Look at that cover—yes, look at it. I feel like a high school graphic design student could have done better. But don't let it fool you. Look at the editor's name. Where so many of his contemporaries are unable to get variety from their commissioned authors, Ian Whates is consistently able to deliver themed anthologies with enough material that strays beyond the core to make things interesting. Such is 2015's Total Conflict.
But the anthology does not open without giving readers what they expect based on the spacetroop—ahem, space marine “gracing” the cover. When a valued space marine falls in combat, his comrades hold an appropriate wake, complete with whiskey in “The Wake” by Dan Abnett. Abnett capturing grunt vernacular very nicely, the story still pans average—classic/generic sf, depending on your perspective. Largely the same as Abnett’s story (space marines wielding futuristic guns, engaging in bro talk while shooting at alien stuff), but without the style, “Psi.Copath” by Andy Remic ensures the cover image has been thoroughly dealt with.
More political vignette than military sf, “Unaccounted” by Lauren Beukes shifts the tone of the anthology. Beukes describes an army outpost on an alien planet along the same lines of the US occupation of Iraq or any other similar situation, the edginess of the exposition its calling card. Cyberpunk meets The War of the Worlds, “The New Ships” by Gareth L Powell is the story of an operative who goes undercover to bring in an informant. It begins innocently enough, that is until it escalates suddenly, converting a simple capture into an international incident. A story that doesn’t really seem to know what it is (maybe schoolhouse steampunk droid attack?), “The Harvest” by Kim Lakin-Smith shows how far stories must reach in order to attempt to be “original” these days. It would have been better off as a novel or novella-to unpack the story’s concepts in non-rushed fashion.
Perhaps more scene than story, “Proper Little Soldier” by Martin McGrath starts as McCarthy’s The Road and becomes Wells' The War of the Worlds (seems a recurring theme). Short but defined, McGrath sets the thermostat to chill, making for one of the best pieces in the anthology. “The War Artist” by Tony Ballantyne is a bit of futuristic Hemingway. A war photographer is dropped into firefight in Italy with a sergeant and his battalion to protect the locals from a group of violent hackers, but I dare say Ballantyne’s message about war is a little different. Space adventure that twists and turns in unpredictable ways, “The Maker’s Mark” by Michael Cobley tells of Cornelius, black market dealer of extraordinary items, and the fate of one of his bolder ideas to have an ancient alien mind gestate rare objects. Fast paced, it is perhaps the most colorful, dynamic story in the anthology.
A classic story, “Occupation” by Colin Harvey tells of Hue and his friend Emilio as they are enjoying their day, when an alien ship, part of an ongoing war among several species, crashes nearby. A panther-like alien surviving, they take him in, learning about the Other in the process. In “Sussed” by Keith Brooke a code hacker attempts to escape his malevolent boss, but despite the false trail, still ends up in a place he’d rather not after awaking from suspension. In another retro sf entry, “The Soul of the Machine” by Eric Brown tells of a man who allows an Android—an andoird who has demonstrated free will—to join their group of space scavengers. The android’s owners coming for it as the group heads to a space wreck, battles ensue. This story is as vanilla as sf can possibly be...
The most subtle version of conflict in the anthology, and coincidentally one of its best stories, “Extraordinary Rendition” by Steve Longworth tells of two near future “zen masters” and their battle of minds, alone, on the moon. There is no Five Tiger Claw of Death, but the story’s alternative suits it even better. (My personal favorite in the anthology.) “The Legend of Sharrock” by Philip Palmer is the true warrior's tale. It's very Greek, very Oedipus, and very space opera, all without being cliche thanks to a human ending. Feeling like a cheap video game,
in “The Cuisinart Effect” by Neal Asher space marines fend off dinosaurs with laser rifles and blaster cannons. Some really uninspired stuff... More inspiring is Adam Roberts' “The Ice Submarine”. About an Arab army in a submarine beneath the oceans of Antarctica while WWIII rages is an odd combination of ideas—aka a breath of fresh air in an theology counting on vanilla. More a conflict of the soul than military or political (though that certainly exists), Roberts puts into sharp contrast the long term interests of knowledge/ teleology vs the short term interests of war and conflict with a unique premise.
From the macro view, Total Conflict is practically a one-note melody. Most of the stories are space marines enforcing stereotypes. From the micro view, however, their is a fair amount of nuance. Several of the stories are well worht reading—whether for the scene, substance, or the story itself. Thus, it may seem a niche anthology, and for many readers it will deliver (look at that cover!!!), but for others, little gems will make picking this up worthwhile—Whates' talent.
The following are the eighteen stories anthologized in Total Conflict:
“The Wake” by Dan Abnett
“Psi.Copath” by Andy Remic
“Unaccounted” by Lauren Beukes
“The New Ships” by Gareth L Powell
“The Harvest” by Kim Lakin-Smith
“The War Artist” by Tony Ballantyne
“Proper Little Soldier” by Martin McGrath
“The Maker’s Mark” by Michael Cobley
“Brwydr Am Ryddid” by Stephen Palmer
“Occupation” by Colin Harvey
“Sussed” by Keith Brooke
“The Soul of the Machine” by Eric Brown
“Extraordinary Rendition” by Steve Longworth
“The Legend of Sharrock” by Philip Palmer
“The Cuisinart Effect” by Neal Asher
“The Ice Submarine” by Adam Roberts
“War Without End” by Una McCormack
“Welcome Home, Janissary” by Tim C Taylor