Hemry, John (2003). A Just Determination. New York: Ace.

Reviewed 23 October 2003

Hemry, A Just Determination Ensign Paul Sinclair, USN, is assigned as the juniormost officer on the USS Michaelson, a Long Endurance Cruiser (Space). In this context, "long endurance" still means within the solar system, for humanity has apparently not developed FTL (or even interstellar NAFAL) travel. Neither has humanity united; as becomes apparent very quickly, the geopolitical situation on Earth is not really all that different from that of now. Then, of course, the fun begins,

Were I one to judge a book by its cover, though, I would never have picked this book up; and I certainly would not have kept reading after the first paragraph in the book. Regardless of anything else, the cover artist and art director must be referred to general court-martial for dereliction of duty and conduct unbecoming professional publishers. To start with, the "courtroom" backdrop is a physical impossibility, as there is no bar, no space in front of the judge, and no apparent place for the Court (the military equivalent of the jury) to sit. The excuse might be offered that this is in zero-G; why, then, do the flags and uniforms drape? More seriously, though, the artist obviously did not pay any attention whatsoever to reality in depicting the USN uniform. Ensign Sinclair has somehow been promoted to Lieutenant (JG), even though that explicitly does not happen in the book. He is also wearing USN aviator wings and Judge Advocate branch insignia—and a Desert Storm service ribbon. The shirt collar is a different color from the shirt cuffs (they should both be blindingly white or poor-lighting off-white). The abstract scales-of-justice symbol at the bottom just doesn't work. (Just because I was USAF does not mean I do not know proper USN uniforms; in fact, as a protocol officer I probably had to learn more about them than most USN officers ever do.) Your Honor, an Article 31 investigation indicates that the author did all within his power to eliminate these problems, and he should be discharged from this Court. However, I suggest that a reprimand, confinement for thirty months without access to episodes of JAG, and loss of numbers is the appropriate punishment for both the cover artist and the art director.

Fortunately, I do not judge a book by its cover. This book is much more worthwhile than its abusive cover might otherwise indicate. It is grounded in a realism seldom found in military-oriented speculative fiction. As in virtually any unit (even some supposedly "elite" ones), there is a range of attitudes and capabilities among both commissioned and enlisted personnel. The internal politics of the Navy are exceptionally (and painfully) well depicted, in a manner far exceeding the best of ordinary military fiction (whether speculative fiction or mainstream). Those politics are no different in the Air Force—just the means of exercising them varies a bit. I was both a line officer and a nonrated officer (that is, not a pilot or navigator) during my career, so I got to see the leadership issues from both sides—and as a commanding officer for nearly a decade, I am more familiar by far than most with the problems of command and military justice.

Even though Ensign Sinclair is emphatically not a lawyer—despite being offered the opportunity to become one, at Navy expense, twice, although I am not entirely certain that he understood that becoming a lawyer does not necessarily mean transfer to the JAG branch and out of the line of command, and perhaps did not understand the scope of the offer—this novel turns on the legal (and ethical) realities and constraints on military operations. With his wonderful four weeks of training, he is assigned the collateral (additional, for those of us based on land) duty as the ship's legal officer. The portrait of shipboard life rings true. No Enterprise-style uninterrupted corridors with fresh paint and a nice, comfortable, civilian-office-style finish; instead, we have cramped corridors, pipes and conduits all over the place, and a submarine-like environment. This is a well-thought-out touch missing from too much "space navy" fiction: the recognition that the interior of a ship will be treated like that of a nuclear submarine, not the airy spaciousness (and hence waste) of a modern cruiser or aircraft carrier.

