A Return to Classic SF: The Torch of Honor by Roger MacBride Allen

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Back in the 1980s, many of the authors from the Golden Age of Science Fiction had ended or were ending their careers. Newer authors were exploring new ground, and turning their backs on the old tropes of the past. Science fiction was beginning to look very different. But not all authors followed in this new direction. In his first novel, The Torch of Honor, Roger MacBride Allen instead hewed closely to the ideals of classic science fiction, with grand adventure overlaid upon some interesting scientific speculation. What he produced was a stirring tale of heroism and interplanetary warfare that still holds up today.

One of the occupational hazards of getting old is a tendency to get “unstuck in time,” as Kurt Vonnegut used to say. The first phrase that popped into my head when I found my copy of The Torch of Honor in the basement and saw Allen’s name on the cover was “promising young author.” Then I opened the book to discover that it was published in 1985, and realized I had bought the book half a lifetime ago, and that this author had an entire writing career behind him.

The book was Allen’s first, and stands as a solid start to a career, earning him comparisons with Robert Heinlein and Jerry Pournelle. While The Torch of Honor caused some to typecast him as a military science fiction author, he went on to prove that he had an impressive range, writing books in a number of sub-genres. It also showed from the start that his writing was solidly rooted in some of the oldest traditions in science fiction, with his books filled with big scientific ideas, a grand scope, and competent characters facing complex challenges.

 

About the Author

Roger MacBride Allen (born 1957) is the author or co-author of over 20 books, including both science fiction and non-fiction. He made his debut in 1985 and 1986 with a pair of science fiction adventure novels from Baen Books, The Torch of Honor and Rogue Powers (the two were later released as an omnibus edition entitled Allies and Aliens). These were followed by a number of standalone novels and collaborations. Another pair of novels from Tor Books, the Hunted Earth series (The Ring of Charon, published in 1990, and The Shattered Sphere in 1993), featured some grand ideas drawn from the fringes of scientific speculation, including the Earth being stolen and taken to another solar system centered on a Dyson Sphere, and the remnants of humanity in the now Earth-less Solar System dealing with alien efforts to construct another Dyson Sphere. As I recollect, the end of the second book was open-ended, and certainly left me wanting more.

In 1993 he was selected to write a trilogy of novels set in the world of Isaac Asimov’s robots and the Three Laws of Robotics. In 1995, he wrote the The Corellian Trilogy, which before the rewriting of the Star Wars universe and release of the movie Solo, gave us our most definitive version of Han Solo’s home star system. He also produced the Chronicles of Solace trilogy, space opera tales set in the far future filled with time travel paradoxes. Allen also wrote another far-future trilogy following the adventures of the Bureau of Special Investigations, or BSI, books that were basically police procedurals set in space. He has published some short fiction, but to date his output has been predominately works of novel length.

 

Heroes and Challenges

While writing rollicking science fiction adventure stories might seem easier to some people than penning a more nuanced literary tale, the tasks these authors face are actually quite difficult. For example, they must present their characters with daunting challenges that are significant enough to require a heroic response, but not so large that overcoming them stretches the imagination to an absurd degree.

Every fictional tale requires suspension of belief. The author must convince the reader that these imaginary characters are real. They must have reasonable motivations for their actions, realistic reactions to events, and personalities that the readers might conceivably encounter in real life. If a device or object is going to be crucial to the advancement of the plot, it must be presented early enough in the narrative that it does not appear to be conjured from thin air when needed. If a character performs a physical act, it must be within the realm of human abilities. When they deduce something, the clues should be present in the narrative in a way that gives the reader a chance to make the same deduction, or at least not be too surprised or confused when it happens. In science fiction and fantasy, however, the author has an additional burden. Devices beyond our current technology, like faster-than-light drives, force fields, time machines, and disintegration rays, have to be presented in a way that at least feels plausible. If natural laws are in play, they must be respected. When magic is used, it has to be presented in a consistent manner that follows some sort of logical system.

On the other hand, adventure writing requires an author to stretch what is plausible. Rescues in the nick of time are far more exciting than rescues that occur with time to spare. The viewpoint characters must be present at pivotal events in the narrative. Vehicles and machinery must be pushed to their limits. Physical acts must stretch the bounds of the possible, with fantastic leaps over deep chasms, giant weights to be lifted, huge opponents to be vanquished in combat, pinpoint shots to be made across wide distances. Protagonists must see what others miss, and are often the only ones to grasp what needs to be done. Suspense and jeopardy rely on stretching the very elements that make a narrative plausible.

One classic movie that stretches the bounds of the possible is Die Hard, where hero John McClain must overcome fierce odds in order to save the day. He performs fantastic feats, but we also see him suffer and strain to do what needs to be done, in a way that makes his accomplishments feel real and earned. Later movies in the series were not as successful in remaining within the bounds of the plausible. I can’t remember the specific sequel, but in one, John McClain launches a car into the air to destroy an attacking helicopter, causing me to be not amazed, but rather to be amused. What felt heroic in the first movie had devolved into a live-action version of a Roadrunner cartoon.

