The Problem with Military Science Fiction Part 3: The Myth of the Gung Ho Space Marine…

This imechnstuffssue we are returning to one of this blogs most popular series of articles: the examination of what Military Science fiction (Part 1, Part 2, and Pollyanna was a Space Marine).  As stated in the previous articles, Mil Fic has a bad reputation.  We’ve already examined criticism of the subgenre ranging from complaints that characters are not very well developed (Link to Pollyanna was a Space Marine), that the nature of conflict in the books is simplistic (link to part 1), and/or that as a whole subgenre is a bit schizophrenic, with pacing ranging from plodding to frenetic (link to part 2). Yet, while these issues are each important, so far we have ignored the one complaint that is most frequently aimed at the subgenre – the elephant in the room.

The single most common criticism leveled at Military Science fiction (and Military Speculative Fiction as a whole) is that it glorifies war and promotes a pro-military, often conservative political agenda.

foreverwarIndeed, in 2011 the Guardian Newspaper published an article by Damien G. Walter that said exactly that.  It critiqued the subgenre as a whole suggesting it encouraged men and women to “enter the meat grinder” of modern military life and as a whole glorified combat, and simplified the world into a militaristic the us versus them nature needed to engage in a war.  The article ended by summing up the world as a dichotomy:

On the one side, it seems, are the Guardian reading liberals, for whom war is good for nothing, and nothing more than a failure of understanding and communication between peoples. On the other are military SF loving conservatives, who believe that the enemy is out there, is evil, and can be defeated by heroes carrying very big, very expensive weapons.

A bit ironic for a person who criticizes the genre as dividing the world into Us and Enemy.

soldiersdutyOf course, as anyone who is familiar with MilFic as a whole, this particular article seems to have been poorly researched and based on the reading of one or perhaps two works (mostly Weber’s Honor Harrington series it would seem, and even that not very closely). Even so, it is an article that strikes resonance with many critics of the genre, espouses sentiments that are often felt by non-fans, and puts some potential reader off many excellent works.  It is also a viewpoint is fundamentally wrong.  This is not to say MilFic does not have its problems (as this whole series of articles explores), but in this case, such a reading is just plain wrong.

While there are certainly books out there that do glorify war, promote the military, and/or put forward a conservative agenda, to categorize the whole subgenre that way is like saying that all Christians are Creationists, or that all liberals are vegans. Yet, even if this claim was true, the putting forward of those agendas, should not, by itself, be a reason to dismiss the genre as good for nothing, no matter what your place on the political spectrum.


Stop challenging my world view!

Literature should not only be allowed to express myriad ideologies, it should strive to do so.  In a modern world of educated actors, one NEEDS read viewpoints different than ones own, one should try to understand them, not just as straw men arguments, but as the fully fledged concepts they represent.  If nothing else, it allows you to argue against them all the better.[1] Being made to feel challenged and/or uncomfortable is how we evolve our understanding no only of the world, but of the self and the other.[2]

This is not to say that every book you read should be an experiment in building your world view. It is more than just okay to just read light, comfortable books – it’s good! Fiction should be enjoyable.  Even so, I am grateful that not all books simply confirm my world view, and the best ones often make me challenge them.  I would hope that other readers feel the same.

Beyond such intellectual idealism, however, there is another problem with the argument that Military Science Fiction is gung-ho, pro-war, conservative propaganda. It is blatantly not true.  There are just as many works of MilFic that do quite the opposite.  Indeed, even some of those that have been critiqued as flaunting ultra-conservative agendas that promote military states are in fact quite the opposite (link to Starship Troopers article). Such misinterpretations are frequently the result of a failure to read more deeply into the text. This is something we will discuss in detail later in the article, but for now, let us just note that like any other form of literature, there are books that fall across the whole spectrum of political and ideological views.

StarshipTroopersProblemMilFicThe most classic examples of this range of attitudes can be seen, in fact, in many of the most famous books of the genre. Indeed, the “bookends” of Military Sci-Fi themselves, Robert Heinlien’s Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War can be seen as diametrically opposed views of the military and politics.  As discussed in my review,  many see Starship Troopers as a novel that promotes an extreme form of pro-military conservative politics, one that suggests only those who serve the government or military should have the right to vote.

forever-warModernCoverWhile this view is highly debatable (and not one I believe Heinlein actually supported – see the link to my review), it certainly is the kind of state outlined in the book.  In contrast, however, there is the Forever War, by Joe Haldeman which in no way can be interpreted as pro-war, pro-military, or conservative. Even the lightest of readers can see that it is a clear cut condemnation of the Military and the Military-Industrial complex. What is more, the Forever War is far from alone in the genre. Other giants in the field also show a range of views on both politics and the military.

