Back in 2007, when I was getting ready to attend my first World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, New York, I was trying to remember a book.
I’d read it years earlier: a science-fiction thriller about colonists who unwisely set down on an alien planet with an environment so hostile that their top high-tech special forces are about as equipped to handle it as the Kardashian sisters if they were dropped onto the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. The planet is lush, tropical: at first blush very inviting, having all the necessary elements for survival. Only one problem: evolution on this planet has followed a very lethal trajectory, developing predators that would make our own Earthly alpha predators – tigers, sharks – seem like domesticated pets in comparison. The bottom of the food chain on this planet would eat the top of our food chain for a quick snack. A seemingly innocuous, pretty flower is likely concealing fly-trap jaws full of acid. If you get ten yards in this jungle environment still in possession of most of your limbs, you count your lucky stars that you’re still alive.
So. What was that book? Obviously, I turned to Google. And engaged in a pursuit most of us have at one time or another: search for a book without knowing the title or the author, hoping that I could locate the elusive text with the right combination of key words.
And as you probably know from experience, this type of search often proves fruitless: a drawn-out, increasingly frustrating exercise in futility. I’ve had a modicum of success with such wild goose chases, locating a vaguely remembered film or book or comic or TV show maybe 3 times out of 5 (not too bad for a guy who has consumed so much pop culture in 42 years. I never guessed how often, 15 or 20 years later on, I’d be wondering things like “What was that one show with the alien that looked like a bubble-skinned lava blob in a cave?” [It was the original series Star Trek episode “Devil in the Dark.”]).
But the aforementioned plot of this hostile-planet adventure proved to be not unique. I narrowed it down to maybe half-a-dozen candidates, and (erroneously) settled on a 1996 novel by David Drake called Redliners. I made a mental note to look for a copy in the dealer’s room at WFC.
Cut to the opening-night ice cream social at the convention. Overhearing an exchange between the man and his wife next to me, I realized I was standing in line for ice cream next to David and Jo Drake.
I introduced myself and told him how impressed I had been with a novel of his I’d read years earlier. The title had already slipped my mind (again! – probably because I still wasn’t even sure if I had the right book), so I explained it was the one about the planet where evolution had developed particularly lethal flora and fauna. He thought a moment, nodded and said I must be talking about Redliners. He told me he was particularly proud of that book, and then we got our ice cream and I politely disengaged (I’m pretty careful not to overstay my welcome with folks I’ve just met; thus do I wisely avoid coming across as another overgrown, fawning fanboy. Also, in this case, I just didn’t have anything else to talk about – I hadn’t read anything else by Drake at that time, and it was actually only an educated guess I’d read this particular book!).
Well, I did pick up a copy of Redliners at the convention, read it shortly afterwards, and loved it. I also realized it was not the book I had once read. Fortunately, the compliments I’d paid Drake regarding Redliners were, in retrospect, all valid.
I still have no idea what book I read all those years ago. Indeed, I’m pretty confident that, whatever it was, it came out before Redliners was published. I probably read it in the early ‘90s, before Redliners even existed, and I don’t think I was reading a new copy of whatever it was.
Still, as a rather odd and convoluted way of discovering not only a great book but perhaps the great military sci-fi writer, I’m glad I made the mistake. Redliners delivers a version — perhaps a superior version — of that rad premise and setting I wanted to revisit and combines it with the first-rate depiction of soldiers for which Drake is so renowned. It is a powerful book, and possibly one of the most heartfelt he has written. On his own web page he says this:
“Redliners is possibly the best thing I’ve written. It’s certainly the most important thing, both to me personally and to the audience I particularly care about: the veterans, the people who’ve been there, wherever ‘there’ happened to be.
Having said that, Redliners isn’t a book for everybody. It’s very tough even by my standards, and to understand the novel’s underlying optimism you have to have been some very bad places.”
Like that still-unidentified mystery novel of yore, Redliners generates page-turning suspense by placing the characters in a situation that seems lethally overwhelming (it goes without saying that the reader must be invested in said characters – if they’re just one-dimensional cardboard cutouts, it becomes the equivalent of a B-movie slasher flick, where unsympathetic stereotypes just serve the purpose of being slaughtered in novel ways).
For all the build-up of Earth (or galaxy)-threatening villains and apocalyptic scenarios in much popular entertainment, we generally feel pretty comfortable about the prospects of our heroes in our hero stories. Redliners belongs to a relatively small class of narratives where, from one page to the next, you’re rather surprised and relieved that anyone’s still alive.
To understand what I mean, imagine if, in the upcoming Avengers movie, Ultron actually murdered half the Avengers. We know that’s not going to happen – we wouldn’t want it to happen; it’s not that sort of movie – but Ultron would certainly seem like that much more of a deadly threat. Or in The Fellowship of The Ring (1954) if, by the time the fellowship reached the Anduin, not just two of the party (Boromir and Gandalf – although the latter would return) was gone but half of the nine had fallen. The heightened tension over the prospects of the remaining 4 or 5 members would be that much more intense, their fate that much more in question. I’m not saying I wish Tolkien had killed more of the party off – I’m perfectly happy with stories where most or all of the protagonists pull through. But if you build up a threat – like, for instance, the most lethal planet in the galaxy – and then don’t present a scenario where the visitors to that planet are walking into a verdant, hungry meat-grinder, then it diminishes the impact of how lethal it truly is.
Redliners is that sort of book where you are frightened of the situation – and frightened for the characters – on every page. Thus it effectively achieves what Drake states he was trying to get at, what he “particularly care[s] about”: imparting a sense (as much as it can be done by proxy or vicariously through the art of fiction) of what it’s like to be in “some very bad places,” and yet to somehow preserve some “optimism” in the face of that which might drive one to surrender to deep cynicism or despair. The “bad places” are psychological as well as physical, since the special forces unit in Redliners is comprised of soldiers who are just coming off of a long tour of intense fighting (against an alien enemy that has been at war with humanity). Many of them are suffering PTSD; they are already at the brink of what a person can be expected to endure – “redliners,” whence the book’s title.
It shows the human spirit, confronted with the deadliest ecosystem one could imagine being produced by natural selection – an environment that shoves humans right back down to the bottom of the food chain – rising, overcoming, and surviving by sheer force of grit, will, and determination (and those incalculable human qualities that give a person reason to live: friendship, dignity, camaraderie, love). As history attests time and again (and as Drake can draw upon from personal experience), it is in those horrible, soul-crushing places that can provoke the worst in humanity that we also sometimes see people at their very best.
Two other boons from my roundabout way of finding the wrong but right book: I have gone on to read many of Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers stories, and this stuff is indeed cool. I’ve also had a couple more conversations with him at subsequent conventions. He’s a sharp and witty guy. We once got into a discussion about U.S. foreign policy (regarding our nation’s role in Afghanistan and Iraq – we were pretty sympathetic in our views), and I remember thinking how cool is it that I’m discussing U.S. military intervention with David Drake?
And now, when I tell him Redliners is one impressive book, I can say it with complete assurance and conviction, and not as a complete dumbass.