Editor’s Note: I made an error when I said Larson has had no military experience. I have received permission to quote an email he sent me.
As to the military angle, I do come from a military family. I have a nephew attending West Point right now, and my wife and father were career. I’ve worked for years on weapons systems myself, primarily nuclear warhead development and plutonium refining with the nerds in the national labs. In fact, I presented at my last DARPA conference as a paid speaker on cyber security policy at West Point this April.
In these books, the military doesn’t feel like the 2015 US military because I didn’t want it to. In order to deflect people who only see military life thru the lenses of the few years time they spent there, I wrote these books with a Roman rank system so they would get the idea that, “no, this isn’t the same army I was in.” I think I failed with you on that point, but I’d suggest you consider what you know concerning the military life of centuries past–or the military traditions of say, the Barbary Coast pirates. If I’d written a book back then with gays serving openly, and with women in the ranks, I’d have been laughed at or worse. The point of SF is to project a view of the future that isn’t identical to the current day.
I just wanted to post that so as to not continue with any falsehoods. However, I do standby what I said about the chain of command. The officers do stand far more backtalk than any real Roman would have. His chain of command would, in reality, fall apart at the first shot. And, even if it didn’t, the fighting ability of Legion Varus would be greatly hampered by it.
From the back cover:
This promising hook draws the reader in and promises a very interesting world. B.V. Larson does not disappoint.
Before breaking the book down, first let me set the story up. The book opens over one hundred years in the future with James McGill, main character and loser college student, losing his spot in school due to family issues. Suddenly thrust into adulthood without support, he decides to join earth’s mercenary legions. The story follows him as he enlists and ships out with Legion Varus to subdue a miners’ strike on Steel World, a heavy metals planet.
With this in mind, let’s look at how Larson pulls it off.
Plot, Characters, and World-building
Steel World’s plot is nothing special. It is a simple coming of age story… done poorly. Unfortunately, McGill has no real arc. Steel World is similar to The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. Both of the main characters are not special amongst their peers, but are a part of a class set apart by the rest of the world. However, unlike William Mandell, the main character of Forever War, James McGill doesn’t grow or become a better person. He gains many friends and enemies, but doesn’t learn anything from them. By the end of the book, he hasn’t changed except in regards to his views on death and survival.
But, Larson doesn’t completely bomb either. His world building is decent and he knows how and when to give exposition. As a result, info dumps are few and far between, and his exposition tidbits leave you wanting more. Out of a plethora of interesting mechanics and ideas that make his world what it is, the most interesting and critical to the plot is the revival machine. It allows dead soldiers to be revived, or, rather, restored from a backup. There are certain conditions that have to be met, such as confirmed death of the original and the brain being properly backed up. This simple idea is well thought out and explored in this book. Overall it takes death and instead of cheapening it, sharpens the pang of the permanent ones. When the main tactic your unit uses is save scumming and respawns, really losing a friend or unit buddy is incredibly jarring. It also makes the times when revival isn’t an option or won’t be unless extraordinary circumstances are overcome, incredibly tense.
Style: Diction and Vocabulary/sentence structure
Now, while his world building brings the story up, his style brings it back down. He writes like an advanced beginner or middling intermediate depending on the topic at hand. During action scenes, his laconic and slightly childlike way of phrasing makes the action feel visceral and intense by contrast. This really works in the first few fights when McGill is still inexperienced and naive. Later on, it does get to be annoying.
This style of writing would be fine if restricted to those first few fights, but it isn’t. This is how he writes everything. Because of this, the reader is ripped out of the book by an inappropriate turn of phrase or poorly written sentence once or twice every chapter.
His dialog is a little better but not by much. While it does do its job, it is rather lack luster and at times annoying. The characters do sound different, but barely. The higher up the chain of command you get, the closer together the characters sound. Now I will say that in addition to decent first person narration, Carlos, Sargon, Veteran Harris, and Centurion Graves all have unique voices that never get old. Okay, other than Carlos, but he supposed to make you both hate and love him.
I like Carlos. He is perhaps one of the best written characters in the book. He is the best example of how Larson shows promise with his characters. All their actions fit their personalities, for the most part, and they all interact like real people, for the most part. The real problem comes from his use of sex and the chain of command. The sex is very similar to The Forever War. Not graphic, just frequent and a little annoying. Unlike William Mandell, McGill and the others behave as if they are in high school. McGill refers to the spats he has with the women he has slept with as breakups with girlfriends. This is one of the few problems with the first person narration. McGill is unbelievably annoying anytime it comes to women. It’s like he has never really talked to a girl before enlisting and is getting through the petty high school stages of dating while in an adult setting.
Now, I do like how Larson shows how women in combat and living in close proximity with men in a martial setting is a bad idea. (Granted this may not have been intentional, but it was interesting to see the consequences played out.) But, seeing it not change or be reacted to by the characters is a) poor writing, and b) annoys the reader. Please Larson, if the officers can’t see that having men and women live and sleep together isn’t a bad idea, please perma-death them and get some new ones in. At least in The Forever War it was glossed over and the relationships were dealt with like adults. Here it’s a constant, nagging thorn in the reader’s side.
Similarly, his use of the chain of command is appalling. For all his talk about the Roman Legionary model being revived, these officers tolerate a ridiculous amount of back talk from McGill without any punishment. McGill is given sensitive information instead of being beaten within an inch of his life and put on six months of KP and latrine duty. Larson has clearly never even any kind of military setting. However, this is a small plot hole and matches the relationship drama for annoyance factor.
Like most secular literature, his content is by no means family friendly and should really only be read after turning fifteen or so. His worldview is like most other secular authors in the sci-fi genre. Evolution, no God or gods, etc. As mentioned before, McGill is a ladies man who has zero self-control. Nothing graphic, but the constant reminders are annoying as all get out. Now violence on the other hand…
Let’s be real, it’s a book about mercenaries whose main tactic is to get blown up and then respawn enough times to wear down the enemy. Violence is a given, and so much fun! At times it is played for drama or to build tension. Other times it is played for laughs. At one point a character needs to be on the ship that is currently in orbit. Because his immediate superior doesn’t feel like taking a lift down to pick him up, he drops a bomb on him and revives him in the ship.
Drugs and alcohol are not a huge part of the story. Like The Forever War, cigarettes, pot, and medical drugs are all mentioned and used by the characters.
This book was definitely interesting. It took an interesting idea and explored it. It shows promise, but Larson falls prey to the eternal bane of indie writers. While the story and characters show much promise, he doesn’t have the advice of an editor or an objective proof reader. This isn’t a down on him, I have the same problems, but he needs to get someone to read his stuff before he publishes it.
That being said, I really enjoyed this book. Yes, it was annoying at times, but in the end, it was a fun read.
Because of the book’s many problems, I am going to have to give it 5 out of 10. This doesn’t mean it isn’t worth your time. I got through it in about six hours and would be the perfect way to pass a plane or car trip. The rating would have been lower if his world building hadn’t been as good as it was. All in all, I will continue to read this series as I expect him to improve as time goes on.
(For those interested, here is the link to Larson’s site. You can buy his books on Amazon. )