Book Review: Unbreakable
by W. C. Bauers
Despite having editors at the splendid Tor publishing house, despite having reading groups of fellow writers, despite having friends and loved ones, despite (presumably) having the common sense God gave him, despite everything, W. C. Bauers has titled his debut novel Unbreakable. The book is the first installment in a science fiction series called “The Chronicles of Promise Paen,” and, clearly, if the author has his way, Book 2 will be called The Return and Book 3 The Reckoning. So what if you’re dead-set on giving your book a title that 475,000 books have had before it? It’s your singularity of vision that will make your book stand out, right?
Whatever else he might have been thinking while he was writing Unbreakable, Bauers could not possibly have been thinking about his own singularity of vision; he has to have known at every stage of composition that he was writing an intensely, almost parodically derivative book. This is the story of a young woman named Promise Paen, who’s motivated to join the Marines of the Republic of Aligned Worlds (RAW, you see) when her family on the remote backwater world of Montana is slaughtered by marauders. She turns out to test in the top percentiles for combat and leadership skills, soon commands her own platoon, and sees combat against the armed forces of the Republic’s arch enemy, the Lusitanian Empire.
Any science fiction fan who’s gone through even one pon farr will be able to predict with near-complete accuracy every single thing that flows from such an over-familiar – not to say hackneyed – premise. There’ll be lots of action; there’ll be plenty of pointless ‘military’-style word-abbreviations (“klik” for kilometer, of course, but also “‘verse” for “universe,” “intel” for “intelligence,” “toon” for “platoon,” and so on); there’ll be an alphabet soup of acronymns and initialisms (“BUPERS” = “Bureau of Personnel”; “HVT” = “high value target”; “FGL” = “flexible grenade launcher”; and – a personal favorite – “GEHAK” = “Gravitic-Enhanced High-Altitude Bunker-Killer”); by ironclad contractual arrangement, at least one person will say “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
The accuracy of predicting will be near-complete instead of complete because Bauers throws in a couple of surprises. For instance, although Promise Paen has a tritely comic-booky name (“Gonna Getcha” must have been taken already), she’s actually written with an appealing depth, including the surreal and ultimately quite touching fact that she’s “haunted” by the voice (and sometimes the apparition) of her dead mother. And although our author has as much of a penchant for telegraphing his plot twists as every other author of military science fiction, he has a considerably cleaner prose-line than most of his peers:
There are flesh-and-blood marauders that plague the poorer systems. Too many of them were once Marines like you and me, boots who traded their allegiances for blood money. We’ve faced a couple of decently funded outfits, but those battles were easy. We had the advantage, better gear, superior intel. But there are more dangerous threats. It’s only a matter of time before we face an enemy who can really hurt us.
And likewise the frequent bits of Unbreakable aimed squarely at readers who have actually served in the armed forces (or are serving in them now) are written with a pleasing straightforwardness that will doubtless have them nodding in agreement, and that might very well tug at the imagination even of the flabbiest civilian, as when a starship captain muses:
Complete intelligence failures happened. He’d known a few men, men once proud and resolute in their own competence, men now diminished by failure and haunted at night by the screams of their dead. Decent and honorable men disabused of the moral rectitude of their actions by the best of teachers – defeat in combat.
Unbreakable does zero favors for those champions of science fiction who sometimes try protesting to literature-snobs that the genre isn’t just on vast sludgy sea of potboilers endlessly cannibalizing themselves for cliches. Instead, this is military pop-sci fi of the old shaggy-dog Astounding Stories variety, an unabashed shoot-em-up written solely for fans of unabashed shoot-em-ups. The fact that Bauers invests his story with some genuine writing zest is good news for those fans. Anybody else is going to feel like they just encountered the business end of a GEHAK.