May 29, 2009

War Machine: A clipped drawl

Welcome to the first part of my close reading of Andy Remic's "rock-hard military science fiction" opus War Machine! The introductory post was here. This post will cover the Prologue and following Excerpt.


In my opinion, the first sentence of a book is always one of the most important. It does more than any other part to set the scene for the reader. In this case, though, the first three are worth quoting.

She hated scissors: their gleam; their simple function. She laughed, and it was a bitter laugh like a tumbling fall of worlds. There within the maelstrom of her mind - a cold constant, like the elliptical spinning hub of a galaxy - was fury.

I think you get the idea. Quite apart from the florid language, there is the bizarre notion that scissors would be more agreeable to the woman if they were more complicated. With a pair of unnecessarily complicated matte scissors, maybe she's be less like the elliptical spinning hub of a galaxy!

After this strange prologue about a woman who hates scissors and cries, we meet the Combat-K team. They're holed up in a bunker in a jungle on the planet Terminus5. The scene itself is strangely difficult to reconstruct. On the one hand, the "corrugated bunker" was submerged in vines dangling down from hardwood trees; on the other hand, somewhere beyond the bunker is a treeline. But this is far less important than meeting our characters!

The first to be introduced is the main character, Keenan.

Admittedly my biggest problem is that the only person I can think of when he writes Keenan is Mike Keenan. You know, him:

Keenan is looking out of the doorway of the bunker, and he's joined by our second character, Pippa. Pippa is a British diminutive form of Philippa (hilariously, Wiktionary gives this definition: pippa, Swedish, Verb: 1. (vulgar) have sexual intercourse).

"I can't believe they spotted us," whispered Pippa, crawling up beside him on her elbows, commando-style. Her mouth was a grim line, grey eyes suggesting something unholy: a single concept.

I'm not sure the writer understands how to use a colon. In this case, the colon means that "a single concept" is in itself unholy, not that the unholy thing she is suggesting is both hunholy and a single concept. So bizarrely, we've learned that Pippa is a woman and that she considers single concepts unholy. A trap is "unholy" because it's a single concept; if it were more multifarious, presumably she'd be OK with it. I want to make it clear that in English, the above quotation does not mean that her eyes are suggesting "Trap"; they're suggesting "a single concept". This kind of language is par for the course for Remic.

From Pippa's strange epistemological views we move on to Keenan himself.

Keenan's voice was a deep smoker's drawl, smooth, calculating, his words clipped and economic.

A drawl is, according to Wiktionary, "a way of speaking slowly while lengthening vowel sounds and running words together." A clipped way of speaking is one "with each word pronounced separately and distinctly." The Macmillan English Dictionary has "speaking clearly and quickly, in a way that seems unfriendly."

In other words, clipped speech is more or less the exact opposite of a drawl.

Occasionally it's remarkably difficult to visualize what authors write; the less competent the author, the greater the difficulty. Here's a selection from The Eye of Argon; try visualizing the scene, specifically the man's face, in your head.

"Up to the altar and be done with it wench;" ordered a fidgeting shaman as he gave the female a grim stare accompanied by the wrinkling of his lips to a mirthful grin of delight.

A grim stare combined with a mirthful grin and fidgeting. I got Charlie Murphy.

Similarly, Keenan is speaking in both clipped tones and a drawl at the same time, which is, if not impossible, going to be considerably challenging as the two things are logical opposites. The way he's talking is going to be something like how Charlie Murphy carries himself as a playa hata. In other words, totally ridiculous.


Combat-K is on a mission to destroy a shield reactor, which will allow the Quad-Gal's "Peace Unification Army" to invade the planet. As we briefly meet the third character, Franco, he is easing free "the micro-barrel of his Bausch & Harris Sniper Rifle with SSGK digital sights. The weapon sported a rapid single action fire linked to a hairline trigger: a devastating gun in the right hands."

The brand names and abbreviations are pure fabrications, but the weapon description itself is more interesting. A "hairline trigger" is more usually known as a hair trigger, which is unexceptional; the single action fire is more puzzling. Remember, this is an elite military outfit in the post-Singularity future. A single action rifle is one where the shooter has to manually reload the rifle after each shot, so given that the others are carrying automatic weapons, that's hardly a very rapid fire. Also, it seems more than a little anachronistic for people in a post-singularity future to be lugging around bolt-action rifles. I mean, it's even surprising to find them using gunpowder, but clearly these are guns we're talking about. But as we'll learn, this is par for the course.

