*order the sf issue of "Fictions" here*

Spartan Boys

'We're willing to consider extenuating circumstances,' the officer said. 'But I must tell you, it doesn't look good. Kicking him in the groin, kicking him repeatedly in the face and body when he was down-it sounds like you really enjoyed it.''I didn't,' Ender whispered.
'Then why did you do it?'
'He had his gang there,' Ender said.
'So? This excuses anything?'
'Then tell me why you kept on kicking him. You had already won.''Knocking him down won the first fight, I wanted to win all the next ones too, right then, so they'd leave me alone.'

(Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card, p19)

This quotation from Orson Scott Card's phenomenally successful 1985 novel 'Ender's Game' illustrates a salutory lesson. The science fiction that sells; and therefore must be accepted as deeply, truthfully representative of the genre, is neither sophisticated futurology - 'Ender's Game' has a Cold War scenario, embarrassingly outdated compared to the cyberpunk 'Neuromancer', the William Gibson novel that had swept the board in a similar way the year before-; nor the expertly crafted, anti-literary, technophile propaganda of legend. Popular sf is a literature of arousal, of guilty passion and violent emotion, secured by any means necessary, ruthless brutality or compassion; quite indifferently. The stern, meticulously machined and rational exterior, the autistic passion for weaponry and battle-plans, is the outer, defensive shield of militarist sf. 'Ender's Game', undoubtedly a classic of the (sub) genre, reveals the inner nature.
It is my contention that the popular militarist science fiction of the pause (from the end of the Cold War to 9/11, the period when the sf heartland had no iconic external enemy), that is, the science fiction read and admired by the mass audience, has a very different character from that usually associated with the term 'militarist sf'. Weapons technology and the science of warfare are minimised, the 'science' content is, typically, negligible. The drama of the individual's engagement with the military machine of the State is foregrounded, and passionately valorised; or else milked for pathos to the extent that submission itself becomes a perverse thrill. In support of this position, I will make reference to the amateur reviews posted on amazon.com: a dubious forum, but a place where I believe the genuine voice of the mass-market reader -the audience whose response defines sf- can be heard.

Later in the novel the fate of the playground bully downed by the six-year-old hero 'Ender' Wiggin becomes, or is revealed as, more dramatic. The six year old may have actually killed his playmate -just as he executes, in much the same circumstances and following the same reasoning, a thirteen year old rival 'officer' in the International Force's army of juvenile military geniuses: 'The only way to end things completely was to hurt Bonzo enough that his fear was stronger than his hate'. (Ender's Game 229-233).
'Ender's (the nickname given to babyAndrew Wiggins by his sister, who couldn't pronounce Andrew*) parents live under a benign totalitarian regime. An entity known as 'The International Force' commands the economy and rules the world -a situation that has come about due to a threat from without: the alien 'Buggers' with whom 'Earth' is waging a generations-long war (the term 'Earth' here designating, as always in mass-market best-selling sf, a planet-sized USA, where multiculturalism survives as a signifier for 'poor' or 'disadvantaged' -a reasonable extrapolation, any time in the last few decades, one has to admit). The Wiggins have paid a high price to secure the privilege of a third child in their overcrowded world. They are taking part in a genetic experiment designed to produce superintelligent warriors, the geniuses who will be able to beat the 'Buggers'. Ender's psychotic older brother Peter has been discarded as too volatile, his conciliatory sister Valentine is 'too weak'. Ender, the Harry Potter of modern militarist sf, has now passed the final test. He has proved he has the right motivation. He is willing to commit acts of the utmost savagery, but only in the interests of personal security; not for pleasure.

