In this monthly series reviewing classic science fiction books, Alan Brown will look at the front lines and frontiers of science fiction; books about soldiers and spacers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
The 1970s were a troubled time. The worldwide population was soaring, and in 1972 the “Club of Rome” published a report, “The Limits to Growth,” which warned of the collapse of civilization as resource demands outstripped supplies. Domestic oil production peaked in the U.S., and an embargo declared by OPEC drove up crude oil prices internationally. Terrorism was on the rise, with attacks including the Munich Olympic Massacre. The Right in America was disillusioned by the failure of Barry Goldwater to take the Presidency, and the Left by the failure of George McGovern. The unpopular centrist Richard Nixon took the Presidency, and soon was overseeing the US retreat from Vietnam, devaluation of the dollar, and price controls. The US entered into treaties with the Soviets, including the SALT and ABM agreements. Nixon travelled to China in a calculated attempt to drive a wedge between the Chinese and the Soviets. Soon after, Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate controversy. And in this troubled time, science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle projected a troubled future, and controversial heroes who would arise to dominate that future.
The work I will be looking at in this article is The Mercenary, by Jerry Pournelle. Like many SF novels in the era in which short fiction dominated the field, The Mercenary was a fix-up, consisting largely of material originally appearing in three pieces in Analog, “Peace With Honor” from 1971, “The Mercenary” from 1972, and “Sword and Scepter” from 1973. I didn’t see them when they first appeared—at that point in my life, I was in high school, with less spare time for reading my father’s Analog magazines. Instead, I encountered this work in book form during the year I earned my own military commission. They say that all SF reflects the time it was written, and The Mercenary was no exception to this rule: Pournelle posited a world where the declining US and declining Soviet Union, both sliding toward socialist totalitarianism, would enter into an uneasy alliance called the CoDominium. He saw the infant space program growing into an effort that would lead to discoveries in faster than light travel, opening new worlds to exploration.
These worlds would be teeming with life, but lacking any intelligent rivals to human expansion. Before long, the worlds would be colonized by corporate interests, but with the original settlers soon overwhelmed by undesirables shipped from Earth by the Bureau of Relocation. The US of this future was a dystopian society split into “Taxpayers” with the right to vote, and the disenfranchised “Citizens” who are confined to enclaves called “Welfare Districts.” The CoDominium was constantly on the verge of collapse, beset both by internal corruption, and the rise of nationalistic parties that would finally bring about the US/Soviet war that so many feared. In the midst of this morass, however, Pournelle introduces military leaders who are in many ways nobler than their political masters, and this backdrop is fertile soil for stirring tales of military adventure.
Jerry Pournelle was born in 1933, and served in the Army during the Korean War. He was involved in politics, and worked on at least one California mayoral campaign. He was a longtime columnist for the computer magazine Byte. His conservative views have long been on display, as can be seen by visiting his long-running blog “The View from Chaos Manor.” He is a very well-educated man, largely in the field of political science, has written a number of scholarly works, and worked for a variety of aerospace companies. He is an outspoken member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) and served as the organization’s president from 1973-1974, and remains a brash and dogmatic voice in the SF community.
Starting in the late 60s, Pournelle penned a number of solo works, many with a hard science edge, and many dealing with military subjects. The CoDominium future grew to include many works in addition to The Mercenary, including the novel West of Honor and two books coauthored with S.M. Stirling. It later expanded to support a future history about the First and Second Empire of Man, which grew from the ashes of the CoDominium. In addition to the CoDominium stories, Pournelle wrote the three book Janissaries series, about a group of mercenaries plucked from Earth to fight on a faraway planet (a fourth volume has long been promised, but not yet seen). With the assistance of John F. Carr, Pournelle created the multi-volume War World shared world anthology, which included stories by both established and unknown authors (in the interest of full disclosure, I am one of those unknowns). Pournelle, however, is most famous for his books co-written with Larry Niven. Two of these, The Mote in God’s Eye and The Gripping Hand, were set in the CoDominium/Empire of Man future history. And two of the Niven/Pournelle books drew significant attention outside the normal bounds of the SF community, with the epic disaster novel Lucifer’s Hammer reaching #2 on the New York Times bestseller list, and the alien invasion tale Footfall reaching #1.
Pournelle’s work was often nominated for SF awards, and he was awarded the Campbell award for Best New Writer in 1973. As a solo author, he received three Hugo nominations for novelettes, and one for the novella, “Mercenary.” His work with Niven also received a number of nominations, with Nebula nominations for A Mote in God’s Eye and Inferno, and Hugo nominations for A Mote in God’s Eye, Inferno, Lucifer’s Hammer, and Footfall.
In the first part of The Mercenary, the central character of the tale, Colonel John Christian Falkenberg, remains in the background. The main character of this portion is CoDominium Senator John Grant. We are introduced to the world and the politics of the CoDominium, and Grant has to deal with the consequences of his (often shady) efforts to keep the CoDominium from collapsing, especially when it impacts his own family. To please other factions in the Senate, he has to sacrifice the career of his well-respected protégé, Colonel Falkenberg, whose military efforts have run afoul of some powerful Senators.
