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Keepers of the Peace

by Keith Brooke

(Cosmos, $15.00, 179 pages, paperback; first published 1990; this edition 2002.)

Set in 2083/4, this novel envisages a future in which a fair percentage of humanity lives in Lagrangian-orbit space colonies which have not long before successfully fought their cover scanwar of independence to rid themselves of direct governance from Earth. Indeed, now the boot is more on the other foot, since the colonies have a strong political and military presence on the home planet, where they dominate the waging of a not-quite-war between its dictatorship ally Grand Union and neighbouring CalTex -- two of the states into which the former USA has split.

Jed Brindle is an average lad from a small, largely agricultural space colony. When called up for the draft he does not, like many of his peers, opt for one of the seemingly relatively easy excuses to deny the call; he is eager enough to leave the stifling confines of home and find adventure in the military. Once there and fitted with implants to control mood, communicate with his fellows and all the other things that cyber-implants might be expected to do, he proves to be a frighteningly effective soldier -- possessed not just of the requisite fighting skills but also of a ruthlessness that scares his superiors. This book is his story.

Before we look at that story, a note on the book's structure. The main narrative runs linearly through the odd-numbered chapters. The even-numbered chapters consist of flashbacks that take the form of diary entries (some by Jed), interview quasi-transcripts, etc. The result of this is a very interesting one: at the same time that we are being pulled along by the events of the "now" we are being given an ever more rounded, and sometimes subtly shifting, depiction of Jed himself and of his times. There's something of the same feel, because of this, as when reading the John Dos Passos-influenced novels of John Brunner such as The Sheep Look Up (1972) and Stand on Zanzibar (1968). Brooke handles the dual strands of his narrative adroitly.

In the "now", Jed and a group of colleagues are conducting a plane hijack in order to kidnap a prominent CalTex figure, Cohen. Things go wrong, and the plane crashes in the middle of the desert with massive loss of life. Jed sets out to lead a small party comprising his injured military colleagues Amagat and Jacobi as well as the uninjured Cohen across the hostile terrain to the nearest Grand Union outpost, which is separated by a matter of just a few miles from the nearest CalTex outpost.

Along the way, as they survive the desert rigours and occasional aerial attack, Jed goes through a rite of passage -- not the stereotyped transition from adolescence to adulthood but something far more interesting than that: the transition from killing machine to human being.

The cover quotes for Keepers of the Peace cite Heinlein and Haldeman as obvious precursors: in novels like Starship Troopers (1959) and The Forever War (1974) these two authors did indeed tell the tale of futuristic war from the worm's-eye view of the common soldier, showing how the brutalities of active military life can turn a normal, sensitive human being into something quite other. Yes, but ... In Keepers of the Peace there's nothing of the triumphalism of Starship Troopers or of the omnipresent large-scale-combat blood and guts and Vietnam allegory of The Forever War; Brooke keeps his focus far tighter, far more intimate than that, holding scenes of actual fighting to a minimum and tending to depict them with the same flat, sparse starkness that characterizes Jed's own thinking about them. A better comparison, in terms of the feel of the novel, might be with the opening chapter (based on a short story) of David Langford's 1982 novel The Space Eater. Jed's entirely cyborged father at one point spells out this destruction of the personality in the grinding machines of military exigency:

My son is dead. I guess he started to die back in March when they sent his draft notice, but now it's all over. There's a new person in that body of his.

And:

When Jed was called up, Toni was worried about what they would do to his body. I guess she doesn't want him ending up like me. But she was focused on the wrong thing: it's what they do to your mind that matters.
The military is like one big computing system. The generals do the programming, and there's one awful lot of equipment to be coordinated. The soldier is the place where hardware and software come together and do their work.

In this view, the individual soldier cannot be a human being: in order for everything to function properly, she or he, whether regarded as stalwart hero or murderous war criminal, must be reduced to the status of not even a silicon chip but of one of its electronic switches. It's a grimly powerful metaphor, and one that is, even more grimly, hard to challenge on its own terms.

As noted, there's no Vietnam allegory here. In this book's scenario it's rather as if, instead, the triumphant Vietcong had rather rapidly transformed themselves into the US Army. While preaching freedom and democracy -- and while doubtless practising exactly those ideals outside the confines of this story -- the colonies are in reality propping up a seedy dictatorship against what appears on the scant evidence presented to be a reasonably liberal democracy, the fundamental spur being, despite the idealistic demagoguery, plain self-interest. Although we can hope it will not, we can anticipate that what is in 2084 merely the making of unpleasant friends will develop into a tyranny of economic dominance, reinforced as necessary by military means, by the colonies over the Earth. As the fear of this occurring -- with the USA in place of Brooke's space colonies -- is much the topic of conversation in many political fora today, this absorbing book could hardly have been reissued at a more appropriate time.

Despite all the drama of its events and the sternness of its political message, this is an oddly quiet book -- something that Brooke effects through a studious restraint of writing style. Those who seek the measured provocation of thought when considering our military future -- and indeed our military present -- can be heartily recommended to read Keepers of the Peace.

Those who seek out militaristic sf for the thrills, the gore, the glory and the melodrama should be prescribed this novel as a cure.


Review by John Grant.

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