War Stories – A Review
By Pablo James
During times of war, we have often seen elements of war and combat enter the realm of fiction writing. Typically, there are those veterans who weave elements of their wartime experiences into their writing. Mark Twain famously said, “Write what you know.” Moreover, veterans—like anyone else—often want to read stories they can relate to. There’s a reason Tom Clancy’s books were hugely successful among the ranks of the military and with veterans.
As a nation that has seen thirteen-plus years of steady warfare this month (and may potentially be looking at yet another theater of war on the horizon), we expect to see literary history repeat itself and see the experiences of our troops enter the pages of fiction.
This was the conversation author and editor Jaym Gates had with her then boyfriend—a retired Army Ranger—who told her much of the military science fiction he read had little or no bearing on what he actually did in Iraq and Afghanistan. That, coupled with Gates’ interest in near future technologies and ethics, sparked an idea.
That idea blossomed during a lunch conversation with fellow writer Andrew Liptak during the 2012 ReaderCon. The idea for War Stories was born.
The result is an anthology of military science fiction short stories that is among the best fiction I’ve read in a long time. Gates and Liptak financed their project through a Kickstarter campaign that allowed them to bring together a collection of exceptional authors—22 in total, including three veterans and several winners of prestigious writing awards –each of whom put their own flavor to this project.
What struck me first as I read War Stories was that this book is a collection of stories. It wasn’t just a collection of science fiction stories and it wasn’t just a collection of war stories—it was a collection of stories about people and their feelings, their experiences, their nightmares, and their loyalties. In short, these stories transcended genre and focused on great story telling.
I grew up in an age of Star Wars, Logan’s Run, and Battlestar Galactica. My science fiction took place in worlds and on spaceships that were sterile and pristine and inhabited by clean, well-groomed people who wore spotless jumpsuits and used laser weapons that never failed. This is great entertainment, but it simply isn’t the way things work. Things break. From chariots to the iPhone 9, things don’t always work perfectly.
The other thing that made an impression on me was the believability of much of the technology. I’ve served in the military for almost three decades and in that time I’ve seen the introduction of GPS systems, laser-guided bombs and missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles—or as Joe Rogan calls them, “robots that can fly to your house and kill you with missiles.” That said, much of the technology described in War Stories, like drones that operate on artificial intelligence and computer algorithms instead of human control and body armor that regulates panic, fatigue, and nervousness.
War Stories brings us a collection of flawed characters, flawed equipment, flawed governments, and flawed equipment. And the stories are more believable as a result.
The stories take us on journeys that explore love, technology, ethics, loyalties, combat, society and PTSD. Gates and Liptak organized War Stories into four sections: Wartime Systems, Combat, Armored Force, and Aftermath. I won’t review every story presented, but instead touch on a handful of standouts that illustrate the breadth and depth of this book.
Wartime Systems starts off with In The Loop by Ken Liu, which tells the story of a young scientist whose father was a drone operator who killed himself due to PTSD. She later learns the number of people her father killed during his time in the military. She sets out to develop artificial intelligence for drones as a way to help prevent someone else from suffering like her father did, but the law of unintended consequences finds her facing ethical and moral issues of her own.
In Ghost Girl by Rich Larson, a former soldier faces the memory of a former adversary and sees his human side through the lens of technology. In the next story, The Radio, by Susan Jane Bigelow, we see how the artificial intelligence of a synthetic human deals with issues of loyalty and mission. Wasp Keepers by Mark Jacobsen looks at issues of surveillance, assassination, and counter-insurgency warfare.
The second section, Combat, focuses—as the name implies—on the actual combat. Maurice Broaddus’ The Valkyrie shows the reader combat and combat leadership by warriors fighting for the Evangelical States of America and shows how they still value the ancient traditions. One Million Lira by Thoraida Dyer takes us into the heart of a sniper engagement worthy of the Battle of Stalingrad that also tells a tale of ethics during wartime.
Invincible by Jay Posey takes a hard look at the loss of one’s comrade-in-arms, even in a world where it is hardly an issue any longer. Going even deeper into the effect of combat and wartime on the human mind and soul, Light and Shadow by Linda Nagata tells the tale of a soldier whose mind is beginning to slip and the officer who has to intervene to try and help a subordinate. Suits by James L. Sutter lets the reader see war in a foreign land through the eyes of a maintenance worker. In it, Sutter brings us face to face with the dehumanization of the enemy during a war of occupation.
In the third section, Armored Force, the stories begin to focus on the relationship between the soldier and his armor“Mission. Suit. Self.” by Jake Kerr examines loyalty to forces greater than oneself while “In Loco” by Carlos Orsi takes the reader into the life of a soldier who fights on the ground and his feelings towards his comrades who fight the war from the safety of the homeland.
The fourth and final section of War Stories is Aftermath. As the name suggests, the stories in this section deal primarily with the soldiers adjusting to life after combat.
War Dog by Michael Barretta is a love story between two war veterans in an oppressive, fundamentalist society. It speaks to love, mutual respect, and sacrifice.
Janine K. Spendlove’s Coming Home and F. Brett Cox’s Where We Would End a War both bring the reader into the desperate and tumultuous minds of a combat veteran dealing with their own nightmares, PTSD, and survivor’s guilt. These stories could just as easily be the true stories of modern war veterans as the fictional stories of a war on a distant planets. (I particularly like a scene in the latter story where the protagonist is in an American Legion post and complains that “there weren’t too many people there her own age, mostly older folks who had been in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Finally, Keith Brooke shows us in War 3.01 how quickly and efficiently an infowar could impact a highly connected and immediate information driven society such as our – and how quickly an enemy could disrupt our lives without firing a shot.
There are several other great stories in this collection. The common thread that runs through all of them is the realism of the characters. These stories deal with fear, love, happiness, discipline, and honor, among other universal emotions. They each approach different aspects of war and military life through the eyes and minds of soldiers, pilots, leaders, and veterans.
More importantly, the characters deal with realistic wartime issues that will be familiar to today’s generation of combat veterans. Insurgencies, IEDs, terrorists, PTSD, family issues, and equipment that is cutting edge and lethal, but not perfect.
A generation ago, Star Trek received much acclaim for using the lens of science fiction to tackle important, contemporary matters like race and gender relations. War Stories could very easily follow in those footsteps by using the fictional realities created by the individual writers to take a hard look at the issues facing veterans today.
Whether you are a fan of science fiction, war fiction, or just great storytelling, you will want to read War Stories, which is available from Apex Publications.