War: What is it Good For?

Apr 18, 04:36 by IROSF

All comments on this essay welcome!

The article can be found here.
Apr 18, 20:09 by David Bartell
It does often seem that SF is dominated by the militaristic, and certainly Hollywood's SF may be. But Clarke and Sagan aren't the only ones to discuss aliens in other contexts. SF is replete with alien encounters of all kinds, and has been at least since the Golden Age. When SF treats aliens as "them", you find allegories to human conflicts, including war. When aliens are part of "us", the stories tend to paint more optimistic views. In any case, drama is about conflict, so much of the blame falls on the form of literature itself, not just the genre.
Apr 19, 00:11 by Steven Francis Murphy
First, why is it instantly assumed that "The Other," be it alien or our own creation (artificial intelligence) will be better than us as a species. Since we do not have any actual examples to draw upon, why is it not just as plausible to postulate "The Other" as being just as bad, if not worse than us?

Second, to my knowledge, most human societies, not just Western Culture, has a tradition of warfare to some extent or another. It is a nearly universal concept and as a result, it permeates recorded human history. The primary driver of these conflicts is human freewill and the notion that, "If I want it and have enough power, I can take it." I do not see any indication that this will change anytime soon.

Third, I'd argue that military SF is still valid today and I have to admit, I get tired of the warporn brush the sub-genre is painted with. Military SF can be effective at showing us the ultimate horrors of war in years to come and one might make the argument that much of the atomic war fiction of the last century helped to temper passions that might have led to World War III.

Finally, I've got to be frank, I find pacifistic fiction to be incredibly unrealistic (on a number of levels) and rather boring. My education as a historian indicates we are not likely to move into an era of Sunshine and Bunny Rabbits anytime soon and my experience as a soldier indicates we are just as prone to use force today as we ever were. If not for the traditional Imperialist reasons, then for the reasons related to humantarianism (intervention in the Balkans, Somalia, Haiti, etc).

Much as a philosopher once said, "Only the dead have seen the end of war."

And as a writer, I don't think I'm going to drop an item from my toolbox. Especially on such weak grounds.

S. F. Murphy
Apr 19, 00:27 by Lisa Agnew
So what you're saying, SFMurphy, is that, because war is a constant of our history, we should not imagine life without it? I have a passage on the homepage of my website, written by Carl Sagan, which describes the nature of my arguement. Perhaps you should read that as well.

All debate is good.
Apr 19, 02:18 by Bluejack
One of my favorite liberal utopias is the anarchist society found in Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed -- I think it is the most exquisite demonstration that the difference between utopia and distopia is a fine one indeed. A future without war and exploitation sounds wonderful, and yet, LeGuin imagines that eliminating the obvious sources of misery neither changes human nature, nor eliminates misery itself.

I doubt that S.F.Murphy or any author would say that we "shouldn't" imagine life without war; science fiction is all about imagining different possible futures, and what conflict looks like when violence is actually not an option is as valid an idea as any other.

But he may be objecting to the thought that we "shouldn't" imagine a future *with* war: shouldn't is a problematic word for any creator, as it should be.

However, I'd suggest to Mr. Murphy that there may be a good reason the "warporn" brush gets so much use: it's out there, and the stuff that jumps off the shelf at us whining liberals tends to be the worst of it. Kudos to the marketing people, I guess.
Apr 19, 19:34 by Steven Francis Murphy
Bluejack, as a published writer of two stories what I object to is having someone come along and tell me, "No, don't use that tool and don't paint with those colors on the pallette." I have the same objection to the Mundane SF types.

Lisa, I find such imaginings unrealistic and individuals and leaders who attempt to create such "utopias" almost always cause more problems than they solve.

We could spend some time talking about Woodrow Wilson. Wilson felt he could solve the problems of nation states by creating The League of Nations. Now granted, the US didn't join it, but even if we did, I seriously doubt the agency could have done much to avert a Second World War because it lacked enforcement measures.

We could chat about the Kellogg-Briand Pact of the 1920s. A global pact designed to "outlaw war," which was fathered by U.S. Secretary of State Frank Kellogg and French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand. Most of the nations of the period signed on.

It failed. Why?

No enforcement mechanism.

We could chat about the punitive measures placed on Germany as a way to prevent her remilitarization by means of the Treaty of Versailles. Not only did these measures ruin the German economy (exactly what they were designed to do) they fostered a blowback with a political climate that enabled Adolf Hitler to rise to power.

