This one starts off running as Jay Birrel, Commander of the Fifth Lyran fleet, narrowly escapes intact from a trap placed for him on a primitive world by the chief of the Orionid secret police himself. Orion wants to know what Lyran plans are for Earth.–yes, Earth; old Earth, forgotten and abandoned backwater planet Earth, the birthplace of starflight and the home of the nigh-powerless but still proud United Worlds government. Technically the UW claims sovreignty over the Sectors; in actual fact, it exercises about as much control as a kid with a broken kite string.
Anyhow, it wouldn’t really have netted the Orionids anything, because to Birrel’s knowledge, Lyra has no intentions for Earth, save for protecting it from Orion. The Fifth Fleet, at full battle strength, is therefore dispatched to Earth to participate in the x-hundredth anniversary of spaceflight (the space exploration timeline on the first page is adorable, since it gives 1971-2011 as Interplanetary Exploration and 2011 as the beginning of the Interstellar Exploration). To defer suspicion by both the Earthmen and Orionids, the Fifth takes not only its men but also their wives and dependents along….leading to some marital friction for Birrel, as his wife, the Vegan-born Lyllin, is even less happy than he is with the idea of Earth. She fears Earth, its unwelcoming hostility to her alien nature, etc…
On top of this, once he arrives, Birrel also has to deal with the diplomatic side of things, something our plain-spoken, straight-shooting Commander isn’t particularly good at to begin with. The presence of a full-on colonial fleet, led by professional soldiers and crewed by veterans, isn’t making either the politicians or the naval commanders of Earth happy.
And then the Orionid spies turn up again….
This is a really good, solid novel, and it would be a good, solid novel no matter what genre it is, because all the trappings of the story–parasonic stunners, porto-communicators, blasters, spaceships–are just set dressing on a very simple, universal, understandable mileu in which simple, universal, understandable characters move and act. The setting is that of nations fencing to increase their power and prestige, or to retain their freedom and national pride, or to conquer and subdue. The characters are simple and clear-cut, but far from one-dimensional.
Also: one very quick and easy way to increase emotional investment in your story is to put an animal in, especially if the animal is plot-relevant and/or friendly. Depending on the genre of the story this can be easier or harder to do. Fantasy novels are prone to using horses–think of Bill the pony, or Binky, or Peachblossom. Fantasy is also fairly notorious for using cats, too; but you are more likely to see dogs in a historical or YA novel Old Yeller…..aaaand, uh, Hank the Cowdog. Oh, and Gaspode. It’s rare to see a cat in SF, which is more of a space-pup sort of genre. But there’s one here and it’s a thematically-relevant and simple way to increase emotional investment in the story.
In other words: aww, they took the kitty with them when they left!