01/07/2012. Contributed by Andy Whitaker
pub: Titan Books. 339 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-85768-959-7. E-book edition: ISBN: 978-0-85768-959-7.
check out website: www.titanbooks.com
'A Just Determination' is the first in the 'JAG In Space' series of books by Jack Campbell. It opens with Ensign Paul Sinclair's first posting aboard the USS Michaelson, one of the Maury class of long endurance space cruisers. Sinclair has just graduated from the officer training academy and completed six months of specialist training classes. On reporting to Executive Officer Commander Herdez, Sinclair is given the primary assignment of assistant combat information centre officer and collateral duties of ships legal officer, postal officer and assistant security officer. He was also expected to pursue his open space warfare officer qualifications. It seems officers aboard the US Space Navy are given as much work as possible to keep them out of trouble.
The USS Michaelson is ordered to patrol a region of space and enforcing the USA's claim on the area. This includes intercepting vessels that are travelling through the region of space without obtaining the necessary permissions. The wording of the orders are vague enough to provide Captain Peter Wakeman with a large degree of freedom on what actions he can take when dealing with unauthorized vessels. This becomes a major point in the latter passages of the book.
The first half of the book deals with Ensign Sinclair's experiences as the lowest ranked officer faced with a very steep learning curve while on-board the USS Michaelson during her mission to patrol the area. Sinclair makes enough mistakes to experience the wrath of his superiors while learning his way around the ship. He also meets Ensign Jen Shen, the auxiliary machinery officer and future girl-friend. As might be expected, they do detect an unauthorised vessel and attempt to intercept the foreign space ship. The chase takes weeks before the USS Michaelson is close enough to the foreign ship to start issuing orders or consider boarding. They have also now travelled outside of the region of space claimed by the USA, so any actions will occur in international space.
The actions of the foreign ship result in Captain Wakeman believing the USS Michaelson is in danger, so he gives the order to open fire resulting in the destruction of the foreign space ship. On hearing of the engagement and the results of the subsequent search of the foreign vessel, the USS Michaelson is ordered to return back to Franklin Station. On arrival, there is an investigation of the events and Captain Wakeman is referred for court-martial. To say that the Naval authorities have thrown the book at Captain Wakeman would be a bit of an understatement. It is the number and nature of the charges that force Ensign Sinclair to question the process and consider making the difficult choice of testifying for the Captains defence. The latter third of the book deal with Sinclair's decision and the court-martial.
Now I enjoyed this book and thought it was a good read but it does have its flaws. While I appreciate that space warfare is likely to be very quick, only seven pages are needed to describe the incident with the foreign vessel. While this might be to highlight the fact that incidents are over very quickly, in my opinion more space should have been used to describe the crew's reactions and conversations or lack of conversations with the captain. These are critical to the court-martial that forms such a large part of this novel. There are two mysterious instrument readings that are also critical in influencing the Captain's decision but these are not significant in the court-martial proceedings.
The title of the book is 'A Just Determination' and this is what concerns Paul Sinclair the most, forcing him to consider making difficult choices should he try and make sure that Captain Wakeman gets a just determination for his actions. What is lacking though is any explanation of how those choices could lead to a just determination. For anyone who, like me, is not familiar with the US Navy judicial system, it is not at all clear how the actions being considered could lead to the desired result.
As a Science Fiction story, this novel reminded me of the stories I have read from the 1950s and 60s. There are no new or novel ideas about life in the future. In fact, the future environment lacks some of the recent developments we can reasonably expect to be seeing in everyday use, such as Google glasses. I'm also surprised that there is no technical access management system in use. It seems all you have to do to get onto a naval warship is to turn up in uniform and ask the watch for permission to come aboard. To be honest, the setting in space is simply the backdrop to a very good legal thriller.
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Stephen Hunt's novels - USA