The Chaplain’s War
Brad R. Torgersen
Published Oct. 7 2014
My last review before I start to look at Hugo nominees, and no, I didn’t not intend to review Torgersen’s book while talking about the Hugos, it just took longer to read than I envisioned. You may notice that I changed my rating system from five stars to a score out of ten. This is because I wanted to give this book a halfway score – not bad by any means, but not that great either – and 2.5 stars looked unfairly low. I’ll stick with this rating system going forward, because it allows a greater variety in rating.
Okay, fair disclosure, I am an atheist. I don’t think that impacted on my ability to enjoy this book, since it wasn’t overly preachy or anything, but I figured it was worth noting that if you are religious and/or spiritual, you might get more out of this book than I did.
So I suppose the next question is, if I’m an atheist who doesn’t like preachy things, why did I read a book called The Chaplain’s War? I read it because Brad Torgersen is an amazing author, who has published some beautiful novellas in Analog. Life Flight made me bawl my eyes out (in the sad/beautiful way, not in the way Chuck Tingle did.)
Parts of Chaplain’s War appeared in Analog, as The Chaplain’s Assistant and The Chaplain’s Legacy. I didn’t enjoy these stories as much as Torgersen’s other novellas, but they were interesting enough to convince me to buy this book. It was a tough call; on one hand, a really talented writer who I wanted to see more work from. On the other, it’s a story with a chaplain’s assistant as the hero and atheist cyborg bug aliens as the villains. There are so many ways that premise could devolve into something utterly idiotic. Fortunately, it didn’t. There were a few problems with the treatment of spirituality, but overall it was done subtle and sensitively enough not to ruin the book for me.
First and foremost, The Chaplain’s War is military SF about humans fighting aliens. One thing that quickly becomes clear is that humans are completely outmatched and will lose this war. A military victory is not possible for humanity, and here is where Harrison Barlow, the Chaplain’s Assistant comes in.
Harrison Barlow is trapped on Purgatory; a planet that humans tried -and failed – to invade. Now human prisoners of war are trapped in a small barren valley by a forcefield. Barlow has built a non-denominational chapel, and one day a mantis alien known as the professor comes to visit him. It seems that the mantes are completely without religion, and the professor wants to learn about it to make sure his people aren’t missing out. Here Barlow finds a chance for humanity. First as a way to buy time while the professor studies the many religions of Earth, and then as a way to try to convince the mantes that humans have value and deserve to live.
It is an interesting take on interstellar war stories, that asks a lot of tough questions and asks them well. Barlow is also a likeable character, and shows us the importance and bravery of support personnel in the armed forces. His journey is fun in a classic military SF way, but his position makes the journey feel fresh.
This was an interesting book, that asks questions about the importance of spirituality in bad times, over-reliance of technology, and the effectiveness of violence. Harrison Barlow is an everyman in way over his head, but determined to do what he can to bring about peace. Fun stuff. So, why only a five point five?
Well, there are problems. First, the characters in this book do some great stuff. Everything from facing down their own guilt to laying down their lives. Despite this, there is a heavy implication that divine intervention factors into the outcome, and in the end it is not human or mantes actions that get the credit for the outcome. I suppose I should have expected that, but it relies on what I view as a rather toxic worldview: that everything bad we do is all our fault, but if we do something good, that’s God. What a recipe for self-hatred and distrust. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but that just ruined the ending for me.
Though to be fair, the ending was really ruined when Torgersen threw in the most tacked on and unbelievable romance ever. Seriously, it comes completely out of no-where. The attempts to show the relationship are very poor.
My favourite parts were actually the parts that flashed back to Barlow’s basic training. Torgersen, being a Warrant Officer in the US Army Reserve, knows exactly how life in the military works, and that knowledge shows. It’s also nice seeing Barlow evolve into this chaplain’s assistant role not by being religious, but by going out of his way to help his fellow recruits. However, even these sections have problems.
Firstly, they don’t really add much to the plot. Apart from one twist meeting with an old antagonist, which didn’t really need to happen. There are also too many of these flashbacks, and I found myself getting bored with them once I saw how Barlow became a chaplain’s assistant. I think the book might have been stronger if there were less flashbacks.
Another serious problem was that even though the book is set about 190 years into the future, it doesn’t seem very futury. We don’t see soldiers training in VR (though it is referred to), we don’t hear about the POWs on Purgatory suffering withdrawal or struggling without their technology. This is a problem because reliance on technology is a big theme in the book. It is even implied to be the reason why the Mantes can’t feel any sort of spirituality or make a connection with god.
Hey, at least the Mantes weren’t upset with God because something bad happened to them, or ignoring God because they just wanted to sin.
There are a number of other little gripes I could bring up, but I don’t think they are that important. In short, The Chaplain’s War was a fun military SF book, and if you are religious you may get a lot out of it. However, it didn’t really do that much for me, and I believe Torgersen can do much better.