Tuesday, September 13, 2011

I Sniper: A Review

Stephen Hunter's I Sniper is an action thriller- a "Bobby Lee Swagger" novel.

Stephen Hunter is a film critic turned author, and a defender of Second Amendment issues.  For a recorded interview at National Review Online.
I read this book somewhat for the same reasons I read Louis L ‘Amour’s The Burning Hills: To try out a something from a related genre as test of relevance and interest.
It is set in the Fox News version of reality where conservatives, the police, and marines are good, liberals and lobbyists are bad, and there is little in between.  Bobby Lee is an ex-Vietnam veteran marine sniper who later went on to some sort of secret spy mumbo-jumbo career -often alluded to - but is now retired.  At 63 he is getting a bit long in the tooth for the hero of an action adventure.  But the net result of his age is that he can complain about his aching bones while he goes toe-to-toe in violent confrontations with people decades younger than him.  His recovery time is extended from the usual 3 minutes for an action hero to maybe 30 minutes.
The book has some pretty bad people, but lacks the grittiness and confusion to make it seem particularly real:  or at least street-level real.  That the author gets cute at the polemic level, and makes two of the characters disguised versions of Jane Fonda and Ted Turner does not help.  A younger audience, if they even know who they are, is not likely to know they were married at one time.  In what little description we get of the Ms. Fonda stand-in, we are referred to her Hanoi exploits, but the author appears to unaware of more sympathetic parts of her story:  her mother killed herself by cutting her own throat when young Jane was 12, and that since 2000, she has been a fervent Christian

Jane is ready to take on the snipers here, but the story takes place a little later on in her life.

Interspersed within the action-plotting are some interesting observations:
from a homicide detective: 
"Nobody ever plans on getting murdered. It's the last thing on everybody's mind.  Even dope dealers with another gang out to get them, they don't think today’s going to be their last day They always live life like there's going to be a lot of tomorrows."...
"As that translates practically, I'm the guy who interrupts.  I bust into their life on a day they never in a million years thought would be their last, and I see exactly how they lived, without scrubbing or cleanin or getting ready for company.  And here's what I've learned:  everyone's a secret pig."
"Anyhow, what this means i you go into a lot of messy homes. Mr. Brown got popped, so you go the Brown home, and it's the way it was exactly at the moment Mrs. Brown heard Mr. Brown checked out.  She’s in shock.  It;s like the house is frozen in jell-O. Newspapers on the floor, socks on the floor, garbage cans full to overflow, the litter in the cat's box ain't been changed, a coupla glasses from last night's cocktail hour still out, maybe there's some plates in the sink, or someone forgot to put the cereal away.  You know, that's how life is lived. To do stuff you have to take stuff out; then you have to put it away. But between the taking out and putting back, sometimes a lot of time passes, and after having gone into a thousand houses in the past ten year witht he worst possible news to deliver and then asking the worst possible questions, I'm here to tell you that most lives are lived, minute by minute and hour by hours and day by day, as some weird place between taking stuff out and putting stuff back. Stuff is everywhere.  Daily life is about stuff."...
For a book that seems to take pride in its hero's statement that he gets all his information from Fox News, I also thought the observation about "The Narrative" was interesting:
"Let me tell you what's going on, and why this one is so touchy.  We are fighting the narrative...
"What is the narrative?"
“The narrative is the set of assumptions the press believes in, possibly without even knowing it believes in them.  It's powerful because it's unconscious. It's not like they get together every morning and decide, ‘These are the lies we tell today.'  No, that would be too crude and honest. Rather, it's a set of casual, non-rigorous assumptions about a reality they've never really experienced that's arranged in such a way as to reinforce their best and most ideal presumptions about themselves and their importance to the system and the way they've chosen to live their lives.  It;s a way of arranging things a certain way that they all believe in without ever really addressing carefully.  It permeates their whole culture.....
He then lists a number of beliefs of the "left-leaning" portion of the main stream media (MSM) without noting his own assumptions.  Assumptions that pretty much go unchallenged in any serious way throughout.  And of course, we all do it to a degree.  If you go over to some heavy breathing "peak oil" website, you will find a lot of short-hand assumptions thrown out to speed up the narrative process.  But I am very suspicious of dogmatic assumptions, and doubly so when it becomes a part of a general group-think atmosphere.
And finally there is a reference to the A.E. Houseman poem:
These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.
Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

 The poem that refers to the small British professional army (pre-conscript) that was lost stopping German offensive through Belgium at the start of World War 1.  It is just an aside, so he does not note that the soldiers that fought in Vietnam were conscripts mostly, and that our soldiers today are pretty much mercenaries in the sense that the "Old Contemptibles" were.   In this case the term "Old Contemptibles" was/is meant as an honorific.
There is a fair amount of the discussion of the modern sniper trade.  While I would not call it global, or balanced in its coverage, it does cover a number of the basics.  Because there is some cross-over between police sniping and military sniping within the book, the poor .308 (7.62x51) rifle round is a bit over-used.  The author certainly is familiar with the weapons.
I am curious as to the author's tactical decisions.  By the time you get to page eight, he  has assasination shots taken from 340 yards, 230 yards, and then 130 yards with the shot having traveled 100 yards hitting heavy storefront plate glass and then traveling another 100'.  Martin Luther King Junior  was shot at over 200', the D.C. Sniper anywere from 50 to "over" 100yards, and the Kennedy assassination was considered lengthy at 265'.  Shots of less then 100 yards are normal for shots in developed areas that are not war zones.  The targets are moving around a lot, and as importantly concealable and escapable locations are limited.  If you are trying to set up specific targets, and are going to be firing from a van (similar to the earlier IRA terrror tactics) it is very hard to find parking that will not have intermitant traffic, blocking shots, or causing gusts of wind, or without a lot of clutter.   In noting the IRA sniper campaign, did some very heavy calibre weapons to take some very long range shots:  but they also missed a lot.  There van attacks appear to have been more successful.  As for our novel,  one of the shots is in Chicago, the other in Clevelend.  Not exactly uncluttered landscape.  Chicago is known as the windy city.  Built up terrain, and roadway "canyons" create odd channeling effects to the wind at the ground level.  A wind reading at the weapon can be very much different then what the bullet will experience in a lengthy flight to the target.
Thrillers are usually pretty light on real content.  If you fight through the haze of verbiage for its intended Fox news, tea party demographic, there is a more here than typical.  As a thriller it is well paced (fast). There is a lot of action, and a lot of entertaining plot twists.  It does not pay to look to closely at the threads that hold together the plotting, as there are some serious holes to poke through:  it is not a great "who-done-it."
So I would recommend it as an entertaining thriller with some bonus material.
Stephen Hunter at practise

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