David Drake, and the Purpose of Sci-Fi

From a previously mentioned article on Drake’s stories, I just want to grab two quotes:

The Hammer’s Slammers stories became Drake’s trademark, for better or worse. And when Jim Baen moved to Tor and then founded Baen Books, David Drake became one of his trademark writers, so much so that in 1984 when Bruce Sterling, in the course of founding the cyberpunk movement in his fanzine Cheap Truth, attacked Baen Books, he named David Drake, Jerry Pournelle, and Vernor Vinge as symbols of Baen, and of the military/militarist right wing. At that point Drake’s fiction fell out of the serious discourse in the SF and fantasy field, with very little questioning of the accuracy or merits of Sterling’s attacks, or the virtues of Drake’s writing. It was military and that was enough.

Ignorance is unfortunate, but understandable…

…but Ignorance with Arrogance is disgusting.

But this is an introduction to a volume of Hammer’s Slammers stories, and so I’d like to mention a few things that might not be immediately obvious. Certainly Drake uses both his detailed knowledge of military history and his own experiences and observation from his service in Vietnam to construct what is probably the most authentic military SF fiction of this era. But it appears to me that he is often doing a great deal more and that his fiction can yield up some surprising additional benefits.

For instance, his early story,”Ranks of Bronze,”and the later novel of that title, adapts a real historical event (a lost legion of Roman soldiers, Crassus’ mercenaries?see Drake’s afterword to the novel) and translates it into SF. A Roman legion is snatched from Earth into space to be used as mercenaries owned and operated by superior aliens out for profit, to fight relatively low-cost, low-technology wars on alien planets against alien races, with whom they have no personal quarrel, and perhaps only dimly comprehend. No one in the legion has any choice in this. The soldiers behave in a convincingly plausible way, the way Roman soldiers would. They are a very effective fighting force and can most often win. They are moved without notice from one planet to another, fight (sometimes die). They are wretched.

This is military SF with the contemporary politics stripped off, and removed from the level of policy decisions. The soldiers go to a place. They are told who to fight. They win or die. They go to the next place. This is, it seems to me, the true experience of the ordinary fighting man or woman in a military organization throughout history, who has very limited choice. Various individuals manifest good or bad behavior, sanity or craziness, cleverness or stupidity. And luck matters. No one has the big picture, which may be known when the fighting is over and may not. The ones who do the job best tend to survive and perhaps rise in the ranks. Some of them are bad and or crazy, but not stupid, which leads to death. There is very little moral choice possible, but the characters we tend to admire are those who are sane, careful, and make moral choices as they can. And try to live with them afterward. There is no access to those who make policy in Drake’s military fiction. All in all it is a fairly dark vision of human life.

By using SF as a distancing device, and by further using classical mercenaries as soldier characters, Drake constructs a fictional space in which he can investigate and portray certain kinds of human behavior, heroism, loyalty, cowardice, the strategic working out of detailed military actions and the impact on them of individuals behaving well or not, of high and low technology for killing functioning properly or not. And he can do this with something analogous to clinical detachment as the killing commences, without advocating policy.

This isn’t my style — I’m always advocating something, hating something, admiring something, puzzled about something — but I have a deep respect for Drake’s viewpoint, goals, and insights.

No one who reads Drake properly can imagine him advocating war. War exists and Drake chooses or is compelled to portray it as it is, and has been, and might be close up. This military SF is not military pornography but rather a form of horror fiction (see “The Interrogation Team,” for instance). It is not intended to deaden the sensibilities to the horrors of war, but to awaken them. Like Ambrose Bierce’s “Chickamauga.” Like Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage.” Or sometimes like Tolstoy’s descriptions of the advance of Napoleon’s armies on Moscow in War and Peace. Historical parallels abound in Drake’s stories, but distanced into space and the future. This is the same David Drake as the horror writer, not a different person.

There is immense sympathy for the character who has done repulsive things in battle to win, and finds it difficult to live with himself afterward. There is much evidence in Drake’s personal afterwords to his books that he identifies with that position and that it relates to his own military experience (see, for instance, his essay “How They Got That A Way”). That is how we most often return to experience the horror, through personal connection with character, after our detachment has been required by all the distancing devices. If you remain detached, you are not getting it, or rather by saying to yourself, in effect undisturbed, “yes, this is the way war is,” you are denying any broader literary meaning. This is the paradox of Drake’s military fictions.

Drake understands why and how Bad Things Happen better than I can hope to: but I am glad that he shared his insights on just how things got that way. A true heart and a keen eye, there.

I still think that within the next thousands years, large scare organized aggression – ‘war’ – will be obsolete. But it’s a long way to AD 3000, and we should know what’s going on in the military in the meantime. This is especially true for those governments which are primarily republican, rather than monarchical, corporate, or imperial.

(And sadly, even if war per se falls by the wayside, there are still murderers, gangs, and – what I loathe most – lies.)

About Alvin Plummer

I enjoy playing in the huge sandbox that Classic Traveller represents. Come along for the ride!
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2 Responses to David Drake, and the Purpose of Sci-Fi

  1. Rob says:

    I’ve never viewed Drake’s stories as being a “positive spin” on war; on the contrary, I think any fiction that portrays war usually tends to showcase the ugliness it represents. And I really don’t think shaming creators into bypassing war as a vehicle for honest storytelling does anything but make it more mysterious and less real. War should be portrayed, and portrayed honestly, as sometimes avoidable, sometimes necessary, but always tragic and horrific.

    Just my opinion.

  2. Andrew says:

    In the Drake Slammer’s novel “Rolling Hot”, a civilian reporter learns first-hand what price war is. At the end of the book, his accomplishments are acknowledged by a veteran. It is a heartbreaking scene if one takes it in context of what the character had just gone through.

    His collection of short stories based on his Vietnam experiences, “Grimmer than Hell”, is a nightmarish combination of Lovecraft and Drake’s own morbid writing style. “Arclight” is one of my favorites, and still gives me the bad tinglies up the spine when I think of it.

    “Killer” is ‘Alien meets Roman Empire’ but so much more. Highly recommend that book for its insights into Roman life.

    He’s not the smoothest writer. Nor does he go into a chapter on just types of whales or harvesting like two famous writers have done. But he gets to you. Deeply gets to you. Like Heinlein with his ‘juvenile’ series, but darker.

    I got to understand why some of my dad’s friends and, later, my friends, had that darkness behind their eyes.

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