Book Review: War Dogs by Greg Bear

This book got a lot of mixed reviews. Whether or not people liked it usually depended on where they came from when they read it. I think this will give me an opportunity to talk about a couple of related subjects that have broader implications than the book, if you’ll indulge me.

For those who have never heard of Greg Bear, if you picked up this book, you probably thought it was a space marine war novel. You expected Master Chief to be blasting his way through aliens or robots, and being a study in toxic masculinity and tough-guy aura, so you didn’t have to care about the blood being spilled. Certainly the cover implies that. Certainly that’s how it was marketed, especially with the title, especially knowing that Bear has written some Halo novels (makes me want to give them a shot, actually.)

You’re not going to get that, because unless he’s writing in a shared world, that’s not what he does. This is Vietnam, on Mars, with aliens, and a mystery grounded in wonder and the possible menace of the unknown – which is something Bear does very well. It’s not Starship Troopers. It’s The Forever War with crystal skull caves. It’s a modern, current-tech planetary romance (ie. John Carter.) Oh yes; it’s also a scathing critique of Colonialism.

Now, the question is, was this a bad marketing decision on the part of the publisher? You might argue that it was, because people expecting happy shoot-em-up-fests aren’t going to get that at all, and it means they’ll be disappointed. On the other hand, covers are meant to sell books, and right now, military sci-fi is an incredibly popular genre. It got you to pick up the book, didn’t it?

The other crowd that’s likely to be approaching this is the group that recognizes that Bear has contributed a great deal to the sci-fi genre. Two of his works are printed in the SF Masterworks imprint, which are meant to celebrate formative works in the genre that were highly influential or mind-blowing. This group is likely to think that Halo novels represent Bear “selling out,” or “doing lazy writing,” and are disappointed when he doesn’t blow the lid right off their craniums every time.

This book isn’t for them, either. And I think that represents a misunderstanding of what it is that Bear writes. Bear isn’t about trying to blow your mind in a self-conscious way; you’re confusing him with Philip K. Dick, and PKD quickly descends into self-important pretentiousness rather than doing anything mind-blowing, in my opinion. Bear writes about how human beings would react to extraordinary situations.

And if that’s what you’re looking for, you’re gonna find it! Bear obviously did an amazing amount of research for this: check the dedication at the beginning of the book! These are marines, and they sound like marines, not scientists, because they’re not. I found this an amazing feat of writing myself, especially after reading The Forge of God. These voices are so, so different! You have no idea how hard that is if you’re not a writer. I tip my hat to the master, here. I took notes.

And if you’re upset about Bear writing Halo novels, just remember that lots of writers you know have done Star Wars, Star Trek, and a metric craptonne of comics, because guess what? They have to pay the rent. Those novels sell, whether you like them or not, and if they make some money doing those, even if it seems to you they’re “beneath their talents,” then they can keep writing the stuff that does blow your mind that you have to convince people to buy and nobody ever really appreciates until you’re dead.

It’s not perfect, but for sheer enjoyment value, it earns back the star it might have lost. (view spoiler)

I’d like to air a minor complaint that even when Americans can imagine a military with men and women in it, they still can’t seem to imagine integrated forces. And of course there’s no LGBTQ people to be seen. Canada’s military has been co-ed for a very, very long time. I don’t understand what the big deal is. But, this isn’t a deal-breaker for the enjoyment of the book. You do you, Americans.

But if you want an amazing military adventure, with soldiers who act like real people (and suffer like real people do, and think like real people do,) with a dash of mystery, this is delicious! My recommendation is that you approach it as we all should approach books: it’s its own thing, and you should judge it on its individual merits, not what you expected. I loved it, and I’m already starting the sequel. I’ll keep you informed!

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