All right guys, I’ll level with you right from the start.
I wasn’t actually that impressed by Fireteam Freelance.
Don’t get me wrong, there was definitely some gold buried in there. There are some scenes that were absolutely awesome, some great fights, and some good moments of character. But there were also a lot of issues. Oh man were there some ruthlessly brutal issues and constraints. A lot of which I expect most readers noticed. And the further along the series got, the more I tried to break free of those constraints, which helped a little but at the same time … made things a bit messy.
If you’re thinking by now that perhaps Fireteam Freelance isn’t my strongest showing, you’re right. It’s not. It was an experiment. And in light of the entire series being done, while I don’t consider it a failure (after all, it was an experiment, failure is part of that) I definitely see it as one of the weaker things I’ve written.
And a lot of that, I feel, grew out of one rule that I couldn’t escape, by the design and nature of the experiment itself: Freelance being an episodic series. That was the core point of the experiment. To test the idea out and see how it worked. Now, I don’t feel I’ve wasted my time with Freelance, nor do I believe that there aren’t worthwhile moments in it (there definitely are) … But I do believe that the weaknesses of the format really hurt it.
So. you’ve given me your thoughts (and if you haven’t, well it’s too late now). Now it’s my turn to offer you mine. Hit the jump and let’s get started.
I’m actually going to start this post with the good. Yeah, I know most of you probably expected me to start taking shots at Freelance immediately, but don’t worry. That’s definitely coming. But before I dive into some of the places where I feel Freelance made serious missteps, I do want to talk about what it did well.
See the World
A chief complaint I kept getting with Colony back when it had first come out was that the book didn’t show enough of Earth. Forget Pisces, there was a cluster of readers—small but vocal—that were about as Earth-centric as the setting’s UNSEC was, who were upset that the book left for another world when they wanted to see more of Earth.
Freelance was, by design, built to show off what Earth was like in this setting, and in a wide range. That was part of the beauty of following a team of mercenaries like this all over the place: the audience got to see a vast swath of this future Earth and what it was like to live in.
From a somewhat external perspective, of course. The title characters themselves are in a fairly unique position, being mercenaries that can afford to drop into a setting and then leave a few hours later to retreat to what’s effectively a small fortress. They’re effectively what little middle-class is left in this unidyllic version of Earth.
But even though they’re often observers of the culture and world that Earth has become, and seeing it all through a lens of violence, I still think the story did a good job of showing just how dark and dystopian Earth is in the setting. Whether it was the gene-modded sex trade, the clubs, the PAPs that were only one step removed from warlords themselves in the Dragon Bloc, the mindless drudgery of easily automated jobs forced to be human and overseen by AI to ensure that each person was “working as intended,” one thing I think Freelance did well was show off the absolute pit that Earth has become in this distant future.
It’s little wonder that so many people would take the gamble of hopping onto a colony ship bound for anywhere when Earth is the way it is. Even if Earth seems intent on squeezing those worlds into a close approximation of itself, at least they have a chance of not being quite as bad.
In this, Freelance did its job. We saw wage-slaves in Mexico, stuck at a job because simply accepting it had put them in debt to the company. We saw the odd poverty of the Dragon Bloc, enforced by both Megacorps and the United Nations. We saw the wider net of global surveillance, the ability of those in power to selectively ignore law …
We also got some great settings. The megascraper city of Saint Petersburg. A data archive in Norway. The Dragon Bloc (several times). Mexico. Africa. A privately owned Hawaii. Freelance got to go a lot of neat (if horrible) places. Places the audience got to see, and that came to life in various ways.
Is anyone surprised to see this be the second entry? Don’t worry, it’ll come up later too. But for all the flaws that such a reliance on action brought, I don’t think Freelance could be accused of delivering bad action. Some stuff that could be cleaned in an Alpha Read, sure, but bad action?
Not a chance. In fact, Freelance had some action scenes that there really isn’t any other term for outside of “awesome.” And I’ll admit I pulled out some stops here to deliver some great “setpieces” for these fights. The armor-less firefight on a tram bridge in Norway? Awesome. Ursa shooting out the windows of a megascraper so that she could slide down the side in the middle of the night, dodging shots from a security gunship as she chased after their quarry? Awesome (and one of my favorite moments in the series). The whole of Black Site Bora, from the battle with the tanks to the reveal of the armatures inside the facility? Awesome. I could fill several paragraphs like this.
