Christopher G Nuttall has two military science fiction novels out in his Learning Experience series. A British author, Nuttall tells the story of American Special Forces family that is kidnapped by aliens, poor aliens. From there humanity launches itself into space exploration and settlement in what can only be described as a militant libertarian’s wet dream.
A Learning Experience, the first book in the series, focuses on the rise of a libertarian space society under constant threat of alien invasion. It has the classic elements of the genre: a looming threat of invasion, innovation that celebrates the human spirit, relatively conservative political commentary that may be only standard in military science fiction out of all sci-fi/fantasy genres today. There is action, derring-do, and bold dynamic characters that lead the plot forward. A Learning Experience is not the finest example of the genre, since it lacks a clear antagonist. David Weber’s Mutineer’s Moon does a better job leaping forward with technology with a personal, vital and grave threat to overcome.
Hard Lessons, the second book in the series, takes place fifty years after the first novel. The Solar Union now faces off for the first time with the central power in the galaxy. Can human ingenuity and competence match overwhelming odds? (Spoiler: there is going to be a third book in the series.) The second book improves a bit on characterization. Two Earth children leave the decaying homeworld for the thriving libertarian Solar Union. In true Starship Troopers style, the young man becomes a Marine and the woman a starship officer so that their stories show both the high-level and low-level advancements, nuances, and plots.
This is the second series by Mr. Nuttall that I have read, and it is interesting to compare Learning Experiences with his Ark Royal series, which leans heavily on Space Battleship Yamato for inspiration.
Nuttall’s style is transparent, which simply means that you will not notice his choice of wording with British characters. Mr. Nuttall positively nails the libertarian views of American politics, which is incredibly entertaining as such. However, he does struggle some with a consistent American idiom. Many times I came across an American English phrase with a British spelling, which made me smile. There are also a number of phrases that simply do not exist in American English. No one on this side of the pond says drunk as a lord because we don’t have nobles, and we don’t talk about packaging accuracy matching what’s on the tin. But these minor stylistic issues did not really detract from my enjoyment of a nice bit of space opera popcorn.
ArK Royal”s characters were more richly fleshed out. A Learning Experience characters were mostly cardboard cut-out supermen. They were the YES of military bad-asses, political and financial whizzes, and technological innovators. Hard Lessons fares a little bit better in terms of characterization. Martin is a young black man from Detroit who has to overcome his public-schools inspired functional illiteracy to earn a place in the Solar Union. Yolanda plays a stereotypical victim of sexual abuse, traumatized, insecure, and unable to make real physical or emotional connections. They both, naturally, ovecome their weaknesses in the path of the narrative, but it does make them seem a little more real.
Hard Lessons also introduces a tangible antagonist for the first time in the series, the regional commander for the evil empire, a woman named Neola. She has her own cultural biases, limitations, and obstacles to overcome with her fleet. Mr. Nuttall makes a good step forward with this inclusion.
The alien races are pretty standard sci-fi fare: little gray and blue aliens to creep us out, spider monsters we can kill and slaughter without compunction, and tall willowy elitists.
A very entertaining point of this series is Mr. Nuttall’s choice to go with deliberately derivative space-faring technology. The ship’s technology echoes Star Trek on many levels, so he hangs a lamp on it. His characters make constant Star Trek references, and the most popular names by the second novel are those of UFP starship captains. In another point gravity generators are used in conflict, a concept right out of the Star Trek universe, and Mr. Nuttall names them after the Star Wars universe’s most beloved author, Timothy Zahn. It’s a delightfully fun way to avoid re-inventing the wheel while simultaneously giving credit where credit is due.
Now for the Lutheran Monk take on some points…
A good friend of mine described Libertarianism as, “The best you’re going to come up with without God.” and that certainly seems to be the case here. Nuttall’s series embodies the economic and educational strengths of laissez-faire governance. The second book contains a contrasting blerb eviscerating multicultural progressivism as a ‘news report’ from Earth at the start of each chapter, and I cannot say his points are wrong. However, with nanotechnology to make us immortal, super-computers to make a data net holding all information, and alien advancements for every physical ill, there are some lacking things that highlight the shortcomings of even the best political system outside of God.
To start with the sex, there is now a cure for every imaginable disease and 100% effective contraception in place, so casual sexual contact is the norm. But it rings hollow. Marriages are short-term because people are just going to grow apart. As long as you are an adult you can do whomever and whatever you want, but there isn’t any supreme joy to it. Sex is the most intimacy available, and eventually it isn’t going to be enough. Apart from a higher participant in a sexual union (cough, God, cough) it is simply a short-term solution that will pass away as everyone moves on. Think about that for a second, that the most important and lasting thing in immortality, doesn’t last.
At first the libertarian legal code seems to be a great joy, but it has its darker notes. Sure, it’s great to see rapists and murderers thrown out of airlocks after they take an unbeatable polygraph, but there is no hope for redemption. This is all Law. Society is made up of basically good people, and if you’re a bad person, you’re bad. There is no recompense, no hope, and ultimately no forgiveness. If the world were not made up of sinners, this would be much more appealing. But in the end it just boils down to more of: our sins are acceptable (fornication, jealousy, pride, covetousness) and yours are damned (different fornication, murder, etc.).
Everyone likes to be a Pharisee as long as they can imagine themselves on the good-guy end of the spectrum.
So, Christopher Nuttall’s Learning Lessons series is entertaining, easy to read, and moves along at a relatively good pace. If you are a big fan of humanity’s-rise-to-the-stars fiction, Stargate SG1 and the Dahak series by a younger David Weber will provide better characterizations, antagonists, and drama. But overall, since SG1 is done and David Weber has slipped the reigns of his editors and run amok, Nuttall’s fiction isn’t a bad bit of popcorn to tide us over until their successors become clear.