Myke Cole has some experience in the US Coast Guard which would explain why this often forgotten branch of US Forces is front and centre in his new military sci-fi book Sixteenth Watch. More than front and centre, the border protection and search and rescue functions of the service are put in stark opposition to, in this case, the gung-ho shoot-first-ask-question-later attitude of the US Navy. But while the role of the Coast Guard, in Cole’s universe, is de-escalation, there is plenty of action pretty much from the first page.
Sixteenth Watch opens on the Moon, some time not far in the future. Growing tension between American and Chinese Helium-3 miners has descended into conflict, drawing in the militaries from both sides. Captain Jane Oliver of the Coast Guard attends with her crew as does her husband Tom, a naval officer. But the intervention of the Navy exacerbates tensions and while war does not break out, tragedy ensues. Fast forward a few years and the Coast Guard is finding itself increasingly less relevant in lunar politics. The Service comes up with a PR solution – enter a team in the incredibly popular competition game show Boarding Party and beat the reigning champions (the Marines) to prove to the world that the Coast Guard can cut it. They bring Jane back to the Moon to train the team, giving her plenty of leeway in her methods.
And so quite quickly, the set up seems to be the standard: group of talented underdogs learn how to work as a team and win the big competition. But while there are elements of this, and Cole doubles down with some quotes about good leadership and teamwork, the narrative does not quite go this way, breaking left (or starboard?) when you think it is going to proceed in a near straight line.
Rear Admiral Jane Oliver is not the type of character you see often as the protagonist in this style of science fiction. An older woman with plenty of operational experience, dealing with loss and family, a principled leader with an extremely strong moral compass that often operates to her detriment when dealing with her senior officers. There is some joy to be had in Oliver’s constant breaking of the rules to try and push what she thinks is the service’s objective only to keep running into politics that runs well above her pay grade or knowledge.
There are plenty of recent scifi books set on the Moon – including Ian McDonald’s Luna series, Andy Weir’s Artemis, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Moon. Most of them hinge on Helium-3 mining as the driver. Sixteenth Watch, much like Red Moon, sees this as just a new battleground in ongoing terrestrial tensions between the major powers. The biggest suspension of disbelief here is that anyone let the Coast Guard operate on the moon in the first place. This is kind of explained by there being a “border” (coastlines?) between Chinese and American interests, and there is the need for search and rescue missions to be carried out. But even trickier is the idea that some of the rules of the sea would continue to apply on the Moon. But the trick here is to just accept the premise go with it and then the rules, the jargon (there is a glossary at the end of the book for those who are struggling) and the gung-ho-ness all make some kind of sense.
At its heart though, Sixteenth Watch is military science-fiction. With its strong focus on the military, and particularly tensions with China, this book could have been set in the South China Sea, but science fiction allows for an exploration of those tensions in a “safer” fictional environment, And if you know that going in, Myke Cole provides interesting (if occasionally fairly stock) characters and really well written action and combat scenes. And some seriously dangling plot threads that indicate that a sequel may well be on the way.