Bennett R. Coles, The Virtues of War. Titan Books, 2015. Copy courtesy of Titan Books.
Bennett R. Coles is, according to his bio, a former Canadian naval officer, and Virtues of War is his debut novel. Military SF that starts with what seems like essentially a proxy war between two major powers fought on territory that belongs to a third party, and works its way up to open war.
Although it’s not as human or as nuanced, it reminds me a little of some of David Drake’s earlier work: screwed up humans doing fucked up things under pressure. At the level of fast-paced narrative full of things going boom, this is a pretty good piece of milSF. It has, however, at least a couple of serious flaws.
One is common: the narrative needs to walk the line between depicting atrocity and condoning it, and Virtues of War falters over the line of coming across a little more sympathetic to war crimes when its point of view characters commit them than when “the enemy” do. (In this regard, the fact that all the POV characters wear the same uniform doesn’t help balance the problem.) But I’m willing to give an early novel a little more slack when it comes to getting this right than I might otherwise.
The second issue – more like two issues all rolled in one – however, is one I’m not prepared to cut any slack for at all. There are four point of view characters in Virtues of War, two male, two female: Thomas, Jack, Katja, and Breeze. The former three are reasonably well-rounded characters for a milSF novel. Breeze, however, is a cliché – a misogynist one. She comes straight from central casting: the conniving woman who uses her sexual availability to manipulate the men around her, the REMF who’s both a physical and a moral coward, the woman who’s willing to make a false rape allegation against a fellow officer in order to pressure him into doing things her way, the woman who hates other women as competition.
Do I have to spell out how fucking lazy and clichéd this is? Do I really?
Breeze is also the voice of the novel’s heterosexism/homophobia, perfectly prepared to dismiss other women as “butchy” and “dykes” for not meeting her standards of femininity – and in a novel which does not appear to have any non-heterosexual characters or interactions, I dislike exceedingly the fact that Breeze’s heterosexism is met without comment from any of the other characters. Seriously: maybe we can imagine futures where “dyke” is not a dismissive epithet (when said by an apparently heterosexual woman of another apparently heterosexual woman)?
I like military SF, dammit. I keep hoping for more of it that doesn’t involve having to put up with an unacceptable level of being punched in the face. Coles shows a lot of promise as a milSF writer. But if he can’t up his game and drop the misogynist clichés, next book?
Clearly he’s not the kind of writer who wants my money.