Unfortunately, at least for Ensign Sinclair, there is a death while underway. Again, this is handled with a grasp on the realities of these situations that leads me to believe that Cmdr Hemry encountered this problem during his career. (Oops, I think I just gave something away: I was on a panel concerning the future of military technology with Commander Hemry at a recent WorldCon, and we got to talking a bit about careerism after the panel…) Not only are the circumstances of the death more than plausible, but so is the aftermath—except, perhaps, that the officer potentially responsible shows not quite enough of the sense of devastation that an apparently accidental death on active duty under peacetime operational constraints would have had. I had the misfortune to observe this too many times during my career to quite believe that this young officer could, or at least would, pull himself back together quite so quickly and thoroughly. But that is a minor quibble; that an accident during "routine" maintenance could be so devastating and have such wide-ranging consequences is a rare event in military fiction indeed.

More importantly, Ensign Sinclair is required early on to apply his limited legal training to the ship's operational orders. That this would/should have been done in port, before getting underweigh, is an irrelevant aside; this is, after all, the Navy—hundreds of years of tradition unsullied by any hint of progress. That's not just my opinion; see page 19. Falsely reassuring "security precautions" are not confined to any one service! The necessary exposition that goes along with all of this is pretty well handled. The ship's officers seem more ignorant of military law than I ever allowed my subordinates or trainee cadets to be, or than I observed on active duty; but not implausibly so. (I did not go to law school until the end of my career, and only formed the intention of doing so after some particularly unpleasant incidents well into my career; but the Geneva and Hague Conventions are pretty basic material for all officers. Except, unfortunately, the William Calleys of this world. But that was the Army.) Thus, the conversations did not suspend my disbelief.

The major problem with this novel is not the setup, or even the at-the-moment realism of the culminating court-martial. Instead, the problem is one of a serious slipup by counsel. Even though the ship's Legal Officer would certainly have performed the legal analysis of the orders depicted in the book, those orders would have been reviewed by a fully qualified JAG before they were even issued. Perhaps that officer was incompetent; perhaps that officer had even left duty or died between the time the orders were issued and the time of the court-martial; but a competent defense counsel would at least have interviewed that officer, and a competent trial counsel (prosecutor) would have asked the court for a recess to get testimony from that officer or a copy of that officer's legal review. This is the one major failing in this novel; it is one that perhaps only a litigator (or former CO with experience in the area…) would consider.

A Just Determination, in the end, shares very much the same concerns as Hemry's previous military speculative fiction works: the difficulty and cost of doing the "right thing," as opposed to the "expected thing." That this is so unusual says volumes—very unpleasant and necessary and disdainful volumes—about the state of military fiction. Actions have consequences, true enough; but too often those consequences happen only to the protagonist, and few if any of his or her fellow servicemen and servicewomen have careers that show marks of those consequences.

Overall rating: 3 stars
Very Good.
Hemry's own USN career gave him many opportunities for observation, and he balances cynicism and eminently believable detail with aspirations for what could be. But this isn't another battle book with the good guys overwhelming the bad guys. It is arguable, in fact, that the bad guys won, because the character who takes a fall does so alone; that, however, is all too realistic. This is instead a book about ethics and the struggle to make the right choices when all of the options appear unpleasant. From that perspective, it is very well done, marred only by a legal mistake made by a non-lawyer. A Powell's Books Partner

Intellectual Property Rights: © 2003 John Savage. All rights reserved.
You may contact me concerning permissions via email. This copyright notice overrides, negates, and renders void any alleged copyright or license claimed by any person or entity, specifically including but not limited to any claim of right or license by any web hosting service or software provider, except when I have transferred such rights with a signed writing that complies with the requirements for transferring the entire copyright as specified in Title 17 of the United States Code. This includes, but is not limited to, translation or other creation of derivative works, use in advertising or other publicity materials without prior authorization in writing, or any other non-private use that falls outside the fair use exception specified in Title 17 of the United States Code. If you have any question about whether commercial use, publicity or advertising use, or republication in any form satisfies this notice, it probably does not. Violations of intellectual property rights in these pages will be dealt with swiftly using appropriate process of law, probably including a note to your mother telling her that you're a thief.
"The Savage Beast", "Savage Reviews", "Surreality Check", and the dragon-and-book banner are trade and service marks of the website owner. Other marks appearing on these pages belong to third parties, and appear either with permission or as exemplary references.