It is remarkable—though never remarked—how few writers have been soldiers in wartime. Kipling, who wrote of soldiers and soldiering as well as anyone ever has, was never himself a soldier. I believe I am correct in saying that Hemmingway was never a soldier, although he drove an ambulance and was wounded in combat. Avram Davidson presents a peculiar case; as a Marine medic in World War Two he was technically a sailor, although he wore a Marine uniform and treated wounded Marines in the South Pacific. Subsequently he jumped through all sorts of legal hoops to stay out of the Israeli Army while fighting Arabs, since service in the army of a foreign nation would have cost him his US citizenship.
Such are the exceptions—some of the few writers at the edge of military service who were, or may have been, shot at.
David Drake is a writer of the rarest kind. He knows soldiers because he has been one, and knows war because he has been there. He knows more: he knows how to speculate plausibly about the future of soldiering and the future of war.
People who know as little of science fiction as most science fiction writers know of war believe that the business of science fiction is to predict the future—to extrapolate rationally from present trends, and, especially, present fads.
We should thank God that it is not. Rational extrapolation is a pistol, effective only at short ranges and not very effective there. The duty of science fiction is to tell us not what will be, but what might be, what the future
More and better than any other writer, David Drake does this for the wars of the future and the men and women who will fight them. Like every science fiction writer, he assumes that certain technological developments have taken place. He also assumes, as all who write science fiction are forced to, that certain others have
We can argue with any assumption found in any science fiction story. It will give us a good bull session, and perhaps even a bit of enlightenment. Still, we cannot rationally deny these assumptions. In science, it is the happy fate of human kind to know what is possible but not what is impossible. In 1946, anyone who said that all the wars to come in the Twentieth Century would be non-nuclear would have been laughed to scorn.
On what basis, then, can we judge a science fiction writer’s assumptions? (Assuming that they seem relatively plausible.) Reading any story in this book will supply the answer. Good science fiction assumptions are those that lead to a good science fiction story.
Ah, but what is a good science fiction story? That is a question we might debate endlessly. I can no more give you a definitive answer than the next reader of David Drake’s next book can. But by references to Dave’s stories in this one, I can illustrate my own opinions. I will try to do it without hurting those stories for you—the last thing I want to do is deprive you of the pleasures this book affords.
First, a good science fiction story gives us that famed sense of wonder. The intricacies of future tank warfare do that for me, and you will find plenty of those here.
Second, a good science fiction story gives us a place to stand on, something that checks with our own experience. At some point in the story, we need to say to ourselves, “Why, I’ve been there!” Or, “I knew her!” Or, “That’s just how it was for me!”
I find a number of these in the stories in this book, and so will you. My favorites—my own dear pets among them all—are the open-topped combat cars the Slammers use for recon. I rode in open APCs (Armored Personnel Carriers) once, you see, and hunkered down as the shells banged and boomed outside and the shrapnel screamed overhead.
Third, a good science fiction story must be a good
Here I am going to set off on a private rant—stop me if you can. War stories written by people who know nothing of wars and even less of the men and women who fight them often tell us at great length that those men and women are dehumanized, and try their damnedest to show them like that. Soldiers are often tired enough to drop, and people tired enough to drop are seldom as quick with a quip as the cast of
I have known one man, a fellow soldier long ago, whom I considered dehumanized. He grasped his rifle tightly just about all the time, and although we tried to keep ammunition away from him, it was impossible where we were: that rifle almost always had a round in the chamber, and the safety was always off. Looking ahead, and looking left and right, and looking behind him without cease, he repeated: “There ain’t no Chinks around here, I want to go back to Baker Company. I want to go back to Baker, there ain’t no Chinks around here. There ain’t no Chinks around here, I’m goin’ back to Baker Company, ain’t no Chinks around here.” We had him instead of Baker Company because we were about a mile behind the Main Line of Resistance just then, while Baker Company was on line and manning outposts.
Also because the guys in Baker Company were threatening to kill him before he killed them. He was suicidally courageous, would never remove the filthy fatigue cap he wore under his helmet, and had other peculiarities. I once met him on a dusty road as he walked along muttering to himself and kicking a human head as boys used to kick tin cans. (If I had been as quick as I like to pretend, I would have suggested he take it to the Battalion Intelligence Officer for questioning.) When we, too, began threatening to kill him, the brass at last concluded that he was not simply angling for a Section Eight.
The point of all this is that this one soldier was unlike anyone else in our company, and was in fact certifiably and dangerously psychotic. And that he was a lone exception among the hundreds of soldiers I fought behind, beside, and now and then in front of. Ken Clough was perhaps the sanest man I have known. I watched him one day when he was caught in a mortar barrage; and just when I felt certain he had been killed, he rolled onto his back and lit a cigarette. Lieutenant Wilcox, who killed thirteen enemy in one day with a thirty-eight, was thoroughly human and as fine an officer as I ever saw.
I have been telling you about all this, because I know that some of you will not know it. I would not tell David Drake the same thing because I know that he knows it already. You will find it here, in every story he writes. Men and women do not stop being women and men because they are out where the metal flies, and that is the wonderful, the truly miraculous, thing about them. Now and then the experience even knocks a bit of the pretence and pettiness out of them, and that is the glorious thing about a real shooting war, otherwise such a mess of pain and waste.
I sat in on a late-night party once in which the subject of friendship came up, and I listened in dumbstruck incredulity as one man explained that his friends had to like the same things he did—that they must not only read the same books and magazines he did, and listen to the same music, but pretty much share his opinions of all those things. He was followed by an attractive young woman who insisted that her friends had to be of her social and economic class. At that point I made all of them shut up while I explained that a friend is someone who will give you a drink from his canteen and watch while you sleep.
You will find the waste and horror and cruelty of war in the pages that follow, and the glory of it, too, as well as the friendships formed when there’s little cover or none and the enemy has the range.
Now go to it!