Burden of Proof, John G. Hemry

Ace, 2004, 293 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-01147-0

I really enjoy being surprised by some books, and Burden of Proof is an unusual kind of surprise: A book that shouldn’t work, but does so far better than anyone could suspect. Who could expect such an enjoyable book from a surprise-free plot, a blandly heroic protagonist, superfluous SF elements and a exposition-heavy prose style?

The lineage of the novel might have been a clue. John G. Hemry’s Burden of Proof is, after all, the second book in a series after the satisfying A Just Determination, which did similar wonders with just about the same elements. Together, the series charts the career of Paul Sinclair, junior commissioned officer in a 2100-era United States space navy. As Sinclair is tasked with shipboard judiciary duties, you can see how the series has the feel of a hybrid between legal drama, military procedural fiction and nuts-n-bolts science fiction. A number of on-line references to this series call it “JAG in space”, and while I’m not sure it’s the series’ official title, it certainly fits the plot.

The first book succeeded despite a number of elements that should have worked against it. Its earnest prose style and likable characters did much to shore up the clumsiness of some passages and the predictable nature of the plot. Those flaws and qualities are also in Burden of Proof, where they’re joined by another growing problem: self-conscious repetition.

Because structurally, A Just Determination and Burden of Proof are like twin brothers. Both see Sinclair as he progresses through the ranks, assists a captain’s mast session, witness an incident and volunteers for unpleasant court martial duties. The events are different (the accidental shooting of civilians in the first book; a shipboard accident in the second), but the formula stays the same. Even the characters comment that it’s just bad luck to be involved in two court martial procedures in such a short amount of time.

And through it all, the tone also remains the same. Hemry is not interested in juiced-up Hollywood drama, daredevil characters or extraordinary threats. His series is about people doing their jobs, and doing their best to operate within the system. Paul Sinclair tries really hard to follow the rules; it’s just bad luck that people around him can’t seem to do the same. There is a basic verisimilitude to this series that is comforting no matter how pedestrian it seems: who needs alien invasions, doomsday weapons and vast space battles when a court martial for gross dereliction of duty can be so thrilling? I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: This series should reach far more than the usual military-SF crowd in how it portrays military personnel as real people faced with real problems. Even more so here than in A Just Determination, the enemy that most directly threatens Sinclair is not another country, but the incompetents on his own ship.

Take away the almost-useless SF window-dressing, and you’ve got a tale that could be published as straight-up military fiction. The “space navy” is the sugar pill required to sell this book to SF audiences, but it holds together surprisingly well without it. Whether it’s an advantage or not is still unclear to me at this point, but I can certainly testify that the book as a whole is utterly pleasant to read regardless of genre. Despite the linear plot, the cheap twists (including an investigating officer with a huge conflict of interest) and the repeated overuse of Sinclair’s internal monologue, Burden of Proof is a smooth piece of fiction. Far smoother than anyone would expect given all of the elements running against it. And yet, despite my growing conviction that this series is going to run its concept into the ground, I’m on board for at least the next two volumes in the series.

We’ll see if the trend continues, or even improves.

[September 2007: I wasn’t so fond of Rule of Evidence, the third volume in the series, which really seemed to recycle everything all over again to little effect. Once again, the lack of basic monitoring equipment puts all characters in trouble, and good old Paul Sinclair has to rescue the situation. It’s still very readable, but the ritualized plot structure starts to grate.]

[October 2007: Interestingly enough, the fourth volume, Against all Enemies, is a neat wrap-up to this first phase of Paul Sinclair’s career as he leaves the USS Michaelson at the end of his tour of duty. The plot isn’t necessarily less of a formula, but there’s a real sense of growth and evolution here, in addition to the series’ usual strengths. There may or may not be any further volumes in the series (sales will determine that), but any fifth volume will likely be very different from the first four. In the meantime, the series as a whole is an interesting hybrid of legal/military/SF thriller, and it’s worth a look even given the third-volume ennui.]

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