Growing up, I loved classic science fiction. I read everything I could get my hands on, from Asimov to Zelazny. (Okay, not so much Zelazny, but I was going for the whole A-Z thing. It’s art, dammit…) Despite reading Brian W Aldiss’ anthology Space Opera [Garden City NY: Doubleday, 1974], I didn’t pay much attention to the term space opera until years later when Galaxy Quest was spoofing Star Trek and Firefly was spoofing everything. If I’d bothered to read the preface—something I still don’t do, so if you ever want to hide something from me for all time, just put it into a preface—I would have seen Brian Aldiss’ brilliant introduction to the elements he saw as essential to the genre:
- Style and Mood staunchly traditional
- Hitherto unknown places to explore
- Continuity between Past and Future
- Tremendous sphere of space/time
- A pinch of reality inflated with melodrama
- A seasoning of screwy ideas
- Heady escapist stuff
- Charging on with little regard for logic or literacy
- Often throwing off great images, excitements, aspirations
- The Earth should be in peril
- There must be a quest
- There must be a man to match the mighty hour
- That man must confront aliens and exotic creatures
- Space must flow past the ports like wine from a pitcher
- Blood must run down the palace steps
- Ships must launch out into the louring dark
- There must be a woman fairer than the skies
- There must be a villain darker than a Black Hole
- All must come right in the end
- The future in space, seen mistily through the eyes of yesterday
I only bring this up now because despite all spoofs and appalling prequels to the contrary [cough, Star Wars, cough] not only do Aldiss’ Space Opera rules still apply, but the tropes still work their magic. Case in point? John Murphy’s debut novel, Mission Veritas. It’s both a loving homage to the genre, and a competently-executed thriller.
BlurbThe Carthenogens, “saviors” from another planet, assumed total control of Earth by preaching peace. Eighteen-year-old Vaughn Killian, son of the US ambassador to Thailand, knows otherwise; they killed his parents, forcing him to survive as a rebel for two hellish years in a purge of Bangkok. Now millions are dead and thousands are disappearing in massive airlifts every day, and Killian saw it all. The almond-eyed tyrants have a stranglehold on that information, all militaries, and the world at large. Killian is determined to “resist to the death” and seizes the opportunity to join Black Saber, an elite cadre formed to oppose Carthenogen tyranny. To qualify, he and eleven other candidates must undergo a trial mission on Planet Veritas, a rugged mining outpost where the atmosphere makes people reveal their true selves. Killian must keep his past a secret at the risk of imprisonment. It’s a hard thing to do with a body full of scars—especially when Stiles Kerrington, an entitled son of a former US vice president, has singled him out for disqualification. If he fails the mission and can’t continue the fight, he’ll be jailed while the docile population on Earth is consumed, one city at a time.
- Book Title: Mission Veritas
- Author: John Murphy
- Genre: SciFi/Military
Length: 334 pages
Publisher: Booktrope (February 22, 2015)
- Purchase Links: Amazon UK | Amazon US
The story begins with sixteen-year-old Vaughn Killian, the son of the US ambassador to Thailand. He’s a typical teenager, interested only in video games and girls (pretty much in that order), and fairly oblivious to the ominous changes to the world. He finds the shouts of protestors annoying, and is unaware of political implications of the unrest around him. He rarely gives any thought to the alien Carthenogens who have effectively conquered the earth through the brilliantly simple strategy of announcing they come on a mission of world peace. By distributing minor pieces of their superior technology, the aliens have established themselves as Earth’s saviors. But when his parents are killed and Bangkok descends into a nightmare of destruction, young Killian spends the next two years in the local resistance, where he witnesses the actual effects of alien domination. There he learns to fight as part of a rebel unit, to follow orders, and to achieve objectives no matter the cost. And there he kills at least thirty three people.
Eighteen-year-old Killian is finally rescued by the mysterious Black Saber force just before Bangkok is leveled. Returned to the United States, he chooses military service to fulfill his compulsory service requirement. His only goal is to join the Black Sabers and fight the aliens who’ve already killed or kidnapped millions. But Killian’s single-minded focus has no place in the new so-called military, which teaches recruits to provide cheerful emotional support instead of becoming warriors. Killian has to hide his ability to kill, and especially hide the fact that he’s already killed so many of the bumbling Global Alliance forces, the human face of the alien invaders.
