The Other McCain

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


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.


47 Responses to “Groundpounders”

  1. MrEvilMatt
    August 15th, 2013 @ 6:44 pm

    Groundpounders: – Wombat-socho Last month I did a compare & contrast between John Ringo’s Legend of the Allden…

  2. CHideout
    August 15th, 2013 @ 6:44 pm

    Groundpounders: – Wombat-socho Last month I did a compare & contrast between John Ringo’s Legend of the Allden…

  3. jwbrown1969
    August 15th, 2013 @ 6:44 pm

    Groundpounders: – Wombat-socho Last month I did a compare & contrast between John Ringo’s Legend of the Allden…

  4. Lockestep1776
    August 15th, 2013 @ 6:44 pm

    Groundpounders: – Wombat-socho Last month I did a compare & contrast between John Ringo’s Legend of the Allden…

  5. Citzcom
    August 15th, 2013 @ 6:44 pm

    Groundpounders: – Wombat-socho Last month I did a compare & contrast between John Ringo’s Legend of the Allden…

  6. Quartermaster
    August 15th, 2013 @ 7:05 pm

    Those that think “Starship Troopers” is a fascistic tract know nothing of political systems. To that type, anything that makes requirements of citizenship they don’t agree with is fascistic. Heinlein’s view of Citizenship in the novel is actually what the founders viewed as correct. You were expected to enroll in the local militia and maintain arms suitable for such service. While FedGov does not have that expectation now, every able bodied male from 17 to 47 is liable to call out under fedlaw. Personally, I have no problem of not being allowed to vote if you haven’t/won’t serve.

    The Mercenary Trilogy (“Prince of Mercenaries” and the Helo War novels) by Pournelle have been hailed by military officers as good personal development books. The battle scenes are as good as it gets in print, but the attitudes required of the leadership is the important part. Would that politicians would read the series with an open mind, but I know that’s a ridiculous expectation/desire. They are “rollicking good yarns.”

  7. arioch1066
    August 15th, 2013 @ 7:26 pm

    I’ve never understood why the Sten series by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch, as well as The Regiment series by John Dalmas, are never brought up in these discussions.

  8. rustypaladin
    August 15th, 2013 @ 7:29 pm

    As an addition to “Ranks of Bronze”, David Weber expanded his short story ” Sir George and the Dragon” from the anthology “Foreign Legions” into the book “The Excalibur Alternative”.

    The story “The Last Command” from the anthology “The Complete Bolo” is still one of my favorites.

  9. Wombat_socho
    August 15th, 2013 @ 7:33 pm

    I always thought of Sten as more space opera than ground-based military SF, but I’ll talk about it next week. The Dalmas books, I haven’t read and I don’t know many people who have.

  10. Wombat_socho
    August 15th, 2013 @ 7:34 pm

    He did indeed, but you have to stop somewhere. As for “The Last Command”, it’s definitely one of the best Laumer stories, period.

  11. richard mcenroe
    August 15th, 2013 @ 7:51 pm

    “MacGregor’s plan, for want of a weaker word, was to insult the guards until they stormed into the cell full of pissed-off Ghurkas to get some payback…”

  12. richard mcenroe
    August 15th, 2013 @ 7:52 pm

    And of course, the immortal: “…Lad, ye dinna come here for tha shootin’, did ye?”

  13. JeffWeimer
    August 15th, 2013 @ 8:17 pm

    I really want more Falkenberg stories. I know they expanded to formally include the Motie stuff, but that happened much later, so they don’t really fit. I want more – more Spartan Empire and how they fought the last of the CoDominium, or between his Navy cashiering and his rise as a tactical and strategic genius in the Marines.

  14. K-Bob
    August 15th, 2013 @ 8:33 pm

    Gordy Dixon is one of my top five favorite writers. I really, really looked forward to his planned book on John Hawking. He never got to it because he wanted a publisher to give him an advance before starting the work, which was really odd, I thought. Understandable, from an “I get paid to write” perspective, but not from a body-of-work perspective.

    I’ve actually had commerce with what Dixon called The Creative Universe. I swear it’s as real as this one. I go in there (in my mind) and pull out stuff that is just sitting there. All I have to do is go get it. I don’t think it’s fair to say I came up with it on my own. Writers and musicians know what I mean. You just see it or hear it there, and go get it. I have no better explanation.

    I’ve read the Childe Cycle books and a few others of his at least six times. I never got into the Robert Jordan stuff, though, even though I tried a few times. Odd, that.

    Jerry Pournelle sits in on the occasional This Week in Tech podcasts over at twit (.tv). He always brings a solid historical perspective, and he’s great to hear on those (if you can stand listening to tech geekery, too).

    Thanks for bringing those up. When I finish a current project, I expect to go re-read some favorites.

  15. arioch1066
    August 15th, 2013 @ 8:47 pm

    I can see your point about Sten being space opera. But there is a LOT of ground combat in them. And of course the spotted snakes story alone makes them worth reading. Sadly. I think a lot of Dalmas has gone out of print.

  16. Wombat_socho
    August 15th, 2013 @ 9:28 pm

    Amazon to the rescue!

  17. Wombat_socho
    August 15th, 2013 @ 9:30 pm

    It’s especially irritating since Dickson had been talking about the Hawkwood novel since 1974 -at least. Well, at least we still have Cletus Grahame.

    Jerry Pournelle’s blog is also well worth reading. He knows a lot of interesting people and they all send him stuff.

  18. Wombat_socho
    August 15th, 2013 @ 9:36 pm

    One of these days Toni Weisskopf at Baen might talk him into opening the Formation Wars period up to other writers a la the War World anthologies. We can always hope.

