War Stories edited by Andrew Liptak and Jaym Gates

War StoriesTitle: War Stories: New Military Science Fiction
Editors: Andrew Liptak and Jaym Gates
Published: 7 October 2014
Publisher: Apex Publications
Source: eARC from the publisher
Genre: military science fiction short stories
Rating: 8/10

Military sf is one of the sf subgenres I’m least likely to read, but admittedly I haven’t read very much of it, so I thought it was worth giving this anthology a shot. From what I have read my assumptions are that it tends to be by men and about men, focusing on combat and toying with ideas for badass military tech – big guns, heavy high-tech armour, tanks, spaceships, drones etc. I like action, but it’s not enough to carry a story for me and is usually better on a big screen than in a book.

This anthology from Apex Publications was very quick to show me how narrow-minded those assumptions were. Divided into four sections – Wartime Systems, Combat, Amored Force, and Aftermath – it shows that this military sf is not just soldiers dealing death with their super tech. Instead, these stories focus on people – soldiers battling with their roles as professional killers, the difficulties that their families and partners go through, the people designing military technology, the people forced to live with war tech even if they’re not fighting, veterans struggling to live in the mundane world. War, as is argued in the introduction, happens in our minds and bodies as well as on battlefields.

This isn’t a male-dominated anthology either. In the acknowledgements, editor Jaym Gates mentions that it focuses on the perspectives of female and LGBTQ characters. So there are plenty of female authors, and most of the stories have major female characters. In fact, when I encountered a story without a major female character, it stood out as distinctly odd and old-fashioned. In addition, there are loads of LGBTQ characters and relationships, most of which are treated as perfectly natural rather than being spotlighted as something radical. I love seeing this in sff, and we could use more of it – LGBTQ relationships and good male/female gender balances that can just exist without having to be justified, as if we need to explain why we’re not sticking to the tired old straight-white-male tradition.

So a major drawcard was that War Stories seemed fresh and progressive to me (apologies to military sf fans who already knew the genre was so much more than I assumed it to be). There are some stories that are more conventional than others and as with any anthology I didn’t like everything, but most stories offered something memorable. I’ll go through my favourites and the ones that stood out.

Wartime Systems

This was a great opening section and I enjoyed it the most. It starts off very strong with “In the Loop” by Ken Liu, my favourite story in the anthology (I’m just a sucker for Ken Liu). Kyra’s father is a drone operator who becomes increasingly traumatised by having to make thousands of cold, calm decisions about whether or not to kill someone by drone strike. When Kyra grows up, she designs a programme to replace the humans controlling the drones, so that no one ever has to bear the responsibility for killing. In designing the programme, Kyra gets right down to the cold reality of war – that it’s about preferring the lives of one group over the lives of another, that different lives have different values. In this case, Americans are assigned the highest value, anyone ‘ethnic’ falls below that, and the lives of the poor and desperate are worth the very least. Kyra doesn’t agree with the ethics of this, but she has to admit that she thinks in similar terms – the life of her father meant far more to her than the thousands of people he killed. As usual, Ken Liu is brilliant at capturing the nuances of these psychological conundrums.

Most of the other stories in this section look very closely at the way tech affects personal lives. In “Ghost Girl” by Rich Larson, an albino child who would normally have been kidnapped by human traffickers for muti, is protected by a drone left over from a war. In “The Radio” by Susan Jane Bigelow, a cyborg struggles with issues of purpose and identity after the war ends and her side abandons her on the planet as if she were nothing more than a piece of dead tech. “Non-Standard Deviation” by  Richard Dansky also explores the idea of the tech itself as sentient beings affected by war, although in a very different way.

Then “The Wasp Keepers” by Mark Jacobsen shifts the focus from fighters to civilians. In a post-war Syria, Western powers have enforced peace by assigning wasp drones to monitor every adult. The wasp can kill the person it observes, which is exactly what happens to a seventeen-year-old boy at the start of the story. It’s written from the POV of his mother, who was a social media activist during the war. I like this story partly because it depicts a more nuanced Islamic society than you typically see (no one is obsessed with religious propriety) and because it addresses issues of perspective and understanding in war. The Wasp Keepers are considered miraculous because they ended the war and kept the peace, but all the information they gather fails to reflect the complexity of people’s lives and the difficulty of the choices they’re forced to make.

This, of course, conforms more to the idea of what I thought military sf was, but I was still impressed with what I found.