In addition to that, there's the simple fact that as "military science fiction", the military science on display is incredibly underwhelming. You've just described a sniper rifle that is functionally nearly identical to ones being used in the 19th century. Only the "digital sights" would be out of place in the American Civil War.

There's also time for another Remic moment:

"There are four of the bastards." He spat on the earth floor, glancing rigt towards Keenan and Pippa - lying vulnerable and coiled by the warped doorway where fingers of sunlight raped by swirling dust pointed arrows of accusation through the pepper-pot interior.

One thing I will say for Remic: his use of language is surprising. In what is otherwise an inept, adolescent narrative of short sentences and tortuous exposition, he, seemingly at random, comes up with these wild endless sentences of strange visual metaphors. They're never good, but at least they are unexpected.


The team comes under fire, and Keenan reacts:

Above the cacophony Keenan licked salt lips, annoyed now, and lit a cigarette. "Take them, Franco." He eased his bulk around the doorway, smoke stinging his eyes, locked his MPK to the tree line and sent a savage sweeping volley of thundering firepower.

I'll run through this is reverse order. Keenan is in a bunker, under fire, so he sits in an exposed doorway with a lit cigarette in his mouth and fires a sub-machine gun. This is really a minor detail, though, as they're taking fire, he licks his lips "above the cacophony". That is to say, the sound of Keenan licking his lips is louder than the gunfire in the jungle around them. That is what the sentence means. And that's... startling.

As the attack continues, Keenan and Pippa get to their feet and walk across the bunker doorway, shooting down attacking soldiers. Of course, this somewhat begs the question of what the soldiers themselves are doing at the time. After the firing subsides, Keenan brazenly stands in the doorway, looking for the enemy. In this prologue, the enemy seems to have all the military aptitude of Imperial Storm Troopers or COBRA Vipers. Of course, Keenan himself is almost superhuman, according to Remic. Here:

His gun came up, stocky, black, deathly serious, held in strong hands that had no right to be that steady in the midst of a fire-fight.

If there's one thing we're going to learn in the course of this book, it's that Keenan is not a little man. One can only presume he must have a hat.

Before Keenan indulges in a brief sexual fantasy/reminiscence of Pippa, she has this puzzling line:

"We've got to get to the reactor. We're fast running out of time!" soothed Pippa, words tickling his ear she was so close.

Either Remic is taking a dip in the waters of beat poetry or his editor is inept, as the last part of the sentence doesn't quite work out grammatically, but above all the characters are still talking incredibly weird. We're running out of time! she soothed. That is just bizarre.


As the team prepares to assault the reactor, another flashback takes us to Combat-K graduation.

A bugle sounded, forlorn, wavering, and sixteen thousand boots stamped in perfect unison as the battalion wheeled - a well-oiled machine - and every greased cog saluted officers standing stern but proud on a high fluid compress alloy podium. This was the climax of four years hardcore training.

One presumes that should read "years'". Also, "fluid compress alloy" is just gibberish, but marks our first encounter with an alloy. There'll be more ahead.

Most puzzling, though, is that in something that calls itself military science fiction, one expects military terms to make some kind of sense. A battalion of 8 000 men? Generally a battalion has always been used of a formation of some 1 000 men. In modern military terms, a formation of 8 000 men is a reinforced brigade or maybe an understrength division. A battalion of 8 000 is as pointless a concept as a squad of 50 or a company of 800.


On their way to the reactor, Keenan muses on the fact that they've been compromised.

During covert Impact, the Terminus5 government should not have had time to scramble units to protect what was considered planetary low-key targets, such as this global reactor site.

The logic here is unfathomable. On page 8, their mission is "pivotal, crucial"; on page 14 they're attacking a "low-key target". The reactor they're going to destroy is powering some kind of shield system that's stopping an army from invading the planet, and it's a low-key target?

From Keenan's musings we enter another erotic flashback featuring Pippa. During this, we learn that Keenan has a wife called Freya and two beautiful young daughters, but he's still sleeping with his squadmate. We now enter Remic's characterisation of Pippa in all its brutal misogyny:

She was a hard woman, a killer, a devastatingly brutal assassin. But within her lurked a core of insecurity, a child in need of nurture, a young girl locked in a room craving nothing more than love and caring, and - ironically - protection. He had become her protector, her brother, her father, and, against all probability, almost forced by circumstances, he had become her lover.

Lest anyone get any womens-lib ideas that Pippa is a soldier just like the men she serves with, she is instantly reduced to a child who needs a man to protect her. In case someone might have thought that Keenan and Pippa might have a relationship as equals, she's a simpering little girl who is, by implication, his daughter, his sister, his protege. Isn't it far more disturbing to enumerate the relationship that way?