When he’s given the chance to become a Candidate for the elite Black Saber cadre, Killian jumps at it. After hibernating for a two month space flight, the twelve young Candidates are dropped off on Veritas, an abandoned mining planet, and given a trial assignment. Killian knows he can’t hide the external scars that cover his body, but hopes he can hide the ones he carries inside. There’s a problem though. The atmosphere of Veritas, while not immediately lethal, acts like a truth serum, making it almost impossible to keep secrets. Added to this, the Candidate chosen to lead the other eleven is Stiles Kerrington, the son of a former US vice president.
In a tale that combines a military action thriller with classic science fiction, the young Candidates face off against the hostile planet, each other, and ultimately themselves. This is a big story, and not just in number of pages. The action covers space travel, alien invasion, and lots of action. It’s fast-paced, with good descriptions and confident world building. Sure some of those classic SciFi tropes—and even a few cliches—did make it in. What’s nice is that there’s a slightly wink-wink nudge-nudge end-twist that tweaks at least a few of the following tropes back from the cliché cliff:
- A scrappy group of human rebels are going to take on the Evil Empire. There are imposing almond-eyed aliens (shades of Flash Gordon’s enemy, Ming the Merciless. Seriously? Are we really going there?) Because of spoilers, I can’t tell you what else these aliens are after, but it is both a cliché and some fairly suspect science.
- The most obviously rational course of action is routinely vetoed by Killian’s superiors.
- There’s a conspiracy that must involve a huge number of people because millions disappear—in a world with internet and modern communications—and nobody notices.
- Human governments are under direct control of the supposedly benevolent aliens, who turn out to have (gasp!) Another Agenda—and nobody notices that either.
- The same weapon technology that can vaporize its targets can be adjusted to just stun them, no harm/no foul. But it can’t (apparently) be adjusted into a beam that sweeps the area, and must still be sighted and shot like a traditional firearm.
- Technology fails, and the candidates can’t call for rescue.
- Technology fails again, and the timer on the explosive device can’t be stopped as it ticks down the last minutes to the explosion. (Cue the people running from the building just as a huge explosive wave goes up behind them. That will definitely be in the trailer…)
For the most part, these elements manage to work to move the story along. But for me, there is no stepping back from the real problem of the book—its basic premise. Instead of actually training these candidates in military and survival tactics or providing them with experienced leadership to teach them how to achieve objectives as part of a team, the theory seems to be that it makes more sense to make an expensive space journey that ties up an entire crew of seasoned soldiers for many months, in order to dump an inexperienced group of kids (each of whom has an influential sponsor back home) into a hostile alien environment. And then sit back to see who lives. Sure, if it’s a matter of Earth’s survival—and if you’ve already put these kids through grueling special forces training to weed out the whiny, immature, and weak among them—you could perhaps sell this type of thing as a final qualifying exercise. Otherwise, it’s like taking an expensive cruise so you can dump your toddler overboard, on the theory that the planet is mostly water so he’ll need to learn how to swim in order to survive.
There were also other things that were problems for me. First of all, there were too many people. I don’t have any military experience, so perhaps a group of twelve candidates might be the minimum number that could be set loose on an alien planet, but it was hard to remember who they all were. With so many introduced together, there wasn’t much chance to differentiate them except by race. (The only black member of the team is actually named Thomas Sowell—yes, just exactly like that famous black conservative economist…) Plus, while the women Candidates were often intelligent, they also tended to be oversexed and/or need to be rescued. But the real problem is that nobody grows or develops over the course of this grueling test. At the beginning of the Veritas mission, Killian’s issue is that he wants to fight the aliens who have killed his parents and millions of others. Stiles Kerrington’s issue is that he’s a whiny, insecure little snot, while the other Candidates’ issues are that their parents don’t understand them. At the end, they all have the same issues (unless they’re dead, of course). Plus Kerrington is still short.
And then I got it. This book would make a terrific video game. The various settings are perfect for first person shooter. It’s graphic, fast-moving, and quest-based. Dialog is minimal and banter de rigueur. I never thought I’d say it, but Mission Veritas should be seen and not read. Until that happens, though, if you’re looking for a fast-paced, solidly-executed military/SciFi thriller—and you can accept a severely flawed premise like dystopian kids facing off against a hostile environment and each other (Hunger Games much anyone?)—Mission Veritas is a good choice. Author John Murphy competently closes this story arc, while planting the seeds for future volumes. Despite my problems with what I consider a flawed premise, John Murphy is a talented writer with a solid flair for both military and sci-fi tales. If he lets his characters grow and change, those future volumes promise a lot of fun.
*I received this book for free from the publisher or author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.*