Before we get to this week's books, consider this a message aimed at promoting lower blood pressure among Saturday DK readers. I've made a habit of starting these brief recommended reading / viewing lists with anecdotes, exerpts, and a fair amount of smoke and mirrors. But on several occasions, and particularly in the last two weeks, the intros have generated as many replies (and emails) as the books on the list. Some of those replies have been of the hot-enough-to-be-seen-in-the-dark variety. So, let me pause for this message from the Surgeon Admiral.
Warning: Items in SEGO are often sillier than they may appear.
As an introduction to a set of science fiction and fantasy books, the author of these diaries takes tremendous license to delve into shady subjects, wild speculation, and outright fibbing. So if presented with evidence that the world may end tomorrow, or that immortality can be found in large doses of dairy, please confirm your facts in a source that's not the intro for a list of fiction books before either giving away your worldly possessions or inserting that bottle of Ready-Whip into your mouth. And hey, while you're listening, eat more fruit and veggies, okay?
Yes, this does mean that anyone who has set up an altar to Katie, 11-year-old creator of the universe, can now take it down. But before you do, can you ask her about this week's lotto numbers? Thanks.
With Memorial Day coming up, this seems like a good time to look at military science fiction. Military action in the sci fi realm goes back at least as far as Wells, and ever since then there's been a broad range of sub-genres where laser guns go "pwew." Some of these, maybe a lot of these, are nothing more than tech-slathered "men's action" novels, close cousins of those Dale Brown books where the serial numbers on the bottom of rifles are given equal weight to character development. But war is also one of those places where science fiction can really shine at what it does best -- forcing us to face up to actions and consequences in settings that break us free from the prejudice of the daily newspaper.
Let's hope that these are wars whose losses stay safely inside the pages of fiction and whose veterans we'll never have cause to mourn.
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
I'm not going to hide it, this is my favorite. Haldeman presents a future in which mankind's expansion into the stars has brought us into conflict with an alien race. By flying very close to black holes, star ships can travel to the front lines in what seems to be a matter of minutes, but that's only for those soldiers being hurled into battle at relativistic speeds. Back on Earth time keeps passing, and returning veterans find themselves displaced from friends, family and society by spans of years or even decades. William Mandella, brilliant student turned front line soldier when his draft number comes up, experiences what so many veterans experience on returning from battle -- the disassociation from civilian life, the agonizing memories or war, the loss of clear goals and relationships he had among his fellow soldiers. With the added difficulty imposed by a world that has moved on so very much while they were away, William soon finds that his only home is the war as he goes from battle to battle, decade to decade, century to century. Originally published (not without some difficulty) in the early 1970s, Haldeman was forced to trim some of the most sobering scenes from his novel. Now it's available in a restored edition, and it's a book that's as moving today as when it first appeared.
Hammer's Slammers by David Drake
With this book, you have full permission to love all the hardware. What's not to love? Drake has crafted a set of well thought out technological advances -- slug-throwing powerguns, a plethora of grenades, and whole flotillas of hovering tanks. The scariest thing is how many of the weapons mentioned have become reality since Hammer's Slammers appeared in 1979. At first glance, you'd be forgiven for thinking that a book that details the adventures of a star-hopping mercenary tank regiment would easily slot into those "action" novels I gave the backhand above, but there's a lot more at work in this novel than just the tactical breakdown of battles. As the book and the battles wear on, it becomes clear that the Slammers are not the driving force behind the war. They're a tool of policy, one put in place by people who don't have to suffer the results on the field. A Vietnam vet himself, Drake knows that soldiers aren't always given the option of only taking actions they believe in. Years after writing this book, he said that he had done it in part as a way to educate people who had not been involved in war -- before they got another one started.
Uller Uprising by H. Beam Piper
Piper is best known for his 1962 novel, Little Fuzzy in which themes of racism and the politics of empire are gently probed in a story about determining whether members of a small alien race are actually sapient beings. But ten years earlier Piper wrote what could be considered the father of modern "military sci fi" in Uller Uprising. The novel is told from the point of view of a dedicated and professional military officer, and the service that Piper describes is full bits of ceremony and "tradition" that seamlessly blend existing rituals with invention. It a military that feels real. From this officer's point of view, the civilian government seems hopelessly misguided, almost childlike, and the military does its best to follow orders while also steering policy in a "more effective" manner. And together the civilian and military government bring about slaughter on a planet-wide scale. All with the best of intentions. Piper was an American writer, but this novel has a decidedly Old World air. Based on the Sepoy "mutiny" of 1857 in which Indians rose up against the British East Indian Company, it's a story that may speak to Americans today better than it did when Piper first put it together.
The Texas - Israeli War by Howard Waldrop and Jake Saunders
I'm afraid you'll have to haunt your local used book store to find this one. This 1974 novel mixes Cold War, Yom Kippur War, and a post-apocalyptic world ala Mad Max to make a war novel that's (so sue me) fun. Yes, 90% of the world has already died in a limited nuclear exchange before the book opens, and we spend most of the book blasting across Texas in tanks and lots of characters die and... it's still fun. Part of that is Waldrop's reliable turn of phrase, part is just the set up. The whole scenario seems to have been engineered to explain a battle in which weapons from World War II, Vietnam era, and the imagined World War III are all on the field together in a Second American Civil War fought between white supremacists Nazis from Texas facing off with Israeli mercenaries in modified British armor. Guest appearance from mercenary leader Ariel Sharon. Oh, and everybody has lasers. It is that crazy. If you want to read a war novel that's not going to leave you with angst, this one is a good choice.
And there. I bet I didn't mention either of the two novels that you thought of first when I said military fiction. But there's plenty of room in the comments.