“All You Need” by Mike Sizemore is a bit vague about exactly what conflict is being fought and how the characters fit into that, but I enjoyed it for “the girl and the gun” – the depiction of the relationship between a girl (an assassin) and her sentient sniper rifle. The story has a kind of quiet, assured tone that sticks with me and makes me want to go back and read it again.

“One Million Lira” by Thoraiya Dyer also features a brilliant assassin – a Muslim woman who shoots people through the left breast partly because her culture made it difficult for her to look men in the eye, and partly because her mother – a famous actress – died of breast cancer. That alone is the kind of thing to pique my interest, but this story is also notable for how much worldbuilding, conflict (cultural, military, personal) and character is woven into a few words.

“Light and Shadow” by Linda Nagata is a bit heavy on the combat for me, but I do like the tech ideas she explores in this story. Soldiers wear skullcaps that enable monitoring and communication but also alter their mental states, suppressing difficult thoughts and emotions, keeping them calm and focused even when they’re tired and traumatised. Most soldiers find it easier to wear skullcaps all the time, but one woman puts it on only when she absolutely has to, despite the harrowing psychological effects of taking it off.

Armored Force
Like the Combat section, this is another aspect of military sf that I expected to see a lot of, but wasn’t particularly excited about. However, Yoon Ha Lee immediately blew me away with her contribution. Her surreal stories tend to be so bizarre that I often have to read them at least twice to make sense of them, but her weirdly beautiful imagery and incredible ideas are worth the effort. “Warhosts” is by far the most imaginative story in this collection. In a distant future, mankind has developed sentient nanotech that later took control over them (whether this happened planet-wide or only in a small region is unknown and unimportant). Now the nanotech fight their own small-scale wars – or perhaps just war games – using humans as armoured mechs. I don’t mean that the humans wear armour – the nanotech invades their bodies’ systems and forces them to grow terrible plating and protrusions. Their bodies are covered in sores that the tech use as entry and exit points. The humans are in constant pain, but kept alive and fit enough to fight each other. This military horror sf is told from the POV of a nanotech ‘scout’ whose job it is to understand the personalities and culture of the humans in order to improve their fighting abilities.

“Suits” by James L. Sutter is the story without a significant female character, but what’s interesting about it is that it’s told from the POV of a mech technician – a specially cloned midget who is never allowed off the army base and does little more than work on the mechs. He’s knows virtually nothing about the war he’s helping to fight until one traumatic day when his officer takes him out to work on a malfunctioning suit.

Like the Linda Nagata story in the Combat section, “Mission. Suit. Self.” by Jake Kerr shows soldiers who have come to use their military tech as a crutch. Mechs enable people with battered, stitched-together bodies to be brutally functional in the field, and most soldiers prefer to spend all their time in the suits rather use their own faltering bodies. The plot of this story wasn’t particularly memorable, but I liked the idea about the suits.

Naturally the pace slows here. The high-action conflict has been left behind and the protagonists are back home fighting mostly psychological battles that are sometimes harder than facing guns and bombs.

In “War Dog” by Michael Barretta, the genetically engineered weapons of war persist even though the war has ended. This is a huge problem in the case of a deadly, infectious fungus that causes zombie-like behaviour (reminds me of the game The Last of Us). There are also human-dog hybrids who don’t pose a danger but are supposed to be wiped out simply because society considers them abominations. You could compare them to veterans who struggle the most in normal society – no matter how hard they fought or how much they sacrificed, they are ostracised from the societies they protected. In this story, a retired officer tries to protect one of the ‘war dogs’, and begins an intimate relationship with her.

“Always the Stars and the Void Between” by Nerine Dorman takes place during a space war fought by the African Federation and it’s worth mentioning for that alone – the battles are in the background, but for once Africa isn’t portrayed as a continent of sad, dusty victims fighting desperately with inferior tech. Sadly, but not implausibly, South Africa’s class and racial politics have not evolved at all (and may even have regressed), as is painfully clear in the protagonist’s personal relationships and experiences when she returns from the war to her family’s struggling farm.

In “Enemy State”, Karin Lowachee tells a story from the POV of a man struggling to have a relationship with a soldier who can’t handle normal life and keeps going back to war. He describes their relationship like a war – putting up defences, trying to break through barriers, treating his heart like fort.

