The publication Old Man’s War brought John Scalzi both critical and commercial success. His work was widely praised for its fast-paced action and for its updating of classic science fiction tropes but the novel was also controversial and attracted considerable criticism. This article is not the place to rehash the extensive online debates about Old Man’s War, but those interested can still find perhaps the prime example on Nicholas White’s blog – starting here. The criticism – from what might be called “liberal” commentators – can be summarised in three broad categories:
1. That Old Man’s War was crudely right wing – at best a poorly conceived rehashing of the out-of-date dogma of Robert A Heinlein;
2. That it promoted a violent, jingoistic and militaristic world view; and
3. That it provided no political insight into the universe in which it was set[i].
Throughout that argument, Scalzi defended his work by arguing that Old Man’s War should not be read in isolation, that it was just the first part of a much bigger story and that it would become clear as the series progressed that the protagonist of the first novel, John Perry, was an unreliable narrator with a poor grasp of the wider workings of the universe in which he lived. It is now almost four years since the first publication of Old Man’s War and in that time Scalzi has published three further novels, a novelette and two short stories set in what I call the Green Soldier Universe (GSU – because the soldiers of the Colonial Union are reborn in bodies with green skin). [ii]
The publication of the latest GSU novel Zoe’s Tale appears to mark if not a conclusion then, at least, an interregnum in the stories of John Perry, Jane Sagan and Zoe Boutin and the last appearance of new major works in that universe for the time being.[iii]
The obvious question, therefore, arises: Are we now in a position to judge whether Scalzi, given the wider view we now have into the GSU universe, was justified in arguing that the criticism levelled at his first book was misplaced. Or is the GSU just another crude piece of mil-sf designed to stroke the fetishes of a right-wing, predominantly American, audience?
It is clear that his universe remains a violent place. In the opening passages of The Last Colony he describes the background against which all the action takes place:
“The universe is vast, but the number of worlds suitable for human life is surprisingly small, and as it happens space is filled with numerous other intelligent species who want the same worlds we do. Very few of these species, it seems, are into the concept of sharing: we’re certainly not. We all fight, and the worlds we inhabit swap back and forth between us until one or another gets a grip so tight we can’t be pried off.”[iv]
And green soldiers know their role, as Perry points out in Old Man’s War:
“Our job is to go meet strange new people and cultures and kill the sons of bitches as quickly as we possibly can.”[v]
But, given this basic set-up, in this essay I want to argue that, on the whole, Scalzi was right, that politics in the GSU is more complex than the early critics of the Old Man’s War allowed and to explore some of the ways it is similar to the work of Robert A Heinlein and some of the ways it differs.
It is important to be clear that Scalzi has written a set of adventure stories, not a political manifesto. This article is not a critique of Scalzi’s own political views – those seeking an idea of what Scalzi thinks about modern political issues should read his blog – but of the political systems he has used to construct his Green Soldier Universe. That said, Scalzi has not shied away from tackling political issues in these books and in setting out to write in the style of the most controversial of the genre’s “big three” grandmasters (Heinlein, Asimov & Clarke), he was plainly aware of the political and ethical debates that continue to surround Heinleins’ work. To understand the politics of the GSU, therefore, I want to first to briefly explore the politics of Robert A Heinlein, as expressed in his novels.
SCALZI & HEINLEIN
Reviewers of John Scalzi’s first novel set in the GSU – Old Man’s War – were quick to identify the book’s debt to Robert A Heinlein. Scalzi has acknowledged that debt and the GSU stories obviously borrow from, and are intended as tributes to, Heinlein’s sf. Old Man’s War, as de Nardo[vi] points out at some length in his review in SF Signal, contains “purposeful parallels” to Starship Troopers, and this wartime adventure setting is carried on through the second novel in the trilogy The Ghost Brigades. But as the series progresses it becomes more complex, the later books (The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale) owe more to other works by Heinlein, particularly The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and to a lesser extent Red Planet.
But as well as recognizing the “purposeful parallels”, I want to argue that there is more to the GSU stories than a simple restatement of Heinlein’s position. Indeed what is most interesting about the GSU stories, from a political perspective, is the way in which they act to apply a modern lens to Heinlein’s politics and, in some instances, go further, providing a critique of the SF grandmaster’s political thought.