Action fatigue or not (and we’ll get into that later), I wouldn’t dare call Freelance‘s action bad. It wasn’t. While granted, the entire thing was a draft (something quite literally pointed out on the main page), and there could doubtlessly be moments of trimming and tucking to fire it up even more, the action on display is clearly one of the highlights of the series.
Freelance Added Depth to the Background
This one kind of cheats because it overlaps a bit with the world and setting I spoke about above, but Freelance, I feel, really did give readers hundreds of pieces to add to their understanding of the setting. It definitely wasn’t perfect (a lot of them were fleeting, blink and you’ll miss it) but there’s a volume of them to the degree that even if you miss three in a row, you probably already picked up four others.
The prevalence of gene-mods and the rules surrounding those, as well as the use good and bad. Transportation. Laws in various countries. Lots of little stuff, half of which I can’t even recall off the top of my head at the moment, but it was everywhere. Like the nod that Hawaii has become a privately owned party for the richest of the rich. Or how uncommon hard-light tech is for the average person (compared to Pisces where the population have it at their fingertips 90% of the time).
Sands, just how crappy life on Earth is for most people, driven by two mindsets that have seized the folks in charge, be they ruthless, all-consuming megacorps or the “gotta put everything in its proper place which will always be the best” attitude of the UN.
Even there I tried to show some variance. That there are people that are happy with the way the UN or the megacorps run things. Either because they’ve settled for the attitude of “I suppose it could be worse and I am alive today” or because they genuinely profit and benefit from it in some way (IE everyone on top).
For all the flaws, Freelance at least gave readers thousands of bits and pieces to add to their view of the world and scope.
Technology and Toys
While Freelance is definitely a less “hi-tech” setting than Colony and Jungle (where the protagonists are playing with the top of the pyramid), looking back on the series it definitely has its moments showing off neat bits and pieces of tech around the world, or even just with the team.
The viewscreen channel that’s nothing but a 24-7 nighttime beach feed because most people don’t have windows where they sleep? I liked that one. Or the extravagant hard-light stairs in the island retreat manor they stay at for a few days? The ones that don’t exist until you get close and then look a bit like semi-transparent glass? Also neat. Utterly frivolous, but then again billionaires today can order a multibillion-dollar submarine yacht with a glass pool so that you can go swimming while already underwater so … In retrospect maybe that place isn’t ridiculous enough.
Some of the toys the team got to play with were neat to showcase. Anvil’s old M1A3, for example. Or Owl’s drones. I liked that I was able to reference the different versions of augments out there, and how some of them had different strengths and weaknesses.
Some places, however, hadn’t changed much at all. If some felt that certain scenes felt too similar to today, like the world hadn’t changed in those areas or had even gotten worse, well … yeah, that was the point. Blind devotion to “this is how we did it and it’ll always be the best” does nothing but hamstring any sort of job or industry. This is one of those subtle nods that could possibly be more deftly handled after a few edits, but the concept is definitely in there.
Still, I think that showing off some of the varying tech in the setting was one thing this series did do fairly well. Could have been cleaner, maybe, but it did what it could.
All right. Now the bad. Note first that I didn’t pick Jungle‘s cover as a divider because Jungle is bad. It’s just a setting divider.
So, I’ve talked about what I felt Freelance did well. Now let’s talk about the things it didn’t do well. And ooh boy is this the hefty section. And I’m going to talk about one thing before everything else.
In all fairness, I wasn’t far into writing Freelance when I started to face issues with this. Issues that I was worried might crop up, and that I couldn’t escape because I’d already committed to one simple rule: That Fireteam Freelance was episodic in nature. Thus each episode had to include certain elements as a rule. It had to introduce the characters and story so far well enough at the start that a reader could pick up any episode in any order and find themselves with a fun read. So, barring episodes near the end, this meant each episode had to also be a self contained operation, one that could stand alone. It had to introduce the team, introduce the mission, the stakes, the goal, set it all up, and then carry it out.
Okay, for the record I don’t think I did a bad job. I think if you passed off any of the individual episodes at a reader somewhere they’d find them objectionably bad. Taken for what restrictions I had, I think I did a pretty good job.