Ender Wiggin believes that the purpose of waging war is to make it so the enemy will go away and never come back. The concept of war as a limited, normal exaggeration of milder negotiations, 'diplomacy continued by other means' would go right by him, uncomprehended. The grumblings of long-term co-existence with social or political rivals are unknown to him: there must be no hostiles, hostiles must be annihilated. At six years' old he's already the perfect cannon fodder, a Spartan Boy who will break the social-animal taboos we carry and kill without hesitation. But unlike the licenced soldier of the past, who might be bludgeoned into becoming a temporary killing-machine and take no responsibility for his actions, Ender is obliged to believe himself, for his torment, a moral being. He kills, he slaughters, but he agonises over what he does: he always feels terrible after a murder.
'Ender's Game' won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards when it was published in novel form in 1985 (the original story dates from 1977). It was immediately acclaimed by professional, as well as popular critics-and deservedly so. The plot may be repetitive (Ender annihilates rival: sheds crocodile tears; Ender annihilates rival: sheds crocodile tears…), but the use of video gaming and the prescient description of the internet, manipulated as a tool of world domination by Ender's brother and sister, Peter and Valentine, was remarkable. When I read it, in 1985, my chief feeling was astonishment that such an orgiastic description of State hypocrisy, and the utter corruption of a child, could be rated by so many as great undemanding entertainment. But the popular reader is made of tougher stuff. The enduring importance of this book to the sf masses-at a time when Orson Scott Card's work is in eclipse- can be measured in the 2050 amateur reviews it has amassed on Amazon.com.
Notably, actual military operations play a very slight part in the plot. The part played by the 'International Force' is soon reduced to a strand of self-loathing asides from Ender's minders -shedding more of those crocodile tears over the things they have to do to nurture a little boy's genocidal paranoia. Strategy and tactics in the long battle against the 'Buggers' are non-existent, as the characters freely admit. For all the difference it makes, the enemy ships and the enemy armies may as well be what they are to Ender: icons on a game screen, a paper-thin pretext. It's clear, throughout, that what matters to Orson Scott Card, and to his readers, are the hot-house passions of Boot Camp (Battle School) and the heartfelt personal crises that Ender endures there.

It can be argued that militarism is the only justified background and motive force for science fiction, at least for 'science fiction' as the term is understood by the general public. Space exploration serves military goals, only superpower military budgets are elastic enough to embrace the giant-scale technologies that must form the launchpad of a space-faring future. If other giants, supra-national corporations, become massive enough to support such huge enterprises then they must inevitably take on the military character of 'benign totalitariansism': where an army of employes eats the company's food, lives in regimented housing, sends their children to Company School, wears company uniform, shops with company currency at the company store. It could be said that the future must be military, if it is to be anything like a science fiction future at all. The social mores of a command economy (take your issued clothing, live here, go there, you don't need money, you have assigned housing and a coupon for the cafeteria) are natural to a newly-colonised galactic empire. It's not for nothing that the traditional 'enemy' is an insect with a hive-life civilisation: we fear most what horrifies us in ourselves.

'Ender's Game' was conceived in the seventies, and may be compared to the whole body of Vietnam-inspired movie-making and print fiction of those years, particularly Joe Haldeman's classic 'Vietnam' science fiction novel, 'The Forever War' (1974) -in which a superbly realised exposition of time dilation, as a consequence of intersteller travel, serves the further purpose of invoking the alienation of an over-educated conscript, coming home to find the world cruelly changed. 'The Forever War', far superior in critical terms, for its science exposition, and for its exploration of the shock of the new, is a less popular choice for modern sf readers than 'Ender's Game', snagging only 219 amazon.com reviews; but equally highly rated by the fans who have discovered it. Like Ender Wiggen, Private William Mandella has been drafted because he is super-intelligent (as one of the amateur reviewers on Amazon.com points out, an amazingly stupid way to choose your cannon fodder); and like Orson Scott Card, Haldeman has no concept, in this novel, of organised violence as part of a sustainable relationship between nations. War is a tragic accident, coming out of nowhere. When the 'Buggers' have been destroyed it turns out that the hostilities were meaningless. Ender spends the rest of his career (spanning several sequels) expiating his guilt for the needless slaughter (Speaker for the Dead; Xenocide; Children of the Mind). In Haldeman, at the end of the 1143-year-long war with the 'Taureans', it is discovered that 'the forever war' was 'begun on false pretences and only continued because the two races were unable to communicate' (The Forever War p232). In ways the curiously innocent view of warfare offered by these US writers-from a culture that had sustained a reasonably bloody civil war, complete with full media coverage of the issues, not much more than a century before-, contrasts favourably with war Old World style, which involves perpetrating horrific brutalities on the people who live next door, and who will still to be your neighbours, when the smoke clears and for a thousand years after that. Yet a non-existent enemy is another means of trivialising the alleged subject of the fiction. There can be no political discussion of the flashpoint in either book. It is not possible to examine the kind of grievances, or the pressures (climate change? Population dynamics?), that lead the Buggers, the Taureans and the Humans to collide with each other; to ask why alternatives to aggression were not considered, or to anatomise the conflict itself. Nobody's really interested, anyway. The individual soldier's quarrel, and love-affair, is with the army, not the hostiles. The hostiles are part of what the army did to you, one of the tools the army used to take away your humanity… And yet the army is still the matrix: unavoidable, deeply reassuring. In 'The Forever War' the army, or the mad military-industrial complex, takes on the demonised role of the First World War generals of Western Europe, but the bitterness this invokes is almost perfunctory.

