Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Complete Hammer's Slammers, Volume I

The Complete Hammer's Slammers: Volume I
David Drake, Night Shade Books (2006)

This book does not relate to any sort of classical interest, aside from the fact that the author, David Drake, earned a BA in History and Latin from the University of Iowa before getting a law degree (in case you wanted to ask, that is what you can do with a degree in Latin). After his undergraduate degree, Drake was drafted and served in Vietnam as a translator and interrogator.

The result of his experiences form the core of what is called "Military Science Fiction", that is, fiction that is rooted in science, but takes in the viewpoint of soldiers. Along with Jerry Pournelle, author of Falkenberg's Legions, David Drake can justifiably be called the father of the sub-genre.

The Complete Hammer's Slammers is a compilation of the short stories, historical sketches and novels that make up the Slammers' universe. Drake focuses only partially on the figure of Col. Alois Hammer, the founder of the legendary mercenary unit that sells its services to the highest bidder on the settled worlds throughout the galaxy. Instead, Drake creates stories that focus on the private fears, ambitions, desires and experiences of the low level soldier or civilian caught in the cross-fire. The characters he creates are compelling, and often, at the end of the story you find yourself wondering what happens next to that character. Or you begin reading a new story, and find the name of an old character jumping out, greeting you like an old friend.

Interspersed among the stories are short "historical" sketches, in which Drake outlines the features of his future society. In it we are given an introduction to the essential elements to the world of the Slammers: Supertanks, the Mercenary system, the predominant religions, the different inhabited worlds. Each of these sketches serve well to provide background that helps the reader better understand the characters and conflicts that unfold in the pages of these stories. But the excellence in these stories is that we don't need the background to truly enjoy them.

What makes Drake's work outstanding as military science fiction is his ability to convey in stark terms the harsh reality of battle. His descriptions can border on the lurid, but bring the reader into the horrors of men attempting to kill other men:

"Me, Colonel Raeder?" Joachim's voice lilts. He is raising the trya and it arcs away from his body in a gentle movement that catches Raeder's eyes for the instant that the Newlander's right hand dips and - a cyan flash from Joachim's pistol links the two men. Raeder's mouth is open but silent. His eyeballs are bulging outward against the pressure of exploding nerve tissue. There is a hole between them and it winks twice more in the flash of Joachim's shots. Two spent cases hang in the air to the Newlander's right; a third is jammed, smeared across his pistol's ejection port. None of the Guardsmen have begun to fall, though a gout of blood pours from the neck of the right-hand man.(From "But Loyal to His Own")

Gory stuff, but not what forms the best part of these stories. Drake doesn't write to titillate, but to entertain and to provoke the reader to think about the military and its proper use. There is no comforting nostrum at the end of a Slammers story -- no flat assertion about the horrors of war or the virtues of soldiers. Instead, we are given a complex view of a complex issue. The soldiers in Drake's stories are real people, and we are left with a real love for them, and perhaps a better understanding as to why the path of a soldier (or Marine) is one they might want to take.

In Drake's introduction:

Men and women do not stop being women and men because they are out where the metal flies, and that is the wonderful, the truly miraculous, thing about them. Now and then the experience even knocks a bit of the pretence and pettiness out of them, and that is the glorious thing about a real shooting war, otherwise such a mess of pain and waste.

There isn't much more to add. So I won't.

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