The Charms and Terrors of Military SF

I took some heat recently for describing some of Jerry Pournelle’s
SF as “conservative/militarist power fantasies”. Pournelle uttered a
rather sniffy comment about this on his blog; the only substance I
could extract from it was that Pournelle thought his lifelong friend
Robert Heinlein was caught between a developing libertarian philosophy
and his patriotic instincts. I can hardly argue that point, since I
completely agree with it; that tension is a central issue in almost
eveything Heinlein ever wrote.

The differences between Heinlein’s and Pournelle’s military SF are
not trivial — they are both esthetically and morally important.
More generally, the soldiers in military SF express a wide range
of different theories about the relationship between soldier,
society, and citizen. These theories reward some examination.

First, let’s consider representative examples: Jerry Pournelle’s
novels of Falkenberg’s Legion, on the one hand, and Heinlein’s
Starship Troopers on the other.

The difference between Heinlein and Pournelle starts with the fact
that Pournelle could write about a cold-blooded mass murder of human
beings by human beings, performed in the name of political order,
approvingly — and did.

But the massacre was only possible because Falkenberg’s Legion and
Heinlein’s Mobile Infantry have very different relationships with the
society around them. Heinlein’s troops are integrated with the society
in which they live. They study history and moral philosophy; they are
citizen-soldiers. Johnnie Rico has doubts, hesitations, humanity.
One can’t imagine giving him orders to open fire on a stadium-full of
civilians as does Falkenberg.

Pournelle’s soldiers, on the other hand, have no society but their
unit and no moral direction other than that of the men on horseback
who lead them. Falkenberg is a perfect embodiment of military
Fuhrerprinzip, remote even from his own men, a creepy and
opaque character who is not successfully humanized by an implausible
romance near the end of the sequence. The Falkenberg books end with
his men elevating an emperor, Prince Lysander who we are all supposed
to trust because he is such a beau ideal. Two thousand years of
hard-won lessons about the maintenance of liberty are thrown away
like so much trash.

In fact, the underlying message here is pretty close to that of
classical fascism. It, too, responds to social decay with a cult of
the redeeming absolute leader. To be fair, the Falkenberg novels
probably do not depict Pournelle’s idea of an ideal society, but they
are hardly less damning if we consider them as a cautionary tale.
“Straighten up, kids, or the hero-soldiers in Nemourlon are going to
have to get medieval on your buttocks and install a Glorious Leader.”
Pournelle’s values are revealed by the way that he repeatedly posits
situations in which the truncheon of authority is the only solution.
All tyrants plead necessity.

Even so, Falkenberg’s men are paragons compared to the soldiers in
David Drake’s military fiction. In the Hammer’s Slammers
books and elsewhere we get violence with no politico-ethical nuances
attached to it all. “Carnography” is the word for this stuff,
pure-quill violence porn that goes straight for the thalamus. There’s
boatloads of it out there, too; the Starfist sequence by
Sherman and Cragg is a recent example. Jim Baen sells a lot of it
(and, thankfully, uses the profits to subsidize reprinting the Golden
Age midlist).

The best-written military SF, on the other hand, tends to be more
like Heinlein’s — the fact that it addresses ethical questions
about organized violence (and tries to come up with answers one might
actually be more willing to live with than Pournelle’s quasi-fascism
or Drake’s brutal anomie) is part of its appeal. Often (as in
Heinlein’s Space Cadet or the early volumes in Lois
Bujold’s superb Miles Vorkosigan novels) such stories include elements
of bildungsroman.

The Sten sequence by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch was
both a loving tribute to and (in the end) a brutal deconstruction of
this kind of story. It’s full of the building-character-at-boot-camp
scenes that are a staple of the subgenre; Sten’s career is carefully
designed to rationalize as many of these as possible. But the Eternal
Emperor, originally a benevolent if quirky paternal figure who earns
Sten’s loyalty, goes genocidally mad. In the end, soldier Sten must
rebel against the system that made him what he is.

Cole & Bunch tip their hand in an afterword to the last book,
not that any reader with more perception than a brick could have
missed it. They wrote Sten to show where fascism leads
and as a protest against SF’s fascination with absolute power and the
simplifications of military life. Bujold winds up making the same
point in a subtler way; the temptations of power and arrogance are a
constant, soul-draining strain on Miles’s father Aral, and Miles
eventually destroys his own career through one of those

Heinlein, a U.S naval officer who loved the military and seems to
have always remembered his time at Annapolis as the best years of his
life, fully understood that the highest duty of a soldier may be not
merely to give his life but to reject all the claims of military
culture and loyalty. His elegiac The Long Watch makes
this point very clear. You’ll seek an equivalent in vain anywhere in
Pournelle or Drake or their many imitators — but consider
Bujold’s The Vor Game, in which Miles’s resistance to
General Metzov’s orders for a massacre is the pivotal moment at which
he becomes a man.

Bujold’s point is stronger because, unlike Ezra Dahlquist in
The Long Watch or the citizen-soldiers in Starship
, Miles is not a civilian serving a hitch. He is the
Emperor’s cousin, a member of a military caste; his place in
Barrayaran society is defined by the expectations of military
service. What gives his moment of decision its power is that in refusing
to commit an atrocity, he is not merely risking his life but giving up
his dreams.

Falkenberg and Admiral Lermontov have a dream, too. The difference
is that where Ezra Dahlquist and Miles Vorkosigan sacrifice themselves
for what they believe, Pournelle’s “heroes” sacrifice others. Miles’s
and Dahlquist’s futures are defined by refusal of an order to do evil,
Falkenberg’s by the slaughter of untermenschen.

This is a difference that makes a difference.

