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Literature / The Flight Engineer

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The Flight Engineer is a trilogy of military space opera novels by S. M. Stirling (author of The Draka series) and James Doohan.

Yes, that James Doohan.

It chronicles the career of Commander Peter Raeder, a Space Fighter pilot for the Commonwealth Space Command who lost a hand in battle and, with it, his ability to fly fighters. He was retrained as an engineering officer to repair the fighters he formerly flew, and assigned to the newly built light carrier CSS Invincible.

The Commonwealth is at war with a group of religious fanatics called the Mollies who cut off all exports of the refined anti-hydrogen that society depends on. They have acquired allies in the form of the spiderlike Fibians.

The series consists of:

  • The Rising (1996): Fresh out of physical therapy after the loss of his hand, Raeder takes up his new post as fighter repair chief aboard Invincible, and tangles with a Mollie saboteur aboard.
  • The Privateer (1999): To avoid being stuck flying a desk for the rest of his life after an admittedly insane (but successful) attempt to save a five-month supply of anti-hydrogen, Raeder accepts command of an undercover military unit intended to drive a wedge between the Mollies and the space pirates.
  • The Independent Command (2000): After Captain Knott is injured in a Fibian/Mollie raid on a Commonwealth vacation world, Raeder is given command of Invincible and sent on a solo mission to launch a reprisal against the Fibians. Pursued by a superior enemy force, they blunder into a discovery that the monstrous Fibians may not be monsters after all.

