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March 01, 2006

War and The Ghost Brigades

John Scalzi has just published another military/space opera/science fiction novel, called The Ghost Brigades (link is in the post title). I just got it, read it in two days, and am here to tell ya alllll about it ;)

Scalzi has written in his blog about the lack of "gateway science fiction" in this generation's literarily ambitious SF writers. Gateway SF is, of course, work that introduces non-SF readers to the tropes and rewards of SF without over-geeking them, challenging their literary protocols too much, or in other ways turning them off. Well, what he's written in The Ghost Brigades is textbook "gateway".

This is the second in the trilogy beginning with Old Man's War, although the term "trilogy" is misleading since this one doesn't follow the same protagonist. Call it a "triptych". The Ghost Brigades expands the universe of Old Man's War and renders it more morally ambiguous. It also name-checks the great predecessors of military/space opera/SF and freely steals from them, making them more accessible (not that Ender's Game needs to be any more accessible. That's good gateway, too, come to think of it. Go read it now.)

Both Old Man's War and Ghost Brigades take place in a world in which humans are at war with almost every other one of the 600-odd alien species within their reach. It's all over real estate, which makes me feel right at home, since I live in San Francisco. Readers of literary fiction will be shocked to find no moralizing about war whatsoever in either book; your nearest recent lit fic release dealing with soldiers or war would be poorly reviewed at best, and ostracized at worst, if it didn't lay on some weak-ass, lefty-pandering agony about how War Is Bad. But it's good to be reminded that it's a tenet of lit fic alone that unsuccessful agony is better than no agony at all.

Scalzi lays on no agony at all, except for a few interludes between a father-once-removed and his lost little girl. It's small, it's personal, and hell yeah, it's sentimental. Did I mention this is science fiction? Sentimental, too, is the view of the soldiers and the view of battle. The battle scenes are all exciting, and all end with the sad death of somebody, or the bittersweet rescue of somebody, or, at the very least, with a smart-ass joke. The battle scenes also all advance the plot, as real battle scenes are wont (and very directly intended) to do.

You'll sense a little hostility from me here about lit fic's handling of war. Yeah. You gotta see me in the context of someone who grew up schooled (in school and in movie theaters) by the baby boomer producers of such-like as Going After Cacciato, The Things They Carried, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, The Deer Hunter, etc. Oh wait, you're all in that context too. Yes, I, too, roll my eyes when talk wafts up about "the greatest generation" and "just war", just as I was taught to do, but all sentimentality aside, there's war, and then there's war.

War makes the man is the traditional narrative. War is a crucible in which character is formed, that is to say, war is the best way to achieve not merely maturity, but triumphal maturity. After the horrors described by the English poets of WWI, it was difficult to keep this proposition pure in literature, so it passed on to popular culture. Enter space opera or military SF, a genre that emerged between the world wars and drew its sentiment from the glorifying tradition of war lit. Space opera loved the excitement of battles, the coolness of state of the art weaponry, loved muscles flexing and people achieving the impossible. The idea was kept alive in a "degraded" form, while "higher" lit debated the morality of war.

The view of war I received growing up was one from the point of view of the grunt soldier in an unjust, imperialist war. The Vietnam War was the first time in history that working class/middle class infantrymen had a literary/cultural voice to talk about war (and thank you, G.I. Bill.) Before that, there were plenty of unjust imperialist wars, only they were even harsher on foot soldiers than Vietnam. Imagine what the tradition of war literature would be today if the Crimean War had had a Tim O'Brien. But that's not the tradition of war literature. Traditional war lit came from a completely different point of view, that of the class from which officers and staff were drawn, the class with an overview and a realistic sense of what was at stake ... for them. Faulting Tennyson for not hating imperialism enough to say "fuck that Light Brigade anyway! They shouldn't have been there in the first place!" is missing the point.

Our generation is traumatized (yes, traumatized) by unjust wars. We have never seen, nor heard of, a just war in our lifetimes. We've seen popular revolutions and, as often as not, it's our own soldiers who stomp on them, while we're told that the rebels are babykillers. We swallow this in discomfort, helpless. But there are times when wars are just and times when wars are just necessary. This planet is crowded, resources and room are scarce. We contend for these through war, and this is not going to change any time soon. Pursuing a just war grows increasingly unlikely the more power a nation accrues (we're about all out of just war at this point), but the idea of war must remain fluid, even if we were to be become such a gentle giant that we no longer pursued war on our own behalf.

