It’s a good thing that the title for this review series is Military Speculative Fiction That Doesn’t Suck and not, say, Military Speculative Fiction That is an Exemplar of All That is Good in Fiction. I’m not sure that I would say that Karl Hansen’s 1981 War Games is good. That may be too positive a word for this enthusiastically nihilistic war story. The book has definite points of interest — but I am not 100% sure I would call it good.
But it sure is energetic.
Centuries in the future, in an age when the penultimate letters of names have been lost, gravity drives put the planets in easy reach. The hybrid tanks allow humanity to exploit the other worlds of the Solar System, as standard humans can be morphed into forms that can survive cold and vacuum. Where mere durability is not enough, the Lords and Ladies of Old Earth decree the creation of humanoids with entirely new biochemistries — such as the elves of Titan, that moon whose artificial biosphere supplies the factories of Earth.
The hybrid humans and the elves object to being brutally exploited for the benefit of the decadent immortal aristocrats on Earth. The Hybrid Wars, a series of worker uprisings across the Solar System, have raged for most of Marc Detrs’ life. The rebels cannot completely throw off the yoke of Earth, but Earth has been unable to eliminate the rebels.
None of this has mattered much to Marc, whose life thus far has been shaped by horrific abuse from his well-born parents He has survived by exploiting the powers of the timestone, a weird time-manipulating artifact. But the timestone comes with a cost: the user sees their own death, How, certainly; where, perhaps; but never when. Marc sees himself as a frozen corpse. He hopes to escape this doom by allowing himself to be hybridized. He will join the Ghost Corps to fight the elves on Titan!
Of course, the average lifespan of a soldier on Titan is measured in weeks, but Marc is not average. He knows how he will die and that no other cause of death will kill him first.
It’s too bad that the timestones are servants of entropy; they don’t lie, but they can certainly mislead. It’s also too bad that a fanatical intelligence officer is on the track of the larger sibling of Marc’s timestone. It is really really too bad that Marc’s old girlfriend Grytchn is a freedom fighter on Titan, If she is caught, she might tell the authorities far too much about what Marc is really up to on that world of ice-forests.…
“It’s about soldiers,” he said. “They fight, then they have sex, then they do drugs, then they fight some more.”
IN SPACE! I do have to warn readers that while terms like “kinky,” “hatefucking,” “sadism,” and “involuntary sodomy (male)” are relevant to the text, other terms, like “affectionate” or even “consensual,” don’t play significant roles. In this book, sex is just another way to establish dominance. The ancient Lords and Ladies of Earth are too jaded to bother with sex as affection; most of the young people have never had any experience with the concept.
This is very much a MilSF novel of the post-Vietnam War period, rife with sex and drugs and embittered cynicism. Where it differs from many of its contemporaries (aside from the unrelenting sex) is that there’s none of that Band of Brothers against a World that Betrayed Them stuff. Marc is a loner who is in the game strictly for his own benefit; alliances, even with people he professes to love, are merely temporary .
He’s also convinced he’s the smartest guy around. Given the way the timestones manipulate him, that’s pretty funny.
A word about the original publisher, Playboy Paperbacks. This is indeed the Playboy you are thinking of. They had a book line for about four years. No idea who the editor was. They specialized in genre fiction and managed to attract names like Pohl and Grant. And Hansen, obviously.
This is another example of a disco-era Protean novel. You would think that a civilization possessing an impressive ability to reshape humans and their environments would use that power to create utopia or at least have some fun. Hah! This is a civilization that finds its fun in dominance, pain, and degradation.
[Hard SF fans should be warned that this book about as rigorous in its science as any Ray Bradbury or Neal Asher novel. But you may have already guessed that when you read about the mysterious crystals with unexplained powers and malign intent.]
Karl Hansen had a career that spanned close to a decade, from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s. He suddenly stopped published in the mid-1980s, for reasons I do not know (I did hear rumours, but I do not trust them). His books then lapsed into out-of-printness … until recently. I was astounded to discover that War Games is back in print.
1: Grytchn is a rebel less from political conviction and more because bomb-tossing looked like fun. Once the authorities had her marked as a terrorist, going back to civilian life was out.