And now today’s post: Why I think you should read Spots the Space Marine
Before I tell you why I think you should read it, and why, if you do, I believe you will enjoy it, I want to tell you what’s going to discourage you from doing so.
When I settle down to read fiction I go into it mostly blind, but with a few expectations. One is that the narrative will be told as a narrative, with some kind of cohesive voice, either in impartial third person or a more intimate first person. That is not the case with Spots–Spots reads like a very spare movie script, with minimal narration and dialog relayed in script format. The first time I tried to read the book I wound up putting it down, because it wasn’t what I was expected. I expected third person. I expected more description. I expected something that felt like a book instead of a movie script. It made me rather uncomfortable, because I wanted the narrator to tell me what everyone was doing all the time, damn it all, and the narrator wasn’t. There are italics that mention when Claws was checking Spots’ armor, and scene and setting changes are identified, but not much else. There are even sequences that are specifically described as montages.
So I wandered away from the book for a while, because it wasn’t what I was expecting to read, and that put me off. It’s entirely possible that you’ll have the same reaction I did. You’ll look at it, and you’ll be uncomfortable, and that will put you off.
If you have that reaction, keep reading. If you give the format a chance, you’ll find it has surprising strengths in telling this story, and Hogarth exploits those strengths well.
“Spots” (her squad nickname, call sign name, whatever you want to call it) is a marine reservist who is taken off her one-day-a-month desk duty and thrown into combat. She’s in her 30s, she’s a mother of two, she’s at least a decade older than everyone else around her, and she’s posted to a place that’s supposed to be relatively unimportant–a place that’s certainly not on the front lines–but that seems to be getting more than its fair share of enemy action.
There are a lot of layers in this story. There’s Spots trying to fit in to her unit, and her unit not sure they want her to fit in. There’s the alien ally engineer (“Samuel Colt”–it makes sense in context) who develops a rapport with her because of who she is in context with how his society works. There’s the backlash from the other marines because she’s developed a rapport with an alien. There’s the war itself, and the mystery surrounding why the enemy is paying so much attention to a place that it shouldn’t. There’s exhaustion–no one has enough sleep, enough resources, or enough trust, and everyone is beginning to fray. And there are politics–politics between squads, politics between officers (though not in the classically backstabbing way) and politics between the enlisted and the officers.
And there’s a running theme throughout the story of what it’s like to be an alien in your environment, to not fit into it, and not quite know how to adapt or grow into it. M.C.A. Hogarth is extraordinarily good at creating alien civilizations and making them feel legitimate, and her depiction of Samuel Colt and his race is fascinating. You wind up making more conclusions about how he works, and how his civilization works, than the story actually tells you–there are enough clues in there to figure it out. And his interaction with the humans, and the enemies interaction with the humans, are wonderful puzzles in the grand tradition of inscrutable aliens. But the truth is, almost all of the important characters in the story are aliens in their own environment: Spots is “old” (her squad members call her “mama”) and nobody believes she’s going to be much use in a fight. One of her teammates is trying to convince everyone he’s much stupider than he is. The Lieutenant in command of the station is trying to manage their situation with not enough people or supplies. She was essentially field promoted because the former commander of the station died leading an action that was monumentally stupid and that got a lot of people killed. The fact that a lot of people were killed has ripped holes in the people who survived. How everyone deals with feeling that way–the ways they are unfair, the ways they are noble, and the ways they are just plain desperate–are good reading.
As all of these layers pile on top of each other, and as the mysteries surrounding the alien allies and the alien enemy deepen, you stop noticing the script format and you start hearing the dialog. You hear the marines as they swear at each other constantly (made more noticeable because you don’t actually see what they’re saying–any serious swearing is censored with asterisks), you hear the marines say considerably less to their superior officers–both in volume and substance–you even hear the alien begin to joke with the few humans he’s become friendly with. I found that, after a while, the presentation of the story fit perfectly. There’s just enough narration to give you a feel for the chaos going around, but the true feel of that chaos is reflected in the way people are shouting at each other, or whispering to each other, or joking with each other in their down time. It took time to slide into it, but once I did it worked, and I had to finish the book in one sitting.