So, overall, an excellent, eye-opening read that goes far beyond what I expected of this genre. War Stories will be published on 7 October and costs $5, but is worth a lot more 🙂

April Round-Up

April was a pretty productive reading and reviewing month. I managed to read 8 books, and I’d actually have finished more if it wasn’t for a little snag…

Anyway, first to be read this month was the very popular military sf novel Germline  by T.C. McCarthy, first in a series known as The Subterrene War. I’d received the sequel, Exogene, on NetGalley, so in order to review that I bought Germline. Not really my thing unfortunately. There was loads of action, but coupled with paper-thin characters and a lack of world-building it was a bit of a bore.

Westlake Soul by Rio Youers was a short, somewhat experimental novel narrated by a 23-year-old surfer named Westlake Soul who is in a vegetative state after a surfing accident. He no longer has any control over his body, but the brain ‘damage’ turned him into a genius with the ability to project his soul/mind beyond his body. With these powers, Westlake sees himself as a superhero, especially since he has a supervillain to battle – Dr Quietus, an incarnation of death. The novel had its flaws, but it could also be very touching, particularly when we see Westlake’s family struggling to deal with his condition. So I didn’t love it, but I enjoyed it, and I admired what the author was able to do with the story.

Faustus Resurrectus by Thomas Morrissey is an occult thriller based on the myth of Faustus – the man who sold his soul to the devil in return for earthly knowledge and power. A madman commits a series of murders in preparation for a ritual to resurrect Faustus, and thereby take revenge on those that wronged him, and claim the power he feels he should wield. Occult scholar Donovan Graham assists the NYPD in the serial killer case, but gets pulled in deeper than expected. There’s a lot of cool stuff about the occult and performing arcane rituals, and on the whole it’s a good read. The author is also planning to turn this into a series featuring Donovan Graham.

I had a great time reading local YA zombie novel Death of a Saint by Lily Herne, the second book in the Mall Rats series. I wasn’t all that keen on the first book, Deadlands, so this one was a wonderful surprise. The characters and writing were much stronger than in Deadlands, and that drew me in and had me devouring the book in a very short time. It also uses one of my favourite YA stories – the journey. The Mall Rats series will be published in the UK next year, and it’s always exciting to see local genre fiction getting an international audience.

My leisure read for April was Dissolution by C.J. Sansom, the first in  series of historical mystery novels featuring the hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake. I read it with a friend who was pretty disappointed in it, finding it to be far too similar to The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, but totally inferior to it. I hadn’t read the Eco though, and I thought Dissolution was a good read and an entertaining history lesson.

Then on to something completely different – the seedy, violent urban fantasy Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig, featuring the jaded, foul-mouthed Miriam Black. When Miriam touches someone she can see exactly when and how they’re going to die. She knows it’s pointless to try and save anyone, but then she meets a trucker named Louis who’s going to die just because he tried to help her. For his sake, she’s going to try and stop fate. Good, brutal writing and an interesting story.

My next read was a much softer one – the steampunk-ish YA The Peculiars  by Maureen Doyle McQuerry. It’s a coming-of-age story laced with themes of prejudice and imperialism, but it’s spoiled by the main character Lena, who tends to be really stupid and ungrateful.

My last read was the lovely Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge. It features modern takes on fairytales, written in short prose poems. They’re funny, disturbing, violent and insightful, full of themes and subtleties that I think would be better-appreciated by adults. Review to follow closer to the publication date (10 July 2012).

I’d intended to read two more books this month – The Croning, a horror novel by Laird Barron, and Strindberg’s Star, a Dan-Brown style mystery by Swedish journalist Jan Wallentin. Unfortunately, with The Croning, the publishers sent me the wrong eBook, and haven’t replied to any of my requests for the right one, so I might not be reviewing that at all. I’d made up a nice reading schedule that I’d managed to stick to, and not having the next book totally threw me off track. I could have just moved on to the next book, but for whatever reason I just didn’t feel like it, and I wasted a few days. Eventually I started Strindberg’s Star. My intention was to have finished it by now, but it’s boring. Less than glowing review to follow, once I manage to reach the end.

Anyway, I’m off for now. Happy Worker’s Day/May Day to everyone for tomorrow – I hope you can enjoy some time off!

Review of Germline by T.C. McCarthy

Title: Germline
Author: T.C. McCarthy
Series: The Subterrene War #1
26 July 2011
 science fiction, military sf
Source: own copy
Rating: 5/10

“I’ll never forget the smell: human waste, the dead, and rubbing alcohol – the smell of a Pulitzer.”

