A trove of questions with a booty of intrigue (4/5)
I’ve been well through the thick and the thin of Greg Bear’s bibliography, through the old and the new, through the series and the stand-alones. However, I have not been drawn to two of his recent projects: (1) his annual publication of a videogame-linked novel expanding the Halo universe and (2) the collaborative Mongoliad with Neal Stephenson and others. I was quite keen on his last stand-alone novel Hull Zero Three (2010) but loathed his slightly earlier City at the End of Time (2008). These ups and downs span more than twenty years: Hegira (1979) was pretty good while Psychlone (1979) was not; Darwin’s Radio (1999) was also great while its sequel Darwin’s Children (2003) was not.
When I learned that Bear was penning another series (a sequel is currently being written), I had mixed feelings. Aside from the fluctuations of quality writing from Bear, one of my main gripes with actually picking up the novel was my avoidance any novel with the word “war” in it, that being an instant turn off; the glorification of wars and soldiers doesn’t fill me with patriotism; rather, it makes me pity the state of the country and its blind folk. I experienced dread when I saw the dedication page: “to all those who served … in WW2, Korea, and Vietnam”.
Inside flap synopsis:
“One more tour on the red.
Maybe my last.
They made their presence on Earth known thirteen years ago.
Providing technology and scientific insights far beyond what mankind was capable of. They became indispensable advisors and promised even more gifts that we just couldn't pass up. We called them Gurus.
It took them a while to drop the other shoe. You can see why, looking back.
It was a very big shoe, completely slathered in crap.
They had been hounded by mortal enemies from sun to sun, planet to planet, and were now stretched thin -- and they needed our help.
And so our first bill came due. Skyrines like me were volunteered to pay the price. As always.
These enemies were already inside our solar system and were moving to establish a beachhead, but not on Earth.
Michael Venn (master sergeant) used to be the average American WASP—“a white boy from Moscow, Idaho, a blue-collar IT wizard who got tired of working in cubicles” (5)—but he got burnt out in the corporate world and made the decision to join the Skyrines under the united flag of International Sky Defense (ISD). The ISD and the Skyrines who fight do not do so under the familiar sky of Earth, but tens of millions of miles away under the bleak, ruddy atmosphere of Mars. But mankind doesn’t fight another sect of mankind… they aren’t even fighting their own fight; mankind is fighting for the reclusive yet benevolent Gurus against an opponent they know nothing about.
The Gurus first landed in the Yemeni desert, away from so-called civilized humanity. They accessed communication networks and amassed assets while anonymously posting online “a series of pretty amazing puzzles that attracted the attention of the most curious and intelligent” (8). From these puzzles, technological improvements were discovered and the Gurus made their presence known to world leaders; however, their physical presence had never been seen as human Wait Staff act as their intermediaries or liaisons, limited to a few dozen. Most importantly, the Gurus bought technological gifts and “a thorough understanding of our own biology, chemistry, and psychology” (189). Humanity didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth and blindly accepted the gifts without asking what, exactly, the so-called benevolent race expected in return.
Gurus were not just being magnanimous with their gifts of tech. They needed our help, and we needed to step up and help them, because these enemies were already inside the far, icy margins of our solar system, were, in fact, trying to establish their own beachhead, but not on Earth. (10)
And so, mankind physically went to Mars for the second time. The first wave of colonization was funded by the pooled resources of Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk. Each of the original colonists paid in the 8-9 figures for their historical moment and later became known as Muskies (after Elon Musk), but the half of them died in transit through the vacuum of our solar system. The “idealism and pioneering spirit” (133) of the colonization drew solid backing for the enterprise but soon parallel grievances struck: the investors never got a return and “the last reserves of [the colonists’] sanity dwindled” (134). Isolated from Earth, Mars became a different sort of ideal—that of a dumping ground for malcontents:
Then arrived the third wave, including hard-core folks who found Earth too civilized, too restrictive—too stupid. Rugged individualists, political fanatics, IQ theorists seeking to isolate and improve the human gene pool. Diehard bigots and supremacists, happy to turn Mars into a spaghetti western … Mars was pretty much a lost cause. (79)
The hard-core attitudes of the first three waves eventually became distilled and purified by later generations of settlers, transmogrifying utopian idealism into “a tale of patriarchal tragedy, rigorous discipline—or hypocrisy and cant” (100), their ethos “statistical, mathematically sound … Atheists by law, strict dogmatists, reductionists … Techno-racists. Libertanianism pushed to the ultimate extreme” (185).
Amid their self-enforced strife on Mars, their planet has been invaded by the unwelcome Skyrines and the even more unwelcome enemy of the Gurus, now the common enemy of mankind: the Antagonists (Antags or Ants for short). The Gurus are limited in numbers because of they report that, even though they are technologically advanced, transportation across the vastness of space is prohibitively expensive even for them. The Antagonists, it seems however, are able to amass their numbers and their equipment to mount a defense on Mars… exactly what the Antagonists or the Skyrines are defending, nobody knows or nobody is telling; after all, they are taking orders from the reclusive and secretive Gurus.