However, at the same time those restrictions ended up being far more limiting than I initially even expected them to be. And what I wanted to do suffered for it. Hard. How hard?
Pretty much every other problem I’m going to talk about here grew out of this episodic requirement I’d foisted upon myself.
Now, don’t misunderstand. The point of this whole project was for me to try out an episodic structure and see what I could make of it. To see how I found it compared to my more usual method of just writing a book.
You can probably guess my answer based on the fact that I see Freelance‘s episodic nature as one of its greatest flaws. It wasn’t without some of the benefits too, but overall? I think being episodic hurt it. It was a foundation that couldn’t take the weight of what I normally do, and any attempt to place that weight on it just made things crack.
Nowhere does this stand out more, I think, than with the characters, from how much depth they have to how soon the readers see that depth.
It takes time to get to know good characters. You can’t just dump a reader into a well and say “Hey, here’s a swimming pool.” But in being restricted to episodes that first and foremost needed to deliver an action-packed setpiece, a well was about the closest I could do. Sometimes I had trouble even doing that, and had to settle for pails of water tossed at the reader.
Worse, because each episode had to “introduce” each member of the team and catch the reader up, showing progression from episode and episode became harder and harder, until near the end of the story when I just gave up on that reintroduction aspect almost entirely, counting on the idea that if you’re reading the end, you should be expected to know these characters by now.
Again, I did what I could. My analogy of a well seems apt. As much as I could I tried to get each episode to show off different facets of the characters so that as readers moved on they understood more and more about them. But since I had an extremely limited window with which to give readers those glimpses … the characters suffered.
That isn’t to say I wasn’t able to steal moments here and there that let more images of their character leak through. Being able to “sneak” the interviews each of them had in as interludes between episodes was a life-saver. If Freelance ever gets published, that whole concept is definitely going to be revisited (but earlier).
But I think it says a lot that what I feel is the best scene in the entire series is the ending of Episode 9, Apatos, when the team has a drink to remember the commander and talk about her. This isn’t to say that the characters don’t shine through in all those grand action sets—they do. But this scene is a completely different side of the human spectrum that, due to the episodic constraints, was not given equal time in the series.
And yeah, I consider this one of the series biggest issues. I write stuff that’s very heavily based in having lots of character for readers to dig into. When a character starts to investigate a murder or gets into a fight, the readers know why. They understand and empathize with that character.
Fireteam Freelance only has that sparingly, and its one of its largest failings. So large that I’m considering shifting the tab for it to a sub-page under samples, if not removing it entirely, because anyone who comes here looking for samples is going to find an experiment that, while labeled as such, does not show off the strongest of what I have to offer.
This emphasis on action, in turn, led to the next big issue that Fireteam Freelance suffered from: too much action.
I will admit that this was almost intentional. See, there’s always been a somewhat vocal contingent of readers that have argued for/requested more action in all of my stories. Not just at the back end, or the middle, but everywhere! Why not start things out with more fights? And have more shootouts in the early chapters. And so on and so forth.
Freelance was, in a way, an answer to those reader’s demands. Freelance delivers an action bit in every episode but one. There is always something that’s guaranteed to happen.
The thing is, and the reason not every one of my books is balls-to-the-walls-boom from page one, this isn’t actually that exciting. Again, as I’ve previously stated it’s not that the action isn’t good. It’s well written. Evocative. Downright pulse-pounding at some times, laugh-out-loud funny at others (Anvil with a concrete saw, anyone?).
But there’s just so much of it. Worse, because it’s such a central focus (as requested, I note again), the other aspects of the story, like deep looks into character and motivation, even proper setup (one with more depth to it past “here’s where we’re going and what we’re doing) can only have so much space.
“Space?” you might be saying. To which I reply “Yes.” I couldn’t just make each episode a full novel/novella on its own. Some of them are already almost that long, and that’s a lot of text to read in a single, chapterless episode.
Which meant that pacing was also a real struggle with each episode. Mostly in terms of “here comes the action!” Trying to achieve a smooth pace when every episode dropped a bomb of action was … difficult.
