Saturday, June 6, 2015

Book Review: Hammer's Slammers

(c) 1979 by David Drake

Ah, let's see. Consider a fierce and fearsome crew of cutthroat mercenaries as your protagonists. Note the requisite warrior code and double requisite amounts of testosterone. Stir in hefty amounts of World War II allusions. Extrapolate next generation tanks and guns and all sorts of wicked weaponry. Slingshot all of this six or seven centuries into the future. What results is David Drake's Hammer's Slammers, a novel of sorts stringing together seven short stories from the 70s, each introduced by a few pages on, well, the ins and outs of Drake's universe. Or the Hammerverse, as his fans have come to call it.

Finishing this book is a sort of triumph for me, it being the oldest resident of the great Shelf of Unread Paperbacks. Normally I note the date and place I purchase a book on the top left inside cover; this one's purchase predates that ritual. I figure it's been on the shelf over fifteen years across two states, two apartments, one house. It's older than both my children and, possibly, my marriage.

Way back then I read the first story, before coming sidetracked, a forty-page vignette that draws out our nominal protagonist, Colonel Alois Hammer, in all his glorious, raging gutturality. Not a man to mess with, he's all business when it comes to killing. I have no doubt such men currently exist in the world (have in the past, will in the future), and perhaps, not knowing his backstory, Mr. Drake has personally met a few. Such men are not to be trifled with. Toss them a bad glance over a perceived slight, and you just might end up in the hospital. Or the morgue.

And Hammer's the honorable one, the one with the code. Some of his underlings don't have that saving grace. True, some have consciences, and some develop them; war does funny, unpredictable things to every man (and woman). Some move up on the humanity scale, others slide down with magnificent abandon. Drake decorates his seven tales with all sorts of moral shifts, and one point of favor is that it's usually unpredictable which way a Slammer or Slammee will go.

Unfortunately, this time around, I found myself lost in the matte paintings Drake splashes his stories upon. It appears that France and the Netherlands are somehow some way the main contenders whose extra-solar colonial squabblings often have Hammer's paid men in one corner squaring off against paid adversaries in another. I did start to mentally catalogue the half-dozen or so planets mentioned and referred to in the tales, but then the novel ended. It also seemed to me that when the action did come, it came fast and unexpected, not unlike how actual warfare has been portrayed to civilians like myself through Hollywood and the printed page. And when I the Reader survived it, I felt like I went fifteen rounds with Paul Greengrass and his Bourne shaky-cam.

My favorite tale was "Cultural Conflict," in which a group of Slammers inadvertently finds itself at war with (unforeseen) intelligent indigenous wildlife. The ending, as each one I came to expect, could not be predicted, but this one hit me with an emotional punch I was not expecting. As far as the little subchapters of exposition sandwiching each story, I particularly enjoyed Drake's take on Religion of the Future (which explained the mercenaries' expletives), the pages on supertanks (plausible from both a physics and economics point of view), and the Bonding Authority, which determines the basis of that warrior's code, devolving down to who gets paid what for sticking to the contract (and the penalties for failing to do so).

I found Hammer's Slammers a neat, quick, and tidy novel about very dangerous men in the future. What could be better early June reading?

Grade: B+

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