HH001David Weber’s Honor Harrington series certainly seems to fall under the more conservative scale of politics. Within the pages of most, if not all, of the Harrington books more conservative viewpoints are not only promoted, liberal positions are frequently used as straw men arguments, and even all but ridiculed.  There are some who even accuse Weber of promoting an Ayn Rand-ian world view where some people are just born to lead.  I would certainly not go that far, but clearly Weber’s Honorverse books promote a more conservative view point.

HammersSlammers.jpgIn direct contrast, however, are series like David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers.  While some of his tales may occasionally appear to promote a pro-militaristic viewpoint, one need only read his first short story “Under the Hammer”[3] to realize nothing could be further from the truth. Oh, it’s true that some of his stories, such as “Standing Down”[4] could be seen as promoting the virtues of military coup d’etates, I would argue that they are world building and thought experiments.  Most, if not all, of his other stories demonstrate that his tales are descriptive and/or cautionary more than they can be said to promote any sort of political agenda.  Indeed, they primarily describe the horrors of war far more than any form of glorification of it.

OldMansWar(1stEd)Other books give complex views as well. In Old Man’s War and its related series John Sclazi wavers back and forth between the two poles. At one point he seems to damn any military held political power, at other times he seems to justify dark secrets and military agendas.  There in lies Scalzi’s greatest strength, he does not simplify the situation or give right-and-wrong answers.  Instead, the right and wrong of it is seen through his character’s eyes, and as points-of-view change, so do the judgments that go with it.  To this end, he simply draws a picture in shades of greys and let’s the reader decide.[5]

The list goes on, and indeed, from my reading, most of the stories fall on the more progressive side of the political spectrum. Why then the concept that Military Science Fiction represents a pro-war, gung-ho and militaristically conservative point of view?

In part it is because some individuals, such as Damier Walter (above), seem to feel uneasy in the reading of any story about war that does not whole-heartedly condemn it and those who take part in it.  People like that seem to support the idea that all soldiers should be portrayed as baby-killing neo-Nazis.[6]

Yet, individuals such as that are few and far between.  Just as most authors and fans of MilFic hold a wide spectrum of views, most critics are not simplistic nor jingoistic card-carrying lefties. Indeed, I’ve got more than a few friends whose views are on the extreme left who LOVE MilFic. So why then are there so many people who seem to feel that Military Science Fiction is gung-ho, pro-war, propaganda?

Well, in one light it is easy to understand why even close reading, deep thinking person might misinterpret certain elements of MilFic with such a pro-military/ultra-conservative agenda.  Certainly I once did, for despite the wide range of political views within the subgenre, and indeed the wide range of story types told by the authors, there are some elements that all of these books hold in common – elements that could easily be misconstrued for a militaristic viewpoint despite the subtext of many of these books.

Techno-Weapons Porn – or a love and focus on the hardware of war

air-and-space-museum.jpgTrue to the traditions of Heinlein, most books in the genre spend a certain amount of time lovingly describing the hardware of death.  My books certainly do.  In part this is because MilFic generally has a certain element of hard-sci fi in them – it is part of the “trope”. Military Science fiction often describes and relishes the technical workings of the weapon systems they describe.  Be it StarFIST guns and drop ships, the altered bodies of the Old Man’s War, the warships of the Honorverse, the ultra-cool cyborgs of the Legions of the Damned, or the Spectre-Class stealth ships of my own novels, there is a certain pornographic glee in the description of the military hardware within the annals of Military Science Fiction. This is as much a part of the genre as ghosts, zombies, and vampires are part of Paranormal stories, or Magic is part of High Fantasy. Yet does a focus on the guns imply a love of war?

slammers.jpgOf course not. For one thing, the weapons are part of the setting and plot in the same way that murders are part of Crime Fiction, magic is part of Fantasy, or clothing and décor are part of the appeal of Regency Romances. The accoutrements of war are part of the mechanics and setting of a story about the military. Soldiers use guns.  Star pilots fly ships.  Knowing how they work and how they run are important to the characters. Soldiers know about their guns, pilots know about their ships. What is more, those are important aspects of their lives.  To that end, the gear helps set the tone, affects the plot, and fleshes out the lives of the characters in a manner that is key to the workings of most of the stories.

gun002.jpgAfter all, what is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea but the loving exploration of a technology based idea – what would happen if we could build a ship that sailed under the water for extended periods? So too many if not most of the MilFic genre include plot elements tied upon the technical workings of their gear.