That’s what journalist Oscar Wendall thinks as he makes his way to the front line of the Subterrene War. It’s the 22nd century and the USA is once again fighting her old favourite enemy, Russia, in a bloody war over the mineral resources buried in the mountains of Kazakhstan (simply referred to as Kaz). Oscar is the first member of the press allowed on the front line (currently underground), but he doesn’t find a story so much as a new life, fighting alongside the soldiers amidst plasma bombs that will cook you alive and flechette bullets that rip you to shreds.

In fact, Oscar is a dreadful journalist but a decent soldier. It’s not long before he gets fired by his paper, but he finds ways of getting back into his armour and out onto the battlefield. He falls in love with one of the “genetics” – beautiful teenage girls genetically engineered to be the USA’s supersoldiers. They’re clones, indoctrinated all their lives with a religion that teaches them to live for war and hope for a glorious death in battle. They’re often on Oscar’s mind and he finds his way from one battlefield, trying to deal with all the horrors of war.

Germline is known as a non-stop, action-packed novel about the brutality of war. This is true. I couldn’t keep track of the number of battle scenes, each of them full of explosions and death. The novel hurtles along from one action scene to the next and apparently doesn’t have much time for things like character development or world building.

The result is that a lot of events or emotions feel tacked on. It’s not that these things are necessarily implausible, but the build-up to them is rushed and insubstantial. The author tells you things that you don’t quite feel. For example, we’re told that fighting underground causes soldiers to be fearful of the surface. In the tunnels, danger comes from only one direction, but topside it can come from multiple directions, with the sky being the most threatening. This makes perfect sense, but it doesn’t feel right for Oscar to develop this fear within the very first chapter. The novel doesn’t give us a chance to really understand the experience of being in the tunnels and the effect it has on people. We just get a quick run-through, and suddenly Oscar is speaking like a war vet.

There are other examples. Oscar makes a few friends among the soldiers and when some of them die he goes on and on about how deeply this affects him. It sounds insincere when these friendships don’t have much time on the page and Oscar doesn’t even bother to learn the soldiers’ real names, going only by their nicknames. When Oscar falls in love with a genetic named Bridgette, he does so in a matter of hours, claiming that it “was easy to fall in love because neither of us was likely to live long anyway” (p.66).

The world building is equally feeble. We’re told almost nothing about the war beyond the simple fact that Russia and the USA (along with some allies) are fighting over mineral resources in Kazakhstan. But how did the war start? What are the metals they’re mining used for? How the hell can the Americans lay claim to mineral resources in Kazakhstan? (my boyfriend answered that last one by pointing out that they’re basically doing the same thing in the Middle East. Fair point). What kind of social changes allowed the USA to regress to the extent that genetics have replaced female soldiers with the idea that there will be more women to give birth to more soldiers? What do US citizens and the rest of the world think of the war? Is McCarthy saving the details for the second and third books in the series?

As a journalist Oscar is the ideal character to give the reader this information, but he’s so bad at his job that he just doesn’t seem interested in any of it; he just wants to be in the warzones with a gun in his hand. I can’t understand how even a barely competent editor could have given him this assignment. Besides being an awful reporter, he’s got a long history of substance abuse. He actually picks up a new drug addiction in the first chapter, and seems to be addicted to being in the war as well. That’s the only good explanation I can think of for why he insists on staying. Oscar himself is rather evasive on the topic. For all his interior monologues on the war, his character is a bit flat. We don’t learn much about anyone else either – a disappointment for me, because I really wanted to know more about the genetics, the most interesting feature of the novel. I wanted to know more about their weird religion (a kind of modified Christianity), the prayers they say before battles, and the fact that they are shot when they turn 18, because their minds become unstable and their bodies begin to rot. Oscar’s obsession with the genetics seems to end at wanting to be close to one of them; he doesn’t ask them many questions when he is.

So let’s face it – the focus of this novel is combat. It’s about the weapons, the armour, the explosions, the gunfire, the corpses. It’s a barrage of bullets, grenades, plasma bombs, blood, gore, faeces, and mangled bodies. We follow Oscar from one battleground to another, with him pontificating about the war in between. He talks about his armour, mostly about how disgusting it is when it comes to waste disposal (or lack thereof). He goes on about either wanting to fight or wanting to get out. He talks about the friends he’s lost. And then a bomb explodes and he’s running for his life.

