Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ye Merrie Olde Wars

We have war when at least one of the parties to a conflict wants something more than it wants peace. ~Jeane J. Kirkpatrick

Because fiction thrives on conflict, and the biggest, baddest conflict anything has to offer is war, there's an awful lot of it in fiction. Historical fiction has subgenres for pretty much every major war and quite a few not so major ones - although "major" is something of a misnomer when it's happening to you.

Of course, historical and modern fiction have to content themselves with actual wars. We get to make them up.

Funnily enough, with all that wonderful material in history about weird ways wars have been started (okay, they were usually an excuse to go after someone) fantasy and science fiction seems to excel at the "traditional enemies who fight forever and have no idea what the actual war is about". Fantasy is worse than science fiction for this, despite there being all sorts of interesting reasons for two - or more - countries to be at war.

There's the basics - EasyBeats have to defend themselves against RagingAggressors or they cease to exist, BreedLikeRabbits need more space or they'll starve so they invade the neighbors, RuggedMountaineers (who seem to be related to the Horse People from Diana Wynne Jones Tough Guide to Fantasyland) raid SoftFlatlanders because those mountains don't let you grow shite.

Then there's the more sophisticated set - SnottyProtocolers offended by RoughButHonest and war gets going, no-one actually knows who owns that prime parcel of land but by deity it better be them, They (insert verb here) differently than We do so They must be evil.

I'm not going to rant here about unrealistic battle scenes - suffice to say that the reason streams get renamed things like Bloody Run is not because someone had the trots. A truly descriptive battle scene would have readers racing for the porcelain to expel their most recent meal at speed - and yes, that applies to modern war as well. I'm even going to be nice and not rant about authors who go on about what a wonderful leader SoAndSo is, then have him (and it usually is a him) do something that is so phenomenally dumb you wonder where the heck he left those wonderful brains that day.

Instead, here's a quickie sample of some of the better fantasy depictions of the logistics and strategy of war.

PTerry. Jingo (based on a historical incident. Really), Thud!, Small Gods (the amount of history stuffed into this book should have made it explode).

Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, more for the brief thumbnails of Sauron's preparations than anything else - it's bloody difficult to make war waged by existential evil work and Tolkein wasn't writing "fantasy" per se, he was writing "legends" which tend to skip all that detail stuff anyway.

Um. It would be so much easier to list bad examples, but I really don't want to do that. Over to you folks - which fantasy authors get their wars right?

20 comments:

RJ_CruzeJr said...

I'd say David Weber in his "Bahzell" series -- he's really good at the "why this led to that" angle and what various factions' motivations are.

Also, I'd nominate David Drake in pretty much anything he writes that involves warfare -- he doesn't delve as much into all the "whys" behind a given war (though, if you read carefully, he definitely gives the reader enough dots to connect), mainly because his PoV characters are too busy trying to survive their own little piece of the war to worry about the "big picture."

C Kelsey said...

Ditto Weber and Drake. I couldn't stand Tolkien enough to get throught the final book in the LoTR trilogy, but the movies were cool.

Come to think of it, with the exception of Weber and Drake (and some Dragonlance stuff) I haven't read much fantasy that had epic wars in them. I get my epic wars from Scifi. All my fantasy tends to involve individuals and small scale fights. Weird.

Jonathan D. Beer said...

George R.R. Martin. I read a lot of historical fiction and war-y fantasy/sci-fi, and he has to be my favourite by far. He often doesn't show the battle at all, but (like real life) the rumour of the battle spreads far quicker than the actual results. For showing the intrigue and motives behind wars, and its effect on all levels of a fantasy society, you can't get any better.

Also, Bernard Cornwell, for the obvious reason that the man has made himself king of the hill of historical novels by dint of considerable skill and understanding of what a war actually is, and what readers of wars want to see.

Jonathan D. Beer said...

Also, very good post Kate. I agree that "wars that just are" are far too common in fiction of all types, and as an historian can confirm that wars have been started for some of the most ridiculous reasons you can imagine. Authors should feel free to be as insane as history reflects!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I can't do war to save my life, though I'll have to learn for the thing haunting me. I do skirmishes and one isolated guy pov. In one mercifully unpublished book, I came up with a reason for "commute to the front" to work.

Who does it right? Other than the ones already mentioned, I know you'll be shocked but ... Heinlein. Friday. When attacks start happening and no one knows why or who is behind them. In nine eleven I had flash backs to it, but now I'm sure the real "black friday" is yet to happen. I think this is how war happens in the twenty first century. Or at least a form of it.

On WHAT in HECK to they teach these kids in school. Woman about your age at a one-day workshop two years ago, was writing a short story to "end the war" "Because otherwise it will never end." This bizarre idea of war occurring due to an insufficiency of opposing fiction is something that had never crossed my mind and a fascinating idea, but it makes one wonder what in heaven's name they taught her in history.

Add that to "things that might be wrong with people's writing and I can't fix" -- a picture of the world that's so at odds with the real world it would take a psychiatrist, not a mentor, for one's work to make sense to anyone else.

Brendan said...

One of the things I always hate is when a leader is promoted as being a military genius then follows up with fairly run of the mill tactics.

