The Fighter King (2010)
By John Bowers
How did I get this book? I bought it.
Available on Amazon.
John Bowers has written an impressively constructed, gritty sci-fi that blends several genres: military novel, political allegory, and Bildungsroman. His writing is sharp and clear, with natural-sounding dialogue and snappy, economical phrasing. His prose is error-free.
The book’s main character, Oliver Lincoln III, is a young man who identifies as pacifist, even though his father runs a major arms company known for its excellent space fighters. To Oliver’s way of thinking, such craft should only be used for planetary defense. The novel’s main plot takes Oliver from his native Terra (which seems to be the future Earth) to one of the many planets humans have colonized, Sirius. He’s there to sell his company’s fighters to the Sirian military. While there, Oliver comes to suspect that the Sirians have designs on another human-colonized planet, Vega. As the plot progresses, Oliver moves away from his pacifist impulses.
He moves about as far as you can get, actually. The strongest parts of the novel, I thought, were those that follow Oliver on the battlefield. Bowers does a terrific job portraying warfare’s disturbing mixture of camaraderie, horror, frustration, terror, and excitement. It’s through this meaty central portion of the novel that Bowers generates a convincing coming-of-age story as we follow Oliver from where he starts — as a nice and bright but naive and pudgy young man — to where he ends up — as a fit, tough, morally righteous, yet very humane warrior.
Meanwhile, the novel’s subplot follows events back on Terra, where Oliver’s family worries about his fate and where his best friend, Henry Wells, pursues a related political agenda.
I’d categorize The Fighter King as “soft sci-fi.” Though Bowers gives us a world with FTL travel, laser weapons, and anti-grav devices on vehicles and elevators, the emphasis isn’t on the tech. It’s on warfare and politics. Battlefield strategy relies on trench lines, infantry ground assaults, and field artillery, giving those scenes a WWII, rather than futuristic, feel. The novel’s gender politics also remind me more of mid-20th-century sci-fi: almost every woman Oliver encounters is a sweet, guileless, gorgeous babe, and he’s irresistible to them — even near the beginning of the novel, when he’s not just short and balding, but also pudgy. I thought this element of the novel was rather charming — sort of Captain Kirk-y — though I can imagine some readers finding it tad annoying that the female characters don’t have a bit more heft. I believe other books in the larger Fighter Queen Saga have more central female characters.
The novel’s political subplot, especially the heavy use of allegory therein, did strike me as weaker than the main plot. Bowers inventively aligns the Sirians with the mid-19th-century U.S. Confederacy. He does this both allegorically — his main character is named Lincoln, etc. — and by proposing a literal connection: Sirius was colonized in part by racist groups from the American South (Bowers gives the Sirians southern accents), which then took over the planet, subjugating and enslaving other colonizing groups. This racist civilization is aggressively imperial (there’s also a Nazi connection, as the Sirian president is named Adolph). Their militarism is motivated by their desire to acquire new “product” for their slave trade. They seem to be primarily interested in enslaving women, and the peaceful planet of Vega is known for its genetically engineered beauties.
In Bowers’s hands, this set-up yields a passionately political novel: pro-human rights, anti-racist, and pro-military. That message comes through convincingly in Oliver’s experiences, and I liked it. But the Henry Wells subplot makes the latter parts of the novel heavy-handed. Wells, as a member of Terra’s Senate, is trying to push through a bill that will hugely increase funding to the planet’s military. His reasoning: the Sirians are a major threat, and peaceful planets, such as Terra, have let their militaries go entirely to seed. When Sirius comes for Terra, which he believes it will, Terra will fall. Opposing him are a group of “pacifist” senators, many of whom are obvious allegorical stand-ins for contemporary political figures (Jacques Kennedy = Ted Kennedy, William Boxer = Barbara Boxer, Dianne Weinstock = Dianne Feinstein). Once he gets started on the allegory, Bowers really lets go: his Jacques Kennedy has a “smug, alcohol-bloated face” (Loc. 7676), “pale, rheumy eyes” (Loc. 8949), “a face as puffed as his silver hair” (Loc. 8938), etc.
As a reader, I’m bugged by this sort of thing. First of all, I feel as though I’m being hit over the head with Bowers’s point: This novel may seem to be set in the future, but really I’m making a point about the contemporary U.S. Get it? Get it?!? GET IT???!!! I did get it. I got it from Oliver’s experiences and realizations in the main plot. But when we move into such blatantly obvious allegory, I begin to get a little offended as a reader. Does the author, I begin to wonder, think I’m not quite smart enough to get connections that are painted a little more subtly? I sometimes have this reaction to left-wing artists as well, folks like Michael Moore and Oliver Stone. For instance, about halfway through Born on the Fourth of July, I began to feel I was being repeatedly hit over the head with the mallet of The Point because Stone thought that was the only way to make me notice there was one.
Also, the allegory seems to draw Bowers into some really thin characterization. If this author is passionately hawkish and believes it’s both foolish and irresponsible not to have a strong military — fair enough. But the political figures who oppose Henry are so sniveling, so hypocritical, so awful, so completely without redeeming features, that they lose all depth. For instance, it’s suggested that Kennedy opposes Henry’s military spending bill not because he’s a pacifist who privileges social over military spending, but because he’s secretly pro-slavery:
a few years ago, on one his annual “fact-finding” tours of Sirius, someone with a high-powered camera holographed him on a party boat fucking slave girls. … He also has an estate in Tennetucky that reportedly gets stocked with fresh girls every time he visits. The man’s a real lecher. (Loc. 9015)
Not only do the people opposing Henry have no good arguments to make whatsoever, but they’re actually actively evil. I think it’s the closeness of the fictional material to its real-life analogue that pushes Bowers into this sort of thing. His hatred of the real Kennedy is so profound that the senator’s analogue in the novel becomes little more than a mustache-twirling, bwa-ha-ha villain. It’s only in the allegory that we see this; in the main plot, Oliver has a fair amount of interaction with a slave-owning Sirian man who was once his college roommate, and that figure is far more subtly drawn than the cardboard senators.
That’s the thing about allegory: it only works well if the vehicle — the fictional story — has enough life of its own to exist richly and meaningfully apart from the tenor — the real-life analogue toward which the fiction is pointing. Here the tenor has reared up and poked through, taking over the whole show and leaving a notably thin patch in the fiction.
Fortunately, the subplot is a relatively small part of the overall book, and the main plot is very strong.
I notice The Fighter King has been given a new cover, which I think improves on the silhouette-style art the book had when I downloaded it. The book’s formatting is good, but there are scattered small glitches, the kind caused by non-standard characters that the KDP conversion program doesn’t know what to do with. Those characters end up as little boxes with question marks inside or other strange characters. They certainly don’t impeded understanding; they’re cosmetic.
An edited version of this review will be cross-posted to Amazon.