Friday, June 1, 2012

Temporary Duty

UPDATE: I just learned that Mr. Locke has passed away. Sadly, his excellent novel will have no sequel. RIP Ric Locke: You were a better writer than this world deserved.

When I love a book, I drop everything to write a review. I've posted parts of this on Goodreads and also on Amazon, so parts of what follows will be familiar to some of you.

I give this work 10 stars out of 5 because the author likes what I like and hates what I hate. Your mileage may vary: Do you love IRS agents? How about strutting martinets? How about regulations and abusive regulators? Do you think the Department of Agriculture should field a SWAT team?

Love these people and you'll hate Temporary Duty (TDY).

Now imagine 50 years in the future and that present trends continue. Bipartisan trends of bigger, more intrusive government. (I'm not hating on Democrats or letting any Republicans off the blame.) Bureaucracies naturally grow unless someone demands with career-ending force, "stop."

Thus when aliens show up to trade, there's a lot of needless trouble caused by the gubmint. The aliens can't get the Americans to sell them groceries. The only thing they get is the services of a detachment of F-14 Tomcats and F-18 Hornets with their engines replaced with space-gizmos and weapons pods fitted with freakin' lasers that can pop popcorn.

With these aircraft come Naval aviators to fly them. They aren't pilots, and they will correct you if you say otherwise. Naval aviators are officers.

I was never in the military, but I did have a chance to work around a lot of military folks when I was younger. That's where I learned the concept of TDY. I got along best with the Air Force guys. They were "civilians in uniform" after all. The Navy guys were a bit high strung. I had a college pal who'd done four years as an enlisted man in the Coast Guard and after graduation from college he went back in as an officer. He described with great bemusement the differences between the castes--particularly, at mealtimes.

If you think officers walk on water, and enlisted men are pond scum that soils their shoes, you won't like TDY. But if you like a little blue-collar fun poked at the officers, keep reading.

Enter John Peters a second rate seaman in the US Navy. Someone has to clean up the quarters for the officers who'll be flying the birds before they show up. He and his buddy Todd are contracted to wield the mops and swab the decks. Peters got a West Virginnie accent thickern mollasses in January. But he's a quick study with the alien trade language.

When the regular Navy arrives a quirk in his orders places him outside the normal chain of command. This, plus the fact that the officers cannot be troubled to learn the trade language creates opportunities and conflicts with Peters in the middle of it.

They ship off to distant stars and adventures ensue.

Do you remember on Star Trek how they never had any money on the ship? Nobody had to polish the brightwork.

The alien trade ship isn't like that.

As the voyage progresses, we meet an interesting array of aliens in shapes familiar to readers of fairy tales. Each of them offer valued goods and services in trade.

The recurring theme in this story is that Peters has the right answers and the aliens are listening to him while higher ranking officers are ordering him to shut up. As a result, he alone enjoys financial opportunities that he pursues to his advantage.

Everything is quite civilized except for the occasional attack by space pirates. The officers may be jerks, but they do know aerial combat. The space battles are pleasing to read. As are the salvage operations afterward. Our hero manages to come away with some sweet pirate booty.

Some make block-headed claims that there is no character development. Peters starts the book as nothing more than a swabbie with a thoroughly blue-collar, enlisted man's view of the world and the Navy in which he serves. He goes along to get along. Right after the second pirate attack, he visibly changes into someone much more ruthless. I can't see him dispatching his kidnappers in the first chapter without asking someone's permission. By the last chapter he is manifesting leadership, inspiring his people, and leading a significant, uh, organization.

This is an excellent novel about which I can offer no higher praise. It is good, old-fashioned space opera the way they used to write it. If you like Heinlein, here's your huckleberry. If you like seeing young mid-shipman Hornblower repeatedly get beat up and treated unfairly, but persevere to grow into Lord Admiral Hornblower, read this novel.

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