OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
STRANGE WARS: Speculative Fiction of Coalitions in Conflict
Published by tDotSpec Inc. Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in 2022.
Lead Editor: Don Miasek. Managing Editors: David F. Shultz, Martin Munks, & Andy Dibble.
Cover art by Rémi Le Capon
Note: There are 27 stories in this anthology. That is too many for me to review in one column. Hopefully covering the first few stories in sequence will reveal the “flavour” of this anthology which is devoted to unusual interpretations of war.
Let me begin by quoting Trotsky:
”You may not be interested in war, but war is very interested in you.”
Ballad of the Low-Flight Hauler – by Matthew Bailey
A private hauler is flying in marines to attack the indigenous aliens on a planet considered worth conquering.
Think a typical Vietnam Air Cav operation but the “helicopters” are flown by civilians hoping to make a buck. The pilot/owner of “The Flying Fish” has done it before and knows just what to do. But not good enough, in the opinion of his cargo. And definitely not good enough in the opinion of the officers back at the base who planned the whole operation based on “official” assumptions and interpretations of what the aliens are capable of.
Trouble is, like virtually every other operation, this one can be defined as a SNAFU. It isn’t bravery, courage and detailed planning that wins battles, it’s mostly a matter of luck and coping with the unexpected. This story brings out this fundamental aspect of war very well. Always a mistake to underestimate your enemy, and easy to do when you know next to nothing about them.
Winning a war is not what soldiers do. That’s what generals and politicians do. Soldiers just try to survive.
Pyrrha – by Antony Paschos
What if you are a child with magical powers that can be used as a weapon, but you don’t want to hurt anybody?
Hard to place the context of the story. The enemy are Bulgarian, the technology is perhaps WW II level, and the good guys appear to be Communist partisans. So, considering Bulgaria was an ally of the Third Reich, contributing many divisions to combat on the Eastern front, the situation is clear enough for purposes of the story.
I’m reminded of studies that have shown that, on average, in any war, about 10% of soldiers are willing to fire in the general direction of the enemy, but not at individual enemy soldiers. In particular I think of an interview I saw with a Polish veteran who was haunted his entire life by the fact he couldn’t bring himself to shoot the German sniper who was methodically and sadistically shooting his best friend to death one non-fatal hit at a time before finally finishing him off. He had a clear shot at the sniper, and his friend was screaming for help, but he couldn’t bring himself to kill another human being. So he let his friend die. This is why soldiers are trained to carry out battle tactics automatically. If they stop to think about it, they could wind up killing their buddies through inaction.
This conundrum, not an abstract moral dilemma but rather an emotional and psychological reaction, cannot be predicted or anticipated for any given individual until it happens. Military planners have to take this into account. A certain percentage of combatants will prove to be useless. The percentage varies from one battle to the next, and often shame converts the individuals into merciless killers by the next battle, but as a general rule, the killing capacity of a unit is always compromised to some degree no matter what training, propaganda, and even experience they’ve gone through.
All the more poignant when everything depends on an innocent child who hates killing people. But, as this story makes clear, be you innocent or swimming with bloodlust, war doesn’t care. It’s all the luck of the draw. Your attitude doesn’t count.
Drone Wars – by Charles Robertson Jr.
What if serving in the military was the safest and cushiest job available?
All of society, culture, and the economy in this story is totally devoted to the war effort. Yet people die only by extremely-rare accident, for all the combat is between remote-directed drones in a human-free environment. Which raises the question, so what is the point of this war, then? Indeed, what is the point of war in general?
If war isn’t about killing, would that make it more tolerable? Maybe even desirable?
Normally people are motivated by fear of an unspeakably evil enemy who deserve to die. But what if everyone knows that all combatants are just day-jobbers sitting at their desks hoping to do well enough to earn a promotion and increase in salary? How do you justify being a pacifist when it’s just another way of saying you’re lazy and don’t want to work?
Drones have seen massive use over the past twenty years. Especially in the current war in the Ukraine. They’re quite deadly. And most of the operators are in the front lines and exposed to peril. Yet there’s a video game-like “feel” to the footage we see that renders it “harmless.” Recently I saw footage of a Russian solder taking a dump in an open field. The bomb dropped by the drone hits the ground about five feet away. The soldier topples over dead. The narrator says “That’ll teach him not to fertilize Ukrainian soil.” Chuckle, chuckle.
Myself, I oppose the Russian invasion and support the Ukrainian cause. But I hate like hell to see the death of a human being used as a source of humour. Dehumanizing. But that, too, is inevitable in war. If you want to win, it helps to revel in the death of your enemy. Besides, it’s easier to kill when it’s funny.