Flickr_-_Israel_Defense_Forces_-_Female_Soldiers_Unload_their_Weapons.jpgYet there is more to it than simply setting and a love of techno.  While much of Military Science Fiction does focus on the cool nature of military hardware, it does not always do so favorably.  Indeed, the very first volume of the StarFIST series, Starfist: First to Fight (Starfist Book 1) by David Sherman and Dan Crag (Del Rey, 1997), is centered around the introduction of a piece of technology that does not work: the UPUD[7]. Indeed, in one sense the whole book is nothing more than an action packed adventure that criticizes the nature of military command structures and the way they introduce untested equipment risking the lives of good men and women.  The other way to view the book is as a tribute to the men and women who can overcome such obstacles, but we will get into that later.

LEgionOFDamned2An even more clear cut example can be seen in William C. Deitz’ Legion of the Damned – a series that introduces the very cool concept of brain-in-a-box cyborgs soldiers.  While it does spend a lot of time discussing the hardware of the different cybernetic bodies that such soldiers can be plugged into (everything from anthropoid to battle tanks and fliers), and while this description is very cool and definitely keeps the reader engaged, the book is far from a glorification of it.  Indeed, it is quite the opposite – it is a metaphor for how twisted a military can become when it is put in inappropriate hands. It is a metaphor for how a soldier can be viewed as little more than a weapon. What is more, it and the other books in the Legion of the Damned series show the conflicts soldier have when in this position, and how honorably they can behave despite being made killer slaves.

This then leads us to the second element that leads critics to misunderstand the genre…

Pro-Soldier is NOT Pro-Military

ladysoldier.jpgPerhaps the most common misunderstanding of the genre is the confusion between pro-military and pro-soldier.  To a degree this is very understandable error to make.  If one is creating a tale a heroic men, women and things who serve in the military, it is easy to understand how many of these tales could be see as promoting an agenda that suggests the military as an institution is somehow superior.  In fact, there could be nothing farther from the truth.

MilFic is, in fact, very rarely pro-military.  Indeed, the focus of most of the stories (even the Honor Harrington series) critiques the military in some form or another.  Be it a condemnation of how it can be misused and misguided (Dietz), the finding of faults in military command structure (Weber), the over reliance on technology (StarFIST), the application of jingoistic propaganda and how that can create a fundamentally flawed atmosphere (Jack Campbell’s Dauntless, The Lost Fleet Book 1 (aka John G. Hemry) (Ace Publishers, 2006)), the absolute horror and death that comes in battle (Drake) or some combination of all of these (Heinlein and Haldeman… ironically), MilFic focuses on the problems with the military, not its glory.

soldier.jpgYet, the misunderstanding of this is completely comprehensible – for the other element that all MilFic have in common is NOT that it is promilitary, but that it is Pro Soldier.  It focuses on the honor and dedication that men and women who serve in the military have.  It may point out how this can be misused, or it may focus on how it is the solution to greater problems but it is a constant across the subgenre.

MilFic is a genre that focuses on the men and women who serve and the lives they live while serving.  While some may interpret that as being gung-ho, it is not per se.  MilFic examines what life in the military is like.  Sometimes it focuses on those who serve a good cause, some on those trapped or fooled into serving a bad cause, some who shouldn’t be there in the first place.  Yet, no matter how you view it, the genre looks at the lives and mentality of those who lay down their lives for their nation – be it voluntarily or through a draft.

Here then, is where the worst elements of misunderstanding lie. For those who critique milfic as gung-ho propaganda have not really read it for what it is, but rather condemn it for what it isn’t – and it isn’t as a genre a way of promoting a political or military agenda.

