Why is the preferred weapon of the Galactic Empire the sword? It is to answer that question and perhaps one or two other questions of deeper import that this essay attempts.
Science fiction is now old enough that a perspective of its changes over time is possible, to contrast the dreams of past futures with the present futures.
A particularly telling survey should look at future war stories. Of all the institutions of man, war is the one that is the closest mortal men ever reach to hell. In war, good men do bad things, law and order breaks down, but also becomes tyrannical as military exigencies force civilian rights to one side, and continual fear, danger, desperation, and stench of death renders life brutal and miserable and hopeless. There is one small ray of heaven in this hell, tiny as a thread of sunlight that steals through the lock of a prison door, which is that the emergency can from time to time bring out acts of selfless and unselfregarding fortitude, patriotism, honor, sacrifice, and heroism.
War is fundamental. A man’s views on war tell you the basic axioms of his view on life. Because of this, a popular war story will tell you in an abbreviated form much about the storyteller’s most fundamental ideals and fears, and that of his audience.
I have long maintained that science fiction is the mythology of the scientific age.
A mythology is an exploration by means of concrete images of the abstraction and passions of the age; myth speaks in a vocabulary of anthropomorphized figures.
The scientific age was one in which the empirical method explained the natural world to man with shocking clarity, gave him an unprecedented degree of dominion over it, made technological change a part of human experience, and, for better or worse, banished belief in magic, in a world where woods were haunted by elves and villages by witches, to the remote fringes.
Hence while science fiction is often defined as stories about future technology or future attitudes toward technology, I submit that a more useful definition would look at the themes, not at the props, of the stories. These themes, namely, cluster around the factors crucial to the scientific revolution: the shock of clarity when the system of the world is revolutionized; the thrill or terror which accompanies dominion; the wonder of technological change and its social ramifications, or the horror; the grim romance of naturalism, when man finds himself alone in a universe of astronomical grandeur and appalling unending emptiness.
I made the bold statement above that a man’s views on war tell you his views on life. This is because his views on war should tell you what he thinks worth killing for and dying for, what he thinks death is, or virtue, and whether there is more to life than this world; and from this you can assess his character, distinguishing the shallow from the profound, the romantic from the realist, the craven from the noble.
In the ultimate analysis, there are only five basic attitudes toward life: the hopeful, the noble, the ruthless, the idealistic, and the despairing.
The hopeful believes in life after death and in supernatural justice in that next life, which will mete out the rewards and punishments men elude on earth; and therefore this ideal can encompass both the extravagant pacifism of a Saint Francis or the extravagant bravery of Saint George. They have no illusions about the horrors of war, but they fight with a joyful abandon and a scrupulous chivalry, because the war, to them, is both physical and spiritual, and a small part of a larger cosmic reality.
The noble are skeptical about such cosmic justice, but dedicate themselves with stoic melancholy honor to work such justice as their frail human hands can work; this view also has no illusions about the horrors of war, but also recognizes the glory of self-sacrifice in a noble cause.
The ruthless are skeptical about cosmic and human justice, and see the conflicts in life as inevitable and irreconcilable. They believe that the ends justify the means, and they believe in total war, fought to extermination. For the ruthless any trick, any lie, any act or torture or terror is permitted, so long as it is efficient in its service to the cause. Ironically and absurdly, they also believe human nature is malleable, and can evolve to a point when all war shall cease. Note that the utopia if envisioned to be without flaw, therefore to be so desirable that any ruthlessness is justified to achieve it. Gallons, nay, oceans of innocent blood are justified if this permits we can sail to paradise on the red flood.
The idealists believe the ends never justify the means, and that no evil is ever necessary, no violence ever practical. This is a utopian belief in pacifism, a notion we might call “total peace” as foolish as theory of total war. It is a theory which blames the existence of the instruments of war for the existence of war. It is a belief that disarmament in the face of an enemy will enlighten him, soothe his fears and allay his ambitions, and render him a lover of peace. In other words, they believe that the utopia envisioned by the ruthless has already somehow been achieved, and human nature already been perfected. Idealism is the stark opposite of the ruthless belief in an endless Darwinian war between irreconcilable enemies: it is the idea that there are no real foes, merely unmet friends, no real conflicts, merely misunderstandings.
