Reginald Bretnor’s The Future at War is a trio of military SF anthologies. The series consists of Thor’s Hammer (1979), The Spear of Mars (1980), and Orion’s Sword (1980). The three anthologies provide an interesting look at early military SF, which was still in a rudimentary form at this point.
[NOTE: I originally posted an older draft of this. My apology for my error]
As you all remember, Bretnor appeared here once before, as the editor of Science Fiction, Today and Tomorrow: A Discursive Symposium . I had intended to eventually review Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Its Future (1953) and The Craft of Science Fiction: A Symposium on Writing Science Fiction and Science Fantasy (1976) but I found my copies of The Future at War first, so here we are. Be happy it’s not a Ferdinand Feghoot or Schimmelhorn collection.
Readers of a certain age may think the trilogy is reminiscent of Jerry Pournelle’s later There Will Be War anthology series. I suspect this is no accident. Pournelle was a contributor to The Future at War . In their turn the three anthologies may have been influenced by Destinies Bookazine , with which it shared a publisher. The tables of contents are sorted into fiction and non-fiction, in the manner of a magazine.
As for the cover art: it’s by Vincent de Fate, whose art must have been quite popular, given how often I have encountered it. This cover didn’t do much for me, except flag the books as coming from a particular era. Interior illustrations are by folks like Egge and Fabian.
One author is notable by his absence. I am astonished no work of David Drake’s made into the series.
The fiction can be sorted into two general groups: reprints and works original to these volumes. Generally speaking, the older fiction is better than the special commissions. Not terribly surprising, since the older stuff is presumably material memorable enough for Bretnor to think of it while assembling his anthology. This isn’t to say the older material is necessarily all that good, just that newer material is generally worse. The bar was a lot lower in the past. I suspect if I gave many of these tales to my Young People, it would be a close race between them thumbing their own eyes out to escape or thumbing out mine in revenge…
The non-fiction is sometimes interesting. I note that when sources are cited, they tend to be at least a decade old at the time of writing. This is something of a pattern in space boosterism: one could have a very healthy career writing the stuff simply by taking old essays and replacing old shibboleths (SOVIET SPACE LASERS WILL NATIONALIZE OUR GRANNIES) with new ones (CHINA COVETS LUNAR HELIUM THREE).
The three books were a trip down memory lane. Despite some firmly held conservativism on the part of the editor and many of his contributors, the anthologies lack the ideological lockstep one might expect in, oh, Pournelle’s There Will Be War . As with Bretnor’s early symposia, there are few women. But on the other hand, there are a few, which is better than some anthologies of the period. As well, the simplicity of the plots, prose, and characterization meant I could burn through over eleven hundred pages in a quiet afternoon and evening.
This entire series, while of historic interest, is extremely out of print.
In the interest of word count, if not clarity, I will try to keep descriptions of the stories to single sentences. Nevertheless, what follows is very, very long.
Thor’s Hammer (1979)
Introduction (The Future at War Vol. 1: Thor’s Hammer) • (1979) • essay by Reginald Bretnor
War is entertaining to read about and may be inevitable, thus this series of anthologies.
The editor discusses the intended focus of each volume; 1) Earth, 2) the Solar System, and 3) interstellar space). It is evident that while Russian-born Bretnor does not care for Communists, for some reason he really hates people from the undeveloped world.
“The Long Watch” • [Future History] • (1949) • short story by Robert A. Heinlein
A stalwart patrolman sacrifices his life to sabotage a military coup.
Defending the Third Industrial Revolution • (1979) • essay by G. Harry Stine
Some comments on defending the space resources of TOMORROW!
Two items of interest: first of all, people may wonder how many pages a Disco era SF anthology could go before favourably citing noted anthropologist/racist Carleton S. Coon. The answer is thirty-two. Second, readers may be interested to learn that while Anglo-Americans are “hard-working, industrious, peace-loving,” in contrast Asians (or, as Stine calls them, Orientals) are “basically militant.”
“Old Woman by the Road” • (1978) • short story by Gregory Benford
As orbital communities prepare to demonstrate their military superiority on some contested regions, two evacuees converse.
Encased in the Amber of Eternity • poem by Robert Frazier
Poem. I don’t do poems.
“Moon Rocks” • (1973) • short story by Tom Purdom
A Lunar warrior must choose between victory and military chivalry.
Of note: the judicious use of networked remotely-piloted vehicles as a force multiplier.
Lasers, Grasers, and Marxists • (1976) • essay by Jerry Pournelle
AMERICA MUST INVEST IN SPACE LASERS OR FACE INEVITABLE DOMINATION BY THE TECHNOLOGICALLY SUPERIOR SOVIET UNION.
About 90 percent of Pournelle’s essays could have been written by a suitably designed Eliza program.
Fixed Price War • [Merle Walters • 1] • (1978) • short story by Charles Sheffield
Innovative merchants of war disrupt the brushfire war industry.