Obviously there is not space here for a full discussion of Heinlein’s political views and it is worth remembering that as he was a novelist not a political philosopher, it would be a mistake to expect a coherent political vision to emerge from his works. Heinlein’s political views shifted during his own lifetime – from an early dalliance with socialism through the anarcho-capitalism that he dubbed “rational anarchy” to a more stridently nationalistic tone in his later novels. So, throughout his output, one can find Heinlein extolling the virtues of a militaristic society with tight social mores and a limited franchise (Starship Troopers) or espousing the drop-out society and hippy free love (Stranger in Strange Land) or the rough and tumble justice of the frontier (Tunnel in the Sky, Red Planet) – he even has sympathetic hereditary rulers in Double Star and Glory Road.
Accepting these caveats there remain a number of themes that are constant across Heinlein’s novels and which are reflected in Scalzi’s GSU. Here I want to discuss two.
1. Disdain for democratic governance and bureaucracy
This is an almost universal motif in Heinlein’s work. In The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, one character’s (Bill) belief that government should provide free air, health care and other basic services “reflects his wrong-headedness in general … [he has] … the socialist disease in its worst form, he thinks the world owes him a living.”[vii] In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Professor La Paz engages in long and detailed critiques of the failings of any system that imposes taxation and pleads with the newly free citizens of Luna not to repeat the “mistakes” of the past. Government, he says is:
“a dangerous servant and a terrible master. You now have freedom – if you can keep it. But do remember that you can lose this freedom more quickly to yourselves than to any other tyrant… What I fear most are the affirmative actions of sober and well-intentioned men, granting to government powers to do something that appears to need doing.”[viii]
2. Justifying the means
In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress the Lunar revolutionaries bombard Earth knowing that they are inevitably risking the lives of innocent civilians and also suffocate their enemies on the Moon without regret. But Heinlein takes great care in establishing the special status of his protagonists – they are either justified in their actions because of provocation or because they have done all in their power to minimise deaths. In Starship Troopers, the soldiers engage in brutal combat but bear no responsibility:
“It’s never a soldier’s business to decide when or where or how – or why – he fights. That belongs to the statesmen and the generals… We supply the violence; other people – ‘older and wiser heads’ as they say – supply the control.”[ix]
Throughout his work – from the early gun-toting, duel-fighting, brassard-wearing world of Beyond This Horizon onwards – Heinlein’s creates societies where violence is an acceptable means of problem solving but the use of violence, at least for his heroes, is also intimately linked to notions of personal responsibility and honour. Thus there are limit on what is considered acceptable even if the actions might offend our own “civilised” mores. In every case the means (violent action) must be justified by something more than the ends.
There are many other issues that might have been discussed, such as the primacy of the individual, the portrayal of women, the importance of family, the position of teenagers, the emphasis on interconnected communities, the politics of sexuality – Heinlein had noteworthy positions on all of these issues and there are reflections of them in Scalzi’s work. However, these particular issues probably provide the foundation for the most familiar facet of the politics of Heinlein’s fiction – a tough, libertarian, frontier style of social organization.
THE POLITICS OF THE GREEN SOLDIER UNIVERSE
In the following section I want to look at how these thematic strands are represented in Scalzi’s work and the ways in which he both restates Heinlein’s position and updates it.
The Absence of Democracy
Democracy in any form is notable in the GSU primarily by its absence. Some form of republican/liberal democratic constitutions appears to survive on Earth (there’s certainly some form of representative government there in The Last Colony) but Earth is very much a special case, a museum preserved in aspic by the Colonial Union and hidden away from potential predation by aliens. The only representative of that government we meet is the blustering, self-important and ultimately doomed Senator Bender – to whom we shall return below.
Elsewhere the universe appears to be ruled by various forms of dictatorship. The Colonial Union is run by a bureaucracy, organised hierarchically and ruled by diktat. There’s no hint of the bureaucracy being subject to democratic oversight – a crucial difference from Starship Troopers, where Heinlein is at pains to emphasise the ultimate power of the democratic government over the military.