'It's so dirty' -(says Margay, William's girlfriend, when they have been tricked into re-enlisting for a second tour of frontline duty)-
I shrugged 'It's so army-." But I had two disturbing feelings:
That all along we knew this was going to happen.
That we were going home.
(The Forever War, p133, paraphrase)

Though 'The Forever War' was written as an anti-war novel, and nobody would make that claim for 'Ender's Game', it's not reallysurprising that the Haldeman has survived, in the popular imagination, as a war story. To many of its twenty-first century fans the novel seems a terrific sci-fi war story, second only to Heinlein's 'Starship Troopers' for its gritty and satisfying realism, marred by inexplicable outbursts of distasteful sex and 'liberal' propaganda. ( See Amazon.com Aug 25th 2004; 25th June 2004). And maybe this assessment is partly justified.

Miltarist sf has a tendency to invoke historical models, including the ancient classics. In the course of the action of Ender's Game, Valentine Wiggin will invent a Hawkish internet persona called "Demosthenes", and she and Peter between them will manipulate political opinion on a global scale; with huge success. As leaders of the world's Warparty, the US (here rebranded as the International Force) could easily stand in for the Athenian League: alleged democrats at home, tempted into tyranny abroad. Equally obviously, Ender Wiggin is the Spartan Boy, trained at military school to behave like a ruthless criminal, because ruthless criminals are the cannon fodder required. But to Xenophon the Polity of the Spartans was a useful and edifying social study, and to Thucydides the Peloponnessian War was a living laboratory in which the nature of human conflict could be studied. The lives lived and hearts broken, passions aroused and assuaged under the aegis of a military uniform were scarcely their concern. For these popular science fiction writers human interest must be paramount, and the balance is reversed. There is very little discussion. War is simply a hellish, yet unavoidable insanity (one might compare 'The Forever War' with Joseph Heller's classic satire, the contemporaneous, 'Catch 22'). In this hell, the army becomes life itself, something to cling to, and the repository of a (reluctant) soldier's conscience: the heimat where he (or she) is innocent.
But the tormented Ender Wiggens and cynical, good-hearted William Mandella are both, in different ways, children of the liberal sixties. They are universal soldiers, deeply aware of the horror of war, adopting wildly divergent strategies to cope with their responsibilities as fantasy action heroes (for whom there is really no escape from a life of violence). Where will these strategies lead them? What new characters and startling traits will sf readers approve, as the sixties recede?


Romantic Aristocrats

"The really unforgiveable acts are committed by calm men in beautiful green silk rooms, who deal death wholesale by the shipload, without lust, or anger, or desire, or any redeeming emotion to excuse them but the cold fear of some pretended future. But the crimes they hope to prevent in that future are imaginary. The ones they commit in the present -they are real."
Shards of Honour, Lois McMasters Bujold, (1986) p141
Spartan Girls are not rare in militarist sf, but the feminine takeover of popular military sf series, in the decade following 'Ender', reveals again the secret appetite for romance and sentiment that characterises the 'militarist' audience. Significant female characters, contrary to received wisdom on this issue, have always been acceptable in science fiction. In contrast to the malign 'phallic female' of the thriller genre, a 'phallic' empowered female often plays a positive role in action fantasy (for example the 'street samurai' Molly in William Gibson's 'Neuromancer'). Ender Wiggin's sister Valentine enjoyed the ambiguous privileges of Spartan womanhood. She was tested for warrior prowess equally with her brothers, and though judged too weak for Battle School (or rather, "too moral", a charge rarely levelled at women in classical times), she retained an active, public role - as "Demosthenes", and as the grieving chorus who charts Ender's destruction. Ironically, the next decade was to see a woman writer leap into prominence, with a series decidedly more positive about militarism. The quote above is from the first published volume of Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series, 'Shards of Honour' (1986) -a novel which in fact chronicles the romance between her hero's parents. The speaker, Lord Aral Vorkosigan, could be regarded as (private) William Mandella's mutant offspring. He's a career soldier by default, he really had no choice in his avocation; but basically decent and honourable. The Betans, socialist and liberal-valued enemies of his own planet, feudal Barrayar, call him "the Butcher of Komarr". This is an unjustified slur, though there are things in his past he's not particularly proud of; such as a homosexual romance with the sadist princeling who was his first wife's lover. He has the same cynical affection for the army, and feels the same resigned distaste towards the dirty tactics of High Command as Mandella, but this soldier is more deeply complict: he is of the same caste as the chiefs of staff, an aristocrat of the highest possible rank.

