SFX at Waterstone's Piccadilly

New Releases: Veteran by Gavin Smith

VeteranVeteran hits shelves this June. The debut novel by Gavin Smith, it is pegged to please fans of Alastair Reynolds and Richard Morgan. 

With the latter, at least, the comparisons are obvious. Both Smith and Morgan write hard-hitting, nihilistic SF about burned-out super-soldiers facing all sorts of nasty threats.

Smith, however, manages to make Richard Morgan look subtle - not a sentence I ever thought I'd type. 

Veteran is a 416 page blitzkreig. A scavenger hunt for various McGuffins propels the ever-growing party of characters from one high-caliber, set-piece action sequence to another. The book is fueled by a giddy enthusiasm, a sort of authorial schadenfreude, as the characters continually bounce from one frying pan to another.

[Editor's note: I've now exhausted my knowledge of German. You're safe to proceed.]

Jakob Douglas is ex-Special Forces, which means, like everyone else in Dundee, he's a veteran (although more badass than most, of course). He's got all sorts of crazy augmentations in his body - more metal than man. His depressing (if tranquil) life in Dundee is interrupted by his old commander, who wants Jakob to go fetch an alien infiltrator. The same sort of alien infiltrator that used to kick Jakob's ass out in the Big Battle in the Stars. 

It doesn't take Jakob long to find the alien - but what he thought was an assassin is actually some sort of ambassador (and in mental possession of a Hooker-with-a-Heart-of-Gold). Could it be that the military-industrial complex that's kept the entirety of Earth in state of slavish conscription for generations is lying to him? Dundee alone can't hold the enormity of this twist, so, HWAHOG in tow, Jakob hits the road. 

Dundee leads to to Hull, which is kind of like a post-Apocalyptic hippie commune: Ewoks with guns. In Hull, Jakob and HWAHOG fight off enemy Walkers (name not changed to protect the innocent). With HWAHOG still simpering in the background, Jakob then goes to New York. New York is partially submerged, and ruled by a mutated man-demon-monster named Balor. From New York, they go the American Midwest, which is a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which people drive around on motorbikes (biker gangs come in convenient voodoo, hillbilly and Nazi flavors). Back to New York, then exploring undersea - checking out the submerged base of a space elevator. From there, up the elevator, secret laboratories, and ultimately (unrelated to the elevator), into space itself.

This is spoiler-free, as it gives away nothing of the plot. Each chapter is concluded with someone saying, "Great. Now that we have A, let's go find [the previously-unmentioned] B." In case the action - bike races, gunfights, knife fights, fist fights, torture, armored suit fights, sniper fights, hacker magic fights, gladiatorial pit fights, fighty fighty fight fights - ever slows down, the book is all peppered with flashbacks to Jakob's time fighting aliens. The carnage of the present day is punctuated with the italicized carnage of the past.

So, why does this actually work?

Three reasons. The first, is that the aforementioned gleeful enthusiasm actually comes through on every page. Not to ascribe authorial motivation, but Veteran seems to something that Smith clearly enjoyed writing, and that fun bleeds through (or, in more Veteran-like language, flies out in an arterial spray.) If the book lovingly details every shot fired from the laser-acquired chest-shoulder anti-ballistic neuro-blaster, that's forgivable, as it never slows down the feverish pace. And, frankly, if you're not into 50mm laser-acquired master-blaster power-armor mojo-bang-boom-mounted whatnots, this won't be your book anyway. BUT, from the cycle races to the power armor, this book is about having fun. Jakob, bless him, supports this with his modicum of character. He's no longer a discarded weapon: he's re-activated, re-charged and out to kick some ass. With his rediscovery of purpose comes an infectious joy. With each of his explosions, we, the reader, are lifted a little higher. (Ok, maybe that's reading too much into it, but still... kablooie = fun-time.)

Secondly, when Smith isn't bogged down in describing the curvature of the auto-Gauss mega-cannon mark 9, the dialogue is surprisingly snappy. As the adventuring party gets larger, the chat gets all the more entertaining. Individually, none of the characters is worth a damn. But as a collective, they've got just enough page space to be entertaining. Whereas any (rare) bout of introspection had me groaning, the group exchanges actually had me laughing out loud.

Finally, Smith isn't about world building. The many, many impossible set-pieces all have the feel of being written as the book goes along, without any idea of how one fits into the other. Geographically, the Earth of the future is a complete mish-mash. Nor, aside from some lip-service to wars & whatnot, does the reader really have any idea what happened. The world of Veteran is how it is - no history necessary. That's O.K. This is a.. if not a "triumph", a "well-fought draw" of storytelling over world-building. If the next chapter needs (or wants) to take place in a post-Apocalyptic desert, than, fuck it, let's go there and figure out where the desert came from afterwards. It wouldn't work if we cared a little more about the characters or the overall plot, but as those have been sacrificed from the start anyway, let's just make the ride as enjoyable as possible. 

What Veteran lacks in composure, it makes up in enthusiasm. If like your guns big, explosions bigger, hookers golden-hearted and plots insubstantial, this is the book for you.