Tool of War by Paolo Bacigalupi
Paolo Bacigalupi’s Tool of War (2017) is the third entry in a series of futuristic novels in which catastrophic climate change projections have come to pass. The American seaboard is flooded, and the United States government has been overtaken by transnational organizations. The most stunning technological breakthroughs are in gene editing, and elite organizations own “augments,” creatures that are part human and part animal, part slave and part soldier. The main character here, Tool, is the greatest of the augments because he can defy his training and act independently. Who knows what he might be capable of?
Tool of War is also a sort of augment, part YA and part techno-thriller. Unlike the best techno thrillers, this one offers too few info-dumps. It makes up for it in its enthusiasm for classifications, including raptor-class drones, narwhal-class dirigibles, and manta-class schooners. There is also a surplus of military dialogue — “yes sir,” “affirmative,” etc. The plot, meanwhile, moves from action sequences to confrontations between soldiers and their commanding officers to flashbacks to action sequences. It’s easy to turn pages, but it can also become tiring in the same way that listening to too much Metallica while driving can be tiring.
Although the rising seas and transnational organizations may recall many of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels, the most striking influence on Tool of War seems to be the Jason Bourne films (novels?). An elite soldier wakes at sea wounded and largely forgetful of his past. A powerful organization armed with surveillance technology, drones, and analysts knows more about the hero than he knows about himself. They want to destroy him before what he knows can destroy them. Fortunately, he has friends — and deadly skills. He wants to determine his life, his destiny, and his own missions. He’s going to bring the fight back to them, but maybe he won’t like what he learns when he gets there. It’s almost a spoiler to compare the extreme ways of Jason Bourne and Tool.
Techno-thrillers are often forgiven for limp relationships, but this one’s still didn’t work for me. Jones is an analyst who is constantly at odds with her general, Caroa. Their relationship is too adversarial, and I found the general especially unconvincing — aren’t generals supposed to be at least sometimes in control of their emotions? Tool and Mahlia have a mentor/mentee relationship, but somehow I never came to find it charming in this entry. (I say this as someone who is generally a pushover for mentor characters.) Nailer and Nita’s relationship is a bit more enjoyable, thankfully, but even they are too cutely adversarial for my taste. And they appear too briefly.
I didn’t like Tool of War, but I will note two things in its favour. First, it’s a fast read with a lot of action, which should appeal to some readers. Second, Jayant Patel is great. It occurs to me that Bacigalupi may be at his best writing about negotiators, middle managers, and characters that punch above their weight (Tool, sadly, is unstoppable). Although the dust jacket states that Bacigalupi is “one of science fiction’s undisputed masters,” this novel made me wonder if this claim was undisputed because no one was aware of it. I like several of Bacigalupi’s novels, including the first novel in this series, Ship Breaker, better than Tool of War.
I prefer Bacigalupi’s short fiction to his novels. His collection PUMP SIX AND OTHER STORIES is excellent, and I’ve read other shorts of his too, that I loved. I didn’t care for the one novel of his that I read.