You just can’t go wrong with Glen Cook. Best known for his “Black Company” series of novels which are widely considered the fathers of modern grimdark fantasy, Glen Cook also has produced a string of solid sci-fi works that get a lot less press. His “The Dragon Never Sleeps” presents a convoluted space opera full of betrayals, big battles, and alien oddities, while “Darkwar” starts off with a dark-age setting populated by tiger-people who are actually being groomed for space wizardry. Both of these novels are enjoyable one-off reads perfect those of us who have little interest in multi-volume epics that follow a familiar path. Cook’s “Passage at Arms” provides another example of the short but sweet aesthetic, and this time gives the reader one of the best examples of submarine warfare – but in space! – that I’ve ever encountered.
The technical aspects of the story involve a war of attrition between equally matched forces. The antagonists have a larger and stronger fleet with instantaneous communications. The protagonists have the advantage of near-perfect cloaking devices. These cloaking devices allow ships to “climb” up into a hyper-reality and move about nearly undetected. Unfortunately, the “climber ships” are basically massive cloaking devices and fuel tanks with a bit of room left over for anti-ship missiles and maybe less important details like defensive weapons, crew quarters, and food. I guess. If the fleet really has to.
The result is a hard sci-fi universe where the plucky heroes serve as the doomed crewmembers of a space submarine tasked with hunting the shipping and patrol lanes of a larger, stronger, and better organized enemy. To add another layer of complexity to the situation, strong hints are provided that the enemy might actually be the good guys in this conflict.
As with all the best tales of this type, the tech and the setting – as interesting as they are – provide a colorful background to the stars of the tale, the characters. The tech provides the rules of the game, and the nature of their challenge of survival. The conflict provides an excuse to throw them into danger. But those are all just literal set dressing. The heart of the story is that of a gimpy former soldier turned star reporter who volunteers to be embedded into a climber mission as a propaganda coup for the hard-pressed leaders of the climber fleet.
As a story telling device, the “reporter learning about the climbers” works great to seamlessly provide exposition to the reader in a natural way. We learn about climbers through the main character. His desire to learn everything about the ship and its crew also provides a natural way to pluck at the threads of each of the members of the crew and get inside their heads while never leaving the perspective of that of a newcomer ill-suited to the pressures of nerve-wracking nature of submarine (supermarine?) warfare.
Clen Cook never fails to remind us that our little ship is crewed by young men barely out of childhood. The “old man” is 26 years old. Our narrator, wounded and jaded and cynical, is younger yet and struggles with his own conflicting views on his mission to tell the real story of these heroic young men and his duty to his superiors to paint a rosy picture of the noble warriors riding to battle on the climber ships. He struggles to make sense of an Admiral at once hard nosed and pragmatic, and often given to dramatic flourishes of speech. He cannot reconcile that the Admiral both loves the men who serve under him, and who sends those men out on hopeless missions to die alone and cold in the harsh vacuum of space.
These two, captain and journalist, their old friendship strained by hard years lived apart, form the center of the story, but as the story progresses we get to experience all the joys and resentments and pains of young men aged too soon, young men who have learned to live with the ever-present specter of death hanging over their heads as they play a deadly game of cat and mouse in the empty spaces among the stars. Some are warm, some aloof, some eager to please, and some resentful of the wasted mass of a useless reporter aboard an already overtaxed ship. All feel real and human, through the course of the story, the reader comes to appreciate how fifty men so different from each other, can still come together to form a tight-knit team capable of unthinkable acts of bravery, selflessness, and endurance.
Told with Cook’s usual terse style that wastes not a single word, “Passage At Arms” represents everything that military science-fiction does best. It’s a character study, a contemplation of the bonds of brotherhood, a treatise on the personal costs of war, and a gripping and tense thriller, all wrapped up in a short read less than 200 pages long.
If you are a fan of military science-fiction, I cannot recommend “Passage At Arms” strongly enough. Not for the faint of heart, and not for those who favor splodey-splosions over all else, this novel represents the best that the science fiction genre has to offer.