RogerBW's Blog

Choosers of the Slain, James H. Cobb 06 October 2014

Naval technothriller. Argentine troops invade key locations in Antarctica, and the only force in a position to do anything about it is a new US Navy destroyer.

In 2006… no, quoting the supposed date doesn't work when I'm dealing with alternate histories and obsolete futures. Instead, I'll use the publication date plus an offset. The action of this book, then, takes place in 1996+10.

As with any book positing future technology, it's been somewhat left behind by events. When the book was written, the RAH-66 Comanche stealthy scout helicopter had just had its first flight; in reality the programme was cancelled in 2004 before mass production began, and there was never any plan to build the Sea Comanches used here. A ship like the USS Cunningham, on which the narrative centres, seemed like a realistic projection of what turned out in fact to be the Zumwalt-class destroyer. The differences are telling: rather than all the flashy tech that has kept delaying the real ships, the Cunningham focuses primarily on stealth. Armament is fairly conventional: a pair of OTO Melara single turrets, with the main punch coming from a large VLS array. Those of us who pay attention to naval architecture and worry about the tumblehome hull on the Zumwalt will notice that that's rather skated over here:

Almost by accident, the Cunningham's designers had produced one of the most seaworthy vessels in maritime history. Because of her minimal upperworks, the bulk of her displacement was carried low in her fine-lined hull. Combined with her sophisticated pitch-and-roll dampers and her outriggerlike propulsor pods, this made her an exceptionally stable and easy riding platform in heavy weather.

…and, one suspects, one that's horribly prone to crew-fatiguing vibration.

Anyway, enough of the tech, which also includes a rather optimistic array of missiles from Sea Sparrows all the way up to a surface-launched anti-satellite rocket. How's the story?

Not bad at all, actually. Commander Amanda Garrett has a near-impossible job to do, and does it, coming off as neither a little tin goddess nor a blubbering wreck. There's plenty of speculation on the implications of worthwhile stealth technology for the future of naval warfare, and this is worked out in a series of examples, but there are also real and effectively-drawn characters on this ship, even if they're a bit lacking among the enemy. As in any good sea story, we never forget that the environment can be just as dangerous as the bad guys with guns (I'm thinking in particular of a sequence involving a helicopter recovery). Viewpoint cuts to other places and people serve to fill in background information on the political situation and give some idea of what the Argentinians are up to. The action sequences are suitably exciting even if we can be pretty sure that the good guys are going to win in the end: the question, as always, is at what cost.

There's a somewhat forced romantic subplot, which for obvious reasons consists of expressions of interest rather than actually doing anything about it, and which can safely be ignored other than as an extra complication of personnel management; cutting it would have been no loss. Even so, if you are interested in modern or speculative naval fiction at all, I highly recommend this book.

Followed by Sea Strike; general opinion seems to be that quality drops as the series progresses.

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  1. Posted by John Dallman at 09:42pm on 06 October 2014

    That sounds pretty good. May I borrow it?

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 10:12pm on 06 October 2014

    Absolutely, see email.

  3. Posted by John Dallman at 12:41pm on 11 October 2014

    It certainly reads very smoothly, with plenty of excitement. It suffers from a lack of political complications, which could have added worthwhile twists; as it is the story has to be sustained by its action scenes and characterisation, and there's only one fully developed character.

    The technology is a little too well fitted to the story, especially the invented parts, and there are some jarring slips: the place where Cunningham is mentioned as being 80,000 tons, nearly the size of a supercarrier and over five times a Zumwalt kicked me right out of the story.

    It was fun, but I don't think I'll seek out any more.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 12:44pm on 11 October 2014

    Agreed on all points. It's a lot better than Patrick Robinson, but there's still plenty of room for improvement.

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