Book Review: Sixteenth Watch by Myke Cole

Plot [No Spoilers]

After barely surviving a botched law enforcement operation while attempting to de-escalate a territorial dispute between American and Chinese miners on the Moon, U.S. Coast Guard Captain Jane Oliver has been relegated to training small boat crews back on Earth. Being given a second chance to end her career with some dignity (and most convenient for saving the Coast Guard from any embarrassment), Oliver is promoted to Rear Admiral and sent back to the Moon to take command of a Coast Guard unit and train them to win an annual military sports game called Boarding Action. All the while she must deal with the interservice rivalry between the Coast Guard, the Navy, and the Marines. However, things are not all fun and games because Oliver again finds herself caught up in a resource and territorial dispute between the U.S. and China, and this time, she must prevent tensions between the U.S. Navy and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) from escalating into an all-out Lunar war.

Published in 2020, this military sci-fi book by Myke Cole is one of the rare novels that depict a speculative future Coast Guard IN SPACE! The title, Sixteenth Watch, is used in-universe to refer to any military forces operating IN SPACE! More specifically, it references the sixteen sunrises the astronauts on the International Space Station would see within a 24-hour timespan. Hence, any forces operating in space are said to be “on the sixteenth watch.” (The book was originally titled SAR-1 which refers to a common Coast Guard Search-and-Rescue designation, but Cole’s publisher felt people would’ve confused it with the various SARS viruses.)

Themes

To be clear, this book is a straightforward military sci-fi adventure and not some deep philosophical examination of the horrors of war. (I don’t read fiction expecting it to be some mind-blowing, life-altering experience. Particularly when it comes to science fiction, I read it to be entertained.) Still, the book does have some thematic depth. The biggest themes of this book revolve around rivalry, group cohesion, and conflict de-escalation. The rivalry theme comes into focus with the incessant inter-service rivalry on display between the Coast Guard and the other services. The issue is how the Coast Guard can gain their respect and show themselves as capable in the military sports competition. The theme of group cohesion factors in because Oliver must mold her own subordinates into a well-oiled unit with a clear purpose. Finally, the theme of conflict de-escalation comes up with the ongoing tensions between the U.S. and China over resource extraction and territory on the Moon itself. Whereas the other U.S. forces (Navy and Marine Corps) see the situation through the lens of warfare, Oliver, being a U.S. Coast Guard officer, views the situation more in legal and jurisdictional terms. Her challenge is to keep the U.S. Navy and PLAN from provoking each other into a shooting war.

Author’s Background

Myke Cole has a very interesting background that comprises work in the U.S. intelligence community (for the Defense Intelligence Agency and Office of Naval Intelligence), time as a private security contractor, and as an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard. In addition, much like me, Cole has admitted in interviews and at conventions that he’s a huge nerd (although I don’t play D&D). In that respect, I can very much relate to Cole, and he seems to be a really fun guy to nerd out with.

Unfortunately, Cole has come under scrutiny in the past several years due to sexual harassment allegations being made against him. While he has issued at least one public apology, several publishers and agents, such as Vault Comics, have dropped him and his future projects. At the time of writing (January 2022), he’s still active on Twitter, but he seems to be posting content less frequently on his website’s blog. Indeed, there has been more of a trend recently for people to come out with grievances against authors in the science fiction community. Fellow sci-fi author John Scalzi even wrote a piece about sci-fi authors and their misbehavior.

That said, this post isn’t about Cole’s past misbehavior…whatever it may or may not be. To be clear, I certainly don’t condone or excuse such harassing behavior. However, as far as this book review is concerned, Cole’s behavior is largely irrelevant to the topic and it doesn’t show through in his writing in this book. Therefore, I’m not going to delve any deeper into it. Whether or not you choose to support these authors is your choice. Anyway, on with the book review!

Critical Observations

Positives

The worldbuilding of the novel is decently done and fairly grounded given that it takes place in the near future (An exact year isn’t given, but mankind has a firm presence on the Moon given that miners are extracting Helium-3). Many of the military services in this book have space-based units and assets in addition to their traditional Earth-bound roles. So for example, the U.S. Coast Guard in the book is still a sea service on Earth, but personnel can be assigned to a space-based cutter or on the Moon itself. Given this context, Cole could obviously draw from his experiences in the present-day Coast Guard and extrapolate that to a space-based future. Another thing that grounds the book, and most likely places it in the near future, is the fact that there are no extraterrestrials in the story. It’s just humans fighting humans. There’s not even a mention of faster-than-light interstellar travel, so this book likely falls on the hard(er) side of what TVTropes refers to as the “Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness.” In other words, the science-fiction in this book is grounded in reality and doesn’t play fast and loose with physics; however, it’s not so complex that you need a degree in astrophysics to comprehend it.

