Burden of Proof delivers on the promise of A Just Determination. John Hemry's second novel about Lt. Junior Grade (formerly ensign) Paul Sinclair is a rock solid courtroom drama that, while more conventional in many ways than its predecessor, still delivers the kind of white-knuckle, "oh God what's next" tension that makes legal dramas so popular.
When a devastating explosion and fire aboard the USS Michaelson takes the life of a popular CPO, an official investigation rules it all a horrific accident brought upon by the CPO's attempt to undertake a hazardous repair job all by himself. But when Paul Sinclair digs deeper, he begins to piece together that the disaster was caused by gross negligence on the part of the CPO's senior, an affable new lieutenant already disdained by many as a slacker. It would appear that Lt. Scott Silver shirked his responsibility in letting a vital piece of machinery fail, and rather than let the captain find out about it, requisitioned the necessary replacement part on his own and ordered the CPO to replace it on his own against all safety regulations. And what's more, in the fiery aftermath, it seems Silver hacked the logs to delete any hint of his culpability.
It's all pretty damning — manslaughter at the least — but the evidence is all circumstantial. So how can Paul hope to build a case? Also looming large is the fact that Silver is the son of a powerful vice admiral! And there's the little matter of the original investigation having been conducted by a captain who happens to be the father of Sinclair's girlfriend, on duty aboard a different ship. The captain, a control freak as regards his daughter's life, doesn't approve of Paul and even accused Paul himself of negligence out of spite. Can Paul avoid looking like he's just trying to get his own back?
The courtroom drama has been a staple of (naturally) mystery and mainstream fiction forever, but Hemry's inspired decision to wed it to the ordinarily action-oriented military SF genre has captured lightning in a bottle. Burden of Proof may at first blush seem like John Grisham on a spaceship, but Hemry isn't the formulaic panderer Grisham is. Hemry revels in gray areas, in ambiguity and nuance, never resorting to obviously loathsome lawyers or doe-eyed vulnerable victims for emotional button-mashing. For instance, the character of Silver: it would have been all too easy to make him a blatant jerk, leading to a foregone conclusion — or conviction — in the court of reader opinion. But we actually see very little of Silver before the explosion — putting us, incidentally, in the same boat as most of the Michaelson's crew — and it's just enough to give us doubts about him without underscoring that he's a loser.
Hemry builds the story's suspense expertly. The scene in which the actual explosion takes place is dizzyingly chaotic and nerve-wracking. I've read less exciting battle scenes. From that moment, the slowburn building up of tension as Paul uncovers one more fragment of evidence, but never an outright smoking gun, is just plain riveting. It all culminates, naturally, at the court-martial. Courtroom scenes like this are talky affairs by definition. But in the best tradition, this one will keep you turning pages with the proverbial bated breath.
Some hard SF purists might gripe that, overall, there doesn't seem much particularly science fictional about this novel. It's true that you could alter the story's setting to the here and now with virtually no changes and have what is essentially an exceptional episode of JAG. But sometimes SF isn't about nuts and bolts and cutting edge speculation. Sometimes it's a genre that just seeks to hold up a mirror to ourselves, and I think those are the stories Hemry is trying to write.
If Burden of Proof has problems, they're generally minor and limited to the first few chapters. Hemry takes a while — about 100 pages, to be honest — getting the main storyline underway. We're treated to lots of crew interaction and given much insight into the emotions of naval crews vis-a-vis the bonds they build between themselves, their vessels, and fellow crewmen. It's actually good stuff, this. It just goes on a while.
Hemry also spends much of the early part of the book building the romance between Paul and Jen Shen. Again, good work humanizing the characters, and particularly sympathetic in that we get a good idea of the frustrations inherent in trying to maintain a relationship in a naval setting where you and your beloved can't even be seen holding hands. The bad news is that Hemry has as much a tin ear for romantic dialogue as James Cameron. At least there are no icebergs in space.
The one scene I thought was purely superfluous comes right at the beginning, when the Michaelson's attempt to conduct a routine weapons drill is foiled by a gang of pain-in-the-ass protesters from — get this — Greenspace. The scene seems meant as humor, though Hemry assures me it wasn't. But what I like about Hemry's military SF is that he has a rare and commendable practice of checking political ideology at the door, and telling stories that deal with universal concepts like duty and honor and leadership. So it was a little disappointing seeing convenient stereotypes of "hippie peaceniks." My guess was he was reliving some personal run-ins with Greenpeace during his own naval years and having fun lampooning them. But I could never figure out why a group like Greenspace might exist. After all, when you blow something up in space it's not like you're endangering any wildlife.
As Burden of Proof gets down to business, these minor complaints are swept away like a pile of leaves in a hurricane. I mentioned that this book was more conventional than A Just Determination, and that's true in the sense it is a straightforward courtroom suspenser whereas Determination was more a book about Paul Sinclair and the maturation of his personal sense of honor and duty. But that doesn't make the story less compelling. At its best, it's tighter and more exciting than the previous novel by half. We're looking here at one of the most relevant and intelligent adult drama series being published in SF right now. (And I'm not just saying that because Ace saw fit to quote me on the front cover.) Just read the thing. That's all the proof you'll need.