The Best Military Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century edited by Harry Turtledove with Martin H. Greenberg

Best Military SF Cover

New York, NY: Del Rey Books, 2001; $18.00 trade paperback; 544 pp.

Reviewed by Matthew Appleton

This review originally appeared in the October 2001 issue (#158) of The New York Review of Science Fiction.

The need to wage war is a trait that nearly every human culture shares. As the ultimate extension of politics, acts of warfare wholly or partially define many of the turning points in human history. Writers throughout the ages, building upon and sometimes even borrowing from our oldest recorded myths, such as Beowulf, Gilgamesh, and The Iliad, prominently display this aspect of society. Of course, writers of military fiction pursue various agendas with widely differing results. Some celebrate war and the warrior-king, finding noble truths and actions on the battlefield, while others, at the other end of the spectrum, pointedly portray the horrors of war and the acts of individual depravity that occur during warfare. Yet, throughout that spectrum there is a constant: You learn about the human condition when you study individuals at war.

In that respect, sf differs little from other forms of literature. Ironically, a quick glance of the works usually produced by David Drake, S. M. Stirling, David Weber, and David Feintuch, the leading authors of military sf, a rather large subgenre in the field, wouldn’t reveal this. The militarily oriented stories they produce seem to fit a stereotype expected of golden age (i.e., “12-year-old”) fans. Their works, which often portray an intelligent, charismatic leader armed with ultra-futuristic brawn and who isn’t afraid to bend or even break the rules when the rules get in the way, are the type onto which adolescent boys can project themselves and their fantasies. Yet, as stated before, military sf encompasses many differing points of view highlighting wildly varying pictures of the human condition. Thankfully, it is that vein that Harry Turtledove and Martin H. Greenberg attempted to mine when putting together this anthology.

Any anthology boasting the best fiction of a subgenre over a particular period of time will inevitably lead to criticism over the choices. Even though it claims to contain the best of the twentieth century, the stories contained within cover only a span of 36 years, with “Superiority” by Arthur C. Clarke as the earliest published story (1951) and “Wolf Time” by Walter Jon Williams as the latest (1987). Additionally, of the current above-mentioned leaders of this subgenre, one will find only David Drake included in the mix. This somewhat surprising decision might actually turn away the most likely audience, even though there is no guarantee, given the limited scope of the anthology, that readers who do not normally read this type of fiction will decide to pick up this collection.

Seemingly to appeal towards a wider audience, Turtledove and Greenberg wisely include stories by many of sf’s leading names. Most importantly, they made sure to include Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game,” and Joe Haldeman’s “Hero,” two novellas which spawned two of the biggest classics in the subgenre, not to mention all of sf, and whose exclusion would completely undercut the claim the title of this anthology makes. Interestingly, while Turtledove and Greenberg do mention Ender’s Game and The Forever War in the respective introductions, they do not show the connections these stories have with the novels. Regardless, Card’s and Haldeman’s stories provide stunning accounts with sympathetic protagonists attempting to achieve victory against truly alien enemies whose logic defies comprehension. Furthermore, the heroes operate under natural and man-made conditions capable of savagely destroying the psyche and leaving the individual a shell of his former self. The victories, when obtained at the end, feel hollow — especially in the case of “Ender’s Game,” where 10-year-old Ender Wiggin discovers that he was actually both savior of humanity and an instrument of xenocide.

While Card’s and Haldeman’s stories were virtually required, the inclusion of Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonrider” is the most surprising. While it is a classic sf novella, the lack of technology, fantasy feel, and lack of a traditional type of enemy might deter one from associating it with military sf. However, the story has military elements at its heart. The dragonriders form wing formations that you would expect to see in a World War II film, and the dragons themselves, ranked by color and size, provide the kind of clear hierarchy militaries usually provide. Furthermore, while the Thread that the dragonriders battle is not an organized enemy, it is an enemy nonetheless, capable of destroying human life on the planet. Additionally, Lessa and F’lar make the types of bold moves made by military leaders when they discover that they need to gamble to avoid defeat. Indeed, Turtledove and Greenberg’s inclusion of “Dragonrider,” a well-loved story that has aged well over the past 30 years, represents such risky, strategic moves by showing an effort to appeal to readers from all over the sf spectrum.

