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[BOOK REVIEW] Undercurrents by Robert Buettner

Genre: Military SF, Science Fiction
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Baen; Original edition
Publication Date: July 5, 2011
ISBN-10: 1439134499
ISBN-13: 978-1439134498
Author Website: Robert Buettner

The action-packed trials of Jazen Parker, ex-mercenary and spy continue in Undercurrents by Robert Buettner. Jazen, whom readers first met in Overkill has settled into the semi-prosaic life of barkeep at the independent Port of Mousetrap, a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” if ever there was one. Though not happy, Jazen makes the most of it, and he much prefers it to the mercenary life. But his retirement is rudely interrupted when Howard Hibble, king of the Trueborn (Earther) Spooks comes to Jazen with a proposition. A “case officer” (i.e. spy) has gone missing on the planet of Tressia, a disputed outworld that is a site of the Cold War between overpopulated Yavet and technologically superior Earth. A Trueborn birthed and raised on Yavet, Jazen is uniquely suited to the role. But he refuses Hibble, until Hibble uses the promise of giving Jazen what he wants (the story of his birth) and the threat of the death of the woman he loves (the missing “case officer”) to convince him to go on the daring rescue mission to Tressia.

Buettner utilizes his military and intelligence background to furnish the reader with an exciting spy vs. spy action-adventure. Borrowing heavily from military history and Cold War methodology, this story of a proxy skirmish between Yavet and Earth is a non-stop pulse-pounding ride. From the planetary drop from near space (awesomely detailed!) into a rebel camp, to the daring rescue of Kit, to the final action scene in which WWI-era tanks take on modern weaponry, Jazen’s life is one complicated battle scene after another.

Yet Buettner does not rely solely on the action sequences to tell his story. While they provide exciting punctuation, there is also the subtlety of the lead-in sentences, the plot structure of a proxy war in which Jazen and Kit are only pawns. The addition of the perspective of Polian, an intelligence officer of Yavet, provides a counterpoint that prevents the story from devolving only into a simplistic good vs. evil story and sees the political warfare enacted as a complex amalgamation of nationalistic pride, personal gain, and soldierly duty. While for the hero Jazen the mission is wholly personal, the supposed “villain” of the story is multifaceted, less nefarious than misguided. Such a character construction allows the reader to cheer on the obvious hero and enjoy the exciting and clear-cut motivation while also experiencing the more complex reality of a soldier’s role without undermining the entertainment value.

Fans of military history will especially enjoy this novel, as there are repeated references to “classical” Earth history, and in fact, I suspect those with more knowledge than I will see an exceptional number of corollaries between the U.S./U.S.S.R Cold War and their various proxy wars as well as to other twentieth century firefights. Buettner is knowledgeable from experience and from study and though sometimes his allusions can be obvious (as in, directly stated) he obviously builds on historical reality for his science fiction. In other words, Undercurrents recognizes the reality of human nature and knows that though battlefields and technology may change, the reason for wars and rumors of wars probably won’t without a sea change in human character.

One of the most surprising things about the novel is the ending. This is a middle book in a series about Jazen Parker, but throughout I expected the novel to wrap up in the expected way with the hero protagonist obtaining his goal completely and finally. But Buettner chooses not to do so, in part to set up the sequel, and in part to subvert reader expectations. I think it is very much in line with the character of Jazen Parker, and that consistency of character motivation and action is what makes this a better-than-average military science fiction. This finale elevates the novel from good to great reading.

Buettner has channeled a little bit of Scalzi, a little bit of Haldeman, and a dollop of Heinlein for an stimulating science fiction story of military prowess and heroism set in a universe not yet at full-fledged war. I recommend it.