Fiction, War, and the Question

It would be pretentious of me to suggest that I read fiction in pursuit of some grand academic pursuit of truth or beauty (or whatever).  The fact is, I enjoy a good adventure story, and reading fiction – especially the science fiction or fantasy stories I prefer – satisfies that desire.  In fact, I probably over-indulge – an easy failing, as I read quickly enough that a large number of pages can take not that much of my time away from other things.

It is true, though, that the mode of fiction – the story, known to be unreal – allows authors, sometimes by accident, sometimes deliberately, to pose questions in a form which might not otherwise be possible.  Much of science fiction is also what is called “speculative fiction”: attempts to answer – or sometimes just ask – the question, “What if?” by providing an imagined context in which the answer becomes obvious (given the premises of the story) or the question becomes pressing (given the conditions set out in the narrative).  Other times, there is no particular point or question to a story in that speculative sense, but characters are free to offer remarks which have bearing not only on their imagined situations but (intentionally or not – and sometimes it is hard to tell) on real life difficulties.

I am going to, in this post, offer two examples from recent reading which reflect on the place of women in war.  The United States armed forces have, for several years, been moving towards integrating women in combat with men: attitudes towards this vary tremendously, both on ideological grounds (most obviously, conservative Christians vs. radical egalitarians) and on judgments of practicality (relative average strength differences: significant or not? – sexual tension: unavoidable or not? a cause for how much discipline? a cause to abandon the integration? – and so forth).  A significant portion of “modern” science fiction (which I am taking to mean written since the 1980s, or in other words, most of what I read) tends to assume the egalitarian viewpoint will triumph eventually – and the attitude is older than that, if not as widespread or settled.  The Lensman series – one of the first major science fiction series, published in the 1950s – includes women as “equal” protagonists – “equal” being in quotation marks because the work seems incurably dated, even by today’s standards.  Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959) makes a sort of concession by calling women better pilots, but the grunts are men and the issue is mostly ignored.  Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) is an interesting case, in which the importance of men and women is presented as equal, but traditional-type social structures are assumed to have endured, for the most part.  This is of course a very incomplete picture, but will serve to demonstrate some of the history in the genre.

More recent writers – Orson Scott Card in Ender’s Game  and his other works (now, ironically, under fire by egalitarians for some of his other Mormon beliefs), David Weber (of Honor Harrington fame, though it also shows in the rest of his work), Elizabeth Moon (Girdish, Familias Regnant, and Vatta storyworlds, among others), and others – pretty much have accepted that integrated militaries will be the order of the future, by analogy to the success of sexual integration in normal business.  (While complaints do still persist on this basis in real life – not to mention differences of opinion – the current hit show Mad Men should have reminded the public how much has changed even in fifty years.  Also, interestingly, the named authors and most of the others I have read assume – whether unthinkingly or for narrative purposes – that the argument will continue as well.)

All of this is prelude to the material I wish to quote.  From Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Vor Game, I offer a brief excerpt.  Miles, our hero, has messed up, and is brought in for a dressing down by his commanding officer:

Metzov was still expanding, self-stimulated. ‘In a real combat situation, a soldier’s equipment is vital.  It can be the difference between victory and defeat.  A man who loses his equipment loses his effectiveness as a soldier.  A man disarmed in a technological war might as well be a woman, useless!  And you disarmed yourself!’

Miles wondered sourly if the general would then agree that a woman armed in a technological war might as well be a man… no, probably not.  Not a Barrayaran of his generation.

And the story moves on, thought unanswered, dismissed, ignored – and hanging there, making the thoughtful reader wonder.

Bujold, at least in the Vorkosigan series just quoted, is clearly and deliberately telling an adventure story, not attempting commentary.  On the other hand, John Birmingham’s time-travel series which begins with the novel Weapons of Choice is equally clearly a serious attempt to comment on various social issues, within the framework of an action novel.  The premise: a 2020s American-led, combined arms task force is, by a freak accident, transported (and scattered) into World War II.  Chaos ensues.  As the various commanders try to explain 21st-century social expectations to FDR and company, Birmingham has Einstein (yes, that Einstein) say:

‘You seem to come from a militarized society, Admiral; the ease with which your men and women in uniform mix togehter.  The way you don’t appear to heed the race or creed of your comrades.  Some might see that as enlightened, and I suppose it is.  But you could also see it as the defensive response of a society that has been fighting for so long it has shed itself of all trappings save those needed to wage war.  You can see the same thing happening here and now, to a lesser extent.’

Now, Birmingham’s task force is coming from a future war which is implied to be a sort of second outbreak of mass terrorism, and his Admiral answers that these things were happening even in peace – but again, the thoughtful reader starts wondering: from World War II – which brought us Rosie the Riveter – to the Korean War, Vietnam War, defense-conscious ’80s, Gulf War I, Balkan interventions, Gulf War II – how long has the United States been honestly at peace for the last seventy years?  How did that affect us – even if not in the ways this fictional Einstein suggests?

I am not going to attempt to answer the questions raised, by either selection, at this time; the point was to demonstrate the unique place of fiction in discussion of important questions.

Speak Your Mind - Politely

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s