Poor Man’s Fight (A Review)

Review by Curtis Cole

As I’ve remarked on numerous other reviews, military sci-fi is riddled with conservative commentary on the nation, state, and God. Seeing a left-leaning book in the genre is similar to seeing an Albino unicorn—rare and otherworldly. But it is important to keep in mind that when you see this majestic creature, you should remember that just because you see it, does not mean that it is worth seeing; it exists, nothing more. Let us not fetishize it.

Incidentally, that is about all that I can say about Elliot Kay’s latest book Poor Man’s Fight, the first installment in a newly minted series with the same name—let’s not fetishize it. This is not to say that Kay’s effort is bad, per se, just very limited in its scope.

Story wise, the focus is on protagonist Tanner Malone. His defining characteristic is that he is a bookworm who doesn’t belong in the military but– *gasp*!—joins the military! Boring hijinks ensue, such as: an overly extended boot camp segment (whose best part was when Tanner is transferred to a camp with the name of ‘Time Passes,’ harkening back to that famous section of Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse), various hazing rituals and mundane autodidact monologues followed by a boarding gone wrong combat scene, the obligatory conscious clearing religious section, all before the big finale where our unlikely hero reveals himself as a killing machine bad-ass. Then, the end, followed by the teaser for the next installment.

Tanner lives in a universe ruled by debt. Everyone has it from the moment that they are born. Even during the primary and secondary levels, you accumulate debt simply by going through school; with all education funded by corporations, it is made very clear that no matter what one does, you will have debt for the remainder of your life since you are always accumulating it in some manner. Although there are certain avenues which debt can be forgiven, such as, doing well on the all-important graduation test or having wealthy relatives, little can be done to your debt by hard-working since the system always finds new ways to saddle you with more debt.

With the system so obviously rigged against you, what can a normal working class ‘John’ do? Well, join some interstellar pirates, for one.

Outside of Tanner’s story, the second narrative thread follows an engineer turned pirate—the barely developed character known as Darren. Recruited at the very beginning of the novel by a daring crew of pirates after they hijack the luxury cruise liner Darren had been laboring on, Darren finds the life of a pirate exhilarating and monetarily beneficial; he lives the high life with booze, women, and more cash than he knows what to do with. Unfortunately, that, and that he knows how to hot-wire a car (which, evidently, have not changed their basic function in the some-odd years since man expanded to the stars), we see little else about Darren before his untimely demise. He existed. He was a means to an end; he allowed the reader to see the pirate lifestyle but not much else; so, once his purpose as a literary device was through, he was discarded. Simple as that and as unneeded as that as well.

Politically, Kay’s text fits in among the progressive-liberal stock. Few other science fiction books with an emphasis on the military are talking about debt, let alone corporate control. If other such books do talk about debt or corporations, it is always to give each the benefit of the doubt. But this is the extent of Kay’s progressivism: outside of a few politicking scenes, which hint at a social-democratic learning great reform, little is spoke of which precludes liberal angst.

This angst is perhaps best illustrated between Tanner and Darren. Each is opposite sides of the same coin. Both are straddled with debt, both have little in the way or prospects, and both had a difficult decision to make when deciding their future. The difference is that Tanner decides to join the imperialist military whereas Darren joins pirates; the latter is killed by the former, illustrating some rancid bourgeois morality on livelihood and ‘law and order,’ something which would not be out of place in a Donald Trump speech. As it turns out, it is also is not out of place in a progressive’s rant.

Ultimately, that is my concern with literature like this: because it lacks a revolutionary program it cannot transcend political angst.

While Kay would like to imagine that his text depicts a warm, liberal interior, it represents anything but with its myriad descriptions of the working class slaughtering one another. While the pirates are, of course, the lumpen-proletariat and lumpen-bourgeoisie, class elements which Marx himself despised, in the context of Poor Man’s Fight, they become even more problematic since Kay imagines the pirates as some kind of pseudo-revolutionary movement.

Throughout the book, Kay writes the rebel pirates as some kind of anti-corporate, anti-debt, left-leaning faction which even speaks of working class oppression. They even refer to one another as ‘comrade’ quite often. Yet, while they speak of equality and fraternity, they enact wanton violence; they speak of level-headed approaches to the universe but also speak of Anti-Vaxxer conspiracy theories; they speak of change but lack a program. Moreover, the place of the pirates is never truly placed—on one hand, they are originally painted as these rebels with a cause, on the other, they never do anything more than look for people to rob; the pirates are at one time painted as lovely anti-establishment heroes yet by the end of the book they have been seen as brutal murderers. If Kay had a definite idea of the pirate in his book, he failed miserably in squarely defining that idea.