The narrative of 'Shards of Honour' is transitional. The heroine, Cordelia Naismith, is an army scientist from peaceful, egalitarian, sexually polymorphous Beta. Her encounter with the Ruritanian feudalism of Barrayar at times resembles a cheap and cheerful version of Ursula Le Guin's 'The Dispossessed', where a scientist from the dirt-poor Utopia of Anarres is confronted by the unprincipled luxury of the homeworld, Urras. But while Shevek sets out as an apostate from Utopia, and then finds himself horrified by Urras, Cordelia -when she returns to Beta after her adventures with the saturnine Lord Aral- finds herself disgusted by the regimentation and the interference of the Welfare State. She willingly chooses the life of an aristocrat's consort in Ruritania, abandoning her career and her 'liberated' status, in exchange for security, a prettier uniform, and the right to have a husband and devoted bodyguard bearing arms.
The formal rejection of a 'sixties agenda' seems a rite of passage, a signal that moderately conservative US readers, by far the largest group in the sf buying public, need not fear to enter this world. Equally it was a signal to those more liberally inclined: Bujold is not ignorant, she has made an informed choice and can be trusted not to do anything too offensive… Subsequent volumes (from 'The Warrior's Apprentice', and still ongoing with 'Diplomatic Immunity', 2002) recount the history of Miles Vorkosigan, Aral and Cordelia's son, crippled from birth after a terrorist chemical weapon attack while his mother was pregnant. Barred from conventional military success he pursues an oblique career: first as the 'Admiral' of an irregular force of privateers, then as a highly-placed 'diplomatic troubleshooter'. Attacks on feminism and welfare are never aggressive (which is not the case in the other military series), sexual diversity is presented as acceptable, and human gene-modification is endemic. The reader, male or female, can count on the Vorkosigan saga for clear, undemanding prose, mild adventure, witty dialogue, feelgood plots, a modicum of violence (including rather startling levels of torture) and above all the vicarious sense of being a privileged insider: someone who may seem insignificant, but who at any moment may command the people right at the top of the organisation.

Bujold's fragile but steely-willed aristocrat hero bears a marked debt to Lord Peter Wimsey, the fragile but redoubtable aristocrat detective invented by the British writer Dorothy Sayers. Miles Vorkosigan's 'job' strongly recalls Lord Peter's ill-defined role in pre-war international tensions in Thirties Europe. Her dialogue and narration, well above average for mass market sf, owe something to Sayers, and also to the historical romantic comedies of another British woman writer, Georgette Heyer -as does the character of Aral Vorkosigan, who is a dead ringer for one of Heyer's sardonic, soft-centred, prize-fighting Corinthians. (The influence is not so strange as it sounds, and not unique to Bujold. Georgette Heyer's comedies, set during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, have provided other sf writers with a useful template for the social mores of high society in a time of permanent warfare). In the late eighties and early nineties the success of Bujold's series was a revelation. Terrified by the radical ideas and literary experiments of feminist sf, unconvinced by fantasy dragons, respectful but slightly resentful of Le Guin and Butler (Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler, the two US sf novelists of the twentieth century to gain enduring, mainstream literary recognition), the great science fiction public had finally discovered what it wanted from 'liberated' women. There had been, there were, women writing challenging science fiction, and challenging space opera (Nancy Kress, Carolyn Cherryh, even Gwyneth Jones) without particular reference to their sex. Bujold was best-selling science fiction's feminine voice: graceful, easy-reading romance, goodwilled elitism, a touch of brutality; not too much tech, and uniforms with plenty of gold braid.
Lois McMaster Bujold's 'Barrayan Universe' novels (the 'Barrayan Universe' is the human inhabited space-volume in which her stories are set) had no great critical acclaim, but won her three Hugos and a Nebula award -a record that reliably signals broadly based popular respect. The 'Serrano Legacy' books, the military sf series created by fantasy writer Elizabeth Moon (best known for her 'Paksenarrion' trilogy, which recounts the career of a female Galahad, with a ruthless degree of borrowing from fantasy gaming, and -at a remove- from Tolkien), may divide the public more on age and gender lines. Where Bujold discarded her female protagonist, choosing instead the unisex device of a physically handicapped, but still powerful, male hero, Elizabeth Moon's primary heroine, Esmay Suiza, seems designed -whether by calculation or by natural inclination- to appeal to the stereotype of a teenage sf reader. Shy, nerdy, with terrible hair, Esmay is the high-school geek who gets the high scores and never has a boyfriend. In other respects, however, the Serrano Legacy is true to the Vorkosigan pattern. Esmay is a born aristocrat, the heiress of a vast estate on the Spanish-American style rural planet of Altiplano (which bears a resemblance to Elizabeth Moon's native South Texas). Like Miles she has problems with her powerful family's expectations. As a naval officer cadet she comes, unexpectedly, into her own, singlehandedly rescuing a naval space station, and its two hundred thousand crew-members, from the attack of space-terrorists known as the Bloodhorde (Once A Hero, 1999). David Weber's 'Honor Harrington' series, in many ways the perfect examplar of modern mass-market science fiction, features, on the contrary, a heroine (or female hero, if you prefer) the typical female teenage sf reader would go far to avoid. Honor is a six foot two, martial arts trained, modestly beautiful Eurasian: a superb yet unassuming dominatrix, who always gets full marks and is always the favourite of any kind of commanding officer. She has to an extent risen through the ranks, but aristocracy flocks around her sufficiently to make her 'yeoman' background immaterial. Weber, whose 'universe' is loosely based on the era of the Napoleonic Wars, with Honor as the naval champion of the Star Kingdom of Manticore (nineteenth century Britain) says he had Horatio Nelson in mind when he invented her (in real life Horatio Nelson was more of a Miles Vorkosigan type: a fragile, pushy blond with an eye for the ladies). He has expressed his intention of taking her, just as Patrick O'Brian's historical version of the story pursued the career of his Jack Aubery, all the way to Admiral. (Interview with Stephen Hunt: July 02).

