I guess it’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of THE OUTBACK STARS by Sandra McDonald. It’s no secret because I’ve been enthusiastically endorsing this SFR to anyone who would listen since the day I finished reading it. One of the elements that really hooked me (aside from the great writing, tormented characters, fascinating world-building, gripping plot and compelling romance) was the realistic military culture Ms. McDonald incorporated into the story. I understand Sandra McDonald was a former Naval officer, and the way she projected her experiences into this fictional future—where Australia takes the lead in space exploration and colonization—really brought the ship and its crew to life.
I should add a disclaimer that I’ve worked for the military for almost fifteen years, my spouse is a lieutenant colonel, my brother retired from the Army, and my dad was a veteran of WWII. As one who’s lived and breathed the military for a good part of her life, I was familiar with many of the dynamics in play in the story. Peer pressure, division rivalry, protocol, chain of command, leadership hierarchy, seniority privilege, military discipline, professional pigeon-holing, the taboo against fraternization, and the extreme prejudice against ridiculously scuffed boots--it’s all there. I could almost smell the bootblack and brass polish.
One of the things that set this novel apart from the norm is that the male MC is not an admiral, a captain or even a commander. He’s a NCO. A sergeant. It seems most SFR novels cast the hero as an authority figure of some sort—whether a captain, an admiral, a rebel leader, or prince of the pirates. Making the MMC a rank and file sergeant lent his character real-world depth. Later in the story he proves he can take charge when necessary. Through his actions, his character qualities came to light.
Other military elements lent substance to the plot and the environment of this “really big ship” and interwove conflict and tension into the story (not to mention more than a few chuckles). The main character, Lieutenant JoDenny Scott is a traumatized survivor of the doomed Yangtze after an explosion destroyed the vessel, killed her closest friends and many of the crew she knew and loved. She is introduced to the reader in the midst of her first dilemma. She wants to get back to space rather than remain planet-side pushing meaningless requisitions. But her options are few. Join the crew of the Aral Sea, a twin vessel to the destroyed Yangtze and by all accounts a very troubled ship, or turn down the offered berth. And if she turns down the berth, should she turn in her bars, as well? Can she deal with her survivor’s guilt and tough it out when images of her friends’ deaths still haunt her?
Meanwhile, Sergeant Terry Myell has problems of his own. His situation aboard the Aral Sea has gotten so bad he’s staring at the mountains on Kookabura considering going AWOL. He’s been accused of a crime he didn’t commit, and found guilty by his shipmates, though he never faced court martial. As a result he’s an outcast with few friends and plenty of enemies. He longs to leave his troubles behind and strike out alone into the mountains, daydreaming how perfect it would be—that is, until the military police show up to slap on the handcuffs and drag him back to reality.
All of the opening scenes translate through the context of military structure and mores. The conflict and interaction of the characters is framed and sometimes fueled by the SOP (Standard Operating Procedures). But that’s not to say “different century, same stuff.”
In this future, the military has taken on a quasi-commercial slant by reinventing itself as Team Space as a promotional/recruiting tool. The technology is better, and at times a lot more fun. Just as with the current military, there’s a sense of organized chaos, of performing tasks according to accepted procedures, even if it doesn’t always make sense. And though the characters may all wear the same uniform, their personalities, cultures, attitudes and ethics are diverse, as with the current military, or perhaps moreso, since they come from different planets.
THE OUTBACK STARS is not only a great read, but also a good reference on how a military ship might operate in the future.
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