In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
One thing I look for in summer reading is a story that keeps me turning pages, and there is nothing like the sense of jeopardy you find in military science fiction to keep the reader engaged. One of the better examples of this genre appearing in the 1990s was the General series, co-written by David Drake and S. M. Stirling. The books, loosely inspired by the adventures of the Roman general Belisarius, featured Raj Whitehall, an officer who develops a telepathic link with an ancient battle computer, and fights to restore space-faring civilization to a far-away world whose society has collapsed. The books were filled with action and adventure, and featured evocative descriptions, interesting characters and a compelling setting.
There are five books in the original General series set on the planet Bellevue and featuring Raj Whitehall. Written by David Drake and S. M. Stirling between 1991 and 1995, they include The Forge, The Hammer, The Anvil, The Steel, and The Sword. The series continued with additional books set on other planets, where the battle computer and an electronic version of Raj Whitehall continued promoting the cause of civilization. These books included The Chosen, written by Drake and Stirling in 1996, and set on the planet Visigar. Two additional books, The Reformer and The Tyrant, were set on the planet Hafardine. The first was written by Stirling and Drake 1999, while the second was written by Eric Flint and Drake in 2002. The series then visited the planet Duisberg with two books written by Tony Daniel and Drake in 2013 and 2014, The Heretic and The Savior.
About the Authors
David Drake (born 1945) is an author of both science fiction and fantasy. His Hammer’s Slammers series of military adventure stories remains popular to this day, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that he a founding figure in the modern subgenre of military science fiction. I’ve discussed his work in this column before, reviewing The Forlorn Hope here.
S.M. Stirling (born 1953) is a prolific writer of science fiction, and especially alternate history. Early in his career, he did a lot of co-writing with authors such as Jerry Pournelle and David Drake. He is known for his Emberverse/Change series, beginning with the book Island in the Sea of Time, which I reviewed here.
Jim Baen and Military Science Fiction
Editor and publisher Jim Baen (1943-2006) had a profound impact on the field of science fiction, and his editorial vision helped shape the subgenre we call military science fiction. He was editor of Galaxy Science Fiction magazine during its final years, and edited science fiction for Tom Doherty at Ace Books. He bought the first Hammer’s Slammers stories from David Drake for Galaxy, and under his direction, Ace published them in a collection. Baen followed Doherty to the newly formed Tor Books. There, Baen convinced Jerry Pournelle to edit (with John F. Carr) the military science fiction anthology series with the bellicose name of There Will Be War. Baen had very distinctive ideas about what kind of works he wanted to publish, and in 1983, in what was reportedly an amicable parting, left Tor to found his own imprint, Baen Books. Baen Books, from the very start, was known as a home for science fiction and fantasy that focused on adventure, and especially for military science fiction.
Hammer’s Slammers became a long-running series of books, and Baen published many other books by David Drake. The military fiction of Jerry Pournelle also migrated to Baen Books over the years. Baen launched the careers of several military science fiction writers, such as David Weber, whose Honor Harrington series grew beyond its roots as a futuristic Horatio Hornblower pastiche into an epic of massive proportions. Lois Bujold McMaster also got her start with Baen Books (although her Vorkosigan series grew beyond its military adventure roots to become something quite a bit more wide-ranging). Other writers who’ve written for Baen include Eric Flint, Mercedes Lackey, and Elizabeth Moon.
Baen did have one problem on his hands. Two of his most in-demand authors could only produce so much. Drake was a very deliberate writer, and Pournelle famously suffered from periodic writer’s block. The readers clamored for more stories, but there was simply not enough Drake and Pournelle to go around. Both authors were convinced to become involved in anthologies that would bear their names. These included both collections of original fiction and shared world projects like Pournelle’s War World books. And both began partnering with co-authors, who could work from outlines and ideas created by the senior authors in the collaboration. One of these was S. M. Stirling, who with Pournelle wrote two books in his Empire of Man series: Go Tell the Spartans and Prince of Sparta. With Drake, Stirling wrote seven of the books in the General series.
Baen also ended up being a pioneer in the field of electronic books, very quickly turning a profit in this new format for written works. Baen’s influence on the field of genre publishing, and especially in turning military science fiction into a distinct subgenre, cannot be ignored. The online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has a good article on the theme of Military SF, which you can find here.
The book opens with Raj Whitehall and a friend exploring underground ruins, and finding a still-operable computer. The device, Sector Command and Control Unit AZ12-b14-c000 Mk. XIV., is an artificial intelligence that needs a human avatar to achieve its mission: to bring civilization back to the world of Bellevue, and restore the entire star-spanning human civilization to its former glory. The machine determines Raj’s friend would be a risk to stability, and puts him into suspended animation. And the fact that a potential political rival disappears without a trace gives Raj a ruthless reputation right from the start. The computer has some limitations, as its sensor network has been destroyed, and thus it only has old information, and what is known and experienced by Raj, to draw on. But it still possesses a remarkable ability to show Raj realistic images of the potential impacts of different courses of action.