They arrive at the shield reactor, which has an alloy door (check). There's a scene in which they rappel down to the reactor and destroy it, facing a "metal AI" on the way. Keenan reminiscences on his ranch, his horses, his dogs, his wife and daughters, and his tortillas and beer, giving us another glimpse into a non-little man's world. The chapter abruptly ends as Keenan, Franco and Pippa are presumably captured by Terminus5 troops.

I've covered the prologue in this much depth as it's really a very good microcosm of what's to come. The contracictory narrative, the bizarrely inept language, the stereotyped, misogynistic characterization. The only thing "science fiction" about this is strings of nonsense words and occasional lasers and AIs. The "military" part isn't doing much better.

There are several intriguing strands that I'll be following throughout:

Keenan. He's clearly the central character of the book, and given what I posted about the author earlier, it doesn't seem like too wide a stretch to say that Keenan is an idealized projection of Andy Remic. That falls outside my mandate of text-based criticism, but even within the text it seems that Keenan is being set up as an archetype of sorts.

Pippa. So far, she's a brutal, tough soldier who's really a scared little girl. Speaking as a feminist, I have to say that the way she's treated is typical of misogynistic fiction. One sets up a strong female character, and then proceeds to textually emasculate her by reducing her to a little girl. This isn't just a staple of fiction written by men; a particularly galling moment in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series is Hermione's self-emasculation in the first volume.

The post-Singularity future. So far, we've had guys running around a jungle firing sub-machineguns and sniper rifles. There have been some references to far higher tech, but on the whole the basic narrative could easily have happened in the 1960's. There isn't really anything science fiction about it at all; it just seems to be a war story with some random gibberish thrown in to make it science fiction. And that isn't science fiction. The only truly bizarre anachronism is the single-action sniper rifle, but later there'll be more. Much more.

Repeated motifs. Licking lips and alloys have already been noted. They'll recur.


Before Part I: Combat-K gets under way, there's a strange bit of text in the book. Its title:

being an extract from:
kv 4788-hv3792
written by
Professor Marsaal Su b-Krδiy∞

For the font-challenged, that's b-Kr delta iy infinity. The text that follows is Remic's horrible attempt to imitate or parody academic prose. Reading it is pure torture. Seemingly random proper names are CAPITALIZED. The text runs through three theories on the causes of the Helix War, and ends up saying that one of the theories on the causes of the war actually caused the war. That's right, what happened happened because of a theory on why it happened. That doesn't make any sense, but then again, neither does anything else. This is what it ends with:

Atrocity followed atrocity. Escalation led to destruction, to escalation, to destruction in an apparent Catch 22 of spiralling violence. From three possible origins, all time/space strands intercepted and moved along in a sequential and singular course...almost written in stone.

First things first: a Catch-22 (properly hyphenated) is not a spiral. For the uneducated, Catch-22 refers to Joseph Heller's book of the same name. In it, a Catch-22 is an example of circular logic, not of an escalating process. Also, isn't it a little strange to be supposedly reading an academic work in the post-Singularity future where reference is made to a 1961 novel?

Furthermore, Remic is again having serious difficulty using English. The "time/space" (spacetime?) strands "intercepted". Intercepted what? To intercept means to stop or catch something before it gets to where it's going. What did the strands catch? To say that they intercepted each other would be bizarre; an interception requires an interceptor who catches and an interceptee who is caught, and therefore is going somewhere or doing something. He doesn't say they intercepted each other, though, just that they intercepted, which is pointless.

After "intercepting", they move "sequentially". Sequentially means one after the other. How are we to visualize three theories moving sequentially? Presumably Remic has no idea what sequentially means. Also, their course is "singular". Singular means something strange, exceptional. The "strands of time/space" move on a strange course, one after the other?

Presumably what he means is that the strands converge. For someone who is apparently a teacher, this total inability to use a dictionary is puzzling. I just hope he doesn't teach English. The misuse of singular recurs later in the work, making one strongly suspect that not only does he have no idea what many of the words he uses means, he can't even be bothered to look them up.

Somewhat more worryingly, neither can his editors.


Overall, the Prologue and "being an extract" give an overwhelming impression of ineptness, both literary and linguistic. Now that I've taken a fairly close look at the prologue, I hope you've gotten an idea of what it is we're dealing with and I can move through the rest of the book considerably more quickly, focusing more on themes and characterization and items of interest rather than continue to trudge through his hideous language and repated errors.

