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A HYMN BEFORE BATTLE
2000

Review © 2002 T. M. Wagner.
Book cover art by Patrick Turner.

AUTHOR'S SITE

JOHN RINGO


I was skeptical about how much I would like A Hymn Before Battle, which looked for all the world like mindlessly macho jarhead SF tailor-made for guys who think John Wayne is the greatest actor ever. Turns out that John Ringo's debut is about as good as combat SF gets. It may be more of a kindred spirit to Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers than Heinlein's, but Ringo more than delivers the goods when it comes to a combination of pounding action, military expertise, satirical savvy, and just plain kickass storytelling. Amongst all the testosterone are the requisite military themes of duty and honor, delivered contextually rather than didactically. Though his early chapters are a bit rocky, by the time everything hits the fan, he's got you.

Earth's first contact with aliens results in our immediately being recruited into a massive interstellar war. A Galactic Federation of worlds, led by the crafty Darhel, are facing an onslaught by the fearsome and unstoppable Posleen. Aware of humanity for years, the Darhel, along with the other species under their generally benevolent rule, make contact with humanity in the most practical way (they simply call up world leaders on the telephone!) and, as most of the federation's species have military skills ranging from ineffectual to nonexistent, they enlist humanity's aid in their struggle. The big selling point is that within five years the Posleen will arrive on Earth, dumping over a billion of their soldiers on our soil to wreak merciless havoc.

Over the next months, conscripts are called up to all the armies of the world. In the US, literally everyone still living who's ever served is called up, and veteran officers are given rejuvenation treatments by the Galactics; men of 60 are once again physically 20. (Ringo misses an opportunity to milk that for its classist commentary.) But time to train, particularly in the very Starship Troop-y combat suits, is woefully short, and the first engagements between humans and Posleen on the swampy world of Barwhon have not gone well. Lt. Michael O'Neal, en route to the planet Diess with a load of raw recruits, is one of the few soldiers proficient in the use of the combat suits. Knowing how poorly trained the men are in the suits, he recommends holding back their deployment, but is overruled by the generals. Everything seems fast-tracked to go FUBAR.

Though his own military experience informs scenes depicting ops (good stuff here), Ringo ignores the broad social impact upon the world's six billion civilians that would follow such abrupt and immersive contact with space aliens. But Ringo isn't telling that story. His focus is squarely on military matters. Still, it's funny how blasé even the generals and admirals are about zillions of aliens popping up on our doorstep. Early in the novel, the Chief of Naval Operations debriefs his staff in hilariously laconic fashion about this history-making event, and if we're to believe Ringo's dialogue, he's casually spouting alien proper nouns like "Tchpth" as if he's said them all his life. (As in Niven & Pournelle's Footfall, SF writers are consulted by the brass hats.) Hey, for all I know, the military would take exactly this kind of "down to business" approach, but it was still amusing.

It takes a while for the characters to become distinctive; for about the first hundred pages, one grunt looks (and reads) like another. But their preparations and exercises are compelling and believable, and the scenes of combat are often grueling. Ringo respects the fact that actual vets like himself will be reading his story, and he takes pains to ensure it passes muster. Many of the book's very best scenes involve personal interactions. Ringo gets a lot of mileage out of the absurd politics, both from within and without the service, that stand in the way of letting a soldier get his job done. Certainly, this book won't please the PC crowd (the only prominent female character, crackshot sniper Sgt. Ellsworthy, is completely sexualized from the get-go), but then again, neither would life in the real military.

I suppose I could say a word or two about the unfortunate timing of A Hymn Before Battle, written in 2000 and set in 2001-02, trying to recreate Gernsbackian fears of ghastly alien slimies as our greatest possible threat and suddenly being rendered obsolete by 9/11. But then you could argue that the novel isn't really obsolete after all; that the concept of suddenly being faced with an enemy whose actions you cannot possibly predict and against whom all your preparations are futile is more relevant than ever. For this reason I think it was a good choice to depict the Posleen as a marauding, faceless mass, rather than attempt to turn any of them into characters, which would simply have led to space opera clichéland. Whether Ringo meant for the book to be interpreted this way is up in the air, really, and I think immaterial. I'm sure for the most part Ringo's intent was to turn in some balls to the wall escapism, and he meets that objective. Overall, A Hymn Before Battle is a most successful operation.

Followed by Gust Front.