And of course, we could spend some time chatting about Appeasement and the failure therein. If you just give an aggressor another cookie, the problem will go away.

I think the only effective imagination of a human specices without war is The Tripods. In that story, the humans are "capped" with devices that prevent any sort of hostile action against the aliens which have conquered the planet. Removal of free will (which appears to be the only viable cure to war) seems far worse than the disease.

Bluejack, I read The Dispossessed and perhaps my memory is sketchy, but I do believe the anarchist society is protected from attack by a volunteer rocket force in orbit about the world in question. We don't see the end of war in that novel. The two planets, from my read of it, appear to be in a stalemate of Cold War style tensions (which is perhaps why I like it, even though LeGuin is giving the usual sermon).

And I guess rather than trying to improve the state of military science fiction, the preferable method is either to write an anti-war satire (Haldeman) or simply write a fairy tale where they don't study war no more.

I find such a future incredibly unrealistic.

Which is perhaps why I find trying to imagine an era of sunshine and bunny rabbits to be incredibly unhealthy. Who is going to enforce this peace? Who is going to make everyone comply? And more to the point, even if you managed to create a society where there was no war for a period, how long would it be before someone thought, "Why am I talking my problems out when I can simply kill my opponent and take what I want?"

I guess it irks me because this topic comes up on a regular basis in the short fiction communities of Science Fiction. And most of the mil sf short material that gets published is usually some editorial (containing a tone very much like the article we are talking about) disguised as a story.

You'd think folks never read All Quiet on the Western Front, or Johnny Got His Gun. Maybe even Things They Carried.

Days when I wonder about science fiction.

S. F. Murphy
Apr 20, 00:55 by Lisa Agnew
You've got a good point with the reference to The Tripods, SFMurphy. As far as our own species goes, the cure would probably be worse than the disease. I feel that people are missing the point about the essay, though (maybe I didn't clarify it enough). My point is not so much wishy-washy anti-war, but anti the narrow view that sf, and military sf, often takes. If I was clever enough, I would love to develop more stories along the lines of Philip Pullman (who can be classified as sf, although he's often called a fantasy writer). I realise that it will be a long, long time (if at all) before our species does away with war.

Apr 20, 01:36 by Steven Francis Murphy
Damon Knight, I think, wrote another version where some sort of disease infected humanity. If one human tried to take another human life, the disease killed that person instantly. I can't remember the name of the novel (though I did browse it). Frankly, it horrified me.

When you say that military sf is narrow in its viewpoint, which examples would you provide for consideration?

More to the point, what do you wish military sf would consider? I, personally, get a bit irritated with what I call Tactical Procedurals. Lots of tactics, strategy, pyrotechnics, not much character development and none of the typical boring moments which make up 99% of military life (yet provide excellent opportunities for the aforementioned missing character development).

I wish there were more mil sf pieces that used All Quiet on the Western Front as their touchstone. Instead, we get either shoot'em ups or The Forever War clones (very bad ones at that). Maybe Bluejack gets annoyed with the coverart that supposedly jams the bookshelves (funny thing, I was at Barnes and Noble and the mil SF was rather thin on the shelves, I thought) but I do not see ENOUGH military SF.

Certainly not enough worth reading. Then again, I say that about a lot of science fiction these days.

S. F. Murphy
Apr 20, 01:57 by Lois Tilton
I will certainly agree with the wish that more military SF could be better-written and less heavily polemical.
Apr 20, 03:21 by Steven Francis Murphy
Lois, I'd extend the polemical charge to almost all current American science fiction, regardless of subgenre. It makes me wonder what they are teaching at Clarion these days.

"Go get the talking points from your favorite political cause," say the famous writer in residence, "then graft a cardboard hero and a cardboard villian to the mix and viola! You can save the world too!"

I'm no literary style monkey and I didn't get an MFA in Creative Writing but what happened to, "The Story comes first?"

You can't even pick up a mag these days without banging your knee on a heavy handed editorial. I get awfully tired of them.

Fortunately for everyone, I do not write reviews anymore.

S. F. Murphy
Apr 20, 15:53 by Lois Tilton
Apr 20, 17:20 by Bluejack
Re: The Dispossessed -- the two planets were in cold war status, but the internals of the anarchist utopia were all the non-violent, peacenik stuff that the sixties idolized; and yet it was still it's own kind of hell of interpersonal politics with just as much bias against non-conformity as any other. The Dispossessed was more than a satirical look at the counterculture of the day (much more), but that was certainly part of it, IMO.

