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War In Science Fiction.

It is my contention that there is a thriving sub-genre of written SF which concerns itself with war and which argues in favour of it. However I believe that this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Apart from a brief flurry of activity in the early days of the field, it is a theme which has generally been conspicuous by its absence, and I want to examine the possible reasons for this.

So come with me on a journey though time. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin...

There's a pleasing attractiveness to the idea of war as the driving theme of a story. It's such an obvious plot vehicle. People who are different are seen as a threat and the only way to deal with them is to stomp on them. It's a principle that has guided human history for as long as there has been human history and it shows no sign of going away. Yesterday the enemy to be stomped were the communists. Today they are Muslims. Tomorrow they might very well be Martians. It's an obvious progression.

H. G. Wells knew this when he wrote The War of the Worlds and started a trend.

The writers who took up the challenge of science fiction were quick to adopt his ideas. Early authors like Edmond ("World-Wrecker") Hamilton and Jack Williamson and "Doc" Smith went roaring around the galaxy decimating all and sundry. But it didn't last long, for it was  a very limiting theme. The boundaries were reached all too quickly. The early literature was structurally quite primitive and all it did was pile thrill upon thrill, peril and spectacle upon spectacle and peril. There isn't much to explore in a theme like this when your story is just one long special effect. All you have to work with are tedious militaria and ever more elaborate weapons of mass destruction. After "Doc" Smith destroyed a planet by simultaneously crashing two other planets into it from opposite sides, there really didn't seem to be anywhere else to go. How do you top a spectacle like that? The writers who followed virtually ignored the subject.

There were social pressures as well. World War I ended in 1918 and it destroyed a whole generation. The survivors found nothing glamorous in war and the literature that came out of it was dark and bitter. All Quiet on the Western Front and Goodbye to All That and Her Privates We were definitely about war but they didn't glorify it. Even Hemingway (in For Whom The Bell Tolls) gave us the bitterness and the pain, despite the fact that he was a manly man and very gung ho about the whole business. The people who faced Hitler in the 1930s had far too many horrible memories and they wanted to do anything except fight. There were very good reasons for Chamberlain's appeasement policies in 1938, misguided though they seem in retrospect.

Those same inter-war years saw the birth of modern science fiction and the writers could not help but be influenced by the times in which they lived. The glamour and attractiveness of war as a solution to a social or political threat remained a minor theme in the new literature.

Isaac Asimov summed the feeling up for his generation in his Foundation stories. "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent", he told us, and he went on to prove his case through hundreds of years of galactic history. The golden age of SF had little to say about war. Aliens were seldom threatening and even when they were, there were other, more subtle ways of dealing with them.

Then came World War II which ended with the nuclear holocausts over Hiroshima and Nagasaki and for the first time we began to see that we had sown the seeds of our own destruction.  

Again, the mainstream novels that came from this war condemned the futility of it. From Here to Eternity, and The Naked and the Dead, and Catch-22 showed us the pain and the absurdity and the truth. Like the generation before them, these war novelists told it like it was and the memory of the horror was slow to die. Fictional war, particularly science fictional war, was seldom a legitimate theme (unless you wanted to condemn it).  Certainly it wasn't an over-riding concern.

But what was legitimate was to examine the effects of war. It seemed clear that war was now synonymous with nuclear extinction, and the next war might very well be the last war. The writers who lived in the shadow of the bomb explored that probability in their science fiction. Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz was perhaps the most damning of these books for it showed us that even the people who survived the holocaust were doomed to repeat it. The novel opened just after the days when the cold war grew hot and it ended generations later when the missiles flew again. It was the bleakest reminder of all that often we learn nothing from history.

Those of us who grew up in those times took that message to heart. The British SF novelist John Brunner was an active member of the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament). He went on many of the Aldermaston marches and he wrote the song that was the national anthem of the British peace movement - The H-Bomb's Thunder. He even wrote a novel (not science fiction) called The Days of March about the CND campaign.