Science fiction writers mirror their own times, and the mass market series are no exception to this rule. Elizabeth Moon's 'Familias Regnant' Universe is a human inhabited space-volume where the planets take on the geographical and cultural characteristics of different parts of the USA. It has been criticised as 'implausible' by some of her fans, but few would contest the idea that this view of the world is very common in sf's heartland. David Weber's transposition of the Napoleonic Wars to deep space features a grumbling interplanetary situation with an enemy of Manticore vaguely identified as a failed Communist experiment. But the real venom in the books is reserved, predictably, for interfering liberals from home: the enemy within. More interesting, in terms of the series's female protagonists, is the position on sexual equality in Weber's and Moon's 'universes'. Although women may rise to high command, Honor in particular seems extremely lonely at the top. There are other female officers and enlisted women, but the affectionate high-ranking authority figures (except for the distant presence of Queen Elizabeth III) she deals with are exclusively male. When Honor gets into sexual trouble -an attempted rape, by the worthless scion of a noble house- she knows better than to expect them to take her side (On Basilisk Station). Elizabeth Moon's naval cadet heroines, less exalted and less isolated, have very recognisable teen-movie style High School relationships. When not engaged in action-fantasy derring do, Esmay Suiza's adventures may take the form of cat-fights with a shameless spoiled rich-girl, rival for the dishy ensign Barin Serrano; while the spoiled-rich girl -aside from assassination attempts- is in danger of being branded as a predatory female or an easy lay, both of these crimes still well known (Rules of Engagement). But though Esmay herself is the survivor of childhood rape, an ugly family secret concealed in suppressed memories (Once A Hero), Honor Harrington is worse off. Her career is dogged by sexual harrassment. In two oddly parallel stories, Weber's 'The Honor Of The Queen' (1993) and Moon's 'Rules of Engagement' (1998), the preoccupation with rape, with the warrior-women's special and unaltered identity as sexual prey, takes over. In 'The Honor Of The Queen', Honor, supposedly riding shotgun on a diplomatic mission to the 'conservative' planet of Grayson, finds herself exposed, after an unexpected battle reversal (it's the fault of those interfering liberals, of course) as the senior officer who must negotiate with Grayson's leaders, who are polygamists deeply offended by the sight of a woman in uniform. Things get worse when it's revealed that the female crew members of a ship captured by Grayson's breakaway extremists have been kept naked, beaten, and subjected to multiple systematic rape. In Elizabeth Moon's version, the spoiled rich girl, Brun Meager,gets kidnapped by the god-fearing militia of a planet called Nu-Texas, who are appalled at the existence of 'liberated' females. She spends long enough as a sexual chattel to bear twin babies -whom she leaves behind without regret when she's rescued, they're boys and they won't have a bad life. It has to be said, Moon's spoiled brat makes a far better showing, in this kind of adversity than Weber's naval officers -by no means the only sign that David Weber hasn't quite got his head around the idea of actual sexual equality. But he's hardly alone in that, and though some of his female fans may splutter indignantly, or wince resignedly, they will continue reading. They don't want to hear about a radically different world, that's not the object of this exercise.

