Brad Torgersen began selling stories in 2002—long enough ago that my lamentable ignorance of his work should not exist. He has collected his short fiction in two volumes from the indy firm WordFire Press—Lights in the Deep and Racers of the Night—but his first novel from Baen is probably the book of his that will draw the most attention at this point in time. A fix-up or expansion that includes two earlier stories, one of which made the Hugo ballot in 2014, the book is wartime SF with a unique slant, offering moral and ethical complexities, adroit characterization, and plenty of firepower thrills as well. Definitely a promising start for any career.
We are past the middle of the 22nd century. Humanity has discovered FTL travel and expanded into the galaxy. Unfortunately, this has brought our species up against an implacable enemy, the Mantis race. Superior in technology, they have wiped the floor with the human military, and seem on the point of exterminating us. That’s where our story commences.
On the planet Purgatory, a small POW camp of humans cowers under their Mantis overseers, with a massacre of the prisoners imminent in defiance of all “civilized” wartime protocols. Some small spiritual solace is provided by Harry Barlow, once an enlisted man serving as assistant to the military chaplain. Now, with the death of his mentor, Barlow functions as the sole caretaker of the camp’s crude chapel which he meticulously maintains.
One day a peculiar sort of Mantis visitor arrives. Not a soldier or official, the Mantis is an academic, and Barlow dubs him “the Professor.” The Professor is curious about religion, an aspect of existence unknown to the Mantis people. A rapport is established between the two representatives of their races, and eventually a miracle occurs. Barlow convinces the Professor to argue against human extinction in the Mantis courts of power. The appeal succeeds, and a truce is wrought.
Ten years pass, during which time humanity rebuilds their forces for an inevitable showdown with their enemies. Barlow, promoted to Chief, has remained on Purgatory. But he is summoned back to civilization under the escort of a woman officer named Captain Adanaho, who brings him to a high-level meeting involving the Queen Mother of the Mantis. There, violence erupts, propelling Barlow, Adanaho, the Professor and the Queen Mother on an odyssey that might just serve to reconfigure the balance of power and the misunderstandings between aliens and humans.
This realtime adventure occupies about three weeks for the characters, and about half the actual pages, along with a coda of some further small duration. But it is interspersed with a backstory of equal length, detailing Barlow’s bootcamp experiences and his early military service as the chaplain’s assistant. Torgersen ends this division neatly by segueing right to the same moment when we first meet Barlow on page one, making a complete circle of the narrative.
Now, much as I appreciate seeing the experiences that made Barlow the man he is during the “present” of the narrative, I have to say that this portion of the novel strikes me as almost dispensable, and certainly as of less interest than the realtime adventure. One tale of basic training is pretty much like another: physical and mental rigors; friends and enemies made; second thoughts on one’s decisions; loneliness and camaraderie; flunking out, or toughening up and becoming a soldier. The Full Metal Jacket experience in other words. So while Torgersen employs a goodly amount of insight and craft in this backstory, it’s the least appealing and least essential part of the novel.
What does carry the book is Barlow’s journey, in body and soul, with the Queen Mother, as each sapient being matures and seeks enlightenment. Barlow is presented as a man of doubt, not some cocksure Holy Joe, and his intentions to do the best he can from a position of theological uncertainty speak to all of us who aren’t saints. Likewise, the Queen Mother moves from alien atheism to genuine curiosity and spiritualism. Further, the epistemological differences between humans and Mantes are intriguingly explored.
And, as I mentioned earlier, along with the philosophizing there’s plenty of suspenseful slambang action where the fate of two races hangs in the battlefield balance, in an adroit ratio of bullets to banter.
Readers of some experience will certainly think of Barry Longyear’s seminal Enemy Mine in connection with this book, and the Torgersen volume stands nearly as tall as that landmark. It also shares a sensibility with the work of John Scalzi and Robert Buettner as a kind of military SF with a post-Iraq sensibility. For some reason, I also keep thinking of what appears to me to be nearly a forgotten series from a forgotten writer, F. M. Busby’s Demu trilogy. But maybe that’s just because I’m recalling a kind of body-horror frisson from the Busby books which finds a parallel in Torgersen’s evocation of the weird Mantis physiology, with its cybernetic components. Torgersen has a lot to say about technological intermediation of sensory experience.
In the end, The Chaplain’s War shows us vividly and entertainingly that the internal conflicts of the soul ultimately outweigh and determine the external conflicts of nations. Peace can never be imposed, but only comes from within: a lesson we should recall every day.