Welcome to something new, and something I might keep up or not: book reviews. I probably won’t do it for every book I read but I’ll give it a go for a while and see what I feel.
The Last Good Man is a near-future Mil-SF. Because that covers a variety of sins, politically the world is pretty recognisable: we still have nation states, at least some of those have armies and so on, but a lot of what today we’d call military action or heavy police action is in the hands of private military companies, much like we’re actually seeing in Iraq. These range from small companies that maintain maybe a dozen of their own troops, but hire more, to companies that, it is implied can field thousands.
So far this wouldn’t be a Mil-SF novel so much as slightly speculative fiction but it crosses that border because the setting is far enough in the future for some serious advances in drone technology and AI to have taken off. Biomimetic mayflies can deliver a neurotoxin payload, a snake or a beetle can infiltrate a compound and spy out the guard positions and the like. On the other side of the coin pilots are essentially redundant: they command squadrons of aircraft in white hat companies and nation-state actor militaries to give kill orders but their ability to actually react fast enough and fly any sort of aircraft is not good enough and most soldiers are worried it won’t be long before the same is true for them.
This book has an effective story that lays out the groundwork for its world and builds the twists and turns of its plot neatly on top of them. There are times when various of the characters’ choices are certainly questionable but we’re presented with enough background that while I don’t think I agreed with anyone all the time I always felt I could understand why they were acting as they were - I was never jarred into thinking “that’s incredibly out of character” and dropping out of the world the book was creating.
To my mind this made for a good reading experience without meta-judgement and shouting at the characters for being stupid.
We have a truism that great SF holds up a twisted mirror on our society. I’m not sure The Last Good Man quite does that. Some people are certainly wrestling with ethical questions about using drones to strike down targets who cannot retaliate in today’s world. This doesn’t really hold up a mirror to that, it takes it two steps further: what happens when the people can easily find the drone pilot and mount a suicide bomb attack against them at home? It also takes that another step further and asks us to consider what will happen when war, at least for the rich countries, is not about human casualties? What happens when you order $1M worth of drones to kill the next Bin Laden or rescue a hostage or whatever?
Mil-SF is not something I get into that often. I find it a hard read because it’s too far from my mindset, it’s too often obsessed with toys and raids and killing people and so on in a way that just doesn’t resonate with me. Perhaps this means The Last Good Man won’t work for a lot of typical Mil-SF fans but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
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