Elizabeth Moon tends to High School soap-opera, but is more savvy on sexual and social politics and something more of a stylist than Weber. David Weber's prose is extremely far from literary, but he dwells at length on technical detail, and fantasy engineering specifications. In both cased the battle scenes are so weighted down by the stereotyped political background, and the exigencies of series-continuity, that there is little suspense, and there's absolutely no fear of an unexpected outcome to the fairytale. Honor/Esmay/Brun/Heris will suffer terrible injustice, will fail the term-test, will be courtmartialled; Honor/Esmay/Brun/Heris will be vindicated, will win the battle singlehanded, will be cleared of the imputation of cheating… The level of science fiction ideation is negligible: frankly derisory, if one were to compare it with the science in 'The Forever War'. As one reader on Amazon.com puts it, 'you plough through all the sci-fi stuff, to get to the characters'. The appeal of these books is secretly, exclusively in the pre-pubertal emotion. It's in the moments of sexless affection between Honor and her high-ranking male father-figures, or of sensuous affection with Nimitz, her faithful -male- pet treecat. A safe, licensed outlet for vulnerable feelings, is this is the meaning of the women in uniform?
In the final scenes of 'Shards of Honour', after Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan have left the stage, a medical orderly watches as a post-mortem nurse tends the dead, recovered from a blasted ship after a space battle. He is repulsed to see the nurse stroke and kiss the body of one dead girl-marine, and thinks he's come across some kind of twisted ghoul. Then he realises this is the woman's daughter, whom she proceeds to dress in the traditional white gown and lace veil she would have worn to be married. The orderly is much moved. Yes, he thinks, the good face pain. But the great -they embrace it! (Shards of Honour p 253) In the conservative societies of popular militarist sf, warrior maidens die on their wedding day. Rape or the threat of rape is a given, sexual torture is often threatened, but for all the romantic entanglements, consensual sex plays a very small part. The soldier-heroines of Moon, Weber, Bujold's work have embraced a tragic destiny, stripped of sexual life by their role in the hive, but they are not alone. The army infantalises everyone: you can be a hero and cry like a baby, it's okay, you have a license, you're in uniform.

The Great Embrace Pain

"I could guess, though, what the Admiral's visit would do to Portia's morale. My lieutenants had heard him disparage how I ran my ship; his stinging rebuke wouldn't help my authority. And what the midshipmen witnessed was hardly a proper example for their conduct.
The midshipmen! What was I to do about Philip Tyre? I rocked back and forth, dismayed. The Admiral had given me a direct order; I was to have Philip caned.
The order was utterly unjust; I was Captain of Portia and in charge of my ship's discipline. Tyre's demerits littered the Log because of Alexi's attitude, not Philip's. The nightmare relations between Tyre, Alexi and myself had just begun to be resolved, and Lord God knew what effect an unwarranted caning would have on the young middy now."

'Challenger's Hope' David Feintuch, (1995) p74

In Elizabeth Moon's Serrano Legacy sequence, the naked, economic supremacy created by genetic-enhancement is mentioned in passing. In Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga, a chemical attack can cause irreperable pre-natal damage, but IVF and embryo optimisation are de rigeur in the higher castes (both among standard humans and the races that have abandoned the original body plan). Typically, in popular militarist sf of the pause, privilege is innate, and unquestionable. The government of choice throughout human settled space-volumes is approximately feudal (the Star Kingdom of Manticore calls itself a Parliamentary Democracy, but that's pretty much of a joke). Main characters have the highest rank and connections. Non-commissioned officers, enlisted men, and women, have walk-on parts (as the necessary casualties the genre knows as 'shreddies'), or survive, contentedly, as devoted servants. In David Feintuch's Seafort Saga (1994-2001) Nick Seafort, for a change, is an anti-hero, whose relationship with military -or naval- authority is as agonised as Ender Wiggin's, but on a more intimate scale. In his engaging internet 'reminiscences' David Feintuch has explained how, after a childhood immersed in pulp and golden age sf, he came to devise his naval saga:
"…what if someone were in charge of a group, but he knew himself to be incompetent and unable to lead? What if those he commanded also knew it, and he was aware they knew?
How could I set that up? It had to be important. Therefore a situation where lives were at stake. Command structures would be involved, ergo a military setting. The commander couldn't seek help from home base, else the story would collapse, so the characters had to be isolated as a group for a long period. If the commander were free to resign I'd have no story. Therefore, a hierarchical and rigid society bound by oaths of honor.
The solution was obvious: the British Navy in the Napoleonic era."
Feintuch then goes on to explain how he decided to set his story in the future, and strand his incompetent naval officer in the vast spaces between the stars, because that way he won't have to worry about his ignorance of the technical details -an admission well borne out by the Seafort Saga itself, which boasts some of the least scientific science fiction, and the least convincing alien monsters (giant spacefaring goldfish), of modern times. Perhaps more startling, even if you are familiar with the other militarist series of this period, is the complete absence of the phenomenon known in the British idiom as a 'stiff upper lip': the ingrained habit of self-control, vital for discipline and sanity for both officers and men, while trapped together onboard a small sailing ship for months. But though these books will never win prizes for their prose, their science, or their common sense, the formula -put an incompetent young man in charge of a situation where emotions must be constrained, and then don't constrain the emotion- certainly does the job. Repetetive and formulaic as 'Ender's Game' itself, the Seafort Saga rolls on, from one dreadful humiliation to the next, with occasional bursts of brilliant action, to the guilty satisfaction of many readers.