Raj practices a religion whose rituals resemble those of the Catholic Church, but which has put computers in the place of a deity (and which amusingly uses programming terms as part of its rituals). He is rocked to his core by the idea of being chosen by such a being. While Raj does not admit it to anyone, as the story progresses, he begins to take on the aspect of someone who has been chosen by God and communes with higher powers, much as Joan of Arc was seen in her time. We follow Raj as he evolves from a rather capable junior officer, who gains positive attention by volunteering to lead a special mission, to an indispensable leader of his nation’s military efforts.
The Civil Government that Raj serves is deeply corrupt. The leader, Governor Barholm, is anything but admirable, and his chief advisor, Tzetzas, is greed and evil incarnate. This corruption has hollowed out the armed forces, and were it not for the battle computer’s intervention, they might have soon fallen to the formidable adversaries that surround them. The worldbuilding in the story is excellent, with the various nations and political entities vaguely resembling those of the present day. The Civil Government’s chief adversaries in this book are the Colony, a Muslim nation, whose military leader Tewfik has few rivals as a strategist and tactician. The people of the Civil Government speak Sponglish, and their society has some resemblance to current-day Mexico. The region Raj comes from, Descott, is described in a way that evokes the American West of the 19th century.
The military tactics of the Civil Government are dominated by dog-mounted cavalry, and these units are considered the only appropriate place for the nobility. Infantry units are generally poorly trained militias. The military weaponry on the planet is at a level akin what was available during the American Civil War. Muzzle-loading rifles are slowly being replaced by breechloaders, and revolvers are just coming into use. Artillery is becoming a more formidable arm of the military due to the increasing capabilities of their weapons. This is one of the aspects I enjoyed about the book, as too often science fiction books that feature archaic warfare focus on medieval weapons and tactics, ignoring other eras of history.
The characters in the book are interesting and engaging. Raj is a strong, clever, and capable protagonist, although his humanity is somewhat compromised by the computer that inhabits his head. His senior leaders and staff become known as the Companions, and are a diverse group. Raj’s right-hand man is Gerrin Staenbridge, who was, for books of this era, somewhat notable for being gay. While I had encountered gay characters in military science fiction before, this was the first time I remember where a character’s sexual orientation was not portrayed in a negative manner or as a sign of villainy. The infantry commander, a post normally avoided by the nobility, is Jorg Menyez, cursed to this lowly military branch by being allergic to dogs. Muzzaf Kerpatik is a civilian, an Arab who previously worked for the evil councilor Tzetzas, but becomes Raj’s logistics coordinator. Barton Foley is introduced into the story as Staenbridge’s lover/protégé, but soon becomes a capable soldier and leader in his own right. In a disciplinary action early in the book, Raj encounters Antin M’lewis, a villainous character who becomes very useful where spying or assassination are required.
Like many military adventures of the last century, this story is very male-oriented—what youngsters today refer to as a “sausage fest.” The only two female characters with any meaningful roles are Raj’s wife Suzette and her best friend, the Governor’s consort. And while she has plenty of agency, Suzette is not a very admirable character. Having climbed her way up the social ladder from a noble but poor family, she will do anything, including seducing, lying, stealing, and even murdering, to support her husband’s rise to power.
One of my favorite parts of the book was the use of huge dogs, bred to the size of horses, as cavalry mounts. The authors did a good job of imagining the differences between dogs and horses in this role. After all, while they are strong, smart, and intimidating, horses are herbivores, who left to themselves are generally peaceful creatures. Dogs, on the other hand, have carnivorous preferences, and are the descendants of animals that hunt in packs. A dog weighing the better part of a ton would be a dangerous creature indeed. And dogs have a very different bond with their humans than do horses. The authors also had some fun with the idea of different units riding different breeds of dogs, with the elite units preferring purebred dogs, while others find mixed-breed mounts superior. As a dog owner, it made me smile to look at the chair next to me and imagine my own little Stella being the ancestor of mighty war beasts.
I’ll not focus too much on the specifics of the plot, as not knowing what will happen as the military campaigns unfold is a big part of the fun. There are small unit encounters, set-piece battles, sacking of cities, narrow escapes, and plenty of action throughout. The battle computer makes it clear to Raj that avatars can be replaced, and it will let him bear the consequences of his mistakes if he ignores its advice, which takes away an air of invincibility that might otherwise have spoiled some of the suspense.
My only complaint with the book is that cruelty, sadism, and brutality are often accepted without question. While Raj punishes soldiers who rape and pillage within their own borders, such behavior in enemy lands is seen as a natural part of warfare. At one point, Raj muses that, “Men trained to kill, and proud enough to advance into fire rather than admit fear, were never easy to control.” If it were not for the nobility of the overarching mission of restoring civilization, the means used by Raj and his Companions could easily make them the villains in a book written from another perspective. That being said, if you are looking for fast-paced military action in a setting that feels real and lived-in, this book has a lot to offer.
The Forge is an impressive debut for a series that holds up well over its entire length. Setting up a new world, and still keeping the action flowing, is a difficult task which the book executes very well. Drake and Stirling have done a fine job imagining a compelling setting, characters, and situations. The original five books were re-released in 2003 in two omnibus editions, Warlord and Conqueror, and are also available in electronic versions. If you are looking for engaging tales of adventure, this series may be for you.
And now, I’m interesting in hearing the thoughts of anyone who has read this series, or has other suggestions for good military adventure stories. As always, I look forward to reading your feedback.
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.