Despite all the graphic violence, Germline has this odd PG-13 feel to it because anything sexual is glossed over. When Oscar puts on his armour for the first time and hooks up the tubes used for his waste disposal, he refers to his penis as “your you-know-what” (3). Later, there are a few sex scenes, but they’re all just start with a bit of kissing and then fade out with “when we were done” or whatever. It’s like either the author or the publishers are trying to keep this clean enough to market to a teenage audience, and violence, insanely, has always been deemed more acceptable than sex. However, it seems so ridiculous that a man like Oscar is uncomfortable referring bluntly to his own genitals or that he’d go into detail about everything that happens to him but not the sex that he apparently finds so fulfilling. A pity; I think the sex scenes could have done a lot to give a little emotional depth to this novel.

In many ways, this Germline reminds me of The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974) – the constant fighting, the pace, the lack of character development, and a sense that the war is being fought for its own sake, rather than for the reasons stated. But even though I often didn’t understand the science of The Forever War and I found the characters forgettable, it still made an impact on me. You really felt the brutality of the war, and the unbelievable waste of life. It was a short book, but a forceful one.

Germline is longer but has less of an impact. It didn’t live up to the hype, and I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it. With its lack of emotional engagement or details about its world, it was often boring. All those action scenes just didn’t do it for me, especially since I didn’t really care what happened to Oscar.

Strangely enough though, I’m actually looking forward to reading the sequel, Exogene. Exogene’s protagonist is a genetic, and shows the war from their perspective. I wanted to whack Oscar over the head for not asking more questions about them, but book 2 will give me a chance to get that story while Oscar won’t be there to get in the way.

Buy Germline (The Subterrene War #1) at The Book Depository

The Forever War by Joe Halderman

The Forever WarThe Forever War by Joe Haldeman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this novel for an ‘I’ll Read Yours if You Read Mine’ challenge. It was chosen for me because I don’t like hard sci fi, and I’m not a fan of military sci fi either. However, Haldeman’s novel is quite hospitable to all readers, and although I prefer my sci fi to be more character-focused, I enjoyed this story and its ideas very much.

For reasons that are very thin at best, the human race goes to war with the Taurans, an alien race no one has ever seen or even communicated with. Lack of knowledge about their enemy doesn’t put the slightest damper on preparations for war however, and “the intellectual and physical elite of the planet” are recruited, trained in combat methods that may well have no effect on the bodies of their mysterious enemies, and sent to die by the masses for their species. The narrative follows William Mandella, one of very few soldiers to make it through several battles.

Although the novel’s technical jargon went right over my head, I think I managed to translate it into the intended meaning – fast, very fast, hot, searing hot, very powerful etc. As pahoota, my partner in this challenge pointed out, Haldeman’s use of science gives a good impression of how dangerous space is. Mandella and the soldiers face just as much danger from being killed by their own equipment and the environment as they do from attacks by the Taurans.

Haldeman’s style is very lean and to-the point, and the plot moves so briskly I couldn’t believe how fast I was going at times. The downside of this is that you don’t get much of an opportunity to explore Haldeman’s vision of the future, or engage with any of the characters, all of whom are rather flat and forgettable. The advantage though, is that, in reading The Forever War, you feel as helplessly swept along by the forces of war as Mandella does. Although he spends only a few years in active duty, hundreds of years pass by for the rest of the human race. When Mandella first returns to civilian life, he finds that 17 years have passed on Earth, society has changed drastically, his mother is suddenly old, and his father is dead. Thereafter the gaps only get longer and the social changes even greater. Out in space and on the battlefield, fellow soldiers die horrifically, but barely a moment is available to mourn them as the plot rushes onwards and Mandella must focus on the next Stargate jump, the next battle.

As the narrative progresses, the concept of a ‘forever war’ really makes itself felt, and Mandella finds it impossible to escape his duty, except in death. Even medical advancements seem as much a horror as a blessing – badly injured bodies are simply repaired so that soldiers can be sent back out into the field rather than being allowed to retire.

The Forever War makes for a good anti-war novel, a quick punchy read that lacks strong characters but effectively reveals the brutalities and absurdities of war. I particularly liked the last battle and its implication that war itself never really changes. The technology used may become deadlier, and the soldiers better trained (and better indoctrinated), but it remains a bloody slaughter. And those who gain any kind of benefit from the battle, are not the ones fighting in it.

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