Passage at Arms by Glen Cook

August 3, 2015 at 12:13 am | Posted in 4 stars | Leave a comment
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Passage at Arms coverAs I write this, Glen Cook’s Wikipedia article consists of two paragraphs about his life and one paragraph about the Black Company series. That’s not really a surprise given how influential it’s been, but as best as I can count he’s written an astounding thirty-eight other novels. In the cruel reality of the book business, most novels are lost in obscurity the moment they are published, but while this fate is usually amply justified by their quality, there are surely a few babies in all that bathwater. One such was Glen Cook’s standalone space opera novel, The Dragon Never Sleeps, which is just short of a masterpiece. Having so enjoyed the one Cook standalone I had read, it seemed reasonable to move on to his best-known standalone novel, Passage at Arms, published in 1985 and usually characterized as Das Boot in space.

If that sounds appealing, then rest assured, Passage at Arms delivers amply on that promise. The novel is set on board a Climber, a spaceship that “climbs” into another dimension. The farther it goes, the less space it takes up in our normal three dimensions. By climbing far enough, a nine hundred ton spaceship can occupy the volume of a molecule in normal space. This means that it is impossible to detect, but it also means that if an explosion happens even vaguely nearby, it gets jostled by the shock wave. If an explosion happens close enough, the ship can be destroyed. Add in the fact that during the climb, conditions on the ship deteriorate due to heat buildup, forcing the ship to eventually “surface”, and it becomes clear that Cook is using some invented physics to get something that looks very similar to submarine warfare. Instead of going underwater, the Climber goes into another dimension, instead of being menaced by depth charges, it is jostled by missiles, and so on.

The obvious question is, if one is to read a book about submarine warfare, why not read a book about the thing itself instead of something like Passage at Arms that puts its submarines in spaceship costumes like it’s Halloween? Although readers of this blog aren’t likely to be sympathetic with that sort of complaint, it’s not a question that should be lightly dismissed, for it’s the basis of a common critique of science fiction and fantasy as a whole. Admittedly it’s an argument somewhat out of fashion at the moment as mainstream literature goes through a phase of borrowing genre concepts, but Passage at Arms makes for an interesting test case.

First, it should be stated that unlike some space opera based on past precedents, Passage at Arms isn’t an exercise in nostalgia. Glen Cook served in the US Navy (though not on submarines) and one constant across his fantasy and science fiction is his down-to-earth depiction of military life. There’s no glory or glamor to working on a Climber, just hard work, deprivation, boredom, and terror.

Second, Cook is after more than just a recreation of submarine warfare. He’s particularly interested in how men (and the Climber crew of Passage at Arms are all men, though we are told some Climbers are crewed entirely by women) cope with the intense stresses of warfare. A Climber crewman must serve on ten missions, then they are allowed to retire from fighting. Missions rarely last more than a month, so it’s not all that much calendar time, but the downtime between missions can be many months, waiting that takes its own toll. Everyone is acutely aware that Climbers are so often destroyed, whether by enemy action or through mechanical failure, that the few are fortunate enough to survive ten missions. Death is likely, then, but it’s not completely certain, so the men focus on their day to day activities, comfort themselves with superstitions, and cloak the gravity of the situation in euphemisms, such as calling the enemy “the gentlemen of the other firm”.

To better draw a psychological portrait of the Climber crew, Cook uses a narrator who wants to draw that portrait himself. The first person, present tense narrator is a space navy man but one who served on battleships, not Climbers. After leaving the navy, he became a journalist, and now he has requested the opportunity to embed with a Climber crew so he can capture what it’s like. He knows the Commander from the old days, but time has changed them both. The narrator hopes to hold himself apart from the Climber’s crew and just be an observer, but as the mission drags on and the situation deteriorates, he is forced to become more and more of a participant.

The psychological response of men to combat stress is the very core of the novel, but the results are strangely uneven. Cook is absolutely brilliant at the big picture. The mood of the men, the difficulty of their experience, and the diversity of their coping mechanisms are all wonderfully realized. I certainly have no experience with such things, but for me the novel was utterly persuasive. Yet as individuals, the characters never quite come alive. Cook elects to keep the two most important characters, the narrator and the Commander, as ciphers for much of the novel, and the supporting cast are little more than a series of names, differentiated but in ways that are hard to keep straight. The result is a narrative that is gripping and even fascinating, but not nearly as powerful as it might have been had there been just a bit more clarity and a little less artifice.

So far it might seem like I’m dodging the question I said was fundamental, for all this could have been done in mundane historical fiction. But there’s one more element that I’ve purposefully left out until this point: the war itself. I left it out because Cook largely leaves it out of the novel. Although it’s a standalone story, Passage at Arms is set in the same world as Cook’s earlier Starfishers trilogy, so it’s possible such details are explained there. I don’t know, not having read them, but from online summaries it seems they don’t involve the Ulant war at all. Certainly there are none of the accomodations that are usually made for readers who likely (given the mediocre commercial performance of the earlier trilogy) aren’t familiar with the setting. All we get are the absolute essentials: humanity, it seems, is at war with an alien race called the Ulant.

Who are the Ulant? Why are they fighting humanity? What will happen if humanity loses? These questions aren’t really answered, beyond the narrator’s aside that they are “guys pretty much like us, only a little taller and blue, with mothlike antennae instead of ears and noses.” To the men fighting it, the war just is. Their lives are lived in present tense, just like the narration. They don’t want to think about the the past, full as it is of things lost, or the future, where they will likely die before their time.

This is where the use of science fiction becomes apparent. For most readers today, it is nearly impossible to think of World War II as anything other than a morality play. There’s Good Guys and Bad Guys. Even if the Good Guys aren’t always as good as we’d wish and the Bad Guys weren’t all as bad as their leaders, in the end it’s most people’s first (and sometimes only) example of a just war, a war where a soldier might give his life and have it really mean something. But in this respect World War II is by far the exception, not the rule. By setting his story amid a war between humans and aliens, Cook is able to tell a story in the simplest of terms. Us vs. Them. We are humans and so can readily identify with the characters, but are they the Good Guys? Is it a just war? We don’t know, and Cook’s point is that to the men on the Climber, it doesn’t matter. They didn’t start the war and they can’t end it either. All they can do is try to survive, and that means doing their job and somehow being lucky enough to live through ten missions.

Its opaque characterization means Passage at Arms isn’t a complete success, but it’s one of the best and most psychologically realistic novels of space combat I’ve ever read. Its focus is too narrow for it to be universally recommended as a must-read for any genre fan, but it’s well worth the time of anyone interested in the psychology of combat.

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