Friday, April 17, 2015

Tour of Duty, by Michael Z. Williamson

Mad Mike received a Hugo nomination in the category “Best Related Work” for “Wisdom From My Internet,” a book that comes pre-packaged in a plain brown wrapper. I've read it, it was funny except when (insert your choice here), but it's really not the sort of book you review. Fortunately, he has a LOT of books that are good to review, and I picked “Tour of Duty.”
Here's my disclaimer: this book, or to be specific, one selection from this book, means an awful lot to me, and at the end of the review, you are going to have the option of discovering why.
But, on to the review:
The full title of the book is “Tour of Duty: Stories and Provocations,” and that works as a short description of the contents. The first part of the book consists of 13 short stories and two related works. The second part contains 11 works of widely varying length and subject matter, with impertinence being the common bond. The last entry, in particular, requires you to detach and carefully store sensitivity and propriety in bubble wrap before reading, because it is just WRONG in the way that makes you snicker and then slap yourself for doing so. It contains items even Jeff Ross might avoid. Maybe. Not sure.
For those who require precise classification, the 13 stories are going to be frustrating. Some are co-authored by Mike's wife, Gail Sanders; some are written in Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar universe; others in Janet Morris' universe of characters in Hell. And the story which defies all other categories is, of COURSE, the story which inspired Bob Eggleton's fantastic cover art, a toucan-beaked flying dinosaur attacking an armored figure on a wooly mammoth.
All of the stories are good. Personally, I like the Michael Z. Williamson stories written in a Michael Z. Williamson universe, but that's a matter of taste. His characters are normal, regular people, who are called upon by circumstances to do abnormal, irregular things. It's the same thing I liked about Betsy Lightfoot's Korton character in The Ugly Knight: he's just a guy, not particularly talented, and ugly, who works hard and gets things done. That's the way Mad Mike writes his characters are as well; the same with my favorites of Heinlein's heroes.
Is it a contradiction to say I like super-heroes, too?
The first story, “The Humans Call it Duty,” is a story about a super-hero named Capstick, Cap for short (from the American hunter and author, Peter Capstick, who makes another appearance in this book). This particular hero happens to be a leopard; Mad Mike likes leopards, and they appear elsewhere in his works, paired with humans in hunting teams. In this story, the degree of enhancement to Cap isn't addressed, although his training and imprinting is mentioned several times. Mike notes that the story was rejected once with the comment that it was simply a tale of revenge and killing, and not science fiction. I think that rejection was wrong twice; it IS science fiction, and it is actually a love story. I know of no better term to describe the commitment between comrades-in-arms than love, whether they are human, or human and leopard, in this case. And I think I shall speak more on this concept later.
“The Brute Force Approach” is set more definitively in the Freehold universe, with the aspects of a libertarian economic system and government, and the concept of personal responsibility strongly emphasized. Mike uses this story to expose ONE of the limitations of the libertarian approach, which is that there is a lack of oversight in those matters which impact public safety. There are others, which noted libertarians admit, such as 'who builds the roads' and 'what about public health threats,' but this is NOT a message fiction piece that demands that we all agree to submit to a common government form RIGHT NOW! Instead, the 'duty' theme resonates. People do difficult things, putting their own lives at risk, to protect others; in this case, to rescue survivors of a poorly maintained space transport. Both civilian and military forces combine in the rescue mission, and in the Freehold universe, the emphasis on personal responsibility subsumes in-fighting and competition between agencies. I suppose, then, that this COULD be classified as message fiction, but that begs the issue. It's good writing. Tell me a good story, and I'll let you incorporate your message. Blather on repeatedly that you system is good because it's good, and I will change the channel, posthaste.
“The Price” is a very similar story, except in this case, there is a single military unit involved, and the mission is bloody warfare, not rescue. If fact (gulp), the mission pits the forces of Freehold against the forces of Earth.
Now, before you go getting your panties in a wad, Mike EARNED the right, personally, to write this sort of thing. He is NOT advocating the forcible overthrow of the lawfully elected government of the United States. He is one of those citizens who earned their citizenship by going through the process as an adult, and he served 20+ years in our armed forces. Because he is a vet, he shares the camaraderie of veterans, and uses their input into his writing. In fact, "The Brute Force Approach" includes a character inspired by his friend Robert Hensley, a Navy hull specialist who provided input into the technical aspects of the story. Robert was killed two days after the story was published, and Mike pays homage to him in the preface.
Among the long, long list of Mad Mike's many, many sins, we must include the fact that he is a guitarist. “One Night in Baghdad” is a riff on the 80's hit, “One Night in Bangkok” as updated for the wars in the sandbox and the rockpile.
“Port Call” is an entirely different sort of story. It was prompted by the death of Poul Anderson, and posits a better ending for the greats of science fiction. None of the characters are explicitly identified, except by first name and some characteristics, so you may spend a fun hour or so recognizing who's who.
“ Naught But Duty,” “The Sword Dancer,” “Wounded Bird,” “The Groom’s Price,” and “The Bride’s Task” are all set in variations of Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar universe. These are good stories, even if you are not familiar with the cultural quirks that make that universe unique. Evidently, Mike's wife Gail is more of an expert on the subject than he, and her contributions made some of these stories possible. You may try, if you like, to see if you can tell which parts of the story belong to Mike, and which to Gail, but I'm clueless on the topic. The editing is that good; there is no break in the narrative that is not purely a function of the story line.
“Heads You Lose” and “A Hard Day At The Office” are both set in Janet Morris' “Hell” universe. The first story was a part of the anthology “Lawyers in Hell,” and required that the combat lawyers, known as CLAP for Coordinating Legal Airborne Platoon, bring Satan the head of the most honest man in Hell. The second story introduced the character of Peter Capstick and re-introduces a leopard character, both as hunters sentenced to Hell. While both of these stories had amusing aspects to them such as the lawyers advancing into combat on pogo-sticks, I found them to be gritty and disturbing. That is ENTIRELY, I believe, a function of my own belief system, which includes a literal Hell; YMMV.
“Misfits” concludes the 'story' section of “Tour of Duty,” and explores the idea that characters in a book have a life of their own, that the author transmits to paper. I've heard this from enough authors to know that this isn't an abnormal belief, either in the sense of being rare, nor in the sense of producing aberrant behavior (unless you happen to believe writing itself is aberrant). It is also, as mentioned earlier, the inspiration for the formidable cover art by Bob Eggleton, who has some passing familiarity with the Hugo award. In fact, Eric Flint pointed out today that between 1996 and 2004, the Hugo for art went exclusively to Bob Eggleton or Mike Whelan.
Of the second section of the book, which Mike titles 'Provocations,' I have very little to say. He does some great riffs as a Viking advice columnist, and comes up with entirely appropriate lists of manly firearms. I must admit to preferring the Mossberg 500 to the Remington 870, but that's because I own one. I share his affection for the 1911, as well as for the 91/30 Mosin-Nagant rifle. His experience with the Indianapolis Police Department highlights problems that exist not only with that particular agency, but with any big-city police force: do all you can to stay away from them.
And I will not touch with a 10-foot pole any of his commentary on Inappropriate Cocktails. He does stipulate that sometimes he does things just to mess with people, and see how they react, but...WOW. That's all. Just, WOW.
A careful, not to say, obsessive-compulsive, examination of my review will note that there is one story missing from my review. That's because I saved it for last. This is your warning: if you do not wish to know why this book means so much to me, read no further.
You have been warned.
“Desert Blues” was written based on the experience Mike had while deployed to the Middle East in 1999 and 2008. The title has a copyright date of August 2013, but the Advance Reader Copy was on the first of June, 2013. The story tells of the defiant act of an unknown guitarist, playing solo in a tent at an unidentified airbase in an unidentified warzone.
In the middle of a rocket attack.
In the middle of the attack, the guitarist rips out his version of Dire Straits 'Money for Nothing,' changing the words to 'mortars for nothing, IEDs for free...', putting heart into the defenders huddling in bunkers while the rockets fall. The story, told from the POV of an experienced Air Force generator crewman, includes this about the Army lieutenant he worked with:
“We’re all clear,” the LT said. “Someone bagged the bad guys.” One of the things I appreciated was that he never called them “Hajjis.” I have Muslim friends and try not to toss generic epithets around. RIF—Rabid Islamic Fu . . . Fundamentalist—is fine. It’s a little more specific.

