Republic Commando: Hard Contact by Karen Traviss (2004, Del Rey)
For a guy who has a blog, I don’t spend a whole lot of time online, especially compared to most. Still, it hasn’t taken much poking around on message boards and elsewhere in the online Star Wars fandom to discover that Karen Traviss is the most divisive author in Star Wars fiction. In 2009, Traviss stoped writing Star Wars books, abandoning the Imperial Commando series she had just begun. This departure seems to have been primarily due to continuity conflicts and creative differences (most speculate that it had to do with the animated The Clone Wars series), but Traviss also frequently clashed with Star Wars fans online.
Most records of these arguments have been deleted by message board moderators, and Traviss’s blog is now password protected, so I wasn’t even able to dig up her explanation of the events. The whole debacle went down before my renewed interest in the expanded universe and the beginning of this project; virtually all of the info I could scrounge was second hand. Some of you probably know more about it than I do. Generally, though, it appears that the controversy revolved around what many fans believed to be plot points and characterization in her books that contradicted established canon. On the other hand, there are plenty of fans who enjoy Traviss’s Star Wars books for their depictions of clone troopers and gritty, realistic descriptions of warfare.
Even with the well thus poisoned, I’ve tried to go into this series unclouded by what others have said about it, and will assess the books on their own merits.
In this first installment, a squad of four clone commandos is inserted onto the planet Qiilura, where their mission is to eliminate a virus that targets Republic clones and to capture the Separatist scientist who engineered it. In the process of landing on the planet, the clones are separated, and much of the book is spent getting them back together. One of the clones, RC-1136, or “Darman,” encounters Etain Tur-Mukan, a Jedi Padawan whose Master has just died at the hands of the Separatists. The relationship between these two characters is the most well-developed in the novel. Etain is astounded by the strange combination of her clone companion’s killer instinct and his naiveté as a man who is only ten years old. As she travels with Darman, she must struggle with the harsh realities of war and her own perceived lack of competence as a soldier.
I’ve frequently seen this series compared to the X-wingbooks. Both feature small military teams carrying out a series of guerilla-style missions against their enemies. The later Wraith Squadron installments of the X-wing series even include ground infiltration missions like the one in Hard Contact. What really makes the X-wing series so much fun, though, is its colorful cast of memorable characters.
Traviss is careful to add details that attempt to distinguish the clones from one another, but these unique details are superficial: Niner is the serious one; Fi is the wisecracker; Atin is prickly because he’s the sole survivor of his last squad. Darman, through his interactions with Etain, gets the most definition, but these clones usually feel like character sketches, rather than fully realized people. Furthermore, many of the clones’ blasé attitude toward non-combatant casualties (“Not all soldiers wear uniforms”) detracts a couple of likability points, at least for this naïve, idealistic, peacenik civilian.
The book’s primary antagonist is Ghez Hokan, a Mandalorian mercenary in the employ of the Separatists. Beyond being cold, competent, and willing to kill folks to make a point, he’s a pretty thin character as well.
The book succeeds most in its battle scenes, which are chaotic, rapid-fire sequences that attempt to approximate military combat as much as they try to make the heroes look cool. Traviss herself served in the military, and she brings her knowledge of military procedure to bear in this book, both to good and bad effect. As I said, the battle sequences are cool, but the endless succession of them grows dull in places, and the book sags in the middle.
I can dig military science fiction, but like anything else, I need a reason to care about characters beyond how competent they are in a fight and how big their guns are. It would be unfair to say that Hard Contact offers nothing more; it explores some of the ethical issues of combat and gives the reader something to latch onto in Darman and Etain. However, I find it a little too thick with military chatter and chains of battle scenes and just a little too thin on human interest.
There are four more of these books, including the Imperial Commando novel, so I hope that Traviss can get me more invested in these characters as the series progresses. We’ll see next week when we discuss the next Republic Commando book, Triple Zero. In the meantime, feel free to let me know what you think of this book and feel free to let fly if you think my criticisms are wrongheaded.