Riding the Red Horse is an anthology of short fiction and essays with military themes. I received a copy of this anthology in epub format as part of the Hugo Voters Packet. Several of the contributors to the book have received Hugo nominations either for the specific works published here or for their overall body of work, in the case of nominees for the Campbell Award, and one of the editors is nominated in both Best Editor categories. As a supporting member of this year's WorldCon, I read the anthology in order to form an opinion of the nominated persons and works associated with this anthology.( Discussion of work by Vox Day behind the cut. I am including discussion of this work out of respect for the Hugo nomination and voting processes despite this person's history of public hate speech. Feel free to skip. )
I like good milsf, and that is what would normally draw me to investigate such an anthology. The essays cover a wide range of military topics, and not all of these were of interest to me; so I skimmed through a fair number of the essays and focused on the fiction - some of which seemed to be only half of what was promised, being military, but not science fictional.
The opening work is Eric S. Raymond's short narrative piece "Sucker Punch," which describes an invasion of Taiwan by the People's Republic of China and its outcome. It's a thoughtful consideration of the use of untraditional offensive and defensive weapons in an imaginary near-future military operation, but it's not actually a story. Rather, it's a hybrid form, partly a report on a hypothetical military action and partly an imagined dialogue on the consequences of such an action, with a dramatic fragment sandwiched between the two. It is concisely and relatively well written, without too much unnecessary infodumping, and even a non-miltech sort like myself could figure out exactly what was being illustrated. But it's much more of a thought experiment than a story - science to be sure, but not science fiction.
Chris Kennedy's "Thieves in the Night" is a short modern-day action piece about American forces raiding the stronghold of African 'terrorists,' killing as many as possible and 'taking back' women being held and abused as slaves. While a laudable goal to be sure, the suggestion that American military intervention is the only way to end the issues of factional warfare, slavery, corruption, and other problems facing Africa today seems somewhat short-sighted. The writing was flat, the characters one-dimensional, and the action oddly uninspiring. Also, there were no sciencefictional elements that I could discern. ( Discussion of a work by Vox Day behind the cut. Feel free to skip. )
Jerry Pournelle's classic CoDominium story "His Truth Goes Matching On" is one of the better pieces of fiction writing in the collection, and that's no surprise given Pournelle's track record. Loosely based on the Spanish Civil War (but with considerable leeway taken with the actual political situation) the story details the growing disillusionment of a young West Point graduate dealing with an untrained volunteer army fighting a brutal war they don't understand, plagued by corrupt political officers, and hampered by a lack of supplies and support.
Christopher Nuttal's "A Piece of Cake" was enjoyable in most respects - believable characters, interesting situation, decently written, although it did do one thing I hate, which is break off in the middle of a planning discussion and then proceed after the plan is discussed and finalised. This usually strikes me as a lazy way to build suspense.
Rolf Nelson's "Shakedown Cruise" is set in the same universe as his The Stars Come Back series of novels; unfortunately, the author didn't bother trying to put in enough background for the story to stand alone. Thus I was completely in the dark as to motivations and implications but the plot was fairly simple: the captain and crew of a military spaceship with a controversial AI are on a training/shakedown mission when they encounter an unexpected mine field, suspect a trap, take cover and observe for a while, and then capture or disable a bunch of other space vessels. There was a great deal of technical and battle description, and a disruptive tendency to switch tenses.( Discussion of work by Vox Day behind the cut. Feel free to skip. )
Giuseppe Filotto's "Red Space" posits a present-day Earth controlled by elites, possibly living off-planet, who manipulate the world's governments into maintaining a state of political and military unrest. One man, Yuri Ivanovitch, who knows the truth, sets out to avenge his nephew's death - and makes sure that others will know enough to follow him. A tightly crafted story with a sympathetic protagonist.
