John G. Hemry,
A Just Determination
(Ace, 2003)

John G. Hemry's A Just Determination is a remarkably impressive work of military science fiction. The critical action upon which the story hinges is actually rather brief, with the second half of the novel basically taking the form of a legalistic presentation of facts, charges and adjudications. A book of this kind could easily be dry, analytical and far from engaging, yet Hemry's writing kept me deeply interested in the story at all times. A large part of his success can be traced to his powerful character development skills as a writer.

As the futuristic novel opens, Ensign Paul Sinclair, fresh out of the naval academy, embarks on the USS Michaelson for his first real tour of space duty. We see the ship through his eyes, and Sinclair's impressions and observations of ship dimensions, claustrophobic compactness and cramped living conditions really make the Michaelson come vividly alive in the reader's own mind. Hemry then paints amazingly lifelike portraits of the many important players in this legalistic thriller, men and women whose discrepancies in terms of my expectations of their actions helped me reach a better understanding of these fascinating individuals; if anything, they are too human.

Ensign Sinclair, for his part, is a sympathetic and remarkably likable character, making his share of mistakes as he attempts to juggle the demanding half-dozen important assignments he is given onboard ship. The fact that his character rings so true to this reader made his ultimate decisions all the more meaningful and honorable. His shipmates seem every bit as real as he does: the irascible captain whom no one really respects or likes; the inscrutable executive officer whose commitment to the U.S. Navy determines everything she says and does; the officer who spends most of her time trying to avoid responsibility in spite of her obvious skills; the sympathetic mid-level officers who lend support to the new guy; the fellow officer who will say anything about his cohorts in an effort to make himself look good; etc.

We spend the first half of the novel learning the ropes alongside Sinclair as the Michaelson heads out to patrol a region of space. Several months into its mission, the ship detects another craft illegally in its zone. After several weeks of pursuit, events take place very quickly once the paths of both vessels finally converge outside the Michaelson's proscribed zone. The captain ends up giving the order to fire upon the vessel after it changes vectors to what is potentially a collision course.

But the other vessel was an unarmed civilian ship posing no real threat to the mighty warship; the Michaelson is ordered to return to base, where the captain is to face court-martial proceedings for his actions. Sinclair finds himself in the middle of all this drama; it was he who had delivered a summary of the ship's mission orders and rules of engagement; in his capacity as legal officer (for which he had only four weeks of training), he had told the captain, when asked, that the vague mission orders did seem to leave the decision as to how to proceed up to his own best judgment. Notwithstanding, Sinclair did not approve of the captain's decision to fire on the vessel, and he faces a moral dilemma in terms of the court-martial proceedings. The captain is charged with broad violations that Sinclair legally does not believe are warranted, yet he wants the captain to be punished for his obvious mistakes in judgment and leadership failures. As he ponders these weighty issues in his own mind, the reader is treated to an instructive lesson in morality, ethics, duty and patriotism. The end result is a praiseworthy course of action that definitely inspired me.

There is something of a love story theme advanced in the late stages of the plot. Ordinarily, I might question the inclusion of such a device, but in this case it does really reinforce the points about duty, honor and service that Hemry seems to be making. The final chapters detailing the courtroom proceedings are far from mundane, having made me creep ever closer to the front of my seat in anticipation of the final judgment of the case. I would never have expected a legalistic work of military science fiction to prove as exciting as A Just Determination most definitely is. This is military science fiction at its best.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 5 July 2003

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