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by David Weber

Why is military science fiction so durable? Why has it been around so long, and why does it have so many readers today? And why do those of us who write military science fiction write it in the first place?

It’s arguable that military science fiction’s been around as long as science fiction. Certainly Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were practitioners of military sci-fi, and the “golden age” was riddled with military sci-fi writers. I remember my own very first science fiction novel was Jack Williamson’s Legion of Space, which was most definitely space opera and could reasonably fall under the military sci-fi rubric. Of course, the granddaddy of all military science fiction/space opera writers had to be E. E. “Doc” Smith, and God knows that we could compile an enormously long list of military science fictioneers since him. H. Beam Piper, Keith Laumer, Gordon R. Dickson, Poul Anderson, Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven, our own David Drake, S. M. Stirling, John Ringo, and I’m sure several score other people who include the absolute all-time favorite purveyor of military sci-fi of someone reading this introduction.

Military sci-fi comes in all flavors, but good military sci-fi, enduring military sci-fi, is seldom of the “fluff” type. Seldom what I think of as “splatter porn” or of the sort that romanticizes the ugliness of combat and the taking of human life or suggests the “good guys” will get off without paying a horrible price of their own simply because they’re the good guys. I’m not saying all of it has the gritty realism of a Drake, and I’m certainly not saying “good” military sci-fi has to be an anti-military screed. But as Toni Weisskopf once pointed out in a conversation with me, there’s a distinct difference between military science fiction and militaristic science fiction. The biggest difference is that the former is normally written by someone who at least has a clue about how militaries and warfare work whereas the latter is written by someone who doesn’t have a clue about how they work but thought it would be really cool to write about a war.

But what makes military science fiction so compelling, at least to its readership?

Well, all worthwhile stories are about characters, and characters are about problem solving and conflict of one sort or another. Those problems and that conflict don’t have to have anything at all to do with a military setting, but the truth is that the most fundamental “conflict” a character can deal with is one which is literally life or death, and that sort of sums up what happens on a battlefield or aboard a submarine stalking an enemy convoy, or aboard a starship facing incoming missiles and energy fire.

Worthwhile characters are also about sacrifice. About being willing, as Heinlein put it—and I’m sure someone is going to point out that the Dean should have been listed among my military sci-fi writers above—to put one’s own life between the things one cares about and “war’s desolation.”

Make no mistake about it, combat is ugly, vile, and brutal. It’s about destroying other human lives, hopefully without losing one’s own or letting any more of your people die than you can possibly avoid. It’s about bushwhacking the other fellow, planting landmines and punji sticks, booby-trapping bodies, poisoning waterholes. It’s no coincidence that a huge majority of all air-to-air kills by the world’s fighter aces were accomplished from ambush before the victims ever saw them coming, starting with World War I’s “Beware of the Hun in the sun” and continuing right up to the present day. Or, as George S. Patton put it, “No poor dumb son-of-a-bitch ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb son-of-a-bitch die for his country.”

There have been periods, intervals, in the history of warfare where concepts of “honor” would appear to have stood this grim reality on its head. There are actual recorded instances of moments like the one when the French and English officers argued over who was entitled to the first volley in an infantry battle. But those moments have been rare, and they were seldom held in very high esteem by the professionals for whom warfare was trade, career, and ugly day-to-day job in one.

There are very few Rupert Brookes in the ranks of professional soldiers.

There have certainly been cultures which prized honor above life, from Achilles through the Japanese samurai by way of dozens of other cultures and societies along the way. Of course, there’s usually been a distinction between those who received those societies’ accolades and those who were kicked to the curb as soon as their services were no longer required…often enough by the very civilians they’d fought to save. God knows soldiers have been regarded as ignorant brutes—men who enlisted because they couldn’t get a “real” job and who were suited for nothing better—by the “better sort” of their societies for at least the last several centuries of Western Civilization. In my opinion, the best English-language illustrator of that bitterly true distinction may well be Rudyard Kipling’s “Tommy,” and he was right: “An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool—you bet that Tommy sees!” The seamen “pressed” for service in the sailing ships of the British Royal Navy, snatched away from home and family, forced to serve in a grim, grueling environment, with a very high probability of dying, and then thrown on the beach, often mutilated and crippled, if they survived, are only one historical example of that unhappy truth. Virtually every other nation has its own equivalent, although some are more blatant than others.

And yet we return again and again to stories about war, and I think that’s at least in part because we recognize what Heinlein was saying on an instinctual level that stays with us, despite the passing fads of the culture du jour. Harry Flashman had a little something to say about the bathos of “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” but men and women have been writing poetry about war, sacrifice, death, and—yes—glory since well before Homer. If you don’t believe me, check out Gilgamesh. Perhaps it’s because there’s no evasion, no way to manipulate one’s way out of the dangers inherent in combat. Perhaps it’s because there’s a sort of ultimate democracy in death. And perhaps it’s because of what Heinlein was onto, the concept that we owe respect and honor to those prepared to endure the vileness of combat on our behalf.

And, conversely—perhaps even paradoxically—sometimes it’s because the writer wants to demonstrate and the reader wants to understand why war is the vile ugliness that it is and yet humankind goes right on embracing it. David Drake’s Slammers are, I think, an example of that. David is too much the historian not to understand the forces that drive wars—or the fact that those most eager to embrace them are seldom those most likely to die in them—but his focus is on the men and women in the furnace. It’s on the fact that whatever brings someone into military service in the first place, whether it be patriotism or the possibility of loot, what keeps that person there, keeps that person fighting, in the midst of the terror and mayhem of combat, is a combination of the need to survive and of loyalty to those serving with that person. The members of his unit, of his crew, of his circle of friends at that moment when their joint survival depends upon all of them.

