Morrow, 2003, 426 pages, C$39.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-009409-5
Let us resolve, from the onset, that people in the military are, as a group of people, worthy of our admiration. After all, they’re doing dangerous jobs that would make most of us readers cower in helpless fear. Let us also maintain that military hardware is often a thing of beauty, marrying human ingeniousness with fearsome power. (Like power tools, except cooler). Furthermore, let us state blandly that military fiction, when properly written, can combine the best of several traditions, marrying slam-bang adventure with clever commentary on the nature of power and competition between nations.
This being stated, let’s now turn our attention to why Dale Brown’s Air Battle Force is not just a career low for Brown (which takes some doing after stinkers like Fatal Terrain or Wings of Fire) but is also one of the most inept piece of military fiction I’ve had the misfortune to read so far.
Most of the book’s problem stem from Brown’s now-ridiculous obsession in continuing a series that should have been put of of its misery a long time ago. Having locked himself far away in his imagined universe, Brown now finds himself unable to engage meaningfully with the issues of the day: Explicitly set in 2003, Air Battle Force declines to even recognize the events of 9/11 (save in the acknowledgements) despite mentioning here and there that the American government has spent years and millions of dollars chasing down the Taliban. Beyond the cartoonish dullness this gives to Brown’s “Air Battle Force” military unit, this refusal to acknowledge contemporary geopolitics betrays an author that may be unable to engage with current reality.
His skills as a storyteller certainly aren’t improving. While he doesn’t repeat some of Wing of Fire‘s stupidest moments (no nine-year-old PhD. in Air Battle Force), Brown here struggles to even define an exciting story. In boldly examining the US Air Force’s future in unmanned vehicles, Brown has also taken his heroes out of the action. Protagonist Patrick MacLanahan only get in danger once in the prologue, and that’s following Yet Another Dumb Command Move. Otherwise, Brown’s series is becoming a series of fancy technological demonstrations in which the back-room boys look on as their unmanned weapons remotely kick whatever anti-American ass there is to kick.
This doesn’t help Air Battle Force‘s pacing one tiny bit. For a 426-page novel, not a lot happens: Despite the interesting rumblings of an upcoming presidential campaign between Thorn and Martindale, Brown loses himself (and his readers) in dull back-water geopolitics that can be skipped one chapter at a time. Brown has never been an elegant stylist, but even his low standards are slipping with passages in which character viewpoints switch from one paragraph to the next. Brown has struggled with plot even since Storming Heaven, but Air Battle Force marks an even bigger failure than usual. By the end of the novel, all that remains is the impression of having read an extended prologue to the next novel. Brown shows no sign of actually being willing (let alone able) to fix what’s wrong with his fiction. Even by the undemanding standards of military fiction readers, Brown has reached the bottom of the barrel and seems intent of clawing his way even further down. His characters are as bland as ever and he can’t even write a decent action scene with whatever new toys he has. Add that to his inability to adapt his fiction to the new shape of the real world and one question remains: Why would anyone want to read anything by Dale Brown ever again?
I have long considered Brown’s post-Hammerheads output as being inferior to what he’s capable of writing (which truly dates us), but now has come the time to consider (reluctantly) that this may be as good as it gets; that Brown will never again be able to write the kind of stuff he did so well earlier in his career. It speaks volume that in sinking lower and lower, Brown has never acquired the kind of inspiring right-wing craziness that now makes Clancy so much fun to read: He has simply become a rambling, boring writer coasting on the laurels of better books long past gone (and possibly a percentage of Dan Brown’s new fans.) I’ve got two more books by Brown on my shelf, bought well before he went in his current death spiral: I can’t wait until I’m done with them.