David Drake & Bill Fawcett, editors,
The Fleet No. 2: Counter Attack
(Ace, 1988)

In the first book of the shared universe series The Fleet, stories focused on scale and firepower. There were grand space battles and some cunning plans that diverted those battles, but not much else. Despite the variety flaunted in the first anthology, there were too many blank spots: Why were the Khalia attacking? Where did their supplies come from? How could such a primitive society pose a threat to the widespread, technologically advanced Alliance? The interludes in the The Fleet No. 2: Counter Attack focus on the efforts of Admiral Meier and Special Investigator Neuton Smythe to answer those questions.

There's an odd prejudice shown by the Fleet in Christopher Stasheff's "Civilians," as an attacking fleet force assumes the numerous non-Khalian aliens on a strange planet to be slaves of the dominating Khalians. The revelation that the featherheaded aliens are the natives doesn't feel as shocking as it probably should, given the star character's reactions. This planet provides fleet doctors with a captured Khalian specimen in the bloody story of the "Lab Rats," and provides the first example of Khalian poetry, written by a despondent "Prisoner of War."

This poetic tradition is more fully explored in Robert Sheckley's "Traitor's Saga." This story of Fleet officer Judah Ben Judah offers the possibility that the Khalians are not so purely savage after all. It also shows us more of the intriguing birdlike Nedge we met in The Fleet. But the main focus is on the poetic tradition of the Khalia, who have a strong, if basic, culture, and their complete ineptitude with all things technical. The enemy's straightforward approach to life makes the complicated scheme in Shariann Lewitt's "Narc" even more confusing. The weasel-like aliens are trying to corrupt a developing planet's youth by introducing foreign drugs. It's a dark and nasty plan, and previous data shows that it's beyond the conception of the Khalia. But there are hints in Counter Attack that it's hardly beneath the conception of the Fleet.

While the Khalians are beginning to show a more sympathetic side, the Fleet is putting its darker side on display. Mike Resnick's "King Of the Blue Planet" has Fleet officers cheerfully exploiting a small planet, running off its previous inhabitants and taking over their lives. The linked stories by Janet Morris and David Drake, "Needs Must" and "When The Devil Drives," introduce civilians fighting against a Khalian occupation and assisting Fleet marines, who would be lucky if they were only forgotten. The Fleet's arrogance and egocentricity leads a forgotten colony to cause its own destruction in "Durga Hait" as the modern human culture seems to have forgotten its old gods.

While all these stories focus on the actions of more noble personnel overcoming the flaws of their organization, the evidence of these flaws is disturbing, if not unexpected. And the hints of someone else stirring up trouble between the Fleet and the Khalia, combined with these new pessimistic views of humanity's defenders, suggests an internal manipulator, even if nothing is clearly shown yet.

The Fleet collections are beginning to take on the air of a mystery series, with each one providing a new clue into the crime. The Fleet brought us to the scene of the crime; now Counter Attack shows us some tantalizing clues into motive and attacker. Counter Attack leaves at least as many questions hanging as did The Fleet, but this time it's tempting, not frustrating. I'm looking forward to finding more answers in the next book.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 21 June 2003

Buy it from Amazon.com.