Retro Read: A Matter for Men: War Against the Chtorr Book 1, by David Gerrold

0
343

amatterformen2If you haven’t heard, David Gerrold has completed writing the long-awaited fifth book in this series.  It started in 1983 with A Matter for Men and continued at a good clip through A Day for Damnation (1985), A Rage for Revenge (1989) and A Season for Slaughter (1993). And then…nothing.

Until earlier this year when we learned that A Method for Madness had been completed and was winding its way through the publication process.

The story is an interesting, exciting and engaging one (all of them are), with a compelling lead character (James McCarthy) and a just as interesting supporting cast, including the most prominent aliens, the Chtorran Worms.

But to properly understand why the release of the fifth book after so many years is more than just the release of a long-anticipated novel, (that many were beginning to think we’d never see – it’s actually been mentioned a few times in the same breath as Ellison’s Last Dangerous Visions), we need to look not only to the past, but also to the present.

Mr. Gerrold’s original claim to fame within the science fiction field was authoring what is arguably THE fan favorite episode of the original Star Trek series – The Trouble with Tribbles.  David has a sense of humor, a writer’s sensibilities and a deep connection with SF Fandom;  he’s a playful guy who loves all of this science fiction stuff, a man concerned with many issues and all of this comes through, not only in his actual writing, but in the subjects he chooses to address.

To date he has authored one of the genre’s greatest inside-joke novels with Larry Niven – The Flying Sorcerers; has tackled Time Travel in a particularly quirky way (The Man Who Folded Himself); presented an alternate take on Star Trek:TNG (Star Wolf); addressed very personal issues with The Martian Child and took on the subject of artificial intelligence with When H.A.R.L.I.E. Was 1.

He’s also penned numerous television scripts for shows like Land of the Lost, Babylon 5, Twilight Zone, Star Trek Next Generation and Sliders.  And of course he’s written about being saddled with the Tribbles (The Trouble with Tribbles) and on the experience of working on Star Trek (The World of Star Trek).

And all the while he’s never stinted on making himself available to conventions and readers;  last year he was Worldcon’s Guest of Honor and Hugo Awards Toastmaster (along with Tananarive Due) and he can frequently be found on Facebook, where his commentary on social and political issues are humorous, engaging and frequently biting.  (Between Gerrold and George Takei, we hear a lot on FB from Star Trek: TOS alumni….)

Beyond all of that, we’ve got an author who is a fan of Robert A. Heinlein’s work and an author whose politics have earned the ire of the puppy faction, making the fact that the WATC series, which is at least partially military science fiction, somewhat problematic for that faction.  What we end up with is not a novel, not a series, but an author and their works who is deeply at the center of science fiction’s cultural divide.  This series, perhaps more than any other, illustrates the fact that it is possible to write GOOD MilSF that also has “messages”.  Messages that strongly counter what can be called, for want of a better phrase, the puppy philosophy.

Bottom line: Gerrold is an author who has not been afraid to speak out on issues that puppies are opposed to, while writing the kind of fiction that the puppies have been yelping for.  Which may explain some of their ire.

But David gives them something else to be upset about.  He’s one of the few working authors who can channel their iconic hero – Robert A. Heinlein.

Heinlein, for a number of reasons that are too convoluted to go into here, is perceived as having laid the foundation for puppy think, as writing the kind of books whose covers replicate their interiors and of somehow writing “message fiction” that is not all messagey.  (An apt summary of RAH’s Stranger in a Strange Land might be described as a novel that holds your head underwater until you re-learn how to breath.)

Those perceptions of what Heinlein is about are contradictory, but that’s the argument.  Puppies are looking for more Heinlien, Gerrold has supplied it, but since Gerrold’s conclusions (based on his public statements and the content of his fiction) are not those of the puppies, makes Gerrold a threat.  An apostate of puppy catechism.

The truth is, RAH runs deep through Gerrold’s work.  David’s much-beloved Tribbles are, in fact, permission-granted re-imaginings of Heinlein’s Martian Flat-Cats from The Rolling Stones.  And David’s Jim McCarthy character from WATC is every Heinlein juvenovel hero or heroine faced with the task of growing up in a hurry.

This is not to suggest that the War  Against the Chtorr series is a mere pastiche of Heinleinian tropes.  Far from it.  If anything, it is a series that takes on Heinleinian concepts and expands them, while at the same time making them more accessible, more down-to-Earth, if you will, delivering it all with a style that is Gerrold’s alone.