Cole’s admiration and pride for the U.S. Coast Guard are very apparent in this book. Effectively, this is a military sci-fi book about the U.S. Coast Guard and written by a U.S. Coast Guardsman. Understandably, it would highly appeal to those audiences. This isn’t to say that you need to have some connection with the U.S. Coast Guard (or any of the sea services) to enjoy the book, but it would definitely benefit the reader. At least there’s a glossary of military terms at the back of the book. More specifically, the characters in this book are part of a small boat unit. (In the USCG, any vessel under 65 feet in length is considered a boat. Larger cutters and Navy warships only make brief appearances in the book.) Cole is obviously pulling from his own experiences and I feel that this book is a fairly realistic depiction of how a hypothetical future U.S. Coast Guard would operate in space. The jargon and procedures are “mostly” realistic and within the realm of how the Coast Guard currently operates anyway. Of course, some artistic license is taken to accommodate the setting and the plot. Some other reviews I’ve read take issue with the dialogue feeling rather stilted, but I can attest that many people in the military do, in fact, speak that way. The jargon and the lingo are designed to get information across quickly and efficiently, but to the casual civilian, it sounds very contrived. This is apparent in scenes when Oliver is getting reprimanded by her superiors. Their conversations have an air of cordiality to them, but underneath all of the politeness is an ass chewing. Much of this service culture and context is important to fully appreciate the book because it points to the various missions that Coast Guard is tasked with carrying out and how it perceives itself as the underdog when compared to other services.

Thankfully, this book doesn’t fall for the overused trope of a ragtag group of misfits. On the contrary, Oliver admits that her crew is well-trained and disciplined, but their problem is that they don’t trust each other and are too individualistic. True to life, the forces of nature, be it the cruel sea or the void of space, don’t care about you. The human enemies that the Coast Guard faces are similarly hostile. Hence, it is imperative that Oliver and her crew learn to work together because the only way they’ll survive is if they put aside their individualism, rely on their training, and learn to trust each other. To that extent, there are also no one-man army characters, either, and the book emphasizes that trust and teamwork produce results.

Another trope that this book thankfully doesn’t use is the “elites are more glamorous” convention. The SAR-1 crew that Oliver commands aren’t really a special operations unit. The fictional military game show they’re preparing for is akin to if the real-life Best Ranger Competition got the attention that the Super Bowl gets. In fact, they realize that the Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC) team they’re going up against is far more skilled than they are. The SAR-1 crew is simply the best that the Coast Guard can muster for the competition, but they’re not some sexy high-speed low-drag unit like the Navy SEALs, Army Delta Force, or Recon Marines. In fact, the character of General Fraser admits that his Marines are the reigning champions at Boarding Action because they never stop training for it. Subsequently, they’re the best at it, but it would be easy enough for the Navy to call in the SEALs to do their job. The reader definitely gets the sense that the Navy, given its larger size, has more fancy toys and funding to throw around. In contrast, the Coast Guard seems stretched thin at points. This massive discrepancy in funding is true to real life, as well. Similarly, with the Army and the Marines, the former is larger and has fancier stuff to play with, whereas the latter looks poor by comparison.

One interesting thing about the narrative is how it portrays inter-service rivalry through a jurisdictional lens. For those that don’t know, the U.S. Coast Guard has authority as both a military service (Title 10 USC) and as a federal law enforcement agency (Title 14 USC). (Other Titles, such as 18 and 19, also give the USCG law enforcement powers.) This is important because the other military services are prohibited from enforcing U.S. laws under, among other things, the Posse Comitatus Act. The character Adm. Oliver even references several of these U.S. Codes when dealing with the Navy and the Marines. In her attempts to de-escalate the tensions between the U.S. and China, she frequently asserts her authority as both a federal law enforcement officer and a military officer that is protecting American economic interests on the Moon. At one point, she even arrests a U.S. Navy officer for violating Chinese territory. In contrast, her counterparts in the Navy are portrayed as officious bureaucrats and the Marines are depicted as brutish, gung-ho, meatheads who are just itching to find any excuse to go in guns blazing (but that’s sort what we pay the Marines to do, anyway). It’s pretty clear that they’re both looking down their noses at the Coast Guard and view it as an irrelevant and useless service. In any case, the tradition of inter-service rivalry is alive and well in this universe.

The intensity and divisiveness of the inter-service rivalry portrayed in this book may be either the author’s own insertion of drama and/or based on his experience in the Coast Guard.

