27 April 2014

An Authentic Whiff of Grapeshot

One of my guilty pleasures is military-oriented science fiction and fantasy. After all, my first profession was the management of violence – studying foreign languages and cultures; traveling to fascinating foreign places; meeting interesting people from many other cultures; and then… fortunately, it wasn't the sixties anymore, so I was seldom required to complete that sentence. I nonetheless retain a more-than-passing interest in seeing how individual characters interact with politicomilitary systems in environments ranging from those that closely resemble postindustrial America to those bearing almost no resemblance.

Unfortunately, this all too often results in considerable damage to a book… or the wall I just threw it against. What do the following writers have in common?

  • Bill Baldwin
  • Robert Buettner
  • Debra Doyle (by marriage to Jim Macdonald, her coauthor, who is strangely not listed)
  • John Hemry
  • Tom Kratman
  • Sandra McDonald
  • Elizabeth Moon
  • Steve White

These are the only currently active writers of military science fiction listed on the current-at-this-writing iteration of the Wikipedia page on military science fiction works who have any discernable personal authenticity regarding the stage beyond The Face of Battle: They all served as line officers, and so have had some personal contact/experience with The Mask of Command (although several of them had only passing familiarity with it, because they were farther to the rear than the REMFs). Notably absent from this list are most of the Usual Suspects — the bestsellers, both past and present.

This leads to three points regarding authenticity, and the lack thereof, and the authority therefore.

  1. Authenticity matters... because lack of authenticity often leads to errors spotted by those who do know. Most (not all) of the Baen Books contingent, for example, appears utterly clueless regarding military culture/procedure/action above the squad (or maybe platoon) level, because its authors neither know nor care to know what goes into being ready not just to pull the trigger or throw the grenade, but to take responsibility for ensuring that when one's subordinates do so it's at the right and meaningful target. (Or, at minimum, they cannot — or at least do not — express that in their writings.) This is a particular problem with navy-based space operas that frequently hit the bestseller lists, and are usually descended from Napoleonic-era sail-navy yarns (Hornblower, Aubrey, et al.)... which simply do not work for "space navies" in which the lowest-ranking "seaman" has more education and technical training than anyone on board those wooden ships. The Army Officer's Manual of 1912 ("Enlisted men are not intelligent. However, they are sly, cunning, and bear considerable watching.") doesn't apply in space. At a broader level, the word "frag" (2) comes to mind: That would have been the fate of many of the "officers" populating some of those bestselling series, long before they became senior enough to make interesting protagonists (or secondary characters or even antagonists).

    The ultimate problem with inauthenticity in fiction is that it throws the reader who has some sense of authenticity right out of the story. It's sort of ironic (and more than sort of discouraging) that screwing up orbital mechanics — an area in which even fewer Americans have real experience than military officership — will lead to widespread condemnation and criticism, but not something that is central to the very foundation of the story. (The less said about the "dramatic liberties" taken in "medical" and "legal" stories produced for entertainment, the better.) None of this is to say that every military officer must be a paragon of virtue, because they aren't in reality, either. Even the very best officers have quirks that often slide silently into character flaws. The converse, however, also holds true: Not every officer will be a blitheringly incompetent careerist or naïf — a Colonel Blimp or Lieutenant Gorman — either.

  2. ...but direct experience is not the only source. Sometimes research — well-founded research, directed research, scholarly research — can provide enough information upon which to base works of fiction. There are severe limits to this, usually at the context level; the late Tom Clancy is an excellent, if discouraging, example — as so many military dilletantes do, he got the hardware right and the logistics and personnel utterly wrong in virtually everything he ever wrote/sponsored. Sometimes those limits are inside the scope of the work of fiction; a converse example is the sadly underrated Jani Kilian stories by Kristine Smith, which are frighteningly convincing coming from someone with no firsthand — or even secondhand — knowledge of intelligence and deep cover, primarily because Smith doesn't get bogged down in the details of tradecraft but focuses on their implications and assumptions.

    I don't expect every author of military fiction to be capable of actually leading a military unit, however small... let alone throughout a multibook series. Often the devil of leadership is in the application and in details that never make their way into fiction; as a corollary, we never see fictional lawyers spending hours in the library researching precedent and applying it to their experience only to have an "a-ha" moment that changes their thinking and approach to the matter before them. Fiction is, after all, fiction, and primarily about characters. Writing convincingly about a carpenter requires no ability to pound a nail at all, although it does require knowing that one would use a ball-peen hammer on a nail only in a serious emergency (such as hurricane preparation!), and perhaps that one does not refinish a dining-room floor through French polishing.

    "Research" does not ordinarily mean "web search" (let alone Wiki-anything), either. Isaac Asimov's portrait of a renowned lay "expert" on "the Owigin Question" (Foundation) is directly on point. One of the side points that I'm trying to make in this essay, with all of the (unusual for me) references to such dilletante-based sources, is how bloody unreliable they are for doing more than acquiring enough knowledge to do real research in secondary and tertiary sources... let alone necessary research in primary sources. One look at this Wiki on Sir John Keegan should be sufficient demonstration of that... particularly since that piece so egregiously misses what Keegan emphasized and got right (and what he got wrong) about the nature of conflict and military history. Indeed, it is not just irony: It is part of my point.

  3. It's not just about military officership authenticity, either. This is the bit that will probably prove most controversial (if anyone reads this essay at all, that is). I will probably be pilloried for saying this; so be it.

    I am not a woman. (That much is obvious and conceded and my subpoint here.) That lack of experience as a woman, however, does not — standing alone — mean that nothing I write about so-called "women's issues" can ever be credible, or good enough, or correct. It does not mean that a sub-organizational interest group formed with public activities explicitly designed to drive away anyone but women in {name of interest-area redacted} is inherently more credible than I am on "women's issues" if I choose to write about them after doing my homework, or that such an organization has any intellectually honest right to criticize views I express on such matters because I'm not a member of that organization. And the same goes for other characteristics, immutable or otherwise — race, ethnicity, religion, social class, whatever. That You (the imperial you) have a characteristic that I do not does not make You universally right on the implications of that characteristic, nor does it make me universally wrong. For example, that I was wearing a military uniform during the 1980s did not mean that I shared the disturbingly-close-to-fascistic weltanschauung or attitude of many senior Administration officials — even when I was seen in their company. Neither does it make Your criticism of the reprehensible way too damned many of my colleagues and contemporaries treated You and thought of You any less valid, if nonetheless neither universally correct nor applicable to me.

    My subtext here is that if "authenticity" matters anywhere, it needs to matter everywhere... and that has to include the warts and exceptions (if not the Mary Sues). It has to include acknowledgement that although it's incredibly difficult to definitively determine that someone is "right," it is rather easier to determine that they are "wrong," and that those considerations extend to many aspects of every work of fiction. Or, for that matter, nonfiction: Because not all Real Americans are rural/semirural protestant Caucasians who have never performed any public service other than elective office on some local or county board that has no responsibility to anyone not known on a first-name basis. The archly sarcastic tone of that description should, by itself, suffice.