The only human colonies we see running in detail are those controlled by Perry and Sagan in The Last Colony and in both instances they exercise control via power vested in them by the authority of the Colonial Union. On Huckleberry, where we find Perry and Sagan at the beginning of The Last Colony, Perry acts as judge and jury while Sagan is the strong arm of the law. There is no democratic accountability – they have been installed by the Colonial Union and they only answer to other bureaucrats.
On Roanoke, the new colony to which Perry and Sagan are appointed as expedition leaders, there is a body representing the different groups of settlers, but it has no power.
“New colonies are administered under Department of Colonization regulation… The regulations require colony leaders to wield sole administrative and executive power.”[x]
On neither Huckleberry nor Roanoke does there appear to be any mechanism for ordinary people to influence the law.
Scalzi does, within the GSU, offer a glimpse of an alternative to the bureaucratic dictatorship of the Colonial Union. The Conclave, a union of alien civilisations created by the charismatic General Gau, seems to offer an idea of an alternative form of government based around negotiation and formal structures of shared power. It doesn’t last long. Following humiliating defeat at the hands of the Colonial Union and an attempt on his life, Gau (despite his own misgivings) is forced to take on the role of absolute ruler. His role in the Conclave then becomes that of a (relatively) benevolent dictator. Gau is, at least, aware of the temptations and long-term dangers of relying on such a means of governance but he accepts that there is no alternative in a time of crisis. Fortunately, everything we see of Gau leads us to believe that he is sincere in his desire to create a new and more stable form of government.
Nonetheless, throughout the GSU, whenever things need to get done, government falls by the wayside and decisions are taken by the exercise of authority. Such hierarchical forms of leadership appear to be the “natural order”. These dictatorships of the competent are common in Heinlein’s work. Even in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, where much lip-service is paid to an anarchic form freedom from government, the main protagonists take power from and make decisions on behalf of their fellow revolutionaries because they have decided that their intelligence, abilities and knowledge make them the best people to be in control. Pretences at shared power are shams designed solely to make it easier for them to get their way.
While examples of effective democratic government in Heinlein are rare, at least Heinlein occasionally presented the franchise and full citizenship of the polity as a prize worth making sacrifices and taking risks to win. In Starship Troopers citizenship and the rights it confers motivate the young people enlisting for Federal Service. By contrast in Scalzi’s Old Man’s War the old recruits give up the rights they enjoyed as citizens, without regret or a backward glance and with no prospect of their return. The prize dangled here is not the opportunity to be a full citizen but the promise of an extended lifespan.
In Starship Troopers Heinlein is able to conceive of a humanity united against an alien enemy with a good government directing a just war. It’s a view that probably came naturally to an author who had lived through both world wars and was writing in Eisenhower’s America as the Cold War ratcheted through its early stages. In the GSU universe, Scalzi reflects less certain times – post-Watergate, post-Iraq. Government turns out to be fractured, scheming and just as dangerous to its citizens as to its enemies. There is double and triple-dealing, there’s deception on grand scales and, by the end of The Last Colony, the Colonial Union has become the enemy to be overthrown.
But we shouldn’t imagine that the message of Scalzi’s GSU is straightforwardly anti-government in the crude way of some libertarians or of Heinlein’s Professor La Paz in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The solution he offers within the GSU, and the one which Perry pursues, is not to reject government but to seek integration into a better system. Gau’s Conclave may be imperfect but it is preferable to the alternative of the Colonial Union’s paranoid, isolationist and manipulative bureaucratic dictatorship.
And here, I think, Scalzi’s intentions are revealed. He is against a government that keeps its people in artificial isolation, that takes unilateral action without allies, that breeds fear of outside threats to keep its people under control and that manipulates communications and straightforwardly lies to its citizens.
Scalzi should, I believe, not be imagined to be attacking the notion of government itself but the policies of a specific government – the administration of George W Bush, the “War on Terror” and the actions that lead to the second Gulf War.
So the fact that during the course of The Last Colony, John Perry begins the process of dragging humanity towards the possibility of an alternative form of government – one that is more open and honest, that works with its neighbours, builds alliances and that resolves its need for new resources through negotiation, suggests a writer who is actually rather optimistic about the potential for government, at least in the GSU.