Coming up next: an alcoholic private investigator, a mental hospital and a naked woman killing a cow with a sword. I couldn't make this stuff up even if I tried.

May 18, 2009

War Machine: a close reading, part 1

Recently, a friend of mine ran across a novel that seemed so hilariously awful he had to share. The book in question was Andy Remic's War Machine. Just using Amazon's "Look inside" feature led to so much fun that I obviously had to get him the book.

I mean, it's got Edge and Bono from U2 on the cover. How can I not buy that?

You'll notice it's billed as "rock-hard military science fiction". For so many reasons, I felt I had to read the damn thing. I mean, I've been writing about all things military for a living for nearly ten years now, I've been reading science fiction for nearly twenty years, and hell, I'm still technically majoring in English. It's a book I simply have to read. What's more, it's published by Solaris Books, which is ultimately owned by Games Workshop! And because I believe I have to read it, I'm also going to be sharing it with the world, i.e. you.

In other words, I'll be doing a close reading of Andy Remic's novel War Machine on my blag, starting soonish. Before I get to the text itself, though, I'd like to say a few things.

In doing this close reading, I may occasionally be a little harsh. I tend to be a little harsh about a number of things on this blag, but I'm not going to apologize. I don't criticize people in order to offend them or to get kicks out of it; the easiest way to describe my approach is that I follow my version of the credo: if you publish it and it sucks, I'm going to make fun of it. We'll shortly be seeing if War Machine sucks. (if you visited and read any of the excerpts, you may already know the answer)

My approach to literary criticism is strongly text-centered. To exaggerate, I don't particularly care who wrote a text and why, and I certainly don't want to try to discover the author's opinions or preferences by studying their text. The approach I'm going to be taking here will be reading the text as it is, without more context than the one provided by the book itself. I'll probably make an occasional foray elsewhere, but in the main I intend to concentrate on the text itself.


Having said that, in the interests of good writing it'll be proper to get in some background first. The author, Andy Remic, is a former English teacher from Manchester, UK, who has written a number of games for the ZX Spectrum back in the day. That's him, from Wikipedia:

In his blog, he described himself as an "Author of high-octane fast-paced kickass Fantasy and Science Fiction novels". On his website, he poses with a chainsaw (bottom of page). And the book itself contains both a dedication and an "about the author" section. Here's an excerpt from the surprisingly long dedication:

"How many men have been where we've been? And seen what we've seen?"

No matter what happens, we're not little men.
Hats on!

Not to be outdone, here's "About the Author" from the end of the book:

Andy Remic is a young British writer.
He has an unhealthy love of martial arts, kickass bikes, mountain climbing and computer hacking. Once a member of an elite Combat-K squad, he has since retired from military service and works as a biomod and weapon engineer at the NANOTEK Corporation.


About the Author
Andy Remic is a young British writer and teacher from Greater Manchester. During his teaching career he developed an interest in martial arts and is now expert in unarmed combat. He can kill a man with a single blow, but prefers writing and hacking computer systems. War Machine is his fourth novel.

There's so much I could say about these descriptions. I'll just note, though, that in case you're fooled by the recurrence of the word "young", a Google search leads one to understand that he was born in 1971. If 38 is a "young author", then, well. You know.


This is the kind of fellow whose work I'll be reading. Oh, and, um, do you suppose this counts as a book review? Because this is what he says about book reviews, on the aforementioned website:

How do you deal with the people who don't like your books, and tell you as much? If a person doesn't like my books - no problem. Everybody has different personal tastes, and I suppose my work is as acquired as any Islay whisky. After all - there are plenty of books I don't like. However, the pieces of shit I really do hate are failed-writers turned book reviewers - they really make me boil, and then know who they are. I'd certainly like to meet a few face to face.

I could be a real dick and wonder what, exactly, a failed-writer is, but I won't, nor will I ask whether he hates failed writers who review books or hates everyone who reviews books and is insulting them. In the first case, he should be OK with what I'll be saying, but in the latter case, I guess not.

Why am I being a dick about this? There's a real simple reason. He isn't, by any means, the first or the last author who hates book reviewers. I have no sympathy for this rubbish at all. In my opinion, it's perfectly simple. If you publish something, let alone if you're selling it, you're going to be criticized. Sometimes that criticism is probably going to be unfair, and it's perfectly OK to respond to that. But as for hating book reviewers in general?

