It turns out spending time on social media poking around the fringes of modern publishing has blown up my reading queue. I haven't had this much great stuff rain down on me since Matt moved to town my sophomore year of high school and brought his father's full basement of sf/f with him. Forget the local library, his dad's collection would have kept me busy for a lifetime if college hadn't gotten in the way. As a result of this recent embarrassment of riches, you're probably going to see a few short story reviews thrown on the blog as short filler, as it looks like the bulk of my long fiction reading will be dedicated to the Puppy of the Month Book Club. Filler like this post.
The Fourth Fleet, by Russell Newquist, is a short science-fiction story that appears in the collection, Make Death Proud to Take Us. I had hoped to review this entire collection of short stories as a whole, but it's been a few weeks now, and it's better to get one short review out while the reading is still fresh in my mind.
Full disclosure: Russell is a good guy. Well...his online persona strikes me as a good guy, and that's the only way I've ever encountered him. In fact, I bought this book because I like what he brings to the schoolyard bull session. This review might be colored by the fact that I like him and want to see him do well. Whether that makes this more of an impartial review or more of a naked shill is up to you.
With all that pre-amble out of the way, let's get to the good stuff, and The Fourth Fleet definitely ranks among the good stuff.
The Fourth Fleet is exactly the sort of throwback adventure story that churns my butter. It starts out the tale of three brothers clinging to life and scrambling to return to civilization after having been intercepted by a fleet of space pirates, having had their cargo of planetary gas and all their food stolen, and then left for dead. The blue collar guys are hampered by real world physics and the need to account for things like mass v. thrust, planetary orbits, and other real-world technical challenges. Somehow, they manage to cobble together a solution, and limp back towards the inner planets of the solar system, and with them they bring information critical to stopping the recent plague of space piracy.
Somehow, the pirate fleet in question has developed a revolutionary method of transport that allows them to pretty much ignore the physics of space travel. Every time the space cops get a lock on the raiders and set an intercept course, they arrive at the calculated rendezvous only to have the buccaneers actually show up on the far side of sol raiding yet another fleet of colony ships or gas miners. Solving the mystery of how the pirates manage to defy the laws of physics as currently understood places this story in the hardest of hard sci-fi, and actually drives the action as well.
This is one of those stories that is just long enough. It gets in, tells its story, and gets out. A less skilled writer, or one with a contract to fill, could have inflated the story here to fill out a smallish paperback, but that would have required numerous subplots and threads, pointless politicking, and a lot of wasted time. This is exactly the sort of story that fits well within the short story dynamic, and it is nice to see that people are still doing just that.
For my part, this story came about at just the right time. One of the audio-books I have in post-production right now is a collection of short stories edited by Tom Kratman and Vox Day, Riding the Red Horse. That collection contains a short non-fiction piece you may remember called, The Hot Equations, by Ken Burnside, in which he explains the realities of thermodynamics, demonstrates how hard sci-fi should operate within those realities, and then suggests ways that they can be used to drive conflict. It's as much a polemic against the ubiquity of soft sci-fi as it is a challenge to writers to step up to the hard sci-fi plate and do better.
Reading The Fourth Fleet provides a clinic on how a writer can step up to that plate and hit a solid home run. If this post doesn't have enough asides for you yet, check out Russell's own blog where he confirms that I didn't luck into some grand connection - he admits to writing this story as a direct response to that challenge. At the end of his post, he states:
I leave it to the readers to decide if the story honors the science of “The Hot Equations” – or if it’s any good.
This reader decided that it does, and it is.