Monday, August 8, 2016

Mercenary by Mack Reynolds

When corporations clash
Mercenary, a science fiction novella by Mack Reynolds, was originally published in the April 1962 issue of the magazine Analog Science Fiction and Fact. It was later published in book form as Mercenary from Tomorrow, a title which really doesn’t make much sense because the plot does not involve time travel, though the story does take place in the future. American society has been split up into a rigid caste system, which makes it almost impossible for anyone, no matter how intelligent or hard-working, to rise above the station determined by his or her birth. One possible way to advance, however, is through military achievement. In this future, tension still exists between the United States and the Soviet Union (now known as the Sov-World). However, most combat takes place not between nations but between corporations. These commercial “fracases” serve not only to settle disputes between rival commercial enterprises but also to entertain the masses, who remain glued to their TV sets, watching the fighting while doped up on pills.

Joe Mauser is a veteran mercenary who has seen combat in several such conflicts. When a fracas is announced between Vacuum Tube Transport and Continental Hovercraft, Mauser chooses the former corporation, even though the latter seems to have the advantage in wealth and military might. Mauser hopes that if he can bring victory to this underdog, he will be rewarded with promotion to a higher caste.

I first became interested in Mack Reynolds because of his similarity to another sci-fi writer of the same era, H. Beam Piper. Both writers share common interests in military, economic, and political issues, and often base their fiction around such topics. (Piper even wrote a novella called The Mercenaries.) While Piper is conservative in his political views, Reynolds was raised on socialism, so his writings have a more leftist slant. I sympathize more with Reynolds’s politics, but I usually prefer Piper’s writing. I have read a few Reynolds stories that I really like, such as “The Business, As Usual,” “Compounded Interest,” and “Gun for Hire,” but as I delve deeper into his body of work looking for more, I often come up disappointed, as is the case with Mercenary. Piper manages to explore socioeconomic issues without sacrificing a sense of humor or the sheer fun of visionary sci-fi speculation. Reynolds’s stories, on the other hand, usually end up being more about politics than about science. Mercenary, for example, is really just a war story that happens to be dressed up in futuristic trappings.

Throughout the book, Mauser keeps alluding to a secret weapon he has hidden under his sleeve that will ensure a victory for Vacuum Tube Transport. Reynolds even resorts to establishing unrealistic rules for the fracas just to set up this plot device. All the foreshadowing, however, leads to disappointment as the underwhelming trump card is revealed. Mercenary is the first in a series of stories starring Joe Mauser, but it doesn’t make for an inviting debut. Though Reynolds’s futuristic caste system sparks some interesting debate between capitalist and socialist ideals, all the corporate and military bureaucracy is just boring.
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