The mood of the times was decidedly anti-war. Robert Heinlein successfully bucked the trend with Starship Troopers but it owed its success largely to the fact that despite the surface trappings it wasn't about war at all. It was about freedom, morality and the right to vote. As a result it was hugely controversial; not least because it said that the only people who should have the right to vote are those who have served their country. Heinlein chose to dramatize this by telling a tale about a man who served his country in the military; though to be fair he went to great lengths to point out that many other forms of service were possible. War was a secondary theme in the book and merely provided the drama that illustrated the sub-text. So he got away with it.

The winds of war blew cold in the years that followed World War II and American cold war hysteria peaked in the 1960s. Building your own fall out shelter was all the rage. I've actually seen some of these shelters on the campus of UCLA. They use them as storerooms now, but once they were places to go to when the Russians made their pre-emptive strike. Heinlein wrote about that as well, in Farnham's Freehold.

And then came Vietnam. It was the first major war of my generation. I was lucky - I lived in England, a country that did not send soldiers to it. But nevertheless it scarred me, just as it scarred America and most of the rest of the western world. Night after night my television set showed me carnage and destruction and death. A child ran down a road and she screamed as the napalm burned her. A soldier shot a Viet-Cong prisoner in the head and he died on prime time TV and his blood and brains leaked into the gutter while everyone watching was eating their dinner. It wasn't fiction, it was fact. It seemed like the end of times had come. We lost what little respect we had for our leaders and our societies and we tried to tear it all down. There were, quite literally, riots in the streets.

Joe Haldeman wrote War Year, and he wrote The Forever War and he wrote 1968. It seemed that he couldn't leave the idea alone. Vietnam scarred him more than most. He was very seriously wounded in Vietnam and for years afterwards, both literally and metaphorically, he picked shrapnel from his body as it came up to the surface of his scars.

We got the message from Haldeman and others that there was no glamour in war, that it is really a tragedy and never a triumph.

There were others who disagreed. Jerry Pournelle (who, it should be noted never actually fought in a war) not only wrote jingoistic future-war novels, he also edited a nine volume anthology called There Will Be War. He seemed to regard it as inevitable.

Jerry's friend, Larry Niven, invented an alien species called the Kzin who lived to fight. War was a way of life to them. These aliens spawned a myriad anthologies of stories by lesser writers. The series was called The Man-Kzin Wars and for a time it seemed that we were back with Hamilton, Williamson and Smith. Aliens! Yuck! Let's stomp them.  War was starting to seem attractive again.

David Drake, who was himself a Vietnam veteran and therefore presumably knew whereof he spoke, wrote a series of SF war novels about Hammer's Slammers which were fiercely militaristic.  This seemed to start a trend and he was followed in quick succession by many others such as John Ringo and David Weber and Eric Flint.

The last twenty years or so have seen a huge rise in the popularity of these series and now they sprawl all over the bookshelves.

I find it significant that the exact same period of time has also seen no real wars of any great duration, and no casualty lists of any great length. No generation in that time has been scarred as previous generations were - at least not in the affluent west where the literature we are discussing is written. Today, for almost the first time in SF history, war (and the romance of it and the glorification of it) is not only a legitimate theme, but also an extremely popular one. Memories fade, the horrors die away. The new generation mocks the old. History repeats.

I'll be curious to see what happens to this sub-genre if the current war against Iraq turns into another debacle like Vietnam, a possibility that seems all too likely.

If there is a theme of war in science fiction, it is because of the times in which the books are written; it is because intolerance is upon us, and once again we are seeing huge threats to ourselves in social, political and religious differences and our gut reaction is to lash out. Our society hasn't matured, though once we thought it had. Our leaders are incompetent and sometimes they are corrupt. Violence is their last refuge, and it is their first as well.

All that science fiction is doing is holding up a mirror to reality, just as it has always done.

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