In the same way that playing house teaches children adult roles and gives them a safe way to learn conflict resolution, so does popular culture give adults a heads up on ways to feel about and react to possible future situations. Science fiction in particular does this, that is practically its stated goal. Since the sixties, SF writers have been taking this goal more and more seriously, and bringing more and more sophisticated means to the effort. In the past ten years (or more) SF has gotten the jump on lit fic both in ways and means and in topical relevance. (Look at who the "cutting edge" lit fic authors are: Lethem, Vollman, Chabon, Saunders, Bender, etc. But I'm not gonna argue this right now.)

It's possible now to think that the lit fic audience might have softened towards genre, or perhaps even ingested some of genre's protocols. It's possible to think that the hip-quotient of simplistic genre narrative means that a critical mass of "high art" thinkers is ready to use genre as a jumping off point for a culture-wide review of archetypes. It's possible to think that old, grand archetypes of war, which were and remain important to the fluidity of our conceptions of human aggression and human conflict, need to be brought back to a public consciousness primed for debate. So it's time for a re-entry of space opera, which never really left in any case.

(Or do you think it's a coincidence that the most popular and successful space opera of all time, Star Wars, came out two years after the end of the Vietnam war?)

Okay, does Scalzi's Ghost Brigades hit all of these notes? Hell no, nor is it intended to. In fact, where the book does fail, in my view, is in trying to introduce a conscious discussion of the merits of war -- or rather, of the merits of how the war in the novel is being pursued. (Fortunately, this does not ruin the overall effect of the storytelling.) The book, like classic space opera, does not work on one's conceptions of war at a conscious level. And yes, this was intended (read Scalzi's blog.) The virtue of Scalzi's update is precisely this conscious intention, a conscious decision not to be pressured by snobbery to attempt something that doesn't belong in a space opera -- but also a decision to allow the book's third person narrator: 1) a consciousness of the tradition which the book carries forward and 2) a decisively relaxed voice that does not belabor or struggle over the inevitable genre updates (woman officers, frex.)

Are you going to be satisfied with the book's views on war? Of course not, nor should you be. You should simply be letting yourself enjoy the action, oohing and aahing over how cool the guns are, and then walk-of-shaming back to your public debate with a broken bra-strap, realizing that the seductiveness of war isn't so much evil as human.

The book has been getting good reviews around the internet and is a SciFi Channel "Essential Book", possibly for some the reasons just stated above. It's everything you ever wanted to know about space opera, but were too afraid of the massive, groaning shelves of mass-market paperbacks to ask. You know you loved the original "Star Wars" movies, don't deny it. Well, this is smarter, but just as fun. No, it's not the latest Philip Roth, but, you know, we already have one of those. Check it out.

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Comments

sounds like a cool book, seelight, but i'm confused about mentioning a lack of 'gateway' sf at the top of a post that puts me in mind of star wars. not to mention your (apt) reference to chabon and vollman, i can only ask: HASN'T ANYONE READ "FEED?"

it's by m.t. anderson. and you gotta gotta read it. now.

yikes, i haven't read "feed". guess i'll hie me to a library.

you gotta read scalzi's post to get the full brunt of his point about gateway science fiction (here's the original post to which the one i linked to refers: http://www.scalzi.com/whatever/003914.html). anyway, he was talking specifically about books, and even more specifically about books these days. in his call for suggestions of gateway fiction he asked for no books published before 1995, because his point was that there's been no good gateway books written recently.

"star wars" came out in 1977, and is a movie. he didn't address this in his discussion (although he might have elsewhere, i don't know) but there's definitely a weird divide between what audiences will accept in a movie and what audiences will accept in a book. look not just at "star wars" but at "the matrix" and "lord of the rings", plus more temporary blockbusters like "the island", "paycheck", "the chronicles of riddick", and "gattaca". the same people who loved those wouldn't be caught dead with a science fiction book, so the movies aren't a gateway.

regarding war and character, I think few understand how combat can affect the 18% of soldiers and marines that do the actual fighting. How they can adapt to violence and become addicted to it.

I served as a marine rifleman in Viet Nam, 1968-69. I’ve read much Viet Nam war literature and published a collection of war poetry, On The Way to Khe Sanh, (three of which appeared in The Iowa Review, Spring 2005), and a memoir, Nam Au Go Go - Falling for the Vietnamese Goddess of War.

Nam Au Go Go is different. It talks about something no one I can find has written about - what violence does to war fighters. How, if combat soldiers and marines see too much, do too much, they can cross a threshold into an adaptation to violence and become addicted to it. When your emotional self is killed off by the insanity of war, survivors of this addiction have a hard time re-connecting with society. Combat is a one-way door. Once you go through, you cannot go back. You are changed.

For a glimpse, go to www.johnakins.net

Find Nam Au Go Go on booksellers’ websites.
e: jacolesdad@comcast.net

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