Sunday, October 12, 2014

Steph Reads Baened Books: Brad Torgersen's The Chaplain's War

"My sleep schedule is completely messed up now. I woke up at midnight last night and didn't get back to sleep until four."

"Did you do any reading in the meantime?"


"Well, then at least the time wasn't wasted."

"As a matter of fact, I finished Brad Torgersen's book, The Chaplain's War."

"Did the chaplain win?"

It was here in the above conversation with my father that I paused -- for while the novel does end on a high note, I'm not sure said conclusion could be classified as a "win" in the way Dad intended it. Despite its title and its nods to the traditions of military science fiction, The Chaplain's War isn't that kind of story; it's more about fostering peace than about triumphing in combat.

For Analog readers - and for those of you who have read Brad's first anthology, Lights in the Deep
- some of the ground covered in The Chaplain's War will be very familiar, as the book includes (and then extends) the full texts of "The Chaplain's Assistant" and The Chaplain's Legacy (the latter of which I reviewed here in one of my 2014 Hugo posts).  The story follows Harrison Barlow, a military enlistee who, despite his agnosticism, has fallen into an assignment with the chaplain's corps because he doesn't really fit in anywhere else. Barlow is sent with a Fleet contingent to capture a world held by the mantes - an insectoid/cyborg race that has attacked several of Earth's outlying colonies - and is ultimately taken prisoner when Earth's badly outmatched forces are roundly defeated. In the valley where he and his fellow soldiers are contained by a deadly forcefield, Barlow constructs and maintains a small multi-denominational chapel in order to fulfill a promise to his chaplain and superior officer. There, he stumbles on an opportunity to stop the human/mantes war in its tracks.

The new material Brad has added to this novel includes a series of flashbacks covering Barlow's enlistment and early Fleet experiences and a denouement in which Barlow and the Queen Mother deal with the consequences of the events in The Chaplain's Legacy. And it's funny: Despite this book's piece-wise construction, old and new fit together extremely well. Just one example: In boot camp, a young Barlow encounters a bully who seems to determined to make his life hell. What Barlow does about this - and the lesson he learns along the way - only amplifies the theme of the original tale on which this novel is based. To put it another way: The additions are wholly organic and feel like they've always belonged in the story; they do not appear to be afterthoughts.

And the aforementioned theme, as I noted above, is peace - in particular, how it might be honorably achieved. In a way, I think it's appropriate to see The Chaplain's War as an extended reply to Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers. While the earlier work - at least in part - emphasized the sad necessity of violence, Brad invites us to consider a more optimistic alternative. Could we coexist? Could intercultural dialog actually foster understanding? I don't know -- but I think it's important that we don't completely dismiss the possibility. (By the way: The parallelism I see between The Chaplain's War and Starship Troopers is why I can't agree with the one Amazon reviewer who complained that the boot camp scenes in the former were "unoriginal." Brad's use of familiar military science fiction tropes in those scenes, I feel, is a deliberate call-back, not a creative failure -- and when you read said scenes in context, you realize that their purpose actually diverges from the standard.)

There are also several secondary themes that cannot be ignored. For instance, Brad has a great deal to say about God. He doesn't preach, mind you; his presentation is carefully ecumenical and respectful of divergent views. But the sense that there is Something Greater in charge of the universe is an integral feature of The Chaplain's War -- one that, I feel, qualifies the novel for the burgeoning "Superversive" Movement. (Indeed, I invite John C. Wright and his wife to read the scene in the observation dome between Barlow and the Queen Mother and see whether they agree.) Brad also evinces a skepticism in re: transhumanism that deserves to be taken just as seriously. True: These messages may turn off those with more militant atheistic viewpoints, but for me, they made the reading experience all the more enjoyable. Unlike some, I don't believe spirituality and science fiction should never mix -- or that religiosity and rational knowability are in radical conflict.

I could say more, but I'll finish with this: If the "Superversive" or "Human Wave" movements appeal to you, you need to read this book. If you've been following the historical conversation in the science fiction genre in re: "battling the bugs," you need to read this book. If you're just looking for a good, positive read, you need to read this book. Hell -- if you like traditional science fiction, you need to read this book. I promise you won't be disappointed.

Final Verdict: Highly Recommended.

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