Review: “War Stories: New Military Science Fiction”

War Stories screenshot

As long as there has been war, stories about victory and defeat, horror and sanctuary have defined the experience in the years after fighting finished. The adage that history is written by the victors could only have come from one who was an eminent wartime leader and one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, Winston Churchill. But what of tomorrow’s wars, the fights not yet fought? Those narratives belong to today’s military science fiction writers.

The science fiction short story, in particular, is an especially effective tool to attack assumptions and the status quo. Enter “War Stories: New Military Science Fiction” from Apex Publications, an anthology of 23 short stories edited by Jaym Gates and Andrew Liptak that was published last month. Gates and Liptak are seasoned writers and accomplished editors, as the book possesses a finely tuned balance between wonderful expressions of how technology will shape future wars and the human costs of conflict that must never be forgotten.

Writing about the military has a lot of creative and professional perils. Details matter. Context does too. Few have the ability find the human element among machinery and national might. Among the authors included in the collection is the celebrated writer Joe Haldeman, whose 1974 military sci-fi classic “The Forever War” is on countless military professional reading lists. Yet the other writers whose works are not yet as widely known can stand shoulder to shoulder in this collection with one of the giants in the field. It is a superb anthology with the kind of diverse insights and compelling narratives that make it a very practical book for national security professionals as much as it is a highly enjoyable read for die-hard military sci-fi fans. It begets the sort of reading that has you trying to walk down the stairs before finally just sitting down on a step to finish the story you could not put down.

The book can arguably speak for itself, but Jaym Gates and Andrew Liptak took time to answer questions about the anthology over e-mail:

America has been at war for more than 13 years, what led you to elicit sci-fi stories instead of real-war stories to divine the future of warfare?

JG: For me, at least, telling stories of what is happening now is the fastest way to be outdated overnight. We’re in a period of intense evolution–in technology, military technology, culture, and climate—and even doing a collection of future-facing stories was risky. Additionally, SF has long been a leader in predicting and suggesting new technologies, but science caught up to us a little, and it’s getting harder and harder to come up with things more advanced than what we have without them becoming irrelevant almost overnight.

By focusing more on the people and culture of war, we’re able to pull out not only the eternal questions of conflict, but address some of the looming crises.

AL: American has been at war pretty constantly since its inception, and I think that our history shows that there’s a lot that happens on the technological front when we’re fighting – although not universally! – which makes it a ripe place to examine technology and how it can act as a driver for some of these changes. At the same time, we see a lot of very dramatic situations that lend themselves well to fiction. The recent experiences we’ve had with war show, more than ever, that warfare impacts more than the people who are actually doing the fighting – it affects us all, and that’s something that’ll continue into the future.

War Stories was something we wanted to use to bring those things together: war will happen, and it will impact people. We hope that these stories will be interesting for people to read and think about when they reflect on the last decade. 

Do you see differences in how people with military experience wrote about the future of war vs. those who have been civilians their whole lives?

JG: I think there’s more of a difference between civilians who have military loved ones and civilians who do not have any close military loved ones. If you’re close to someone in the military, or to the military community in some way, you get a constant, low feed of the culture and issues surrounding it, so you have a more nuanced understanding.

AL: Somewhat, but it’s mainly on a technical level: military personnel understand the lifestyle and the acronyms, which lend a certain authenticity to their stories, but going back to my prior answer, war has a tangential impact on us all: I think it’s a topic which a lot of people can relate to. 

What story got to you the most? Why?

JG: Janine Spendlove’s! I read that and teared up. I’ve spent a lot of my life working with rescued horses and dogs, and the dogs in her story were heartbreaking. But just overall, there were a lot of themes that I understood, either from personal experience or from what those close to me had gone through, and it hit really close to home.

AL: I would have to say Karin Lowachee’s. It’s a heartbreaking story that shows just how damaging combat can be to the people who fight and the people back at home. 

What paradigms or stereotypes about war did these stories break with?

