My Favorite Bit: Richard Baker talks about VALIANT DUST
Richard Baker is joining us today with his novel Valiant Dust. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Sikander Singh North has always had it easy―until he joined the crew of the Aquilan Commonwealth starship CSS Hector. As the ship’s new gunnery officer and only Kashmiri, he must constantly prove himself better than his Aquilan crewmates, even if he has to use his fists. When the Hector is called to help with a planetary uprising, he’ll have to earn his unit’s respect, find who’s arming the rebels, and deal with the headstrong daughter of the colonial ruler―all while dodging bullets.
Sikander’s military career is off to an explosive start―but only if he and CSS Hector can survive his first mission.
What’s Richard’s favorite bit?
My favorite bit of Valiant Dust is the Torpedo Mystery. It’s a secondary plot and it’s a little technical, but it’s the sort of problem that officers serving on ships “really” run across, and it drives some of the most personally challenging interactions Lieutenant Sikander North (my protagonist) faces during the story.
Let me provide a bit of non-spoilerish background: Sikander is the new gunnery officer of the Commonwealth star cruiser CSS Hector. As the gunnery officer, he’s the department head in charge of the ship’s weapons personnel. He answers to the ship’s XO, Commander Peter Chatburn, and the ship’s CO, Captain Elise Markham; he supervises three junior officers, each of whom leads a team of gunner’s mates or torpedo mates. One of these subordinates is Sublieutenant Angela Larkin, the ship’s torpedo officer. (This is pretty typical warship organization; the ships of the U.S. Navy today have similar personnel structures.)
Hector is armed with a mix of kinetic cannons (heavy railguns) and warp torpedoes—missiles that protect themselves from defensive fire by exiting normal space during their attack runs. Shortly after reporting aboard Hector, Sikander and his new team get the opportunity to conduct some live-fire exercises on the target range, during the course of which Hector loses a practice torpedo. It disappears into its warp bubble for its attack run and never returns to normal space.
That’s a serious problem for Sikander. It’s just not acceptable for a ship to lose a multi-million-dollar weapon, and his superiors want answers.
Figuring out why the torpedo failed becomes a significant headache for Sikander, because the torpedo itself is no longer available for inspection. Investigating the cause of the failure puts Sikander between Chatburn, an unforgiving XO who isn’t interested in “we don’t know” as an answer, and Larkin, a difficult subordinate who doesn’t seem to appreciate the seriousness of the situation. Worse yet, Sikander’s captain and his peers are watching to see how he responds to the challenge. It’s not his fault, but it is his problem.
The reason I’m so proud of the Torpedo Mystery is that it’s a great device for showing the reader what it’s like to be a mid-level officer on a warship. In the “real” world, officers are more than a battlestation; they lead teams of enlisted personnel that you don’t see on the bridge set. They’re managers and administrators as well as warfighters. One of the things I hoped to bring to Valiant Dust was a certain sense of, well, authenticity about what sort of things a lieutenant worried about in between furious battles and exotic adventures. There aren’t many SF stories that touch on things like maintenance records or logistics chains or an XO asking you why you’re taking weekends off when you haven’t yet solved a problem no one reasonably could be expected to solve. For just a few short scenes in Valiant Dust, you get to experience a less-than-glamorous but absolutely honest part of being a shipboard officer.
(A true story from my own service: One day while standing watch as officer of the deck, I was surprised to hear the pop-pop-pop of gunshots from the bridge wing. I stepped outside and discovered the captain with a .45, taking potshots at seagulls. Well, okay, it’s his ship, and if he wanted to sign out a pistol from the armory and give himself a few rounds for “training” I figured it wasn’t my place to protest. But shortly after I got off watch, I encountered my ship’s gunnery officer in a passageway. “Hey, Kurt,” I said. “Just so you know, the captain fired off a couple dozen pistol rounds on the bridge wing this morning.”
“You’re kidding,” Kurt said, gaping in astonishment. “Son of a —!”
You see, any time you expend ammunition on board a ship, you have to file something called an ATR, or ammo transaction report. It’s a form that requires several hours of painstaking work, even for something as minor as a few rounds of pistol ammo, and it’s up to the gunnery officer to fill it out. Oh, and it must be turned in within 24 hours. The captain’s idle interest in a little target practice had just wrecked the rest of Kurt’s day—and I’m sure the seagulls didn’t appreciate it either, although I didn’t see any get hit. ATRs are the sort of thing we like to gloss over when we’re writing stories about roaming the stars and meeting the enemy in furious battle. Sometimes, though, that’s what the job is.)
Okay, back to Sikander North and Valiant Dust. The Torpedo Mystery is a lot more interesting than filling out some timely paperwork, I promise. It’s a key obstacle in the path of Sikander’s success on board his new ship and a serious point of contention between him and his new team. Plus, the details of the mystery say some important things about the technology of the setting, military routine, and the readiness level of a star navy that hasn’t had to fight a war in a long time.
The process of solving the Torpedo Mystery winds up being pretty important to cementing Sikander’s place in Hector’s wardroom, and it even comes up again in the desperate space battle at the climax of the story. But it’s not the sort of problem I see in other military SF stories, which is why it’s my favorite bit of the story—or one of them, anyway.
A former United States Navy officer and a well-known game designer, Richard Baker is the author of thirteen novels, including the New York Times bestseller Condemnation and the highly acclaimed The Last Mythal trilogy. Valiant Dust marks his first original military sci-fi novel. Rich is a lifelong devotee of science fiction and fantasy, a history enthusiast (particularly military history), and an avid fan of games of all kinds. He lives in the Seattle area with his wife, Kim, and their daughters Alex and Hannah.