The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

21 Books, Part II

Posted on | August 1, 2013 | 18 Comments

— by Wombat-socho

Continuing the list of books that had a major influence on my life. Comments, suggestions and book plugs welcome, as always. A couple of the more noteworthy suggestions from last week’s post were Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History (oddly, the Kindle edition is more expensive than the paperback) and The Other Side of Time: A Combat Surgeon In World War II by Brendan Phibbs.

Hammer’s Slammers, David Drake
“Your family and I go back a long way, Lady. Did you know that I shot your father on Melpomone? Between the eyes, so he could see it coming.”
I first read “Under the Hammer” in my high school library’s copy of Galaxy Science Fiction and its sequel “But Loyal To His Own” (to which the above line, from “Standing Down”, refers) a month or so later, and I was hooked forever. Drake’s work has been criticized by some for being “carnographic conservative military SF” but in truth the exploits of the Auxiliary Regiment commanded by Alois Hammer are based on the real-life history of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam, a unit David Drake and I both served in (at thirty years remove, mind you) and don’t show a lot of sympathy for politicians of any stripe. Jim Baen saw the stories for what they were, which was well-written SF, and the series grew to the point where the new collection in hardback from Night Shade Press takes up three volumes. Hammer’s men (and women, for the most part) are complicated characters; there’s a lot more going on with them than just filling a role in a tale of combat, and that’s especially true of Joachim Steuben, the rather flaming and extremely deadly commander of Hammer’s military police company, the White Mice. Suffice it to say I’ve barely begun to describe the character.
Quite aside from their literary merits, the Hammer’s Slammers stories got me interested in David Drake’s writing, and while I haven’t yet picked up his fantasy works I daresay I’ve read (and own) pretty much everything else he’s written in the SF and horror genres. He’s also one hella interesting person in the flesh.

Fields of Fire, James Webb
“We are all sucking wind out here, L-T.”
This is a hard book to describe, because there’s a hell of a lot going on. Much like his later sociological treatise Born Fighting, Fields of Fire covers a lot of history as background to its main story, the tale of Lieutenant Robert E. Lee Hodges, a young Marine lieutenant whose family has fought in nearly all of America’s wars and who now heads off to Vietnam as a platoon leader in the I Corps zone. It’s also the story of Snake, Senator, Ogre, Bagger, Dan, Cat Man, and the rest of Hodges’ platoon, a story of revenge, betrayal, and deadly combat against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. It’s not a pretty story, and it doesn’t have a happy ending. In fact, it has multiple unhappy endings. There’s a lot of story packed into the ~500 pages of Webb’s debut novel, and I can’t recommend it enough.

The Shadow Over Innsmouth, H.P. Lovecraft
“Right naow Barnabas is abaout changed. Can’t shet his eyes no more, an’ is all aout o’ shape. They say he still wears clothes, but he’ll take to the water soon.”
Thus Zadok Allen describes one of the leading citizens of the New England city of Innsmouth, the site of the action in The Shadow over Innsmouth, which was actually not a novel but a collection of Lovecraft stories published by Scholastic Book Services back in the late 1960s. Coming from a family that hailed from the northeast end of Massachusetts, I had no trouble imagining the decrepit city and the horrors that lurked behind the shuttered windows. This book set the hook in me, and over the subsequent years I snatched up every bit of Lovecraft I could find, even the tales adulterated by August Derleth into novels; even today, the Cthulhu Mythos and its several contemporary authors continue to fascinate me.

The River And The Gauntlet, S.L.A. Marshall
S.L.A. Marshall’s reputation was pretty huge when he was alive, but diminished quickly as it became apparent to other historians that he hadn’t let little things like the facts get in the way of a good story. Which makes me wonder how much of The River and the Gauntlet, a gripping account of Eighth Army’s retreat from the Yalu River in the winter of 1950-51 is supported by the facts…anyhow, at the time that I read this book it was pretty gripping. I hadn’t delved very much into American military history at that point and had yet to become familiar with such disasters as the siege of Bataan, the Crater incident during the Civil War, and the opening engagements of what would become the Battle of the Bulge. Marshall’s account of the Chinese intervention in Korea was a real eye-opener, and whetted my appetite for more of the same. Unfortunately, Battles in the Monsoon, his best-known work on Vietnam, wasn’t nearly as good, and I never bothered to read his other histories after that. Still, I have to give Marshall credit for getting me more interested in military history, and the Korean War (to say nothing of other things Korean) in particular.

Retief’s War , Keith Laumer
“I is a great believer in peaceful settlements. Ain’t nobody as peaceful as a dead trouble-maker.”
As a former Air Force officer turned diplomat, Keith Laumer was well-equipped to tell the rollicking tales of Jame Retief of the Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne, an unorthodox fellow who often found himself fighting with his own superiors as much (or more) than he did the enemies of Terra, be they uncooperative natives or the five-eyed Groaci. Probably the best of all Retief’s adventures is the novel Retief’s War, serialized in Worlds of If back in 1965 – which is where I first saw it, or at least its second half. (That same issue had the first part of Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, with a memorable Gray Morrow cover.) Anyhow, Retief’s War takes place on the planet Quopp, where the locals are made mostly of metallic chitin and get ripped on sugar products. In one memorable scene, two Quoppina of the Voion tribe are completely undone by a jar of Terran honey our hero has hidden for just such a situation. The Terran mission is about to fumble its way into disaster, until Retief escapes in disguise to rouse the anarchic bush tribes against the would-be imperialist Voion…who happen to be getting some under-the-table support from a certain bunch of five-eyed, sticky-fingered aliens who have (nefarious!) plans of their own for Quopp. It’s a great adventure, full of swashes getting buckled, diplomatic derring-do, good old-fashioned brawling, misplaced educational supplies, plus a shipload or gorgeous women who aren’t averse to picking up a sword and kicking some butt themselves when the occasion calls for it. Of course, this novel started a decades-long fascination with Laumer’s works.
NB: The novel is now available as part of a comprehensive anthology of Laumer’s Retief stories from Baen, simply titled Retief! An outstanding deal on the Kindle, I must say.