The protagonist, Admiral Jane Oliver, is a reasonably well-written and tough female military officer. I can only speculate that Cole used Ellen Ripley from Aliens as a template, to some extent. (Note: I don’t like the term “strong female character” because such characters are too often written unrealistically to the point of being immature and never needing any help; especially if that help comes from a man.) Thankfully, Cole doesn’t write Oliver as a Mary Sue who can do no wrong. Indeed, she has many flaws, struggles with PTSD from an incident in the prologue, and is outright insubordinate to many of her superiors. That being said, Oliver is portrayed as a mature adult and not some whiny teenager that pouts about their problems. One of the struggles Oliver seems to have is learning to rely on those around her and ask for help when needed. Cole’s writing goes into Oliver’s inner monologue which helps the reader understand how she deals with these struggles and self-doubts. Anyone who’s ever been in a position of leadership or struggles with PTSD will undoubtedly recognize some of Oliver’s problems.

Negatives

I found the omission of the U.S. Space Force in this story to be very strange. I can only speculate that it’s because this book was largely written before its official founding in December of 2019. The U.S. Air Force is only briefly mentioned even though they would have significant responsibility for America’s space domain awareness with their Space Command. It just seems really strange that the Air Force or Space Force doesn’t play a major role in the plot. In short, the book takes place in space and on the Moon but lacks a Space Force. Space and the Moon are viewed more from a maritime perspective; the Outer Space Treaty is even mentioned, although it’s handwaved away in the story as bureaucratic fluff that everyone ignores in light of the political situation.

Another critique I have is that the book does end fairly abruptly and is clearly set up for a sequel. During an interview with David Barr Kirtley in March of 2020, Cole does mention a follow-up book he’s planning, tentatively titled Sixteenth Sunrise. (Although, I’ve seen some reports that the publisher, Angry Robot, will no longer be publishing his books in light of the allegations. So if a sequel is still in the works, then Cole will need to find another publisher or self-publish.) Additionally, during the interview, Cole expresses a fairly negative opinion of the Space Force which may explain why it’s completely omitted in this book.

One area of the book that requires a fair amount of suspension of disbelief is how hands-on Admiral Oliver is in the nitty-gritty, day-to-day operations of her unit. The plot has her personally going out on many search-and-rescue/law enforcement cases with her subordinates. Flag officers almost never do such things in real life because they’re needed elsewhere. Then again, the character is intentionally written as a fairly insubordinate, lead-from-the-front type whose actions get her in trouble several times in the story. (Cole mentioned that he took some dramatic license with the attitude of the main character.) In reality, if Oliver was in command of such a unit, then she would have a number of different deployable search-and-rescue and law enforcement assets under her command with varying levels of capabilities. For example, at one point in the book, her boarding team finds themselves pinned down in a firefight by Chinese smugglers with superior numbers and they call in a Lunar Safety & Security Team, LSST (a lunar variant of the real-life USCG Maritime Safety & Security Teams) to provide some beefier response (i.e. a Coast Guard counter-terrorism team with more guns and firepower). It would’ve been nice to see some of the other assets that Oliver had at her disposal. In short, it just seems very unrealistic that a high-ranking officer like Oliver would do so many of these things personally when in reality, subordinates would be assigned to such tasks.

My final criticism of the book is that the supporting characters, while perfectly serviceable, could’ve been fleshed out a bit more. There’s nothing inherently wrong with how they’re written, it’s just that we don’t really learn much about them apart from their jobs and some simple personality traits. We’ll glean that this character is snarky and that character is anti-authoritarian. On the upshot, Cole doesn’t try to shoehorn in some silly romance subplot for any of the characters.

Evaluation

Overall, I did enjoy the Sixteenth Watch and thought it was a very interesting look at a future where the U.S. Coast Guard has a presence in space. The book moves fast and the plot is engaging. I found the protagonist to be realistic and relatable in her efforts to build her unit up and form them into a team. The themes of the book are evident and important in an age when there seems to be an undercurrent of political hostility in nearly everything. My biggest problem with the book is the fairly unrealistic way that the protagonist takes such a hands-on approach to her unit’s operations which is at odds with what a high-ranking officer like herself would do in reality. The narrative also ends rather suddenly and is set up for a sequel which may or may not come. All things considered, this book will hold the attention of most fans of military sci-fi and particularly those with a personal connection to the Coast Guard. It’s a fast-moving and fun adventure if you’re looking for a few days to burn.

Rating: 4 out of 5

References

Scalzi, J. (2020, June 25). When Friends Fuck Up, and So Do I. https://whatever.scalzi.com/2020/06/25/when-friends-fuck-up-and-so-do-i/.

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