Book review: Sixteenth Watch by Myke Cole

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

For all the mess we have made of things so far, humanity retains a fascinating capacity for believing we will be better in the future.

It is perhaps the ultimate coping mechanism or the grandest of mass delusions; whatever it, for all the broken down societies and blue screens of death in our present, we still cling to the idea that there will be flying cars and a galaxy-spanning federation of like-minded aliens in our future.

Myke Cole dives headlong into the great abyss between what we dream of and what we actually get (which is, to be honest, largely what we’ve had up to this point in our oft-blighted history) in Sixteenth Watch, a novel set in the short-to-medium-future when humanity hasn’t necessarily made it to the stars as back to the moon which it mining the hell out of with a greedy alacrity that shows we have learnt nothing from the environmental mess we have left down on Earth.

In this semi-brave new world, people are on the moon in large numbers mining Helium 3, an element that is integral to the technology of the day and thus worth expending great effort and money in obtaining.

And, as it turns out, fighting over too with Chinese and American miners regularly coming to blows in an environment where death is as simple as breaking the face plate of someone’s spacesuit or throwing a rock through their habitat.

“She [Oliver] smiled and the students smiled with her. To them, a captain was akin to a god, and she knew the reminder that their leaders rode the same rough seas they’d be tackling went a long way. She also knew there were precious few officers at her level that still did.” (P. 29)

We are, for all our technological prowess and skill, as viciously basic as we always were, which is a problem for the armed forces which keep the peace on Earth’s grey, regolith-heavy satellite.

Among them are the US Navy and the People’s Liberation Army Navy or PLAN, both of whom exist to safeguard other lives and the peace and security of their respective country’s interests, but who are constantly spoiling for a fight, a deadly obsession in such an unforgiving situation.

The exception to this fractious hotbed is the Coast Guard (which is the fifth wing of the military you may be surprised to learn; certainly the Navy keeps forgetting that’s the case) whose sole purpose is to rescue people and uphold the law in the most non-lethal way possible.

That can be a challenge when fights break out as regularly as shipments of Helium 3 go back to Earth, but Captain Jane Oliver, a veteran of the Coast Guard, believes in its mission wholeheartedly, abhorring the drift on the moon to armed confrontation, a predilection for battle which could spread to the planet below and mean the irradiated end of us all.

It is an intriguing premise for a novel which moves at a crackingly fast pace, moving from battle to battle, presager to World War III after presager to World War III, with scenes that burst with adrenaline-filled action, death and destruction.

Myke Cole (image courtesy official Myke Cole Twitter account)

What makes Sixteenth Watch work so well, especially if you are not a lover of military sci-fi such as this reviewer, is that for all its surfeit of action, and this is a great deal of it described in intense, jargon-filled but beguiling detail, it does not neglect the beating heart at the centre of the story.

There are after all human beings at the centre of these battles, chief among Captain Oliver, a no-nonsense, grounded officer who takes a no-bullshit approach to military politics (to the great detriment at times), who is compassionate and wounded by great past tragedy and who is deeply, winningly human and heartfelt in a world where the vest worst of humanity gets buried and forgotten in the rush to indulge the very worst.

She is brilliantly good at what she does, tasked with training a boarding crew for an upcoming reality TV contest whose popularity is such that if the Coast Guard wins it, it may just win the battle for the hearts and minds of the military top brass and the people of Earth and stop the Navy’s sabre-rattling ascendancy on the Moon.

As protagonists go, she is as well-rounded and vividly-realised as you could wish for, a Coast Guard officer who sees beyond one-upping those around her for the simple act of doing what’s right.

That may sound ridiculously twee but so well-realised is Oliver that there is a convincing real world muscularity to her approach to life and career, one that takes her devoted XO and her team along with her on a perilously fraught mission that has more likelihood of going wrong that it has of going right.

This is exactly what the Commandant wants to avoid, Oliver fought against the boiling feeling in her gut, this is how we start a war. The thought was followed by another. Take it easy on the kid. It’s not his fault.” (P. 215)

Without Oliver, Sixteenth Watch might have just been another bang-em-up, shoot-em-up testosterone-fuelled battle with big boys and girls with their highly-destructive toys; but Cole makes it much more than that, investing its seemingly endless battles, between the Navy and PLAN, and within the US military service which seems robustly philosophically at war with itself, with a stirring humanity that gives the battle some kind of point.

He is also sage enough to remark upon the habit we have of repeating history, environmental, economic, social (only the rich or those with the capacity to become hopelessly indebted make it to the Moon) and military, and how it seldom works in our favour.

Those the military scenes did stretch on a little too long for someone for whom it is not a natural-fit genre, and there are times when the preponderance of military jargon and love of big boys toy gets a little too much, Sixteenth Watch remains an engrossing read because it remembers that at the heart of all the in-fighting and out-fighting sit real people, those self-aware and astute like Oliver, her XO Lieutenant Commander Wen Ho and the Navy’s General Fraser and those most certainly not.

It grants the military swashbuckling and the searingly intense battles a emotional resonance they would not otherwise possess, making the machinations of machines and men feel grounded and real and worth of paying attention to.

At its heart, it acknowledges that humanity is flawed and broken and that for all our boundless optimism and rose-tinted view of the future, we are far more likely to repeat grave errors of our past than not, but that thanks to people of conscience, integrity and deep, abiding integrity like Oliver, who is an incredibly compelling and immensely likeable protagonist, we may, just may, find a way out of the endlessly destructive abyss to a place where we have a fighting chance, word choice very much intended, of going somewhere other than where we have self-destructively been.

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