C. J. Cherryh’s “The Scapegoat” ranks as another pleasant surprise whose inclusion may have hinged on the hopes of expanding the target audience. Although not known for producing military sf, Cherryh is a writer of considerable note, and in “The Scapegoat” it’s easy to see why she has a large following. In “The Scapegoat,” she depicts a war where neither side has managed to learn how to communicate with the other. Toward the end of the war, nearing defeat, the aliens, called Elves by humans because of their similarity to the mythical creatures, find a way to communicate with humans and offer a way to achieve the peace that humanity actually desires. As a result, Lt. John de Franco finds himself in a position to end the war, but at the highest possible personal cost. While Lt. de Franco’s process of learning to understand the Elf ambassador provides an interesting study of language and logic, it’s the choice he needs to make at the end that provides the suspense. This choice also offers an interesting illustration of the Star Trek cliché, “The needs of the many exceed the needs of the few.”

Perhaps the most fascinating story in the collection is Arthur C. Clarke’s “Superiority.” Even though the story is a half-century old, and the oldest in the collection, it may have the most modern relevance of any story in the book. As in “The Scapegoat,” the story is told from the viewpoint of a group finding itself in a war with an enemy of vastly inferior technology. Yet, because of the reliance on such high-tech weaponry, which is hard to produce in mass, and the continual attempt to make the weapons even more high-tech, the superior force ends up losing the war, thus making the reader consider what truly is important in maintaining superiority. While reading the story, it’s hard not to think of the U. S. military and its reliance on extremely expensive, high-tech weaponry that takes time to produce. In fact, towards the end of the U. N. military intervention in Bosnia, the U. S. military started to report shortages of the missiles needed to equip our long-range fighters. Maybe the American leaders can find a useful lesson in this story when considering the new missile defense plan.

David Drake’s “Hangman” represents the type of military sf written by today’s leading authors in the field. Probably picked to ensure representation of that group, it comes across as the weakest story in the collection, spending more time on the high-tech weaponry than on its human actors.

With the possible exception of “Hangman,” there really isn’t a bad story in the book. Other memorable stories include Philip K. Dick’s “Second Variety” (filmed in 1996 as the movie Screamers), which displays a few of Dick’s favorite themes: paranoia, what exactly is “real,” and who can you trust. It also offers a frightening opinion on what will happen to humankind’s creations should humanity become extinct. The end of the Cold War has somewhat dated Gregory Benford’s “To the Storming Gulf,” but it still provides a wonderful look at humanity trying to recover from a limited nuclear exchange while offering the chilling opinion that politicians don’t truly learn from others’ mistakes. Although probably better remembered as an alternate history story, Turtledove’s own “Last Article” paints a chilling portrait of how one can view Gandhi’s “passive resistance” as a military threat in a scenario where it might not work.

Yet, because of its title, The Best Military Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century must do more than just showcase good military sf. Any collection claiming to present the best of an era cannot just present a bunch of stories. It seems reasonable to ask the editors for some perspective on the stories presented, and indeed Turtledove provides a nice framework in his introduction. However, the introductions to each story provide no information on why they are among the best or even important. Rather, the majority of them just provide basic cursory information stating highlights from the author’s publishing career. Furthermore, considering that the stories in this collection only span the years 1951-1987, one must wonder if the selections truly represent the best of the century. For instance, genre classics H. G. Wells’s “The Land Ironclads” and “Arena” by Fredric Brown, first published in 1903 and 1944 respectively, are conspicuously absent. Not to take anything away from Walter Jon Williams’s “Wolf Time,” but I couldn’t help feeling that his much more recent “Foreign Devils,” with its theme of xenophobia and its exploration of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds from a different angle, would have made a much better addition to the selection.

Additionally, given the experimental nature of the genre, the selections don’t show the variety of different forms warfare takes. With the notable exception of “Dragonrider,” most of the battles depicted in this book show a conventional tilt in that they show forces battling each other with physical, predominantly projectile weaponry. There are instances of soldiers with genetic enhancements, such as the protagonist of “Wolf Time,” but beyond that most of the warfare is readily recognizable by today’s standards. It would have been nice to see stories highlighting other types of warfare, such as informational, biological, or corporate. Even better would be the inclusion of a military sf story that isn’t really about the military, such as James Tiptree’s “Beam Us Home” where the protagonist gets stuck on Earth fighting for the U. S. military when what he really wanted above all else was to join Starfleet.

Although a little more effort obviously could have made it even better, The Best Military Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century is nonetheless a nice book to have in our collection. Readers who normally don’t read this subgenre might find themselves surprised by the variety exhibited by these stories, and fans of military sf will undoubtedly enjoy it as well.

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