Tag Archives: James H. Cobb

Sea Fighter, James H. Cobb

Jove, 2000, 513 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-515-12982-8

Over the past year, I’ve read so many limp military thrillers (Brown’s Fatal Terrain, Rugerro’s The Common Defense, Stewart’s The Kill Box, etc…) that I had almost forgotten what it felt like to read a genuinely entertaining one. Fortunately, James H. Cobb’s Sea Fighter was there to make me believe in the genre again.

What often happens with military-series writers is that they eventually get stale, don’t renew their premises, barely allow for character growth and simply lose touch with how to write an exciting novel. Not so here: After two similar novels, Cobb shuffles the deck with skill, and Sea Strike continues the series with sustained originality.

The novel’s first few pages are deliciously jarring, as protagonist Garrett writes a “If you read this, I’m dead…” letter from a marine platform a few miles away from the African coast. Veteran readers of the series will be immediately concerned; where’s “the Duke”, the high-tech destroyer that starred in the first few books? What is Amanda doing, planning to lead a ground expedition in Africa?

The next few pages lay it out for us; the USS Cunningham is in dry-dock for repairs after the events of Sea Strike, and Amanda Garrett’s been offered a post coordinating the UN forces in a nasty little war in Africa. This sets up a devilishly clever scenario where the might of the US military is handicapped by political concerns to such a degree where a battle with an African navy becomes more of a test of cleverness than a war of firepower. Garrett is forced to out-think a dangerously intelligent antagonist and win the war through unconventional means… a intellectual contest in which the biggest winner is the reader.

From large-scale naval engagements, Garrett is forced to move to coastal tactics and gadgets. Amphibious crafts and SEAL-team tactics are in the foreground in Sea Fighter, which is a nice change of pace and a welcome renewal of Cobb’s fiction. The featured techno-gadgets here are the titular “Seafighters”, experimental armed hovercrafts that do pretty much everything including cutting and dicing. The new tactical capabilities of the “Air Cushion Gunboats” are a good excuse for new tactics and original spectacular scenes; Cobb has a lot of fun with his gadgets, and so do the readers. Now that we’ve seen the first military novel about hovercrafts, I’m waiting for one on hydrofoils.

It’s been an axiom of mine that you can reliably gauge the worth of a military technothriller by the number of Cool Scenes it features. Sea Fighter ranks highly on that scale, with an assortment of well-narrated battle scenes, clever maneuvering on both sides of the conflict and accessible political/strategic considerations. The care with which the antagonist is established as a nuanced opponent is one of the highlights of the novel and yet another facet of Cobb’s skill.

While war is a grim subject and current real-world conflict headlines are hardly amusing, military novels are a different things, and indeed the best of them can also be distinguished by a sense of compulsive fun. Sea Fighter understands this perfectly and is quick to establish the book’s main conflict as a chess game in which moves and countermoves alternate in a compulsively readable fashion.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that it’s all simplistic fluff, though; the geopolitics of Sea Strike are plausible and realistic to a degree that is far more convincing than some of its brethrens. Cobb can also rely on an impressive catalogue of historical references. Here, a raid on enemy lines isn’t presented as a cowboy manoeuvre, but a Civil War tactic adapted to modern times.

It all adds up to an intelligent and entertaining war novel. Dig deeper and you’ll see Sea Fighter as a true example of the dirty-little-wars era military novel, where reduced stakes don’t mean a reduced interest for the reader. Grab it as soon as possible if you’re a fan of the genre. Don’t forget to pick up the rest of the Cobb oeuvre while you’re at it.

Choosers of the Slain, James H. Cobb

Berkley, 1996, 338 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-16053-X

The publishing industry seems to work in booms and busts. One year, fat fantasy trilogies are the rage; others, procedural murder mysteries are what gets bought. These cycles usually dramatically affect the midlist catalogue, causing good times and bad times. Die-hard fans of one particular sub-genre may pine for “golden years” when their chosen genre was all the rage.

Among techno-thriller fans, this period is roughly between 1988 and 1992 (ironically enough; the last years of the Cold War), where big complex novels of imaginary wars underwent their apogee in terms of publishing attention. During that time, Tom Clancy wrote The Cardinal of the Kremlin and Clear and Present Danger, Dale Brown Day of the Cheetah, Larry Bond Vortex, with other authors like Harold Coyle, Payne Harrison and Joe Weber producing their best novels.

Now, Clancy feels bloated, Brown has lost its freshness, Harrison has turned UFO-nutso and Bond, Coyle and Weber have moved on to historical novels or -gack- plain thrillers. It’s easy to say that the technothriller boom of the early has come and gone. But that’s a simplistic view of things, because no publishing sub-genre ever dies; it may go underground, sustain less authors, but if you look hard enough, nothing ever prevents you from finding a steady trickle of good technothrillers in the late nineties.

James H. Cobb’s first novel, Choosers of the Slain, is a perfect example of the kind of totally enjoyable technothriller to come by in the “lean” years of the technothriller. It’s short, snappy, to the point, completely fluent in the conventions of the genre and genuinely thrilling. As with most memorable techno-thrillers, the setting has been chosen with maximum impact in order to provide chills to the reader: Antarctica.

This isn’t the first time that the Southern latitudes have been mined by technothrillers authors. Payne Harrison’s superlative Thunder of Erebus used the setting to maximum effect, producing a novel as exciting as it was memorable. More recently (ah-ha, another good late-nineties technothriller!), Judith and Steven Garfield-Reeves’ 1998 Icefire used Antarctica’s ice shelf as a pivotal plot device for a globe-spanning techno-thriller.

But Cobb brings new things to Antarctica, the most striking of them being a female military protagonist, USS Cunningham Commander Amanda Garrett. It is she who will have to hold sentry for the US Government, as a blockade is imposed on Argentina for the invasion of British bases on the south continent. While Argentineans prepare intimidation manoeuvres and, later on, all-out attacks on her stealth destroyer, Garrett also finds herself attracted to another member of the crew… already proving herself to be a notch above her automaton cardboard counterparts in most other technothrillers. Neither superwoman nor feminist poster heroine, Garrett is entirely believable, and it’s to Cobb’s credit that he’s able to sustain her presence without resorting to easy clichés. Support human characters; buy the book!

Most importantly, Choosers of the Slain has everything you’d like in a technothriller: Great title, believable premise, sympathetic supporting protagonists, very cool gadgets, historical depth, optimized length (neither too short nor too g’darn long), spectacular combat scenes and limpid writing. It has its flaws (the romantic subplot grates somewhat, though it must be noted that this isn’t the immediate down-and-dirty affair you’d expect, but a rather restrained, even mature, series of quiet scenes), but usually it’s simply a lot of fun.

Cobb proves that the legacy of the technothriller’s heydays is still alive and well. Choosers of the Slain is the first book in a series and bodes well for the other volumes. (The equally enjoyable Sea Strike is available in paperback, with another announced later in 2000) In the meantime, techno-thrillers fans will be able to get their escapist fix and discover a new hot author to replace the fallen ones.

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.