RogerBW's Blog

USS Seawolf, Patrick Robinson 16 November 2014

In an attempt to get details of the latest Chinese missile submarine, an American attack boat is sent in to shadow her. Spoilers.

I'm not really sure quite why I keep doing this to myself. I think I wanted a palate-cleanser after The Good Soldier Schweik. Well, I certainly got it.

This is a three-part book, and the longest part is also the least interesting. The first is the best: after cat-and-mouse games off the Chinese coast, Seawolf gets into trouble by snagging a destroyer's towed array, and is impounded by the Chinese and the crew imprisoned. (The Chinese are all evil, of course, and happily torture the crew in order to learn about the submarine; of course no American would ever do that.) But that's basically all the submarine action you're going to get.

So then it's time to locate the crew and send in the SEALs to rescue them. The planning takes altogether too many chapters, and the attempts to generate some sort of interest or sympathy from the reader by giving each soldier his own personality trait (just one, this characterisation stuff is hard work after all) are blatant. Robinson even resorts to inventing a not-Oliver-North to be overall mission commander, because the political angle wasn't silly enough already. Since Robinson realises that even the USA might not be entirely willing to invade China when diplomatic means of getting the crew back are apparently ongoing, he puts the president's son on board Seawolf as the XO. A tissue of justification is that he was already a serving officer when his father was elected.

The entire US military is available at the whim of the National Security Advisor, the foul-mouthed Admiral Arnold Morgan, whom the president ("the best friend the Navy ever had") allows to get away with whatever he likes. If I hadn't read previous books featuring Morgan, I'd have had no reason to favour his cause here.

This second part, dragged out by detailed descriptions of exactly which named characters are on which part of the mission, finally ends with the prisoners rescued and Seawolf sunk at anchor by a laser-guided bomb that smashes open the hull and, being carefully placed, causes a reactor meltdown, contaminating the local area, while looking like an accident. (Yes, really.) The rescuing submarine next has to sneak away with the SEALs and rescued prisoners; there's some attempt to build tension, but it's very clear how things will turn out, and they do so with no surprises.

Then there's the final section, which (as with HMS Unseen) represents something of a change of pace. With both sides not wanting to admit just what has happened, there's still a naval Board of Inquiry into the accident that caused Seawolf to be captured. This time the president is opposed to the military (and is therefore Wrong): he exerts his influence to get his son out of any censure for having messed up and caused the incident, the submarine's captain (who ends up with the blame) shoots himself, and Admiral Morgan resigns. (Though I gather he's back in place in the next book.) That ending managed to annoy the hard-core American technothriller fans, who want to see the good military guys rewarded, and anyone who isn't a hard-core technothriller fan probably didn't get to the end anyway. So I'm not sure whom this book is really written for.

I'm used to toxic mindsets in this sort of book, but the not-Ollie-North and the way the situation's carefully set up so that the reluctant Americans have to go and fight the evil Chinese, while actively fetishising the SEALs and their gear, left a bad taste even in my mouth. (And if you're going to go that way, you really need to learn that it's incorrect to refer to a submachinegun as a "machine gun", because your readers already know.)

I find it difficult to believe this got published. I suppose that means there's hope for us all.

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  1. Posted by John Dallman at 08:40pm on 16 November 2014

    This was where I gave up on Robinson.

    "This is not a novel to be thrown aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force."

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 08:46pm on 16 November 2014

    It will now take quite a lot to get me to read another of his books. A high fever might do it.

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