Posted on | August 15, 2013 | 47 Comments
Last month I did a compare & contrast between John Ringo’s Legend of the Alldenata/Posleen War novels and Sandy Mitchell’s Warhammer 40K Ciaphas Cain novels. This week, I’d like to introduce some of the classic military SF novels for your consideration, starting with what is arguably the seminal military SF novel: Robert Heinlein’s, Starship Troopers, not to be confused with Paul Verhoeven’s movie of the same name. Heinlein’s novel is a combination of Bildungsroman, philosophy lecture, and hard-fought tales of combat against an implacable alien foe. The book won the Hugo Award for best novel in 1960. It has been accused of being a fascist tract by people who fail at reading comprehension, but you should be ignoring idiots like that anyway. Inspired two other great novels which I’ll touch on a little bit later.
People tend to forget that before he turned to crime, L. Ron Hubbard was one of the most popular SF writers of the Golden Age, along with Asimov, Heinlein, and van Vogt. One of the reasons why was the hugely controversial Final Blackout, a dystopian tale of infantry combat in the ruins of a Europe devastated by a centuries-long World War II in which no weapon – atomic, biological or chemical – was left unused, with the end result being orders of magnitude worse than World War I. In this continental abattoir we find The Lieutenant and his hardy platoon of survivors, recalled at last to GHQ for a nefarious purpose – but The Lieutenant has plans of his own. The novel hasn’t aged well; obviously Hubbard was completely wrong in his projection of events in Europe, and his depiction of an imperialist America seeking Lebensraum in Europe goes over no better now than it did in 1940. Needless to say, his sly depiction of the Communist government of Great Britain would be equally as unwelcome to those who’d be fine with the “un-American” tone. For all its defects, it’s still a taut little adventure tale, well worth the $2 for a used paperback copy.
People moan over Robert Jordan’s incomplete Wheel of Time series, and worry about whether George R.R. Martin will live long enough to finish A Song of Ice and Fire, but I think the field’s first and worst loss in series prematurely ended by the author’s death was Gordon R. Dickson’s Childe Cycle, of which Soldier, Ask Not was one of the more famous pieces. Unusually for the genre, this novel’s main character isn’t a soldier; he’s a news reporter on a mission of revenge. Tam Olyn has a grudge against the mercenary soldiers of the Friendly worlds, worlds rich in nothing but faith and manpower that is hired out as mercenaries to other worlds, and he thinks he’s found a way to utterly destroy them. Unfortunately for humanity, he may be right. This novel was originally a Hugo-winning short story and had other material added to extend it into a novel and make it a better fit to the rest of the Childe Cycle. Other novels in the cycle that fall into the combat SF category include Tactics of Mistake and Dorsai!.
A little over a decade after Starship Troopers won the Hugo, Analog magazine published the hugely controversial “Hero” by Vietnam War veteran Joe Haldeman. “Hero” sparked months of angry letters and equal amounts of praise, most notably from Heinlein himself; much of the controversy stemmed from the feeling that Haldeman had deliberately set out to write a story that was everything Heinlein’s wasn’t. More stories followed and eventually the stories were knit together to become the novel The Forever War. William Mandella’s war against the Taurans is very different from Johnny Rico’s against the Skinnies and Bugs, mainly due to the lack of FTL travel and the consequent effects of time dilation, which have unfortunate effects on Mandella and (from his perspective) human society, and of course his UN isn’t Rico’s Terran Federation, either. Good book -it won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, an uncommon feat- but somewhat depressing.
About a year after “Hero” came out, Jerry Pournelle introduced a mercenary officer, John Christian Falkenberg, who’d recently been cashiered from the CoDominium Marines. “The Mercenary” told the tale of Falkenberg’s hiring by the newly independent world of Hadley to train their constabulary – one that would be badly needed as the planet slid towards anarchy thanks to the masses exiled from Earth to Hadley by the CoDo Bureau of Relocation. This novella eventually expanded into several novels and a trilogy co-written with S.M. Stirling about the Helot Wars on Sparta which take place as the CoDo itself is breaking up until nationalist pressures. Often criticized for not having enough ray guns, lasers and other high tech, the stories nonetheless are entertaining tales of small colonial wars (Okay, the Helot War is actually damned sizable) and small-unit leadership. The entire series (including the Stirling collaborations) is collected in The Prince*, or you can just get the Falkenberg stories in Falkenberg’s Legion.
H. Beam Piper never won any awards, but he was one of the most entertaining SF writers of the 1950s, and Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen is one of the reasons why. State Trooper Calvin Morrison gets accidentally sucked into a cross-time transporter while hunting a criminal in the Pennsylvania forest, and thanks to quick reflexes and a good memory, manages to land on his feet in the feudal principality of Hostigos, which is about to be crushed for want of gunpowder…and Morrison remembers the formula. The combat is mostly Thirty Years War style, as the newly ennobled Lord Kalvan tries to save Hostigos and its gorgeous Princess Rylla from the forces of Styphon, the Gunpowder God while avoiding the attentions of the Paratime Police. Also available in the The Complete Paratime collection with the rest of Piper’s Paratime Police stories; the loose ends are tied up in Great Kings War by Roland Green and John F. Carr.
I’ve talked about David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers previously; but I also want to put in a plug for another coming of age story, Ranks of Bronze, which tells the tale of a Roman legion that survives Crassus’ defeat by the Parthians and is sold to new owners…non-human owners. Many years later, Jim Baen pressured Drake into a sequel, which became the anthology Foreign Legions. Both very much worth reading.
John Perry is an old man of seventy-five when he decides to enlist in the Colonial Defense Forces. Fortunately for him, the CDF is going to grow him a spiffy new body with a BrainPal implant and upgrades to strength, dexterity and durability. He’ll also get nanotech weaponry – and he’s going to need all those things to survive in a very hostile universe. And that’s how John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War begins. In a lot of ways, Scalzi’s book is a lot closer to Starship Troopers than to The Forever War, advances in technology aside. The book is tightly written with brutally realistic depictions of combat against all manner of hostile aliens; despite this, Scalzi’s book is neither the morass of existential depression that Haldeman’s book often is, nor does it lapse into classroom lectures as Heinlein’s does. There are three sequels (not counting the chapbook The Sagan Diaries) of which I think The Ghost Brigades is the best.
Last but certainly not least, there are Keith Laumer’s Bolos. Introduced in the 1960 short story “Combat Unit”, these cybernetic supertanks have as much in common with the panzers of Hammer’s Slammers as a contemporary M-1 Abrams has with a Renault FT-17. Initially, the first Bolos are just bigger, heavier and nastier main battle tanks, but as computer technology (and weapons technology with it) advances and AIs are developed, it’s not long before Bolos don’t need much more than a human commander on board to backstop the computer that’s running the show. All six of Laumer’s original stories are included in the anthology The Compleat Bolo; but wait, there’s more! In the year of Laumer’s death (1993) Baen Books began publishing collections of new Bolo stories by David Drake, J. Andrew Keith, Barry Malzberg and others. The first of these, Honor of the Regiment:, was followed by eleven others along with separate novels by David Weber, William H. Keith, and John Ringo. The novels and most of the stories are excellent, and there aren’t really any bad ones. Good brain candy, at the very least.
*Also available as an e-book From Baen.