The battle scenes in Michael Scott Rohan's Winter of the World books are pretty good

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Good post, Kate.

This is an interesting topic. On a related subject, when I wrote my T'En trilogy I read West Point text books on military tactics dating from Ceaser, for starters. I wanted to know why men would follow someone and die for them.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Jonathan,

George RR Martin is one of my favourite authors. I just wish he'd finish the Fire and Ice series. But I suspect, like life, that series won't end.

Jonathan D. Beer said...

Rowena, I'm very impressed that you went to such lengths to gain some verisimilitude in your characters. As I said, I'm a historian (an historian?), but a military historian specifically, and the question of why people will fight, kill, and die for someone or something is by far one of the most important factors in establishing believable "war" fiction. In my opinion, anyways.

Also, I agree with you completely on A Song of Ice and Fire. I recently finished A Feast for Crows, and I'm already impatiently stamping my foot for A Dance with Dragons. I'm also following every word about the HBO/BBC pilot they are filming at the moment with baited breath :)

Kate said...

Robert,

I'd forgotten the Bahzell books. They are pretty good at covering the motivations and reasons behind the various conflicts in the series.

Enough dots to connect can be all a book needs, if the main characters aren't involved in the big picture side of things. That's one of the reasons I pick on fantasy so much - fantasy is much more likely to have the POV of at least one of the major players in the decision-making, if not actual royalty.

Kate said...

Chris,

A lot of people couldn't stand Tolkein, and for good reason. He wasn't writing 'fantasy'. He was writing the English mythopeic cycle - so many of his characters are not particularly well realized, he wrote in a style that was antiquated even then, and the only reason there are women there is for the males to have something to aspire to. Despite that, there's a sweep and grandeur to the books that lesser writers have attempted to imitate and failed miserably. The movies captured the essence of the books, for the most part, and very kindly skimmed the flaws.

It's a preference thing. I tend to read more fantasy than SF at the moment because most of the SF I've seen just flat doesn't catch my interest. When something does, I'm there.

Kate said...

Jonathan,

I haven't really read much George R. R. Martin - what I've looked at in bookstores didn't grab me.

The tension between what a war actually is and what readers want to see makes for a difficult balance. That's why so few people get it right, and when they do it resonates powerfully.

Thank you for your kind comments :) I'm not a historian, but I have the typical "author-weird" love of digging into subjects and finding out more because I think it's cool. Between that and the stainless steel lint trap masquerading as my mind, in which bizarre trivia gets caught and dragged out years latter in support of obscure arguments probably doesn't help my case.

I do think that if you're going to write about something, it helps to have as thorough a knowledge of it as you reasonably can, so you've got a good idea about what you can safely leave out without taking away the overall feel of what it was like. The flip side of that is that the more I know about something, the more irritable I get with people who don't get it right.

Kate said...

Sarah,

I don't "do" war either, but somehow I seem to find myself writing about it. Impaler is one long campaign and the shinyhappynew epic-fantasy-with-vampires is guaranteed to have war going on at some point.

Oh, okay, I admit it. I just like to kill people in interesting and unpleasant ways, and writing is the only socially acceptable way to do that.

Kate said...

Brendan,

I hate that. I'm always left thinking "If he's so brilliant, why didn't he just set up a simple ambush/do something Machiavelli suggested/do something Sun-Tzu suggested/use one or two of the brain cells he's supposed to have?".

The Winter of the World series did have some good battle scenes and good reasons why people were fighting. I just couldn't get into the books, and ended up skimming most of them.

Kate said...

Sarah,

On the what do they teach them topic...

There seems to be a very entrenched school of thought that teaches the thought is not only more important than the act, the thought is the act. So writing a story to end a war is actually a viable idea in that framework. Of course, that framework leaves you with crumbling infrastructure, a lot of pontificating, and buggerall actually getting done, so it tends to be a tad self-defeating. Unfortunately, it keeps cycling back because it's very attractive to lazy, vaguely well-intentioned people without any real-world experience. And yes, unfortunately it is possible to get to my age (forty-mumble) without real-world experience.

Kate said...

Rowena,

Thank you. That is an excellent "short-course" way to learn the hows and whys of warfare (Yes, I know it was anything but short, but you're talking to the woman who reads Machiavelli for leisure and will go digging into the weirdest stuff for the details after getting the overview).

The question of why men will follow someone and die for them is an eternal one, I think. There's a complex synergy of the person, the cause, and the nation, which can get very interesting in all the wrong ways if the leader isn't actively directing it.

C Kelsey said...

Kate,
"I don't *do* wars"... You almost had me screaming there. When you do wars, you do them very well. ;)

Brendan said...

Kate, the tone in the Winter books is not for everyone, I tell people that I consider them good but a 'dry' read. He does have fantastic world building though(I love the indexes in the back) and both in the Winter books and the 'Spiral' books he has envisaged some of the most unique mythic concepts I have read.

Give the Spiral books a chance, they are a very different read.

Kate said...

Chris,

In that book, I think the war "did" me!

Kate said...

Brendan,

Yeah, the Winter books are kind of dry. It's an odd blending of mythic and a more familiar voice.

I'll have to check the Spiral books.