None of which is to imply that a person who doesn’t enjoy reading military science fiction is in someway wrong (or in any sense unpatriotic) if they just don’t enjoy the subgenre.  That would be an even worse stereotyping than the one I suggest. Not every type of literature is every reader’s cup of tea: AND PEOPLE SHOULD READ WHAT THEY LIKE.

Some people don’t like MilFic because they don’t feel comfortable with the topic matter (which is not to say they don’t respect soldiers. Indeed, I have one friend who doesn’t like it because he saw too much while serving and really just doesn’t want to think about it). Others dislike it because they don’t like the plot structure or kinds of character arcs that are at the stories’ cores. Still others dislike it because they get bored with the description of hardware or of the violence or of any number of other elements inherent in the stories.  There are a thousand reasons why a smart reader might not choose to read such a tale, in the same way that one might dislike Fantasy, or Romance or any other genre.[8]  AND THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT!!!  One need not like every genre, or subgenre.  Good on you if that’s how you feel.

anna-popplewell-silva-forward-unto-dawn.jpgThe problem comes when readers, particularly professional critics (or worse yet University Professors), write off the whole subgenre as a single category: especially when it is just not true.  Military Science Fiction as a whole does not glorify war. Some of it does, sure, but most doesn’t.

What it does do, universally, is explore, examine and in most cases try to honor the lives of men and women who serve. That is the common thread across the genre.  It is what binds it together, and that is blatantly obvious anyone who gives serious thought to what is on the page, rather than what is already in their minds.

Go to :

The Problem with Military Science Fiction Part 1

The Problem with Military Science Fiction Part 2: Taxonomies

Pollyanna Was a Space Marine



[1] This is, by the way, the same argument I use to Creationist fundamentalists when they object to evolution being taught in my class.  I don’t ask you believe it, I ask that you understand it. Why would a god give you a brain if he did not want you to use it?

[2] Thus speaks the academic… you could never tell I teach at University could you?

[3] Hammers Slammers

[4] ibid

[5] Indeed, anyone who might suggest Scalzi has a conservative agenda need merely read a few pages of his blog and you might find a very different answer.

[6] Indeed, one cannot help but wonder how he feels about books such as All’s Quiet on the Western Front, or movies like Platoon.

[7] Yes, I still giggle every time I read that…

[8] Heck, I went through about a ten year period where I couldn’t stand mysteries.  ME!  I now write them, but I got bored.  I’d read too many in a row and the mechanics of the genre were just too blatant to me.  Thank goodness I got over that, but it was a thing and not reading mysteries because I didn’t enjoy them was a good thing.

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Graveyard: The Mutant Files (vol. 3), William C. Dietz (Publisher: Ace Books)

(Science Fiction, Crime Thriller, Gritty Noir, Series, Chronicle)

graveyard1Grade: B/Γ +— Highly enjoyable book of mixed genre. Solid story, good characters, if you like these genres, read this book. If you like one of them, but not the other, I suspect you will still enjoy it.

SIDE NOTE – Yes… I am going to revamp the whole grading system. It’s gotten way too complex. In short REALLY liked it – but it’s combination of genres may not appeal to everyone.

In brief:
Graveyard by William Dietz is a gripping, gritty dark detective story that serves as the third installment in the Mutant Files series. While it can be read as a stand alone (I did), it is likely best enjoyed if you read the series in order. Set in a post-plague apocalyptic Los Angeles, Graveyard combines Sci Fi, mystery and gritty police procedural in a manner that grabbed my attention. Its strong female protagonist drew me further in, and I really enjoyed the read as a whole.

This is a good read for sci fi and crime drama fans, a great read for those who like both genres, and well worth picking up for anyone who likes Urban Fantasy mysteries, and interested in seeing that same dark element in a Sci Fi setting.

A post-plague apocalyptic Los Angeles, where the US has devolved into separate states. Some decades before the story opens, a devastating, man made disease was released upon the world population. This disease not only kills many of its victims, those who survive develop genetic mutations, not of the superhero form, but of the slightly more realistic body changing form. Some might be seen as beneficial, but most are painful, disfiguring and/or generally problematic.

As that many of those infected are still carriers, the non-infected population has created Red Zones that segregate the mutants from the rest of the population – resulting in social stress, bigotry and an unequal divide of resources.


