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Book cover artist not credited.
Review © 2002 by Thomas M. Wagner.

Ben Weaver is one of the current crop of combat SF writers working to bring a healthy dose of humanity to a subgenre too long associated with lowbrow machismo and lotsa stuff blowing up. His debut novel Brothers in Arms, despite some iffy early scenes, proves that he is up to the challenge. The hero of this 24th century actioner is one Scott St. Andrew, the genetically flawed scion of a mining family hailing from a distant colony. Scott, along with his brother, has enlisted in the Seventeen System Guard Corps in the interest of bettering himself, but his genetic impurities — a result of his homeworld's harsh climate — forever stigmatize him, and he bears the brunt of prejudice.

Scott is the weak link in his platoon of cadets. He simply isn't up to the physical challenge. But he really takes the Corps oath and its ideals seriously, more seriously even than many of his fellow cadets who are better and stronger than he is. When the colonies suddenly revolt against the Earth-based Alliance government, and all at once interstellar war breaks out, things change quickly. Scott must choose sides, and quickly: fight for the colonies, his home, or fight for the Alliance, who, up until now, maintained the Guard Corps?

Into this tale of coming-of-age angst Weaver inserts an intriguing if seemingly unfinished subplot concerning long-vanished aliens known as Racinians, whose remnants have been discovered scattered throughout all of the known, colonized systems after having first been found beneath the surface of a moon of Neptune. Some Racinian technology, particularly a form of "conditioning" that seriously enhances one's mental state, is being utilized by the Corps. After undergoing conditioning (which results in tragedy for some of Scott's fellow cadets), soldiers possess the ability to, in Weaver's words, access the "bonds between particles" at the quantum level. In short, this gives Scott and several of his fellows super powers right out of the comics (or more to the point, many of the same skills Heinlein's Starship Troopers enjoyed with their powered armor). They can leap hundreds of feet in the air, jog up walls and over ceilings, and hit 110 kph at a full sprint without breaking sweat.

I kind of had a little problem with the plausibility of all this. Weaver has doubtless studied quantum physics more than I, and I suppose this could all be laid out with perfect believability. But it still felt to me like a cheat. As if Weaver had simply wanted to make indistinguishable-from-magic elements into his story and make them sound SFnal by attaching the word "quantum" to them. In any case, it's an element of the novel I felt needed a lot more development, as were the Racinians themselves. Exactly what are those caves near the Corps boot camps, and why do they possess healing powers, and what is that one cadet who apparently took badly to the conditioning doing wandering through them by herself? And why do the cadets spend so much time with rappelling exercises down cliff faces when conditioning allows them to jog right up sheer vertical walls?

By the time Brothers in Arms reaches its second half, Weaver has thankfully run through his allowance of first-novel flaws and the story climbs several rungs in quality. Characterization proves to be Weaver's trump card. We end up warming to this story because we care strongly about the people in it. Scott and three of his fellow cadets find themselves thrust into command positions very quickly as the war kicks into high gear, and Scott himself must deal with such powerful personal conflicts as killing (he has a hard time not identifying with enemy soldiers, and dwelling on the fact that every one he kills leaves another family without a son or daughter) and even mutiny, when a sergeant under him revolts in the heat of battle. There's also a nice you-can't-go-home-again scene that Weaver executes with class, avoiding maudlin melodrama as well as could be expected.

Weaver doesn't give short shrift to his supporting players either. Halitov, a former rival of Scott's in boot camp, becomes Scott's cautious ally and dramatic foil. So much stronger in training than Scott, he ends up taking to the conditioning much worse, and though he's more than capable in action, the psychological price he pays is profound. Although I never really fully bought into the whole quantum-supermen thing, Weaver did a very good job of giving me a cast of believable, conflicted people with whom to empathize.

Weaver stands to win himself a sizable cadre of fans with Brothers in Arms, and I hope that in its sequels (this book stops abruptly in medias res, which would be a pisser if it weren't a foregone conclusion that every SF book these days is written with a sequel in the pipeline) he'll fill in some of the blanks until at last we're presented with a solid future history from which many more exciting tales can be launched.

Followed by Rebels in Arms.