Sep 18 2008 10:00am

Black and white and read a million times: Jerry Pournelle, Janissaries

Sometimes, not every month, but every few months, I come over all Victorian and have pains in my stomach and want to spend a day lying on the couch reading Jerry Pournelle. When I feel like that there really are very few books that satisfy me—I want black-and-white military fiction with good and bad clearly delineated, guns, obstacles, military training, things blowing up, glory, death, and the good guys definitely winning. Also, it has to be written to a certain standard. I don’t want rubbish just because I’m in that particular mood.

It isn’t only Jerry Pournelle that scratches this itch. He’s the best, especially when he’s writing on his own. He can bring tears to my eyes with lines like “The sergeant survived? Then the Legion lives!” There’s also Piper, Weber, John Barnes’s Timeline Wars books, and more recently I’ve discovered W.E.B. Griffin, whose books are not SF but straight military historical fiction. (“Wow,” I thought when I read Semper Fi, “a whole book about Bobby Shaftoe!”) I can also thank this reading mood for my discovery of Lois McMaster Bujold, who I adore even on days when I don’t want to bite something.

But when I’ve got those cramps and that urge, the canonical most perfect book in the world for me is suddenly Janissaries.

Janissaries would push a lot of my buttons at any time. There’s a planet, Tran, where groups of people from Earth have been taken by aliens at 600-year intervals to grow drugs. So they have brilliant weird cultures, because they came from different parts of the planet and at different tech levels. There are Romans who have copies of Roman books we don’t have. They also have interestingly weird tech, because it’s merged oddly. So when our heroes give them gunpowder, things get interesting. You get new military formations, for instance. And beyond all of that and the good guys and bad guys and the things blowing up, there are fascinating hints of a wider universe and Other Things Going On. Oh, and it’s got a girl. I mean, of course it’s got a girl, even W.E.B. Griffin has girls, but it has a girl who isn’t just there as a prize and a sexual partner—well, it has one of those too, but it also has a major female character who does significant things.

They don’t make military adventure fiction better than this, and you get bonus extra history of tech stuff thrown in for free.

There are some sequels, by Pournelle and other people, or by other people on their own, which I have read once and never felt the urge to pick up again. My original copy of Janissaries has been read so much it’s in danger of disintegration.

A little while ago as I was putting it back, I admired the serendipity of alphabetical order, that allows Marge Piercy, H. Beam Piper, Plato, Karl Popper, Jerry Pournelle, and Tim Powers to sit so peacefully on the shelf together.

Steve Taylor
1. teapot7
It's a great consolation to hear that you too suffer from outbreaks of mil-sci-fi comfort reading - though when I get an attack of the Pournelles and have to retire to my room, it's _King David's Spaceship_ that's first pick.

I'm with you on John Barnes too - the timeline wars books are perfectly in that sweet spot where books are a bit rubbish, but the *right* sort of rubbish.

The ultimate comfort read is still Modesty Blaise novels, but I've practically got them all memorised by this stage, and there are no more forthcoming. (Which is the only reason I've ever gone looking for fanfiction, hoping to find some new MB stuff which is like the old. Sadly I've found MB + James Bond Crossovers, MB + Buffy fighting demons in hell, but nothing that tries to be like the originals)
2. vcmw
My military SF binges are almost exclusively devoted to Lois McMaster Bujold and Elizabeth Moon. I particularly like the recent Vatta series by Moon.

But I've never read Janissaries, so now I'm tempted to try it.
Charles MacLeod
3. Tormod
Jerry Pournelle's work was one of the things that got me into SF, and like you I tend to go back to his stuff when I want some comfort reading. Falkenberg's Legion is my personal favourite.

