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Soldiers
John Dalmas
Baen Books, 544 pages

Soldiers
John Dalmas
John Dalmas has worked as a farm worker, parachute infantryman, army medic, stevedore, coal-heaver on the Great Lakes, logger, smoke jumper, district forester, technical writer and free-lance editor. He started college at 24, and began fiction writing as a student at Michigan State University, where his stories appeared regularly in the monthly college magazine. Other interests intervened and he didn't get around to writing fiction again until, in his 40s, he finally finished his Ph.D. Then he wrote and sold a novel, The Yngling and two novelettes to John W. Campbell at Analog. He and his wife, Gail, live in Spokane, Washington. They have two grown children and three grandchildren.

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A review by Donna McMahon

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One of the joys I fondly remember from long-ago forays into musty used bookstores was the battered, lurid looking paperback that turned out to be ever so much better than its cover. I'd start reading dubiously, then encounter some interesting detail, then another, then I'd think: gee this author knows an enormous amount about the damndest assortment of things.

I had much the same reaction part way through Soldiers, as John Dalmas enthusiastically peppered me with details about Sikh religion, wasp venom, basic training, and how many trees it takes to build a mile of fence. He even goes so far as to include footnotes -- something I haven't seen in years.

But first, the plot. Far in the future humans have spread across the galaxy, creating an empire which has been at peace for many centuries. But this quiet existence ends abruptly when 14,000 alien warships appear on the fringes of the empire and begin swiftly, systematically and mercilessly exterminating humans wherever they encounter them.

Humanity, which hasn't fought a war in centuries, suddenly faces annihilation if they can't gear up for a fight which must be won at any cost.

OK. Now I'm going to stop right here and publicly admit that I can't STAND military fiction. I do not get into uniformed guys shooting off their big hard guns, and I also don't understand the vocabulary, so my reading is constantly impeded by questions like: Is a lieutenant higher than a colonel? Why are spaceships called Corvettes? (Do they race?) Isn't Howitzer a brand name like Nike and if so, why do they have them in the 33rd century? And what in blazes is a "troop" anyhow?

Consequently, I expected to find Soldiers heavy slogging, and I did. But the main reason for my difficulty wasn't so much the book's military trappings, as its scope. In attempting to tell a complex, galaxy-spanning, cast-of-trillions military/political tale, Dalmas introduces scores of characters. He then kills off several of the most appealing ones early on, leaving the reader with no central protagonist to get attached to.

The closest thing to protagonists in this novel are a young married couple, Esau and Jael Wesley -- infantry recruits from a high gravity Mennonite-colonized world, who go through basic training (where Jael is the only woman) and are then dispatched to fight the first planet-side action in the war. Dalmas depicts them credibly, and their story is interesting, but it is only one of many threads in the book, which also follows the military's struggles to gear up, politics back on Earth, and the war in space.

Other memorable characters include Charley Gordon, a savant who lives in a bottle (life support system), and is an expert in space warfare. (Psychic savants are a nice plot device to get around the problem of interstellar communication.) And one thing I liked very much: Dalmas includes an epilogue, which tells what happened to all the surviving characters after the war. As well as being interesting, it added a feeling of verisimilitude to the story.

This is definitely World War II, by the way, not Viet Nam. The canvas is big, the bad guys are bad, and the situation is clearly defined. Plus an added bonus: since this is space opera and the enemy are alien invaders, we don't have to care much about who gets slaughtered.

I consulted a couple of military buffs for this review (rashly letting myself in for a half hour lecture on naval warships) and they unanimously said that Dalmas gets his military details right. Certainly that was my untutored impression.

Soldiers is an old-fashioned Ripping Yarn which overflows with action and ideas, often at the expense of structure and focus. Fans of military fiction are likely to enjoy this book a great deal, however, this is definitely a Guy Book, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone whose reading taste leans more to Hambly than Haldeman.

Copyright © 2002 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at http://www.donna-mcmahon.com/.


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