27 July 2016

Book Review: 'Deserts of Fire' War Fiction Anthology

Book Review: "Deserts of Fire: Speculative Fiction and the Modern War', anthology edited by Douglas Lain

The collection "Deserts of Fire" is a cluster munition of ideas, 21 short stories designed to cover the greatest area possible, each one potentially explosive in the reader's headspace. Regardless of whether you prefer your futurist tales to be labelled as "science-fiction" or merely "speculative," there is little doubt that these explorations will ignite conversation and thoughtful analysis.

Also ideal: Anthologies are perfect for busy readers, including soldiers and sailors and stay-at-home dads. If something doesn't grab you, move on and find something that does. After all, it's not like you're committing to "War and Peace." The stories are organized into seven topic areas, each introduced by a short essay from the editor:
  • Vietnam Syndrome

  • Terrorism

  • Weapons of Mass Destruction

  • Shock, Awe, and Combat

  • Mission Accomplished

  • Life After Wartime?

  • War is Over?
Anthology editor Douglas Lain's selections include a few original short stories, and others culled from a wide range of literature—including the 2014 anthology "War Stories: New Military Science Fiction," edited by Andrew Liptak and Jaym Gates. There are also excerpts from novels at least one novella. In short, Lain has done the heavy-lifting of curation, and delivered a rucksack-ready primer in the state of the world, the near-past and -future, and where writing about war may take us next.

It is obviously not Lain's first anthological rodeo. Lain, himself an author of science-fiction books, is also editor of "In the Shadow of the Towers," a 2015 anthology of speculative fiction organized on a theme related to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"What you'll find in [Deserts of Fire] are stories written both after and during some of the wars in question," Lain writes in the book's introduction. "These stories represent efforts to answer the question of why this keeps happening. Some of the stories are small, and focused on the personal, while others take a larger, more systemic view."

In the mid-1980s, I was an enthusiastic consumer of mass-market paperbacks, anthologies of military science fiction titled "There Will Be War." The 9-edition series, created and edited by established writers Jerry Pournelle and John F. Carr, was reissued as an e-book series in 2015.

Until reading Lain's introduction "Deserts of Fire," however, I had yet to plug my youthful reading into the larger literary context, one that involves veterans returning from war, and how they come to write about it. Speculative fiction is another potential tool in the writer-veteran toolkit, not only for exploring effects of near-future technologies and potential political developments, but for illuminating military and civil culture.

Wikipedia credits a 1975 anthology, "Combat SF," edited by Gordon R. Dickson, as potentially being the first example of military-themed science fiction collected as an anthology. In press materials for "Deserts of Fire," Lain notes a 1987 New York Times book review of a Vietnam War-themed anthology titled "In the Field of Fire," in which reviewer David Bradley says, "[…] Vietnam was science fiction." Bradley's fleshing out of that idea is worthy of note, particularly in that it serves as the intellectual area of operations for Lain's collection:
The elements of the situation were staple science-fiction premises. The landscape was alien—not for nothing that in Vietnam War parlance anyplace else was called "the world." The people were alien-seeming—and certainly we, with our cold beer and napalm and helicopters, must have seemed to the Vietnamese to be an invading horde of bug-eyed monsters.

The society had a history and a set of cultural assumptions that seemed as incomprehensible as those of an inhuman race. The place seemed like an alternate universe, where all the sanity, rationality, logic just seemed to not work. It is a standard science-fiction theme—the doomed struggle to overcome the territory while refusing to understand the laws that govern it. The defeat through culture-shock of the all-powerful invaders is a standard science-fiction conclusion.
Find/replace the word "Vietnam" with "Iraq" or "Afghanistan" or "The Foreign Country du Jour," and you get a sense of what might be at stake in collections such as these.

Individual preferences will, no doubt, vary by reader. I was personally taken, however, with Linda Negata's "Light and Shadow," a story that involves neural networking technology that connects a Tactical Operations Center ("TOC") with a patrol in the field. In typical headquarters-unit fashion, it also involves life insurance.

Ray Daley's "Seeing Double," newly published here, is a humorous, nearly Vonnegut-esque take on lookalike decoys groomed and trained to help protect Saddam Hussein. And Rob McCleary's "Winnebago Brave," cannily positioned immediately prior to the story of Daley's Husseins (McCleary's story mentions a similar scheme of mustachioed decoys), provides a first-person narrative voice that has become a personal favorite of mine. Of the fate of a fictional Army buddy character named "Boston," the narrator says:
Re-enlisting in the army, beginning his two-chevron hokey-pokey all over again. Finally (in true Boston form) quitting for the last time on the day after 9/11. Because any chump can volunteer the day after 9/11 for imaginary combat fighting for imaginary freedoms. In the "fools rush in where Angels fear to tread" post-9/11 enlistment surge of middle-class precious snowflakes whose sense of entitlement was so all-consuming it gave the the right to win the War on Terror singlehandedly, Boston's quickly forgotten gesture proved one truth: that the first-year arts students who dropped out of college to become Navy Seals in a weekend did not understand the reality that best part of having an all-volunteer army is that you don't have to volunteer.
I have read and re-read that paragraph, and pondered mightily where it fits on Lain's previously mentioned spectrum. Does Boston's truth illuminate the personal, or the systemic?

Easy answers do not volunteer themselves.

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