Veteran by Gavin Smith
Gollancz, 2010, 12.99, 416pp
ISBN 
978 0 575 09410 9

This review first appeared in Vector

coverVeteran is set a couple of centuries hence when the world we know has mostly gone to hell. Humanity is at war with an alien race known only as Them and has been losing that war for 60 years. Earth is a mess, ruined by war and ecological collapse, and most of humanity seems to live a Mad Max-style existence, scrabbling to survive on abandoned oil rigs or rooftops poking out of a landscape flooded by global warming. 

Through this unpromising milieu strides Jakob Douglas, a former soldier in the war on Them (hence the title). Modified, enhanced, improved and replaced literally up to his eyeballs, Jakob has been recalled to active service out of a drink- and drug-filled haze to find one of Them that has managed to break through Earth's defences, landing here for reasons unknown – but presumably not to return a library book. I liked the aliens in Veteran, they're really not human at all, and the derogatory name they're given is suitably, erm, de-humanising and ambiguous. 

Having been hopelessly adrift since leaving the army, Jakob gets all his old guns and fancy military enhancements back; he gets given a cool motorbike, an armoured trenchcoat, a pack of cigarettes and orders to fuck some shit up. Unsurprisingly however, Jakob's own shit gets fucked the hell up and he's sucked into a wild global chase to find person A who can perform action B thus opening up level C which allows... well, to be brutally honest, it doesn't really matter. 

Veteran contains just about every classic cyberpunk trope ever imagined thrown into the mix with wild abandon from the cyberspatial god to the evil corporation, the deadly lady assassin to the prostitute with a heart of gold (wait, is that last one a cyberpunk trope?). It also contains way more than your RDA of violence, booze, drugs, guns, flashbacks, explosions, blood, swearing and fighting. But it never feels real, it feels more like a video game. This Michael Bay version of cyberpunk could be hugely entertaining in a video game but it takes more than an endless succession of cool and deadly technological marvels flicking past like a 23rd Century Argos catalogue to make an involving and exciting story (regardless of what Michael Bay may think). 

So Veteran tries very hard, and there are occasional flashes of excellent writing and story-telling such as the discussion about what the man-made god of cyberspace should be for; what should it do? Some of the violence is also well portrayed, la Richard Morgan, but unlike in Morgan’s work, its impact is diluted because there's such an overwhelming amount of it: characters only seem to stop fighting to be patched up ready for some more fighting! The seemingly endless violence eventually makes it an effort to keep pushing on through Veteran, rather than whipping you along in its turbocharged wake – the kiss of death for a hyperkinetic action-adventure story like this, I'm afraid.

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