Random Acts of Violence

by wjw on March 28, 2017

Praxis04-650I’m working on the new Praxis book, and by way of getting in the mood, I’ve been reading a pack of novels about the Second World War.

Not that anything I’m writing about will in any way resemble the Second World War.  I’m really not interested in “World War II in Space” novels, of which there are more than a few.  If I want the Second World War, I’ll read novels about the Second World War and cut out the middle man, along with a whole lot of dumb rationalizations for why hitting the beach on Titan is just like hitting the beach on Iwo Jima.

Now I know the Praxis books have been described as “the Napoleonic-era navy in space,” but the people who say that don’t actually know anything about the Napoleonic-era navy, or anyway nothing more than they can learn by reading Patrick O’Brian novels.  It was once my job to know all about the Napoleonic-era navy, and I damn well made sure that the Fleet in the Praxis books is quite clearly not Nelson’s navy.  It’s its own thing, with its own history and doctrine and tactics that are based on weapons that are very far from carronades and boarding pikes.

The Praxis books have also been described as military SF, but that’s not quite what I intended.  I didn’t want to write military fiction, I wanted to write fiction about people who happened to be in the military.  Which is the difference between James Jones, say, and Bernard Cornwell.  There’s nothing wrong with either of these gents, but I view my own work as being more in Jones’ camp.  (Not that I write like him in any other way, mind you.)

But I’m wandering rather far from my topic, which is my recent reading.  I’ve been reading World War II naval fiction, not because I want to rewrite World War II, but because I want to absorb little bits of atmosphere and detail that can only be imparted by those who were there, details that might hold as true for a far-future ship as for one in 1942.

So I’ve been mostly reading stuff by World War II vets who became writers, like Ronald Bassett, Philip McCutchan, and the very early Alastair MacLean of HMS Ulysses, though I’ve also been reading works by more contemporary writers dealing with period material.  And I’ve noticed one big difference between them:

There’s a completely different attitude toward death.

In the veterans’ work, death is completely random and completely arbitrary.  Anyone can die at any time.  People die for no damn reason at all.

Whereas in the more contemporary writers, death occurs when it is necessary for the plot.

In the latter, a ship’s captain might die in order that a subordinate might rise to command and demonstrate his genius in defeating the enemy.

Whereas in the veterans’ work, a ship’s captain might die in some horribly pointless way, only to have his replacement discover that his situation is still hopeless, that he’s still out of options, and basically he’s just as fucked as the last guy, and there’s nothing he can do about it except soldier on and hope for the best.

Alastair MacLean even demonstrated his method for killing off his characters in HMS Ulysses.

I drew a cross square, lines down representing the characters, lines across representing chapters 1-15. Most of the characters died, in fact only one survived the book, but when I came to the end the graph looked somewhat lopsided, there were too many people dying in the first, fifth and tenth chapters so I had to rewrite it, giving an even dying space throughout. I suppose it sounds cold blooded and calculated, but that’s the way I did it.

Giving an even dying space throughout.  Let it not be said these books are without art.

Characters in the veterans’ stories survive because (1) they won’t give up, and (2) they’re very, very lucky.  They may or may not be gifted commanders, but that hardly matters, because they hardly ever have a good choice to make— they’re put in peril by circumstance, or usually by their superiors, who leave them with very few options, mostly between one horrible decision and another, perhaps slightly less horrible decision.  (Decision #1— everybody dies. Decision #2— only 90% of us die.)

The whole point of a fight against hopeless odds, I remind, is that it’s hopeless.

This is one of the realizations that prompted the way the Praxis books turned out.  After reading a lot of history and historical fiction, and hearing a lot of war stories from folks who were on the tip of the spear, I realized that it wasn’t so much the enemy you had to worry about as your own superiors.  If you were stuck in some hopeless situation, odds are you didn’t get get there on your own, there was some inbred halfwit of a superior officer, most likely a graduate of a military academy, who ordered you into peril.  Martinez and Sula therefore spend a lot of time trying to mitigate their superiors’ incompetence, and maybe that’s the most realistic thing about the series.

It has to be admitted that the more modern novels produce a somewhat more satisfactory reading experience.  They’re better writers than those self-taught vets, for one thing, but mainly it’s because the stories they tell are closer to what readers want.  Readers want the bright up-and-coming heroes to succeed and be rewarded, and not to be shredded into paste by some completely random act of industrialized violence.

So I’ll be keeping all this in mind when I’m working on the Praxis reboot.  I’m not sure how these lessons can actually play out against the story I’m trying to tell, because one of the other things I’m trying to do is not call up too restrictive a historical template.  If it looks too much like World War II, or the Napoleonic Wars, then I’ve failed.

So on I go, steaming on into peril.  But the difference between me and my heroes is the level of risk.  The worst that will happen to me is bad reviews.