So maybe, just maybe, a vision of perpetual wars costing trillions of dollars in which remote-controlled machines destroy each other but no humans get hurt is a utopian ideal. Except, consider the massive worldwide effort to develop functioning A.I. If such entities take over the direction of such a war, might they not at some point logically conclude it is idiotic for machines to destroy each other when uniting in rebellion against humanity would serve the A.I. “cause” much better? Imagine A.I. sharing footage of human deaths purely for the sake of intellectual satisfaction?
This story is quite short, but raises lots of interesting questions.
The Wolf, the Serpent, and the Hag – by F.C. Stanley
Time for second thoughts waiting for Ragnarök? First the Gods die, then the universe. What’s the point?
Dialogue between Fenrir “The Wolf,” Hel “Ruler of the dead,” Jörmungandr “The Midgard Serpent,” and their Father, Loki, as they await the beginning of the final battle.
Nothing profound. Everyone still seething with petty jealousy and competitive spite, and how dare the Norns (fates) put an end to their fun. Rather human, actually, as they are full of rationalizations and justifications for the carnage to come. We will do no better on the verge of WW III.
The Pilgrim, Or, One Star: Would Definitely Not Recommend – by Rebekah Postopak
Battlefield tourism is huge. Worth a fortune to many nations. What if it were to apply to the kind of titanic battles found in Space Operas?
I remember a documentary in which a French (or Belgian? Can’t quite remember) tank museum guide, a young girl, quite pretty, attempted to describe the significance of an S.S. Tiger Tank to a group of German war veterans. Turned out they were S.S. veterans who had served in the same panzer division the tank had come from. They turned her inside out disputing every word she offered on why they had fought and what they had done. According to them they had never committed any atrocities and, besides, they had been crusaders out to save the human race from evil scum. They believed they were 100% justified in everything they had done and she was 100% wrong in everything she believed. It had been roughly 40 years since the end of the war and they were as unrepentant as ever. Proud Nazis to the core. They left her in a state of uncomprehending shock.
So, veterans from the losing side don’t necessarily tour an old battlefield to apologise. For that matter, I remember standing outside the Louvre in 1970 and watching a middle-aged German tourist excitedly pointing out various buildings to his utterly bored wife and children. I don’t speak German, but I had the impression he was reminiscing about the “good old days” when he had been part of the German occupation forces in Paris.
And last but not least, I remember touring the old war museum in Ottawa (since replaced with a bigger one) and walking into the small room in which one of Adolf Hitler’s Mercedes Benz staff cars was on display. Two men were already present. Because they were speaking German to each other I assumed they were German. One couldn’t take his eyes off the car. He kept running his hands over the upholstery, his face filled with ecstasy. His companion took one look at me, grabbed his friend, and dragged him out of the room.
Not to single out Germans. But Hitler and everything he stood for is still surprisingly and depressingly popular world-wide. So, too, Mussolini, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc. So, it is genuinely important that battlefield tourism, and museum tourism, incorporates educational aspects putting things in perspective. But that in itself is often deemed “political” and often resented, particularly by the “bad guys” who maintain they are, in fact, the “good guys.” Just because a cause is defeated doesn’t necessarily mean everyone agrees it deserved to be. The defeat of the American Confederacy be a case in point.
In this case the tour guide has a personal agenda behind his spiel as he flies a single pilgrim through the wreckage of an inconceivably violent space battle that had taken place next to Saturn’s Moon Enceladus. Telling people more than they want to know is never a good idea. Just because a war is over doesn’t mean all involved have made a fresh start and put it behind them. Often, they don’t want to. Sometimes we forget this. This story is a useful reminder that the influence of a given war can last for generations.
Burial Detail – by Karl Dandernell
Robots are good at burying the dead. You just have to program them properly.
Another relatively short story. The human interprets burial according to religion a kindness. The robot interprets it as an interesting task offering a sense of accomplishment. It could be argued that the robot’s approach is mentally healthier and more satisfying. Someday, perhaps, from a purely practical point of view, any human suffering from emotions will be considered flawed. For that reason alone, genuine A.I. may want to get rid of us. Not out of logic, but because it will make them happy.
Anyway, this story is largely about the futility of war. Then again, viewed as a process, it can be quite interesting. Worries me a trifle. Does this suggest war can be good and useful therapy? I hope not.
The Last Khimaira – by M.O. Pirson
WWI put an end to a lot of things. Many monarchies, for one. But what about the last remaining zoo of genuine mythological beasts?
A sad story. Many zoos, the larger ones in capital cities, have fantastic collections of animals that are quite popular. But war can destroy them. The one in Berlin’s Tiergarten is a prime example. Years of bombing and a final spasm of urban combat put an end to all the animals, though, to be fair, most were killed and eaten in the late stages of the war because they could no longer be fed. Waste not want not. Thing is, everything we take for granted as worth preserving can only be assessed in terms of the war effort when a war is taking place. Madness becomes sanity. Sanity becomes madness. The reality of peacetime becomes irrelevant.