It sounds like Murphy is simply observing Sturgeon's Law, and I'm not sure anyone is disagreeing with that.

I will say that there's crap I read as a guilty pleasure, and then there's crap I simply can't abide. So perhaps this is a "Your crap stinks more than my crap," conversation. Nonetheless, I for one am enjoying the conversation.
Apr 21, 03:57 by Peter Blanton
I guess my biggest objection to this essay is the projection of the author's feelings about war and its acceptability (admirable) on to science fiction on a blanket fashion.

Envisioning a world without war might very well be a great thing -- or it might not be. The author refers to war as a constant of history, and it's here that I think she's mistaken -- it seems more likely that it's a constant of human nature, and as such, the only way to eliminate it completely would be to radically change humanity. (This is a sub theme of Haldeman's Forever War, for instance). But whether or not it's a good thing for humanity, it isn't for science fiction. (At least in general -- a good plot might include the striving for such a solution to war -- who knows?). But SF -- indeed all genre literature is tied inexorably to conflict. Without conflict, there's no tension, and therefore no plot. War is by no means the only source of this conflict, but it provides a perfectly usable source for character conflict. It is part of the human condition -- whether for good or ill -- and is thus a perfectly good source for story telling. If we where to specifically ignore it as story tellers, we'd be telling falsehoods. (That doesn't mean that every story has to include it, but there's a difference between telling a story that doesn't involve war, and one that specifically excludes its existence.)

I also had a real issue with the assumption that military science fiction is predominant in the field, and that its all militaristic. There are a number of very popular military SF writers to be sure. But while war is by no means uncommon in science fiction, it certainly isn't dominant. Baen publishes most of it, and even for them its only a fraction of their line-up. And assuming that military science fiction is necessarily militaristic is an argument that's facile at best. Is War of the Worlds militaristic? Is Forever War militaristic? Is Bill the Galactic Hero militaristic? Not likely. And even in some less obvious cases -- Scalzi's Old Man's War, for example. It's military science fiction, and yet it's not militaristic. Being militaristic implies the advocation of war. But good military science fiction isn't about war -- it's about the people who happen to be involved in a war. Sure, you could have a story about people involved in scientific investigation. But that wouldn't be the same story. And making the rather specious argument that stories should strive for that sort of goal is only artificially limiting the range of storytelling.

I'll admit the introduction of the tirade against science fiction in movies didn't seem to make a lot of sense in the scope of the argument. Very few science fiction movies of which I'm aware are intimately connected to war -- Star Wars and Enemy Mine are some of the only ones that come to mind off-hand.

And I have to say -- if you're going to use the example of a great book that was turned into a great movie, you need to choose a different novel. With 2001: A Space Odyssey, the movie came first. The book was a novelization of the movie that Stanley Kubrick co-wrote with Arthur C. Clarke.
Apr 23, 02:32 by Keith Vaughn
Reading the essay I was wondering if the author was trying to repeal the core of a story--conflict. As far as military right now; it is where the high technology is being shown. And most science fiction is about technology and its effects upon mankind. Life and death are most stark in a warzone, so the ease of bringing a conflict out in a story.

I think the author should figure out what causes war and how it is seen as the only solution to a problem. That would be a good essay and thought provoking at that.

Another thing which is coming up and should be explored is robots in war and their control by "Playstation" controllers. "Holocaust by Joystick" could be a good story and thought provoking at that. You wouldn't even have to have a frankenstein problem. Just men who have dehumanized the enemy (civilians and soldiers) to points in a game. It's being conditioned right now...what's the eventual effect?

Apr 23, 23:38 by Steven Francis Murphy
Haldeman explored the remote warfare angle in one of his Forever novels (not very well, I thought).

S. F. Murphy
Apr 24, 06:05 by Peter Blanton
Yes -- in Forever Peace, if I'm not mistaken. I agree -- I think that was the weakest part of the book. Although I'm betting he'd do it a bit differently (and a bit more negatively) if he wrote it now. I know he was incredibly offended by the whole notion of the Powell doctrine (destroy the other guy from afar so there's no casualties on our side -- therefore, it's a "painless" war.)
Apr 25, 23:42 by Steven Francis Murphy
I'm not offended by the Powell Doctrine. I survived my war because of it and I dearly wish that if we were going to fight more of them, we'd use it more often.

