Sea Strike, James H. Cobb

Berkley, 1997, 351 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-16616-3

Military techno-thrillers are usually written by men for men, starring men fighting against other men with carefully described weapons in imaginary wars taking place in the not-too-distant future. More attention is usually given to the geopolitics, the fancy weapons and the action scenes than to character development or fancy prose. It’s an unusually popular genre, at least if we judge it by its foremost practitioners: Tom Clancy, Dale Brown, Larry Bond have all spent some time on the bestseller charts, reaping the results of some pretty good efforts. With Sea Strike, James L. Cobb manages to produce a decent novel that perfectly fits into the genre, and provides good entertainment for any reader.

Cobbs innovate within his field by featuring a female protagonist: Amanda Garrett is the captain of the USS Cunningham, a stealth destroyer featuring the latest in high-tech devices. It’s not the first time that the genre has seen major female characters (Clancy, for instance, has several strong female roles), but never so much at the forefront. Cobbs gets further points by convincingly building Commander Garrett as a reasonably realistic heroine. This reviewer was not enthused by the romantic subplot, but other readers might think otherwise.

Sea Strike won’t turn off many readers by the difficulty of its prose style, which is still as efficiently functional as the best other novels of its genre. The technical descriptions are painlessly inserted, and the action scenes are detailed with the proper mix of detail and directness.

Of course, all of this takes a second seat to original plotting and cool but interesting realism. Fortunately, Sea Strike performs equally well in both areas.

In matters of geopolitics, Cobbs goes to good old China to find its antagonists, though things are made more interesting by a civil war involving not only Chinese dissidents, but also Taiwan. Though some passages dealing with internal Chinese matters could have been edited out of the novel, the development of the crisis is well-handled, doesn’t seem too outrageous (once you get around the idea of a Chinese civil war) and competently presents both the military and the diplomatic side of things.

In terms of cool techno-gadgetry, Sea Strike remains in the realm of the believable, with only a few minor gadgets besides, of course, the USS Cunningham stealth destroyer itself. The gadgets are effectively used, however, and the technical jargon isn’t undecipherable.

The emotional mark of distinction for this type of literature isn’t a sense of wonder, of loss or of affection, but a sense of cool novelty from the action scenes. The best techno-thrillers (like Payne Harrison’s Thunder of Erebus, or Harold Coyle’s Sword Point) all feature individual vignettes, neatly integrated in the action but at the same time standing on their own as mini-scenes of inherent coolness. They must be visually spectacular, technically innovative and not without a certain sense of panache and ironic humor. Sea Strike has a few of them, from the smashing demise of a Chinese nuclear submarine to a last-last-minute helicopter rescue. They don’t take Sea Strike to the classic level, but they certainly brings back some of the sheer fun of this type of novels.

The end result is a novel that’s quite enjoyable. Normally, this wouldn’t warrant a recommendation, but given the sad late-nineties state of the military technothriller as compared to its heydays of the early nineties, Sea Strike is certainly worth picking up for fans of the genre. James H. Cobbs has proven his belonging to the genre, and we can only await his next novel.

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