it, but Scalzi’s popularity shows that this trilogy speaks to people far beyond the “Sci-Fi and Diplomacy” demographic. I enjoyed the first book, thought the second was pretty cool, and was a raving, drooling fanboy by the end of the third.

Rating: Derby night in Istanbul. The football on display might not be the most artistic around, but there is no better time to be had. Also, things may catch on fire at any moment.