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Steel Walls and Dirt Drops
by Alan Black
CreateSpace, $14.95, 390pp
Published: June 2014

I believe I've read enough Alan Black novels to be able to describe this one as quintessential. I believe it was an early novel for him, though I'm not seeing a simple bibliography online to confirm; it was originally published in 2009 but I'm reading the corrected edition from 2014. Certainly it predates the 'Metal Boxes' series for which he's best known, as well as all of the other novels I've read of his thus far. I wonder if it was his first science fiction novel; if it was, then he was up to speed when he started.

It certainly has everything I expect from Alan Black: it's a military science fiction novel with a tough lead who's placed into an awkward situation but finds a way to make it work, who stands up to authority on moral grounds and who gets on the wrong side of many but who saves the day anyway. It's also set in space but not in any way you might expect; I liked this anomalous setting immediately, just as I did in 'Empty Space', and I liked it even more when the novel was done.

Put simply, this is about a simple journey, the sort that spaceships in Alan Black novels make all the time, on a set of jumps from here to there. The difference is that, this time, the ship never actually gets there and the drama, of which there is a whole heck of a lot, happens onboard on the way. [Now, I am stretching the truth just a tiny bit there. Technically the ship does get where it's supposed to go, but it leaves immediately thereafter, as its arrival exists merely to set the next phase of the story going.] The underlying point still holds true, which is that it's all about the journey, not about the destination.

The lead is Hamisha McPherson, known to her friends as Misha but to her hundred or so APES as Third-Level Commander McPherson. This is a new assignment for her, taking over the 1392nd APES on the Kiirkegaard as it travels from Heaven's Gate to Altec 4 to drop them into a warzone. A war hero because of her experience in the legendary battle of Guinjundst, she discovers quickly that she's been promoted into this position in order to drum the 1392nd into shape in time for their deployment. Of course, she's up against it from moment one.

Black builds the 'world' of the Kiirkegaard and the universe in which it travels in far too much detail for me to recount here (or to need to recount), but I'll explain that APES are the Allied Protective Expeditionary Services, an armored infantry who handle the ground work in the ongoing war against the Binders, truly alien creatures who somewhat resemble living tumbleweeds. Misha is in charge of the APES on the Kiirkegaard, though they are only there to be transported. Most of the people on board belong to the Allied Mobile Space Force, which reports up to the ship's commander, Lt. Col. William Britaine. Needless to say Misha fails to hit it off well with Britaine, whatever the rumours say, and their conflict neatly underpins proceedings, especially as we enter the final act.

I liked Misha a lot. She's a real tough cookie, beyond her war hero status, very much in the Honor Harrington mould. She has a strong moral compass, she knows the regulations and she's more than willing to stand up to anyone and anything that might get in the way of getting the job done. She's also from DropSix, a planet with more gravity than we're used to on Earth, so she's 6' 5" tall and weighs 325 lb; but, courtesy of GerinAid anti-aging drugs, looks youthful. Most novelists would force her into a romantic angle, as if they were puppets on the strings of classic Hollywood screenwriters, but Black thankfully resists that temptation. Instead he throws problems at her from all sides and details how she solves (or fails to solve) them.

I can't talk too much about the plot because spoilers are too easy to find, but there are a number of subplots on the burner. One, of course, ties to the mission at hand; Misha discovered on Guinjundst that the rules of this war seem to be changing. Another revolves around her attempts to fix the 1392nd, whose troopers had got remarkably lax, if not outright corrupt, under their inept previous commander, Hamilton Cans. A third revolves around an overtly intriguing character by the name of Sgt. Gan Forrester of the Marshal Service, who's to be dropped off in the Gagarin System one jump before the 1392nd find their own action. Finally, of those I'll mention, there's the varied relationship between Misha and the rest of the Kiirkegaard's crew, not only Britaine but especially the Intelligence folk, headed by Chief Master Sergeant Elizabeth 'Dead-Eye' Brown, a fantastic character clearly based on Black's own wife, the former Chief Master Sergeant Duann Elizabeth Brown.

What all these subplots tangle and combine into I won't tell you, but there's enough action to make this a very short and very quick 372 page read. As with all the best Alan Black novels, you'll lose sleep reading this one if you don't start it early enough in the day.

What I can talk about is how well Black builds the background that all the action and intrigue unfolds against, especially without the benefit of the APES actually meeting the enemy anywhere except inside the very neat Tri-Wave Simulators, Holodeck type devices with danger to add to the expected realism. The tech is interesting throughout, but this never becomes a hardware geek's dream. The xenobiology is interesting too, making the scenes inside the sims worthy even if they take us away from the action on the Kiirkegaard. And the ship itself is interesting, as we get to see rather a lot of it over the course of the novel and meet a substantial cast of the characters who inhabit it too.

There are odd little problems here and there. I wondered on the second page why the most prestigious award Misha received after Guinjundst was named for the astrological ram rather than the Greek god of war, even in the corrected edition. Such mistakes are easy to skip over, however, even if they shouldn't be there. The only substantial issue I found this time was that the flashback scenes on Guinjundst and, to a lesser degree, those that unfolded inside the Tri-Wave Simulators often felt like distractions from the main story. I understand why they're there and the latter, especially, added details that were needed, but they were still a little jarring. Overall, that's not a big problem and it's overcome by a few pageflips here and there for clarification.

The bulk of the novel is excellent, many steps up from the usual self-published novel, and it reminds me again why it's so surprising that Black didn't find an agent and land a deal with a major publishing company. With the sole exception of 'Larry Goes to Space', each of the ten books I've read by him are up to the standard of novels from major publishers and they often exceed many such that I review here at the Nameless Zine. I believe that Alan, in the hands of a quality editor at a quality publisher, would have quickly become a name you wouldn't need me to introduce to you. If this was really his first science fiction novel, it merely underlines that in red ink. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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