War Stories edited by Jaym Gates and Andrew Liptak
War Stories edited by Jaym Gates and Andrew Liptak (Apex Publications, 2014) begins with a thoughtful introduction by the editors and then reprints “Graves” by Joe Haldeman which is as good a war story as you could hope to find (it did win the 1994 Nebula Award). It’s always pleasing when the editors say something interesting. It’s also incredibly daring of them to put “Graves” out front as a yardstick against which measure the success of all the new stories.
The book is divided into four parts, each with its own illustration to start. This is a pleasing design choice. I like to see an artist’s take on the content. Part 1 is titled Wartime Systems and it explores the various practical and ethical problems when creating different ways of engaging in combat. One trend is clear. Telefighting is the preferred option. Warriors are too valuable to waste in direct combat. It will be much better if they are sequestered away somewhere safe. If a human must go, he or she must be cocooned in metal the better to escape the bullets and explosions coming their way. “In The Loop” by Ken Liu is an ideas story that comes over a little cold because of the need for a significant amount of exposition to get started. It holds the interest but the emotional impact is not as sharp as it could have been. “Ghost Girl” by Rich Larson is a rather beautiful story which again deals with the relationship between a human and a machine. This time, we have the aftermath of a war in which operators could sometimes become close to their drones. “The Radio” by Susan Jane Bigelow continues the theme of a human and machine, this time with a reanimated body at the heart of a cyborg. It comes slowly but there can sometimes be hope when the extremists on all sides leave the field of action. “Contractual Obligation” by James L. Cambias reaches a nicely ironic conclusion as the link between automated units and the human commander is reconfigured in the light of exigent circumstances. “The Wasp Keepers” by Mark Jacobsen is slightly polemical, but it does convey the age-old truth that you can fight a war and never achieve a victory. “Non-Standard Deviation” by Richard Dansky gets the balance exactly right as we enter a simulation intended to teach soldiers how to fight only to discover that the AI doesn’t do war no more. The result is a delight.
Part 2 is titled Combat, but instead of this referring to major battles, we’re either dealing with local engagements or the role of individuals in situations where they have to fight. “All You Need” by Mike Sizemore is an elegantly told story of a girl assassin and her intelligent gun as they pursue targets and aim to survive in a threatening environment. “The Valkyrie” by Maurice Broaddus finds the Church Militant out to exterminate the atheists and heretics. There’s just one problem. Inflicting so much injury and death take a toll on the mind of long-surviving soldiers. Sometimes, they crack. “One Million Lira” by Thoraiya Dyer is a fascinating future history of a world without fossil fuels in which the rich literally take to the air and leave poverty behind them on the ground. Except, of courser, technology is not infallible and accidents happen. When a sky city crashes, the poor come to scavenge. This story wonders who will fight over the remains and why. Then “Invincible” by Jay Posey invites us to consider the difference between invincibility and invulnerability. A crew of highly-experienced soldiers kills a group of “pirates” who have taken a ship. Some people die. Others survive but not necessarily in exactly the same form. It’s quite good but feels as thought it’s a part of a longer piece. “Light and Shadow” by Linda Nagata pursues the discussion about a human’s machine interface with combat armor and the extent to which this might affect the mind. Humans, as the title suggests, have minds filled with light and shadow. What happens if something disrupts this delicate balance?
Part 3 is titled Armored Force and begins with “Warhosts” by Yoon Ha Lee. This sees us in a distant future where war has been ritualised into a series of trials by combat. Whichever group of champions prevails wins the designated territory. It’s all a matter of scale. Dragons may be unstoppable, six-legged antagonists and the two-legged dream of their defeat. The question, as always, is whether the dreams of the human inserts will affect the armour that carries them into war. “Suits” by James Sutter has both exoskeleton fighting machines and cloned technicians to keep them in repair. As for all soldiers and those who support them, the question is always whether the cause is just. If it is not, what are the options for conscientious objection? “Mission. Suit. Self.” by Jake Kerr asks what heroism is when the human is enclosed in a suit that effectively makes him or her invulnerable. For some, the answer would be the ability to overcome fear, but the real question to be answered is whether the mission itself is worth dying for. “In Loco” by Carlos Orsi wonders about the man inside the armour. Does he still have the cojones to go mano-a-mano when he has a chance for freedom?
Part 4 is titled Aftermath with “War Dog” by Mike Barretta an outstanding story which strikes the perfect balance between emotion and the hard world in which vets find themselves when the fighting is done. The threat left for the civilian population to deal with is genuinely innovative. “Coming Home” by Janine Spendlove is a PTSD story which shows a decommissioned captain trying to adjust to life after serving with the marines, while explaining the operational background of her flying the wounded out of the battlefield when the threats were hot. “Where We Would End a War” by F. Brett Cox takes a different view of PTS (it’s bad PR to describe it as a disorder) and wonders what returning vets might do for kicks if they found the world too boring. “Black Butterfly” by T.C McCarthy demonstrates a completely coldblooded way of fighting an alien race. There’s just one problem. It takes rather a long time to work. “Always the Stars and the Void Between” by Nerine Dorman is a touching story of a soldier’s return. She thinks she will resign and return home but, as seventeen years have passed, things may not be quite as she remembered them. “Enemy States” by Karin Lowachee is a desperately intelligent and yet sad story of the man left behind when the man goes to war. Because their experiences are not the same, they change as people. Perhaps love can transcend minor differences. Perhaps not. “War 3.01” by Keith Brooke is a completely delightful way to end the war to end all wars just so long as you believe what you read on the internet. Put all this together and you have a superior anthology with one or two genuinely outstanding stories. That said, none of the modern stories are as good as “Graves” which captures a moment of horror on the battlefield in a way that has only rarely been equalled. This is not to take anything away from the modern stories, but simply to reflect on the editors’ decision to include a yardstick against which to measure how far we’ve progressed in the fiction writing stakes over the last twenty years.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.