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