Arguably, sf fans who do not read the mass-market series are not sf fans at all, because here is the modern heartland of the genre; these are the pulps. Those critical readers who admit, with a little gentle probing, to following the Seafort Saga place it low in the credibility league, high in the absurdity ratings. Yet, paradoxically, the Seafort future is gritty realism compared to Ruritanian Barrayar, or to the Star Kingdom of Manticore. Fundamentalist Christianity rules on earth. The oaths of naval service are backed by a merciless patriarchal God, and the merciless fathers who keep that 'God' in business. A double standard keeps virtuous women in purdah; though the rich make free use of cloning, donor pregnancy, gene-modification. Furlough in the excitement of Upper New York is marred by the nagging presence of the brutalised underclasses down on the street (in 'Challenger's Hope', Seafort finds himself in charge of an shipload of these raging 'transpops', on top of his vessel's normal complement of crew and passengers). But the heart of the Nick Seafort story is in the agonies of the wardroom: where young 'middys' 'haze' each other with the orgiastic injustice and unremitting cruelty that is reproduced through the whole chain of command. So much caning on the bare buttocks as goes on in these books! So much hysterical weeping! The British Navy in the Napoleonic era was no doubt a brutal and a brutalising environment, but as an incredulous German amateur reviewer of David Feintuch remarks (Amazon.com: 'Challenger's Hope'), there can't have been an armed force in history where young officers were routinely subjected to this kind of treatment. It just doesn't make sense…except in the context of that jealous father/ God, (Nick finds it difficult to distinguish between the two) and the intimate contact He forbids, between one young man and another.
Wounds, and emotional injuries, are an important factor in the military series novels: though in the pause fiction, these wounds are rarely received in conventional action. Honor Harrington, on her way to becoming an avatar of Horatio Nelson, must suffer shattering reverses, and is also bound to lose an eye and an arm. The loss of the eye, described in gruesome detail in 'The Honor Of The Queen' is collateral damage incurred when she's fending off an assassination attempt against a local leader, in a conference room ('The Honor Of The Queen' 236-238). Miles Vorkosigan, brittle-boned as a result of that terrorist attack before he was born, suffers major medical trauma in almost every episode. Elizabeth Moon's and Weber's girl-officers are raped and beaten. But all fantasies of wounding, fantasy wounds, openings of the flesh, may be regarded as having cathartic, sexual meaning, for both writers and readers: David Feintuch's saga, here as elsewhere, is perhaps simply a little more candid than the convention of the sub-genre usually allows.

Sexuality is a perennial problem for the armed forces, and equally, the armed forces are a magnet for people whose sexuality is a problem -either personally, or according to the mores of their society. The paradox of gay men/gay women in uniform is well-known, as is the dilemma of heterosexual men in uniform who'd prefer not to use local 'comfort girls' -a problem Joe Haldeman solved, in his long ago 'Forever War', by introducing compulsory co-ed bunking, or 'indiscriminate promiscuity', to the disgust of many of his modern readers. There is also that typical female sf reader -heterosexual or homosexual- who identifies herself as having 'male' abilities, and feels that this put her in the aristocracy of her sex: but finds herself barred or disadvantaged in the male world of hierarchies and uniforms. To have the armed forces, or the lab, or the corporation, turned upside down by political change would solve nothing for her: but in worlds of the imagination, just a little change is harmless.
Sexuality is not the only problem that can be eased by a retreat into the infantilising world of the military series. Feelings of inferiority, of helplessness, fear of loss, can be hidden in the organised deprivation of these scenarios; like leaves in a forest. Long ago, in the pause between two movements of a European war that engulfed the world, the science fiction 'pulps' provided escape for their humble audience of teenagers and daydreaming technophiles. In those days the traits of heroism were imposed from above. Pulp readers were required to daydream that they were exceptional, that they resisted regimentation, that they were brilliant mavericks, whose emotional life was hidden in decent privacy. They would 'buck the system' by inventing some peerless gadget, and thereby save the world. Traces of that era lingered long. Ender Wiggins is a brilliant maverick (though he was built, like a robot). But in these mass-market fantasies of war without an external enemy the rich-poor (materially rich, poor in every marker of high-culture) of the USA, of the period between around 1985 and 2001, turned their attention to the personal. The utilitarian, aspirational texts of the old science fiction were subverted into a more consoling catharsis. The irony is that these fantasy militarists, readers and writers, found themselves concentrating, (as peacetime governments are forced to concentrate, allthough it irks them terribly...), on the quality of life for the individual: not on the victory of Manticore over Haven, or Barrayar over Beta, or the annihilation of those pesky giant goldfish -but on the personal fullfillment, emotional well-being, health and happiness of Honor, and Miles, and Esmay, and poor old Nick Seafort.

