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Raymond's Reviews #93

%T Falkenberg's Legion
%A Jerry Pournelle
%I Baen Books
%D October 1990
%O paperback, US$4.95
%P 432
%G 0-671-72018

This reissue marries Pournelle's The Mercenary with West Of Honor via a minimum of framing material. These novels tell the story of John Christian Falkenberg's career in the Fleet and Marines of the U.S./Soviet alliance called the CoDominium, and of his second career as a mercenary leader on planets abandoned by a CoDominium in retrenchment. This is the future of the great Niven/Pournelle collaboration The Mote In God's Eye, and immediately precedes in narrative time the recent Prince Of Mercenaries.

Pournelle completists will love it, and though it's inferior to Heinlein or Bujold's military fiction, fans of the genre should enjoy it. Me...well...

I like good military fiction -- but Pournelle's is morally disturbing. Most of his characters, unlike Dickson's Dorsai or other SF versions of the super-fighter, are soldiers (not self-motivated warriors) -- there's a heavy authoritarian drumbeat, glorifying people who kill on orders for no other reason than that they've been ordered to.

Unlike Heinlein, the focus isn't on what an individual might learn about personal morality and self-reliance from the military experience -- instead we're treated to lectures on the superior virtue of military men relative to politicians. Brrr. Granted politicians are an evil, scummy and hypocritical lot -- but am I the only person to detect fascist overtones in Pournelle's glorification of the military?

The difference between the soldier who fights on orders and the warrior who fights for revenge, gain, glory, or as a form of quasi-mystical self-realization has often been blurred in SF. Even SF's soldiers tend (like Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan) to be driven by a passion to excel at the art of war -- individualists operating within the fundamental anti- individualism of military systems. Not Falkenberg, though. Falkenberg is deliberately presented as the passionless tool of a `duty' which others define for him; a mercenary in the moral as well as monetary sense.

I am not merely grinding a libertarian axe by this criticism. Falkenberg's bloodless devotion to statist order is a pivot of the plot, and drives both his relations with other characters and the narrative's tendency to lecture. By the time Falkenberg orchestrates the cold-blooded massacre of Hadley's rebels, the book has become more conservative propaganda than adventure narrative.

A comparison with Heinlein's Starship Troopers is instructive here. ST was a moral tract rather than a political one; it dealt primarily with the way in which individual virtue might be increased and expressed through military service. Heinlein's MI was open to the society around it, recruiting people who came from and expected to return to the mainstream of their culture (it is worth noting here that Heinlein's society did not, as has been claimed, restrict the franchise to combat veterans, but merely to those who had completed a term of government service).

Pournelle's soldiers, by contrast, move in a moral vacuum; they have no society but each other, no loyalty but `the unit', and a commander who will commit any atrocity in the belief that "order must be preserved". Virtue consists not in defending lives or principles but in obeying orders and maintaining (by cold-blooded slaughter if necessary) conditions under which civilians must do likewise.

I don't think one needs to be a libertarian to find this disturbing -- nor to find the narrative poisoned by it.

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Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>