The novel “War Dogs” by Greg Bear was published for the first time in 2014. It’s the first book in the trilogy of the same name.
Sergeant Michael Venn is a Skyrine – Sky + marine – part of an international force specialized in fighting against the Antags (Antagonists), the aliens who reached Mars. On his latest tour he’s sent to the Red (Mars) but the Earth’s fleet is attacked in orbit by the Antags and only some of them survive and land. Weapons, equipment, supplies and above all air are limited.
Venn’s group is left looking for resources on Mars in the hope of finding air, water and food while trying to get in touch with other groups of survivors or receiving messages from the Earth’s spaceships with information on the Antags’ positions. The impact of a comet suggests that the Antags can control its trajectory. A hope for the Skyrines comes from the encounter with a Muskie, the daughter of Earthlings who arrived on Mars decade earlier to colonize it.
Told in the first person by Skyrine Michael Venn as a story of his tour on Mars, nicknamed the Red, technically “War Dogs” is military science fiction but in the novel there’s very little war. The protagonist tells the arrival of the Earth’s fleet in Mars orbit, where more than fighting is a shooting target, then tells the survivors’ adventure on the Red.
Through the protagonist, Greg Bear tells what happened to reach that war situation. The first contact took place years before Michael Venn’s arrival on Mars with other aliens who are called Gurus because it’s impossible for humans to pronounce their name. The Gurus have offered humans much more advanced scientific and technological knowledge than those available on Earth. Their characterization includes the curious idiosyncrasy for muttering with sexual references.
Relations with the Gurus brought progress to humans but these aliens were driven from their planet by another species, known simply as the Antagonists, in short Antags or Ants. The problem is that the Antags arrived in the solar system and reached Mars so humans are forced to fight them.
Thanks to those information, the reader can understand the novel’s beginning but later the story often passes through moments of disorientation for Michael Venn, who along with his fellow soldiers is forced to face a number of potentially deadly situations with insufficient information. The plot is full of surprises and twists because of all that the Skyrines discover while trying to survive on the Red.
An element that is crucial in the plot is the presence of human colonists on Mars nicknamed Muskies because they arrived following Elon Musk’s plans. The contacts between Earth and the colonists were interrupted years before the novel’s start so for the Skyrines dealing with them is complex, in particular with xenophobic groups who had left the Earth because it was too multi-ethnic for their tastes.
In close contact with the various officers who survived after their arrival on Mars, Michael Venn becomes aware that their mission is far more complex than he was told. Not everything is as it appears but in many cases Greg Bear simply adds little more than hints that he presumably developed in the other two novels of the trilogy.
In many ways the Skyrines’ interactions with the colonists lead to some of the most intriguing discoveries, especially in the final part of “War Dogs”. In this case Greg Bear offers much more than hints, in fact there are a number of twists but again the impression is that they’ll be used for further developments in the other two novels of the trilogy.
“War Dogs” is not very long since even the pocket edition is just over 300 pages long. Greg Bear generally writes longer novels so the impression is that this was conceived to introduce the various elements of a larger story. This means that you need to read its sequels but also that the protagonist continually offers information about the Gurus, the Antag and much more that slow down the pace.
For these reasons, “War Dogs” left me with mixed feelings. There are intriguing hints but sometimes Greg Bear’s exposition seemed heavy and dispersive. I can’t say that it’s a bad novel, but like the other novels written by the author in recent years it’s not as good as the previous ones. If you’re interested in its themes you might like it but you need to get the whole trilogy.