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
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
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
Troopers, 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
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.