“Armor” and the Holy Trinity of Mil-SF

I’m not into military science fiction.  Hammer’s Slammers?  I’ve heard of it.  Honor Harrington?  Never read it.  Some guy named Marko Kloos got into some sort of spat.  A distaste for open-ended series accounts for more than a bit of my aversion, though, so if I’m going to dip my toe into the subgenre, it’s through standalone books.  The three milSF books that everyone should read, so I’m told, are Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, and Armor by John Steakley.


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Fantasy Justice and the Great Frontier

The backwater setting and approving attitude towards “frontier justice” in Jack Vance’s Araminta Station reminded me of Robert Heinlein’s Future History books, and criticisms of science fiction as authoritarian, statist, and parochial in general.  While some authors do have authoritarian or anti-democratic ideas that they incorporate into their work, mostly these works express a longing to re-open the wild frontier, combined with a limited scope.  As the memory of frontier exploration fades from collective memory, more stories turn inward to find a source of narrative conflict.

Default vs Doctrine

The simple reason for monarchy and other forms of personal rule recurring so often in speculative fiction is just that: simplicity.  One guy is in charge because he was born that way, or might as well have been.  He’s got some ministers of varying degrees of goodness and competence, and if someone wants to rearrange the org chart, the have a simple objective: the king.

Taking things a little further, history and political theory have much to say about the merits of a benevolent dictatorship  — Plato’s philosopher-kings, or the enlightened monarchs of the Renaissance.  Indeed the principal drawback — succession — ready-makes the story: the noble protagonist must assume his rightful place in order to assure the continuance of Good.  And not every story need concern itself with the mechanics of government.  A.E. van Vogt, for instance, just didn’t give much thought to the subject other than “someone in charge lives in a big castle”.  Tolkien, antiquarian that he was, had philosophical and aesthetic reasons to recall the kings of yore in his stories, though his imitators again probably didn’t give the issue too much thought.  Kings ruled in the Hyborian Age of Robert Howard; the Conan stories both intending to portray a vanished mythical age and not conducive to arguments before the Althing.

Some authors really do have a low opinion of the common man.  The Deep State antics of the “good guys” in E.E. Smith’s Triplanetary make the quick-shooting interstellar police of Araminta look like the Warren Court.  Other times the author simply wants to make a point about the relationship between government, technology, and context.  Frank Herbert’s Dune portrays feudalism as an effective solution to the governance of multiple planets bound by poor communication, something Poul Anderson also did a few years prior in The High Crusade.  However, the Future History & Gaean Reach settings of Heinlein & Vance respectively don’t indulge in either default or doctrinaire monarchy.  Both, in fact, deal pretty extensively with the mechanics of governance & social class.  Yet both exult in swift, sure enforcement of extrajudicial justice.


In the service of the Queen

Escaping the Clutches of Civilization

The glorification of summary personal justice reflects a wish to escape civilization to conquer and settle a frontier.  This latter impulse is particularly American, and in fact for a long time largely defined “American”.  After the census of 1890 famously declared an end to the American frontier, the country spent several generations ruminating, reliving, and glorifying the legacy of its frontier settlement, most visibly via the genre of the Western, although it influenced early science fiction as well, with authors viewing space exploration literally as a final (and hopefully infinite) frontier.


This, but IN SPACE.

Space would provide an escape from oppressive attempts to render society “legible” to control and taxation, attempts made easier not merely by technology but by population density and sheer age.  Authors like Heinlein and Frank Herbert even posited a eugenic effect: frontier settlement selected for adventure and individualism; old sedentary societies selected for conformity and stagnation.

Migration is a sorting device, a forced Darwinian selection, under which superior stock goes to the stars while culls stay home and die.
This is true even for those forcibly transported (as in the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth centuries), save that the sorting then takes place on the new planet. In a raw frontier weaklings and misfits die; strong stock survives. Even those who migrate voluntarily still go through this second drastic special selection.

Even authors who shied away from eugenic arguments, like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, suggested space settlement would at least spread humanity’s eggs around several baskets.

The swift, community-sanctioned and personally-dispensed justice required by the comparatively lawless frontier definitely appealed to anyone who felt the courts of settled regions to be slow, unfair, or unjust.  Some of this might be naive, but to confuse it with authoritarianism or bloodlust badly misses the mark.

The Best of Both Worlds

Heinlein and Vance both took advantage of their authorial prerogative to eliminate the uglier aspects of American frontier settlement — in neither the Future History nor the Gaean Reach settings do settlers need to exterminate natives, institute repressive militarized governments, or participate in the flesh trade in order to survive and prosper.  (Vance does show more cynicism here than Heinlein.)  And prosperity comes easily enough — unlike the hand-to-mouth ranchers of Elmer Kelton’s Westerns, the settlers of the future want for very little.  Lazarus Long decries the precarity of his existence while living in an opulent Roman villa with his harem on a virgin planet; the backwater Mircea’s Wisp of Araminta Station provides recognizably modern First World conditions to most of its inhabitants, while the government has just enough reach to keep things from getting out of hand without Glawen Clattuc having to spend the rest of the trilogy giving sworn statements and depositions about a police shooting at a remote monastery.

