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Literature / Blackcollar

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"I won't waste my breath telling you you're crazy. Do I get to know anything about this one in advance?"
Allen Caine, The Blackcollar

In the early 25th century, the Terran Democratic Empire is drawn into a war with an alien race known as the Ryqril. Among the weapons they develop in hopes of defending themselves are the Blackcollars, ultimate guerilla fighters with enhanced speed and reflexes, equipped with ancient but undetectable weapons such as slingshots and nunchaku.

Unfortunately, it was a case of too little, too late. Humanity lost the war thoroughly, and the Ryqril took over government of the TDE's worlds by means of loyalty-conditioned administrators and security personnel, backed up by heavily-armed Ryqril soldiers. Twenty-nine years later, an underground member named Allen Caine is equipped with carefully forged identification papers and sent on a mission that could change the balance of power once again.

Unfortunately, his resistance cell is destroyed before they can provide him with the papers he needs to complete his mission, so when he arrives on the unfamiliar planet of Plinry he is forced to seek help from the local Blackcollars, led by the enigmatic Damon Lathe.

So begins The Blackcollar, a sci-fi novel by Timothy Zahn. It is the first in a trilogy which also includes The Backlash Mission and The Judas Solution.

This work provides examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Galway, ever polite to the Blackcollars and suitably impressed with their skill, though he's not really evil.
  • Armor Is Useless: Averted; flexarmor doesn't render the wearer invincible, but it will absorb one shot from anything short of anti-vehicle weapons. As Lathe puts it, against Blackcollars most shooters only get one shot.
  • Asteroid Thicket: Subverted. The asteroid belt near Argent is relatively compact. When Caine hears this, he asks about hiding ships there to ambush other ships passing through. This is dismissed when another Blackcollar mentions that, despite the asteroids being relatively close, they are still too far apart to launch an effective ambush.
  • Badass Normal: Several of the Blackcollar-trained characters in The Backlash Mission, most notably Woody Pittman.
  • Bad Boss: The Ryqril have a habit killing human underlings who fail them or just accidentally insult them.
  • Benevolent Alien Invasion: Downplayed with the Chryselli. The other neighbouring species humanity encountered, they neglected to help when the Ryqril invaded, preferring to take the time to prepare for the Ryqril's inevitable invasion of their space. However that preparation is paying off and they are just about winning the war, albeit slowly and working with the human resistance. The Ryqril's need to focus resources on the Chryselli is one of the biggest reasons the Blackcollars can run rings around them.
  • Brainwashed and Crazy: All of the human administrators and security personnel are loyalty conditioned, a process involving drugs which renders people unable to betray the Ryqril, no matter how much they'd like to. One security guard, assigned to protect a bigshot he has reason to personally hate (the bigshot personally ordered the execution of the guard's parents and loyalty conditioned him first just to show his father out of sadism), daydreams about allowing an assassin to slip by him — but he knows the conditioning won't let him. And then he gets dosed with Whiplash, a drug that erases loyalty conditioning.
    • This ends up being a Fatal Flaw for the Ryqril, as they require the loyalty conditioned humans to control the occupied human territory. At the end of The Judas Solution two very effective examples of the havoc even a little use of Whiplash can cause show the Ryqril what a precarious position they are in, as they can no longer trust any of their Quislings, since any one of them might have been treated with Whiplash at any time. Faced with this (and the inability to simply conquer humanity by brute force again, with another war already going poorly for them) Lathe points out their only choice is to fight a losing battle or just abandon their occupation of the TDE. They reluctantly decide to do the latter.
  • Badasses With Slingshots: One of the basic weapons the Blackcollars use is the "Sniper's Slingshot".
  • Bulletproof Vest: Blackcollar basic equipment includes flexarmor, which is light and flexible but hardens when it receives an impact or laser blast. It even includes gloves and a hood.
  • Cloning Blues: Subverted and lampshaded. When Allen finds out that he may be a clone, he's not very upset, and even thinks he should at least feel upset for being a clone.
  • Les Collaborateurs: The Ryqril's loyalty-conditioned human servants, who make up the bulk of the enemy La Résistance is fighting—the Ryqril themselves only occasionally appear.
    • Their nickname, collies, comes from this trope name.
  • Common Ranks: The standard Terran military (and its remnants among the resistance) appears to use them, but the Blackcollars have their own separate rank structure. The two most commonly seen ranks are those of commando and commando commander, or "comsquare".
  • Conservation of Ninjutsu: Averted. One Blackcollar is a badass. Five Blackcollars make for five badasses.
  • Creative Sterility: The Ryqril really struggle with original thought. Most of their technology is stolen and they tend to fixate on basic ideas when planning strategy, something that seems to rub off to a certain extent on their loyalty-conditioned slaves. They also hate to be contradicted, so when one of their slaves does manage to come up with an original plan they have a hard time getting their masters to agree to it without insulting them by implying they might be wrong. This proves a real problem for them against the extremely creative Damon Lathe.
