The Other McCain

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

“And what is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good – need we anyone to tell us these things?”

Posted on | October 23, 2021 | Comments Off on “And what is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good – need we anyone to tell us these things?”

— by Wombat-socho

Well, yes, Socrates, in this decadent and depraved age we do indeed need people to point out what is good, because Our Moral SuperiorsTM have spent the last couple of decades trying to sell us polished turds masquerading as good literature. This is especially evident in science fiction, where the once-prestigious Hugo Awards have been reduced to nothing more than a feeble marketing device for Tor Books’ parade of Pink Goo writers. Nobody with any sense relies on the Hugos as a guide to what is good in SF, any more than anyone thinks the Oscars are a good guide on where to spend your movie money. This brings us around to this regrettable article by Major General Mick Ryan and Duke postgrad student Nathan Finney, which is chock-full of Hugo & Nebula Award winners and horribly short on actual combat SF writers. Tl;dr: John Scalzi and N.K. Jemisin get twelve mentions on this list, while David Drake, Gordy Dickson (who pretty much invented the subgenre, ffs), David Weber, and Robert Heinlein get five – and Heinlein gets mentioned not for Starship Troopers, which was the direct inspiration for two of the books that are on the list, but for Stranger In A Strange Land.

Now, I will grant you that Ryan and Finney are not confining themselves to combat SF but are more broadly concerned with using SF as a tool to get officers to think, but do Jesus, this is an awful list of generally awful books. The whole point of combat SF, as Gordy Dickson and others have often said, is to show the effects of war on the people fighting the war and the societies involved. So why drag in a bunch of SF books (for example, The Left Hand Of Darkness and Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?) that have nothing to do with war? The commenters on Instapundit’s post have ripped on the heinous omissions from the list, and I will mention some of their suggestions, but let’s just burn the list to the ground, save some of the useful stones from the foundation, and compile our own list of useful and edifying (mostly military) SF. 

In The Beginning
We’ll keep Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, even though it’s an expy of Gibbon’s much longer Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire, because it’s a (sorry) foundational part of the whole SF genre and does a decent job of covering the economic, political, and social changes that change the Foundation from a bunch of scholars off in the middle of nowhere into a galactic power. It also introduces the notion of psychohistory. Dickson’s Tactics of Mistake also stays; it is chronologically the first of what came to be called the Dorsai books, though it was published long after The Genetic General, because it shows how Cletus Grahame started the Dorsai mercenaries down the road to becoming super-soldiers. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War also stays; Joe meant it as a Vietnam vet’s bitter rebuttal of Uncle Bob’s Starship Troopers and was genuinely surprised that Heinlein actually liked it. I didn’t care for H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, myself, but the Big Idea of humanity nearly helpless before the invading aliens was one that stuck, along with the notion of aliens invading because they wanted our stuff. Another building block of the SF field. In place of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, let’s go with The Man In The High Castle; the latter is one of the great alternate-history novels and quite possibly PKD’s best book, even if he let the I Ching tell him where the plot was going. Finally, it would be silly to omit the anthology that really created the idea of combat SF and made it a subgenre of its own: Combat SF, edited by Gordy Dickson and unfortunately out of print, but the paperback is well worth having, since there’s some excellent writing by authors ranging from Poul Anderson to Gene Wolfe. 

Because it doesn’t fit neatly into the list of basic books or the categories to follow, the There Will Be War anthologies edited by Jerry Pournelle & John F. Carr get their own separate paragraph. These include some of the legendary stories of the field and some excellent tales from the 1970s, 80s, and 90s along with a lot of late Cold War history, and articles on what became the Strategic Defense Initiative. The final volume, published in 2015 by Castalia House, deals with more contemporary issues but still upholds the standard set by the earlier volumes in terms of fiction. 

This is already getting lengthy, and I’m going to break the rest of it up into two parts: combat SF on planetary surfaces, and combat SF in space.

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