Ends and Means
As we’ve seen, Heinlein sometimes portrays violence as a necessary social lubricant – to the point of extolling the positive benefits of limited, ritualised, violence (such as the duels in Beyond This Horizon) in shaping a fit society. Heinlein’s characters might, as we’ve seen, be willing to do almost anything to ensure victory, but their actions were guided by powerful notions of honour and responsibility, which places some limits on their actions. The violence is wrapped in a moral code.
Scalzi’s GSU is built on the notion that the universe is an unavoidably violent place full of species willing to do the most horrible things imaginable to get their way. Amongst those who use violence, there is little sense of honour and any moral code is infinitely flexible.
In The Ghost Battalions the reader gets a real sense of what this lack of restraint implies. The crucial moment comes half way through the book (and therefore halfway through the original trilogy) and it is the pivot around which the reader’s perception of the nature Colonial Union in the GSU must surely be intended to shift.
Jane Sagan’s unit of specially-bred and artificially-developed special-forces soldiers are sent into the capital city of the Eneshans, nominally humanity’s ally but actually one of three races building an alliance designed to crush the Colonial Union. The soldiers’ target is the child of the Eneshans’ ruler and heir to their throne. The human soldiers first kill the child’s father and then make the child sterile, so that the Eneshan queen must choose a new husband (one more sympathetic to humanity), and then, when members of her unit falter, the utterly loyal Sagan cold-bloodedly murders the baby.
Sagan appears to suffer no qualms and clearly feels that the means were justified by the threat to the Colonial Union, but it is clear from the reaction of her fellow soldiers that something momentous has happened. It is an action that raises fundamental questions about the wars they have been created to fight.
Before the mission Harvey, one of Sagan’s fellow soldiers, says:
“The point is we’re going to use a young innocent as a bargaining chip. Am I right? And that’s the first time we’ve done that. It’s scummy… So we get it [the job] and everyone thinks we won’t mind because we’re a bunch of two-year-old amoral killers. Well I have morals, and I know everyone else in this room does too… This is bullshit. First class bullshit.”[xi]
Harvey is angry that the special forces (vat-grown, rapidly processed, super soldiers) are given jobs others don’t want but he’s also angry that they are asked to do a job that is clearly morally repugnant.
Despite recognising the validity of Harvey’s objections, Sagan doesn’t hesitate.
Scalzi places this action against a context in which aliens have murdered whole colonies and butchered humans, young and old, for food. He makes clear that the joining together of these three alien civilisations would overwhelm humanity. Nonetheless it is a shocking incident. He takes a character that, until this point, has been straightforwardly heroic and turns her into merciless assassin of an innocent child. Sagan recognises the moral dilemma but sees no alternative – if the enemy can’t be broken militarily, they must be broken psychologically. The alternative, defeat for humanity, is unthinkable.
The attack on Enesha is a turning point in the GSU story arc. It is the point where any illusion that the Colonial Union and humanity are somehow morally superior to their enemies amongst GSU’s aliens is cast aside. It represents the moment when the almost cartoonish carnage of the first half of the GSU arc is made to have consequences.
However it is justified, the murder of the Eneshan heir feels wrong – both to the characters and to the reader. It is dishonourable and for Heinlein there would be no question that the responsibility for this dishonourable act was Jane Sagan’s to bear. Heinlein states baldly:
“that concepts such as ‘state’ and ‘society’ and ‘government’ have no existence save as physically exemplified in the actions of individuals… it is impossible to shift blame, share blame, distribute blame… as blame, guilt, responsibility are matters taking place inside human beings singly and nowhere else.”[xii]
But Scalzi is writing in different times. It is, today, much more difficult to imagine a straightforwardly “just war” and the idea of honour seems an unlikely defence against the depredations of violence. In a world of suicide bombers, the Bush Doctrine and waterboarding, we’ve become used to the idea that anyone – decent, ordinary people – will do vile things in the right circumstances. Sagan is born into a universe where violence is the norm and where horrible things happen all the time, her actions are part of a wider tapestry
One might argue that Sagan is a special case. She is, after all, an artificial creation who only knows life in the military, exploiting her superhuman strength and enhanced intelligence but with only two years of conscious life and no moral hinterland. But we know she is capable of individual reason and her fellow soldiers, who express their outrage at the assassination and refuse to carry out the order, share precisely the same background as Sagan.