JG: The biggest one, for me, is the idea that war ever ends for the people who go through it, and the idea that soldiers are somehow not human.

AL: That military SF is all about fighting off the alien bugs that come to enslave us. This is a pretty common trope: Starship Troopers, Ender’s Game, and other military SF stories use this. There’s a weird imperialistic and racial overtone to that that bothers me, and I think that stories that we ended up with tell a broader range. 

Your stories are tuned to showcase narratives about people and do not seem to get lost in technology. How did you manage that tension as editors?

JG: That was what we were looking for to begin with, so when we were going through the submitted stories, we tended toward the ones focusing more on the social, political, cultural, and psychological elements. From there, it was simply a matter of fine-tuning stories, sometimes asking authors to go back and consider how the humans would be interacting with or responding to their technology.

GL: What Jaym said: we specifically asked for stories that focused on people, rather than the cool gadgets. That’s not to say that they’re not in there, but they’re not the focus. Technology and dealing with its impact is a real theme that we do explore, however. 

Can you look too far into the future when using sci-fi writing to consider the future of warfare? Is there a sweet spot, chronologically speaking?

JG: Technology and battlefields change every day. People tend to stay pretty much the same, at their base. You can quickly go wrong if your story relies on the technology the soldiers are using, but a really great story will transcend its surroundings to remain relevant long after the tech is completely outdated.

AL: My wife did a paper for her Master’s Capstone that examined the letters between soldiers in World War II and Vietnam. You know what she found? The technology changed, the people didn’t: they had the same concerns and motivations. I think that you can write about any future timeline of wars, and you’ll find people talking about the same things: people are impacted every time.

Will technology make war a less human-centric endeavor?

JG: No. There’s always a cost. Someone’s always making the decisions, pulling the triggers, suffering the costs. They might be doing it from three inches or three thousand miles away, but they’re still paying the cost. This is something we’re having to really discuss in light of the rise of drones and other directed technology. Ken Liu’s story is a perfect example of this, as is Mark Jacobson’s.

AL: No – people will always be in the loop somehow. War is inherently political, and one’s population is always a major factor, whether it’s in support at home politically, or if they’re targetted to make your opponent roll over and surrender. P.W. Singer had a great example of this in his book Wired for War: US forces rolled into Iraq with drones and robots. What undermined some of them? A kid with a can of spray paint (to paint over the lenses.) People will always find a way to fight. 

What most shapes your understanding and expectations of future conflict? Does writing offer advantages over other media?

JG: Writing allows a look at the inner landscape of a character, and it transcends the changing methods of technology—VHS, floppy disk, whatever. It isn’t necessarily as iconic as a scene from your favorite movie, but it has a way of surviving and trickling down through the years.

AL: My background is in military history, so I’ve got a good view of what happened, and I can say that the future depends on what happened in our past. The successes of future militaries will be based on how well they understand their own history, motivations and how they go about getting their jobs done. 

If you put all of your writers together in a locked room for 12 hours, what do you think they would get up to?

JG: Oh *god*. I don’t think I can commit those probabilities to writing!

AL: I think that would be an interesting thing to watch happen. 

What are you reading, watching or playing right now that you can’t put down?

JG: I’m absolutely hooked on the new Flash TV show, which I didn’t expect, being a slightly rabid Marvel fangirl. But I’m really enjoying everything that they’re doing on that show. I’m also going through a pretty big graphic novel and comics fad, with David Mack’s Kabuki, Ms. Marvel, and Saga. Games-wise, anyone who enjoys War Stories should check out the tabletop game, Eclipse Phase, and I’m doing PR for a really fun game called I Am Zombie. Check them out! 

AL: I just finished W.C. Bauer’s debut novel Unbreakable, which is a military SF novel coming from Tor in January. It’s quite a treat: fast, entertaining and kicks all sorts of ass. I’ve also been playing through all of the Halo games lately, which is a lot of fun.