Veteran, Gavin G Smith
Veteran, Gavin G Smith
Gollancz, 391pp, £12.99 pbk
I like Richard Morgan’s novels, and the cover of Gavin G Smith’s debut novel Veteran claims it is a debut on a par with Morgan’s. We all take such marketing with a pinch of salt but, conversely, without such comparisons readers might never find new books they will enjoy. In Smith’s case, the comparison is something of a mixed blessing. Yes, some of those who like Morgan’s novels might well enjoy Veteran; but neither is Smith’s debut all that much like Morgan’s Altered Carbon.
Veteran is near-future military science fiction with a side order of cyberpunk. It is set after a global war, referred to throughout as the Final Human Conflict. Earth is an über-libertarian post-apocalypse wasteland, with areas of high tech. Most people live in squalour, except for the secretive oligarchs who run everything. Human life has very little value, but technology is much more advanced than it is now.
Oh, and the Earth has been at war with Them, a mysterious and implacable alien race, for sixty years. Much of the fighting takes place in nearby star systems, such as Sirius, Proxima Centauri and Lalande.
Jakob Douglas is the veteran of the title. He now lives a low-maintenance lifestyle of almost permanent drunkenness in Dundee, his military-grade cybernetic enhancements all capped and limited. Until his old commanding officer, Rolleston, who he hates, contacts him and re-activates his commission. Douglas must track down and eliminate a Them infiltrator, which apparently broke through Earth’s defences. He finds the alien at a nearby brothel. It is injured and being cared for by a gaggle of teenage whores. His attempts to kill the alien fail, and he ends up fleeing with it and one of the prostitutes, Morag. It seems all is not as he was told – the alien is an ambassador, Them want peace, and Rolleston is now out for Douglas’ head.
The alien dies, but not before a digital copy is made of it. This uploads into Morag’s head – she proves to be a naturally-talented hacker, and gets better as the book progresses. Douglas and Morag are hunted across the UK by Rolleston’s goons, and so make their way to New York. En route, they pick up allies and old war buddies, and determine they must bring down Rolleston and those who control him in order to end the war with Them…
As I read Veteran, it struck me it had all been done before. Cybernetic implants. Wasteland Earth, where only the meanest survive. High tech enclaves. Secret cabal of oligarchs. Alien war. I’d seen stuff like this back in the early 1990s. I didn’t know people were still writing it…
I was reading the story wrong. The plot comprises a number of set-pieces which Douglas must escape, or tasks at which he must succeed. Such as the motorbike race through the ruined buildings of Trenton, New Jersey. Or the assault on the Atlantis Spoke. The escape from flooded Hull. At various points in the story, the cast are upgraded, receiving better implants or weaponry. The clues to Veteran‘s true nature were plain to see. Rather than the world-building, I should have been focusing on the visuals. It didn’t matter that Them, community organisms of “nanites”, never really convince; it’s what they looked like which was important. It didn’t matter that there appeared to be no industrial base to support either the technology on display, or an interstellar war. It didn’t matter that the only female character of any consequence was an eighteen-year-old prostitute…
Veteran is not, as I initially thought, a twenty-first century rehash of the militaristic Reagan/Thatcher cyberpunk futures of the 1990s. It’s sf inspired by the last few generations of computer games.
Hence the right-wing wasteland, the endless ammunition, the mysterious and unconvincing enemy aliens, the absence of value put on human lives, a plot which moves from combat set-piece to set-piece… This is why Morag is a) a teenager – whoever saw a sf game with a woman in it? – and b) subsequently proves useful as the best hacker on the planet. This is why the cast are all so markedly different in appearance, and why some are defined by how they look. This is why Douglas actually manages to tell the story, despite being under the influence of drugs for much of the book. And why the characters are near-indestructible; and so, correspondingly, everyone requires awesome weaponry, which never seems to run out of ammunition or energy. It is why each of the cast excels at what they do, often despite evidence to the contrary.
Which does not mean Veteran is a bad book. On the contrary, it’s put together with accomplishment. Smith’s writing is always readable, and his dialogue is often funny. Douglas is an engaging narrator, the combat scenes are handled with vigour, and the technology is presented with exactly the right level of detail to appeal. There’s the odd clumsy passage which seems to have slipped through, but as a first novel it’s a polished piece of prose. I can rue the military hardware fetishisation, the backward gender politics and the implied libertarian politics – but they’re mostly forgivable because they’re artefacts of the place occupied by Veteran. And, to be fair, Smith does a good line in questioning and deprecating the values which seem to dominate such games and their attendant stories.
Veteran is science fiction for the gamer generation.
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