As for Michael, his fifth tour of duty on Mars has ended. He’s in Seattle with words of warning from his Skyrine friend Joe; he’s to avoid ISD and lay low. Michael expects Joe to personally debrief him on what his experience on Mars meant to him as a man and to him as part of humanity; however, he’s met by a zaftig lass by the name of Alice. She doesn’t understand the depth of his experience, but she can offer him more than just a bowl of seafood chowder, to which Michael latches to and spill forth his incredible story:
When Michael Venn’s squad of Skyrines get shot from the sky, he finds himself in a peculiar dilemma of being without bearing or command with his fellow soldiers; their mission is to survive on the surface of Marks with only their skintight to protect them. They survive hypoxia by finding a Russian tent on the surface, they survive a meteor barrage impact by the skin of their teeth, and they survive to meet a tent full of high-ranking ISD officers—a very, very strange and/or foreboding circumstance. Though now numbering nearly twenty, the Skyrines and their COs still face death from starvation, dehydration, and hypoxia; with tunnel vision making Michael Venn succumb to his lack of all three, rescue comes in an unexpected form: a Muskie vehicle plods its way toward them and out steps a gorgeous female. Condescendingly called a “ranch wife” by the Skyrines, Michael reflects for all the saved Skyrines:
Those of us who can, follow her directions … I am deliriously grateful. I feel the way a pound mutt must fee, rescued just before they seal the hatch on the death chamber.
We’re all War Dogs, adopted by a very tall, strong ranch wife. (75)
Self-exiled from her community of Green Camp, Tealullah Mackenzie Green—or Teal for short—guides the men to a place of refuge which her father told her about. The Drifter, as it’s known, is a subterranean mine which has been excavated by a few camps for its “big lodes of iron, nickel, platinum, iridium, aluminum” (102). Though many once thought Mars to be an arid dust ball, aquifers actually hold so much water that the mine floods occasionally, prohibiting the colonists from mining. Now empty, save for the numerous rumors of its mysterious innards, they seek shelter in its labyrinth after an aerial germ needle attack by the Antags. With some their number convulsing under the dim light of a Martian day, Teal, Michael and a handful of survivors make it inside.
Michael’s squad realizes that he’s closest to the “ranch wife” and assign him to understand more about who she is, where they are, and they the hell they’re going to do. Teal indicates that one thing may assist them in finding the answer to the latter question; within the jumpsuit Michael pulls on, he finds a small platinum slug which has a “long, coiling string of tiny numbers and letters” (94). He palms the coin and continues to explore the maze of tunnels in the Drifter, all the while kicking up the green dust which ubiquitously lines the each and every tunnel, of which sneezing only becomes the first symptom.
On the horizon, they spy two things: (1) a dust devil that indicates the workings of a reputed Antagonist machinery of unknown capability and (2) dust plumes that indicate an oncoming convoy. Though the machinery is never seen, they are thankful for the arrival of some fellow Skyrines, whom they call sisters. The male Skyrines admire their gung-ho sisters, but the women emote a far from sororal attitude as they take command of the subterranean situation. They take stock of material, asses their needs, and keep captive the Voors whom they found in the Martian desert. The Voors—with an unpleasant disposition to say the least—rant about the sovereignty of their Martian soil, which falls on the deaf ears of everyone, except Teal who has gone missing. Meanwhile, the Antagonists have surrounded the Drifter.
Michael’s squad is plagued by a number of questions about their confinement in the Drifter, but two top the heap: Why hadn’t the Gurus told them about the Drifter? Is this intrasolar war being fought with Antagonists for control of Drifter?
Obviously having survived the onslaught on Mars, Michael asks himself the age-long question: Why me? Why us?
I mentioned in the introduction that I have a low tolerance for hero worship, especially blindly worshiping soldiers who are simply agents of war, many of whom probably don’t even want (or deserve) the title of “hero”. Thankfully, Greg Bear doesn’t get all sentimental about the Skyrines and doesn’t pump the same soldiers full of bravado. Most of the male soldiers are down on their luck and live hour by hour near death, only to be saved repeatedly by women—first, Teal; then, their “sisters”. The men hardly get off a single shot to glorify their status as a Skyrine. The premise of War Dogs strongly suggests that the novel is one punctuated by the terror/excitement of war, but the reality of the novel is the boredom of having life stretched and stretched on Mars.
Also downplayed is the limelight on the two competing alien races; the Gurus are only referred to and the Antagonists are only given a brief burst of importance. Michael Venn and all of humanity, aside from the Wait Staff perhaps, don’t even know what either race looks like or what their intentions are. Given the limited amount of information provided in the narrative, the two alien races had to take a backseat ride (though very interesting occupants they may be) to (1) the Muskies, (2) capitalism and art of the twentieth century, and (3) the Drifter.
One confusion I experienced when reading War Dogs was the timeframe. Michael Venn identifies the narrative as taking place in “the twenty-first century” (1) but there are some facts about the Muskies which stretch the timeframe.