The balance between realism and excitement is a delicate one. One of the reasons The Torch of Honor drew critical attention when it first appeared was the way Allen took the narrative right to the edge of believability in a way that had me turning the pages as quickly as I could.

 

The Torch of Honor

The book opens with an attack on the planet New Finland by the mysterious Guardians, brutal invaders who want to subjugate this and other worlds. Only a single message torpedo is able to escape the system, bringing news of the invasion to the League of Planets.

We then cut to an empty casket funeral for most of the students at the academy for the new League of Planets Survey Service, lost when their ship disappeared on a training cruise. We meet surviving students Second Lieutenant Terrance MacKenzie Larson of the Republic of Kennedy Space Navy, and his new wife, Lieutenant Joslyn Marie Cooper Larson, from the Planetary Commonwealth of Britannica. “Mac,” as he is known, is a character who harkens back to the early days of space opera and bears no small resemblance to E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Kimball Kinnison: physically imposing and hyper-competent. The League that is helping to spread humanity to the stars is very Anglo- and Euro-centric, in a way that feels almost quaint to the modern reader.

The leaders of the academy have found that Britannica is considering reclaiming the ten surplus spaceships they had promised to the new Survey Service, and news of the potential loss of the new officers will surely encourage naysayers to call for the service’s disestablishment. So the remaining students are quickly assigned to ships and sent off to find new worlds, in order to prove the worth of the fledgling service before all support is lost. Mac and Joslyn are assigned to a ship as a couple, the minimum crew required to operate it safely.

After happily surveying a number of planetary systems, Mac and Joslyn receive word from their superiors. Their ship is the only League vessel that can assist the beleagured Finns by sneaking past a missile defense system deployed by the Guardians. The League has developed a matter transmitter, and the two are tasked with deploying a receiver that will allow five thousand troops to materialize and help the Finns. It is rather audacious for an author to present new technology that will completely upend the status quo of an entire fictional universe, but Allen does so early in this, his first book. Mac and Joslyn decide that the best way to contact the Finns is for Mac to infiltrate their orbital facility of Vapaus, a colony built within a hollowed-out asteroid, made to spin to create simulated gravity. Allen describes this artifact, and the challenges of entering it surreptitiously, in enthusiastic detail. Then, in a development that is distressingly timely for the modern reader, Mac finds that the Guardians are white supremacists and neo-Nazis who fled in a colony ship after a failed coup attempt in America and Britain, and have now re-emerged, bent on conquest.

Mac eventually contacts the Finns and they develop a risky plan. Mac presents himself to the Guardians and convinces them he is a sympathizer who has developed the technology of matter transmission, and offers to build the device. They bring him down to the surface of the planet, and give him the resources he needs. When the device is activated, however, the League troops pour out and catch the Guardians unaware.

The book was engaging enough to this point, but from here on, as conflict engulfs the Finns’ planet, it becomes an utterly gripping read. Mac finds himself first in ground battles as the troops try to spread out before the Guardians can react, and then engaged in space battles around the planet. He is captured and tortured. He is reunited with Joslyn, but they have little time to rejoice—just as the Finns are gaining the upper hand, a massive Guardian vessel, the Leviathan, arrives and gives the Guardians the advantage again. The Leviathan, and the way it is deployed, is a fascinating development, and you can tell Allen had a lot of fun figuring out the logistics of how it could work. There are more space battles, and a conclusion in which the fate of the world hangs in the balance by the thinnest of threads.

After finishing the book, I realized how unlikely it was that Mac would always appear right in the middle of the most crucial events in the conflict, and also that he, as a very junior officer, would be ready with the exact right solution for every problem he faces in the course of the story. But while reading, caught up in the flow of the narrative, that didn’t occur to me for a moment; my suspension of disbelief, while stretched, remained intact. While Mac and Joslyn were not the most well-rounded of characters, I grew to care about their fate, admire their competence, and root for their success. In the end, the disappearance of their classmates at the beginning of the book opens the possibility of the next phase of their adventures, as it appears those missing officers might be prisoners of the Guardians. I don’t remember all the details of the next book, but I do remember that it put Joslyn at center stage instead of Mac.

The Torch of Honor is well-realized and well-paced. The technologies in the novel were beyond our current science, but the “what ifs” of such technology were carefully considered, and it was clear Allen had done his homework. It’s no wonder that his debut effort garnered such praise: while the story is deeply rooted in old-fashioned science fiction adventure tropes, it feels fresh and interesting in many ways.

 

Final Thoughts

The Torch of Honor was an audacious start to a solid writing career. While some elements now seem dated, and there were points where the suspension of belief might be stretched as our plucky hero overcomes challenge after challenge, always finding himself at a pivotal point in the conflict, it remains a very exciting and readable adventure story.

And now, it’s your turn. Have you read The Torch of Honor, or other works by Roger MacBride Allen? If so, what are your favorites? And what other science fiction adventure tales have you read that captured your imagination? Where have you encounted a good balance between the needs of plausibility and suspense in other novels and stories?

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.

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