  19. Wombat_socho
    August 15th, 2013 @ 9:37 pm

    So THAT’s where that joke came from. I should have known.

  20. Soylent Green
    August 15th, 2013 @ 9:53 pm

    Awesome march down sci-fi memory lane. I neglected several of those titles in my youth. Thanks for the tips.

  21. Dianna Deeley
    August 15th, 2013 @ 10:58 pm

    I want to jump into this discussion, but I am beat. I’ll hope it’s still running tomorrow.

  22. jakee308
    August 15th, 2013 @ 11:45 pm

    I believe that they did a respectable wrap up of Jordan’s WOT series. At worst they could’ve gone for one more book but on the whole it was not a bad rendering of Jordan’s intent (of course I have not idea whether Robert would agree).

    George RR Martin’s tiresome hobby on the other hand isn’t worth the time or the money. (IMO) And since he’s a lefty douchebag, his death would only diminish the human race and fictional prose in the normal degree. (bong bong)

  23. K-Bob
    August 16th, 2013 @ 12:15 am

    Yep. Been reading it since he first put up his “Daybook.” I always enjoyed the fact that an SF writer was also the proprietor of a product review and testing lab. So the first page I turned to in every eight-pound issue of Byte was his Chaos Manor column.

  24. Eric Ashley
    August 16th, 2013 @ 1:14 am

    Thanks for this.

    OMW was not that great.

  25. Wombat_socho
    August 16th, 2013 @ 1:44 am

    I didn’t much like The Forever War, either, but you can’t really leave either of them out.

  26. Knitebane
    August 16th, 2013 @ 2:43 am

    Wait. MilSciFi and no mention of Honor Harrington?

  27. smallearth
    August 16th, 2013 @ 4:02 am

    Robert Heinlein was a fascist, c’mon admit it. But he wrote damn good stories…

  28. Deb
    August 16th, 2013 @ 4:43 am

    Evidence in support of your assertion would be…?

  29. K-Bob
    August 16th, 2013 @ 5:00 am

    Your comment get the High Level Ignorance award.

    Well done. Golf claps, everyone.

  30. K-Bob
    August 16th, 2013 @ 5:01 am

    You can always wake it up!

  31. Quartermaster
    August 16th, 2013 @ 9:05 am

    Heinlein was strongly libertarian. Starship Troopers, as I recall, was really how he saw things should operate as far as citizenship was concerned.
    As an aside, The Movie, by the same name, was a real turkey and was stupid that was not faithful to the novel.

  32. richard mcenroe
    August 16th, 2013 @ 10:19 am

    That joke had grey and grizzly hair on decades before Cole and Bunch filed the serial numbers off. But you can’t beat the classics.

  33. richard mcenroe
    August 16th, 2013 @ 10:23 am

    If you want Hawkwood, try Conan Doyle’s The White Company.

    Hawkwood anecdote. As he rode past two wandering monks one day, one of them called out “God give you peace!”
    Hawkwood turned and snapped back, “God take from you your alms!”
    When the monks demanded to know why he would wish such a terrible thing on them, he answered, “You would wish me to starve.”

  34. richard mcenroe
    August 16th, 2013 @ 10:25 am

    We’re eeeeevil conservatives. Strong wimmins scare some of us. Kinda like the old farts on Grayson. *g*

  35. rmnixondeceased
    August 16th, 2013 @ 12:29 pm

    Brickbats would be more appropriate …

  36. RMNixonDeceased
    August 16th, 2013 @ 12:29 pm

    “Brickbats would be more appropriate …” — rmnixondeceased

  37. Unix-Jedi
    August 16th, 2013 @ 2:47 pm

    – Cmdr Foraker, PRHN

  38. Unix-Jedi
    August 16th, 2013 @ 2:48 pm

    OMW at least was SCIENCE-fiction. There was that.

  39. Wombat_socho
    August 16th, 2013 @ 3:48 pm

    You fail at reading comprehension. Go look at the post title and meditate on it until next week.

  40. Wombat_socho
    August 16th, 2013 @ 3:50 pm

    You clearly don’t know WTF a fascist is. Heinlein started out in the Social Credit movement, was active in the California Democratic Party as an anti-Communist, anti-Technocrat, and only late in life became a libertarian. All this is recounted in his biography, which you clearly haven’t read.

  41. Wombat_socho
    August 16th, 2013 @ 3:51 pm

    “Showgirls Troopers” had a couple of amusing scenes. I’m particularly fond of Grueppenfuehrer Doogie’s appearance toward the end of the movie.

  42. K-Bob
    August 16th, 2013 @ 5:54 pm

    Heh. You mausoleum guys always go for the masonry.

  43. K-Bob
    August 16th, 2013 @ 6:07 pm

    I expected Doogie to touch that big bug at the end and say “They like me! They really like me!”

  44. Gahrie
    August 16th, 2013 @ 6:20 pm

    The Dalmas books are a good read, but the fighting is almost incidental to the story.

  45. rmnixondeceased
    August 16th, 2013 @ 7:35 pm

    Whatever is close at hand …

  46. Calvin Dodge
    August 17th, 2013 @ 12:21 am

    “Fascist” is lefty for “dictatorships we don’t like”, to differentiate them from the dictatorships they do like (Communist). It’s one of their favorite synonyms for “conservative”, on the lefty theory that fascists were conservative (providing they ignore the support Fascists received from the Left before WWII).

  47. Robert the Biker
    August 18th, 2013 @ 2:12 pm

    Also worthy of reading is Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker stories about the near indestructible alien war craft and humanitys battles against them