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  1. May the spammers reward be a slow painful death from cancer . Their death moans will be sweet music to all . Sadly they can only die once .
    I actually am depressed that the hell of judeochristian ethos is a fantasy as *MY* fondest fantasy is all the spammers/scammers/virus writers burning there foe longer than eternity .

    But one CAN dream eh ?

  2. But that Falkenberg novellette is a _horror_ story.

    Pournelle seems to me to be saying that the true evildoers were those who allowed things to get to the stage where the massacre was the least evil option.

  3. When you actually look at what Pournelle wrote about his own stories (particularly the Falkenberg series), it doesn’t support this interpretation. As Chittleborough says, that novellette is a _horror_ story. Although not in an easily recognizable form, because the monsters involved have human faces.
    It’s worth looking at what Pournelle has actually said that he _believes_ (he’s basically libertarian, as far as I can tell). Because he’s one of those authors who writes with a flat affect. That is, he can describe a horrible event without telling you how to feel about it. Which means that his fiction is not necessarily the best way to get at his personal beliefs or attitudes.
    Because SF writing tends toward the contemplative end of the spectrum, we tend to expect authors to tell us what to think (or what _they_ think, or what some designated hero thinks) about what we’re seeing. Some authors don’t do that, though. And their stories can only teach you lessons if you are paying attention to _why_ things are happening and _how_, rather than only looking at the descriptions.
    A shallow, bloodthirsty person might read those stories as carnography. Of course, they can and do do the same with Starship Troopers. Such books are meant to be read with the brain fully engaged and firing on all cylinders, and they are easy to misread.

    Something similar occurs with Drake. He writes stories about soldiers who are quite prepared to act as ‘coup troops’ (Hammer’s Slammers), or about [space] sailors who possess all the qualities of 18th-19th century imperialists… the bad as well as the good (the Lt. Leary series).
    But he’s not doing it out of love for atrocities, military coups, and imperialism. Rather, he’s trying to express a message about what violent conflict really _is_. That real wars are rarely fought by happy warriors who do their d__dest to spare civilians, even if it means placing their own lives in dire peril. That there have been, and almost certainly will be, remarkably different attitudes toward the world; levels of ferocity, racism, and so forth that are barely comprehensible to turn-of-the-millenium Western audiences.
    And that the people who hold these attitudes are not necessarily inhuman, even though they may well be inhumane.

  4. Military SF authors find it a difficult road in the often extremely liberal world of sci-fi conventions. Right now it’s all the rage to bash the President, the administration, and the military – and God forbid anyone should express a different opinion.

    I do find fault with much of how we’re conducting business around the world, but when I meet or speak to a current or former serviceman (or woman), I thank them for their service. That being said, it’s also clear to me that many SF fans shy away from so-called military SF (including my own) because they believe that I hold opinions which are monolithic, militaristic, and completely unpalatable. First and foremost, though, I’m trying to tell a story, not foster a political position. I find that hard to get across sometimes. Often.


  5. >Military SF authors find it a difficult road in the often extremely liberal world of sci-fi conventions.

    Walter, you need to hang out with libertarians like me more. While we have are own serious issues with the current U.S. government, we don’t tend to have succumbed to Bush Derangement Syndrome.

  6. ‘Jonnie Rico has doubts, hesitations, humanity. One can’t imagine him giving orders to open fire on a stadium full of civilians as did Falkenburg.’

    Starship Troopers opens with Jonnie Rico repeatedly using nuclear missiles on civilian power plants while using a flamethrower in personal encounters, and using a racial slur- ‘Skinnies’. When PJ O’Rourke wrote that Marines were calling Ethiopians Skinnies I hoped he was wrong. (Maybe he was; a Force Recon guy who was maimed there just calls the locals ‘those f–ers’.
    Note that Rico’s ‘doubts’ are expressed in worried, only half-convinced excuses for not just using a big hydrogen bomb to kill everyone in the city (on the planet?).

    Pournelle’s character is not someone you’d want to need. And the use of Bellisarius’ stadium massacre in science fiction IS creepy. However, in Pournelle’s book the ‘civilians’ have shot it out with a regiment of riflemen and won before Falkenberg sneaks in and whacks them.

    Whistling in the dark here- Pournelle’s character IS a creepy loner modelled on lightly idealized Italian fascism, and Johnnie Rico IS a fine upstanding red-blooded All-American herot with Pilipino charm. Reread the first chapter of Starship Troopers and tell me I’m wrong. Heinlein watched newsreals of heroic US troops using flamethrowers. Did he cheer? They really were heroic.

    Read Ronald Syme before you badmouth Drake. I don’t quite mean ‘don’t badmouth Drake’. Just read ‘Roman Revolution’ and ‘Sallust’ first. Worth doing for it’s own sake.

  7. Took me a while to find this, I’m rather late to the party.

    But don’t be a Platt. You so completely do not get Drake that it’s breathtaking.

    This may interest you- he’s a hacker. Isolated, orphaned from the main hacker culture, but one nevertheless. He’s an antiquities hacker. He translates difficult passages from ancient literature in their original Latin for *fun*. His attitudes towards competence, skill and craftsmanship you can see all through his writings.

    Also, he has a powerful, lingering case of PTSD. The most horrible things you see in his writing, he sees (again, first time was in SE Asia) when he closes his eyes. Try reading ‘Redliners’, it’s where his “nightmares on paper” writing style finally gets to the point. It’s therapy, and also a couple of different lessons. Actually, it makes rather good reading for anyone with PTSD-type problems.

  8. REALLY late to the party…

    If you look at the end of the particular Falkenberg story you cite, Falkenberg himself explodes at the new President when told he has saved civilization on that planet. Oh, and Falkenberg’s soldiers DID try to avoid non-combatant casualties – his orders were mainly to fire on armed men. The volley fire was only after the protesters were warned.

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