Sunshine Patriots cover

Review: Sunshine Patriots by Bill Campbell

United Earth oversees a steadily expanding interstellar empire whilst exerting tight control over every province on Earth itself. Its shock troops, the Freedom, lead the charge on every world they conquer, exterminating any native creatures they consider a threat be they giant poison-spitting spiders or cute sentient balls of fur. It is all for the freedom, security and economic prosperity of United Earth. But not every citizen to whom UE extends its leadership appreciates this act of benevolence. Exploited for years, seeing the resources they mine shipped away in exchange for barely-adequate food supplies and forbidden to take steps toward self-sufficiency, the colonists of Elysia rise up and take arms.

The Freedom are deployed to bring the colony to heel. At the head of its forces is the hero known as Aaron “The Berber” Barber, a survivor of numerous campaigns over eight years where many don’t last a single battle. His body has been weaponised with cyborg components; his Brain2 reacts faster than a man can blink and his arms spit plasma bolts formed of his own bodily fluids. He’s the photogenic hero that every UE citizen wants to be. On Earth the war is a minor footnote, significant primarily because of the involvement of Barber. Despite this the Elysian campaign will ultimately surprise everyone on the planet.

It is difficult not to be suspicious when you pick up a book, read its blurb and see proudly extolled the fact that what you are holding was written in three weeks. It is, however, more heartening to see the phrase “rastafarian science fiction”. Sadly it’s the former that dominates my feelings toward Sunshine Patriots. The book rushes along, almost tripping itself over at points, and this despite a narrative that is not particularly complex. It can be disorienting, confusing or simply unclear, particularly in the first half. This suggests that the novel was not significantly altered structurally from when it was first written (ie when the author was still figuring out how everything fitted together).

An unexpected side-effect is that this confusion actually lends itself to the narrative, as does the raw energy of Campbell’s prose. This is a book about young people, specifically confused young people who are placed by their government and commanders into a series of deeply fucked-up situations, which has unsurprisingly produced soldiers who are deeply fucked-up. They spend their entire lives disoriented: yanked from planet to planet with no hope of a future beyond surviving another battle, ground under the debt they incur to pay for their medical care and the legal-high pharmaceuticals that United Earth encourages to keep its soldiers placid between fights.

There’s a clear yearning in many of the soldiers we see and – though they rarely realise it, let alone share it – it’s a yearning for identity, history and community. It manifests in different ways but is rarely found. A band of female soldiers briefly locate it in the formation of a sisterhood, forbidding the practice of “trench love” – rape – and punishing violations. But for the most part it is submerged between violence, debt and drug haze.

Campbell’s scenario is quite clearly derived from the realities of globalisation as an economic and sociocultural project, particularly divisions along ethnic lines, which have shifted but rarely significantly altered since he wrote the book in 1998. So Sunshine Patriots is a work of satire but it is a deeply heavy-handed one. Opinions vary on the efficacy of blunt satire but I found the presentation of United Earth media so exaggerated and ludicrous that it undermined the novel’s foundations. The media broadcasts are presumably intended to mock the laughably propagandistic Fox News and its ilk but locking the satire to such a specific target and ramping it up to clear absurdity is not a recipe for fiction that resonates in the absence of specific cultural touchstones.

Similarly cartoonish is the Freedom as a military system. Its soldiers are barely-trained teenagers scooped up by recruitment Peace Squads and dumped almost immediately onto battlefields. Most don’t take long to get hooked on drugs and spend most of their time strung out. Inter-squad murder is commonplace. Some troopers like Barber are cyborgs which grants them great firepower and agility but otherwise it’s impossible to see these kids as an effective military force, despite the author repeatedly asserting that they are.

If you can get past those two fundamental issues, the satire does bite. Alongside the attack on globalisation there’s a well-realised critique of the way the young and poor are chewed up by military machines to serve economic objectives. This is embellished by the inspired stroke of having soldiers incur debt as part of their military service, a concept that actually seems less absurd today, with neoliberalism’s failures leading to a doubling-down on its ideological tenets, than it would have when originally published.

Other features are more awkward; I certainly hope the novel’s incessant homophobia is intended as part of its satire. The colonists are repeatedly described as radical sodomites and anal rape is rife among the soldiers. You can take this as further evidence of the UE’s regressive nature but there is nothing in the novel to balance and acknowledge how problematic this is.

As previously mentioned, the book is hurriedly written. Perspective shifts between characters can occur without warning which isn’t helped by character arcs that swerve erratically back and forth. The world-building also periodically contradicts itself. A case in point would be a Mexican soldier whose speech is liberally peppered with Spanish words, despite the authorial voice later stating that the UE has universally imposed English and “everything else was a dead language”.

There’s a vein of anger running through Sunshine Patriots, chiefly directed towards rich-poor ethnic divides and the powerful cultures that produced them, but also a cynical malaise that does not speak well of human ability to rise above the conditions that produced them. This is not a novel about the redemptive potential of humanity, but an ugly, bitter, black-humoured critique of the human capacity for cruelty, stupidity and willingness to maintain its own cages. It’s a fascinating yet problematic novel, certainly unlike anything else I’ve read, but deeply flawed all the same.

[This review was published in issue 276 of Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. This version of the review should be identical to the print version.]

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