Moscoe, Mike. 1999. The First Casualty. New York: Ace.
Reviewed 20 November 1999
This is what Feintuch and Weber fans should be reading. The characters are real, military people (voluntarily or otherwise); the prose is more than merely wooden; the theme is worthwhile; and, above all, the odor of warfare's insanity comes through without preaching.
To those of us who have been around the block, the title brings back memories of another war involving draftees. The first casualty of war is truth. The difficulty with that title is that it implies something else, something more insidious, than this book tries to deliver. That first casualty is from the perspective of a journalist, not a soldier. For a soldier, "truth" is pretty far down the casualty list, as Mary Rodrigo's initial experiences demonstrate all too well.
Mr. Moscoe does an excellent job of invoking the incompetence produced by peacetime army (or, in his case, Marine/Navy) gamesmanship and careerism, particularly in that first battle of grunts. At times, the borrowing from Aliens seems a bit too apparent, but both that (underrated) movie and The First Casualty draw upon the first few years of Vietnam and the first few months of Korea. Mr. Moscoe's real innovation is extending that same flavor to the navy, with the recognition that the economics of trading will probably make large standing "space navies" impossible. We've seen "merchant cruisers" before, but not with this level of integration into the military or economic context, and never with this level of real, personal involvement by the peacetime owners.
The novel does have a couple of conceptual problems, though. The most troubling is the "conspiracy theory" aspect of the real Enemy. The novel starts out with one of the most plausible economic theories and justifications for continued warfare that I've seen in quite some time, but backs away from the more difficult challenges that this presents by creating a conspiracy of megacorporate monsters that is just a bit too pat. This particular Enemy should not be "personalized," because it undermines all the work Mr. Moscoe put into building a morally ambiguous conflict. Personalizing the Enemy as a shadowy, amoral group of industry titans makes the Enemy too easy to identify and despise, without grappling with the deepers issues.
The other conceptual problem is the reliance on external referents for so many details. If the 9.2", 8", 6", and 4" "laser cannon" of the merchant vessels were supposed to create the flavor of the late-19th-century first-, second-, and third-class armored cruisers, the exact measurements simply didn't need to be done that way. (We'll leave the questionable physics of measuring a laser's power and range by its aperturewhich would be in metric, anywayaside.) This isn't the Battle of Manila Bay, which was a conflict between a professional navy and an out-of-supply, unprepared defense squadron. Then there's the question of names. The "passive-aggressive" Commander Gandhi; Datril; Whitebred; Stuart; and Rodrigo all brought ultimately unwelcome external baggage into the novel.
But this is quibbling. That one must reach to this level instead of wondering why the idiots in Feintuch's and Weber's works didn't get fragged a lot earlier in their respective interminable series testifies to the hard work Mr. Moscoe put into the novel, and the easy way that he communicates that work. Like any good government employee, he has mastered the art of giving just enough information to get by, while always hinting that there's more to come. No infodumps here.
The ultimate theme of this novel is not the glory of combat, or some appallingly shallow knight-in-shining-armor tale of personal aggrandizement. Mark Knopfler said it quite concisely:
But it's written in the starlight
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