“Marius” • [Psychotechnic League] • (1957) • short story by Poul Anderson
Having repelled invading Russians, Free Europe must now manage the peace or face a second nuclear war.
This is part of a future history that was abandoned because it was too liberal for the increasingly conservative Anderson.
Weapons in Future Warfare • (1979) • essay by Roger A. Beaumont and R. Snowden Ficks
Thoughts on the challenges of future warfare.
“Scenario for the Fall of Night” • (1979) • short story by Roger A. Beaumont
Socialist Commie Reds use a combination of cunning, opportunism, disloyal ethnic minorities, ALL CAPS COMMUNIQUES, and the ever-vulnerable James Bay front to conquer America!
I would not faint with surprise if Red Dawn ’s Kevin Reynolds and John Millius read this at some point. WOLVERINES!
The Spell of War • [Lord Darcy] • (1978) • novelette by Randall Garrett
A youthful Lord Darcy confounds a cunning Polish military ruse, while solving an overlooked murder mystery.
I really need to revisit the Lord Darcy stuff at some point.
Military Vehicles: Into the Third Millennium • (1979) • essay by Dean Ing
What it says on the tin.
Ing’s technophilia preadapted him for his later swerve into technothrillers.
“The Man in the Gray Weapons Suit” • (1979) • short story by Paul J. Nahin
A pilot and his highly-computerized airplane battle the enemy.
Reads like a precursor to the central romance in Masamune Shirow’s Dominion: Tank Police although it is not.
“Just an Old-Fashioned War Story” • (1977) • short story by Michael G. Coney
Soldiers from opposing armies, faced with a choice between cooperative survival or ensuring their enemies’ death, choose very poorly.
“The Private War of Private Jacob” • (1974) • short story by Joe Haldeman
A soldier learns the hard way how his superiors maintain morale.
One Foot in the Grave: Medicine in Future Warfare • (1979) • essay by Alan E. Nourse
What it says on the tin.
“Shark” • (1973) • short story by Edward Bryant
Arrogant functionaries successfully determine how to provoke a brilliant researcher into unleashing a bioweapon at them.
“Training” • (1979) • short story by David Langford
Futuristic medicine produces nigh-unkillable soldiers, albeit ones with minor behavioral side-effects.
This technology appears in The Space Eater , where it is used to stuff two travelers through a wormhole the diameter of a thumb.
Final Muster • (1961) • novelette by Rick Rubin
Having no further need for soldiers, defenseless citizens of a peaceful future make the mistake of trying to retire veterans who cannot conceive of a life outside the armed forces.
This is one part Goldin’s Eternity Brigade and one part the set-up for Hammers Slammers .
The Spear of Mars (1980)
Introduction (The Spear of Mars) • essay by Reginald Bretnor
Having tackled terrestrial war, Bretnor turns his eyes to invasions of Earth from elsewhere .
The Screwfly Solution • (1977) • novelette by James Tiptree, Jr. [as by Raccoona Sheldon]
Male proclivity for anti-women violence is dialed up to eleven, dooming the human species.
“The Sword” • (1953) • short story by Frank Quattrocchi
On the brink of interstellar expansion, humanity is presented with an aptitude test.
Fans of mysteries solved thanks to a chance inspirational comment in the detective’s hearing may enjoy this.
Invasions of Earth • essay by Joseph Wesley [as by L. J. Stecher, Jr.]
Speculations on from where invaders may originate.
UFOs and Stranger Intruders • essay by Joseph F. Goodavage
UFOs: totally not people misinterpreting things or spinning wild tales.
This mentions Duncan Lunan’s claim that Epsilon Boötis, a star system that formed during the Eocene, had dispatched a space probe to Earth.
“Temple Guardian” • (1979) • short story by Kevin O’Donnell, Jr.
As alien machines prepare to sift the Earth’s surface for reasons unknown, a humble Japanese temple guardian has a key insight.
Mirror, Mirror • [Psi High • 4] • (1967) • novelette by Alan E. Nourse
Why would aliens annihilate the first humans they encountered and what should humanity do about it?
The aliens in this are not so much alien as they are idiots.
Man: A Transitional Animal • (1973) • essay by Carl Sagan
Musing by the fellow whose nuclear winter scenario would later take all the fun out of thermonuclear exchanges.
“Balaam” • (1954) • short story by Anthony Boucher
First contact produces a moral conundrum on Mars.
Interestingly, a supporting character’s confidently stated beliefs — specifically that Israel lacks authentic military traditions — are an indication that said character has no idea what he is talking about.
Encased in the Amber of Death • poem by Robert Frazier
Cold Victory • [Psychotechnic League] • (1957) • novelette by Poul Anderson
An argument over Great Man versus the Inexorable Forces of History provides the pretext for a tragic military anecdote.
Holy Walls of Dense Infodumping, Batman! Even for Anderson, this was a bit much.