On The Eve

"Unusually for people in the entertainment milieu, they supported what they called the responsible elements, the factions in Eurydicean politics who had pressed for a strong defence before any threat had been identified…"
Newton's Wake, Ken MacLeod (2003) p50

All of this happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away: so long ago that it's easy to forget that for the last decades of the twentieth century both series science fiction and militarist sf were in eclipse -unloved by the critics and denigrated by serious sf readers; even those who were at the same time buying and reading the books avidly. Writers as considerable as Carolyn Cherryh, whose 'Merchanter' work is too complex and wide-reaching to be listed as militarist, were put in the shade by cyberpunk and its progeny of 'future noir'; and by great projects of intensively researched, 'realist' extrapolation, notably the different versions of an imaginary colonised Mars. Series like The Vorkosigan Saga, The Seafort Saga, The Honor Harrington series, The Serrano Legacy, were the popular but embarrassing face of a subgenre in decline: soft centred, boarding school stories for grown-ups, which had hijacked certain appealing features of 'liberalism' (the female heroes). But by the turn of the century a vacuum at the top end of the US market had lead critical readers to the UK. The new British science fiction combined the golden age politics and sexless female heroes of the US militarist series, with a sharper wit and superior science content. Alastair Reynolds, Ken MacLeod and the re-discovered Iain M. Banks began to appear on the sacred Hugo and Nebula ballots (along with J.K.Rowling); and the values of mass-market sf had returned to the heart of the genre.
But the 'demise' of US science fiction was perhaps a temporary adjustment. Women writers seem to have vanished, for the moment, but sf writers like Walter Jon Williams, US historical novelist with a reputation for skilful and literate science fiction in the modern mode, and Walter Hunt, a newcomer whose Dark Wing series has been greeted enthusiastically by Honor Harrington fans, have entered the fray. Hunt has a female hero, a very unpretentious style, and a popular sf take on spirituality; the agenda that has replaced 'sixties' ideas. Williams has chosen yet another a literary transposition of the Napoleonic era, with echoes of Jane Austen and Patrick O'Brian, and borrowings from Imperial China. It's probably too soon to tell which approach will win out, but my money is on Mr Hunt.
Here on the brink of the year 2005, Lois McMaster Bujold, one of the most honoured of living science fiction and fantasy writers, though loyal to the many new and old fans of Miles Vorkosigan, is working on a highly regarded fantasy series (The Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls). Elizabeth Moon, while still pursuing the Serrano Legacy, had a huge success last year with 'The Speed Of Dark', a stand-alone book barely set in the future, without a uniform in sight. David Feintuch is also writing a fantasy series (The Still, The King), featuring an incompetent young man forced into a position of command, but this time with a passionately loving male friend to guide him. Meanwhile, David Weber's female Nelson has not yet reached her Trafalgar… At a time when the world seems much less safe, science fiction is once more safe for the mass-market audience, and the best loved traditional form, the romantic military series, seems to have a new lease of life. But what mark will the reappearence of an iconic external enemy make, on the fantasies of a nation? We can only read the mirror by looking back, so that remains to be seen.

*Thanks to Matthew Johnson for this correction, May 2010

Published in "Fictions" Studi sulla narativita Anno III 2004: guest editors Darko Suvin and Salvatore Proietti

Works Cited (UK editions for quotation purposes):
Bujold, Lois McMasters, "Shards of Honour" New York, Baen, 1986
(London, Simon & Schuster, 1998)

Card, Orson Scott, "Ender's Game" New York, Tor, 1985
(London, Arrow Books (Century Hutchinson Ltd), 1986)

Feintuch, David "Challenger's Hope" New York, Warner Aspect, 1994
(London, Little, Brown and Company, 1996)
Haldeman, Joe. The Forever War, New York, St Martin's Press, 1974
(London, Futura/Macdonald, 1976)
Moon, Elizabeth. Rules of Engagement, New York, Baen 1998
(London, Orbit, 2000)

Weber, David. The Honor Of The Queen , New York, Baen, 1994
( London, Simon & Schuster, 2000)

David Weber interviewed: http://www.computercrowsnest.com/sfnews2/02_july/news0702_1.shtml)
David Feintuch's reminiscences: http://www.concentric.net/~Writeman/intro1.html

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