#MilitarySFSunday: A Guest Post by Martin D. Hall
Folks, a while back I wrote a guest post for Chris the Story-Reading Ape’s busy blog that I re-blogged here called “What is Military Science Fiction, Anyway?” I enjoyed writing that, and thought it might spark a conversation…and, fortunately, it has.
Writer Martin D. Hall (who often writes as M.D. Hall) wrote me a lovely essay, and sent it to me…so, for your Sunday delectation, here it is. Enjoy!
I read an interesting guest post here, entitled: “What is Military Science Fiction, Anyway?” As I explored its message, I thought about the nature of military science fiction. It occurred to me that most sci fi falls into “military”, regardless of whether the writer intends it. This can happen even when, at first sight, it isn’t a prime element, for example: “The Time Machine”, where our traveller ultimately encounters a military force of sorts. “2001” is set against a cold war backdrop. Our intrepid explorers are sent out, ostensibly, to seek contact with a sentient race, but isn’t it likely that those funding the expedition were seeking a military advantage? Once David Bowman metamorphoses into the ‘Star Child’, he returns to Earth, detonates an orbiting warhead, thereby de-escalating a global conflict; we’ll visit “3001” shortly.
In pondering the invasiveness of military elements throughout science fiction, I was like an archaeologist who unearths a first century Roman pot, I brushed away more loose soil, and there it was: the remains of a bronze age dagger. No, it wasn’t a real dagger, but my imagery might be apposite … I uncovered another question: what place does violence occupy in science fiction?
While I’m sure you will find examples of non-military science fiction, it’s hard to find non-violent science fiction … Not impossible, but rare. Invariably, the use of violence, or force, if you will, underpins most the genre, with some modern day readers demanding a quick hit, before their attention wanders. In the case of “2001” they get it when a sure sign of our hairy ancestor’s accelerated evolution – courtesy of the monolith – is to crush another hominid’s head with a club.
How is the violence most easily exploited? In a military scenario, of course. Naturally, for balance, there needs to be political intrigue, and character development within the military arc: the hardening of some characters and the softening of others; the blurring of lines demarcating good and evil; above all humour, but weaving through it all is the use, threat, or fear of violence.
Why is this? Perhaps it’s because, from the comfort of our computer chair/armchair/wheelchair/deckchair, we crave excitement from a safe distance. Like watching contact sports, we can enjoy them without personal risk. Unlike contact sports we can witness the destruction of starships, planetary systems, galaxies and even universes, before taking a break for a cup of coffee (or something a little stronger).
Is this a bad thing? Of course it isn’t and, unlike other genres, it’s highly unlikely that truth will mirror fiction – I know, Captain Kirk used a flip-top mobile phone, and yes, inconsiderate use of said phones leads to anger and, occasionally, violence, but give me a break!
I promised I would return to “3001”. Arthur C. Clarke had charted David Bowman’s rapid evolution into the ‘Star Child’ in “2001”. Yet, at the very end of this book, it’s the human remnant of this not-quite omnipotent being, together with the closer-to-human Hal who will form the bulwark against …? Surprise, surprise: the genocidal, albeit coldly reasoned, aggression of the deity-like beings who started the chain of events on an African plain three million years before. Even these farmers-of-the-Universe, portrayed as benign in “2001”, will ultimately resort to violence at some point beyond the end of this book.
What does all this say about us? It isn’t that we are bored by non-violence, merely that in certain genres, and science fiction is one, we expect violence. Going back to “Star Trek”, Roddenberry didn’t send his creations out to wreak havoc, but even when Kirk, et al, managed to avoid shooting or hitting anyone, a guest protagonist usually did – you can’t even exclude Tribbles because of the threat they posed if unrestrained.
Let me close with another imagining: an alternative reality version of Star Wars, Episode VI. In our reality, we have the ultimate villain – Palpatine – who comes to a violent end. Perhaps we needed to temper this by witnessing the redemption of throat-crusher Darth Vader, but only after we have observed him in the act of crushing throats, or Obi squishing.
The scene is set: over the course of the two earlier films, no one has died, no planets have been destroyed, and Vader hasn’t remodelled anyone’s windpipe. We are on the not-really Death Star for the final confrontation between Luke and Palpatine (with a non-violent Vader looking on):
Vader yawns and tries to scratch his head, but is non-aggressively frustrated by the helmet needed to: a) help him breathe, and b) provide that gloriously rich baritone … The helmet lends no visual aspect of dread, because it is coloured in a non-threatening pastel shade – I leave it to you to decide which shade.
Palpatine: “What do you suggest, young Jedi?”
Luke: “Perhaps we can chat about it over a cup of tea?”
Palpatine: “Earl Grey?”
Luke: “Of course, I’ll even throw in a slice of lemon.”
Palpatine: In an impeccable English accent touched with a soft Scottish burr, following a not-so-sinister chuckle: “No one, who is anyone, drinks Earl Grey with lemon.”
The two laugh, good-humouredly, while Vader pours the tea, and the credits roll to John Williams’ stirring theme.
Did that do it for you?
I didn’t think so.
Nope, that definitely wouldn’t have worked for me. And I can’t imagine audiences watching the two other movies, either, no matter how good the acting or how good the storytelling, if there was no action-adventure, considering the venue. Great post, Martin! Hope to have you back here, soon.