However, when I am in need of really being cheered up, nothing beats Lucifer's Hammer. I have found that nothing gives you a real boost more than reading about the end of the world... John Wyndham tends to have a similar effect.
Ankush Trakru
4. Quinty
The SS Rat series would fall bang in the middle of Sci-fi meets military; as would Wasp by EFR ;-) ofcourse, these are slightly off-tangent. Bending the rule a bit would yield Armor by John Steakley (& its sequel, if it ever comes out) as well as Allan Cole's Sten series; light-hearted fare indeed ;)

Though not on the list, Battle Cry by Leon Uris would be an example of a good mil. book :) plenty of good action stuff, the whole growing up routine, and a bittersweet ending
Martin Wisse
5. Martin_Wisse
My opinion of Pournelle is much less positive. I do like the occasional bit of military science fiction, but I hate Pournelle's politics because they verge on the fascist.

For me, Keith Laumer and H. Beam Piper are the people who scratch that itch Jo talks about, as well as Heinlein o a certain extend.
6. mikeray
Not a mil. sci-fi reader, but I love the idea of comfort sci-fi. Have definitely read Hitchhiker's Guide to make myself feel better. Also reread Neuromancer/Voice in the Whirlwind/Snow Crash when I feel I need a cyberpunk pick-me-up (despite the moral ambiguity). On the fantasy list I've re-read Eye of the World and pretended the series stopped right there, which made me feel better.
Lucifer's Hammer may be the book I have recommended the most over the years.
James Nicoll
7. JamesDavisNicoll
I am still fond of Frezza's A Small Colonial War, although the first sequel, A Fire in a Faraway Place is both weaker and rather September 10th in places and the second sequel is forgettable enough that I have never read it.
Declan Ryan
8. decco999
Many, many years ago, I remember seeing in one of those books that lists the top 10 of the good and the bad in Sci-Fi that "The Mote in God's Eye" (Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle) was declared as one of the worst books written (can't remember the exact category). I had read the book by that time and had considered it a good, entertaining page-turner. Indeed, I eagerly acquired some of Pournelle's solo writings: King David's Spaceship and Future History; again, both very enjoyable reads.

And I agree that his politics are very much evident in his storylines - a fact that I am a little bit reserved about also.

For a lazy afternoon read, it has to be Peter F Hamilton or Iain M Banks for me.
Bruce Cohen
9. SpeakerToManagers
I've always gotten that same itch now and again, though maybe not so much as I used to. My copy of Janissaries got pretty beaten up through the 80s and 90s. Now though, I tend to fall back on my first military-SF love, H. Beam Piper, and especially the Paratime stories. Other people, including Pournelle, have tried to imitate Lord Kalvan, but I don't think anyone ever did it as well as Piper.

Bujold does something a little different, but I'm still addicted to Miles vorKosigan and his habit of sliding down the bannister of life knocking down anyone crazy enough to get in his way. Moon I admire immensely for showing the military for the human institution it really is, and still making us respect the warriors in it. I've only read the Barnes stories twice now; they led me to the "Giraut Leones" books which I enjoy enough to reread at least one of them a year.

The only one of my favorites that hasn't been mentioned here is Drake's Hammer's Slammers stories. They're gritty and there's maybe a little too much information about the consequences of a weapons hit on a human body at times, but it's good to be reminded about the life of the grunt occasionally.
10. JorgXMcKie
Keith Laumer's Bolo tank stories are a lot of fun. He, of course, based his Retief stories on his experience as a US military attache in various embassies.

As far as Top Ten Worst SF (whether s/fiction or s/fantasy) I defy anyone to deny the ultimate badness of Samuel R Delaney's "Dhalgren". After finishing it, I threw it against the wall and vowed to never put another penny in his pocket and haven't. Incredibly well-written pointlessness.

Finally, one would have to be pretty far Left not to recognize Pournelle in his real life as anything but a strong Libertarian (not the party but the ideology). As far as his military sf, I suppose the iron logic embedded in it would make many see him as a fascist. However, as one who works on a college campus I find that the term 'fascist' is most generally aimed by the Left against anyone who fails to toe their line. And, of course, none of them will admit that actual Fascism is a product of Socialism (Mussolini) and national (as opposed to Marxist international) socialism. Odd, that.