Phil Koop March 29, 2017 at 9:56 am

On the subject of Iwo Jima, have you read “The Assault” by Allen R Matthews?

It is not (apparently) a work of fiction, but it conveys the same impression as the works you mention. Matthews spent, like, 3 days in the line before being evacuated, during which he hardly saw a Japanese soldier. His biggest problems, apart from the high lead and iron content of the air, were things like losing his rifle cover (so he couldn’t keep sand out), losing his friends (so he couldn’t share a shell hole for cover because “one more is too many, you’ll draw fire”), and losing a heck of a lot of sleep.

He lasted longer than anyone else in his platoon. In his telling, his only injury was a cut on his hand. He walked out under his power to the clearing station, where they were sorting casualties by priority. He thought he’d be lowest, but they triaged him straight into an ambulance.

wjw March 29, 2017 at 2:15 pm

No, I haven’t read that one. It sounds as grim as every other Iwo Jima book I’ve ever read.

I once met a guy who’d been with the 101st Airborne, and participated in drops in Normandy and Holland, and been besieged in Bastogne. He never saw combat.

He was a bazooka man, and was issued five rockets at the start of his war, and returned four of them to the army at the end of his hitch. The fifth was used on a cow tethered between the lines, and whose calls of distress were keeping both sides from getting any rest.

By the end of the war people were following him around, figuring it was the safest place to be.

clew March 29, 2017 at 4:24 pm

I am fond of the Praxis books as being about people who find themselves stuck in an aristocracy first-and-worst, and secondarily in a war. Glad to hear you’re writing more!

DensityDuck March 29, 2017 at 6:46 pm

So it sounds like the WWII novels written by veterans are more like memoirs and less like novels per se, which typically depend on the continuance of at least a few characters in order to serve the demands of narrative.

What the Praxis naval combat sounds like, to me, is nothing so much as players in Starcraft discovering how micro was. wiki.teamliquid.net/starcraft2/Micro_tricks

wjw March 29, 2017 at 7:45 pm

Dang! I forgot to add the trick with the Siege Tanks!

Not Todd March 29, 2017 at 10:12 pm

My grandfather was drafted by the Marines, did his basic at 29 Palms, his advanced at some new camp I can’t remember in Hawaii, then was shipped directly off to Iwo, where he was wounded on his first day (he was not in an early wave, he was still on a troopship offshore when Mt. Surabachi was taken) and then spent a year in a rehab hospital in Knoxville. He almost never talked about his experiences, but I did hear him joke several times that while Uncle Sam may have drafted him, he sure didn’t get his money’s worth. He was a funny guy, and the family has an uncashed $10 check from Kate Smith from when he entered and won a joke contest she was running on her radio show.

wjw March 29, 2017 at 10:41 pm

I think it was Alan Brooke, the British chief of staff, who frankly admitted that most of the British corps and division commanders were unsuited to their positions.

His reason was that all the good ones had died in the First World War.

James R. Strickland March 31, 2017 at 4:35 pm

I never knew that about MacLean, although I do recall that H.M.S. Ulysses was pretty much lethal to its entire cast. I don’t feel so bloodthirsty now when I wind up thinking, “This cast is too big. Let’s kill some people off to reduce it to a manageable size.” Or driving my warships stupidly close to the enemy in Atlantic Fleet. (Sure does make it easier to work out trajectories when the degrees of elevation are in single digits. Negative single digits doubly so.) -JRS

wjw March 31, 2017 at 11:18 pm

MacLean based HMS Ulysses on his own experience on a similar cruiser in WWII. Afterwards his novel became a lot kinder to his protagonists, especially after his protagonists all became invincible super-agents.

Mayson Lancaster April 10, 2017 at 1:04 pm

A few years ago, I read the obituary of a Marine general who was a sergeant going into Iwo Jima, got a battlefield bump up to major, and rose after that war to two-star general. Then there was my uncle, also a lifer Marine, who also went into Iwo Jima as a sergeant, with a battlefield commission to major, who demobilized after the war, then re-upped, and served through Korea and Vietnam. Never heard him talk about any of the wars.

David Moles April 28, 2017 at 11:18 am

It looks like MacLean’s rated important enough that the University of California still has a copy of “HMS Ulysses” in a warehouse somewhere, but for Bassett and McCutchan it’s the used bookstores or nothing. Would you suggest I just start with “Cameron, Ordinary Seaman” and work my way forward, or are there books somewhere in the middle of the series that stand out more?

wjw April 28, 2017 at 5:14 pm

I’d start with “In the Line of Fire,” which I believe is his first. It’s not exactly polished, but he knows his way around a destroyer.

David Moles April 28, 2017 at 6:07 pm

Ah, it looks like that’s “Cameron, Ordinary Seaman” reissued, and I can get ahold of an electronic copy. Thanks!

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