War is still a ripe subject for fiction. It has been a constant part of the human existence since there were nations. For six thousand years, we’ve glorified it, hated it, resolved ourselves to it. There’s no reason to expect it will go away any time soon, and it’s no wonder that war is a common theme in science fiction.
A couple of years back, Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers made a big splash with its interesting take on interstellar combat and the character of patriotism. It was a jingoistic piece that I’m sure resulted in a small spike in enlistments. Gordy Dickson’s war novel Dorsai also came out in in 1959. Dorsai was a fairly straightforward war story of a genius mercenary with the temperament and training to become a renowned general. Like Troopers, it was a runner up for the 1960 Hugo (Troopers won).
Both are what I’d call “typical” of the genre. I find it interesting how often war is positively portrayed: exciting, filled with tales of cunning, guts, and derring-do. I suppose it’s because World War Two was a “good” war. Democracy vs. Tyranny with clear villains to fight. Sure, we lost some of our boys, but we made the world safe again. And so we have a stream of war movies which are by turns dramatic, gripping, even comedic, but rarely overtly anti-war. A Walk in the Sun, a candid film that even included a portrayal of battle fatigue in the midst of action, is one of the few exceptions.
Pacifist sci-fi novels have been similarly rare. Given the nature of Dickson’s Dorsai, I was thus surprised (and delighted) to see that his recent Naked to the Stars, serialized over the last to months in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, is a thoughtful and engaging anti-war book.
A few hundred years in the future, humanity is rapidly expanding throughout the local part of the galaxy. At Stars‘ beginning, we’ve already conquered one sentient race in our quest for stellar real estate, and a war is in progress against a second, the Lehaunans of Arcturus. We meet Lieutenant Cal Truant, whose traumatic (but, at first, unexplained) experience on the Lehaunan home planet causes him to wound himself out of the army.
He is then enlisted into the Contact Service, a subsidiary, non-combatant branch of the military whose role is to liaise with alien races. Dickson only hints at the nature of this service for much of the book. In fact, the author’s style is provocatively oblique rather than expository, a refreshing experience. We get to see Truant’s second run through Basic Training, as interesting an episode in Stars as it was in Troopers. Then we follow Truant as he is dispatched to the site of humanity’s third wave of expansion: the planet Bellatrix, inhabited by the humanoid Paumons.
It is there that Truant’s disillusionment with warfare peaks. Unwilling to watch the Paumons be brutally subjugated, Truant takes matters into his own hands, ultimately maneuvering the situation into a resolution in keeping with his morality. It’s an honest book; Truant’s actions are not completely laudable, and he knows it. But, given the situation and his beliefs, it’s what he has to do.
War is Hell. We can sugar-coat it all we want, but at its core, it is mass murder. It is suffering. Stars delivers this message without being overly histrionic or mawkish. In fact, if there is anything wrong with Stars, it is that it is too short. Like Troopers when it first appeared in F&SF, and like the more recent Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys, Stars was hacked down a bit to fit in two issues of a small digest. I understand that an expanded version will be out next year. I hope that, when this fine novel is nominated for a Hugo (which it inevitably will be), it will the full version that is evaluated.
I give this serialized edition 4.5 stars, and I can imagine that the longer book will garner 5.