The despairing hold with none of this. They are skeptical of the utopianism of the idealists as they are of the craven treasons of the ruthless; they regard nobility as a deception, and hope as a madness. They believe in nothing, fight for nothing, value nothing aside from their own selfish appetites. They are willing that other men fight and die for them, that they might mock their benefactors, and sneer at heroes.
Now, these are not five pigeonholes with neatly limited edges where any one story or any one man can be neatly stowed. Think of them instead as five directions or dimensions toward which a man can move, closer to one and farther from another.
With this in mind, let us take a semi-random sample of some well-known science fiction books, and make a guess about the view of life betrayed.
I say ‘semi-random’ because for the purposes of this very unscientific and rough overview, I compared more than one list I found here and there online of the hundred greatest science fiction stories of all time.
These tales are all so famous that I include no spoiler warnings nor summations of them. I assume you’ve read them, dear reader. If not, why are you wasting time reading this?
The list is also heavily skewed toward older novels. No Military SF properly so called is included at all. This is because in order to get a hundred people at random to compile a list of a hundred favorite SF books, the older the book is, the more people have had the more chances to read and to recommend it.
Of these several lists of one hundred bests, most had no battles in them, and contained no speculation of about future combat, but of those that did, one immediate fact was obvious: the writers of scientific romances are lousy predictors of the real future. Which is as God and Nature intended, no doubt.
Writers are lousy predictors of the future because accurate prediction is not, despite what an occasional Jules Verne yarn or Analog story might predict, the point of telling a scientific romance. The point is to tell a myth using the setting and theme and moral concerns inherent in the scientific worldview. The science fiction writer is caught in a tension between two apparently opposite goals: the first goal is to use mythic archetypes and images that will appeal to the reader’s imagination, or more, which will come to life in the reader’s imagination and shed bright light on all his other ideas and ideals, as inspiration and insight. The second goal is to create an illusion of realism, a verisimilitude, by extrapolating from known technology to the tools and weapons of the unknown future or unknown other worlds, to make the unreal seem realistic.
Tales that seek the first more strongly than the second are called Soft Science Fiction, and they include Space Opera, which seeks to wow the audience with astronomical magnitudes and epic action, but also Sword-and-Planet stories as well as Sword-and-Spaceship stories, which seek to charm the audience with archaic-flavored adventures in a futuristic or extraterrestrial setting.
Tales that seek the second are called Hard Science Fiction, or Nuts-and-Bolts stories, and the less wild the extrapolation, the harder the science and the more persuasive the verisimilitude.
Of these two, only the second will make a serious attempt to think realistically about future war, but even they are obligated by the nature of their craft to emphasize those things that will be different, new, and strange about the way our children conduct war. Hence, even of the ‘Hard’ SF war stories culled from the list of hundred greatest, few or no soldier fired bullets from rifles that used gunpowder. That is too quotidian, too much like the current time of the reader, not exotic enough.
Some of the hardest science fiction is the earliest. While TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA by Jules Verne was not a war story, the ironclad submersible vessel, the Nautilus, was a warship. Anachronistically, she was armed with the same arm as a Hellenic trireme: a ramming prow. The military applications of the invention were clear: submersion was the same as invisibility, and gave Captain Nemo mastery of seven tenth of the world.
WAR OF THE WORLDS by HG Wells established the best known of science fiction tropes, namely, that of extraterrestrial invasion by a scientifically superior Martians. To this day, someone unfamiliar with science fiction regards it as a field filled with little green men shooting heat-rays. The war here is as shocking to the Englishmen as, in real life, the English invasion was to the aborigines of Australia or the Americas. The combatants are too unequal for it to be considered a war properly so called: it is merely slaughter and devastation, and the humans are gassed like rats. The invaders are eventually destroyed without any human intervention by a remorseless Darwinian principle: they are not suited by natural selection for our germ-ridden planet, germs which, by killing our ancestors, created as if by process of elimination our various resistances and immunities. The high civilization of Mars millions of years ago eliminated from their world all microbes that cause illness and morbidity, which they would no more keep around than we would keep man-eating tigers in our city streets.
