James Young is another of those authors whose books I bought at LibertyCon years ago and subsequently forgot to read because I tell myself that I’m not going to buy new books until I finish my current pile and, unfortunately, I am a terrible liar. Which results in old books getting hopelessly buried under new books.
An Unproven Concept suffers from an uninspiring title, which is another of the reasons why it sat on my to-read pile for so long. What it should really be titled is “MFing TITANIC IN SPACE!” or some equivalent, because truly, this is a book for people who watched Titanic and thought “You know what this movie needs? Starships and a higher body count.”
An Unproven Concept’s Titanic is a starliner that is the best of its type, but the iceberg on its horizon is the persistent advancement of ship technology, which threatens to obliterate the Titanic’s illustrious place in the echelon of starships. Company executives are breathing down the captain’s neck to keep his ship relevant and insist that a trip into uncharted – and illegal – space might just be the shot in the arm that Czarina Lines needs to stay at the top of the game.
Turns out that technological advancement isn’t the only iceberg in this Titanic’s way. When it makes first contact with not one, but two hostile alien species in this territory, it’ll need all the help it can get to save what remains of its passengers and crew.
Nearby are only two ships – the Constitution, a new, experimental ship that everyone expects to fail, and the Shigure, a dinosaur of a ship with a few surprises hidden up her sleeve (in both cases, the unproven concepts of the title). They’d better make it in time, because in this area of space, they’re the Titanic’s only hope.
An Unproven Concept is an entertaining piece of military sci-fi, especially for readers who are Titanic nerds and who like mounds of detail and numbers mixed in with their action. It isn’t so much a retelling of the Titanic disaster as a “What if the Titanic wrecked in space?” exploration, though it does keep some of the tropes that follow the Titanic story – namely, someone in power over the ship insisting that it go faster or, in this case, be more interesting. I initially found that one repetition frustrating; by this point in the far future, after inevitable centuries of Titanic retellings, the captain of a ship with the most unlucky name in transportation should know to answer any orders of that nature with “LOL u so silly. 😛 ” But on the flip side, it’s an obnoxious company exec doing the insisting, threatening livelihoods until he gets his way, etc., and when it comes down to it, a dumb, arrogant, disastrous exec is not that unbelievable. (Plus readers get to enjoy one of the most satisfying comeuppances in the history of executive idiocy when this character gets his due, so it’s worth it just for that.)
Despite its level of detail, too, it’s also fairly easy to read for even casual military sci-fi readers. Personally, when I encounter ship statistics in books, they sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher in my brain – I don’t read for the math. I read for the KABOOM. – but they’re so structured in this book that you can glance over them and still understand what’s going on around them.
Of course, no military sci-fi book – or disaster book, for that matter – is worth anything if you don’t care for the people fighting and dying, and An Unproven Concept’s characters are believable and sympathetic (except for that one exec, whom I’d call a dick if it wouldn’t be an insult to Richards and manly bits everywhere). Abraham Herrod, captain of the Titanic, is one of the easiest to relate to, as he’s just a guy trying to do a good job but being thwarted at every turn by the higher ups. Marcus Martin is one of the best and most badass; as chief security officer on the Titanic, he’s got an obvious bone to pick with everyone who allowed the ship to go into dangerous space, but until he can pick that bone (and maybe break a few) he’s determined to keep as many alive as he can – even if this sometimes involves letting others die.
See, this is a complex book where characters find themselves in situations where there are no good solutions, just some solutions that are slightly less bad than others. But if that’s what you’ve got to work with, you work with it. (It is a military novel, after all.) It also makes the losses even more catastrophic, for the characters who survive have to live not only with their personal losses, but the question of whether their actions were legitimately the right ones. The novel spends a significant amount of time after the conflict’s resolution wrapping up these emotional ends, which on one side, makes for a slow ending, but on the other, makes the end more relevant. It’s not a “Rah-rah! We beat the aliens!” win, because when it comes to any kind of military conflict, there’s rarely a “Rah-rah!”-style ending. There’s always tragedy among the victory, and An Unproven Concept captures that well. However, at its heart, it does allow itself to have some fun with its situations. I mean, characters don power armor and mech suits more than once, after all, and there’s plenty of tough soldier sass to go around.
My only real complaint about the book is that the aliens’ motives aren’t explored much at all; they’re present pretty much exclusively to wreak the havoc that causes the disaster. I would have liked to learn more about them, especially since two separate civilizations were involved, but then, that’s not the story this book wanted to tell. There are also enough typos to notice, but not enough to distract; the story was engaging enough that they didn’t matter as much to me as they would have in other books.
If you’re into military sci-fi, then, An Unproven Concept is well worth your time.
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