Expect a panorama, not of depth but of a wealth of richly distinctive and well-drawn characters, all believable but none cliched. And deeply insightive depictions of the ways war fouls up people, subtly as well as crudely. Memorable passages, either cruel or funny, and small sketches of children in the jaws of war and disaster.
It's a war story. Modestly futuristic on the surface, it also has the feel of an alternate history. ( - Or maybe an alternate depiction of past history? Patricia Anthony has a peculiar and distinctive talent at making the distinction seem not binding nor rigorous in science-fiction. )
Military science-fiction it is, also. But it does for that genre rather like what Charles Dickens did to the picaresque novel in 'The Posthumous Papers of The Pickwick Club': humanized it in a very personal but universally understandable way, and saw into it with a humor that is neither that of comedy nor of ridicule, as a thing full of foible and delusion, un-grand and flawed in both energetic and less active moments.
People inhabit this work richly: A Ukrainian general whose strengths are shown all the more for his being defeated more often than is good. A spunky old woman who is also the delightfully absurd leader/prophetess/witch of the cult of "the Eridanians", and whose contacts in the military are possibly drawn from life. - I recall an article in Omni about a man (or group) that believed that the Devil himself pilots UFOs, and if i recall correctly he was a former officer in the Military District of Washington . . . if this portrayal were from life, the parallels are obvious, since the author herself once lived in Arlington Virginia (as does her cult leader/witch character in this book), just downwind from the Pentagon...... An American general of MacArthurian stature - and flaws of character. A downed jet pilot with a searing but significant set of cowardices (or maybe, phobias). An alien manifestation which itself has a strong profile of behavior traits. And the non-hero ( rather than anti-hero ) of the book, who is of that peculiarly American species, the military service tech-nerd corporal, who pilots a high-technology miniature tank through believable chaos, terror, triumph, and death . . . from an underground base, via satellite link, remotely. An African-American doctor, investigating the medical aspects of the alien manifestation, who travels with a she-soldier on the field of battle. An Arab general, at once a villain-of-the-piece and yet not more evil than any other - His son, a liberally inclined intellectual whose interaction with a more common caliber of officers is flawed and inspiring at once.... This may sound like a heavy load of reading to get through, especially when I add that there are lots of lesser figures in this book, all drawn well enough to give the feel of 'real life'... but this book is not large and really reads well!
Great funny moments: look for a destroyed latrine, a jar of peach-flavored face-cream, and a Nintendo video-game way out of context. Great poetic pathos: two children dead in different theatres of war; a recurrent symbol of mixed meaning and evocation; a man realizing that he is dreaming of a childhood home that is irrevocably gone in too many ways... another who shoots a telephone when he realizes his hopes have been a treacherous delusion all along . . . General Baranyk asking his aides to visualise what the missing pictures showed, that are no longer on a war-ravaged house's walls . . . Why didn't this work win an award!?! - Because it shows that war, even "just war", is a cruel trajedy and just what our own American general Sherman said it was? and this was too hard on the ego or something!? . . . because it says that 'cowardice', as well as bravery, can be a humizing trait?
And yet, this is also a science-fiction thriller. Just that. And a good entertaining read for those who don't ponder too deeply.
War, as the Seventies meant it, the Eighties wished it to be, as the Nineties feared it could become, and (possibly) in the Twenty-First Century's own manner.
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