A PRINCESS OF MARS by Edgar Rice Burroughs is the first of the Sword-and-Planet stories. The science fiction is much softer than that seen in Wells or Verne, but some sober scientific speculation does underpin at least some of the concepts in this yarn, such as the effect on raising children communally on the family structure. Other parts are pure flights of fancy. Here is the best example of what we might call “the rule of no gunpowder”—the Martians fight with radium-powered atomic bullets loaded in rifles with a range of over a hundred miles, but also fight with longswords, and wear no armor.
Much as I love this tale, it is admittedly juvenile. The hero, under the lighter gravity of Mars, has superhuman strength, and he is also the best swordsman of the world, who fights his way from pole to pole of a world filled with barbarians and beasts to win the heart of the fairest of woman, and a princess. He saves the entire planet from asphyxiation at the end of the first volume, overthrows the gods in the second volume, and becomes the warlord and leader of the entire globe in the third.
This tale depicts battles in the most romanticized fashion imaginable: it is like the heroic combat of Homeric heroes, but without the unblinking honesty of Homer, who described death wounds with the precision of a battlefield surgeon. I do not recall hearing a single wound described, or a funeral, or an act of mourning, in all this Martian ILIAD. Even more romanticized is the universal eagerness of the Martians for war: there is not a single monk, or even an unarmed man, on the whole planet.
THE SKYLARK OF SPACE by E.E. Doc Smith is akin to PRINCESS OF MARS in more ways than one. The combat is again utterly romanticized without the slightest reference to the pain and horror of combat. When the interplanetary ship Skylark reaches the world of Osnome in the multiple star system at the core of our galaxy, we find the same social elements as were present on Burrough’s Mars, namely, a warrior race of nudists who have no concept of, nor appetite for, peace.
GALACTIC PATROL and its many sequels in the Lensman series by E.E. Doc Smith shares this attitude of romanticized heroism, albeit there enter for the first time some hints of the ruthlessness of an unromantic nature: the Patrolman and Boskonians kill each other without remorse and do not accept nor seek surrender, and the narrator emphasizes that in hand-to-hand combat the Gray Lensman fights with no holds barred, no ‘Marquis of Queensbury rules’ but instead it is as dirty a fight as any bar brawl.
In both SKYLARK and the Lensman series, the wars are genocidal wars of extermination, and whole worlds are snuffed out with (to a modern reader) an alarming insouciance. In the final Skylark book, SKYLARK DUQUESNE, and entire galaxy is destroyed as countless millions of sun are teleported through the fourth dimension to occupy the same three dimensional space as their target suns, ignited both into novae. The entire galaxy is a cloud of supernova energy from core to arms. E.E. Smith books portray a war of superhumans and super-scientists with superpowers.
Books like BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley and NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR by George Orwell do not have any battle scenes in them, but the attitude of the book toward war is nonetheless defined: the wars between Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia are utterly cynical, meant only to serve as an excuse to cow the subject population of the various tyrant states, and consume goods and people, because, or so it is asserted, each of the three tyrannies is so powerful that the other two allied against cannot possibly destroy or uproot it.
Likewise, the World State in the year After Ford 632 has no rebellions, no civil disturbances, no migrations, and nothing that would cause or permit any acts of violence.
Both these philosophies are in the ‘ruthless’ category: the only difference being that Big Brother is from a time of perfect control of man before the Utopian perfection of man through science, and the world-state of Ford is from a time after. Both philosophies of war are war are naive to the point of nonsense. Any speculative fiction writer who does not predict wars and rumors of war to continue to Doomsday is writing very speculative fiction indeed.
STARSHIP TROOPERS by Robert Heinlein is as original a way to tell a war story as was GONE WITH THE WIND, which told the story from the point of view of the Southern women left behind during the fighting. In this case, TROOPERS is told from the point of view not of a superhuman hero but of the infantryman, who neither knows the causes nor the outcome of the war. It is eerie that the cause or matter of the war is simply never mentioned, and there no hint in the book of the ultimate outcome. It is a book about patriotism, romantic only in the limited sense of praising the virtue and valor of the enlisted man, the grunt, the able seaman, the footslogger.
The ‘hard’ science fiction comes in such elements as extrapolating that technology will give a single soldier the firepower of a modern platoon, or even a regiment; the use of armored exoskeletons to make each man a walking tank; or extrapolating how to perform a paratrooper drop from orbit.
