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In the final Paul Sinclair novel, John Hemry concludes an exceptionally thoughtful and intelligent series on a strong note. Here we see Sinclair — promoted at last to full lieutenant while on his last tour of duty aboard the Michaelson — deeply stung by the slings and arrows hurled his way as backhanded punishment for his principles. He is a man who's always gone out of his way to do what he deeply believes is right. But Hemry takes pains not to let this quality turn Sinclair into the sort of annoying paragon of righteousness we often see, whose moral unimpeachability renders him banal and phony. Indeed, Sinclair has never met a moral conflict that didn't throw him into a turmoil of soul searching, and in Against All Enemies that internal tension reaches a boil. Sometimes it seems as if enemies are all a truly ethical man has, especially an ethical man in world of no easy choices.

This refusal to live in a black-and-white world of moral certainty is what sets Hemry's work apart from that of so many other military SF writers. Instead of trading in simplistic delineations in Right and Wrong (particularly the kinds of delineations that have little to do with what is really right or wrong as much as what satisfies the political agendas of one's ideology of choice), Hemry recognizes a reality composed of greys, in which what seems like the right choice at the time isn't necessarily, once the long-term implications are considered. And consequences can be dire, especially when one packs heavy weaponry.

Some readers who prefer unambiguous moral clarity in their stories, their heroes square-jawed and their villians dastardly (perhaps because it's so hard for them to find that kind of thing in real life), might consider this approach akin to wishy-washy moral relativism. Which it decisively is not. And anyway, my experience with people who think in terms of moral "absolutes" is that they usually tend to be folks who just want you to follow their favorite list of rules. Most military SF is staunchly conservative. Hemry's seems neither conservative nor liberal. If it's conservative, it's conservative only in a more old-school definition of the term: the advocacy of a cautious and sensible but ultimately decisive approach to problems. And if it's liberal, it's in that Hemry recognizes there's more than one point of view, one set of solutions worth considering.

In Against All Enemies, the principled Sinclair finds himself confronted with the possibility of a shipmate with none to speak of. An exercise in which the Michaelson and several ships of allied nations, as well as some from the South Asian Alliance (SASAL), are supervising the eviction of a group of cultists who have hijacked a ship and illegally settled an asteroid, suddenly goes Waco when the SASAL ships open fire on the squatters for no apparent reason. The Navy's rules of engagement strictly disallow any return fire unless the SASAL fire upon them directly. By positioning their ships between the SASAL ships and the asteroid, the Michaelson and her allies put a stop to the hostilities. But not in time to save most of the civilians.

Upon their return to the Naval station the Franklin, the idea is floated that the behavior of the SASAL vessels indicated they might have known more about the Michaelson's rules of engagement than they should have. Suspicions are strengthened when Navy NCIS reveals to the Michaelson's captain that they have strong evidence of actual espionage. Some sailor is selling the Navy out to the SASAL.

Treason is such a familiar trope of military and spy fiction that it's the rare novel that actually drives home the bitter anger and hurt characters would feel at such a betrayal of trust and comradeship. Hemry gives us that dramatic boost. On top of it he adds Sinclair's deep ambivalence at being asked to aid the investigation, going so far as to wear a wire around the suspected crew members and bugging their computers. What if the suspicions are wrong? Can Sinclair mute his feelings of possibly betraying his shipmates and balance them with the need to find the guilty party? And can Sinclair really trust the government to handle this properly and do the right thing, knowing how close they came to railroading his own fianceé, Lt. Jen Shen, in Rule of Evidence? And why does this stuff always fall on his shoulders, anyway?

Hemry fleshes things out with a subplot involving the looming end of Sinclair's tour aboard the Michaelson, followed by marriage to Jen — all of which is now threatened by sudden orders dispatching him to Mars for anywhere from two to four more years. There are many people in positions to mess with Sinclair's life who'd be only too happy to do so (the admiral whose son Sinclair helped convict in Burden of Proof, for one, Jen's dad for another). As the new captain taking over the Michaelson tells Sinclair, "You're high-level radioactive." Such is the fate of whistleblowers and those who dare to tell the truth when powerful careers are threatened.

The only time the book veers toward contrivance is in having the counsel for the accused turn out to be Sinclair's smug older brother David, a civilian under whose shadow Sinclair nonetheless feels he has always lived. It sets up a rather obvious brother-vs-brother tension and gives the denouement a bit of patness in resolving their issues. But there is still, at the story's wrapup, a real sense of satisfaction at the culmination of this phase of Sinclair's life. The possibility of a followup series involving his career on Mars dangles tantalizingly. He's the kind of imperfect hero we genuinely like, because in him we recognize our daily battle against all our enemies, especially the insecurities that betray us from within.


Addendum: After Hemry found greater commercial success writing The Lost Fleet series as "Jack Campbell," he published a new story about Jen Shen, "Failure to Obey," in the July/August 2009 Analog.