My father was on of Carlson's original Raiders (one of the fortunate ones who survived all the battles and the war) and he thought W.E.B. Griffin got the 'feel' right, even if he occasionally got details wrong. Dad was never sure how many of the little 'mistakes' he found were just things needed to make the plot work, and felt they didn't detract from the general 'truth' of the narrative. He liked them a lot.
James Nicoll
11. JamesDavisNicoll
10: Clearly someone who never encountered Jean Mark Gawron's Algorithm.
zaphod beetlebrox
12. platypus rising
10:I'haven't read much of Pournelle and I don't remember it very well.
My impression is that he is an individualist,in the sense that he has a deep distrust of the masses (and therefore,democracy) contrasted with the admiration for those few individuals who have the courage to act when the situation requires it.
Plus,he sees the Army and its discipline as a moral compass in a chaotic world.
Seeing the army as the moral backbone of a society that would otherwise be invertebrate and decadent is a common aspect of all forms of fascism,from Fascio to Nazism to the Falange to the Iron Guard.
That said,I don't really care about Pournelle one way or the other,but I take issue with your statement about fascism.
At best it can be said that Fascism was a populist third-way movement which sought to add socialist-derived propaganda,in order to captivate the disenfranchised masses,to a nationalist framework.
With your level of analysis,in a few years the Northern League,a xenophobic party which promises work for the Northern Italians and seeks the expulsion of Immigrants and Southern Italians from the North,could be seen as a socialist movement.

From The Doctrine of Fascism:

Fascism is therefore opposed to Socialism to which unity within the State (which amalgamates classes into a single economic and ethical reality) is unknown, and which sees in history nothing but the class struggle.Fascism is likewise opposed to trade unionism as a class weapon.(p.15)

Fascism the precise negation of that doctrine which formed the basis of the so-called Scientific or Marxian Socialism. (p. 30)

Mussolini founded Fascism after having been expelled by the Socialist Party,and was opposed from the very beginning by his former companions.
Filippo Turati,Anna Kulischov,Carlo Rosselli,Future Italian President Sandro Pertini spoke vehemently against Fascism,and were forced to go into hiding or flee the country.
Turati,the founder of Italian Socialism,even advocated an alliance with the Conservatives against the common enemy.
Giacomo Matteotti denounced publicly the corruption,violence and irregularities which brought Mussolini to power,concluding his last speech in Parliament with the phrase "I have said what I had to say.Now It's up to you to put together my Funeral Speech".
Ten days later he was kidnapped and murdered.

To say that Fascism is a product of Socialism is profoundly disrespectful to the memory of men and women that were a much better example of "grace under pressure" in very difficult times than some cardboard fictional soldiers.
So much so that I'll take a leaf out of your rhetoric book and say that,if the "Righties" have such a cliff-notes understanding of Historical and Political matters as you do,it's no wonder that the Republican Presidential Candidate thinks that Zapatero is the President of some country in South America and his Vice doesn't know what the Bush doctrine is.
Jo Walton
13. bluejo
Guys, can we please not have a discussion of what fascism is?

I've just finished writing three alternate history books with a 1941 turning point, and I am so sick of fascism you wouldn't believe it.

I believe Mr. Pournelle's personal politics have changed over time, as many people's do. I don't know him, but I bet (like most people's) they're more complex than a label. Anyway, I don't have to be entirely in sympathy with an author's politics to enjoy the books. I also don't think glory, loyalty, duty, and honour are virtues that should be owned exclusively by the right. If they are, there's something very odd going on. I want to reclaim them.
zaphod beetlebrox
14. platypus rising
As I said,I do not know or care enough about Mr. Pournelle's politics to discuss them.
However,talking about complex things that should not be reduced to a label,for me the phrase Fascism is a product of Socialism (Mussolini) was really,really hard to swallow.