Women Under Fire • essay by Vicki Ann Heydron
Vietnam War veteran Heydron speculates on the future of women in the military.
This Faithful Soldier’s Life • novelette by James A. Stevens
Militant alien space lesbians invade Earth to exterminate all men.
However bad you think this sounds, it’s worse.
The Ultimate Weapon • essay by T. R. Fehrenbach
The Ultimate Weapon is Man!
Ender’s Game • [Ender Wiggin] • (1977) • novelette by Orson Scott Card
A very special boy is tricked by adults into committing genocide.
If you like this story, you’ll love the eleventy-billion variations of it Card has since written.
“Fool’s Mate” • (1953) • short story by Robert Sheckley
Trapped by chance and logic in a losing position, humans seek an escape clause.
Wings Out of Shadow • [Berserker (Fred Saberhagen)] • (1974) • novelette by Fred Saberhagen
An alien killing machine accepts at face value truthful but misleading information about the foes it will face.
Orion’s Sword (1980)
Introduction (The Future at War Vol. 3: Orion’s Sword ) • (1980) • essay by Reginald Bretnor
More musing on war, during which Bretnor finds space to remind the reader that Bretnor dislikes the UN in general and the Third World in particular.
“In a Good Cause — ” • (1951) • novelette by Isaac Asimov
A visionary tries to unite disunited humanity again monolithic aliens.
This is Greece versus Persia in Space. The poor aliens come off as far more sympathetic than Asimov’s humans.
Chips on Distant Shoulders • (1980) • essay by Hal Clement
WWII veteran Clement speculates about which bodies in the Solar System might have intelligent life with whom we could disagree.
Despite this essay, Clement almost never used military conflict as a plot-driver in his fiction, preferring the drama inherent in phase diagrams.
“Time Piece” • (1970) • short story by Joe Haldeman
A demoralized, time-displaced soldier fights a losing war against alien snails.
“Inhuman Error” • [Berserker (Fred Saberhagen)] • (1974) • short story by Fred Saberhagen
An endangered planet must determine which incoming spaceship is crewed by lying alien killing machines and which by actual humans bearing a device necessary for planetary defense.
Couldn’t We All Just Be Dear, Dear Friends? • (1980) • essay by Keith Laumer
An Alien Sort of War • (1980) • essay by Katherine MacLean
Given that aliens are alien, would humans necessary recognize that they were at war with us?
“Early Bird” • (1973) • short story by Theodore R. Cogswell and Theodore L. Thomas
A shaggy dog story IN SPACE.
The most amusing aspect of this dire tale is the editor’s careful phrasing to acknowledge Cogswell’s WWII military service without revealing that said service was with the prematurely Anti-Fascist Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
Inside Straight • (1955) • novelette by Poul Anderson
Loathsome Imperialists versus the Planet of Charming Gamblers Who the Author Clearly Favours! WHO! WILL! WIN!?
World of the Wars • (1980) • essay by Jon Freeman
A survey of science fiction gaming — board and table top roleplaying — as it existed in 1980.
Ah, the waves of nostalgia. I read this essay immediately before getting hooked on RPGs. The editor assures the reader that people who play these games are “uniformly above average in intelligence.” My experiences in the hobby suggest this is more aspirational than factual. A cynic might say that the claim is manifest bullshit aimed at a justly insecure audience desperate to believe a talent for stacking little cardboard squares conferred superiority. Speaking of which…
“Superiority” • (1951) • short story by Arthur C. Clarke
Military geniuses eschew conventional weaponry (whose only virtue is that it works) for game-breaking technology that does not.
Steel Brother • (1952) • novelette by Gordon R. Dickson
A soldier manning an isolated outpost struggles to overcome imposter syndrome.
Outguessing the Unknown: Psychological Aspects of Future War • (1980) • essay by Alan E. Nourse
What it says on the tin.
MacLean did it better, backwards, and in high-heels.
“City of Yesterday” • (1967) • short story by Terry Carr
A brave soldier plays his role in the eradication of a superseded relic of the past.
“When I Was Red Rover” • (1957) • short story by Dean Ing
One frail human and his space ship against overconfident, rather stupid, aliens: Who! Will! Win!?
I greatly resent that the last few years have totally vindicated idiot plots.
The Wizard Warriors: Computers and Robots in Warfare • (1980) • essay by G. Harry Stine
Musings on integrating AI and robotics into war.
The author assures the reader that humans will always play a central role in war rather than being replaced by inexpensive algorithms.
“Field Test” • [Bolo] • (1976) • short story by Keith Laumer
An experimental intelligent super-tank faces an unexpected live fire test that logic says cannot be won.
This is the Korean War IN SPACE. Luckily for the nominal good guys, it turns out one can unintentionally program irrational pride and unjustified diligence. Skynet’s programmers could have taken a lesson from the Bolo programmers.
Encased in the Amber of Fate • (1980) • poem by Robert Frazier