The Best Military Science Fiction of the 20th Century
Harry Turtledove with Martin H Greenberg
(Del Rey, $18.00, 544 pages, paperback; May 2001.)
Harry Turtledove's military sf anthology spans the gamut from tales of interstellar war to post-apocalyptic visions, to glimpses of alternate histories and fantasies of flying dragons. The lead story, Poul Anderson's "Among Thieves", reads like a lost chapter of Asimov's Foundation series, a smartly conceived strategy piece with the same implied assumption that war is an intricate version of the boardgame Risk played by Machiavellian alpha males who possess ultimately good intentions but deploy seemingly callous methods beyond the powers of their inferiors to fathom.
Philip K. Dick's oft-reprinted "Second Variety" (poorly adapted in the 1995 film Screamers) is about war machines evolving out of control to turn on their creators, and is pretty much par for that author's delightfully paranoid course.
Turtledove's introduction is fascinating in its own right, perhaps one of the most enjoyable reads in the piece. Nor is it any surprise that "The Last Article", his alternative-history tale of Gandhi in a Nazi-occupied India, ranks among the best that the book has to offer.
C.J. Cherryh's "The Scapegoat", though it deals more with diplomacy than war, is one of the strongest stories in the book. It deals, as Cherryh does so well, with the near-impossibility of communicating meaningfully across cultural gulfs, and is masterfully crafted in such a way that the reader is forced to reevaluate earlier dialogue in the story in terms of its final revelation.
A further joy of this anthology is that it presents two engaging short fictions out of which later, greater books will emerge. It's fascinating to see the origins of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game in the novella of the same name; likewise to read Joe W. Haldeman's "Hero", from which his The Forever War was born.
Weaker selections include George R.R. Martin's "Night of the Vampyres", a tale of a coup on the part of the Executive Branch that is a bit too simplistic and transparent to be taken seriously, and David Drake's "Hangman", the only tale in the volume too dry for this reviewer to suffer all the way through.
The closing piece, Anne McCaffrey's "Dragonrider", an early Pern tale, is one of the best narratives in the anthology. It is a thoroughly enjoyable fable of Dragonriders utilizing time travel to purge a scourge of nonsentient wormlike organisms that rain down upon their planet every few centuries. It's a wonderful piece of fantasy; however, while it's a joy to see an early Pern tale, there really isn't any justification to include this gallant-knights-and-dragons piece in a book of military science fiction. Oh well.
Overall, this is a fairly solid book, with three or four great stories, quite a few more that are enjoyable, and only one or two clunkers. The fault, if there is one, is that the work's title (and perhaps its cover design as well) leads the reader to think he is in for something he is not. The earliest story in the work hails from 1951 ("Superiority" by Arthur C. Clarke), the latest from 1987 (Walter Jon William's "Wolf Time"), meaning this is really just the Best Military Science Fiction of the Third Quarter and a Bit of the Fourth Quarter of the 20th Century. One wonders if anything of value was written in the subgenre between 1900 and 1950; and, if you suspect, as many do, that nothing of value really came out in the last decade of the 1900s -- well, this anthology offers nothing to allay your suspicions. More importantly, only about seven of the thirteen tales presented actually qualify as genuine military science fiction. The rest are war-related, but are not strictly stories of the military as the title suggests. So, if what you are in the mood for is a book called Harry Turtledove Picks Out a Handful of Vaguely War-Related Tales from the Third Quarter of the 20th Century, then, my friend, this is the book for you. But if you are jonesing for your fix of true military sf, just go read Starship Troopers again.
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© Lou Anders 1 September 2001