The strike on Enesha is an example of what the Bush Doctrine calls a “preventative war” – a pre-emptive strike against a foe thought to be preparing to attack. When the Eneshan Hierarch discovers that Sagan’s troops are holding her daughter captive, she demands to know what is going on. Sagan replies:
“You are negotiating with the person who has threatened to kill your child because you have threatened to kill our children, Heirarch. And you are negotiating with me because at the moment I am the negotiator you deserve.”[xiii]
In doing so she articulates the justification for preventative war. Strike first to prevent an enemy from attacking you and use any means available to stop them from hurting your people. It is an argument that many decent people find persuasive, even if they migh baulk at the full implications of such actions, which in the case of Scalzi’s imaginary raid on Enesha (as, too often, in reality) means the death of innocents.
In Heinlein’s writing the means had to be justified – violence took place within a moral code, honour was paramount and protagonists had to be provoked and even then they respond in a controlled manner. They are better than their foes. But also, in Heinlein’s books, the consequences of violence tend to be kept at a distance or glossed over. In Scalzi’s GSU, the ends justify the means and his protagonists are no more noble or honourable than the enemies they face. In making this choice Scalzi reveals some important, unpleasant, truths about a universe or a political system where violence is accepted as an inevitable, normal tool of persuasion.[xiv]
Violence cannot be whitewashed, it stains everything and it has costs – and those who extol its use should be aware of the price that has to be paid if they are to make honest judgements about when its use is appropriate.
One of the incidents in Old Man’s War that created the most controversy was the fate of Senator Bender, a former Earth politician who (like the other green soldiers) gives up his former rights and position to serve as a private in the Colonial Defense Force in return for the promise of a new life. Unlike most of his fellow soldiers, however, Senator Bender is not content simply to follow orders. His past experience leads him to believe that the Colonial Union’s policies are flawed, that the Colonial Defense Force is misused and that rather than simply trying to exterminate every alien species, humanity should pursue negotiation.
“The problem with the Colonial Defense Forces is not that they aren’t an excellent fighting force. It’s that they’re far too easy to use… Have the Colonials even attempted to reach a peace with these [aliens]? I see no record of an attempt. I think we should make an attempt. Maybe an attempt could be made by us.”[xv]
Senator Bender attempts to enact his alternative policies in the middle of a battle with the Whaidians and meets a predictable, but impressively brutal end, cut down by a volley of 40,000 needle-like projectiles: “one of the most interesting deaths any of us had ever seen in person” as Perry notes.
There’s clearly comedy value in Bender, he’s a self-important blow-hard who gets what’s coming to him. But it’s easy to miss, in his brief life and messy death, that Scalzi takes the time to tell us that Bender’s analysis, if not his action, was right. Viveros, the squad leader who’d constantly argued with Bender confides to Perry that she agreed with what he said but that she would do things differently, she would become one of the:
“…people who are giving orders not just following them. That’s how we’ll make peace when we can. And that’s how I live with ‘just following orders’. Because I know that one day, I’ll make those orders change.”[xvi]
And later, in The Last Colony, when General Gau describes to Perry how constant warfare has tied all the sentient species into “an artificial equilibrium that is sliding all of us toward entropy” and that the only way out of this death spiral is cooperation and negotiation, he is merely restating Senator Bender’s case though, though without his rash and inappropriate attempt to enact the policy.
But if Bender and Gau are right, and the constant recourse to violence as the first and only tool of diplomacy is crippling everyone involved, then how are we to judge Scalzi’s violent universe?
Rather than glorifying violence, promoting jingoism or pushing a dogmatic political viewpoint – as the critics of Old Man’s War had it – Scalzi is offering a warning and a critique of the right-wing policies that have seen America embroiled in unwinnable wars. Violence is terrible and it is ultimately self-defeating, because in the absence of trust and in a universe where every side immediately chooses bloodshed over cooperation, every battle is merely the prelude to another war. Violence is corrupting, leading to a downward spiral into perpetual fear, increasing paranoia and growing brutality.
