Ace, 2003, 259 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-01052-0
In this cheery twenty-first century where everyone’s interests are being thrown in a swirling melting pot, it may be not be a surprise to find authors attempting unusual genre combinations. Military Science-Fiction has long been a staple, but what about judicial military SF? In this first volume in the “JAG in Space” series, John G. Hemry ends up writing an unambitious, but remarkably enjoyable hybrid of three flavours that, all things considered, go well together.
A Just Determination begins in 2099, just as newly-minted Ensign Paul Sinclair steps upon the USS Michaelson, a warship (“Long Endurance Cruiser”) protecting U.S. interests in space. As you would expect from the first book in a military SF series, the narrative first dedicates itself to the introduction of the characters, from protagonist Sinclair himself, to the chain of command above him and the other members of the Michaelson. There are a lot of characters, so the time it takes to introduce them all isn’t insignificant. It takes chapters before the action properly starts, but that’s not a big problem: Hemry’s clear prose is readable enough, and Sinclair’s early trials in space are the kind of stuff that will quickly charm readers.
But the emphasis of the series is different from that of most military SF novel. This “Novel of Universal Law” is far more interested in the mechanics of a military spaceship than in big action scenes or cheap political points. Hemry is a career military officer, and it shows: His depiction of military minds and protocols is surprisingly engaging, and should appeal to readers of all political orientations. As Sinclair learns how to do his job (which includes an unwelcome judiciary dimension, as he’s designated the ship’s lone legal officer) and as the minutia of shipboard life is explained, it feels as if we’re given a tour of life in the military.
It’s no accident if the Science Fiction angle ends up being the weakest of A Just Determination‘s blending of genres. The USS Michaelson is very obviously a United States warship, which not only provides a solid grounding for readers, but also enables Hemry to use established US naval traditions and procedures as a given for his action. You could easily take the bones of this novel and re-cast them in a current-day technothriller without unduly harming it.
On the other hand, the military and legal aspects of the novel are non-removable, especially when the main plot of the novel kicks in: During patrol, the Michaelson ends up firing on an unarmed research vessel from “the other side”. The captain of the ship is soon slated for a court-martial, leaving Sinclair to contemplate whether this is a fair trial, or a simple scapegoating exercise. Despite his personal dislike of the man, will Sinclair be able to do his duty and speak the truth?
If that sounds like a dull and low-stakes plot, you’re not entirely mistaken: A Just Determination is not a novel of intricate twists and sudden revelations. The events unfold evenly, at an expected pace that will shock no one. This is a procedural novel, maybe even a didactic one: Hemry’s goal seems to be to explain why military procedures are the way they are, and find where personal responsibility lies in the grey areas where no one is a hero or a villain. Readers used to more high-octane action may balk, but they’re going themselves a disservice: Hemry’s first “JAG in Space” volume is a compulsively readable, even charming piece of pure military fiction. The characters are well handled, the prose is clean and the procedural approach to military justice leads to some terrific courtroom sequences.
While it’s true that some characters are too quickly sketched, or that Sinclair’s internal narration is often too one-the-nose, this has little impact of the novel’s overall effect. A Just Determination‘s simple plot allows Hemry to focus his message and wrap it up in a judicious amount of characterization. Readers who think they’ve given up on military fiction may want to take a look at this one: above-average verisimilitude is a welcome breath of fresh air after far too many alien-shoot’em-up tripe. Though I started the series with only the first two volumes in hand, I quickly went out and purchased the third and fourth volumes. Stay tuned for the next adventures of Paul Sinclair, military lawyer in spaaace!