Five Doomed Armies in Science Fiction

As previously mentioned, July 1 is Canada Day. There being only 365 (sometimes 366) days in a year, date-space collisions are inevitable. On July 1, two major events in Canadian history collide, one happy, one sad. The sad: on July 1, 1916, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment took part in the Battle of the Somme. 780 men went into combat. 68 showed up for roll call the following day. Having one’s signature regiment annihilated to bring an unpleasant war to a swift end would be tragic enough, but in this particular case, the geniuses running the war on both Allied and Central Power sides managed to drag out the carnage for another two years. The loss of the cream of a generation had consequences for Newfoundland that echoed for decades, not least of which was their eventual merger into Canada. Which is to say, July 1 isn’t as jolly a day in Newfoundland as it is in other parts of Canada.

Armies sacrificed for no obvious purpose and meaningless wars are not entirely unknown in speculative fiction. Here are five examples from that golden age of such stories, the Vietnam War era, and its literary aftermath.


The Palace of Eternity by Bob Shaw (1969)

Advanced civilizations are rare and short-lived. Hard luck for humanity that they share the Milky Way with the Pythsyccans, who, aside from their curious lack of Bussard ramjets, are otherwise the equals of humans and for reasons unexplained, implacably hostile to the human species. Mack Travener threw himself into the war effort—then, embittered over the futility of the conflict, tried to reinvent himself as a civilian mechanic on the backwater world Mnemosyne.

His efforts to put the war behind him are doomed; while conventional interstellar craft cannot approach the debris-shrouded planet, the war most certainly can. Mnesmosyne’s artists will be pushed aside so the planet can better serve the war effort. Mack himself will be drafted into a central role in the human-Pythsyccan conflict… but first he will die.



The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1976)

Earth in the late 20th century was faced with the doleful prospect of peace; only the recent development of interstellar exploration can serve as a distraction. How fortuitous that human craft encountered and then clashed with the alien Taurans. The practicalities of interstellar travel meant that even with collapsar shortcuts, the war would take centuries to play out, entire lifespans during which Earth would never have to worry about a peacetime economy.

Former physics student-turned-draftee William Mandella has a different perspective. Relativistic starflight means centuries for Earth are mere years for Mandella. Mandella and his fellow soldiers—those who survive the brutal, pointless conflict—will fast-forward though history. Unlike the UN functionaries who began the Forever War, the conscripts will discover if the conflict will ever end or if the Human-Tauran War will last until the end of history.



The Faded Sun: Kesrith by C. J. Cherryh (1978)

The mercenary Mri are a skilled warrior people; despite this fact, their Regul bosses proceeded to not just lose a war with humans but to squander most of the Mri forces in the process. Having grudgingly conceded the planet Kesrith to the humans, the Regul are faced with a quandary regarding Kesrith’s Mri. It’s possible that the Mri might attack the humans who now own Kesrith, which would unduly complicate the peace process. Or, even worse, the Mri might decide to ally with the humans against the Regul. The Regul conclude that there can be no Mri-related complications if there are no Mri. The Mri must be annihilated.

The Regul do not succeed. Their effort does have an unexpected side-effect: the surviving Mri ally with a human soldier, an uneasy alliance that will have far-reaching consequences.



The Forlorn Hope by David Drake (1984)

Colonel Guido Fasolini made a fundamental error when he leased his mercenary company to the Federalist side of Cecach’s civil war. His employers are losing the war with the fanatical Republic. This is very bad news for mercenaries who hoped to be paid for defending Smiriky #4 Industrial Complex.

A moment of ill-timed inspiration on the part of Sergeant-Gunner Roland Jensen transforms the mercenaries’ predicament into something much worse. Jenson manages the difficult trick of obliterating a Republican starship traversing Cecach’s upper atmosphere. This transforms the mercenary company from a creditor the Federalists may not be able to pay to loathed enemies of the Republic. As such, they may be of value to the increasingly panicky officers of the Federalist 522nd Garrison Battalion; the mercenaries can be traded to the irate Republicans in exchange for a safe stand-down for the Federalists.

Jenson’s lucky shot has left Fasolini’s company trapped between two hostile armies.



A Small Colonial War by Robert Frezza (1989)

22nd-century Japan’s empire reaches to the stars. Travel takes years, although relativity and hibernation spares travellers from paying that cost. Instead, they pay in alienation, as society back home on Earth changes beyond recognition. Japan’s solution is to defer the task of controlling their empire to modern-day peregrini recruited from the lesser nations of Earth—forces like Lieutenant-Colonel Anton “the Veriag” Vereshchagin and his command, the 1st Battalion, 35th Imperial Infantry.

Communication lag means the Japanese Diet is forever misinformed about their colony worlds. No problem for the Diet, safe at home on Earth. For the soldiers of the 35th, this means assignment to Sud Afrika, a planet settled by racially paranoid Boers. The Boers were followed by cohorts of heavily armed settlers who, the Japanese optimistically assumed, would bring the previous colonists to heel. The 35th is very much the odd man out in this conflict; they’re hated by all sides.



These aren’t always happy stories to read, but they’re reliably entertaining. No doubt you have your own favourites; feel free to mention them in comments.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is currently a finalist for the 2020 Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.



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