In such a universe no one can enjoy the spoils of victory because, even if every external enemy had been eradicated, it could only come at the price of stripping away every decent instinct from the winning culture. All that would be left would be a hollowed out machine designed for fighting wars that, through its own success, had just made itself obsolete.
Far from being crudely militaristic, the GSU stories offer a surprisingly sophisticated political analysis. What at first seems obvious is eventually undermined and newer, more complicated truths are revealed. Where there first appears to be just black and white, good and bad, the picture is steadily resolved into a more nuanced focus where no one is entirely pure, no cause entirely noble.
Scalzi does, indeed, use Heinlein’s work as a starting point but the idea that the GSU stories uncritically rehash Heinlein’s political philosophy – as suggested by some commentators – is not borne out by a detailed reading of the text. Indeed, on fundamental issues, Scalzi’s story seems to sharply diverge from their inspiration. In part this separation can be explained by the different eras in which the writers are working, but as the books progress, it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid the conclusion that Scalzi’s work is a critique of Heinlein’s political writing that is designed to question the original work not bolster its ideological foundations.
[i] As James Whyte notes: “I think Clausewitz had it right when he said that war must be considered as a political act, in a political context – “Der Krieg ist eine bloße Fortsetzung der Politik mit anderen Mitteln”. Politik is completely absent from Old Man’s War. We have absolutely no idea of who is in charge of the army, or who appointed them, or how the policy might be changed.”
[ii] On his blog, Whatever, John Scalzi sets the chronology of the GSU works as:
1. Old Man’s War (novel – Tor 2005)
2. “Questions for a Soldier” (short story published in Subterranean no. 8)
3. The Ghost Brigades (novel – Tor 2006)
4. The Sagan Diary (novelette – Subterranean Press 2007)
5. “After the Coup” (short story published online by Tor 2008)
6. The Last Colony (Tor 2007) & Zoe’s Tale (Tor 2008) (novels) (novels takes place simultaneously).
[iii] In regard to the future of the GSU, Scalzi notes: “…first, and as noted earlier, no further OMW universe books are currently under contract. And anyway, four novels in the same universe in three and a half years is, you know, a lot. So for the next year or two at least, anything new in the OMW universe is likely to come in the form of short stories.” (http://scalzi.com/whatever/?paged=6)
[iv] Scalzi, J., (2007) The Last Colony, Tor US.
[v] Scalzi, J. (2006), Old Man’s Mar, Tor, New York, page 188.
[vi] For de Nardo’s full review visit: http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/002845.html, other examples of reviewers making the link between Scalzi and Heinlein include Stewart Carter at SFSite, http://www.sfsite.com/04b/om222.htm; Thomas M Wagner at sfreviews.net, http://www.sfreviews.net/oldmanswar.html; and Justin Howe at Strange Horizons, http://www.strangehorizons.com/reviews/2006/09/john_scalzis_.shtml
[vii] Heinlein, RA, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, p119
[viii] Heinlein, RA., (1968), The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Medallion Edition, p190-191
[ix] Heinlein, RA., Starship Troopers, p38
[x] Scalzi, J. (2007), The Last Colony, Tor, New York
[xi] Scalzi, J. (2006), The Ghost Brigades, Tor, New York
[xii] Heinlein, R.A., (1968) The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, page 50
[xiii] Scalzi, J. (2007) The Ghost Brigades, page 167
[xiv] It is worth pointing out here that The Last Colony does, in fact, include a group of pacifists. One-twelfth of Roanoke’s colonists come from an Amish-like sect. Their representation is positive – they are decent, reliable people who when the colony is abandoned by the Colonial Union save the lives of their fellow colonists because they are used to living and farming without technological aids. Their leader is killed when he attempts to make peaceful contact with the primitive but intelligent species the colonists discover on Roanoke, but then the natives had already finished off a good number of more bellicose individuals, so we need not necessarily take this as a failure of this particular group or their particular creed.
[xv] Scalzi, J. (2006), Old Man’s Mar, Tor, New York, page 168.
[xvi] Scalzi, J. (2006), Old Man’s Mar, Tor, New York, page 179.