As for painless, well, I saw the aftermath of the Gulf War. You didn't get the kind of distance from your handiwork as you might with Soldierboys in Forever Peace.

It is one of Haldeman's novels that I simply couldn't even get started on.

S. F. Murphy
Apr 26, 06:35 by Peter Blanton
I think the issue he had (and that I have) with the Powell Doctrine isn't the idea that you beat the crap out of the other guy and minimize casualties on your side -- that's not only logical, but the only sane way to wage a war (if that's possible). Hell, that's the basic premise of successful war -- don't die for your country, make the other guy die for his.

The issue with the Powell Doctrine is more the assumption that since casualties are light on your side, that must mean there isn't a real cost to the war, that there are no real consequences that you have to be concerned about.
Apr 30, 21:15 by Bluejack
Then there's also the question of whether the doctrine, however fine the theory, actually works. Creating a massive zone of lawlessness and chaos in the midst of a volatile region isn't exactly "taking the war to the enemy." It's more "creating opportunity for the enemy."

May 1, 17:40 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
Sorry to have been so tardy in the forums lately. I have just now finished reading Ms. Agnew's essay on militarism in Science Fiction, and feel compelled to argue a few points. The first few will probably be seen as nitpicking, but there you are.

First, Ms. Agnew states that were it not for the movie adaptation and surrounding controversy Phillip Pullman's superb Northern Lights/Golden Compass would probably be read only by a minority. Nothing could be farther from the truth. This novel was a best seller in Great Britain and Canada more than a decade before the film was released and has won a significant award for children's literature in 1995. Personally, I was introduced to the novel (and its subsequent sequels) through a undergrad literature course I audited in 1996 at the University of Alberta. I also had the priviledge of a guest lecture in that course by Mr. Pullman himself, while he was in Edmonton Canada on his promotion tour. While it may not have had the almost unbelievable success of the Harry Potter franchise, it was neither unread nor negelected as Ms. Agnew seems to imply.

Second, Ms. Agnew argues that too few excellent science fiction novels are made into movies. This is most likely because excellent science fiction novels seldom translate well to the silver screen. Blade Runner was significantly different than Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Dune (arguably the best science fiction novel written) suffered from serious flaws in both movie versions. The less said about The Last Mimsy the better. Science fiction that works well in print is not just difficult to adapt to visual media, it is almost impossible (although P.K. Dick's works seem to translate well). It would be better and more productive, in my opinion, to create science fiction specifically for the screen rather than adapt novels to it. Witness the success of Wheadon's Firefly/Serenity or (although it is militaristic) Straczynski's Babylon 5.

In addition, the movie industry exists to make money, not art. The easiest and best way to make money is to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Is it then surprising that almost all science ficiton movies are violent action-fests? War appeals to a wide segment of the population, particularly so to the 16-30 single male demographic. We should be thankful that good movies actually get made, regardless if they are war movies or not.

Third, the overall tone and feel of Ms. Agnew's essay seems (to me at least) to imply that military science fiction is somehow an inferior product. I will admit that this is probably not her intent, but that was the reaction I had to it. I do not want to appear condescending or offensive, but it looked to me that Ms. Agnew was advancing a personal political message through her essay. She is free to make whatever comments on war and militarism she wants, but perhaps it would make a better editorial than an essay. Furthermore, to state that the science fiction community has a obligation to 'change the paradigm' (perhaps I misread her intent) and write no military or war based works smacks of elitism. One must ask what exactly it is that Ms. Agnew objects to. There are several hundred non-military based science fiction novels and stories written and published every year, and I would argue that there are more non-military science fiction works available than military ones.

Last, science fiction, like all art, is indeed 'a mirror' of the societies and cultures that create it. This reflection is our attempt to deal with and understand the militarism and warmongering of our recent history. The best of military science fiction does this. Yes, there is a lot of schlock out there with military themes that either glorifies war or attempts to neither analyze nor investigate the consequences of conflict. Poor writing should be decried because it is poor writing, not because of its subject matter. In the current climate of war, devestating conflicts around the world and a future uncertain, we may need the scanner darkly wherein our fears and demons can be exercised more than ever.

[edited for grammatic and typographic errors]

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