I Can’t Believe it’s not Baen: Rick Shelley’s Lieutenant Colonel

Hey look, it’s time to dip back into THE BOX! Because there’s nothing like getting a book at random for basically 34 cents. Today’s offering? Rick Shelley’s Lieutenant Colonel.

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“Did I leave the gas on?” 

If you didn’t figure it out from the title, or the cover, Lieutenant Colonel is Military Sci-Fi (Mil-SF for short), a genre devoted to chronicling how and why people are gonna shoot at each other in the future. And, also unsurprisingly, Lieutenant Colonel is the fifth book in Shelley’s “DMC” series, with each earlier book having sequential titles like Lieutenant, then Major, then Captain, and so on. Not exactly creative, but what can you do.

In any case, this series centers around a dude named Lon Nolan as he works his way up through the ranks in the Dirigent Mercenary Corps (from which we get the “DMC” acronym). Lon is your typical officer– professional, honorable, and … kind of boring. Dude makes Honor Harrington seem like Hamlet. Wait, no, that’s not a good analogy, ’cause Harrington gets shit done. But I digress.

Anyway, Lieutenant Colonel opens with Lon wrapping up a covert mission on Earth. Which may have been what he was up to in Major? This is what I get for hopping into a series at random. In any case, as Lon started musing over the state of Earth in the first couple of chapters, the red flags began to go up. Y’see, in the future of the DMC series, Earth’s government is terribly corrupt, with the teeming masses kept in overcrowded cities and kept in line through “handouts.” It’s a very … Republican view of a dystopia, I have to say.

In contrast, there’s the planet Dirigent, a place that’s supposedly resource-poor (even though life there seems pretty pleasant?), so the only things they have to offer interstellar trade are their corps of bad-ass mercenaries and a thriving munitions industry. Oh, and Dirigent’s civil government is the same as their military one, in that the head of state is the General, who’s elected by a “Council of Colonels.” And, of course, all of this is presented as a Good Thing.

Now, Mil-SF isn’t a necessarily right-wing genre. Writers like John Scalzi or Ann Lieke are proof of that. This said, it seems like Mil-SF does tend to draw a large number of more conservative writers. It makes sense, given how the U.S. Military skews to the right of the political spectrum.

Thankfully, Lieutenant Colonel doesn’t delve into super preachiness. Though it did inspire me to create MIL-SF BINGO! Just print this off next time you read about space-soldiers shooting space-lasers at space-commies, and check off the boxes as you go along!

MIL SF Bingo

Aaaaanyway. Once Lon gets off Earth and back to Planet-PMC, he’s promoted to, well, Lieutenant Colonel, and put in charge of a battalion of 800 men. And before long, his battalion gets hired to defend some frontier mining planet (that Lon fought on years before, natch) against some raiders sent by an evil Earth corporation.

The rest of the book is taken up by Lon moving platoons and companies around frontier planet to fight the raiders. It’s perfectly serviceable space-adventuring, but the action never really ‘pops’ as it does in the best Mil-SF books. Really, the biggest thing that holds the book back is the lack of a proper villain. The raiders attacking frontier-mining-planet are terribly generic, to the point where not a single one is named. On top of that, they almost always fight to the death (until they’re ordered to surrender in the last chapter). Oh, and they’ve all been poisoned with special nanotechnology that makes them impossible to treat with standard medical tech in case they’re captured. They’re fanatics … but we never see why they’re so fanatical. Then again, I guess this is better than just making them, like, Space Taliban or something, but still.

The entire book takes place from Lon’s POV, so I understand the limitations there– even still, it would’ve been nice to put a face on the bad guys, or even give them a commander who could taunt Lon or maybe even do the ‘worthy opponent’ thing or something to make it more interesting. Lieutenant Colonel lacks any sense of context– again, this is the fifth book in the series, but it would be nice if the bad guys had noticeable goals or personalities beyond ‘let’s steal stuff.’ Heck, even what they’re stealing isn’t very interesting– it’s just ‘mineral ore.’ Not special warp crystals needed to power FTL travel, not strange alien artifacts of a lost civilization, not even, like, space-gold. It seems like a whole lot of expense and trouble (not to mention the frankly horrific 50% casualty rate) to get a bunch of nickel. I mean, if I were an exec at Evil Earth SpaceCorp, I’d start wondering ‘oh hey, what if we spent all the money on armed goons on, like, asteroid mining instead? Y’know, where nobody will shoot at us?’

Towards the end, Lieutenant Colonel comes close to rising above its video-gamey approach to shooting bad guys. Lon’s a family man, for one, and so he has occasional nightmares and reservations about his son (Lon Jr, natch) enlisting in the Space-Mercenaries and going off to get himself killed. And then there’s a rather gruesome bit in which a soldier recounts desperately trying to save his friend who got most of his lower half blown off. This brief bit is one of the few parts of the book where genuine “war is hell” sentiment shines through. It would’ve been nice if Shelley worked in some more moments like this throughout the book, to temper the whole “mercenaries are cool!” vibe.

So yeah. Lieutenant Commander thankfully never veers off into a crazy libertarian screed … but at the same time, it doesn’t really click as a rollicking adventure, either. But hey, considering it’s a book I pretty much just read at random, I suppose I could do worse.

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