Loved Farthing and Ha'penny,btw.
James Nicoll
15. JamesDavisNicoll
13 I've just finished writing three alternate history books with a 1941 turning point, and I am so sick of fascism you wouldn't believe it.

Have you read Waldrop's "You Could Go Home Again", where the Technocrats have taken over the USA? I believe it can be found in Things Will Never Be the Same: A Howard Waldrop Reader.

ObDeadPoliticMovementsinSF: I'm pretty sure parts of the antagonist's political platform in Space Viking

are send-ups of some Social Credit ideas, although obviously the reader is supposed to be put in mind of a different political tradition from the recent past.

Space Viking details how the protagonist handles bereavement by killing more people than Hitler, Stalin and Mao combined. There aren't a lot of books where the words "casual" or "carefree" applies to the use of nuclear weapons on civilian populations but this book would be one of them.

1: Now long past the high-water mark in Canada represented by Wacky Bennett in BC and Ernest Manning in Alberta, the Quebec SoCreds (Ralliement créditiste) did produce my favourite political slogan of all time:

"Ladies and gentlemen, the Union Nationale has brought you to the edge of the abyss. With Social Credit, you will take one step forward."
zaphod beetlebrox
16. platypus rising
"Ladies and gentlemen, the Union Nationale has brought you to the edge of the abyss. With Social Credit, you will take one step forward."

I cannot believe it.It's the stuff urban legends are made of.
17. patrickg
For that, there's always Patrick Tilley's Amtrak Wars, and - though god knows they were they the only decent ones - Zahn's original Star Wars trilogy were truly very good - great space battle descriptions.
James Nicoll
18. JamesDavisNicoll
I am fond of Eric Frank Russell's short story "Allamagoosa", which meets one definition of MilSF I've seen (even thought I don't personally think MilSF existed as a concrete genre before the 1980s and maybe even the 1990s). I think NESFA has a collection of his short work and it would probably be in that.

It revolves around a word military types may fear more than combat: "audit".

Speaking of audits, Alexis Gilliland has an amusing story that he has read at cons about the reaction a military units officers have when they learn their new junior officer's hobbies include something called "forensic accounting"...
Ad Hoc
19. AdHoc
Hard to believe that I read Janissaries in 1982 & its only taken 24 years for the first three chapters of The Mamelukes (Janissaries IV) to appear on Pournelles' website somehow I just get that feeling the rest of the book won't be published until after his death.
Clark Myers
20. ClarkEMyers
I too enjoy reading Jerry Pournelle's fiction.

For Dr. Pournelle's political opinions I suggest the fact columns he did for Pete Dupont. See also A Step Further Out

I do think that most of what Jerry Pournelle writes is space opera - David Drake has a good discussion of the differences in his own work between space opera and military science fiction.

Janissaries is space opera in which cardboard characters in the sense of following the scenario play out the plot - and the world building is set-up to appeal to game players who argue endlessly over combined arms warfare between pieces who are separated by time in our world. Dr. Pournelle, who had the benefit of studying operations research with Herman Kahn (Thinking about the Unthinkable) and otherwise, sets up initial conditions and plays out the game or follows the model to a logical conclusion in which the reader can follow along much like following along a great detective in a mystery - setting the world as right as it can be given that murders happen. For the benefit of our Canadian friends I suggest approaching the Falkenberg stories as this is defeat with its prettiest face; avoid it just the same.

Given the opening of Janissaries military SF would be:
like a corporal in Korea who had survived WW II, and was nearly 50 years old, when told to hold a position while the unit retreated said
"Hold it how long, Captain?"
"I guess I just need you to hold it. We're running for our lives. Choose a volunteer."
"Right. Harvey it's our turn in the barrel."
"Jeez, Corp, and we got through Casino together. OK, it's our turn."

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