In a free market economy, criticism has an important function. Every book that's out there has some gushing blurb from a publisher telling you it's the best thing ever, and every book that's notable enough to be commented on will probably have at least a page of quotes of other people gushing about it. Because practically every book has this, it contains no real information. Most of us people who read book would like to know if the books in question are good or not before we make a decision to buy them. That's what book reviews are for. They're a fairly essential service. If you hate the people who write them, or are going to respond with some inane argument on the level of "well why don't they write themselves then", you have a problem.

If you choose to write and publish a novel, you're putting it out in the public domain for us to see, read and experience, and to talk about. If you don't like some of the things people say about your novel, that's just tough. As for the level of class it shows to rail and swear about them on your website, well, like I said, I don't go in for biographical criticism.

A wit suggested to me that maybe he's looking to set up as the Uwe Boll of literature.


Let's get to the book itself. Here's what the author himself had to say about it, in an interview for SFX magazine:

SFX: Again, no spoilers! But what's the basic premise of your new novel?
RE: "War Machine is a sizzling rollercoaster of a novel with a gratuitous excess of violence, sex, dark humour and exotic aliens all wrapped up in a high-octane cling-film plot concerning an elite military unit illegally reformed who must battle across alien planets to discover justice, truth and revenge. Initially, the story begins with a quest to find an artefact which will reveal to Keenan the person who killed his wife and children."

Can you imagine a person really talking like that? Would you call something you wrote a "sizzling rollercoaster" "wrapped up in a high-octane clingfilm"? If not, then you're clearly not the kind of non-little man who writes Combat-K novels.

SFX: Solaris are calling you "the new master of rock-hard science fiction" - what's the appeal of this sort of writing, and how do you deliver?
RE: "I have a very low boredom threshold. And I love science fiction. However, in years past, nothing I read seemed to deliver the sort of high-explosive thriller-driven adventure I was looking for. So I decided to write my own. I suppose one way of looking at it is that if the work of Iain M. Banks (of whom I’m a great fan) is categorized as Space Opera, then my work would be classed as Space Opera – The Punk Remix. So, a sprawling canvas of interesting yet volatile characters, exotic war-torn alien locations held together with fast action, guns, chases, fights and battles, clever plot twists and a liberal pepper sprinkling of black comedy. Dune crossed with Jonny Rotten. Disney merged with The Clash. Doctor Who on heroin. Buffy, when she’s grown up and become a hooker. Hell, Star Wars with rag doll corpses and the Sith being real evil bastards."

So, we're in for some Rock-Hard Military Sci-Fi, or Punk Space Opera. What does that mean? Damned if I know. It all sounds really edgy!

This is what says about the book itself:

Product Description
In a time of post-Singularity and FTL travel, the Helix War has raged across galaxies. When ex-soldier turned privite investigtor [sic], Keenan, takes on a new case, he must overcome his demons and gather together his old military unit, a group who swore they’d never work together again....

The first sentence is reproduced verbatim on the book's back cover. It's the first issue I have with the book, so I'll start there.

In mathematics, a singularity is a point at which an equation "blows up", as Mathworld puts it. Back in the '80s, US professor and author Vernor Vinge coined the idea of a "technological singularity", which meant a point at which the growth of technology reaches such a high rate that we cannot extrapolate the future beyond it from where we are now.

As Remic's novel doesn't seem to provide any alternative meaning for "Singularity", the assumption that a sci-fi reader will make is that the blurb is referring to a technological singularity à la Vinge.

And that's why it's so pointless. If the future beyond a singularity can't be predicted, then it's logically impossible to write a novel set in a time after a singularity. In the same interview, Remic says his "Combat-K" novels are set "a million years into the future". That's a ridiculous number; we, homo sapiens, haven't been around for even close to a million years. A million years in the future is an impossibly long time to make predictions, as is any time beyond a technological singularity. The best you can do is guess, and by the very definition of a singularity, your guess will be based on incomplete data and can't really be accurate.

The blurb on the back cover continues:

Ex-soldier Keenan now works as a private investigator on a planet at the peaceful fringes of the Quad-Gal. Following the brutal death of his family he's run up hefty debts, gained a bad reputation and become a heavy drinker.

So it's a post-Singularity novel featuring an alcoholic private dick? Some singularity.


So we have a book called War Machine, with half of U2 on the cover, billed as "rock-hard military science fiction". It's set in the pointless contradiction that is a "post-Singularity" future where there are alcoholic private investigators. The author poses with chainsaws, describes himself like a 12-year-old and hates book reviews.

All this, and I haven't even started reading yet.