Military science fiction has a long tradition of speculating about the nature of warfare. Greg Bear, fresh off of a tour in Microsoft's Halo universe, seemed like the next Big Thing when it came to combat SF with his latest, War Dogs. And, he delivers an interesting story, but it's not quite the one you expect.
War Dogs is the first of a new trilogy from Bear. At some point in the future, humanity is visited by an alien race named The Gurus, bearing exciting technological gifts that have helped humanity. There's some drawbacks: we can't say the word 'Fuck' anymore. Also, there's another alien species headed for the solar system, and they're not as friendly as us - would you mind taking care of them for us? And thus, humanity is at war with aliens. The battlefield is Mars, where companies of Skyrines (think Marines, but coming in from the atmosphere, rather than ocean), are dropped into combat to take on the Antags, who have some unknown aspirations for our home system. Bear doesn't really dwell on what the Antags are up to, or very much of the nature of the Gurus.
Rather, he focuses closely on Master Sergeant Venn, a lone Skyrine, who's dropped onto the Red (Mars), in a drop gone bad. This is where War Dogs really works well: like Andy Weir's excellent novel The Martian, survival is the first order of business. Bear works through the issues of what dropping soldiers onto an alien world might be like: there's the essential basics like oxygen, water and how soldiers operating on a world where those resources are locked away from the people you deploy to the surface. In fact, quite a bit of the book is a bit of a rumination on the world of soldiers deployed somewhere far from home. There's pop-culture references galore as Bear appropriates names from a range of stories that his soldiers use to rationalize their existence.
And then, it gets A Bit Weird.
Vinny and his fellow grunts are saved after several unhelpful circumstances, and they find themselves in the hands of a native Martian colonist in a sanctuary. There, they find that there's something under the Martian surface that goes deep into the planet's history. Their discovery makes Venn a bit of a curiosity back at home, something we discover as Bear lays out his narrative between two timelines - one when he's back at home, and the other on the red planet.
The result of all this is a very strange book. Clearly, it's the first part of a larger story, and undoubtedly, additional installments will shed a bit more light on the larger picture. This works — to a point. Our central protagonist is a lone Skyrine, given nothing but orders, much like every soldier that has come before him. On the ground, context isn't important: one's orders, and priority on survival take precedent. In this fashion, Bear has put together an interesting narrative.
Unfortunately, it's light calories. We never quite get fixated on the characters or anyone that they meet, and around the halfway point, when things start to get strange, we're never quite given enough context for their surroundings to make this any sort of rewarding story. There's just action, and not even the military SF type.
Venn and his comrades are focused on the next step forward, but never the steps after that, and Bear fails to deploy any sort of interesting, overarching moral tale that typically accompanies most Military SF stories. Venn never really questions his place in the universe, the steps that brought his civilization to this point or really even questions the necessity of war in the first place. He's just looking at his feet, making sure that he survives to the next step. This is a neat technical exercise, but it's not exactly a rewarding one. Bear has followed in the steps of some of the masters of Military SF, but only partially. What he's contributed is interesting and even necessary, even as it feels a bit empty.
Still, the seeds are planted in this first book, with conflict across the solar system, potential alien world stuff, and undoubtedly some larger conspiracy on the part of the Antags and Gurus. Bear has given us an interesting taste of what's to come, even if it's a fleeting one.