RogerBW's Blog

C.R.O.W., Phillip Richards 30 May 2017

2012 military science fiction, first of a planned five-book series. Private Andy Moralee has passed Dropship Infantry training, but it didn't prepare him for a unit posting and battle itself.

Phillip Richards is a serving NCO who's been in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, so when he writes about the British Army one assumes he's doing it from the life. And as he portrays it it's a bloody depressing place to be, with constant casual bullying, fights, and status games. (Though nobody ever swears, is noticeably homosexual, or talks more than in passing about the opposite sex.) The setting is a strange blend of the futuristic, with gauss rifles, grav tanks, UAV air support, and automatic tourniquets built into body armour, and the present, with casualties still administered morphine, strictly current organisation, bayonets, and fluorescent lights.

Richards desperately needs an editor. I'm not talking about the usual stuff like its/it's or "falling fowl of the orbital bombardment", though that's here; I'm thinking of the corridor that runs the length of the troopship "from aft to stern", an island that "sat in a deep valley", "ordinance" for ordnance, and best of all… look, it doesn't matter how many grav tanks the troopship carries, does it? This isn't a story about the grav tank crews. But if you're going to tell us, and you're even going to tell us twice… maybe pick the same number each time, eh?

To make things worse, Richards opens with an orbital assault, then jumps back in time to the troopship for half the book. I can see why having that as the start would have been an error; it's pretty dull. But it's still dull even with an action scene stuck on the front. It's not a boot camp sequence, just barely, but that's the only thing in its favour.

There's not much detail on civilian society, though it seems that conscription is back; strangely, the conscripts have an easy life mostly on garrison duty, and it's the Dropship Infantry who get the tough jobs. When they're assuming casualty rates of one in three for the orbital assault, and losing as many more in the initial battles… something that's taken that level of losses isn't a military unit any more, it's a rout. Isn't that kind of meatgrinder exactly where you want to throw in huge numbers of conscripts to take the casualties, rather than your relatively small numbers of expensive well-trained troops?

Oh, and CROW? A horribly forced acronym for "Combat Replacement Of War". In other words, new guy.

But in spite of all these problems, and they are severe, the book just about works, and achieves things most mil-sf doesn't. Richards brings an immediacy to squaddie life on the front: to the action itself, but also to the way enemies within the unit can become mates under the pressure of constant combat, how silly jokes can be vital stress relief, and how someone can be perceived as a hero simply because he repeated the cycle of seeing what needed to be done and then doing it slightly faster than the man next to him. There's also a welcome emphasis, often missing in mil-sf, on unit structure and chain of command: it's the section (squad, for Americans) that matters to the individual, with only a vague sense of the platoon round that and an even vaguer sense that there's a company more or less involved somewhere.

A very mixed book, but worth it in the end. Recommended by Dr Bob. Followed by Lancejack.

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