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The sub-genre of military SF is sometimes an Aliens-inspired, post-adolescent affair associated with jarhead machismo and cigar-chomping sergeants yelling "Go go go!" while their gutsy youngbloods run around blowing shit up for God and Country. A Just Determination is a welcome deviation from that comic-book norm. John Hemry, a writer who draws upon his own naval experience for verisimilitude in his storytelling, gives SF its own JAG with this intelligent and engrossing legal drama. This modest release is one of the more worthwhile and provocative novels to come my way in 2003.

Our protagonist is Ensign Paul Sinclair, USN, who, as the year 2098 is winding to close, finds himself assigned to his first tour of duty aboard the USS Michaelson. One of the many duties with which Sinclair is overwhelmed is that of ship's legal officer. He has had exactly one course in the subject at the academy.

Around to the first hundred pages depict Sinclair's getting used to shipboard life, making friends among his fellow junior officers, learning which of his hardass superiors are fair about it and which aren't, that sort of thing. This is fairly boilerplate military fiction stuff, but it's still fun to read in Hemry's hands. Hemry gets you into Sinclair's environment, and his depiction of the life of a young greenhorn sailor (that's what the Navy still calls them, even on spaceships) is compellingly realized...if often humorously idealized. I mean, I can understand that Hemry, as a proud veteran, would want to write a positive portrayal of the service, but it's stretching plausibility that hardly any of these sailors so much as swear! (The language is totally PG-rated throughout.) Still, that's a nitpick. Whether Hemry simply wanted to make his book all-ages appropriate, or whether he just didn't want adult language getting in the way of his themes, the point is that it is thematically where the novel's merits lie.

As the Michaelson is patrolling US-controlled space (I'd like to see Hemry address the concept of exporting nationalism into space in a sequel someday — how can any nation lay a territorial claim to empty vacuum?), they come upon a vessel from the South Asian Alliance that will not respond to any communication and that leads them on a chase for weeks. Sinclair advises the Michaelson's captain, a man of dubious competence named Wakeman, that their orders are sufficiently vague and open to broad interpretation in allowing Wakeman to decide how to pursue the mysterious intruders. When it appears as if the Asian ship is preparing to turn on the Michaelson and open fire, Wakeman orders a preemptive strike that destroys it, killing all on board.

Horror of horrors: the Asian ship is a totally unarmed civilian research vessel, and the Michaelson is ordered back to base, where Wakeman is hauled up before a court martial. But even though everyone, even Sinclair, agrees that Wakeman went way too far, Sinclair feels that the Admiralty's piling on of charges — they've hit him with everything in the book, and as the Asians are royally and justifiably pissed, politics is obviously behind it — isn't just. Thus Sinclair is placed in a moral predicament. Should he testify in defense of a captain even he doesn't like, that even he feels should be convicted, simply not crucified? Is there room for Sinclair's idealistic notions of justice and right and wrong in the messy real world?

It is, of course, the oldest of old hats where legal fiction is concerned: the stalwart and noble young defender of All That is Just in a world so thoroughly corrupt that success seems impossible. But Hemry succeeds because he doesn't go nearly that arch with it all. This is no Mr. Smith Goes to Outer Space here, with one great Truth to preach. The climactic court-martial scene is something of a tour de force. Hemry commendably depicts the decisions Sinclair makes without insisting that his readers agree with them. He doesn't spell it all out for you and tell you what to think. As a result, it is easy to respect Sinclair without necessarily thinking his decisions are always right (and I'm still not sure I do), the ones you would have made. Other curious details in the story — we never learn exactly why the Asian ship declined to communicate, nor why they turned towards the Michaelson in a way that looked threatening — aren't storytelling flaws on Hemry's part but are meant to be ambiguous, representing the kinds of unanswered questions every complex legal case seems to have, and reinforcing the notion that it's often impossible to find a black-and-white answer to a mystery in a sea of grey.

A Just Determination is that most unusual of military stories: one unabashedly pro-service that still acknowledges the too-human flaws in the system and the moral dilemmas commonly faced in military life. When you consider how easily military fiction often falls four-square to one side or the other of an ideological coin, with the flag-waving semper fi fantasies of John Wayne and Audie Murphy on one, and the bitter cynicism of post-Vietnam — Apocalypse Now, Oliver Stone — on the other, Hemry's nuanced approach is praiseworthy. (It's also sheer dumb luck that this book was released right after the 2003 Iraq War, with the US facing the embarrassing revelations that its evidence of the rumored WMD's that were the supposed justification for the attack was fabricated.) With a little less romanticizing of practical matters — c'mon John, you don't have to make these sailors choirboys to get us to like them — and just as much attention to his deeper themes, I think Hemry's future adventures of Paul Sinclair can only grow more rewarding. I'm determined to follow them.

Followed by Burden of Proof.