A review of RIDING THE RED HORSE, an anthology of military science fiction, published by Castalia House of Finland. The publisher sent me a copy of the book for review, and since I am down with getting stuff for free, here we go.
“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” – George Santayana
One of the insolvable problems of human nature is that the social nature of humanity encourages humans to form groups that engage in conflict with each other. The social dynamic, indeed, seems to proceed the reason for the conflict. You can see the dynamic at work in arenas as banal as the committee in charge of a church potluck (perhaps as vicious a field for politics as any in history) to cold wars between powerful nations. The specific reason for the conflict, whether nationality, or ethnicity, or money, or religion, seems almost an excuse, a tool for whatever it is within human beings that cause us to form groups and fight each other. Indeed, this cannot be fixed, only ameliorated. I suspect that if some well-meaning yet nonetheless deranged social engineer were to wave a magic wand and change humanity so that everyone was the same race, the same religion, the same height, the same ability, and the same level of income, so that all the traditional reasons for war were gone, we would still find ways to form into groups and fight each other.
“You see, hidden within the unconscious is an insatiable desire for conflict. So you’re not fighting me so much as you are the human condition. All I want is to own the bullets and the bandages. War, on an industrial scale, is inevitable. They’ll do it themselves, within a few years. All I have to do is wait.” – Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows
So war, as part of the human condition, has always been a topic of fiction, and speculating about what wars might be like in the future is the subject of both military analysts and scholars and military science fiction. The English Civil War of the 17th century was nothing like the American Civil War of the 19th, and World War I was a radically different war than World War II despite a gap of a mere twenty years, so what might a 22nd century war be like? The basic principles of winning a war never seem to change, but the tactics and the weapons are reinvented endlessly.
“Get there first with the most men.” – Nathan Bedford Forrest
In the 19th century there was a genre of literature called “Invasion Literature”, where writers would speculate about what would happen if Britain were invaded by a foreign power (usually Germany, sometimes France). The US had its own tradition of that during the Cold War, speculating about what would happen if the Soviets took over the US or if Communists came to power. The movie RED DAWN, about a Soviet invasion of the US, is perhaps the most well-known example. Military science fiction, in some sense, is “invasion literature” of the future, speculating on the nature of war in the future using theoretical or hypothesized technologies.
“This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing!” – William Tecumseh Sherman
RIDING THE RED HORSE is an anthology of military science fiction, speculating on what the wars of both the immediate and the distant future will look like. It alternates between nonfiction essays on the nature of war and short stories. None of the essays or stories were bad, but my favorites were:
-Jerry Pournelle’s HIS TRUTH GOES MARCHING ON takes place on a distant colony planet. Later some refugees are assigned to the planet, to which the original inhabitants take offense, and the situation unfolds with predictable violence from there. Basically, it’s the Spanish Civil War IN SPACE! The story follows an idealistic yet nonetheless capable young officer who gradually loses both his illusions and his innocence during the fighting.
-William S. Lind’s essay on “The Four Generations of Modern War” rather presciently pointed out some of the serious problems with the Iraq War. His thesis postulates that we are entering a period of history where technology enables non-state organizations or even individuals to wage wars effectively, much like the Middle Ages when the state did not have a monopoly on war. (A good example of that is the Hanseatic League, an organization of merchants which actually defeated Denmark in a war during the 14th century, or the various civil wars of medieval France and England where powerful noble families fought each other with no central authority able to restrain them.) While I lack the expertise to determine whether the essay is actually correct or not, I nonetheless think it helpful in trying to understand the various conflicts in the world today. Admittedly the hack around THE INTERVIEW film, which took place after I started writing this review, caused millions of dollars in economic disruption and is likely a good example of fourth-generation warfare, regardless of whether a government, a non-state group, or simply a group of disgruntled employees did the hack.
-WITHIN THIS HORIZON, by Thomas A. Mays follows a Space Navy officer in a distant future where the major powers have developed space fleets, and therefore armed conflict has moved the the asteroid belts and the comets. Ground-based forces are left to wither. The Space Navy officer in question, after sustaining serious wounds, is reassigned to the terrestrial water navy, and figures his career is over. The enemy, however, has other ideas, and the story is an excellent tale of integrity in the face of cynicism.
-TURNCOAT, by Steve Rzasa, takes place in a far future interstellar human empire called the Ascendancy. A faction called the Integration has developed human-to-machine brain uploading, creating the first posthumans. The ascended posthumans are engaged in a war of extermination against normal humanity, but one AI warship starts to develop doubts about its mission of extermination. Usually stories about AI involve the AI going psychotic, so it was interesting to see an AI develop a conscience instead.
-My favorite story of the anthology is THEY ALSO SERVE by Tedd Roberts, about a brilliant military surgeon who pioneered the use of surgical nanobots. His techniques have saved thousands, perhaps even millions of lives, yet the surgeon is starting to unravel under the pressure, feeling guilty that he has healed injured soldiers only to send them to die in a new war. This is a common problem one sees in those who do good and noble work – the pressure of seeing so much pain and suffering eventually wears them down. A crisis comes that forces the surgeon to make some hard choices, and perhaps validate the choices he has already made.
In the end, RIDING THE RED HORSE alternates between entertaining science fiction and insightful essays. Definitely recommended. The tone of the anthology is at times grim, but it is good to remember the science fiction usually fails pretty abysmally at accurately predicting the future. William Gibson’s NEUROMANCER had pay phones, after all, and Jerry Pournelle’s story had the Soviet Union existing long beyond 1991. Perhaps it is best to close with the words of a man who, while not a science fiction writer, had nonetheless seen the worst that war had to offer:
“It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.”
-JRR Tolkien, THE LORD OF THE RINGS