In defense of military science fiction
April 23, 2011 | 10:55 pm
In the Guardian books blog, Damien G. Walter takes a poke at military science fiction in general and Baen in particular with an article entitled “Military science fiction shouldn’t simplify the complexity of war.” The thesis of this article seems to be that military science fiction unnecessarily glorifies war and the military-industrial complex, while in real life war is nasty and evil and therefore stories about it are perpetrated by the same sort of neo-conservatives who are getting us into war in real life.
He seems to base this thesis on the back covers of one or two of the Honor Harrington books (his comments about the series indicate that, like so many bashers of popular culture, he hasn’t actually bothered to read the things he’s talking about. Since when does Honor Harrington defeat “one alien menace after another”? With one minor exception, they’re all humans!) and the Battlestar Galactica TV series.
This argument comes from the same school of thought that holds first-person shooter games turn innocent little angels into Columbines waiting to happen, or that Dungeons and Dragons and Harry Potter are “gateway drugs” to Satanism. It’s voodoo magic: as with sticking pins into a voodoo doll to harm a person, he seems to think that the incidence of real-life war can be reduced by beating on a straw man.
He’s also got the politics wrong, at least as far as Honor Harrington goes. The politics of the Honor Harrington series is decidedly middle-of-the-road—both liberal and conservative extremists come in for vilification and ridicule. Furthermore, a significant chunk of Harrington spinoff novels are written by Eric Flint, a noted Trotskyist. That’s just about as liberal as you can get.
Military SF, for all its flaws, points at the gaping divide growing wider each day in western culture. On the one side, it seems, are the Guardian reading liberals, for whom war is good for nothing, and nothing more than a failure of understanding and communication between peoples. On the other are military SF loving conservatives, who believe that the enemy is out there, is evil, and can be defeated by heroes carrying very big, very expensive weapons. One of us is living a fiction. Let’s hope it’s them, not us.
I would suggest that the person living a fiction is Mr. Walter, who presents a false dichotomy if ever there was one.
A fascination with matters military is not liberal or conservative. It’s endemic to the human condition. Our brains are wired for conflict. We appreciate conflict in all its forms, be it as physical as tackle football or as intellectual as an argument between two competing philosophies. And we want to read about heroes overcoming adversities. (Read some Campbell, why don’t you.) We find it cathartic.
To enjoy reading (or writing) military fiction is not necessarily to be pro-war. Indeed, some writers of it—such as Weber—are pretty clearly anti-war. Honor Harrington is not some kind of a war-hungry neo-conservative hawk—she goes to great lengths (especially later in the series) to try to work for peace, even standing up to her rather formidable monarch to do it (not an easy thing). She feels quite deeply every sacrifice, every death under her command—as do the readers, thanks to Weber’s habit of killing off characters whom readers have come to like and identify with. The war-mongering conservative hawks tend to be painted as villains (and not very competent ones to boot).
Weber himself has harsh words for people who write stories glorifying war:
Military fiction in which only bad people—the ones the readers want to die—die and the heroes don’t suffer agonizing personal losses isn’t military fiction: it’s military pornography. Someone who write [sic] military fiction has a responsibility to show the human cost, particular [sic] because so few of his readers may have any personal experience with that cost.
But then, Walters would know all this if he’d actually read the books. (“Alien” menaces. Sheesh.)
Even the stories of John Ringo and Tom Kratman, whose arch-conservative politics lend their stories more readily to this sort of criticism (including the one in which Germany is saved by a revived and reformed SS), involve characters who are really unhappy about the ongoing wars and would much rather be kicking back with a cold beer. (Many of whom will, of course, not survive to get that chance—Ringo seems to agree with showing the costs of war by character deaths, including especially tragic ones such as when one character unknowingly kills his own father.)
I don’t doubt that there are plenty of works of “military pornography” out there, but there are as many or more stories that serve to show the horrors of war rather than glorify it. For example, in Robotech, a seminal work of animated military science fiction from the 1980s, beloved characters die on-screen in demonstration of war’s tragedy. In one part of it, humanity and its enemies eventually find they have more in common than not and subsequently make peace; in another part, the heroes travel a land that has been decimated by war and meet victim after victim of what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. (One of the main characters is such a person, in fact.) Perhaps Mr. Walters should be more selective in his prejudices and not tar all military fiction with the same brush.
I think it’s a lot better that people should experience war in fiction than that they should do so in real life. And I think it’s more likely that people who get their fill of it in fiction won’t see as much of a need to bring it about in real life.