ARC Copy that I read

In Depth:
So, for my first sojourn back into book reviews, I decided to start with an author I like who has combined two of my favorite genres (Sci-Fi and gritty detective stories) into a new series that seems well poised to draw fans of both – and perhaps appeal to those who, like me, enjoy Urban Fantasy but are a tad bored of it.

To that end, Graveyard is a highly enjoyable read that blends the dark detective novel with a science fiction twist, allowing the author to subtly comment on poignant social issues of today. It also nicely blends four plotlines (two volume internal, one personal story arc, and one the Bonebreaker case that serves as the main series arc) in a manner that I have often felt is missing in many mysteries and crime dramas.

I have always thought it funny how so many cop stories seem to ignore the fact that police usually have to deal with more than one case at a time. In Graveyard the main character, LAPD Detective Cassandra Lee has four main cases she is attending to – two of which are intricately interwoven, one of which is wholly personal, and the third of which is a serial-cop-killer case that serves and the principal story arc across the series. While the plots and subplots are tightly drawn enough to prevent the story from meandering, they are also disparate enough to give a sense of reality that is often missing from Police Procedural stories. While I personally felt there could have been an extra beat to the Bonebreaker plot, the last scene was highly enjoyable and the end brought a very solid and satisfying resolution to all four sub-plots.


Book 1: Deadeye

For those who have read the other two books in the series, Deadeye and Red Zone, Graveyard has the very appealing aspect of further exploring the Bonebreaker. We see a good amount from his point of view and discover a great deal about his past that builds upon and fleshes out the glimpses we had from earlier books (which I am in the process of going back to read). This has the advantage of both filling out how and the serial killer came to be, while also building up Cassandra Lee as a character – both in contrast and in backstory. It works very well.

One additional aspect I enjoyed about the novel was that, as with other of his books, Dietz also manages weave a socially relevant subtext into the series without hitting you over the head with it. In this case, the subtext is a dissertation on the problems of refugees, illegal immigration and the social complexities of building walls (real and symbolic).

In the world he’s built, America has torn itself apart attempting to deal with the mutant problem. Initially it created camps (refugee camps) where the infected were led and left to die. As the problem spread, the US created Red Zones, where the mutants were herded and left to fend for themselves. This resulted in the dissolution of the US and the creation of smaller federal states that do not always cooperate as well as they should.

Meanwhile to the South, Mexico was devastated by the plague. Unable to segregate itself as readily, the disease spread across the whole nation, with a much greater loss of life and a near universal infection rate. Those who survived reformed themselves into the New Aztec Empire… populated almost entirely by the mutant victims of the disease. A nation that does not exactly have a positive outlook towards Los Angeles and ruthless way it treated its own mutant population. Add to that elements that the Aztecs view as historic inequities, and you have quite a problem brewing.


Book 2: Redzone

All of this can be read solely as exciting story backdrop, but I strongly suspect something more going on. Indeede, one of the things I enjoy the most about Dietz’s work in general is that there is usually something deeper woven into his books. Sometimes it is a bit of philosophy, sometimes social commentary, but it is never “hit-you-on-the-head” in its nature. If you want a good adventure tale and nothing more, the message doesn’t prevent that. Yet if you keep your mind open, there is usually a bit of thought provocation there too.

In this case, I cannot help but read a bit of commentary on the problems of immigration and refugees within this book. It is not over the top, nor does it condemn any one point of view. Rather, it notes the issue and encourages you to think about it, from both sides.

Throughout the Mutant Files, there is the underlying problem of the plague. The Americans (or former Americans as it were) need to deal with the serious problem of an epidemic and the death and destruction it brings. To me, this speaks of American present perceived problems of immigration, drugs and crime. This is in no way spelled out in the book, and I could be reading Latino/Muslim where no such subtext is intended, but it is my view.

Meanwhile in the series, the mutants (read refugees) are facing a real problem of the disease as well, not to mention the destroyed economy and overall disparity that have followed in its wake. If the former US had problems, surely it was worse in those areas where the plague ran free. One cannot help but feel sympathy for the mutants trying to make a better life, or hiding like illegal immigrants within the city

To that end, the Aztecs (a mutant based state that occupies areas beyond the present day borders of Mexico) are unjust in what they attempt to do in this story, but the inequity they face, and to a degree their justification of their actions, makes it seem understandable. The citizens of Los Angeles were cold and terrible in the way they excluded the mutants from society, but faced with a horrible disease one can understand how and why they addressed the problem as they did. It is possible to read all sorts of things into this – drugs, terrorism, poverty, the present refugee crisis from the Near and Middle East (not to mention the one from Central America). I cannot say how many, if any, Dietz intended to play upon, but to me – this all seemed poignant.

