Like a Cranky Old Fascist (A Review)

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Review by Curtis Cole

With the ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency, and what many suspect is his imminent declaration of immortal god-hood— the One who will unite and lead humanity to the stars where, ultimately, they will confront the Chaos Gods in the Galaxy of Terro—sorry, wrong franchise; *clears throat*, at any rate, I thought an appropriate way to commiserate Trump’s electoral ‘March on Rome’ would be to delve back into the proto-fascist fiction of Nick Webb—resident punching block for my reviews here.

Independence, book one of the Legacy Ship trilogy, opens with an appropriate enough setting: university. Here we see Admiral Proctor, now retired, teaching full time to pay the bills; teaching doesn’t seem to be her vocation, though, since she spends most of her time being an Ageist cliché; her students look younger and ‘stupider’ every year, and their habit of wearing arcane dressings, becoming ‘micro-aggressed,’ and, in general, disrespecting her Pro-genocide stance, makes her one irate former militarist.

(And before I move onto said genocide, I also want to mention that early in the book there is a spectacular moment of Transphobia; a character is describing the benefits of the newly developed ‘T-Jump’ for interstellar travel, and one character refers to it as a ‘Tranny-Jump’. Though there is a mild level of encoding happening concerning the character who utters the comment, thus setting him up as a sort of immature hot-head, the very fact that Webb actually had the audacity to include it in the first place, merely as a point winner for his Neocon audience, is shameful.)

Let us slow down for a bit—genocide? Yeah, that got me confused as well.

At the end of the previous book in Webb’s sequence, Victory, we see the Swarm despoiled ((de)spoiler alert?). Their meta-space signal—something which they used to control the alien races which our human protagonists thought were the Swarm-proper, has been severed; those species which had been hijacked went on to lead a fulfilling life. Not being controlled by communistic space… signals, will do that to you. And yet, in none of that do I remember genocide; one cannot commit genocide by blocking an interdimensional signal, not unless you have an unconventional definition of the word ‘life’ (which considering Webb’s Pro-Life views, I initially strongly suspected). Regardless, it turns out that Proctor, after the events of book three, was ordered to hunt down the remnants of the first alien race which the Swarm-signal contacted and eradicate them, just to be safe. Nothing wakes you up like genocide in your cup!

Insipid references to old coffee commercials aside, though, this was a mildly confusing opening to a moderately confusing book. In hindsight, it represented in microcosm everything which was wrong with the book as a whole. But we will get there. First, Proctor’s fascism.

If you thought that Proctor’s actions post-Victory were trite and something only added to force  what is generously called character development, then hooray, you and I are on the same level. It is extremely artificial and shows a juvenile understanding of morality, chiefly due to how it forces an immature understanding of how people act in desperate situations. In turn, I have no qualms about using an equally forced analogy—Nazism.

Webb wants Proctor’s decision to hunt down the remaining Swarm ships to sound like a lose-lose situation, something that she did not take pleasure in doing but did anyway because she temporarily lost focus of her moral compass and subsequently lacked conscious. This fails—horribly.

If you are like myself and a skilled abstract thinker, then you can disassociate yourself enough to where it did almost seemed like Proctor had a tough decision on her hands; reinforced early in the book when she validates that uppity college student (the one that became ‘micro-aggressed’), it seems like Webb is taking a talking point from A Patriot’s History of the United States: give some credence to the opposing opinion while building an elaborate strawman based on historical revisionism. The end-product almost sounds fair and balanced, but it is not. Once you take a few steps back, Webb’s take on Proctor becomes less noble. In fact, it becomes revolting.

Why it was possible for me to concretize an understanding of Proctor’s fascistic tendencies without wholly despising her character was because of how the idea of mass-slaughter was being juxtaposed against a non-human species; Proctor’s actions are described in but only a few places throughout the entirety of the book and in a lukewarm condemnatory manner. She berates herself some and whines about not having a moral compass. This, while the reader understands that her actions came after a civilization shattering war for humanity’s survival. This situation hardly seemed similar to anything which came before it in human history.

