(Military Science Fiction, Science Fiction, Space Opera)
Grade: Γ — Good book within the genre. Solid story, good characters, if you like this genre, read this book.
This is the first volume of the definitive collection of David Drakes’ classic military science fiction stories featuring the armored mercenary unit, Hammer’s Slammers. Like any short story collection, it is a mixed bag, but includes some of the best of Drake’s work and has no real stinkers. If you’re a fan of MilFic and haven’t read them, or if you are interested in trying out military science fiction but don’t want to expend too much effort trying to see what the genre is about, this is a must read.
Set in the late 3rd Millienium, Hammer’s Slammers uses a classic far future Space Opera setting, with faster-than-light travel, and a selection of multiple independent governments whose sphere of control range from planetary continental to multiple star systems. The stories focus on an exceptionally well fitted out armored mercenary unit and the remarkable hover tanks and hover cars that they use. The adventures take place on a variety of planets, and as one might expect in a story about tankers, there are no space born adventures or starship battles. This is a story about tanks, armored cars and above and beyond all else, the men and women who man them.
This is a classic collection. David Drake helped pave the way for what is now the staple of military science fiction with this series of short stories about an elite mercenary corps armed with fusion powered hover tanks. Beginning with the grim tale, “Under the Hammer,” the first story in this selection, Drake helped to define the morally ambiguous heroism that is central to the best Military Science Fiction works. \
Unlike either Starship Troopers (Heinlein, 1959), which paints a heroic picture of the sci-fi military life, or The Forever War (Haldeman, 1974), which paints a particularly grim, dark and critical view of the military, Hammer’s Slammers shows both sides of the coin. He paints a multifaceted interpretation of soldiers and military life, and as such realistically portrays of the complexities of war and avoids any definitive judgment. It is a series where the soldiers are neither spotless heroes nor evil monsters; a reality where the service is neither a bastion of all that is good, nor a Machiavellian bureaucracy hell bent of war for war’s sake. To that end, it helped cement a path that has made for the best subsequent military science fiction, a world of grays where both systems and individuals can be wrong and right at the same time.
Drake based these tales on his own experiences as a loader in Viet Nam and Cambodia. According to the forward in this volume, much of what he wrote was done as a way of working through the horrors of what he witness, and it shows. Many of the stories depict horrific scenes of war, including some terrible actions by the mercenary protagonists of the series. Yet this is beautifully balanced by equally heroic and moral actions. Yet he never lets any choice appear easy, natural or foregone. They are choices, hard choices, and that is what makes the stories so appealing.
Literarily speaking, Drake uses the short story structure beautifully, allowing characters to live, die, prosper and fail appropriately depending on individual story arcs. Yet there are characters, situations, and of course equipment that carry over across the stories, providing a solid pull from tale to tale. Thus the collection continues even when specific characters don’t.
Central to the collection is the eponymous Colonel Alois Hammer, the commander of the mercenary tank regiment that bears his name. A brilliant military leader who is also skilled in political maneuvering, Hammer is a wonderfully flawed yet admirable leader who formed the mercenary unit to fill the niche needs of his home world. To say too much more is to give away some of the adventure, but it is important to note that Hammer is not the main character of most of these stories. Indeed, while he is a presence in most of them, the vast majority of tales focus on other characters, many of them making one off appearances even though they serve as the point-of-view character for the tale they are in. Indeed, to that end, Hammer’s prime purpose in most of the book is almost setting, a backdrop against whom we grow to understand the POV characters in each tale. What works so well about this is that when we do see him as a main character, we see his flaws and strengths all the more vividly.
Just as significant a presence in the stories are the tanks and other vehicles that the unit uses. True to any classic tale of Military Science Fiction, the gear has a central place in the series, so much so that there are chapters spliced between the stories that are dedicated to the equipment. There are also tables of organization, logistics and general ‘future historic’ settings of the world itself. While it is possible for such explanatory chapters to break up the flow of a book, here they add to the stories, giving us insight and depth.
To that end, the Supertanks are central to the book, almost serving as characters in and to themselves. High computerized with an impressive array of firepower and informational displays, the tanks are one part tank and one part hovercraft. Using almost limitless power from fusion engines, they have heavily armored lift-fans and ‘skirts’ to create a cushion of air on which they float. This makes for a fast and powerful armored presence on the battlefield. While there are times where this approach pushes the limits of my ability to suspend disbelief (due to the innate vulnerabilities of hovercrafts), the far future aspect of the setting allows me to push those aside.
Second to the tanks are the hovercraft combat cars that feature in many of the tales. Fascinating and exciting, these faster, more versatile but infinitely less deadly vehicles are described with no less detail and appear in the series long before the tanks themselves. Other equipment such as powerguns and the like are outlined in the book, building an interesting and believable world into which one can immerse oneself.
As for the stories themselves, as with all such collections, some of the tales are better than others, yet there are no real failures. It begins with the first short story of the series, “Under The Hammer” which sets the feel for the volume as a whole. It focuses on the first encounter of a young recruit to the armored mercenary unit that gives the book its name. While its heavy use of jargon may prove a bit of a turn off to some readers, it remains one of the best military science fiction stories ever told. After this installment, subsequent stories are a bit less jargon heavy, and the writing flows far better, yet of all the tales it is the first and the last in this book that stand out most strongly in my memory.
With twenty-one chapters/stand (mostly) alone stories in this volume alone, I obviously cannot go through the whole book. I will note, however, that certain thread tales throughout the book are brought to a remarkable end with the last short story in this volume. To that end, this collection does something that very few manage – not only does it have a solid arch through its wide range of short stories, it also allows one to feel a sense of completion at the end of the volume despite the fact that there are subsequent volumes and novels in the collection as a whole. To that end, it stands out as a fantastic read and could serve as a good place to begin one’s exploration of military science fiction.
 Though this interpretation is open to debate, and in my view, Heinlein’s classic MilFic tale is more subtle than it first appears. See _LINK_