I’m about to pack my bags to head down to DC to try and catch up with all my old friends. I may also try to visit the Barnes & Noble cafe at Potomac Yard, where I wrote most of CONTROL POINT.
But before I go, I wanted to kick off a little thing I’ve been planning on my blog for a while. I’ve reached out to genre authors who either currently serve, or have served, in the military, and asked them to write a short guest post about how military service has informed their writing. Today I’m posting the first volunteer and hope to have more outstanding posts in the future.
I’ve invited several authors, but if you’d like to participate and I haven’t reached out to you, please shoot me an email at myke (at) mykecole (dot) com. I don’t guarantee I’ll post every volunteer, but I would certainly like to here from anyone who is interested.
So, without further ado – the first guest post in my Pens & Swords Series, an outstanding and insightful essay by genre author Brad R. Torgensen:
Brad R. Torgersen has published stories in major magazines like Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show and Analog — one of which, “Outbound,” won the Analog ‘AnLab’ Readers’ Choice award for Best Novelette of 2010. He has collaborated with Mike Resnick on a story for The Mammoth Book of SF Wars anthology, due out in 2012. His novelette, “Exanastasis,” won the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future award, appearing in the Contest’s 26th volume.
Mr. Torgersen is a Chief Warrant Officer in the United States Army Reserve.
Myke Cole and I first met at the SFWA Nebula Awards weekend in Washington D.C. earlier this year, so when he put out a call to service members who are also writing in science fiction and fantasy, I raised my hand. Myke’s question is a good one: how has being in the military changed or affected my writing?
First, a bit of a disclaimer. I was writing science fiction long before I joined the Army Reserve. My first public piece was a 12-part script for a community radio serial that ran in 1992; almost eleven years prior to my having stood in front of a flag at the Seattle MEPS. More recently, I’ve been having some nice success with Analog Science Fiction and Fact, the English Language’s oldest and most widely-circulated science fiction magazine.
Are there differences between my early work, like that 12-part serial, and my recent work, such as my story, “The Chaplain’s Assistant,” which ran in Analog’s September 2011 issue, and has since been picked up by Russia’s ESLI for reprint?
The thing about me prior to 9/11/2001 is, I only knew the military by way of anecdote and media. Movies, television, books. I was a voracious technothriller reader in the late 80s and early 90s. Coonts, Clancy, Dale Brown, and a bunch of others. I read that stuff almost to the exclusion of all else. And I thought I knew as much as a civilian could know, about war, and about life in uniform. Which was probably true at the time. But it didn’t prepare me for the knowledge check that would begin once I myself signed up.
Since joining the military in 2002, there’s almost nothing of mine from the old days — stories and a handful of aborted novels, all military in nature — which doesn’t cause me to cringe. Those manuscripts definitely read as derivative of the military folklore of popular culture, which is once or twice removed from the reality. At best. I showed no understanding of how rank actually works, employed a lot of clichÈ, tended to over-generalize situationally, and on matters of character, and the whole mess of it feels quite amateurish — both because my (eventual) experience isn’t reflected in it, and because my writing skill simply was not up to snuff.
Earlier this year, award-winner Mike Resnick tipped me to the fact that he’d been invited into a British military science fiction anthology — Mike seldom gets asked for those kinds of stories — and would I be interested in collaborating with him? Our final product, a story called, “Peacekeeper,” forthcoming in Ian Watson’s MAMMOTH BOOK OF SF WARS, reflects just about everything I’ve absorbed in my time as a lower enlisted man, an NCO, and a Warrant Officer. Bits of jargon, occasional slang, chain of command, protocol, handling of equipment and weapons, etc. Doing a final proof on that story in particular made me realize just how many “holes” had been in my military-themed work prior to actually being in the military. I think it’s a story that anyone who has served will recognize as being, “from the source,” without it necessarily being the kind of story that is so deliberately written from an insider’s perspective, that it becomes opaque to the civilian readership.