Mercenary armies have become quite common in the struggles on the various colony worlds, and Falkenberg becomes a mercenary commander, with members of his 42nd Regiment forming the backbone of his new force. Like the CoDominium Marines in which they started their careers, this force draws heavily on the customs and traditions of the French Foreign Legion, and on a tradition where loyalty to comrades and commanders is more important than any political loyalty. Their first employment comes on the colony world of Hadley; granted its independence as the deteriorating CoDominium pulls out its support, Hadley is threatened by internal collapse rather than outside threats. The mercenaries have been hired by President Budreau, and his shady Vice President, Bradford. They want to build an army to police the ever more chaotic political situation on Hadley, but only the command element of the mercenaries can operate openly, with many personnel slipping in under the guise of being new colonists, who just happen to join the new army. The colony has limited capabilities and resources, which have been overwhelmed by an influx of involuntary colonists in recent years—an influx that seems destined to doom the colony to failure.
The political situation is dominated by the Progressive Party, largely consisting of old colonists and technocrats, and the Freedom Party, which gains the support of many newcomers with vague promises of prosperity for all. The only politician in the government who seems to value actual capabilities over political factions and advantage is the technocrat Second Vice President Hamner. But Falkenberg has his own agenda, and his own social scientist and intelligence officers, and his agenda becomes increasingly clear as the tale unfolds. VP Bradford soon shows his true allegiance to the Freedom Party, and stages a coup. At first, his faction seems destined to prevail, which will lead the colony toward chaos and collapse. At this point, Falkenberg takes charge, doing what he thinks is necessary to ensure the colony’s future success. This “solution” is brutal, and Pournelle is effective in showing the impact it has, not only on the political outcome, but also on the otherwise very moral Colonel Falkenberg. What I didn’t know when I first read the book is that the conclusion is strongly based on the actions of the mercenary commander Belisarius, whose actions in the Sixth Century propped up the rule of Emperor Justinian, and kept the Eastern Roman Empire from collapse—a collapse that would have extinguished this last bastion of the Roman civilization. As a junior officer, all I could think about after reading this tale was what I might have done in a similar situation, where the only choices available were bad ones.
The last portion of the novel finds Falkenberg’s Mercenary Legion fallen on hard times, trapped on the prison planet Tanith without employment. They are approached by an emissary from New Washington, a colony planet inhabited by people from the Northwestern US which has been conquered by the twin planet of Franklin, inhabited by people from the Southern US. The new employers cannot promise the unit much pay, but they are willing to promise land grants in return for service (land grants that will be worthless if the mercenaries cannot succeed). With the CoDominium teetering on the brink, Falkenberg sees this as the unit’s only chance to get off the hellhole of Tanith, and find a place to settle when the interstellar civilization collapses. The Legion is able to land without detection and take the key city Allansport from the Franklin forces. Falkenberg meets a rebel leader, a young woman named Glenda Ruth Horton, a renegade with a penchant for leading from the front, with whom he soon develops a romantic attachment. With everything on the line, the unit makes a mad dash for the city of Astoria, a main stronghold of the Franklin Confederates…but standing in their way is also a crack German armored mercenary unit, a unit of Scot mercenaries, and the Franklin Army.
How Falkenberg deals with these challenges, and also protects his paramour from danger in the field, makes for a gripping military adventure. And in the end, dealing not only with the revolutionaries, but also the Franklin leaders and the forces he summons from outside the conflict, Falkenberg makes sure his forces are in a strong position to survive the coming collapse of the CoDominium. Falkenberg reveals himself to be a compelling but not always admirable character. You might not want him as your friend, but you definitely wouldn’t want him as your enemy.
In the end, like many future histories set in the near future, Pournelle’s predictions did not come to pass. The US did not slide into totalitarian socialism, and the Soviet Union collapsed under its own weight. The space program almost collapsed when the Apollo program was cancelled, and has made only fitful progress over the past decades. The male-dominated politics and military Pournelle described have also seen transformation in recent years, and humanity has seen population pressures diminish, found and developed new resources, and improved farming yields, which has staved off fears of the collapse of civilization. While we face many challenges, the world is far from the dystopia of the CoDominium.
Pournelle is a very compelling author, and is at his best with the stories that make up The Mercenary. While I would argue with many of his political positions, I admire his insight, his careful worldbuilding, and his storytelling ability, and I have read pretty much everything he has ever written. He is one of those authors who always makes you think as you read; the moral dilemmas and backdrops he outlines are well-thought-out, and the CoDominium provides a rich backdrop for adventure. His characters are very well realized, and even the many secondary characters necessary to a military adventure, while thinly sketched, feel alive. Pournelle is a master of action and adventure, and lays out military strategy and tactics in a manner that is clear even to those without a military background. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his conclusions, his tales are compelling and engrossing, and it’s obvious why his work has had a huge influence of the field of military science fiction.
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for five decades, especially science fiction that deals with military matters, exploration and adventure. He is also a retired reserve officer with a background in military history and strategy.