  • Demoted to Extra: In The Judas Solution, Caine. He's still in the story and is hardly idle but he doesn't really get much of significance done.
  • Fountain of Youth: A drug called Idunine can avert or reverse many of the effects of aging, and in large enough doses can cause people's appearances to regress until they appear significantly younger. On one occasion this is used to disguise several members of the team.
  • Heel–Face Turn: In The Judas Solution Prefect Galway, as son as the Whiplash drug removes his loyalty conditioning.
  • Insufficiently Advanced Alien: The Ryqril are described as "technological imbeciles": a scientific term meaning that they can copy their captured races' technology just fine, but are actually incapable of producing new technology of their own beyond a certain basic level.note  Fortunately for them, they have quite a few captured races.
  • Keystone Army: Subverted. In The Backlash Mission the Blackcollars acquire the result of a secret research project, the drug Whiplash, which breaks the loyalty-conditioning of Les Collaborateurs and allows them to rebel. However, they find that the majority of people they try it on are still loyal to the Ryqril out of sheer inertia, fear of being discovered, and the fact they've been serving the Ryqril all their lives.
  • McNinja: Played straight with the Blackcollars, implicitly as an intentional portion of their training.
  • The Mole: At least one per book.
  • Ninja: Blackcollars certainly have a lot of Ninja elements; they could probably be described as Ninjas In Space. Heavily implied in-universe that this was an intentional part of the Blackcollars' training, since their purpose and weaponry aligned very closely. Samurai elements are also referenced in describing the Blackcollars' determination and code of loyalty.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: To cover his role as the Plinry Blackcollars' contact man, Lathe uses an act that's closer to Obfuscating Senility.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: A Running Gag that the protagonist always seems to be looking the other direction when Mordecai does something amazing. "Once again, Mordecai had beaten heavy odds... and once again Caine had missed the show." This is paid off in the last book where we do get to see Mordecai fight an elite Ryqril warrior. It was worth the wait.
  • The Plan: A whole lot of them. Usually more than one per book, and that's just from Lathe.
  • La Résistance: Most every TDE planet has its own underground resistance group, sometimes more than one, with varying degrees of effectiveness.
  • Rings of Death: Not exactly this trope, but the rings Blackcollars use to identify themselves are used as holdout throwing weapons on several occasions.
  • Rock Beats Laser / Break Out the Museum Piece: The Blackcollars' use of technologically simplistic weapons is due to the Ryqril having technology that either counters more advanced weapons such as firearms and laser rifles, or makes them extremely trackable, defeating the point of an undercover force. The few times that Blackcollars try to use a captured weapon it doesn't last long.
    • Schizo Tech: This doesn't mean the Blackcollars can't combine more advanced weapons with their standard loadout, such as using simple slingshots to hit enemy sensors... hit them with sticky clay pellets containing lumps of radioactive plutonium that will degrade the sensors and render them blind for a coming attack.
    • Or for that matter, metal-rich "smoke" bombs designed both to scramble sensors and render laser weapons less effective.
  • Sequel Gap: The final book in the trilogy, The Judas Solution, was published 20 years after the previous one (The Backlash Mission).
  • Super Serum: Backlash, the drug administered to the Blackcollars which grants them enhanced reflexes.
  • Surrounded by Idiots: Prefect Galway. He's the only one on the Ryqril collaborators' side who has a decent shot at being able to predict what Lathe will do, and his superiors and colleagues always ignore him. Even Lathe comments in the third book that they'd be in a lot of trouble if anyone ever listened to Galway.
    • Lampshaded by the fact that the Ryqril loyalty conditioning is said to make those treated think in extremely linear and uncreative patterns, essentially making everyone a cookie cutter "by the book" officer. Galway is a rare exception, whereas most of the other leaders are dangerous only due to possessing overwhelming force.
  • Theme Naming: In-universe. "Caine" and "Judas."
  • Took a Level in Badass: Caine, between The Blackcollar and The Backlash Mission.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Lathe loves this to the point that it seriously annoys Caine, resulting in the page quote. However, it's usually justified by the number of spies lurking about, especially once The Plan plays out.
  • Villain Protagonist: All three books feature large sections told from Prefect Galway's perspective.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Galway is this way; loyalty-conditioning notwithstanding, he always wants what's best for Plinry.
  • Worthy Opponent: Prefect Galway and Damon Lathe's opinions of each other.
  • Zeerust: The series is set in the 25th century, but it's clearly the 25th century as foreseen from The '80s, such as the use of "tapes" as a means of data storage, and the way words like "shuriken" and "nunchaku" are still considered exotic enough to put in italics (contrast with Zahn's later Quadrail Series which also feature such weapons, but not in italics). The more recent book in the series, The Judas Solution, keeps these artifacts consistent rather than trying to retcon the setting.