The Flight Engineer trilogy contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Ace Pilot: Raeder scored seven confirmed kills before losing his hand (three of them in that engagement), making him the first ace of the war.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Averted. A.I.s are actually pretty stupid, and the one AI that went rogue in the series was deliberately sabotaged.
  • Antimatter: The primary source of energy is matter/antimatter reactors. Used to be that the anti-hydrogen involved was manufactured very expensively and slowly by particle accelerators, but then the Mollies discovered huge natural clouds of the stuff in their territory and began mining it, refining it, and selling it to the rest of the galaxy. The war came when they decided to stop all exports on religious grounds.
  • Arrested for Heroism:
    • In a clear Take That! towards the tendency in Star Trek to have senior officers routinely go on away missions, Raeder is chewed out and very nearly beached for saving a crippled battleship and its precious cargo of enough anti-hydrogen to keep the fleet running for five months, because he had to leave his assigned post to get over to the battleship in order to do it.
    • In the finale, Raeder saves the entire Commonwealth, and gets chewed out by a reg-stickler Admiral for not following obscure first-contact protocols while gathering the allies needed to do so, despite most of the fleet not even knowing they exist. This gets a black mark on Raeder's record that means he won't be welcomed back to the Navy once his current tour of duty is over. On the other hand, his experience as an independent CO in a scenario where, so they thought, there wasn't a rulebook available, is suggested to get him a cushy gig as a civilian explorer.
  • Artificial Limbs: Raeder receives a prosthetic replacement for his hand that isn't sensitive enough to pilot a Speed. Lt. Robbins later develops an improved prosthesis that can, and Raeder is cleared to fly Speeds in emergencies.
  • Artistic License Military: Stirling and Doohan goofed up the lower officer ranks. Cynthia Robbins is ranked a Second Lieutenant, but that's an army rank and the rest of the Space Command ranks are navy (she should be an Ensign, or perhaps Lieutenant Junior Grade). The authors made the exact opposite mistake with two Marine pilots that General Scaragoglu assigns to Raeder in The Privateer; both are ranked as Ensigns when they should be Second Lieutenants.
  • The Battlestar / Cool Starship: Invincible is the prototype for a new type of pocket carrier designed to be a Lightning Bruiser compared to the much larger fleet carriers. Her primary weapon is her complement of 36 Speeds, but she's far from defenseless without them.
  • Beta Couple: Raeder's second, Second Lieutenant Cynthia Robbins, and Chief Petty Officer Paddy Casey. The fact that their relationship is against regulations (fraternization between officers and enlisted is verboten) convinces Casey to try and get into Officer Candidate School.
  • Career-Ending Injury: Raeder's lost hand, coupled with the limitations of prosthetics at the time, meant he no longer had the dexterity necessary to fly a Speed.
  • Commanding Coolness: Raeder. Also Lieutenant Commander Sarah James, his love interest.
  • Command Roster: A rare case where The Captain is not the main character. At least at first. The Rising lists the entire command roster.
    • The Captain: Capt. Roger Knott. Later Raeder, after Knott and his Number Two are injured in a Mollie/Fibian raid at the beginning of book three.
    • Number Two: Mai Ling Ju.
    • Mr. Fixit: Chief Engineer Augie Skinner in theory. Raeder in practice, though officially he's just in charge of maintaining the fighters. Also Cpo. Casey.
    • Wrench Wench: 2nd Lt. Robbins.
    • Navigator: Ashly Luhrman
    • Tactical Officer: Truon Le
    • Security Officer: William Booth, though his main job on the ship seems to be being wrong about people.
    • Quartermaster: John Larkin before being revealed as The Mole.
    • Ace Pilot: Squadron Leader Ronnie Sutton and Lt. Cdr. James.
  • Covers Always Lie / Floating Head Syndrome: Despite what the covers would have you believe, Raeder doesn't really look anything like James Doohan. And the artist for The Independent Command got several of the details wrong on the Fibian.
  • Crazy Enough to Work: Early in The Rising, Raeder drives a pirate fighter away from a damaged freighter by landing a repair scooter on it and bashing its sensor arrays to pieces with a hammer and a set of tin snips. As he runs the heck away, the pirate radios its buddies that the Merchant Marines have developed a new weapon of some sort. (Raeder had a fun time explaining that line to Intelligence.)
  • Dude, Where's My Respect?: Raeder never gets promotions or commendations for all the critical work he does to keep the Commonwealth going in the war, because all Admiral Grittirson cares about is that he broke regs doing it.
  • Easy Logistics: Averted. The only reason the war is being fought at all is because the Mollies control over 90% of the Commonwealth's energy supply - otherwise they'd have been glad to see them leave. This means that in order to function at all, the Commonwealth has to steal fuel from the enemy.
  • Extra-Dimensional Shortcut: Ships enter and exit hyper by accelerating to roughly 0.1c towards a jump point. They then transit to another dimension, connected to maybe three or four other jump points.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel / Hyperspace Lanes: Transit involves accelerating towards a jump point until you reach roughly 0.1c. Then you spend a few hours travelling to one of the jump points connected to the one you entered. It is quite possible to follow ships through Transit.
  • The Federation: The Commonwealth isn't the original, but it might as well be.
  • Field Promotion: At the end of The Independent Command General Scaragoglu gives a field commission to Casey as a favor to Raeder, so that Casey can legally propose to Robbins.
  • Fun with Acronyms: As Raeder explains to a bartender early in The Rising, "Mollie" stands for "Mission of Life Lived in Ecclesia". The bartender complains about the Commonwealth's current enemy sharing the name with one of her aunts.
  • Hyperspace Lanes: Faster-Than-Light Travel is dependent on jump points that only connect with a few other points.
