Berkley, 1999, 649 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-16814-X
Eric L. Harry’s Protect and Defend is so much fun to read that it takes a while to realize that it’s largely insane.
Up to a certain point, that’s not really a surprise: Harry’s first two novels, Arc Light (a post-nuclear war thriller) and Society of the Mind (a techno-thriller starring killer robots), both distinguished themselves by plot elements that, really, were pretty far out there. In comparison, Protect and Defend‘s opening salvo of anarchistic violence seem pretty tame. Even when Russia is taken over by anarchists, when China decides to take extra territory for itself and when NATO forces must intervene in Siberia to stop hordes of Chinese soldiers, it almost seems ordinary.
Harry’s crisp matter-of-fact prose style accounts for much of this comfort: After reading plenty of military thrillers with unconvincing writing and even worse characters, it was something to a relief to find competent storytelling. This may not be great literature as scholars understand the term, but in terms of big thick military thrillers, this really isn’t all that bad. Harry isn’t a serving military officer, and this may explain why he’s able to deliver a full-fledged military adventure (complete with tactical maps) and yet still carry along his civilian readers to the end.
The characters are familiar, but not unpleasantly so: The iconoclastic commanding officer with a penchant for intervening too closely; the teenager who learns to be all he can be thanks to the military; the well-meaning regular guy suddenly thrust into a position of power; the bright young female reporter chasing a story; the evil mastermind behind the radical movement… it’s all familiar but so well-done that it’ll take a while for you to slam on your mental brakes and scream “Wait a minute! This doesn’t make sense!”
And indeed, in the flurry of the opening pages’ slam-bang succession of action, terrorist assassinations and wide-scale chaos, it’s easy to forget that Harry’s opening act is far-fetched enough to be senseless. Anarchists organizing long enough to ferment political unrest? Taking their cues from a supreme leader? Someone’s using the word “anarchism” without quite understanding what it means…
What’s more, the thought of Russia descending in anarchy bears no resemblance to the Russians’ historical flirtation with authoritarianism. But Harry needs to kneecap his imagined Russia so that it can’t defend Siberia against Chinese invaders, so it may be best to overlook that particular objection.
Still, seven years and at least three geopolitical contexts after the book’s initial publication, it goes without saying that the geopolitics of the novel are no longer valid: Its “global anarchist threat” seems quite amusing in this era of fundamentalist terrorism. On the other hand, Protect and Defend has survived a great deal better than many of its 1999 contemporaries. The thought of American going head-to-head with China during the Siberian winter still carries along a chill: One could imagine this novel, retooled slightly, being released today. Of course, one would then have to account for why a gun-shy post-Iraq USA would gladly charge to defend a piece of frozen Russian soil against an enemy that can actually attack with more than IEDs… But that’s the kind of detail that techno-thriller writers are born to explain.
The overall impression that carries through the book is that the Siberian military action is fabulous, while the Russian political subplot is almost embarrassingly weak. By the time the Russians are joyously starving to death in the streets under benevolent anarchistic laissez-faire, enough is enough and the whole edifice of the novel nearly crumbles on its weak foundations. Worse is the disconnect between the military side and the political repercussions on either the domestic US front or the wider worldwide scale. The final epilogue, lightly borrowed from the end of Society of the Mind, is similarly disappointing: But then again, I place little trust in the “Great Man” theory of politics, especially when in veers in predestination.
On the other hand, the military engagements are described with a good deal of vividness and sympathy toward the characters stuck in those atrocious conditions, as long as you can learn to ignore the larger context. Fans of Tom Clancy (including those who were disappointed with the broadly similar The Bear and the Dragon) will appreciate the good military action and take refuge in generally familiar characters. They’ll just have to learn how to deal with the wonky geopolitics and the preposterous developments.