A one-way trip to Mars looks like it could be a reality by 2025 for the Mars One Project. Bear doesn’t mention the Mars One Project, so he could be speculating a later date for mankind’s first colony of Mars. Let’s speculate that the colony is set for 2040, a year which would make the three primary investors fairly geriatric: Jeff Bezos (1964) at 74, Richard Branson (1950) at 80, and Elon Musk (1971) at 69. As a projection for the future of the world’s richest people, this seems a bit shortsighted.
Enough time passes on Mars that a third “wave” of colonization occurs and enough time has passed that language has changed: “there are now several kinds of accents and dialects and even some newly birthed languages” (74). This is the most interested part of the Muskies. The spoken language of Teal (whose name origin I’ll come to in a bit) is called “thinspeak… pronunciation adapted for high altitude or thinner air” (72). This makes the dialogue a tad difficult to understand, but I found it easy to adapt to and follow.
Tealullah Mackenzie Green is an amalgamation of three names: first, Elon Musk’s wife’s given name, Talulah; second, Jeff Bezos’s wife’s given name MacKenzie; and last, the surname of Sir Philip Nigel Ross Green, currently the sixth richest British by net worth (just ahead or, surprise, Sir Richard Branson). This leads credence toward the speculative fact that the Mars in the later part of the twenty-first century was, in fact, heavily inspired by the efforts of some of the investors… and perhaps a shared fixation with Michael Venn’s obsession for brand names and nostalgia.
Capitalism and Art
At first, as I was reading through War Dogs and recognizing so many company names, brand names, and references to pop culture, that Greg Bear simply dumped these in the novel for a fixed reference to the past which readers could identify with. This is about 50% true. The other 50% of my inkling rests with Tealullah’s name and its own references to billionaires. Venn mentions some modern big companies or their products: Roomba, Starbucks, Maersk, Jeep, eBay, Perrier mineral water, Walt Disney, Tootsie Roll, Cheez Whiz, and Tinkertoys. Further, Venn also delves into movie history and trivia: All About Eve (1967), Wind and the Lion (1975), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Castle Keep (1969), and Kelly’s Heroes (1970)—all films within a span of eight years (Greg Bear would have been sixteen in 1967). Author indulgence, perhaps?
Finally, there’s a nod toward some fiction which perhaps inspired Bear, too: Dune (1965), Lord of the Rings (1954), John Carter of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars (1917), Daniel F. Galouye’s Simulacron-3 (1964), Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer character in Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), and Jack London’s “The King of Mazy May” (1899), and Kim Stanley Robinson for his Mars trilogy (a colony camp is named after him along with Green [as mentioned above], Amazonia [Bezos], and McClain [source unknown]).
Mars is the hook of the novel, but the Drifter is the sinker. The mysteries are slow to unravel but are tantalizing when considering that War Dogs is but one book to a duology or trilogy (no official word). When the mysteries do begin to unravel, so many unresolved questions ricochet off the inside of the reader’s skull, definitely whetting their appetite for book two. I can’t spoil anything about the Drifter for the reader… just be sure, it’s the center point piece of War Dogs. Mars is like your mom’s poinsettia on the dinner table on Christmas morning; the Drifter is the ham on the bone that comes for lunch.
Not everything is a stone waiting to be turned over, however. Aside from my qualms about the difficulty of pinning down a date and the echo of corporate importance through the decades, there are only three annoyances.
(1) I love new words. Considering that War Dogs is a first-person perspective novel, perhaps the vocabulary is a tad high for the direct storytelling. Michael Venn describes Alice, the woman who has come to Seattle to debrief him, with a number of adjectives. Aside from small and pretty, Venn describes her as “zaftig” four different times. Hey, that’s a new word to me, but there are some synonyms which could be used rather than repeat it for fun: e.g., pulchritudinous, buxom, shapely, curvaceous, sonsy, and stacked.
(2) So, mankind finally learns it’s not the only species inhabiting the galaxy. Some nations accept the gifts the Gurus have to offer while others shun them. The end. The only repercussion of the contact is technological and its effect on the economy; there cosmological or spiritual side of learning this new ‘they are out there” truth isn’t even glanced at let alone touched upon. And it seems the humans are all too eager to go join another war—aren’t those human ever so predictable?
(3) Greg Bear puts a good effort into creating new technologies for weapons (e.g., weak-field disruptors and strong-field suppressors), but at times the reach for a new technology feels uninspired, unseen, or simply forgotten. I estimate the timeframe for the narrative to be around 2090, so it’s a little surprising when “Alice is speaking on her cell” (217). If there are automatic taxis and round trip trips to Mars, certainly cell phones would be outdated by then, or at least called by a different name.
If you’ve got patience for a constant struggle of a handful of soldier on the surface of Mars, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the bounty of mysteries buried in the Drifter and the repercussions it may have on mankind’s relationship with the Gurus, the relationship between the Gurus and the Antagonists, and, ultimately, mankind’s relationship with itself. Though the Guru’s have superior knowledge of humankind’s “biology, chemistry, and psychology” (189), only mankind can tell itself what its true place and purpose is in the mechanism of the universe…
…when’s that sequel coming?