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«The Complete Hammer's Slammers, Vol. 1», David Drake

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It is remarkable—though never remarked—how few writers have been soldiers in wartime. Kipling, who wrote of soldiers and soldiering as well as anyone ever has, was never himself a soldier. I believe I am correct in saying that Hemmingway was never a soldier, although he drove an ambulance and was wounded in combat. Avram Davidson presents a peculiar case; as a Marine medic in World War Two he was technically a sailor, although he wore a Marine uniform and treated wounded Marines in the South Pacific. Subsequently he jumped through all sorts of legal hoops to stay out of the Israeli Army while fighting Arabs, since service in the army of a foreign nation would have cost him his US citizenship.

Such are the exceptions—some of the few writers at the edge of military service who were, or may have been, shot at. The Red Badge of Courage is often called the greatest of all war novels; Stephen Crane did not take part in the Civil War, although he interviewed many men who did.

David Drake is a writer of the rarest kind. He knows soldiers because he has been one, and knows war because he has been there. He knows more: he knows how to speculate plausibly about the future of soldiering and the future of war.

People who know as little of science fiction as most science fiction writers know of war believe that the business of science fiction is to predict the future—to extrapolate rationally from present trends, and, especially, present fads.

We should thank God that it is not. Rational extrapolation is a pistol, effective only at short ranges and not very effective there. The duty of science fiction is to tell us not what will be, but what might be, what the future may hold, what human reactions to it are likely, and what results are apt to ensue—socially, economically, militarily, romantically, and in every other department of life.

More and better than any other writer, David Drake does this for the wars of the future and the men and women who will fight them. Like every science fiction writer, he assumes that certain technological developments have taken place. He also assumes, as all who write science fiction are forced to, that certain others have not taken place. (He is, of course, fully capable of making a different set of assumptions and writing a good story around those.) Self-appointed experts may disagree with the assumptions of the Hammer's Slammers stories. They know exactly what war in the far future will be like. That there will be no war, or that wars will be fought entirely by robots while human beings sit around hoping not to die at the end. Or whatever. We should ask them and all such experts whether they have made their fortunes in the stock market. If there really were people capable of predicting what life—and death—will be like a thousand years from now, they would be capable of predicting what those things will be like just a few years from now, wouldn't they? Of predicting it and making shrewd investments. After all, there are men who can jump a one-foot ditch but cannot jump a three-foot ditch; but there are no men who can jump a three–foot ditch but cannot jump a one-foot ditch. Prediction is a rifle, less accurate as the range increases.

We can argue with any assumption found in any science fiction story. It will give us a good bull session, and perhaps even a bit of enlightenment. Still, we cannot rationally deny these assumptions. In science, it is the happy fate of human kind to know what is possible but not what is impossible. In 1946, anyone who said that all the wars to come in the Twentieth Century would be non-nuclear would have been laughed to scorn.

On what basis, then, can we judge a science fiction writer's assumptions? (Assuming that they seem relatively plausible.) Reading any story in this book will supply the answer. Good science fiction assumptions are those that lead to a good science fiction story.

Ah, but what is a good science fiction story? That is a question we might debate endlessly. I can no more give you a definitive answer than the next reader of David Drake's next book can. But by references to Dave's stories in this one, I can illustrate my own opinions. I will try to do it without hurting those stories for you—the last thing I want to do is deprive you of the pleasures this book affords.

First, a good science fiction story gives us that famed sense of wonder. The intricacies of future tank warfare do that for me, and you will find plenty of those here.

Second, a good science fiction story gives us a place to stand on, something that checks with our own experience. At some point in the story, we need to say to ourselves, "Why, I've been there!" Or, "I knew her!" Or, "That's just how it was for me!"

I find a number of these in the stories in this book, and so will you. My favorites—my own dear pets among them all—are the open-topped combat cars the Slammers use for recon. I rode in open APCs (Armored Personnel Carriers) once, you see, and hunkered down as the shells banged and boomed outside and the shrapnel screamed overhead.

Third, a good science fiction story must be a good story, just as a good crime story must be a good story. It must give us someone to like who has problems we want to read about; Colonel Hammer and Danny Pritchard are obvious examples. They may be smarter than we are, and braver than we are; but they are anything but alien to us. They are human beings, and recognizably so. We like them, and can imagine ourselves standing in their boots.

Here I am going to set off on a private rant—stop me if you can. War stories written by people who know nothing of wars and even less of the men and women who fight them often tell us at great length that those men and women are dehumanized, and try their damnedest to show them like that. Soldiers are often tired enough to drop, and people tired enough to drop are seldom as quick with a quip as the cast of M*A*S*H. But if that level of fatigue dehumanizes them, we can forget about the next guy who gets lost in the woods for three days. After the second day he is no longer human, so why should we care?

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