The Other McCain

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

The Mud Below

Posted on | November 6, 2021 | Comments Off on The Mud Below

— by Wombat-socho

“We’ve left blood in the dust of twenty-five worlds,
and our dead on a dozen more,
and all that we have at the end of our hitch,
buys a night with a second-class whore.

“The Senate decrees, the Grand Admiral calls,
the orders come down from on high,
It’s ‘On Full Kits’ and sound ‘Board Ships,’
We’re sending you where you can die.”

– March of the CoDominium Line Marines (verses 1 & 2), from Jerry Pournelle’s The Prince

Welcome back to the continued trashing of what may be the worst list of recommended SF not published on In this post, we’re going to talk about combat SF that is set on planetary surfaces, the province of the poor bloody infantry, tankers of various sorts, and of course the Mobile Infantry with its several imitators. 

Which is really where we should start, with Uncle Bob’s seminal novel. Starship Troopers is a surprising book for a lot of people; unlike many of the books we’re going to look at later, it’s not primarily about combat, and there’s a lot of time spent on the questions of why soldiers fight and how governments come about. This is because the book is a coming of age story, the story of how Johnny Rico matures from clueless high-school kid to a hardened professional soldier, a man among men. Contrary to the assertions of New Wave attention whores and their Pink Goo descendants, there is not one word in the book that praises fascism nor one example of how the Terran Federation in any way resembles Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, or even Franco’s Spain. But as we all know, facts and logic are tools of the patriarchal conspiracy. Read the book anyway.

I don’t think it’s really possible to understand Joe Haldeman’s Forever War and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War without reading Starship Troopers, since these books were both written as responses to/knockoffs of Heinlein’s novel. Haldeman’s novel, originally published as a series of short stories in Analog in the early 1970s, was extremely controversial at the time for its depiction of mandatory sex among the draftee soldiers of the UN Expeditionary Force, as well as its very negative attitude toward the military and what turned out to be an unnecessary & pointless war. One could even point out that Haldeman’s novel has little in common with Heinlein’s except that Mandella & Rico both use powered armor and rise from private soldier to commanding officer – but there again, Mandella has almost nothing in common with his cloned soldiers at the end except that they’re both human. Sort of. It is very much a product of the Vietnam War, which is logical since Haldeman spent a year there as a combat engineer and joined the Vietnam Veterans Against The War on getting out. As for Scalzi’s book, it has even less in common with Starship Troopers – it is not a coming-of-age novel, there is very little philosophizing about war and the military, and in fact it’s pretty obvious that Scalzi neither spent time in the military nor around veterans of any vintage. It’s a decent book, and not an obvious ripoff like Fuzzy Nation, but if you didn’t read it, you wouldn’t be missing a whole lot.

There have been many bad reviews of David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers, but one of the worst and most surprising came from the otherwise respectable Eric S. Raymond, who pretty clearly demonstrates that he didn’t understand what Drake (or Pournelle) were getting at. The mercenaries of Hammer’s Regiment (originally the Auxiliary Regiment of Friesland’s army) are not good people, for the most part – they’re just very, very good at their business, and their business is killing. It’s no secret that Drake, a Vietnam vet like Haldeman, modeled the Slammers on the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment he served with there, and for which he still feels a strong bond. Anyhow, the Slammers are an armored regiment, whose core is the hideously expensive, fusion-powered, and powergun-armed main battle tanks, but a lot of the stories deal with the troopers in the combat cars, futuristic versions of the M113 expedient cavalry fighting vehicles that eventually became the M3 Bradley. The series has grown from the first story, “Under The Hammer”, to the anthology and several novels, which were eventually combined into a three-volume set. I submit that you cannot intelligently discuss combat SF if you haven’t read at least the first anthology, which really encompasses the entire history of Hammer’s regiment.

At the other end of the technology spectrum, there is Drake’s Ranks Of Bronze.  Purchased in a Persian slave market by alien traders, the survivors of Crassus’ disastrous defeat at Carrhae now fight for their alien masters under strange suns against stranger opponents, for the traders’ law prohibits the use of higher technologies against primitive natives. This is a coming of age story as well – we see Gaius Vibulenus Caper mature from a young officer to the unquestioned commander of his legionaries, and in the process, finding a way home for his men and himself while teaching the aliens not to underestimate the intelligence of humans – or their ferocity.

In the middle, there is Raj Whitehall. Co-written with S.M. Stirling, the five General novels (since collected in a bewildering variety of anthologies along with the five sequels set on other planets) depict a young officer of the Gubernio Civil on Bellevue, which has after four millenia recovered from the crash of interstellar civilization to a 19th-century level of technology, but with riding dogs in place of horses. When we first meet young Whitehall, he’s exploring the ruins beneath the capital city of East Residence with his friend Thom Poplanich when they encounter a relic of the Pre-Fall times: a sector command & control computer, which imprisons Thom in stasis and chooses Raj to be its agent in unifying Bellevue. Center gives Raj a certain amount of assistance, showing him possible results of his actions, giving him an eidetic memory, providing him historical information, and minor tweaks to his own physical ability – at one point, Raj shoots a grenade out of the air with Center’s help. With this assistance building on his own charisma and talents, Whitehall recapitulates the career of the Byzantine general Belisarius (though with a happier ending) by defeating the barbarian Military Governments and finally the Muslims of the Colony, whose technology is equal to the Gubierno Civil and whose best general, the one-eyed Tewfik, is almost as good as Raj even considering Center’s help. The comparison of the civilized Gubierno Civil and its Latino population to the “blond, blue-eyed barbarians” of the Military Governments is a running joke, as is the conflict between the official computer idolatry of the Church of the Spirit of Man of the Stars and Raj’s own (secret) status as an Avatar of the Spirit through his connection with Center. The best place to start is with the original anthology, Warlord, which contains the first two books, followed by Conqueror, which has the last three books of the original series. 

