Monday, January 19, 2009

Book Review: 'Combat SF' edited by Gordon R. Dickson

4/5 Stars


Nowadays military-themed SF is quite in vogue and profitable, with some publishers – such as Baen Books – emphasizing works within this genre. Other publishers choose to focus on releasing books dealing with licensed characters and settings derived from military SF, such as the Black Library’s ‘Warhammer 40,000’ material that takes up a significant chunk of retail bookstore shelf space.

This definitely was not the case back in the 70’s. ‘Combat SF’ (1975), edited by Gordon Dickson, was one of the few anthologies in hardback or paperback that was conceived as a venue for military SF. In the aftermath of the Viet Nam war it was considered unseemly, if not slightly obscene, to glorify (however mildly) warfare and the military. The political and sociological climate was such that it was quite difficult for writers of SF to market any story or novel that presented soldierly behavior in an approving light.

Joe Haldeman’s ‘The Forever War’ (1974) set the tone for this era’s approach to the military by presenting even heroic actions on the part of enlisted men and women as futile, if not patently absurd, sacrifices. The generals, politicians, and industrialists who ran things were not only indifferent to the sufferings of those under their command, but criminally inept in carrying out the overall strategic aims of the war.

In 1975 Jerry Pournelle and Gordon Dickson were two well-known, published authors who adopted what was then considered a highly reactionary stance, by insisting that sometimes war, and war heroes, were necessary evils (an attitude that earned them some opprobrium from the SF community at large). In ‘Combat SF’ Dickson focused on assembling stories that regarded war and violence from a number of different political and moral viewpoints.

The first story, ‘The Last Command’, is a Bolo tale from Keith Laumer. An elderly tank commander is forced out of retirement when a robotic tank long buried under war debris reactivates and threatens an entire city. Here the tenor is one of admiration for those Old Soldiers who selflessly served, and continue to serve, their country.

‘Men of Good Will’, by Ben Bova and Myron R. Lewis, is considerably more cynical. The Cold War has transported itself to the Moon and despite the inherent hazards of fighting in such a hostile environment , well, we know the Commies and the Yanks still are going to go at it - even if it involves something like suicide...

Joe L. Hensley contributes ‘The Pair’, a low key but effective tale of how sometimes, just the briefest of moments of inter-species understanding may bring a prolonged conflict to an end. This is less a tale of combat than one of peace-making.

David Drake’s ‘The Butchers Bill’ is one of the earliest appearances by the ‘Hammer’s Slammers’ mercenary outfit. There’s not much in terms of Deep Message here; just the nuts and bolts of combat, and dealing with employers who start to have second thoughts about hiring someone else to do their dirty work.

‘Single Combat’, by Joseph R. Green, is one of the more imaginative and gripping tales in the anthology. On a planet occupied by a primitive tribal culture similar in many ways to ancient Africa, Kala Brabant, a human bioengineered to resemble the natives, must carry out an edged-weapon duel with a member of a rival tribe. The narrative entails multiple points of view, but in the story’s climax everything ties together, and Green provides a powerful ending.

Poul Anderson’s much-anthologized time travel tale, ‘The Man Who Came Early’, winds up here in ‘Combat SF’. I suppose there are enough military nuances to the story to make it worthy of inclusion. It’s more of a reflection of how thin the pickings were for military fiction back in ’75, that it winds up being selected for its military merits.

Fred Saberhagen contributes a ‘Berserker’ tale with ‘Patron of the Arts’. There’s really not much in the way of combat or violent action in this entry, which is more of a rumination on the topic of man Vs machine.

Joe Haldeman’s ‘Time Piece’ (1970) is essentially the short story that served as the basis for his later novel ‘The Forever War’. It’s a well-written, hard-hitting story of far-future combat. The philosophical implications of travel to and from distant planets at faster-than-light speeds are neatly woven into the action, and the story’s ending is blunt but effective.

Editor Dickson contributes ‘Ricochet on Miza’. Not a combat story per se, but more of a taut and well-told tale of a hunter and his seemingly helpless prey.

Harry Harrison provides ‘No War, Or Battle’s Sound’. How can you go wrong with a story that opens with this line: “Combatman Dom Priego, I shall kill you,” Sergeant Toth shouted the words the length of the barracks compartment. ‘Battle’s Sound’ does a good job of presenting the physics of combat among starships suspended in interstellar space. At times the story carries with it the tongue-in-cheek tone Harrison often employed in works such as ‘The Stainless Steel Rat’, but the levity is countered by the graphic description of wounding and dying among the airless hulls and passageways of the contested spaceships.

‘His Truth Goes Marching On’ is Jerry Pournelle’s contribution to ‘Combat SF’. It’s a Spanish Civil War-inspired tale taking place on a distant planet where Rebels and Government troops, mainly conscripts on either side, spend most of their time in wearying marches, ignorant of the why- or where - fore, before tumbling into sharp and bloody engagements that come and go with shocking rapidity.

The final story in the anthology is Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Horars of War’. The Horars are androids fighting for the US Army in a near-future war taking place against a nameless enemy, in a jungle setting reminiscent of Viet Nam. Amidst scenes of violent combat, the truth about the deployment of the androids is revealed; there is a cynical and downbeat tone to this story. Of all the entries in ‘Combat SF’, ‘Horars’ best fits the prevailing mindset among US writers and intellectuals in the immediate post-Viet Nam period.

Overall, ‘Combat SF’ is a worthy take on military SF way back when it had a more… clandestine…. character than it does today. Readers of ‘new wave’ and 70’s SF will want to have a copy in their collection.

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