BillDietzIndeed, this is what impresses me the most about the tale. Dietz does not demean the reader by coming up with a quick-easy (or worse still sci-fi ‘magic’) solution. He plays out both sides and lets the reader form his/her own views. He does not play the role of a prophet – he comments and lets the ideas provoke the reader to think without it interrupting the kick-butt action and adventure of the tale.

And this is one of the things that shows Dietz at his best – a great gritty, gumshoe cop story in a cool setting that points out social issues without presuming to solve them.

If you want some action, adventure, crime drama and good story telling spiced with something to think about, read this book, and the series. I think you will be highly entertained.


Posted in Crime Thriller, Dystopian, Mystery, Near Future fic, Part of A Series but can be Read without reading previous volumes, Saga, Science Fiction, Series, Strong Characters, Thoughtful, Trilogy, Uncategorized, Unique or Imaginative World, Urban Fantasy, World | 1 Comment

A quick note from the author

This is just a quick note to say that over the next few months I will be revamping and changing my grading system.  It has just gotten too complex and needs some revision.  To that end, I intend to combine a star system (how much I liked a book) with the Greek alphabet system that I have been using.  That system will be more about who else might like this book.

My first reviews will keep to the old system, and I will probably never go back to modify the old reviews.  But one thing I will say is that I will probably end up with a lot fewer bad reviews.  Why?  Because I just won’t be bothering to finish books if I’m not enjoying them – at least, not for the most part.  I don’t have time and let’s face it, most of you are probably more interested in which books they might want to read rather than which books I don’t like.

This will also result in a book acceptance policy that is more restrictive.  I will publish the criteria before long, but while I will be open to books from all types of authors (traditional, small press, micropress and indie), I will probably need some indication that this book was written and edited in a professional manner AND that it actually meets the criteria of novels that this blog was set up to review.

Sorry, but there are just too many people publishing books these days…

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A Return to the Blog

Greetings one and all…. and a quick apology.

It has been months since my last set of entries, and I am sorry for my sudden disappearance.  Those who have followed me on Social Media know that this was due to good things….

I grew very busy, both with Ghost Writing and with writing my own things.  Then, I was asked to fill in to teach some courses when there was a last minute need for a lecturer at my local University.  Since this would have left some 200 some odd students out in the cold with no one to teach their classes, I felt I had to say yes.

Finally, I moved across country to New England.  Since this also put a hiatus on my novel, I spent the time packing, unpacking and acclimatizing the family to my old stomping grounds.

That being the case, once I got enough done that I could turn to something again, I turned to The Traitor’s Gambit… Ripper’s Raider’s Book 2!

That is coming along nicely… but now I am thinking once more to review books, so stay tuned and hopefully in a few days, or at least a few weeks, you will see my book reviews, opinions and news.

Thank you for staying with me, and supporting me!


All the best,



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New review of Strings on a Shadow Puppet

I am delighted to report a new review of Strings on a Shadow Puppet is up, and on the SF Site, no less. Reviewer, Sandra Scholes wrote a very insightful review of my novel, which can be found at:

It gives a solid review, outlining key parts of the plot, while totally managing to avoid spoilers. I wish I could do so well in such few words.

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Goodbye Jay Lake….

I am very sorry to say that the ubiquitous Jay Lake died yesterday.  I didn’t know him well, but I liked him well… as both an author and a person.

He was a member of the workshop I belong to, and though I joined in the latter days of his attendance, I did overlap with him enough to call him a friend, and to share laughs.

me next to jay lake at wordos


I will miss him, and really have nothing to say on this topic other than my heart and hopes go to his family… particularly the Child…

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Spells and Bullets Together: The Modern Soldier-Mage’s Guide to Warfare

by Tom Doyle

American Craftsmen coverTor Books has just published American Craftsmen, my first novel in a three-book modern-day fantasy series. The “craftsmen” in the title are the magician soldiers and psychic spies who’ve been secretly serving their country since colonial times. But American Craftsmen is not an alternate history; I have not changed the outcomes of any battles or wars, and the surface truths of current events remain the same. How then does a relatively small group of preternaturally powerful individuals effectively operate within the context of modern military tactics and yet remain covert, as they have for hundreds of years?

