Another go-round with Commissar Cain: Sandy Mitchell’s The Last Ditch.
Science fiction is a wonderful genre. At its best, it’s forward thinking and imaginative, asking the sort of “what if” questions to comment and criticize our own culture, or even to lay out ideas for new ideas and technologies that become reality some years later.
Other times, sci-fi is a delivery vehicle for flashy action sequences where some square jawed hero blows up space bugs.
I’ll let you guess what kind of book The Last Ditch is.
I’ve covered Ciaphas Cain novels on this blog before. There’s still at least three or four Cain novels I haven’t read yet (along with a pair of audio dramas and a handful of short stories), so I’ll probably cover them again.
Based in the grimdark Warhammer 40k universe, these books follow the titular Ciaphas Cain (HERO OF THE IMPERIUM!), a self-professed coward with an overly inflated reputation for heroism. And, in the vein of Harry Flashman, Cain is continually thrust into more and more dangerous situations, much to his chagrin. Lasers are fired, aliens are exploded, and Cain provides snarky commentary through the whole thing. It’s hardly high literature, or even thought-provoking sci-fi, but they’re still entertaining enough, if you’re in the right mood. Though as a bonus, Cain’s wry, first-person narration gives the books a lot more character than other, more straightforward, ‘Brother Captain SpaceMarine fired his bolter at the squeebly mutant’ kind of 40k novels.
In, The Last Ditch, Cain and his regiment are sent to some miserable ice-planet to fight off an invasion of space orks, only to discover an even greater threat of a horde of Tyranids, evil bitey space locusts. A long military campaign ensues, in which Cain gets thrown into mortal peril over and over and over again.
The thing is, as much as Cain complains about being thrust into danger, it’s all in the narration- after a bit of justification, he charges off and does his job anyway, despite his misgivings. Depending on how charitable you’re feeling towards Mitchell, this can either come off as giving Cain more depth as a character (he’s a hero with Imposter’s Syndrome!) or just as lazy writing on Mitchell’s part. To compare Cain to Flashman is interesting, in that while the characters are very similar in concept, Flashman is a far worse person than Cain, as we see him bullying and backstabbing and otherwise being a conniving bastard to save his own hide. In contrast, despite his constant protestations of fear, the worst Cain ever really does is maybe deliver some droll one liners to people he doesn’t like, and then it’s off to chop up bad guys with a chainsaw sword. It would be fun if Mitchell let Cain be a little bit more of a bastard, but that’s probably a little more nuance than I should expect from a book based on a fancy toy soldier game with skulls on it.
While The Last Ditch was an amusing enough read, it didn’t have quite as many fun little throwaway gags as Duty Calls, the previous Cain book I read. It’s a little more straightforward, too, playing out over the course of a military campaign. This provides ample opportunity to throw Cain into horrible situations, but it also gives the book a meandering pace. Something a little more breakneck would fit the ‘comic adventure’ tone a bit better.
Ultimately, as a piece of tie-in fiction, The Last Ditch is narrative advertising. It’s the literary (to use the term loosely) equivalent of 1980’s cartoons that existed solely to promote their toy lines. Of course, I’ve been a lifelong Transformers fan, so I’m okay with a little advertainment every now and again.
At least the book hasn’t made me want to go buy a bunch of Warhammer minis. Those things are stupid expensive and I never get around to painting them anyway.