Monday, November 09, 2009

[Blogging Hammer's Slammers] -- "Under the Hammer"



I can remember the first time I saw David Drake's name in print, it was in the Tales from the Vulgar Unicorn collection of stories in the Thieves' World shared universe fiction series. I enjoyed his story, Goddess, but didn't read anything else by Drake for quite some time. In fact, it was about a decade later when I read his foreword -- and story -- in Baen's Cormac Mac Art volume in the excellent Robert E. Howard series they put together in the 1990s. It would be a few more years before I started reading Drake's excellent Lord of the Isles series, a rich fantasy series that wanders away from the typical medieval European mythological base and toward Sumerian myths for inspiration.

I have always found Drake's writing engaging, and was pleasantly surprised to find out that he had been friends with two figures who loom large in Fantasy fiction -- Manly Wade Wellman and Karl Edward Wagner. Even though I was a fan of Drake's Fantasy writing, I hadn't read any of his Science Fiction. Most of Drake's SF falls into a sub-genre that I don't often find myself wandering into, namely Military SF. I have no moral objections to Military SF stories. I have read Dorsai, Forever War, Starship Troopers, and Old Man's War, but I haven't wandered far from those literary entries into the genre.

Based on a conversation I had with a friend last week -- a portion of which was dedicated to the aesthetic failings of the covers decorating the majority of Baen's book line -- combined with my recent foray into the Science Fiction of the 1930s and the October Baen release of The Complete Hammer's Slammers vol. 1, I have decided to begin an exploration of Military SF starting with David Drake's classic "Hammer's Slammers" series of stories.

Like Haldeman's Forever War, Drake's "Hammer's Slammers" series of stories are (at least partially) informed by the author's own military experience. Both Haldeman and Drake spent time in Vietnam. The "Slammers" stories share many qualities with the Military SF that has preceding and succeeded them, but they also have some distinct and unique qualities that set them apart.

Case in point, for this post, is "Under the Hammer." This story was the second "Slammers" story that Drake wrote after returning from Vietnam, and it was the second story rejected by Fredrick Pohl for publication. Pohl did not see a need for a third author writing "essentially the same kind of fiction" he was receiving from Pournelle and Haldeman -- a statement that seems bizarre to this particular modern reader. The story was eventually published in the October 1974 issue of Galaxy under the editorship of Jim Baen. According to Drake, Baen didn't really like the story either, but it was better written grammatically than the majority of Galaxy submissions. Pretty humble beginnings for what has become a major entry in a genre sub-category.

"Under the Hammer," gives us a glimpse into new recruit Rob Jenne's first day on the job with the "Hammer's Slammers" mercenary outfit. The story is a stark presentation of on the job training in the middle of a conflict with guerrilla forces on an agricultural planet, a planet so far from civilization that most "modern" means of transportation and communication are completely lacking. It is an environment where the soldiers of "Hammer's Slammers" far outgun the guerrilla's they are fighting, but still find themselves mired in a struggle where victory is less than guaranteed. It's pretty clear that the setting is Vietnam as SF outer rim world, tunnel rats and all.

The story is quite short, but within its pages Drake manages to do a couple of groundbreaking things within the genre. First, he immediately separates himself from Heinlein and Haldeman by not providing a representation of Basic Training. We are reading the story of a recruit showing up "on world" who is on his way to be trained, any training Jenne receives in the story will be provided only as much as it will help him survive the next 20 or so pages. The next difference between Drake's story and others is the almost complete lack of discussion for the "why" of the conflict on the planet. The readers are placed into the circumstances in media res without much context discussing why the "Slammers" have been hired to fight the guerrillas. There is some brief discussion why the "Slammers" might be hired in general, but few specifics about the current engagement. The stress in the story is on the characters and their immediate circumstances, and not on any global (galaxy-wide?) political/ideological struggles. The men presented are real men, who behave realistically, and who aren't doing anything particularly noble or ignoble.

This last point is made particularly poignantly early in the story. One of the first characters Jenne encounters is a priest of The Way who questions Jenne about his enlistment and how the military life may/may not conflict with a peaceful religion. For a story that on the surface lacks any philosophic commentary, the priest's initial comments and his two layered involvement with the "Slammers" made this story stand out. The priest's two layered involvement with the "Slammers" might seem a little heavy handed on the "melodrama tear-jerk inducement index," but it plays a very necessary role for the proper framing of the story.

This is a tightly written story that's only weakness is the thinness of the sfnal veneer. My hope is that as the stories play out, they will be able to keep the strong writing style while adding more SF elements.

Post a Comment