Science fiction, for a genre that prides itself on imagination and imagining exciting possibilities in the future, used to be home to some of the most reactionary and conservative writers around. While there were some wonderful exceptions (Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asmiov and a few others) a great many of what was written could just as easily be classified as "Boys With Toys" as anything else. By toys I mean everything from rockets and big weapons to women in either tight fitting or very little clothing. The story lines were, more often then not, racist, misogynistic and xenophobic - characteristics of human behaviour I would have thought most would have hoped were eliminated from future, more enlightened cultures.
Thankfully the genre started to mature around the end of the 1960s and the first anti-war science fiction novel was published in 1972 (Joe Haldeman's Forever War). However, aside his work there really hasn't been much written in the sub-genre known as military science fiction that has appealed to me. That changed a while back when one of my favourite fantasy writers, Tanya Huff, wrote her first book in what has now become known as the Confederation series. While she's probably best known for her books about a vampire private detective (they formed the basis for the series Blood Ties) I had known her as the writer of some really great fantasy books, as well a former employee of the best Science Fiction/Fantasy bookstore in Toronto Ontario - Bakka Books, that were the antithesis of those early "Boys With Toys" books as you could get. While they still contained violence, the lead character was as likely to be female as male, sexual orientation among her characters was very flexible, and characters usually came in a wide variety of shapes, colours and sizes.
So I've followed Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr through four books as she's travelled through space fighting alongside two other sentient species against a mysterious enemy known only as "The Others". However, in the last book, she had discovered that both sides had been manipulated by another race of beings who had been using them and the war as a huge "social experiment", and had prolonged the war in order to gather as much information about their peoples as possible. That revelation had a two-fold result, not only bringing the war to a somewhat screeching halt, but forcing Torin to reconsider her career choices. Having fallen in love with the civilian salvage operator Craig Ryder, leaving the Marines wouldn't have to mean leaving space, it just meant operating in it without weapons or having as many resources or technology to call upon in case of trouble.
And trouble is just what she and Craig find in the fifth book of the series, The Truth Of Valor published by Penguin Canada. For while the authorities have been busily involved with a war, salvage operators have been dealing with their own troubles, pirates stealing their hard earned cargo. Up until now there haven't been any fatalities, mainly because most salvage ships are unarmed (weapons are illegal for anything but military vessels), but also because most operators value their lives more than cargo. However that all changes when two friends of Craig's are found dead, having tried to fight off a pirate in order to protect their find. It turns out that what they had was not only valuable, but deadly - deadly enough to shift the balance of power in space. They had picked up a fully loaded Marine armoury that had survived a space battle intact; an armoury containing enough weapons to arm a small army and allow pirates to go beyond hijacking cargo and begin taking over space stations.
However the pirates need a salvage operator to help them crack the codes securing the armoury, and although its been said that space is big, its not that big. Especially when you accidently get into a poker game with members of the pirate crew who proceed to set you up by "selling" you information about some prime salvage so they can ambush you. While the pirates carry out their ambush of Craig and Torin perfectly, capturing Craig alive and mainly intact, they make the mistake of thinking they've left Torin to die. Probably the one person most pissed off at the universe for fucking with her enough to figure out a way of surviving when she's been left to float in a debris field and eventually suffocate when her oxygen supply runs out.
When she fails to get help from Craig's fellow salvage operators to mount a rescue mission, she calls upon a few of her former squad mates who have not only also survived, but retired from the Marines for the same reasons she has. Unable to go after the enemy they really want to, the alien race which kept them all fighting for no reason, they are more than happy to join her in kicking another being's deserving butt, especially to help out their old Gunnery Sergeant who had helped see them through some pretty horrendous times.
Huff has done her usual skilful job of writing an exciting adventure story which never descends into cliche or the expected. As those of you familiar with the previous books in the serious know, Torin Kerr operates by a pretty simple code - don't fuck with me and mine and I won't fuck with you. When she was in the Marines her job was to try and make sure she brought all of her people home alive with her and she took every loss personally. So with the man she loves at risk, she's pretty much prepared to do or risk anything and everything to bring him back alive. However she's not a robot, and having only recently discovered that so many of those lives she wasn't able to protect had died for nothing, the threat of losing Ryder pushes her close to cracking.
Military training has given her not only the ability to survive situations most people couldn't even imagine being in, but also the skills to kill people in ways you wouldn't think possible. Unfortunately there's only so much human circuitry can take before it starts shorting out, and the rescue mission fast becomes a race against time; how long will the pirates keep Craig Ryder alive and how long can Torin hold it together.
That doesn't mean she's going to all of a sudden sit in a corner and start crying, it means she'll cross the line between caring about the consequences of her actions and not giving a damn who suffers as a result. She may have killed before as a Marine, but it had only been a case of kill or be killed against an enemy who was following the same modus operandi. However she's not in the military any longer and there are what's known as innocent bystanders involved in her current mission, a mission without any official sanctioning and maybe just as illegal as the pirates' actions.
Through both Torin and one of the pirates who captures Ryder, Huff has painted a very stark picture of what can happen to the human mind when it witnesses too much suffering. The thin veneer of civilization that provides us our moral compass and makes sure we follow the rules of our respective societies can only take so many poundings before serious cracks form. The Truth Of Valor does a remarkable job of depicting both the results of these cracks and how they form. Torin Kerr was an exemplary Marine and a compassionate human being, but even she has her limits, and watching her fight her internal battle not to give into the urge to cross the line between not caring and caring is one of the most exacting battles ever written about in Science Fiction.
On the surface the battle in this book may appear to be a pretty straight forward one between some good guys and some bad guys. However Huff not only starts blurring the lines by sending us on board the pirate ship with Ryder and allowing us to get to know the beings crewing it, but she also takes us into the battlefield that is the human mind. Probably the scariest battlefield in the universe. While The Truth Of Valor might share some elements in common with the old school military science fiction books, you'll soon realize that Huff has taken the genre light years beyond what anybody in the past could have imagined it being. This is not just a good book for its genre, its a good book period.
(Article first published as Book Review: The Truth of Valor by Tanya Huff on Blogcritics.)
(Originally posted September 2010)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.