Throughout history, one of a military commander’s primary tasks has been to figure out how to get all of the troops under his command to actually fight, and that’s never been as easy as bad military fiction makes it seem. One of my favorite military historians once referred to armored fighting vehicles as “courage in a can,” because the members of a tank’s crew are each, individually, vital to the tank’s operation…and no one can run away and hide. Yet in that ten percent of an old-fashioned infantry division that actually fired at the enemy, that sense of loyalty played a huge role in what motivated them to do that.

Military science fiction examines that, illustrates that, sometimes seeks to debunk that, and human beings find that motivation, that mechanism—that relationship—endlessly fascinating because it says so much about what makes all of us human in the end.

In addition to all the philosophical ramblings above, military science fiction serves as both inspirational and cautionary tales. You can’t read a David Drake story, or a Steve Stirling story, without concluding that as someone (I believe it was Poul Anderson) once said—and I’m paraphrasing, I’m afraid—an adventure is someone else being cold, hungry, tired and scared far, far away from you. There’s a certain vicarious excitement in being able to experience, however incompletely, the emotions of that “someone else,” but for anyone with a pair of functional neurons to rub together, it’s also pretty clear that it’s not a situation any sane individual would seek out for its pleasure quotient. Those sorts of stories are the authors’ way of standing in the middle of the railroad tracks, waving a red lantern, and bellowing “You really don’t want to go there!” And in the case of someone like Drake, that warning carries extra weight because we know he’s already been there himself.

And yet, even as they caution us, they know we’re going there—or someone is—anyway, sooner or later. As Heinlein also pointed out, a true pacifist is a very rare critter, indeed. There is—or, in my own opinion, damned well ought to be—something for which any human being would be prepared to fight and die. As Eowyn points out in The Lord of the Rings, “Those without swords can still die upon them,” and as a character in one of Poul Anderson’s Flandry stories pointed out to a very young Dominic Flandry, those who insist that there are no circumstances in which they would embrace violence against other human beings are, in effect, saying that they will not stand up and fight to oppose evil under any circumstances. All too often we applaud that highly principled stand, even if we don’t share it, but should we? Isn’t it a form of moral cowardice to say that one would prefer to allow the most monstrous evil conceivable triumph rather than sully the lily-white purity of one’s highly-principled moral superiority? Anyone has the right to make that choice in his/her own case, to choose to surrender his or her life rather than resort to violence. But how do you make it in someone else’s case with even a pretense of morality?

And how many people who make that assertion even in their own case, far less that of someone else whom they love, from the safe cocoon of the society less principled people have created for them, have actually faced that evil? As George Orwell put it, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf,” but one hardly needs to go that far afield to find the final, brutal denominator which separates pacifist from all-out warrior. Let someone threaten a mother’s child and see what that mother does, however much a pacifist she may think herself. Or, to return to Heinlein yet again, greater love hath no man than a mother cat dying to defend her kittens.

I think that we as readers want to vicariously touch that affirmation of the human spirit as protector because all we have to do is look about us to see the ability of nominally human beings to play the role of predator.

And then, of course, there is the transporting aspect. The ability of that frigate-like book to carry us to another land, to other people, to other experiences. Military fiction—and for a science-fiction readership, that’s military science fiction—shares all of the above with its readership. Because conflict is so much a part of human nature, because it can be so complex, and because, as Clausewitz said, everything in war is very simple, but accomplishing even simple things is very difficult, we are endlessly fascinated by the way humans deal with that complexity and its paradoxically simple imperatives, not just of survival, but of right and wrong.

In the end, we cannot open a history book, cannot consult the archaeological record, without coming face-to-face with the red-fanged violence of the human past. Military science fiction is an effort to understand and illuminate that past by projecting it into the future. Or into a future, at least. And in that sense, in an odd sort of way, it’s an affirmation of our very humanness. There will be war for as long as human beings are what we would recognize as human beings. We may applaud that fact or deplore it; we cannot change it. As Heinlein pointed out on several occasions, the decision that “We ain’t a gonna study war no more” simply assures that someone who is going to study it will soon be inheriting all our stuff…and probably killing or enslaving our friends, neighbors, and family along the way. And so projecting human combativeness into the future suggests there will be humans in that future somewhere—still fumbling about, still screwing up, still finding themselves required to make the other poor, dumb son-of-a-bitch die for his country…and still being someone we do recognize.

It’s important, sometimes, to look into the mirror and refuse to look away. To recognize realities we’d really like to pretend no longer apply. And to understand the abyss as fully as we can before we step into it, taking our societies and the people we love and care about with us. Very little of the enduring military science fiction is pretentious enough—or arrogant enough—to hammer its readers over the head with all those lessons, but it doesn’t shy away from them, either. It examines them, it pleads the case for this or that view of necessity, pragmatism, honor, horror, selflessness, avarice, sacrifice, cruelty—the entire gamut of the strengths and weaknesses that make human beings what we are.

But the good stuff tells a thumping good story while it does all of that, and that’s what you’re going to find between these covers.

—David Weber

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