The Clone Elite is Steven L. Kent’s fourth novel chronicling the military life clone soldier Wayson Harris. The series is explicitly military science fiction and takes place about 500 years from now, when humanity has expanded across the galaxy and universe. After fighting a devastating civil war against a rogue faction of humanity, the Unified Authority discovers an even more unrelenting enemy who is cutting off human-inhabited planets one at a time. In Kent’s postulated future, “broadcast physics” has been developed whereby matter is translated into data allowing for instantaneous travel to anywhere immediately.
Reminiscent of (obviously) Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and more recently, Robert Buettner’s excellent Jason Wander series and John Scalzi’s novels in the Old Man’s War universe, Kent tells the story through Harris’s voice in the first person narrative. One of the elements I was hoping to discover was if not having read the previous novels in the series would affect my enjoyment of this particular novel. That hesitancy was thrown by the wayside early on since Kent managed to make The Clone Elite stand well enough on its own. Kent presents “Five Events that Shaped History” in what amounts to a preface, getting neophyte readers up to speed with his universe, or perhaps reminding past readers about the universe, before jumping into the narrative full throttle. With the proliferation of multivolume sequences in Science Fiction and Fantasy, not enough writers put something like this into their books. This introductory matter makes deciding to try a middle or non-first book in a sequence much easier and palatable.
As for the narrative and its first person character himself, Harris comes across as a hardened veteran and in some respects, I found him reminiscent of Matthew Stover’s Caine. Both characters tell their stories in first person narrative and here at least in The Clone Elite, Harris has a great deal of experience and baggage behind him. Harris isn’t exactly a good by-the-rules soldier, but he is effective. This character type, one who shrugs authority but is still a good guy, is quite common, yet Kent manages to keep Harris fresh and engaging throughout the novel.
One thing that struck me when I first read about the books and Kent’s writing, and with Clone prominently featured in the title and as a major theme of the novels, I couldn’t help but draw superficial comparisons to Star Wars and the Clone Wars. Kent even admits to having aspirations to writing about the Star Wars clones on his blog. As I read the novel, those comparisons were just superficial and only served to provide something of a reference point. Kent’s universe is much more human and grounded in science and reality (even if the “broadcast physics” technology seems quite a bit down the road), than Star Wars, and as I said, owes more of a debt to Heinlein and even Orson Scott Card’s Enderverse than anything else.
Although the bones of the plot are relatively straightforward – humanity up against a technologically superior and morally blind enemy, Kent fills out the skeleton with enough meat to keep the pages moving by at a relatively brisk pace. With Harris as the only viewpoint character, the other character’s motivations and emotions are inherently limited. That’s fine, since this really is Harris’s story and Kent does a very capable job of rendering the difficulties, horrors, stress, and camaraderie of war through Harris’s eyes. He also plausibly captured the internal conflicts, jealousies, and strong emotions within a military unit between superiors and officers.
Although, for the most part, the military figures are rendered plausibly, one element about them felt a bit forced. Since the Unified Authority is battling against a far more advanced alien threat, a great deal of dependency is thrust on the shoulders of the scientists (non-officers) who are tasked with trying to decipher and understand the alien’s technology. In many of the debriefing scenes involving the generals and the scientists, the generals came across as implausibly unfair in expecting the scientist to immediately understand the advanced technology. At one point, one of the scientist, Dr. Sweetwater, explains that the aliens technology is something humans had only theorized for hundreds of years and within two weeks they [the scientists] were just understanding the mechanics of it. That scene was one of the better scenes in the novel, and as well as Kent rendered most of the military characters, I thought the character of the scientists, Sweetwater in particular, was just as plausible and if anything, more entertaining to follow.
As I said, although The Clone Elite is the fourth novel Kent has published in the Wayson Harris/Clone saga, it is eminently approachable and enjoyable to new readers. At times some of the militaristic scenes were a bit drawn out, but the novel on the whole was effective and entertaining. I think the best thing I can say about The Clone Elite is that I’m keen to read the preceding novels in the series.
© 2008 Rob H. Bedford