Sunday, April 26, 2020

Book Review: In the Field of Fire

Book Review: 'In the Field of Fire' edited by Jeanne Van Buren Dann and Jack Dann
4 / 5 Stars

The paperback edition of 'In the Field of Fire' (415 pp.) was published by Tor Books in November 1987. The cover art is uncredited.

[ It's not easiest of 80s sci-fi anthologies to find, otherwise I would have included it in my special 'Vietnam Month' retrospective of July 2109. ]

This book is very 80s.

You'll likely want to be listening to Paul Hardcastle's 1985 single '19' while reading it.

In 1987, the year 'In the Field of Fire' was published, the pop culture fascination with the Vietnam War was going strong, as audiences went to see the movie Full Metal Jacket. The next year, the TV drama China Beach would air. 

The overarching theme to the stories collected in 'In the Field of Fire', Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among Vietnam veterans, was a very high-profile topic in many media outlets, as exemplified in the since-notorious 1988 CBS documentary CBS Reports: The Wall Within

In the popular culture of the mid-80s, the PTSD theme was so synonymous with the Vietnam war that in the 1987 comic book Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, when Bruce Wayne first sets out to be a vigilante, he disguises himself as a Vietnam War veteran:
Many entries 'In the Field of Fire' also adopt the phantasmagorical portrait of the war as outlined in the 1979 movie Apocalypse Now. Still other entries adopt the ideology of the war as an orgy of All-American racism and bloodlust, as evinced in the My Lai massacre and the 'Hill 192 Incident'.

Rather than provide capsule summaries of all 22 stories in the anthology, I'll instead provide a broad overview:

The best story in 'Field' is Brian Aldiss's 'My Country 'Tis Not Only of Thee', which re-envisions the Vietnam War as a civil war in the UK early in the 21st century (!) The UK is divided into northern and southern halves by the Cotswold Wall, with the U.S. providing military assistance to the South. Aldiss clearly intended his story to be an allegorical denunciation of Thatcherism, but the sheer coolness of the concept of a postmodern War of the Roses undermines his effort at polemic. I finished 'My Country' thinking that 2000 AD comics could do something fabulous with the concept.

Other noteworthy entries include Kate Wilhelm's 'The Village', which depicts the My Lai massacre in a different light, and Gardner Dozois's 'A Dream at Noonday', in which a seeming hallucination morphs into a stark reality.

Multiple authors seek to fuse the supernatural into war stories. The best of these attempts are Lucius Shepard's two contributions, 'Delta Sly Honey' and 'Shades', Craig Kee Strete's 'The Game of Cat and Eagle', and Bruce McAllister's 'Dream Baby'.

Vietnam as an especially bad 'trip' is explored in Robert Frazier's 'Across Those Endless Skies'.

More representative of traditional science fiction themes are Ben Bova's 'Brothers', and Richard Paul Russo's 'In the Season of the Rains'.

PTSD among returned vets is dealt with by Charles L. Grant's underwhelming 'The Sheeted Dead', as well as Harlan Ellison's 'Basilisk', Lewis Shiner's 'The War at Home', Dave Smeds's 'Goats', and Susan Casper's 'Covenant with A Dragon'. 

Stories focused on the homefront experience tend to be unimpressive; these include 'Letters from Home' by Karen Joy Fowler, 'Deathtracks' by Dennis Etchison, and 'The Memorial' by Kim Stanley Robinson. 'Credibility', by John Kessel, is markedly superior to these, and an effective treatment of the 'Stolen Valor' theme.

Barry M. Malzberg's 'The Queen of Lower Saigon' is an incoherent example of authorial self-indulgence, and the worst entry in the anthology.

The last entry in the anthology is by Joe Haldeman, with the poem 'DX'. It's a decent enough poem, I suppose, but it's something of a disappointment; I was expecting something more substantive from Haldeman, the only contributor to 'In the Field of Fire' who was a combat soldier in the Vietnam War. It may have been that all his other writing projects at the time prevented Haldeman from submitting something more expansive.

Summing up, in 1987, 'In the Field of Fire' was a 'right time, right moment' examination of the embodiment of the Vietnam War in the pop cultural consciousness of the U.S. Somewhat inevitably, the passage of time has considerably lessened the resonance this anthology had when it first appeared. Sci-fi fans with an interest in the genre as it stood in the mid-80s definitely will want to get a copy, but I doubt younger, contemporary sf readers will find it very engrossing. 

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