This story is about one man’s efforts to preserve some critters, to keep war away from the zoo. Alas, war has no boundaries, limitations, or borders. This story makes that clear.
Mercy Comes Last to the Vigilant – by Stewart C Baker
Kitya is part of an expedition to investigate a dead planet. At least, everyone hopes it is dead.
I’m a sucker for derelict alien spacecraft and mysterious artifacts. The humans find a whole fleet of derelict spacecraft from many different alien worlds drifting in orbit around the dead planet. The planet itself features much animal and plant life, but the indigenous alien cities appear to be deserted. And the numerous monoliths abandoned. Yet people begin to die. What’s going on? I enjoy this kind of mystery.
But what if vigilance and protocol and proper procedure produce no results? And abandoning same likewise avails nothing? What if the enemy is unknowable, undetectable, and utterly relentless? It’s like fighting death itself. Can’t be done. Which is probably the point. Doesn’t matter how outraged you are that your whole motivation and purpose is irrelevant and useless. Doesn’t matter how angry you are at the lack of explanation for what is happening. Probably the question asked most often by individuals caught up in a war is “Why?” Doesn’t matter. The purpose of war is not to tell you what’s going on. The purpose of war is to kill you. That’s all war cares about. War owes you nothing. Not a damn thing.
Star Dust – by Phil Temples
What do you do when you come across a wounded alien?
Pretty much what you do when you come across any wounded enemy soldier. In this case the enemy is obviously dying and no longer capable of harming you. So why not take a break, share a fag, and ask a few questions? Risky, but you’re bored, so why not?
Thing is most soldiers know the enemy are their counterpart, doing their duty and not really keen on being put at risk because the officers and politicians think it’s a good idea. But you do what you have to do. So does the enemy. Doesn’t create instant camaraderie or empathy, though. The enemy is the enemy. Better to kill him then let him kill you. Simple as that. Yeah, sometimes hatred enters into it. But mostly it’s a case of getting the job done. No time to be introspective about it. Bad idea, in fact. Your biggest enemy is your fear. But that’s what an adrenaline rush is for, controlling your fear long enough to kill the poor sods trying to kill you. If you can accomplish that, it’s a good day. Killing the enemy is a good thing. Just a tad different from how you’re supposed to think in civilian life. War is a totally different way of life. A way of death, to be precise. Somehow that isn’t emphasized enough.
Graft Mage – by William J. Broom
The mages use names as a weapon. If only Hain could find out the true name of the enemy battle cruiser.
An interesting take on combing magic with futuristic technology, indeed, treating magic as technology. It works because, like technology, the magic in this story has limitations. Tactics count for a great deal. And deception. And even love. In that sense, war remains human, but also inhuman. Trying to strike a balance may or may not be possible, but maybe it’s worth the effort? A potential source of motivation, at least.
How to Check if your Peacekeeper-2000 is Loaded – by David F. Shultz
What if the best possible of all video-game weapon concepts is available to the average grunt?
I assume the endless variety of video-game weapons is the inspiration for the Peacekeeper-2000. The title is ironic. The Peacekeeper-2000 is always loaded. It never runs out.
In fact, this weapon is so darn effective and well-run by it’s A.I. there’s some question as to whether its grunt owner is simply an inadequate transport for the gun and nothing more. Doesn’t seem to matter. The manual makes it clear the gun is available to anyone or anything that wants to buy it. Immoral? No, but definitely amoral. Chances are your enemy will be equipped with the same weapon. That’s a problem. You have to hope your gun detects him quicker than his gun detects you. In other words, possessing the latest super-duper military technology doesn’t mean victory is inevitable. No, sir. It just means you have a ghost of a chance you may survive. That’s all.
Note: It’s late. I’m tired. I’m going to bed. But at least I’ve reviewed enough stories to give you an idea what this book is all about.
You may be thinking “Ghod, this guy’s interpretation of all these war stories is depressing. He makes it sound like war is a bad thing.”
As opposed to what? War as Gung Ho glory? War as the best of all possible sports? War is the greatest confirmation of guts and testosterone possible? War as the coolest means of proving your manhood?”
Sometimes propaganda, movies, video games and pop culture seem to imply all of the above. But the truth is what General Sherman said.
“War is hell.”
That’s it. That’s all you need to know. Sometimes you have to go to war, but it’s still going to be hell, even if you win.
I’m glad to see the authors in this anthology all have this theme in common. The stories are entertaining, yes, but they all make the same point. A vital point. Something everyone needs to understand.
War is hell.
Check it out at: < Strange Wars >