A Talent for War, by Jack McDevitt

a-talent-for-war-by-jack-mcdevitt coverGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Ace
Published: 1989
Reviewer Rating: four and a half stars
Book Review by S. Fazekas

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Jack McDevitt’s A Talent for War has all the traditional elements of a solid science fiction novel–faster than light starships, an alien race at war with humanity, and fantastic worlds-but starts off as a mystery. It changes halfway through to an action-adventure story, and keeps you guessing as to the outcome right up until the very end. After reading this McDevitt story, I had to rush out and buy as many of his other works as I could find. His book is that good.

The story is essentially the Battle of Thermopylae set in a future some hundreds of years hence. It’s written for the science fiction fan who can appreciate a hero who is also a regular Joe. Alex Benedict, the protagonist, is an unprepossessing type who quickly gets in over his head. His uncle is killed in a starship accident, but not before leaving behind a mystery. Humanity has recently fought-and barely won after many setbacks–a war against a telepathic alien race.

The resultant peace between the races is uneasy. Christopher Sim, the human hero of the war may not have been quite a hero after all. Alex’s uncle stumbled across evidence that would embarrass many powerful people and organizations. Humanity was fragmented during the war, with the most powerful factions keeping out of the conflict while Sim and his outnumbered forces fought brilliantly (according to the history books). Alex finds himself caught up in a conspiracy to cover up the facts surrounding Sim. After his life is threatened, Alex decides to find out the truth. He does, but learns to understand Sim and his predicament better than anyone. Alex also learns there are no winners in war. Behind the facade of glory and noble self-sacrifice lie human greed, selfishness and politics.

McDevitt’s science is technically accurate, believable and straightforward. His characters truly bring the story alive. They are Everyman and Everywoman, caught up in strange and difficult circumstances. They have flaws and weaknesses. No heroes, they nevertheless try to do the right thing while doubting themselves along the way. I came to like Alex very much, and found myself cheering when he escaped the aliens near the end. And I had a lump in my throat when Alex discovered the tragic truth about Christopher Sim.

McDevitt’s superb writing style puts you effortlessly right in the middle of the action. When reading about Christopher Sim’s warship “Corsarius” swimming up out of the murk of a gas giant’s outer atmosphere to attack an alien base, the hairs on the back of my neck literally stood up.

Arguably the best aspect of his writing is how McDevitt creates incredible depth in his universe. He provides a clear sense of history within his story, describing imaginary artworks and literary masterpieces as if they were right in front of you. His scenes are alive and vibrant. You can stand on the bridge of the Corsarius with Sim and feel his strain in the middle of combat.

McDevitt also points out that human nature can be selfish and short-sighted. Often wars are fought for incoherent reasons–recent history may hold an example here–and the participants’ sacrifices are sometimes used for petty gain. The ancient Spartans understood this, McDevitt seems to be saying. He suggests they were manipulated by the other Greek city-states for selfish reasons. Yet they died for Greece anyway. McDevitt implies that their sacrifice at Thermopylae was rendered moot by human nature. And he leaves us the sense that human nature has not changed much in this future of his.

So was there anything wrong with this book? The beginning was awkward. It made sense to me only after I finished the story. I would have preferred a clearer tie to the main story arc rather than the oblique approach McDevitt used.

Also, some readers may take exception with how McDevitt appears to be glorifying war in the way he writes about Sim’s heroic actions. War is a dirty, ugly business, and McDevitt glosses over that aspect at times. He does make it clear however at the end that there are no real winners. However, he seems to be saying that mankind can experience moments of nobility in war. Self-sacrifice is one example he uses; simply fulfilling a duty to your fellow man is another.

In summary, this is a very enjoyable story; well written, lots of action, very well-drawn characters and tense situations. Some of its central message is not entirely hopeful: human nature can be selfish and base, and war is a necessary (at times) evil. It does point out that in crises, people can behave in a noble fashion. The other elements of the message are positive-don’t give up, continue to persevere. If you are a fan of solid science fiction with lots of action and some mystery, you’ll enjoy this book immensely. I could not put this one down, and I suspect you won’t be able to, either.

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