Except, that is not true: Proctor’s situation is, in fact, depressingly common.

Once you bring genocide back down to the human roots—and really consider morality in more than a black and white perspective, then Proctor’s actions are nothing less than despicable. Indeed, perhaps the only thing more horrid is Webb’s pathetic attempt to legitimate such blasé existential outlook.

Consider: if we were to replace Proctor with a German officer in Hitler’s army, and to replace the Swarm remnants with Jews or homosexuals (or any number of the persecuted groups which Hitler terrorized), then would we be able to abstract ourselves from Proctor’s offenses? Would we be able to give her some benefit of the doubt in regards to the morality of her actions? No, we would not; why not is simple—because genocide is not excused because some stressed out protagonist had a momentary ‘lapse’ in judgement; mass slaughter of innocent lives is not excused because this same protagonist lost her moral compass. Genocide happens because institutional racism and conspiracy theory combine with desperate economic conditions to legitimate mass-extermination as a means to scapegoat the Other; it is the bourgeoisie’s last desperate attempt to sweep class contradictions underneath the rug. It does not happen because some great (wo)man was too paranoid to think clearly. The entire situation is odious in the extreme (especially if we want to get into the text’s gender essentialism). Moreover, it shows just how extreme Webb is willing to go in order to try and win some points for nationalistic-jingoism.

Independence is like a Neo-Conservative building block play-set. You have pieces which you can arrange in any order; each piece, of course, is a reactionary belief: anti-academicism, pseudo-science, racism sublimated as an anti-alien speciesism, and more all directed underneath a thin layer of White Man’s burden (in this installment, for example, I found myself continuously considering the non-human aliens as non-White imprints since they not only do jack-crap for the entire book, but appear to exist solely on the sidelines to become ravaged by the antagonist, all while humanity takes the bold defensive leap to their defense). Coupled with a decrepit morality system, a convoluted techno-thriller pseudo-Space Opera plot, and shallow characterization, Independence shows Webb’s increasing inability to write compelling fiction. Indeed, though this is, I believe, the shortest of the four books set in the ‘Swarm Universe’, it took me far longer to read this installment than any previous entry.

Why it took me longer to read this entry goes beyond theory and philosophy; it comes down to style. Webb is clearly setting up Big Things for future entries, but it all feels forced. The great antagonist is a hyper-advanced alien ship which came out of no-where and started decimating whole worlds; Proctor, aged thirty-years, is a lionized war hero; all the while, throughout Human Space there is a Galactic People’s Congress, who turns out, in fact, to be somewhat cult-like, itching for freedom from increasingly tyrannical human states. In short, there is a lot to work with, but it just doesn’t lead to any satisfying conclusion.

The finale is predictable, the double-agents hardly shocking, and even the twists and turns simply un-compelling. The plot, as I said, is basically a techno-thriller mixed with hefty amounts of politicking and some space combat. The hyper-advanced alien ship, outside of a last-ditch narrative push, does literally nothing for the whole book; Proctor remains a bad-ass, take-no-prisoners leader and… that’s about it. One understands that Webb wanted to write about frustration with the world as one ages, hence Proctor’s angst. What he ended up, however, was just a series of shallow vignettes which hardly serve a purpose outside making Proctor sound like a cartoon character.

Independence could have been a deep exploration of what it means to be on the edge of no longer being socially-useful yet not be able to understand how to make the transition to respected elder; it could have been about how capitalism-imperialism continues to haunt humanity, even after great devastation; it could have been about the machinations of society and what it means to serve—that the upcoming generations perspective is one only obtained from the sacrifice of uncountable people before their time and how the dialectical tug-and-pull between total war and total peace. Unfortunately, Independence is none of these things. Instead it settles for predictable plots, vapid characters, and an unamusing reactionary core. Pity. Not unexpected, though.

Independence: Book One of the Legacy Ship trilogy.

Nick Webb

283 pages. Published by Nick Webb. $16.99 (Paperback), $4.99 (Kindle), $1.99 (Audible audiobook). 2016.