  • Inappropriately Close Comrades: It seems that relationships between officers and enlisted personnel is forbidden, but relationships between two officers would not be, since Chief Petty Officer Paddy Casey decides to apply for officer training so that he can get together with Second Lieutenant Cynthia Robbins.
  • Indy Ploy: Raeder does a lot of these, starting with the time he saved a convoy from pirates by attacking one of the pirate ships with a hammer.
  • Insane Admiral: According to one character in The Privateer, Adm. Grettirson was always a stickler for the rules and apparently believes Space Command isn't as disciplined as it used to be, but he's gotten worse since his son was killed in action. Nothing actually comes of it, to the point where he gets away with killing the career of the man who saved the Commonwealth for not following an obscure reg that nobody else in the fleet knew about because the situations it covers had never come up before.
  • Insectoid Aliens: The narrator remarks in The Rising that the Fibians seem to be tailor-made to push all of humanity's arthropod-related fear buttons at once. They're basically giant spiders with stingers.
  • The Mole: Larkin in The Rising. This is not the first time it happened to the Commonwealth during the Mollie war, since A) the Mollie religion allows for any amount of deception required to fight the enemies of the faith, and B) Space Command's counterintelligence operations had gone to shit because it had been so long since they'd fought a human enemy capable of intelligence work.
  • No Biochemical Barriers: Before meeting the Fibian central government in person, Raeder checks to see whether this trope is in effect. It isn't.
  • No Blood for Phlebotinum: The war started over the Mollies' decision to stop all exports of anti-hydrogen to the Commonwealth. Among the recurring issues is Space Command's raids on the Mollies' refineries to get enough A-H to continue the war effort.
  • Official Couple: While on shore leave in book one, Raeder meets Lieutenant Commander Sarah James, a former Speed pilot who now commands Invincible's complement of recon craft. By book three they become a couple.
  • Old-School Dogfight: Played with for what little we see of fighter combat. Speeds chase each other's tails and loop around crazily and are armed with line-of-sight weapons, but the ranges are far greater than usual and, given the fact that capital ships avert Space Friction (see below), it's possible the Speeds were specifically designed that way.
  • Open Secret: Raeder is in hot water with Admiral Grettirson, has a meeting with General Scaragoglu, and then suddenly all possible punishments for Raeder's actions are deferred. Given that Scaragoglu is known for running covert ops, everyone on the Invincible quickly (and accurately) concludes that Raeder made a deal to run some sort of secret mission to get off the hook, even if they don't know precisely what that mission is.
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: Averted. Leaving aside the Mollies, religion is implied to be alive and well among humans. In particular a remark made by General Scaragoglu about "God and His Prophet" seems to indicate that he's Muslim.
  • Renegade Splinter Faction: Turns out the Fibians who allied with the Mollies and are attacking the Commonwealth are rogue elements. Fleeing their pursuit, Invincible blunders into contact with the Fibian central government, leading to a Big Damn Heroes moment at the end of book three.
  • Scary Dogmatic Aliens: The Mollies are religious fanatics who consider the rest of humanity unholy.
  • Secret Test of Character: In The Privateer, General Scaragoglu assigns Raeder and his group of ersatz pirates to train for their infiltration under a professional spook. After the spook injures one of Raeder's men as an object lesson in when they should and should not take off their spacesuit helmets after breaching an airlock, Raeder hits the roof and threatens to resign his commission. Turned out Scaragoglu wanted to see how much Raeder cared for his subordinates, and the commander passed with flying colors.
  • Shout-Out:
    • In The Rising the Invincible works alongside a pair of destroyers called the Aubrey and the Maturin. This is a reference to the books on both sides of the fourth wall.
    • Shout-outs to Star Trek were probably unavoidable given the fact that James Doohan was co-author.
      • Using an in-universe movie as a proxy, in The Privateer the authors take a hilarious swipe at the TOS episode where Gene Roddenberry confused the Enterprise with a submarine.
      • Surprisingly, Peter Raeder is not the character who acts as a walking Shout-Out to Scotty. That honor falls to CPO. Paddy Casey, among whose first lines is "she canna take the strain!"
      • Two pirates in The Privateer are named Wesley and Crusher.
      • At the end of the story, Raeder's career in the Navy is toast thanks to a vindictive Admiral, so he transfers to Survey Command and is sent on a five-year mission.
  • Space Friction: Averted at every opportunity. Ships regularly drift on inertia, and stopping a ship travelling at high speed requires the vessel to flip end-for-end and fire thrusters.
  • Space Fighter: Speeds are fighter-bombers, WACCIs are stealth recon ships.
  • Space Is an Ocean: Doohan's roots show through; the terminology half of this trope is very heavily used. Space itself is not an ocean, however.
  • Space Is Noisy: Conversed. At one point in The Privateer the viewpoint character mocks the inaccuracy in a Show Within a Show of a starship's position being given away by a crewman dropping something.
  • Space Pirates: Fighting them is Space Command's main job in peacetime.
  • Spaceship Slingshot Stunt/Wronski Feint: Done by Invincible in The Privateer. Damaged and with a Mollie flotilla in hot pursuit, she jumps into a barely charted system that happens to have a pulsar dangerously close to the jump point. Since Invincible is expecting said pulsar, they're able to slingshot around it and back to the jump point. The Mollies are not expecting it and end up smeared across its surface, their very atoms crushed into degenerate matter.
  • Standard Sci-Fi Fleet: Giant freighters, frigates, destroyers, fleet carriers, fast carriers (Invincible), cruisers, fighter-bombers (Speeds), recon ships (WACCIs), the works.
  • You Are in Command Now: Raeder is made acting captain of Invincible after Knott is injured at the beginning of book three.