Cry Havoc!

So I’ve been teaching a little course for the college’s civic arm called “Cry Havoc! Science Fiction Goes to War” about – appropriately enough – military science fiction. I’ve always loved the genre, but until I started prepping for the class I never really considered it as a whole, and now I wish I had always looked at it as a continuum instead of as individual books. I’ve known for a long time how much of an excellent mirror science fiction is when it comes to examining society, but when it comes to our outlook on war it’s perhaps especially potent. 

We started with Starship Troopers, which is one of those books that I simply re-read over and over again, at leas two or three times a year. As a writer, I am amazed every time at the construction of the narrative – it is perhaps the best example I know of how to do a S. Morganstern-ish “the good parts” narrative that moves freely among the best elements of the story while not wasting even a single word on unnecessary exposition. Author geekery aside, it also serves as a great meditation on the changing perspective on military conflict from the end of WWII through the Korean War, as we were confronted with a new and different kind of enemy we struggled to understand. A lot of my students had only been exposed to the movie before, so teaching them the book was a particular delight. Rico is a disarming narrator – a gee-whiz kid in power armor – and that made it easy to get them in the mindset for the rest of the fiction.

After that we tackled Forever War, and the mood in the room changed noticeably. Many of my students are older, and this remains The War for them, one which must be addressed carefully. A few of them served in it, and the others knew people who did. There was a quote I found when I was preparing the lesson on the book: “Vietnam remains the only American war about which one must apologize before speaking.” I couldn’t reliably attribute it, but the sentiment seemed right – while we had some fantastic discussions of Haldeman’s pro-pacifist attitude and the way he tackled scientific implications of concepts like relativity in his fiction, there was always a little tension, especially when the young folks like myself spoke up.

Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, was next, another of those books I find myself re-reading on a regular basis, and while we looked at it as a product of the Cold War, it was also interesting to note that it marked a shift away from writers who had military experience to those that didn’t. It’s not a question of quality – you don’t need to have been a soldier to write strong military fiction, any more than you need to have been a homicide detective to write good murder mysteries – but there is a shift in what gets focused on. Card’s book is philosophical, with the technology largely serving as a backdrop to the action of the story, while Heinlein and Haldeman are much more interested in the nuts and bolts of soldiering, the details like kit and drills and chain of command that are a grunt’s whole universe. My students also struggled with the ages of the characters involved, but that’s normal – you have to keep reminding yourself how young they are to really feel the impact of what’s going on, and the parallels to the so-called “Cold War kids” generation are really powerful.

In a couple of hours, we’re finishing up with Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, and I’m really excited, mostly because it’s the first time I’ve taught it and I’m eager to share it with the class as it was shared with me. While I normally dislike heavy comparisons, as they imply a book can’t stand on its own, I really believe it combines the best military elements of Starship Troopers with the hard sci-fi edge of Forever War, all without missing the human component of the conflict (as Ender’s Game covers so well). Not only that, but it also manages some genuine humor and even an element of mystery, which all told makes for a very satisfying package. I’ve already heard some good things about the book from my students who’ve been reading in advance of this class, so I think we’re really going to have a great discussion.


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