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The Elements of Victory (Review)

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To deliver a satisfactory conclusion to a trilogy, an author needs several skills: the ability to write in clever twists which keep the reader guessing, a footing which rejects the stale machinations of dues ex machinia, and a finale which addresses the writing project’s central conflict in a believable, cogent manner. Nick Web, to this credit, manages to deliver on these demands and more with his final installment in the Legacy Fleet trilogy, Victory.

Captain Granger returns to bring the fight to the Swarm foe. The hallmarks of his command—daring tactics, saucy politicking, and more—make an impact in the typical conservative niche which Webb is known. So Victory does not deviate from previous books in the trilogy. By Granger’s side is his second in command, the deadly Shelby Proctor, and the whole crew of hardened soldiers and pilots. United Earth president Avery and the sneaky Isaacson make a return as well. This time around, however, things get real as the Swarm horde bears down on Earth with everything they have as Granger and crew race against time to stop a cataclysmic disaster from wiping out all life.

To rephrase: in terms of plot, there is nothing new in Victory. Thankfully, as far as conclusions to trilogies go, however, Webb manages to stay on the bright side of writing. While there may not be anything new in Victory, the old manages to hold up just fine.

What Webb does here is a refinement of his previous two installments. The short, engaging chapters which his fans love, that which keeps the pace lively, and the earthly, stout characters which speak to the traditionally minded all make a return. He fuses the plot into the action well while making both central parts of the reading experience; indeed, the narrative and combat are inseparable yet are able to not draw attention to themselves as being inseparable. For military science fiction, this is vital, and Webb’s skill in this matter speaks volumes.

One reason why this facet of Victory is so important is because it is a concluding part to a sequence of writing. What transpires here is supposed to wrap up a narrative spread out over the course of two other books. Victory concludes a trilogy which sets up a new trilogy set in the same universe with many of the same characters. Readers, after all, will not be happy if the thrilling conclusions turned out to be not too thrilling. But on this end Webb delivers. Such deliverance is managed without the author diving too deeply into obscene plot stretches.

All though I cannot speak of the epilogue’s twist ending, I can say that it tints in a new light the whole series of events that had begun in Constitution. Furthermore, it is an ending which, despite the twist, feels believable, not overly sentimental or clichéd (though it is, of course clichéd, but only just). What comes to mind when I think of the ending is that it respects the reader; meaning, the primary antagonist is dealt with, the catalyst which begun the narrative concludes with enough of a definitive tone, while also retaining just enough mystery to allow the reader to anticipate the next trilogy in Webb’s sequence. Webb’s ending reassures the reader that the plot— the central quandary—has been resolved with just enough ambiguity so as to still imbue the world with a sense of unease.

I lay emphasis on the nature of this conclusion because, despite my differences with the author’s conservatism (as revealed in this installment via his nascent indulgence in Pro-life ideology), he manages to set up compelling tales and to wrap up those tales without—and forgive me for being blunt, screwing the audience: he is honest about his views and he does not pull punches or half-bakes his ideas (something which progressive writers cannot seem to get enough of). Everything is there and planned; indeed, one of Victory’s vital narrative moments was established well in the first book—it being brought to maturity over the course of the trilogy, while having only a few gentle nudges in the right direction, makes the methods of conflict resolution satisfying because it was always extant in the universe and just needed other aspects of the plot to advance alongside it. Because this is not something seen in a great deal of the fiction I read, as unfortunate as it sounds, I can appreciate it here since what does weigh down Webb’s writing (ideologically) is not so overbearing as to render any strength in authorship as mute. At the end of the day, Webb delivers a solid product to a solid trilogy, and fans ought to enjoy every page as they will enjoy hearing that there is another trilogy planned to continue this story. Is it stellar, original reading? No. But it is also far from much of the insipid drivel I have gorged myself on while writing these reviews, and if that is good for anything then it shows itself here, in Victory.

Victory

Nick Webb

377 pages. Published by Nick Webb. $5.99 (Kindle), $16.87 (Print), $11.95 (Audible audiobook). 2016.