Review by Curtis Cole
Elliot Kay’s Poor Man’s Fight, the debut title of the similarly named series, featured a healthy dose of anti-corporate sentiment intermixed with eloquent waxing of personal and public debt nightmares. Now, in his follow up, the story of Tanner Malone continues as he copes with the devastating battle which made him a hero all while trying to figure out his place in the Archangel fleet, all while the coming war with the ‘Big Three’ corporations looms in the distance, moving ever closer with each provocation and whisper.
Narrative wise, Kay is still sharp: as a sequel, Rich Man’s War handles itself well, despite falling flat on a few instances.
You have action scenes interspaced by dramatic personal and politicking scenes, as well as the obligatory scene shift moments creating a kind of chaotic harmony in the literary space of the text; Kay provides us with one perspective only to have that perspective co-opted—colonized—if you will, by another character, thus solidifying a writing style that gives us a wide view of the action while still pushing events forward and never losing sight of the affectual interior—the horror and carnage of war. I enjoy this aspect of Kay’s writing as it keeps the narrative fresh without losing ground to stagnation. The feel of following one character’s actions and inner monologue only to suddenly shift into a whole new character is a technique I admired as it elevated the action scenes from bloody engagements without context to a contextualized war theater.
The story begins with protagonist Malone stationed as a member of the honor guard in an important diplomatic post. Contemplating his future with the navy and what, if any, specialization he should sign-up for, Tanner spends this initial section of the book trying to work out the trauma of the pirate raid from the previous book; his actions earned him his home planet’s highest honor and with such fame also comes self-consciousness and a fear of failing to meet expectations. Soon, however, the way of the world forces itself on Tanner, and he is thrown into a rescue mission on a war-torn planet (a moment which last too long and feels as though it was originally written as a short story later amalgamated into the present work). This operation combines elements from the ‘Black Hawk down’ incident along with minor sprucing from the Iranian hostage crisis to make a point about serving one’s countrymen, but mostly, it exists to get the plot moving by having characters collide into one another at standard narratological speed. After the operation, Malone finally decides on his certification; mastering his training process fairly quickly, Tanner emerges as a fully-qualified Master-at-Arms. After this, the finale of the book emerges and Tanner is thrown into a desperate ship-to-ship battle featuring many daring actions and feats of heroism that any fan of the genre will appreciate. The book ends on an eerie note as the sequel hints of an intensification of spying, espionage, while nudging the the fight for freedom in a more Jack Bauer-esque direction.
All in all, Rich Man’s War is little different from Poor Man’s Fight. Retained is the obligatory training sequences, though they are less prominent over-all, as well as the politicians’ about-faces. Indeed, much feels recycled from the first book. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it does drain a bit of excitement from the book, lowering it to a more standard quality of military sci-fi; which, I feel, is why Kay seems to cannot decide which genre his sequel belongs—at times, it appears as though Rich Man’s War is a spy thriller, other times a political mystery, or even at others an action-packed rollecoaster which suddenly shifts over into adolescent romantic squabbles. While none of these elements necessarily conflict with one another, they do de-center the narrative causing one to wonder why they are even included in the first place. Eventually, one concludes that they exist for no other reason than to humanize Tanner and try and find reasons for his otherwise unremarkable existence.
As I remarked in my previous review of Kay’s initial entry in this series, part of what distinguished Poor Man’s Fight was its progressive-leaning politics. At the time I criticized the entry for refusing to move past vague bourgeois platitudes. Kay’s follow up entry, despite becoming more focused politically in its focus, and even, perhaps, more edgy depending on who you talk, retains its bourgeois platitudes while only dropping the vague moniker as the follow-up title hurtles itself to a firm petty-bourgeois footing.
To paraphrase The Communist Manifesto, ‘a specter haunts [Kay] and all the [literary powers of Indie authors] are trying to exorcise it.” That specter is, of course, communism—specifically that which Lenin defined as the lower phase of communism, socialism.
An aspect of Kay’s political leaning, which I identified previously as something resembling a libertarian oriented Green Party progressivism, solidifies in this second entry. To make a long story short, in the book, the Archangel government, in trying to free itself from corporate slavery, nationalizes all of the corporate schools—turning them into classically imagined public schools—and renounces all of public and personal debt owned by citizens to any of the Big Three corporations.
Radical, yes? No, not really. Far from radical, in fact.
While Kay writes of these developments he maintains a firm eye to capitalist-imperialist hegemony. He writes slyly of Archangel compensating small business owners who were impacted by the nationalizations, all while Archangel remained open to free trade and the machinations of the market. All of this is to say that Kay is deeply aware—paranoid, even—of his text being mistaken for a pro-socialist endorsement.
Among the reactionary stratum constituting the nascent liberal-machine, is a desire to co-opt all radical sentiment and turn it outwards, to de-radicalize and force an assimilation of these radical elements into the political mainstream—into reformism. This remains the goal of the modern Democratic Party (as seen during the Occupy movement), as it has been historically for several decades. Kay’s text performs the literary incarnation of this counter-revolutionary ideology by constructing a fallacy out of corporations; entities which, in Kay’s universe, exist for the sole purpose of directing legitimate moments of revolutionary angst into the status-quo: here, corporations exist as the despised Other and only to encode anti-debt, anti-corporate feelings as small-business oriented aspirations.
Obviously, such a re-direction of anti-capitalist sentiment castrates the revolutionary impulse by stripping away the fascistic exterior and leaving the liberal-democratic interior in-tact. The so-called anti-corporate education revolution is nothing but a return to the contemporary status-quo— of tax payer funded public schools; the nationalization of these schools and limited auxiliary assets precedes the reimbursement of the petty-bourgeois class because Kay attempts to set-up this dystopian corporate scenario only to promote the supposed wonders of contemporary capitalist exploitation; Kay’s effort in this series appears to be a re-creation of the American Revolutionary War as he would imagine it under present auspices, all so that he may reformulate liberal-democracy: ‘how good things are now and could be if corporations are drowned out of the debate—embrace classical liberalism or be destroyed!’ Is Kay a Borg agent? No, just a garden variety White.
So, Rich Man’s War is just the same as liberalism has ever been—fine is you have low standards, but highly deficient if you desire something more palatable than manure. The action is fast paced, the character development there, more or less, and the narrative much more invigorated now that a great deal more context has been established. And yet, something feels off. Kay’s follow-up has many strengths but also feels generic, generic like liberalism. So, if you like generic military sci-fi, then this is the piece for you, if you do not, then… look elsewhere? I know that the neoconservative military sci-fi writers have some spectacularly reactionary dribble, maybe look into that for something involving a different kind of generic platform.
Rich Man’s War
500 pages. Published by Skyscape. $3.99 (Kindle), $1.99 (Audible audiobook). 2015.
 Page and prices taken from Amazon.com and were accurate at the time of writing.