Sociologically, the book postulates a social system something like that of ancient Rome, where men earned their citizenship by military service, which is perhaps the least wild of the speculations in the book, but is the one which engenders the most criticism.
And by ‘criticism’, I mean slander and hatred from the various craven and weak-minded critiques who are stung too deeply by the book’s unapologetic message about civic responsibility. I do not think it necessary either to repeat nor to answer their unserious criticisms. The selfish brats do not like being told they are selfish. It wounds their precious self-esteem.
The war, once again, is portrayed as somewhat sanitary, albeit, unlike the purely romantic books, there is death and self-sacrifice throughout, indeed, it is the main point of the book. This book is the best SF example of what I called the noble and melancholy attitude.
THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS by Robert A Heinlein retains much of the same atmosphere, but in this case it is retelling of the American Revolution in Space. The attitude is inching, however, toward the ruthlessness with find the ends justifying the means. The hardest SF speculation in the book is the use of nonexplosive payloads, that is, merely rocks, dropped from orbit onto targets, landing with the force of meteors.
THE FOREVER WAR by Joe Haldeman is more clearly in the ruthless territory, since the main point of the book is that relativistic effects will act like the sleep of Rip Van Winkle whenever the soldiers return from cruise to and increasingly older and stranger Earth. The sacrifice of the men is something imposed by the exigencies of war, which ultimately turns out to be a pointless war. Mr Haldeman displays something of the anti-war attitude that was fashionable during the Vietnam war, where, for some reason never clear to me, the American string of uninterrupted victories convinced the American public that the weak, cruel and vile communist enemy was undefeatable, or, at least, undefeatable at a reasonable loss of blood and treasure. So, depending on how much of that spirit the reader sees in FOREVER WAR, one might arguable put this in the idealist territory.
More clearly in the idealist territory is Mr Haldeman’s FOREVER PEACE, which contained perhaps the least believable resolution to a war tale I have ever read. The book itself is very well crafted—I mean no disrespect—but the philosophical speculation on which the final plot resolution hangs was poorly conceived. The speculative idea is that in the future soldiers will be linked nerve-to-wire into fighting groups that operate war machines by remote control, and that a side effect on the psychology of the soldiers is that, if exposed to this nerve-link for too long, they will develop so much empathy that war and violence will be impossible. As if all violence were merely caused by mere misunderstanding, and none by fear, greed, ambition, or honor. Obviously no one has performed the experiment and discovered this, but, seriously, most hatred between peoples in this world is between neighbors who understand each other very well indeed.
LORD OF LIGHT by Roger Zelazny and DUNE by Frank Herbert occupy the same territory as PRINCESS OF MARS, except these authors come up with a reason why the soldiers of the future on far worlds do not use pistols and rifles, but instead have psychic powers, swords and knives, tridents, spears, lasguns and lightningbolts. The warfare here, despite the archaic or mythic flavor of the weapons, are occasions of death and sorrow.
In case it is not clear, the reason why the sword is the preferred weapon of the Galactic Empire, is that the easiest way for an author to summon up images of grandeur, either godlike or Oriental or barbaric, or images of chivalry, is to hearken to the past, and a sense of things both half-familiar and hauntingly romantic is most easily achieved by such archaisms.
That Paul Atreides is a prince as well as a Messiah, and that Sam is a god, give them a mythic stature that Juan Rico, Manuel Garcia O’Kelly-Davis, and William Mandella, do not achieve. But the trade-off is that Rico and Mannie and Mandella are more human, more solid, and they bleed when you cut them.
ENDER’S GAME by Orson Scott Card is a tale which is only about the sorrows of war, where even the victors suffer from the sacrifices they make. It has spawned as many sequels as PRINCESS OF MARS and GALACTIC PATROL, but in theme is the opposite. The original short story retains a considerable power to move the heart. It is the only book on the list I can put in the ‘hopeful’ category, because its realism about the horror of war is absolute, but also its hope in salvation even of souls bent, broken, and ruined by war is absolute. It is not a pessimistic nor despairing book. The only other book I can think of which has this attitude toward war is not a science fiction book at all, but a fantasy, indeed, the fantasy: I see the same attitude in J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy.
As for books in the despairing category, stories that say that there nothing is worth fighting for, I tend not to read such things, but authors such as Kurt Vonnegut come to mind, and this categories is more popular these days that it had been in times past.