The best that I can place the pirate faction is that of the modern day Green Party, filled with good intent but shot with reactionary ideologemes. Like the Greens, the pirates lack a stable program; it is alluded to that they have some kind of movement, but that kernel is quickly abandoned. It is easy to see why—because it would have painted the rebels in too positive a light. More accurately, it would have painted their vague anti-authoritarian dispositions in too positive a light. Thus, we see that the author is not merely afraid to present a coherent pirate faction, but he is terrified at even hinting at actual change that comes from outside of the imperial office (however incoherent that change would have been had the Green-ish pirates actually had an ideologically driven movement, as was originally hinted). And so we see the intersection at where conservative and liberal reaction converge.

Why this confusion and incoherency abounds is obvious—because the pirates lack a class-based worldview. Their nondescript notions of anti-rich sentiment propels them to murder because they do not understand class relations; because they do not understand class relations, they cannot engage with the upper-middle class pylons with whom they murder; because they murder wealthy people, regardless of their relation to the means of production, they have no hope in establishing an outlook and go-between which would empower their movement beyond irrational violence; because they lack this go-between, they further immerse their selves in their anti-people stance. It is a vicious spiral that feeds upon itself.

Pirate culture has, historically, been among the earliest democratic institutions; the pirates in Kay’s work even have direct democracy, thus elevating their organization to petty-bourgeois heights usually unseen in mainstream science fiction. And here is the problem outside of class, the pirates are more akin to Occupy protesters than rebels; it is established early that the pirates are not disciplined fighters and that they will retreat when it comes time for a stand-up fight with trained marines. But the finale of the book, with the pirates rampaging on another cruise liner killing indiscriminately, allude to the great Democratic Party paranoia: that those outside of the fold harbor feelings of ill-intent, that they are criminals, rapists, and terrorists. With the paranoia about the pirates vindicated, what iota of progressive sentiment which is left is little; it amounts to a touching treatment of how battle trauma operates in people when they are scared and desperate to survive (i.e., Tanner’s big show as an unstoppable killing machine); though this aspect of the book feels honest—certainly more of an honest treatment of battle trauma and fear than anything I have heard from conservative dribble—it is difficult to truly appreciate as it is buried under pages after page of gruesome anti-proletarian violence (as much as the lumpen-proletariat can be called proletarian[1]).

Kay’s attempt at military sci-fi is hardly terrible writing. But it is also not that good of a piece of writing either. The series aesthetics, Poor Man’s Fight, allude to an exposure of pseudo-proletarian sensibilities lacking in conventional military sci-fi works that overexpose with words like ‘Honor’ ‘Command’ ‘Empire’ and the like. This is a positive. But when we are reduced to searching for aesthetic signs, there is a problem. And that problem can be articulated like this: with the ever-growing degree of fascist-hegemony, the proletariat of today and of the fictional universes, need more than half-hearted progressive-liberal reactionaries like Kay who fail to imagine a world liberated from class. They need authorship who treat their struggle with dignity and manage to not trip over themselves when they attempt to speak of capitalism’s machinations (this ‘trip’ is the trite fallback position to whining about corporations). Our fictional proletariat needs fiction which eschews sentimentality, liberal falsehoods, and conservative mythology; when that author(s) arrives, however, is anyone’s guess. One thing is clear, though: that as of now, Kay is not that author. And though I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in regards to improving his political position, I will not be holding my breath.

Poor Man’s Fight (Poor Man’s Fight series)

Elliot Kay

434 pages. Published by Skyscape. $9.99 (Paperback), $3.99 (Kindle), $1.99 (Audible audiobook)[2]. 2015.

[1] I will chalk up this absurd finale to Kay’s inability to see the class perspective; though progressive in its orientation, Poor Man’s Fight depicts no actual working class elements (at least insofar as Karl Marx would have defined it). The pirates are lumpen proletarian, Tanner is a military grunt (here, we follow Trotsky’s famous dictum that the person who dons a soldier’s uniform is no worker but a member of the bourgeois state), and students are low, petty-bourgeois strata. The only moment when working class people are seen is when they are written as powerless victims in the face of the individualistic pirate terrorism.

[2] Prices and page estimates were taken from Amazon.com and were accurate at the time of writing.

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