So what’s this story all about?  In simple terms, it is the typical coming-of-age story featured in every Heinlein Juvenovel.  Of which there were twelve (or thirteen, depending*).

Rocketship Galileo features space enthusiasts who, with an adult mentor, build the first backyard spaceship, travel to the Moon and wipe out the secret Nazi base they find there.

Space Cadet features boys who join the Patrol, are mentored by adults but are quickly thrown on their own resources through chance and circumstance, on Venus.

Red Planet concerns the revolt of the Martian colonies against overbearing Earth authority; a teenaged boy and his Martian “nymph” friend accept the responsibilities thrust upon them and play a key role in the successful revolt.

Farmer in the Sky features a teenaged colonist on Ganymede who uses the skills taught to him in the Boy Scouts to overcome the loss of his family while terraforming Ganymede.

And so it goes.  Every single one of them (with the exception of The Star Beast) features primary settings that are not Earth – space, the Moon, Mars, Venus, Pluto, Tau Ceti, deep interstellar space.

And every single one of them features a male character who loses his adult support network (or rejects it in a struggle over independence) and must learn how to be an adult by selecting their own mentors, learning how to figure out fact from BS and learning the true nature of what it means to be responsible.

After being schooled in what responsibility actually is.

Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (originally one of the Juvenovels) is perhaps the original model for A Matter For Men.  That novel begins with the main character dropping into battle; returns to his earlier days in school, with family and friends, progresses through his military training with flashbacks to his HS class on responsibility, and concludes with him assuming a leadership position in the war and re-entering battle.

AMFM opens with Jim McCarthy entering battle with the alien worms, returns to his days in Whitlaw’s HS class on responsibility and then largely alternates scenes between the present and the past, with the past scenes illuminating the lessons Jim has learned through the practical application of experience.  The story closes with a newly matured and (largely) growed-up McCarthy once again entering battle with the alien worms.

Starship Troopers and, indeed, all of the RAH Juvenovels, focus on the learning experiences of one individual – a young man.

One of the keys to AMFM and the entire Chtorr series, is that the focus of the learning experiences presented are meant for the entire human race;  McCarthy is merely the exemplar, the individual going through the learning experience that everyone on planet Earth must successfully complete if the species is going to survive.  To be blunt about it, one central “message” of this series is that the human race has to grow up – though it may take the jolt of near extinction to get us started on that path. Perhaps the “message” is even starker than that:  we won’t grow up unless and until we’re faced with an existential threat.  And then only maybe. (With the exception of ST and Have Space Suit, Will Travel, no other Heinlein YA novels presented an existential threat to the species. Chtorr most assuredly does. )

Gerrold has expanded the lessons of individual responsibility presented in ST;  it’s not enough to take responsibility for your own actions.  In his future, one must be responsible to and for the entire species and its environment.

Because, following the plagues, the economic collapse and the dawning realization that the Earth is under ecological attack by an unknown alien species, there may not be enough people left to sustain the species, let alone fight off the invasion.

The most fascinating concept dealt with in this series is the idea that if the Earth is invaded by an alien species, that species is not only likely to be far advanced technologically, it will also be greatly advanced genetically, as expressed through many more (tens of thousands?) generations of competitive evolution.

When Rico encountered the Arachnids of Starship Troopers, he was presented with an insectoidal hive species.  The Bugs were different from humans (and stand-ins for the communist threat), but they weren’t any better or worse than humans.

In the Chtorran universe, we’re up against a real threat, not mere bugs.  A threat whose nature is almost entirely unknown, one that is revealed to us as McCarthy and the other characters learn about and experience it for themselves.

The manner in which we learn about the Chtorran ecology is one of the true joys of this series – and the interesting thing is, our own real ecology is just as complex, confusing and interconnected as the Chtorran one, but we’re largely ignorant of it for two reasons:  one, we’re looking at it from the inside and have been pretty myopic when we do so.  The other reason is, we just haven’t cared.