S.M. Stirling makes for a good transition to the next book, since he pretty much wrote the last third of it. The Prince is the Falkenberg’s Legion omnibus, encompassing Jerry Pournelle’s original story, “The Mercenary”, the novels West of Honor and Sword & Scepter, the short story “Peace With Honor”*, and the three novels of the Helot War on Sparta, (Prince of Mercenaries**, Go Tell The Spartans, and Prince of Sparta) which is where Stirling comes in. There’s also some interstitial material shedding light on Senator Bronson’s hatred for Falkenberg and other matters. Amazon doesn’t help in its listing of these novels; they have the order of the Helot War novels scrambled, and Prince of Mercenaries is omitted from the listing of the “CoDominium Future History”. At any rate, critics (including the aforementioned ESR) howled about the Falkenberg stories; usually not so much about the politics, oddly, but about the lack of futuristic weaponry carried by the CoDominium Marines and by Falkenberg’s mercenaries. This is annoying, because it’s explained in several of the stories exactly why the predominant weapons are chemical-powered slugthrowers instead of lasers and blasters, but some people apparently can’t understand simple English. Except for a brief scene at the beginning of The Prince, we don’t see Falkenberg as a young man; he is always the cold, remote senior officer we see in “The Mercenary” and West of Honor, and we see that façade break only twice: when he loses his temper with President Hamner in “The Mercenary” and towards the end of Sword and Scepter, when it seems he’s allowing himself to fall in love again. I have been told by people I respect that one should avoid John Carr’s Falkenberg’s Regiment*** like the plague; I sell it to you for what I bought it, as our Russian friends say. 

No article on combat SF would be complete without a brief discussion of Keith Laumer’s Bolo stories. Self-aware robotic tanks of enormous size, with the later versions being able to devastate entire continents with their Hellbore main gun and onboard missile batteries, the history of the Bolo Combat Units extends from contemporary times to the far future of the 31st century and beyond. All of Laumer’s original stories, from “Night of the Trolls” to “Combat Unit” are included in The Compleat Bolo, which seems to have been reissued as Annals of the Dinochrome Brigade if you’d rather have it on Kindle. Baen Books published a series of anthologies expanding the Boloverse, and the best of those anthologies (which were very good indeed) were collected in Their Finest Hour. The David Weber, John Ringo, and William Keith novels written as part of the series were also worth your time.

Finally, a short story which is unfortunately overlooked, although Steve Jackson Games did credit it as one of the inspirations for their game OGRE. Colin Kapp’s “Gottlos” is a grim little tale, quite unlike the Bolo stories; in tone, it has a lot of similarities to L. Ron Hubbard’s Final Blackout, although things haven’t completely come apart – yet. Manton is the pilot of a remotely-controlled warmech, Fiendish, that has dominated the battlefield until one day it encounters an enemy warmech that proceeds to defeat and systematically dismantle Fiendish, until all that remains is the camera, which shows the nameplate on the enemy mech, which reads simply GOTTLOS. Manton hits the self-destruct on Fiendish, and has to be slapped back to his senses by his commander. The remainder of the story covers Gottlos’ stalking of Manton, until the final confrontation when he finally realizes what Gottlos actually is, and what it wants from him. Unfortunately, the story has only been reprinted once to the best of my knowledge, and the prices demanded for used copies of Analog 8 and the November 1969 issue of Analog on Amazon are nothing short of extortionate. The Unz Review used to have a PDF copy up, but apparently got slapped with a copyright demand, but if you can find a copy somewhere else, it’s well worth reading. 

* This is not, strictly speaking, a story about Falkenberg or his men, but like some of the stories that are, it helps you get a picture of just how bad the CoDominium is, and the price otherwise decent men pay to hold it together, knowing that the alternative is far worse.
** Prince of Mercenaries is a fixup novel that incorporates “His Truth Is Marching On” and “Silent Leges”, and I occasionally wonder if this was a tryout for Stirling to see if he had a good enough grip on the characters to write the other two Helot War novels. It introduced a great character, the hotel girl Ursula Gordon, who has a decent role in Go Tell The Spartans but then got written out of Prince of Sparta completely. Damn shame. 
*** Not to be confused with an earlier collection of the CoDominium/Falkenberg stories, Falkenberg’s Legion. This is essentially the same book as The Prince, lacking only four pages of interstitial material that the latter has

Previous posts in this series:
“And what is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good – need we anyone to tell us these things?”
The Stars Above

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