Friday, February 23, 2007

Combat #3 edited by Stephen Coonts

I've been in a sentimental mood recently. I read an Executioner novel, watched Crimson Tide and even pulled my boxed-up books out to take a look at them. And I loved what I saw. It felt like going to a favorite bookstore and browsing, only the books were all mine, and I didn't have to pay for one of them. Well, I paid for them once. Probably.

I've been in the mood for good old fashioned military fiction--the techno-thrillers of the mid to late-Eighties, and as I was going through my boxes and boxes of books I stumbled across Stephen Coonts' Combat #3--published in 2002. It is a collection of four novellas written by two old hands--at least they were writing technos when I was reading them--and two new writers. The collection is good, but not great.

The first two stories make the read worthwhile. Harold Coyle's Cyberknights is a cool take on the future of warfare--a team of elite computer hackers do all the fighting across the ether of cyberspace. The story is fast paced, exciting and, at places, thought-provoking. It reminded me just a little of the cyberpunk science fiction made popular by William Gibson and company fifteen or so years ago. A cool story with a unique angle on the thriller.

The best story in the collection is Ralph Peters' There is No War in Melnica. We follow Major Jeff Green--an observer in the Balkans--through a journey of genocide, deception and betrayal. This story gets at the heart of conflict--what it is, how it is, and maybe even touches on the why. It is one of the best military stories I have ever read. The characters are top-notch. They feel real, and their motivations are explored and examined if not completely explained. There is No War in Melnica is as close to pure literature as any war story I have read in the genre--it examines the human condition and shows us as wanting.

The final two stories left me wanting--Cav by James Cobb is a great example of why I quit reading technos ten-plus years ago. It is full of techno-mumble, very little story and even less characterization. The storyline was bland, at best, and I lost patience some forty pages into it. Flight of the Endeavor by R.J. Pineiro was better than Cav, but still on the far side of good. It is the longest of the stories at just over 100 pages, but it easily could have been cut down to seventy or eighty. It started slow, and built even slower. At times it felt like a 3,000 page monstrosity. I didn't like it, or finish it.

Read the first two, skip the last two, and you'll love Combat #3.

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