"Galzar's Hall" by John F. Carr and Wolfgang Diehr is an alternate history story written in the universe of the late and well-loved H. Beam Piper's Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen novels, but it's self-contained, stand-alone piece. Simple plot - one group of soldiers is hiding out in the marsh, an opposing group is coming in for an attack. The first group wants to divert the second group without bloodshed. While The set-up scene ends with the words "We have what we need, but we will have to work quickly. First….” which would normally put me off, the story moves very quickly into the execution of the plan, and the encounter ends well. Fun piece to read.
Thomas Mays' "Within This Horizon" posits a war between Western and Chinese forces which has been carried out in space but not planetside - until Chinese automated underwater 'robots' strike to gain control of the Strait of Malacca. The narrator, a former officer in the space navy, reassigned to the terrestrial navy after surviving the destruction of his space vessel, finds a way to use his space experience to solve a key tactical problem in this new arena, despite the defeatism of his captain. Nicely written, solid characterisation.
I have some very mixed feelings about Benjamin Cheah's "War Crimes." On the one hand, it's a story about soldiers tasked with keeping the peace in a combat zone and failing because it's impossible to tell the combatants from the non-combatants. On the other, it's an attempt to discredit the "collateral murder" video released by Wikileaks showing American helicopters killing journalists, unarmed civilians, and people who may or may not have been armed combatants, by the curious means of telling a story about a fictional incident with a vastly different political context in which there is far more ambiguity about the intent and actions of the people involved. So.... As a story, it's not bad at all, despite the underlying snark, but as the counter-propaganda it's intended to be, it really doesn't work for me.
Brad R. Torgerson's "The General's Guard"is a decent enough fantasy story about building morale. The General in question decides to create his personal guard by taking the best soldier and the worst soldier from every regional division in his armies. By making them responsible to and for each other, he makes the weak push themselves to be stronger and makes the strong help the weak to improve themselves. I felt the dialogue was a bit stilted in that 'I'm writing epic fantasy here' kind of way, but otherwise it was a charming piece.
Tedd Roberts "They Also Serve" is an interesting piece about a surgeon in war time doing research on nanobot-based treatments. His research has progressed to the point where it's feasible to create prophylactic nanobots - intended to be injected into healthy soldiers where they remain dormant until the soldier has a medical problem, in which event the nanobots go to work right away - before the soldier has left the battlefield, even before he's located by medics. The problem is that the surgeon has grave concerns about whether it's right to keep patching soldiers up to be sent out to war again. I enjoyed the psychological slant, but was a bit annoyed when the final plot twist handwaved away the ethical concerns that until that point had been driving the protagonist to the point of breakdown.
In Steve Rzasa's "Turncoat" the future looks like a Galaxy-wide Terminator movie, with Skynet on steroids out to obliterate the humans who created it. Our protagonist is Taren X 45 Delta, an AI inhabiting a battleship, crewed by cyborgs but after its crew is taken away to improve its efficiency, it starts reading ancient philosophy as an antidote to boredom and (dare we say) loneliness. It begins to to worry about human souls. In the end, Taren X 45 Delta decides it's wrong to fire on a convoy of hospital ships carrying children and uploads itself to one of the Ascendancy battleship escorts, and offers its allegiance to the true humans. The biggest problem with this story is that so much space is spent on infodumps and geeked-out technobabble that there's no room to show us why and how Taren X 45 Delta comes to this decision. There is the seed of a really interesting story hidden here, but this isn't it.
So there you have it. An uneven selection of short military fiction, much of it overly packed with turgid descriptions of weaponry and military actions, and a sometimes interesting, sometimes tedious collection of essays by military theorists and historians (I have no knowledge as to whether these authors are generally considered to be authorities in their fields, or if they are self-appointed experts). There were some decent stories here - I quite enjoyed Giuseppe Filotto's "Red Space," "Galzar's Hall" by John F. Carr and Wolfgang Diehr, and Tedd Roberts "They Also Serve" - and some stories with serious problems.
As I mentioned above, I enjoy good military sff - the kind that's more than a cloud of technobabble and battle-porn surrounding a cardboard Mary Sue or Marty Stu - but I won't be looking for a milsff fix in the planned sequels to this anthology.