The Last Centurion by John Ringo
Cover art by Kurt Miller
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
John Ringo has made his fame on near-future military science fiction -- the Legacy of the Altenata series, the Looking Glass series, the Kildar series. This novel is a significant departure from those in that it is less science fiction and more of a bio-thriller in the tradition of Michael Crichton and Robin Cook. In addition, it is written in the first person.
And quite honestly, it is that first-person voice of Bandit Six that makes this book work for me. I seriously think that if it had been written in third-person, with a faceless objective narrator, I would have flung it against the nearest wall, not giving a care that it was a library book or that I might damage the drywall. But so strong is his voice, it was like he was sitting right there talking to me, and it would be rude not to listen.
Not to mention that when a story is written in the first person, it is that person's story, and we see one person's experiences, perceptions, and opinions. And boy howdy, but Bandit Six is one very opinionated person, and doesn't hesitate for a moment to tell you exactly what he thinks about anything. Like many career servicepeople, he has a tendency to see things entirely in black and white, with no shades of gray. There are good guys and there are bad guys, and he'll tell you exactly which people belong in which categories, in completely unsparing terms. Oh, he apologizes for the profanity at first, explains that's just the way soldiers talk, but the tough talk soon becomes mere punctuation and you hardly notice it. But you'll never forget exactly what he thinks not only of Arabs, but of a whole category of Americans, particularly anyone with any taint of liberalism or intellectualism, because he's completely unsparing in ripping them to shreds.
Since the entire story is one man's recounting of his experiences, perceptions and opinions of a time of social upheaval, a lot of the worldbuilding quibbles that I might have raised in a third-person account really don't apply. In fact, the only thing that I could at all outright question is whether the American government could really be as colossally stupid as Bandit Six describes. Not just a few pet projects and hobby horses, but a President who steadfastly refuses to do even one sensible thing, and doesn't even seem to have any coherent philosophy behind her actions -- for instance, she absolutely refuses to consider forced vaccination against a known killer plague, but feels perfectly free to kick surviving farmers off operating farms and replace them with her cronies instead of just focusing on farms with nobody left alive to operate them and getting someone in to work them. Sometimes it seems that the only pattern in Warrick's decisions and executive orders is "whatever is necessary to make a bigger mess for our hero to straighten up at the end."
I have recently noticed a number of novels in which the plot works only because a government agency or official (or several) behave like an idiot in order to create or worsen the problems the protagonist must resolve. I'm not sure if it precisely qualifies as idiot plot, which is generally defined as a story that works only because all the characters act like idiots, because in these stories the characters who are private citizens rather than arms of the state generally behave in a reasonably intelligent fashion. To be true, governments can get away with behaving stupidly far more than private citizens can simply because the government monopoly on armed force makes it difficult for the governed to object to such idiocy. Citizen complaints can be dismissed as defiance, insubordination, impudence, etc. But even then, there are generally enough competing interests within a given government that certain kinds and levels of idiocy become progressively less plausible. For instance, in Kristine Katnryn Rusch's Alien Influences, the plot works only because the fictional society's criminal justice system completely forgets everything that is known about childhood cognitive development in their mad rush to Punish the Culprits -- and nobody of consequence save the protagonists ever question whether the hideous penal regimes imposed upon the kids and their teacher are appropriate punishment for what was in fact a case of childish magic thinking that spiraled out of control as the result of parents abdicating their parental responsibilities in favor of their addictions.
However, even here the fact that The Last Centurion is a first-person narrative comes to its rescue, particularly if you understand one very important thing about American military culture and traditions. Specifically, the tradition that you do not criticize a President under whom you have served. Thus, for him to condemn Warrick's actions is a very serious matter, and thus it is completely understandable that he will focus entirely on her blunders to show that such a breach of protocol was not only excusable, but absolutely necessary for the survival of the Republic and of the Constitution he had sworn to defend and protect. The facts may be more complicated, but Bandit Six is an uncomplicated man and he calls them as he sees them.
In summation, if you are a political conservative or you enjoy listening to veterans' war stories even if you don't agree with everything they say, you will enjoy this novel. If you do not enjoy the story of a tough-talking military man with strong conservative opinions, you may well want to save your money.
Review posted February 18, 2009.
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