Imagine if someone took Harry Harrison’s Bill the Galactic Hero and then rewrote it as a painfully serious novel, and threw in a whole lot of sex and violence. That’s basically what David Gunn’s Death’s Head is. Death’s Head is far enough over the top to be ridiculous with a main character who can kill his way out of any situation, is both amoral and noble, and has sex with virtually every female character in the book that he doesn’t kill. On the other hand, Gunn doesn’t allow Death’s Head to be blatantly over the top fun in the way that William C. Dietz’s McCade novels are. Instead Gunn repeatedly signals that he wants Death’s Head to be taken seriously.
The first problem with that desire is that Sven Tveskoeg, the main character of Death’s Head is serving the futuristic space SS, which leads you to wonder why anyone would want him to succeed. Then there’s the sheer ridiculousness of the structure of Death’s Head, most of which involves Sven Tveskoeg being thrust into a conflict and then finding a way through his usual “Ruthless Killing is the Only Approach” to destroy the opposition. Not only is this sort of thing repetitive, but it doesn’t exactly jibe with a man who at the beginning of the novel was locked in a box and whipped every day.
Naturally Sven Tveskoeg has superpowers, which only increase once he eats some sort of psychic slug. And to his credit, Gunn does keep ranking out the ridiculous gadgets, complete with an intelligent talking gun. But like virtually all military SciFi, Death’s Head features a type of warfare rooted in Vietnam, that depends on grunts, landing craft and rockets aimed at aircraft. It’s a form of warfare that isn’t even all that relevant in the 21st century with men sitting in air conditioned offices controlling drones thousands of miles away. And Gunn fails to provide a good reason why this sort of backward technology is the default mode.
But Death’s Head’s real problem is that it’s a novel of cliches that doesn’t seem to know it. Gunn polishes them and the narrative up just enough to make the contrast obvious. Gunn could do better than this, but he hasn’t chosen to. And instead what we get is a novel that isn’t good enough to be Science Fiction but takes itself too seriously to be McCade Works for the Space Nazis. And as a result ends up lost amidst the genres.