Sands, if this had been a book, I would have changed things up quite a bit. I would have likely lessened a few of the action sequences. Not many, but enough. I would have expanded the character moments and glimpses at the world, plus slowed the pace so everything wasn’t so breakneck. As it stands now each episode isn’t bad, but a marathon read of all of them together would feel … unbalanced.
Which in turn, led to something else about Freelance I was disappointed with: For all the variance in world details I got to talk about (and enjoy, as mentioned under the good bits), this weighting in favor of action and more action meant that I couldn’t dig as deep into all those world pieces presented. Not as much as I would have liked to.
For example, the commonality of gene-mods. It’s mentioned several times throughout the story, but almost always in passing or a case of “here’s how someone is using it.” Which meant that while readers could say “Oh, I see how that could work” they were hardly ever given enough background to be able to go “Oh yeah I see all the steps from A to D, in fact I wondered about them a page ago.”
There were a lot of little things I had to cut, trim, or pare down because of the limitations I was working under, little things I would have loved to have spent more time on, and did what I could with (sometimes going too far the other way, but that’s what an Alpha is for), but ultimately wish I could have explored a bit more thoroughly.
While there is plenty to find fault with in Freelance, few stand out to such an extreme in my mind as the short end of the stick the antagonists get.
Much of it comes down again to the episodic nature. The phrase “villain of the week” comes to mind, though on more than one occasion the opposition to the team isn’t villainous. In a few instances it’s literally their future employer trying to achieve the same thing.
But because of that “here’s who you’re facing this week” nature of the series, the villains kind of got the short end of the stick. Bora, for example, is creepily inhuman in her single appearance. Before that what little we get is from other people or from the team gathering information. Information which has one single goal: We’re going to kill this woman for what she did.
In a way the nature of the protagonists almost worked against me here. Much of what they did was “And you are blah blah we don’t care because we’re getting paid to off you, and that’s the end of our involvement here.”
That isn’t to say that they didn’t have their moments. Fat Shrimp using a gene-modded slave as a human shield is certainly memorable (and horrifying). Or Piggy’s last-second realization that he’s in a situation where someone really does want him dead, regardless of how many powerful friends on both sides of the war that would piss off. Bora’s casual dismissal of anyone human, an attitude that has clearly been passed onto her highly illegal AI creation, is certainly creepy to experience.
But these antagonists are destinations. Objectives to be overcome. Barring Bora’s strike against the team’s headquarters, the rest aren’t even aware of what their up against until it’s already too late. And even then Bora severely underestimate’s Freelance’s determination to kill her.
For that matter, she didn’t pay close enough attention to Anvil’s mod and their catchphrase. Nor was she human enough to realize that most of Freelance would have a real drive to kill her after she’d killed their commander.
Point being that the antagonists aren’t active forces, one exception given, for most of the series, and that made them fall a bit flat. Had the series revolved more around one of them, say just Bora from the very start, maybe that would have been different.
So then, as we stare out over a setting sun on Fireteam Freelance, what’s my takeaway at the end?
Well, I don’t regret it. I learned a lot writing Freelance that I couldn’t have learned on another project. And I’m not going to bury it, though I may, as mentioned, move it off of the main page, maybe even offline entirely.
But that isn’t the same as forgetting about it (like The Phoenix, which I still say will come at some future point). Arguably there’s a lot to polish and fix up. Turning this into an Alpha 1 draft would be … busy. But I already am aware of what issues I’d need to address and fix. I even have ideas for what changes I would make. Heh … some of them would be a lot of fun., and definitely improve things.
So no, while I’d give Fireteam Freelance in its current form three-stars, I’ll bet with some work I could bring it up to four. Would I drop the episodic nature of the story?
No. That’d be a complete rewrite, and I’ll bet with some limitations removed, I could make this work. Maybe as a novella series, each episode reworked and fleshed out with an outro and an intro …?
Point is, I don’t think the months I spent on this were wasted. I learned some new things, played inside some tight limitations, and got to do some background work with UNSEC Space, which was totally fun.
So … not a loss. But not a complete win, either.
Now, one last thing. Apart from everything else …
Thanks for reading, folks. I’m glad you stuck with Freelance despite its weaknesses and enjoyed it all the same.
Now, here’s to Starforge. May this all end better than it ever began.
Over and out folks. I’ll catch on a shuttle to Pisces.