Legion of the Damned, William C. Dietz (Ace, 1993)

Grade: Δˡ — (Delta Prime) A good read, but only if you like the genre (or subgenre).

In brief:

Legion of the Damned by William C. Dietz is effectively a story about the French Foreign Legion in Space with Cyborgs.  Put like that, it sounds sort of silly, but in reality, the premise is quite interesting and the tale that Dietz weaves is a good ol’ ripping yarn worthy of a gander by anyone who doesn’t dislike Military Science Fiction.  Though characters are a bit lacking in depth, the setting is fascinating and the action makes for a good fun read.

Setting:

Far future near galactic space, in a world where other intelligent species exist and Human space is controlled by a mad (read Nero-like) emperor.  Cybernetic technology is high enough to put brains in robot bodies, and FTL exists.

In Depth:

Legion of the Damned by William C. Dietz is a rip-roaring Military Science Fiction adventure story about the French Foreign Legion in space.  The Legion of Dietz’s future is, of course, no longer French nor foreign, per se, but rather is the descendent of that elite mercenary army.[1] Yet, as with the historic Légion étrangère, Dietz’s Legion is not just made up of loyal citizens, but also includes criminals and others from the edge of society.

Indeed, it is this that gives rise to what serves as the most interesting aspect of the book, for key to the Legion are the cyborgs who serve as their heavy infantry and armour units.  These are not just outcasts, for who in their right mind would agree to put their brain in a box no matter how far from the edge of society they come.  No, the cybernetic units recruit from the dead, and not just any dead, the criminal dead.

In Dietz’s future, illness is almost entirely wiped out, but capital punishment exists. If you commit certain violent crimes, such as murder etc, you are executed in a manner that matches that of your crime,[2] but that may not be the end or you.  Before you are executed, you are given an option: die or be brought back to life as a cyborg serving in the Legion.  Oh, there are exceptions.  If you have a terminal disease or get into a horrific accident where your body cannot be repaired, and cannot afford the tremendous cost of a cybernetic body, you can volunteer to join the Legion and they will provide you with a combat body that you can use until you finish your set term of service (when you muster out, you can get a non-combat cyborg body to live the rest of your robot days in).  For the most part, however, the cyborgs are made up of criminals.[3]

Of course, the cybernetic units do not make up the bulk of the service.  Instead, the main body of troops are men and women who have volunteered to serve as soldiers.  To that end, for the most part the Legion serves as the Army of the Earth’s Empire.  Even so, and despite the fact that much of the story follows the human characters in the service, it is the cyborgs who pack the most punch and steal the show.  They are just cool, even if much of their technology is straight line descent from that which existed when the story was written.

Yet there is more to this story than a touch of cool-ass-technology and ideas, there is a bit of interesting political background as well.  The Legion serves the Terran Empire (or whatever it is called), which is ruled by a Nero-like nut job.  Also like Imperial Rome, the Empire of Earth is rife with complex and deadly politics that is not only played between aristocrats, but also between the various military services.

As is only appropriate to a less-than-humane Imperial nation, the Legion has been given its own planet which includes an indigenous race of ‘primitive’ intelligent humanoids known as the Naa.  The Naa generally oppose the presence of humans, particularly Legionnaires, on their home world and have ‘renegade’ tribes who regularly ambush and otherwise attack the Legionnaires.  Rather than wipe out this hostile population, the Legion has intentionally let them continue to live and rebel for the primary purpose of keeping their troops up to combat readiness.[4]

Against this dark background come the Hudutha, a race that is not just xenophobic, but xenocidal.  They are, in effect, biologically incapable of coexisting with other intelligent races… that’s just the way they evolved.  No room for negotiation, sorry they just don’t understand it.  Might as well negotiate with a scorpion.  They find you, they kill you.

The Flag of the REAL French Foreign Legion: whose professionalism and valor have stood since 1831.

From there, the story unfolds in a classic French Foreign Legion style rip-roaring adventure.  Yet, unlike many Military Science Fiction stories, this one has room for shades of grey.  Oh, the villains are irredeemable, but not uncompassionately so.  We can sympathize with their alien incapacity to coexist. There are a great number of scenes shown from the Hudutha viewpoint, and Deitz portrays them quite sympathetically, even if their very mind set seems fundamentally wrong.

More to the point, however, the protagonists are not simply good and right.  They serve a fundamentally corrupt government and are made up of criminals who are forced into a combat service just in order to survive.  They suppress an intelligent race, whose planet they have invaded, for the purpose of keeping themselves ready for battle.  Best of all, while this is discussed and described in the book, the obviously abhorrent nature of it is not hammered into the reader.  Oh, there are the predictable journeys of self-discovery etc that play out against this background, but unlike many MilFic books, this is not a story of black and white.

As for the story line, well the plot is a bit predictable and the characters, though brilliantly set up, never get the chance to be fully fleshed out in this book.  Then again, this is the first book of a series, and while it does conclude, it certainly leaves room for the numerous sequels that followed.

All in all, I almost gave this book a Gamma rating due to the very interesting ideas that are portrayed here. Unfortunately, the lack of character depth did not allow it to rise up to that level.  Besides, there are too many elements that people who don’t like MilFic will have problems with, and so it got a Delta Prime.

If you do like MilFic and or robots, however, I would say this is a must read novel.


[1] Yes indeed, the Légion étrangère, L.E. is technically a mercenary army, though it is clearly associated to the French Government and has an extremely well established history of loyalty to its mother country.  Officers are French, though citizenship can be gained through service.  French citizens may join, though they make up less than a quarter of the fighting force.  The bulk of the troops are from other nations. Oh I could go on for ages about the real Legion, for they are actually just about as cool as their reputation, but that won’t help with this book review so….for more information go to the Foreign Legion website (http://www.legion-recrute.com/en/ ) and the ever unreliable Wikipedia pages (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_Foreign_Legion).

[2] E.g. You shoot someone in the hand and the heart, you are strapped to a wall and shot in the hand and the heart.  Eye for an eye taken quite literally.

[3] At this point many astute readers will be wondering about the wisdom of putting murders into giant cybernetic bodies, some of which are akin to Robocop, and others of which are basically tanks.  Well… Dietz has a very neat solution for that: the cyborgs need the humans and their resources to maintain them.  Without humans, they would simply run down… oh yes, and I seem to recall there is a kill switch on them too.  Talk about a way to ensure the Foreign Legions’ motto, Legio Patria Nostra.

[4] A not-that-uncommon technique for different cultures, as it turns out. This sort form of constant micro-war to maintain combat readiness for the real thing has a long history in human affairs.

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About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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2 Responses to Legion of the Damned, William C. Dietz (Ace, 1993)

  1. I don’t normally comment on reviews–but I must say that Mr. Evans clearly put a great deal of thought and effort into his review of Legion of the Damned.
    William C. Dietz

    • Thomas Evans says:

      Thank you very much! I just hope that my own enjoyment of the book and the series comes through in the review. To that end, I feel I should note that as the series progresses, the characters gain the depth that the set up for this one promises.

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