Volunteer Posse

Not what they had in mind

Swift summary justice is not one of the aspects of frontier living that Vance or Heinlein eliminate when creating their worlds.  Cutting the red tape on law enforcement isn’t an ugly aspect of the lawless frontier but one of its benefits.  Even when the heroes do bother to try their enemies’ crimes in court, the proceedings run far more smoothly than their real-world counterparts.  The trial portrayed in Araminta Station runs about a page.

In any case, the portrayal of summary justice in Vance’s Cadwal Chronicles, like that of Heinlein in his future history, reflects a desire to escape from oppression rather than to extend it — along with an understanding that such an escape means dispensing with certain aspects of civilization.  A severance made all the easier by suspicions about whether settled definitions of due process really equated to ideal justice.


“Araminta Station” by Jack Vance

Jack Vance published Araminta Station in 1988, 38 years after his first major work, the massively influential Dying EarthAraminta Station, the first part of the Cadwal Chronicles trilogy, narrates the adventures of Glawen Clattuc, a young man of the local gentry on a wilderness-preserve planet — Cadwal — in a distant future where mankind has settled most of the galaxy in a loosely-governed “Gaean Reach”.  Vance writes in his characteristic style with the assurance and deliberation of a well-earned maturity.  Do I recommend it?  Absolutely, although it’s not a good place to start with the author and doesn’t quite rise to the level of Vance’s immediately preceding work, Lyonesse.


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Harry Potter and Millennials

Why do Millennials like Harry Potter?  Maybe because if you give J.K. Rowling the boy, she will give you the man.  Whatever the higher merits of the books, they initially got popular because middle-schoolers liked The Sorcerer’s Stone.  In what any fantasy aficionado recognizes as a considerable feat, Rowling then managed to maintain a steady, coherent output throughout our formative years.  And then the movies.  If the well has gone a bit dry since The Deathly Hallows Part II — things could be a lot worse.

This line of thought has some allure, and no small amount of explanatory power.  But it’s also survivorship bias.  Why not The Edge Chronicles, or His Dark Materials?

Because Harry Potter has Relevance — it reflects the actual world that seen in a way that other fantasy works did not. Specifically, Harry Potter presents an idealization of an inward-looking, academically-focused technocratic bureaucracy.  This reflected the world of middle-class Millennial children, and continues to describe the ideal world of older fans.

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Black Easter/The Devil’s Day by James Blish

As long as I’m pontificating about the Divine Comedy, I’ll mention take it down a notch and look at James Blish’s modern-day occult fantasy novel Black Easter.  Most reprinting collect Black Easter with its sequel, The Day After Judgment, as one work under the title The Devil’s Day.  Given Black Easter’s abrupt ending — I hesitate even to call it a cliffhanger — the Devil’s Day format is the best package.  Although the tale goes a little flat in the second half, if “modern-day occult fantasy” sounds like something you would be interested in, you will like this book.


Cover of the combined version.  Fairly tame by the standards of Baen.

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A Manhattan for Manhattan Haters

As far as the island in the mouth of the Hudson River: sorry, it sucks and there’s nothing I can do about it.  This is about the Manhattan cocktail.

The Manhattan is a mixture of whiskey and vermouth, by default sweet (red) vermouth.  The International Bartenders’ Association says:

5 cl Rye Whiskey

2 cl Red Vermouth

1 dash Angostura Bitters

Pour all ingredients into mixing glass with ice cubes. Stir well. Strain into chilled cocktail glass.Garnish with cocktail cherry.

The only real variation on this are advocates of a 2:1 spirit:vermouth ratio and assurances you don’t need to use rye whiskey (you don’t, but more on that).

The problem with this is — at least if your crowd is anything like mine — drinking anything with vermouth in it is sort of like paying black people a fair wage to pick cotton on your farm.  There’s nothing, on examination, wrong with it, but still comes off as a sort of sinister affectation.

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If You Speak English, Read Paradise Lost

You shouldn’t read the Inferno without reading the Purgatorio, at least.  Should English-speaking students be required to read the entire Divine Comedy as do their Italian counterparts?  No, if they have to read an entire epic, it should be Paradise Lost instead, although the current-day focus on Shakespeare is fine.

Dante is important to Western culture broadly, but he’s far more important to Italy in particular.  From what I can tell, Dante is far more important to the modern Italian language than Shakespeare is to modern English.  Milton himself wrote in English of course, and while admittedly the language of Paradise Lost is more difficult in general than Shakespeare, it’s not impenetrable to a bright student, nor does it require an antiquarian bent to appreciate as does Spenser.  I can’t read Italian, but translations of Dante don’t have the same touch as Milton’s English.

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