Meanwhile, back in the USA:
My firstborn son, Georgia Army National Guard Sergeant Eli Jordan Patterson, Alpha Battery, 1/214 FA was placed on active duty with his unit, and shortly after he became a father for the first time, was shipped to Afghanistan to guard an air base. He got there in late April of 2013. And all of his communications home said, we are fine, everything is fine. But sometimes, communications were spotty. To be expected. Distance. Stuff.
Did not know at the time, found out elsewhere, that the reason that the communications were spotty is because the Taliban was active in the area, and that they attacked with rockets every day.
I picked up “Desert Blues,” and emailed it to Jordan on June 6. And here is what he emailed me back:
I think that may be top three of the emails you've sent me. Especially poignant for me right now with all that's going on.

I call them "those guys"; after working with the locals you get to know them and it just doesn't seem right to call them all Hajjis, RIFs, or any of the other delightfully euphemistic nicknames . And I've never been insensitive enough to call them ragheads or Arabs either. Funny how even in the middle of a fight one cleaves to the honor of refusing to be/sound racially biased. "The Dean" prevails.

Pray for me. I'll fill you in when I can about this whole thing.

Here's what I didn't know at the time:

Just before I sent him “Desert Blues,” his unit had come under rocket attack. Best info is that it was something in the 150mm range, a six-inch shell. One landed near him; the concussion blasted him into a concrete barrier, knocking him unconscious and damaging his left knee. Much later, he also found tiny little fragments of the shell in his face.
He refused medevac. He wanted to stay with his boys. And the command went along with him, up to a point.
And that point came a short time later. His squad was guarding a gate at the base, when they saw a movement in company strength coming toward them. With his mobility impaired due to his knee, Jordan planned to stay as a rear guard while the rest of his squad fell back to a stronger position and called for reinforcements.
He had 180 rounds of 5.56 plus a couple of grenades.
Fortunately, it turned out to be a communication failure, and it was a company of Afghan Army infantry, coming to reinforce them.
So my first-born son didn't have to die that day.
And the next day, with nothing but his duty uniform, they put him on the plane to Germany, and by June 23, he was back in the states. He got a four day pass for the 4th of July, and that's when I got the whole story.
It's coming up on two years now, and the Army has been pooting around with medical treatment and paperwork, but it looks as though he will be discharged soon, and can return to his job as Dean of Students and history teacher at King's Ridge Academy. The transition back to civvie street hasn't been easy, but the defiant act of freedom, playing rock music while under attack, has been a symbol for not giving up, and for maintaining his identity under adversity.
We talk about duty. It's not a bad term, but it's not enough. It doesn't describe the determination of a 30 year old to remain with his boys, even though wounded, when he has a wife and baby at home. Someone on the outside may think it's foolish, but it isn't. And it's not just the way it is. It's love. It's not funny, and it's not trivial, and we don't even talk about it, but that's what it is. It's love.


  1. Wow. Thanks, man.

    I'll have to go out and buy that one.

  2. I'd agree with every review. Mike's GOOD!