Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Review: “The Exchange Officers” by Brad Torgersen

“The Exchange Officers” by Brad Torgersen (Analog, Jan-Feb 2013)

This novelette is available for FREE listening at Starship Sofa, episode 285. Thanks, Starship Sofa! I don't find a free print version anywhere.

I only have one novella left to read, and it won't be available until 5/15, so I'm moving on to the novelettes!

Spoilery thoughts on the other side of the link:


This is a story about a not-too-distant future space arms race with the Chinese. For some reason, we all throw our international cooperation to the wind when it comes time to go to the moon, and go into space race tactics with the Chinese. We're both trying to claim territory on the moon, or in low earth orbit, for ourselves. I wasn't quite clear - maybe both. And as usual, it sounds like both sides are spreading propaganda that the OTHER side is trying to grab this territory for themselves, and "we" are trying to keep "them" from taking what should belong to the entire world.

In the midst of this new great Space Race, the Americans have developed sophisticated remote-controlled robots. The operators are fully immersed with the robots, much in the way I thought Pacific Rim robots worked from the previews and was disappointed that the robot-jockeys were INSIDE the robot instead of safe inside a mountain somewhere. (But that's for a different review post.) The robots in The Exchange Officers have full 2-way sensory input with their humans and function basically as an extension of the operators' own bodies. The operators remain safe on the ground.

In our little snippet of story, the Chinese are trying to steal one of our low-orbit special new high tech platforms the RC robots have been building. The Chinese set off an EMP to disable the robots, but our hero and his buddy are outside the EMP field and have to try to save the platform from the Chinese. Meanwhile there are little flashbacks to give us some background on how the characters' relationship developed. Note: the Chinese do not have RC robots, and are actual people in space suits, trying to steal the American technology so they can build their own.

I enjoyed this story a lot more than the Torgersen novella I tried to read. This story held together well, and developed at a reasonable pace. I was interested to see where he was going with the story. On the Starship Sofa podcast of the story, they gave some background on the author, which led me to believe this was going to primarily be a "yay military" story, and I wasn't wrong. The different branches of the military were cooperating in this endeavor, which is great. The robots and the technology are cool, and I would LOVE to see such things developed in real life. I would love the chance to operate such things on a space mission!

The Exchange Officers left me feeling fairly "meh," however. The characters were pretty flat. Even with the flashbacks, I didn't have much sense of who the characters were, or even what they looked like, except that the main character rushed his way through the system to get exactly where he is right now, and his partner is a hypocritical liberal who is more than willing to put her ideals on hold for the chance to eventually go into space. Male and female were well-represented across the ranks, which is nice. But I just couldn't get myself into any of their shoes, which left me feeling a bit flat.

Also, one of the themes of the story seemed to be huge pats on the back all around for the development of these remote systems that can wage war against each other. Gone are the days when people die in battle! We can fight our wars remotely! And that is, indeed, an awesome thing to aspire to, if we must have wars. But...... The Chinese in this story's battle were REAL PEOPLE. In space. Not remote controlled machinery. This seeming disconnect is not surprising - I understand that when you're in the military, you have to dehumanize the opposition at least to some degree in order to be able to do your job properly. Most people who are in the military are not sociopaths, and so mental tricks like this are necessary if you're going to kill people and remain sane yourself. That said, the casual dispatching of the living enemy with the RC robots followed by pats on the back that wars are fought now without putting REAL people in danger - it left me cold.

So my take is - pretty well-told story. Not really what I look for in my favorite sci-fi works, but it has some interesting things to think about.

Up or down ballot (note for myself): MIDDLE.

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