First, I chose abilities for my soldier-mages that relate to uncanny occurrences in military history. The primary power of my protagonist, Captain Dale Morton, the thing that makes him the most valuable solider-mage in the world, is his ability to change the local weather and make it better or worse. Early on in American Craftsmen, Dale uses this power to pursue a hostile sorcerer through a sandstorm. I took the idea for this magic from the number of times that the weather has altered the outcome of American battles. For instance, bad weather saved George Washington’s army at Brooklyn Heights, while an improvement in otherwise terrible weather allowed for the success of the D-Day invasion of Normandy.

tomdoyleBut the most dangerous and readily available power that a craftsman has is over his opponent’s mind. I drew this power from those instances in war where confusion scatters an army or, as in the killing of Stonewall Jackson, causes death by friendly fire. My present-day craftspeople carry precautions against such psychic warfare, but these don’t save Dale Morton from an opponent’s curse, a curse that will by twists and turns lead him to the demonic horrors corrupting the heart of American magic.

In contrast to this power of confusion or subornation, sometimes a military leader seems to possess a preternatural charisma to rally troops or exercise authority. So one of my characters, Colonel Hutchinson, has the ability to steady the nerves of combatants, while another, Major Endicott, has an extraordinary power of command.

Finally, to be the elites among other elite operatives, my magician soldiers need powers that enhance their combat skill and strength. They aren’t superheroes, but they can endure a bit more, heal a bit quicker, and shoot a bit better than normal soldiers. When fighting, craftspeople often enter an acceleration mode that I based on the sense that some soldiers have of time stretching out during combat.

American Craftsmen Button 1Such abilities come with limitations. My magical system is not just a binary of infinite power with a fatal flaw, à la Superman versus kryptonite and other comic book superheroes. For my characters, magic is more like a normal physical ability. A soldier’s craft improves with practice, much the same as her mundane shooting skill. A well-rested and healthy craftsperson will have more power than one who hasn’t slept or is wounded. Craftspeople in all-out combat will exhaust themselves within an hour at most.

Why do my magical soldiers bother with rifles? First, a variation on the magical Law of Return or karmic retribution makes killing by spell more dangerous to the practitioner than simply shooting someone. Furthermore, the laws of physics aren’t suspended by magic, just skewed, and it takes a great deal of magical energy to replicate the physical damage a soldier can do by just pulling a trigger. That magical energy might not be readily available, for like other armaments, magic has logistical issues. Craftspeople find it easier to recharge their power on home ground.

Some of my magic system runs at cross purposes to normal modern military tactics. I have too few practitioners for purely magical units, so craftspeople often serve with mundane soldiers. But to preserve their secrecy, craftspeople don’t serve for extended times with mundane units, so they don’t become integrated with them either. This situation creates numerous inefficiencies and can in some instances contribute to disasters, such as what happens to Dale Morton at the opening of the novel.

Still, even with such limitations, why don’t these elite magical troops completely dominate the action of battles throughout history and thus reveal themselves to all? This is similar to a common question about superheroes during the Second World War, and the answer is similar as well: in combat, craftspeople often engage the enemy’s practitioners, and the winner in that part of the fight will perhaps only be left with a slight but potentially decisive edge in the battle at large.

To conclude, I’d like to thank Thomas Evans and the Archaeologist’s Guide to the Galaxy for this opportunity to describe the military magic of American Craftsmen. If you’d like to read or listen to other stories of mine, please go to

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About Tom Doyle:

The Internet Review of Science Fiction has hailed TOM DOYLE’s writing as “beautiful & brilliant.” Locus Magazine has called his stories “fascinating,” “transgressive,” “witty,” “moving,” and “intelligent and creepy.” A graduate of the Clarion Writing Workshop, Doyle has won the WSFA Small Press Award and third prize in the Writers of the Future contest.

Posted in Alternate History, Military Science Fiction, Opinion Piece, Paranormal Military Fiction, Paranormal Mystery, paranormal or otherwise unexplained (possibly alien or magic) object, Ripping Yarn, Series, Thriller, Uncategorized, Urban Fantasy, Urban Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments