Power Games

When Richard Peters offered me a review copy of his novel Power Games: Operation Enduring Unity 1, I was not enthusiastic.

Power GamesThe cover (not the one shown) looked kind of cartoonish. A blurb stating “After years of unchecked extremism, the presidential election is now a high-stakes poker game played out on a bloody table.” did not sound promising. I suspected either an attack on “Tea Party extremism” or, in the manner of some of the self-published survivalist novels I’ve read descriptions of, an attack on the current U.S. administration. No matter how congenial the politics, I expected crude satire or propaganda. The title seemed too cute too.

But it was a story about a Second American Civil War, and I suspect, as the years go by, we will hear more about states contemplating secession from the Union for whatever reason. Having reviewed Adam Connell’s Total Secession, a very different novel set against the background of a soon to be extinct Union, I was curious what Peters did with the idea.

I liked it, a lot, enough to buy the sequel Shock & Awe: Operation Enduring Unity 2 which just shows the wisdom of Peter’s advice to self-published authors: research and define your target reader.

Review: Power Games: Operation Enduring Unity 1 by Richard Peters, 2013.

No plan survives first contact with the enemy.

Our story starts with an assassin taking a shot at a presidential candidate. He misses, the ricochet killing the candidate he does favor. That sets the tone of this book, a story full of accident and misunderstanding and miscalculation and ending in global chaos.

Sure, the initial set up is improbable, but the consequences after that aren’t. Peters even brings in real precedents from American history.

Sure, there’s satire but not of the arguments that the major political parties make on cable news. It’s a commentary on the bad uses politicians, out of ignorance and ambition and naiveté, put the military to. And normal calculations of cost and benefit go out the window once blood is spilled. There is so little conventional partisan politics that, apart from the brief party identifications of the three presidential candidates, you almost forget who belongs to which party.

What’s mostly here is the thrill, perverse though it may be, of modern, combined arms war waged on American soil by and against Americans. They know each others tactics, doctrine, and equipment. And, unlike the First American Civil War, the Second doesn’t break nicely on geographic lines. Modern communications means the enemy can be anywhere.

Peters brings the sort of sardonic, dark humor to his story that combat veterans almost always seem to have to some degree. And he knows how to pace a story. He uses a god’s-eye view that covers the battlefield, economics, politics, and logistics. He even makes his glossary of military terms and weapons amusing.

The characters are serviceable if unexceptionably drawn. They fall in the categories you would expect for this sort of story: soldiers on both sides, a journalist, and politicians. The best drawn is Sophie. Radicalized after Federal troops accidentally kill her boyfriend in California, she joins a privately funded militia. We also get the fearsomely deadly Command Sergeant Brown who wrecks a great deal of havoc. He exhibits a fierce devotion to his men’s safety and honor, but he’s also responsible for escalating the war. He seems, along with another character, to be Peters showing that it might not be enough for a professional military man to take legitimate orders and take care of his comrades.

But don’t think of this as a novel so much as a future history told by an old veteran who’s going to tell you what he thinks — and what you should too.

I suspect this story will appeal to most veterans (which I’m not). But I also think civilians interested in the real complexities of modern war and counter-insurgency will like it too.

Production-wise there are a few problems. There are homonym errors which can bedevil any self-published author however careful they are. Peters’ style guide uses numerals a lot more than I’m used to. Most significantly, there are a lot of missing quotation marks which makes some conversations hard to follow. However, my review copy was from January 2014, so that might have been fixed.

Spoilers and Additional Thoughts

It is interesting that nowhere is the deeply unpopular president, who is allowed to remain in place after the election is held and war breaks out, named. The story opens on “November 7th 20soon”, and the president seems to be a Democrat. Draw your own conclusions.

Peters’ satirical targets, besides the misuse of the military, are gridlock and the nexus of financial and political power in American government. When thousands of citizens embrace the secessionist movement, it’s less out of any specific ideology than grabbing at a chance for change — even if it results in something much different than they imagine. The media is depicted as simplistically provoking things and worsening innate human tendencies.

I don’t agree that American politics is plagued by gridlock. Gridlock can be a good thing in preventing bad policies. And I would argue that many problems result from certain institutions, namely Congress, not more zealously protecting their privileges and powers against the judicial and executive branches.

However, I do agree with Peters that some policies, especially on immigration, are widely supported by voters of all parties but not by politicians.

Given my day job and that I’ve idly thought about how exactly you would deprive the Federal government of funds in a secessionist movement, I was glad to see Peters having a brief aside on the United Republics of America diverting federal income tax withholding to them.

Our main characters are surprisingly absent for a good portion of this book. Often Peters will give us a few characters just for one battle. I suppose some might complain about lack of characterization, but I’ve read enough medieval literature and science fiction to not mind characters who exist mostly to serve the plot.

When the journalist and Command Sergeant Brown, who rescues her from being held prisoner in Florida, get together, there is a heightened state of arousal before, presumably, some terror sex. I suppose some might find that bit awfully written, but I think Peters was being funny and truthful about primal urges awakened in danger.

Since I can do it here, I give you some quotes.

Sophie the new militia member:

Those 5.56mm rounds deliver a lot more permanent social justice than any lawsuit.

The new dilemma of Army officers:

The simple truth is he had been too busy being a professional doing his duty to really examine why he was fighting. To really wonder how far he was willing to go. That was just too complicated a thought to deal with. It was too easy to push down and ignore, what with all the other things he had to do. But when he saw his homeland being treated like some 3rd world shithole so that some asshole a 1,000 miles away could stay in power, it got personal.

Rationality’s death once the shooting starts:

Wars can be pursued scientifically, but their causes are rarely so rational.

The desire for change:

It wasn’t even over what specific changes should be made, but whether real change was truly possible through the existing institutions of government. It was really a simple question of faith. Who had faith that a new government would screw things up less than the current one?

Why professional development is different in war:

Had they lived, they might have learned. Unfortunately, combat doesn’t work that way. The first test is often the final exam. Where an F grade stands for being “fucked”.

Peters originally approached me about this book after seeing my review of Harry Turtledove’s Settling Accounts: In at the Death, the final volume of an alternate history series covering several wars between the Confederate States of America and the U.S. In some ways, Peters is the anti-Turtledove. He doesn’t tie himself to a worm’s-eye perspective of events as seen through the eyes of a few characters. He’s not afraid to open the narrative up using omniscient third person viewpoints that often don’t even include his characters. He also moves his story along faster, and he is not locked into repeating historical analogies even when citing them. For instance, the sending of Federal troops to Florida is rationalized using Eisenhower’s example of Federal troops enforcing desegregation.

I was glad to see that Peters, born in Florida, follows the long tradition of science fiction writers, and I consider this work political science fiction though Peters labels it a technothriller — trashing his old stomping grounds.

As with the Turtledove series and Jeff Carlson’s recent Plague Trilogy, modern warfare on American soil is an interesting topic, but Peters’ provides by far the most detailed working out of that idea.

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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5 thoughts on “Power Games

  1. I appreciated the reference to Total Secession. Your review of Peters’ Power Games was insightful, incisive, and intelligent, as always. (I’ve just downloaded a copy for myself.) Might I entice you to review The High Hunt, my latest SF novel? It was named a Best Indie Book by Kirkus, and is available free, for a limited time, at Apple’s iBookstore, on blio, and at Smashwords. (Total Secession is also available for free at the same locations, as is my first eBook, Lay Saints.) Thanks for listening, and please keep up the good work!

    • Adam, I actually have The High Hunt in the review stack, but your message is certainly enough to push it up higher in the list.

      And for those leery of self-published works, I’ll note that, if my memory is right, Lay Saints was first traditionally published.

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