Gerrold draws us in by presenting an alien ecology (we’re all suckers for aliens, even when they’re trying to eat us) and through this device manages to present a subtle, almost Gaian message about how important and interdependent each part of it is.  He does so in a manner that manages to convey the same feeling one has when looking at the single-celled world through a microscope or deep space through a telescope for the first time: awe, wonder, horror and fascination all wrapped up in one mind-blowing experience after another.  (Spoiler alert:  these revelations of the alien ecology continue at an unrelenting pace throughout the entire series, to the point where the reader is as overwhelmed as the characters are.)

The very first Chtorrans we encounter are the purplish-red worms, gastropedes, (actually more like giant caterpillars), they are of indeterminate intelligence, motivation or even ultimate size.

They’re kind of like mini-sandworms from Dune, and given the ecological focus of much of the story, it would not surprise that they were inspired by those creatures.  But these giant minivan-sized worms are red in tooth, black of claw, can move as fast as a locomotive and they eat people.  Whole.  (They also scream before they leap!)

Worms occupy worm houses or domes, habitats constructed in largely the same manner as wasps make their nests (but bigger and stronger), and no one knows exactly how many are to be found in the typical dome.  Three, maybe four.  Maybe more.  The danger is not found in not-knowing.  The danger is in finding out.

No one knows if the worms are babies, adults or some stage in-between.  No one knows if they’re the technological species invading the planet or merely another ecological tool, used to Chtorraform the Earth.

McCarthy serves as witness, as stand-in for the reader and as the prototypical clean slate that WATC’s future will be written upon.  We first encounter him when he is assigned as a civilian expert to a secret special forces team that is out hunting Chtorrans.

That sounds odd; McCarthy is barely out of his teens and has no military training.  But we soon learn through McCarthy’s first-hand narration that this circumstance is due to dire necessity: the future United States of WATC has been devastated by the consequences of military aggression, forced to sign a peace treaty (with, essentially, the rest of the world) that resembles Versailles following World War I:  a very limited standing army, a prohibition on weapons development.

The country’s population has been decimated by a series of overlapping plagues and is desperately scraping the bottom of the manpower barrel in an attempt to handle an overwhelming number of insurmountable problems.  Anyone with a shred of scientific education is being press-ganged into service.

McCarthy soon learns the futility of relying on contracts negotiated with a civilian government that’s more military than anything else, but, thanks to his mandatory HS class in Global Ethics (taught by ‘Whitlaw’ – think about it) he at least has an inkling of the necessities of his situation and settles down long enough to accept things as they are and determines to try to roll with the punches.

McCarthy runs into a number of soon-to-be-recurring characters during this first novel:  Duke, his military mentor, Whitlaw his HS teacher, Dr. Foreman a leading government adviser and practioner of “The Mode” training, Elizabeth ‘Lizard’ Tirelli a chopper pilot, Ted, another civilian conscript.  All of them impart knowledge and sometimes even wisdom as McCarthy learns two valuable, life-changing and sustaining lessons:  the process of living is one of learning and – everyone is crazy.  How else does one respond to a world gone mad?  By adapting. By learning what works and what just gets in the way – and by being willing to drop the stuff that just gets in the way.

Gerrold’s world building is top notch in this series:  he takes the most familiar of all settings – our own world – and turns it topsy turvey with a world devastated by massive population loss and the growing Chtorran infestation.  Layered behind it all is a United States that was forced into signing an unfavorable peace treaty with the rest of the world, following the then US President’s choice to capitulate or resort to the use of nuclear weapons.

But not all is as it seems:  under the guise of scrupulously adhering to the terms of the treaty, the US has built an army disguised as a civilian reclamation service and the infrastructure needed to support it;  when the Chtorrans make the scene, the United States is about the only industrialized country capable of dealing with it.  Unfortunately, the rest of the world is still fighting the last war and is hell-bent on keeping the US in its place as a non-threat to World peace.  Convincing the rest of the world that the Chtorrans are more of a threat than a re-militarized United States plays a central role in the story.

(It also presents an interesting take on the modes and methods of “American Imperialism”:  during WWII, the US prevailed;  it used the Lend-Lease policies with Britain to dismantle much of the British Empire following the war while expanding its own, and it used its peace treaties with Germany and Japan to turn them into robust allies and trading partners.  Gerrold suggests that there are ways to go about accomplishing essentially the same goals, but without the necessity of fighting a war.  Though written some two plus decades ago, there are echoes of the Obama administration’s foreign policy efforts to be found in the story.)

