Passage at Arms (1985)

PaA is one of the most intense novels I’ve read. The new edition by Night Shade Book has a nice quote by Jeff Vandermeer, comparing it to the movie “Das Boot”, and that’s a very apt comparison. If you look solely at the plot you’ll be disappointed, since that is one of the weakest elements. But PaA isn’t about plot, it’s a slice-of-life piece depicting the hellish conditions on a Climber, the one advantage humanity has against the alien Ulant. When those spaceships go into a climb, they are mostly undetectable. Sadly they also can’t shed heat, and slowly the temperature is rising. Which limits the length of the climbs.

Equally severe are other, more human problems. 99% of the time is done waiting, which erodes the nerves of everyone, as is the isolation. Unlike SF where warfare in space is depicted like sea battles of the 17th century, Cook depicts it more like submarine battles. The enemy has no face, you can’t hate him, while those people around you begin to annoy you soon. If a Climber is too long on patrol, the social dynamics on board begin to deteriorate, reflecting the physical state of the ship itself.

Cook’s book also avoids easy categorization. It’s military SF, but neither is it propaganda about the evils of the military, nor is it an endorsement of military space opera shoot’em ups. You won’t get easy morals out of this.