Review © 2002 T. M. Wagner.
Before his untimely death at the beginning of 2001, Rick Shelley spent the 90's carving a niche for himself in the echelons of military SF. After reading Until Relieved, the impression I'm left with is that people who have served or who are currently serving in the armed forces would probably enjoy Shelley a hell of a lot more than us civilians. This novel is simply a dry depiction of a military campaign, technically precise to a fault, and yet totally sterile when it comes to those elements most readers associate with good novel-writing: plot and character. The former is wafer-thin here, the latter literally nonexistent.
The story is set, not very convincingly, several thousand years in the future. I say "not very convincingly" not because I have some kind of brilliant clairvoyant knowledge of how life that far in the future really will be, but because Shelley's characters and situations could have been plucked right out of any old World War II programmer. I've said it before: setting a story in such a remote time frame is a tricky business for writers. The few who have done it well (Herbert with the Dune novels, for instance) have managed to strike a delicate balance between the exotic and the accessible, creating future societies that are strange enough that readers can suspend their disbelief sufficiently to say, "Okay, it's 10,000 AD, fine," but not so strange that the novels just go way over the top. Shelley's grunts are no different than those you'd see in any old episode of Rat Patrol or Combat! with Vic Morrow, which is hard to swallow since we're told more time has passed between now and then than has passed between ancient Mesopotamia and now. I could buy Shelley's milieu a lot more easily if he had just set it in, say, 2300 or something.
Anyway, in Shelley's distant future exists the Accord of Free Worlds, a federation of colonized planets who end up going to war with an independent colonial government, the Schlinal Hegemony, when the Hegemony gets all expansionist and occupies several Accord planets. Among the many Accord military divisions sent off to fight the good fight is the 13th Spaceborne, who end up on a planet called Porter. They, along with many other units, are meant to keep the Hegemony forces busy so they cannot send reinforcements to another planet where the key battle is taking place. So the 13th inserts onto Porter and they fight and they fight and they fight. They shoot at the Hegemony, the Hegemony shoots back, things blow up, and then some more things blow up. Brave young men die, and stalwart sergeants say things like, "We were all scared. That's what combat is all about." The 13th can only hold out on Porter for eight days before their relief team has to come get them, otherwise it's trouble. Of course, things go wrong at the worst possible time for our heroes, and so on.
The book is a series of battle scenes from start to finish, and if you had told me at any time prior to now that a book full of battle scenes would be one of the most boring books I'd ever read, I'd have said something like "Pshaw!" or "Fiddlesticks!" or maybe, were I in a whimsical mood, "Poppycock!" Or I might have just said, "Yeah, whatever." But this book never engaged my interest once, never generated any feelings of suspense or white-knuckle excitement, never got the old adrenaline pumping. Because, kids, there's nothing duller than a battle scene when you haven't been given real characters to fear for and a stake in the outcome. I never felt like the 13th Spaceborne were "our side," that their fight was mine. There are no characters here, just the usual roll call of last names labelling die-cast action figures. There are only two men who stand out in memory. Sgt. Joe Baerclau, who is memorable only for the fact his name is pronounced "Bearclaw." Shelley gives him the only thing in the book resembling a backstory, and even then all we find out is that he liked to eat cinammon toast for breakfast as a kid, and stuff like that. No word on if he ate bear claws. Also, Pvt. Kam Goff fills the necessary role of greenhorn private who's never seen action, barfs as his first sight of blood, and thus must grow up really really fast on the front lines. To his credit, Shelley spares us the cliché of Guy Who's Just Gotten Engaged and Has Everything to Live For, and Will Thus Die Horribly by Chapter Four. But it's not enough to rescue the book from torpor.
Shelley, however, was painstaking in his handling of the technical details of military operations. That part of the book is handled expertly, which is why I say that actual servicemen and veterans will probably want to kick the rating up a couple of stars. For my part, I think for a story about war to have any kind of meaningful impact, whether it's a modern day war, a historical conflict (WW2, Civil War, etc.) , or a combat SF actioner, then the story really has to convey the human dimension. The tragedy and the heroism of war lies in the people involved, not the hardware.