Every chapter begins with a “Solomon Short” quote (similar to Lazarus Long’s notes).  They’re pithy and often eye-opening (that is, if you’re paying attention and are willing to listen).  (You can find a compendium on Gerrold’s web site).  Sometimes they foreshadow the coming chapters, sometimes they just give you something to think about – until you realize later on that they also foreshadowed the chapter.

In addition to all of the foregoing, A Matter For Men is decidedly “MilSF” in its presentation. There’s plenty of nifty hardware – from flamethrowers to awesome assault weapons, from newly developed attack ‘copters to semi-autonomous war bots (that sometimes have problems distinguishing friend from foe…).  Gerrold’s action scenes are tactically sound and frequently breath-taking.  What makes them standout from run-of-the-mill action porn is – Gerrold focuses on the people and the consequences of their action or inaction.  McCarthy and his pals are at the bleeding tip of the spear in the fight against the worms and we feel every gut-wrenching minute of it.

Throughout this review, one may have gained the impression that A Matter For Men is a a mere re-write of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers in a different time and place, substituting Worms for Bugs, fighting on Earth instead of Klendathau, Rico renamed McCarthy and with a bit of this and that other borrowed material thrown in for good measure.  While it is true that some of the structure may be familiar, this series is anything but a rehash of ST in different uniform.  Heinlein focused on one individual, while also focusing on one theme.  Gerrold uses the ideas and concepts presented in ST and expands upon them greatly, while also tackling multiple themes – responsibility and what it means (and not only what it means, but how one goes about experiencing it) on both the personal and species level;  ecology and evolution, how and why people manage to persevere in the face of a no-win situation; questions of sanity, of compassion, of self and of identity.  It’s not a “Heinlein novel” by another author, it’s a David Gerrold novel that addresses some of the same themes with a familiar format and writing that is all Gerrold.

The fifth novel is coming at us real soon now (maybe not as fast as a charging Chtorran worm);  time to play catchup.

Next up: A Day For Damnation, Book 2 in The War Against the Chtorr.
.

SIDEBAR

 

For the past several years, the puppies have been holding Heinlein out as the ideological leader of their movement.

They could not have chosen a more inappropriate role model for their ’cause’.

They attack the introduction of “literary” styles into SF;  Heinlein led the charge out of the pulps and into the ‘slicks’, which gave him a wider audience, better pay and a claim to writing something other than “pulpy trash”.

They argue against the inclusion of “messages” in contemporary science fiction:  Heinlein himself is quoted in Patterson’s two volume biography as stating that those readers who get Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land are the ones who get his “message” of being personally responsible in the world.  All three novels are filled with lengthy lectures, delivered by Heinleinian authority figures to the reader.  So much so that “Heinlein’s lectures” are a catch phrase in the industry.

Puppies famously argue that the covers of contemporary science fiction no longer reflect the content:  show me a cover illustration from any of the previously mentioned novels that accurately reflect the entirety of their contents. (Bantam at least got close with the paperback edition – Paul Lehr’s surrealistic abstracts for Moon and Troopers – but srsly folks, there’s no way that an illo of a soldier in powered armor facing off against a giant bug depicts anything but the least important, momentary scenes in that novel….)

The fact is, Gerrold (along with Scalzi and a few others) have managed to catch ahold of Heinlein’s ability to create a comfortable, interesting and engaging setting and then hit you over the head with it as you repeatedly ask for more, a feat that remains unmatched by any of the self-proclaimed puppy authors.

It is also painfully obvious that those who are bitching and moaning have utterly failed to get the message that RAH claims to have been trying to impart (in particular through those three novels); rather than getting the facts, rather than accepting the responsibility of owning the issues they have raised, puppies do nothing but try to get some other person to clean up their mess. They’re content to piddle on the carpet and let the adults in the room worry about the best way to clean it up.

They discovered a potential liability in the award rules process and, rather than bringing it to the attention of others, rather than offering up solutions, they chose to exploit it.  There’s nothing less fannish than attacking fannish vulnerabilities for your own personal gain.  It’s a hallmark of fan culture that everyone works for the benefit of the whole.  This theme is expressed, and expressed well, in the novel on review here.  Perhaps that message is the reason puppies have an issue with Gerrold.

*To be fair, a handful of non-puppies critiqued the wisdom of this award as well.  David has responded to these well-intentioned comments and you can find those responses in various places on the web.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.