Science Fiction

Science Fiction: War Is Hell


People sometimes get tired of fighting wars, but they never seem to get tired of reading about them—even in science fiction.

One of the mysteries of the late 19th century was the mass appeal of novels by such writers as George Griffith and William LeQueux and Capitaine Danrit in which European civilization was devastated from the air, sea and even underground in future wars.

Can the lives of Victorian readers have been either so dull or so painful that even visions of mass destruction could be viewed as "escape" literature? Whatever the reason, World War I put an end to the glorification of world war—at least, the sort that assumed "our" side (depending on the native country of the author) was sure to emerge victorious.

But future war remained a strong theme in science fiction, and some of it was quite prophetic. Air power was decisive in Griffith's The Angel of the Revolution (1893), while H.G. Wells had the atomic bomb in The World Set Free (1914). Yet Philip Francis Nowlan foresaw the uselessness of air power against advanced methods of guerrilla warfare in "Armageddon 2419 AD" (1928) and "The Airlords of Han" (1929)—long before Vietnam (and ironically, too; for Nowlan, a thoroughgoing racist, had American guerrillas overcoming Oriental conquerors).

Since the atomic bomb has become a reality instead of a prophecy, future war novels set on Earth have become basically warning novels—On the Beach, Triumph, and the like. And apparently people have gotten the message—nobody is eager for a world war any more, even the politicians (not that they care about morality, but they do care about saving their own necks).

That hasn't stopped the science fiction writers, of course. In fact, long before Hiroshima, they had tired of Earthly wars—in space opera, they could imagine something on a far grander scale.


Edward E. Smith was the great pioneer in this field. He was the inventor of modern space opera in 1928 with The Skylark of Space, and with the Lensman series (1937-45) he virtually exhausted its possibilities.

Smith's novels typically featured titanic battles between fleets of thousands of spaceships, armed with both guided missiles (only they were called "dirigible torpedoes" in those days) and lasers (but they had a different name too). Even mobile planets figured as weapons, and one decisive battle ended with the conversion of an enemy sun into a supernova.

Space opera has become such a part of popular culture that the people who sell war games have special sets for "space war." And Smith's influence is as widespread as Germany (whence comes the interminable Perry Rhodan series) and even the Soviet Union, where a galactic war figures in Sergei Snegov's Men Like Gods (1966-7)

Of course, the kind of war Smith imagined is probably absurd—economically, if not technologically (John W. Campbell Jr. tried to be more "realistic" than Smith in his space operas—the conflicts in The Mightiest Machine (1935), for example, involve only a few dozen spaceships!).

But some elements of it have nevertheless survived in more realistic science fiction—for example, the battle between a lunar fortress and a formation of spaceships in Arthur C. Clarke's Earthlight (1955).

H. Beam Piper had some real feel for what an interstellar war might be like in Space Viking (1963), where finding the enemy in the vastness of space is as much a problem as defeating him. Strategic and logistic problems are treated in a similarly realistic manner in Gordon R. Dickson's Dorsai (1959) and in the same author's planet-bound war novels like The Tactics of Mistake (1971). Unlike typical space operas, too, works like these have a solid economic, political and philosophical background.

But there was one tautly realistic novel of space war that was simultaneously loved and hated when it first appeared in 1959 and has been loved and hated ever since: Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers.

Unlike even the Piper and Dickson novels, it is told from the viewpoint of the ordinary soldier—not of the generals or commanders. And it isn't just about fleets of spaceships and death rays, but hand-to-hand combat, even if this requires the help of fighting suits operated by servomechanisms on many alien worlds.

Readers voted the novel a Hugo award for its realistic story of the young recruit Rico—from enlistment, through training and into combat. But there were few takes for its Social Darwinist philosophy of Survival of the Fittest in the Galaxy—the fittest being those best at killing, hopefully homo sapiens.


Both Heinlein and Starship Troopers may have to move over this year, however. A new champion has appeared on the scene. His name is Joe Haldeman and his novel is The Forever War. Haldeman is a Vietnam veteran—he hasn't simply, like Heinlein, been through the military; he has been through a war.

Not surprisingly, his viewpoint in The Forever War is just the opposite of Heinlein's: the Terran war against the Taurans turns out at the end to have been, not the defense of a noble cause, but the cynical maneuver of the military establishment. But for an antiwar novel, it is remarkably free of pacifist as well as militarist cliches: Haldeman's soldiers aren't stereotyped bloodthirsty villains, but real people caught up in a tragic conflict where their only choice is to kill or be killed.

In fact, the plot owes a lot to Starship Troopers, following the career of William Mandella from basic training through combat, on alien planets and in space, as he matures from a raw recruit to a hardened veteran.

But there are some radical departures from Heinlein's format, too. Women are combat soldiers in Haldeman's novel, and casual sex is the rule of the barracks. Mandella's lover isn't the girl back home, but a fellow combatant as close to death as himself.

And the world they both left behind is changing beyond recognition. Because of relativistic time effects in spaceships travelling at nearly the speed of light, what seems like months aboard ship can be decades, or even centuries, back on Earth. Such effects have been treated before in science fiction—but never so persuasively.

Even after their first mission, Mandella and Marygay find Earth so changed it has no place for them. Several hundred years later, ectogenesis and homosexuality are considered normal—and their heterosexual love a perversion. And at the end, "humanity" has become more alien, almost, than the "enemy."

Haldeman's science is more up-to-date than that of the space operas, of course: no faster-than-light drive, but transitions from one part of the galaxy to another can be made through black holes (an idea that has seriously been suggested by scientists).

Yet the realistic seems stranger than the fantastic—the military technology and the combat scenes are every bit as good as Heinlein's, but Haldeman's vision of war also takes on the awful grandeur of another classic SF theme: the Discovery of Space and the Discovery of Time as emotional realities.

Although science fiction hardcovers rarely find much of a market, The Forever War sold out overnight and has become an eagerly sought-after item—as well as a potential Hugo and Nebula contender. And the novel deserves it.

Perhaps, too, it is symptomatic of changing attitudes: Poul Anderson's Fire Time (1974) involves a tragic, messy war and its impact on a planet in danger of a natural catastrophe that threatens the native civilization there. Yet it is set in the same universe as Anderson's The Star Fox (1966), which dramatized a "just" war and which some interpreted as an apologia for Vietnam.

In science fiction, as elsewhere, the glory seems to be going out of war—and it's probably just as well.

John Pierce's Science Fiction column alternates monthly in REASON with Davis Keeler's Money column.