Which is one of the other big differences I’ve noticed. If I deliberately tried to “jargon up” my stories before I was in uniform — in an attempt to appear authentic — now, I find myself wanting to cut it down. Some jargon is inevitable, but too much can read as pedantic, and unnecessary.
Also, I’ll occasionally decide to “flex” realism in the service of story — versus striving for absolute realism at all times — when I am working on a science fiction project. Something I’d never do if trying for a historical piece, but since science fiction is extrapolative as well as speculative, there is room to maneuver. And I use it, albeit after an educated fashion.
My friend and mentor Allan Cole, who worked with (the late) Vietnam veteran and Army Ranger Chris Bunch on their military-ish sci-fi series, STEN, and also on the Pulitzer-nominated novel, A RECKONING FOR KINGS — arguably the finest piece of Vietnam war fiction I have ever read, bar none — note right in the book that in order to make things a little more story-friendly, they also employed some deliberate cheats. At the time I first read the book, I didn’t understand what they were talking about. Now, I know. And it’s a bit of a kick being able to re-read a marvelous novel like that and say, “Aha, I finally get it!”
Because, really, there is an unfortunate amount of military science fiction — written by civilians, for a civilian population — that too often does not “get it,” on so many levels. This is not the fault of the writers. I do not suggest that the primary qualification of a writer be that he or she has served, or is serving, in uniform. That’s just not happening. But does it help? On military-themed stories, oh, most definitely. Is it essential? No. But unless you’re a relentless researcher and have close friends who are in the military — and you’re adept at catching and picking up on all the “little things” in their stories which will lend authenticity to your own — your lack of experience is going to show. Sometimes, in glaring ways. At least with readers who have service pedigrees.
Which leads me to the final, big difference. If I flat-out don’t know something, I try very hard to not pretend otherwise. I do my research, even more thoroughly than before. I read more closely the biographies of officers, generals, line troops, who have all served and fought in current or historical wars. I am keenly aware of the fantastic differences between the different branches — Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard — and the myriad jobs that exist within these branches. It’s like a thousand and one circles on a giant Venn diagram — each of them overlap to a certain extent, yet each of them is its own unique thing, and not every service member’s experience (or outlook) can be summarized simply.
Consider my situation. As a Chief Warrant Officer in the United States Army Reserve, I have the wonderful benefit of being what my friend and bestseller Larry Correia calls, “A cake-eating civilian,” much of the time. (NOTE: this is Larry’s way of poking fun at himself — the original cake-eater — he can do that with a smile, being a big giant guy with more military-grade weapons experience than the entire training cadres of some small countries.) My life is not 100% military all day and all night, because I am still a civilian at heart. And my experience in the military has taught me to value my civilian existence more than I ever did, before I served.
Which is probably the quietest — and yet most noteworthy — change. I didn’t know how good I had it as a “cake-eater” until I volunteered to do things and go places where cake is not an option. Where fresh water and central heating or air conditioning are not options. Where people being nice to you is not an option. Where hot food and a warm woman in your bed at night, are not options. Where a full night’s sleep is not an option. Dry boots? Not an option. Dry clothes? Not an option. Time to stop and think, or catch your breath? Not necessarily options. Time to sit and ponder a knee or ankle injury? Can you walk on it? Yes? Then ace-wrap the fucker, lace ’em up, and move out. Do what must be done, not what’s most comfortable or convenient.
This remarkable difference — the ease and freedom of the civilian world, versus the stricture, restrictions, and not-so-nice accommodations of the military world — is something that (I suspect) really does need to be experienced first-hand, if you want it to unconsciously “leak” into your fiction in ways that will enrich the story without necessarily coming off as derivative. It’s also taught me to have remarkable compassion for my military characters. If they were once just actors on a stage — game over, man, game over! — now, in a small way, they’re real to me unlike they’ve ever been. And while I may still put them through hell, for the sake of a good story, I try to make sure there’s at least a chance that they’ll make it out, and see better days. Because in a sense, they are me, and I am them. And if I were them, I’d sure as hell want me to have their best interests at heart!