The Two War Stories: Iliad or Odyssey

1 12 2010

There are two war stories. There is the Iliad. There is the Odyssey. You tell the story of the war or of its aftermath. What else is there? So much of fiction is dedicated to telling war stories that it defies the notion of a war genre. Certainly there is military fiction, but war stories are a much larger thread in the tapestry of all writing and a thread that stretches from The Iliad and The Odyssey to Horatio Hornblower and The Sun Also Rises. What percentage of all published fiction is war related might depend on what your definition of “war related” is, but even if you set a fairly strict interpretation the outcome would likely be surprisingly high. Science fiction would produce a significantly higher proportion of war related stories.

The statement could be made that science fiction for the most part is war fiction. In my informal survey I found three out of four science fiction novels had war as a major component of plot and setting. Granted, my survey was to go to my science fiction bookcase and close my eyes and grab four books at random, but the fact remains that 75% of the books were set at war. If you’re wondering- the war books I grabbed were Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, The Galactic Invaders by James R. Berry, and God Emperor of Dune by Frank Herbert. The “peace” book was Rainbow’s End by Vernor Vinge (who also wrote a book called The Peace War!)

Science fiction, at least as we know it, was born in the twentieth century and came into being precisely in reaction to the unique scientific and cultural evolutions of that century. Science fiction is one of the myriad products of mathematics moving out of the humanities building and getting its own digs across campus. Math and philosophy got a divorce and so philosophers became either philologists or physicists. At that point- somewhere between the recognition of Brownian Motion and Special Relativity, the possible and the probable took widely divergent paths and on that ever widening gore science fiction was born. Science fiction first took shape in the early half of the 20th century and became a child of its time. In its early days sci-fi was almost exclusively written and edited by men. Its venues were often in adventure magazines or magazines marketed toward men (Boy’s Life, and later Playboy). Just as integral to sci-fi’s early character was the generational reality that many of its golden era writers were veterans. Science fiction rapidly began to reflect themes that mirrored the exponential horror, violence and death of the new forms of war that were made manifest in the first half of the 20th century. Technology was running well ahead of ethics. Weapons- from the machine gun and mustard gas to the V2 and the atomic bomb were quite literally incomprehensible to anyone not directly in their nightmare path. Science fiction, as a form, was liberated from many social constraints of “real world” fiction and helped create a way of comprehending the incomprehensible. Stories of alien invaders piloting death-ray equipped rocket-ships are not, in a very essential way, so far removed from The Enola Gay laying waste to an entire city in seconds. Science fiction was a vital tool in disseminating to the people the new ethics of the union of modern science and warfare. It wasn’t until the cold war and the nuclear arms race that the rest of fiction caught up. That was about the time that people could read Vonnegut and not consider him a science fiction writer. Science fiction was often war fiction because it was born out of war and during war and, often as not, written by warriors. But things change.

Fortunately for all of us the computer revolution happened, the cold war ended and a lot of science fiction writers were born that were not sent off to spend their formative years ducking enemy fire. Sci-fi has finally shaken off the image of being a “boy’s club,” though that might be seen as a war unto itself and hard fought at that. Even so, war is an inherited theme in sci-fi, and is a question unto itself that the genre has many long forged tools with which to fashion answers. So back to my original statement: there are two war stories- Iliad and Odyssey.

The Iliad- In which are related such events leading to the destruction of Troy as the rape of Helen, The death and mutilation of brave Hector by Achilles and that peerless warriors death by a poison arrow from the bow of Paris. War stories all.

The Odyssey- In which are related a bunch of stories that aren’t as cool as Sinbad the Sailor’s, but are essentially about the trials of going and being home after the war is over. You know, you find a bunch of guys trying to get busy with your spouse because she thought you were dead so you chase them off with arrows.

I think that the reason the S(y)-F(y) network’s show “Caprica” fails, is that it’s ultimately a war story. It defines itself as such if only because it’s borrowing its thrust from Battlestar Galactica (which is Iliad AND Odyssey) , and yet fails to be about either the war or its aftermath. It is the lead-up to an inevitable war and yet manages to fail to ask any of the questions regarding any war’s “inevitability.”  It purports to tell us that we are watching the intimate human drama that leads to the war, and yet knowing the true scope and nightmare, the fall and ultimate redemption to come, the little family drama that is supposedly “how it all begins”  plays out as  just so much trivial melodrama. If I wanted to watch melodrama on S(y)-F(y), I would tune in for the wrestling.

So, my fellow science fiction writers, which story is it you’re writing: The Iliad or The Odyssey? Perhaps you should write both.

As to my network nemesis- the masters and commanders of the official network for adolescent boys known as the s(Y) f(Y) channel, I am taking my cue from Cato the Elder who, during the Punic Wars ended every speech, whether speaking about the war or about grain subsidies to the nail makers guild, with the phrase, “Furthermore, I believe Carthage must be destroyed!”

So that is the Science of Fiction. Keep your pens at the ready- they are mightier than swords. Furthermore, I believe the s(y)f(y) channel should be destroyed!

Andrew Clark Porter




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