From Here to Eternity, James Jones
“Got paid out on Monday, ain’t a dog soljer no more…”
There’s a lot to this book, and if you only know it through the (rather good) 1953 movie then you don’t really know it at all. It’s been called the best novel about the pre-World War II Army out there, and insofar as it gives an unsparing portrait of the Hawaiian Division before the war that may be true, but that really dates it far too much. Where the book really shines is in its equally unsparing look at the kind of men who enlist in a peacetime army and the kind of men who run that army, and that’s not always a very pretty picture. My father got the copy I now have as part of a set with The Caine Mutiny and The Naked and the Dead, neither of which are anywhere near as good as this. Well, Herman Wouk’s book, maybe; certainly on average Wouk was a much better writer than Jones, as a quick comparison of The Thin Red Line and The Winds of War will tell you. I probably read this for the first time when I was far too young to understand it properly or fit it into the right context, but there you are. Holds up very well to multiple re-readings.

The Revolt of Gunner Asch(’08/15 Im Kaserne), Hans Helmut Kirst
“We must congratulate Gunner Asch on his promotion to Corporal, Lieutenant.”
I don’t buy a lot of foreign books in the original language. I made an exception for Hans Hellmut Kirst’s ’08/15 im Kaserne (The Revolt of Gunner Asch) and its sequels, which I read in their Pyramid translations back in sixth grade. These were pretty remarkable books, depicting as they did the Wehrmacht in a very unsentimental light as an organization capable of driving its own junior NCOs to rebellion in the name of justice. Kirst had a gift for producing memorable, sympathetic characters, and even though I haven’t cracked these in years I can still see Asch, Vierbein, Lieutenant Wedelmann, and Colonel Luschke as if I’d just put the books down yesterday. Kirst also wrote a whole mess of other books about the Wehrmacht, of which The Night of the Generals is perhaps best known thanks to the movie, but these are his first, arguably his best.


  • darthkeller

    Funny, The Shadow Over Innsmouth was my intro to Lovecraft as well.

    A quick story: I just finished reading The Hound. I was living at home with my parents (summer break from college) and I went outside to have a cigarette. I took a step out onto the porch and all of the sudden our dog ran across the lawn about 10 feet in front of me…. I ALMOST QUIT SMOKING THAT DAY! I DID change my pants when I got back inside

  • The_Livewire

    Hammer’s Slammers was my gateway to hard SF as well. And his essays were invaluable in understanding the divide betwen my best friend, who did two tours in Iraq, and my fat dumb civilian self.

  • Quartermaster

    My gateway drug to mainline SF was Pournelle’s Mercenary series. Pournelle had seen the elephant in Korea and based some of what he wrote on actual battles. I’ve read some of Hammer’s Slammers, but I think Pournelle is far better.
    I loved the Revolt of Gunner Asch. Kirst had a very fertile imagination on how to gaslight senior NCOs.

  • M. Thompson

    If you’re looking for a slightly different sort of adventure, C. S. Forrester’s “The African Queen” is a good read. One of the few with a woman as the lead, and it’s almost as much about really living, rather than the exotic nature of the landscape.

  • CPAguy

    For hard SF…I’m all about Stephen Baxter, all day, every day.

  • Steve Skubinna

    First time I read Lovecraft I wondered if he had actually been writing about the Kennedys.

    As for Laumer, I found Retief’s War in a library back in the mid sixties and couldn’t figure out what to make of it. It was obviously science fiction, yet it also appeared to be irreverent and hysterically funny, categories which I had no idea could coexist. First SF book I had ever seen that was outright laugh out loud funny. After that I found Harry Harrison’s Bill, the Galactic Hero and discovered there was no reason humor could not exist in SF.

    Sounds dumb to relate, but it was a revelation to me then.

  • Wombat_socho

    I think I have every edition of the Falkenberg stories from the original paperbacks through the various anthologies up to The Prince in Kindle. Also have the original story in Analog with his autograph. Not that I’m a raving fanboy or anything…okay, yeah, I am. #^__^#

  • Wombat_socho

    Did Forester ever write anything that wasn’t good? Also, we covered his best-known naval series last week. 🙂

  • Wombat_socho

    Most allegedly humorous SF isn’t, and 90% of the rest is crap. So I’m not surprised that you were surprised.

  • M. Thompson

    Only unpolished.

  • Kevin R.C. O’Brien

    I seldom read the “live at five” but I read this and was surprised just how many of Wombat’s books I also remember fondly. Thanks for a great post.