Jaym Gates & Andrew Liptak (eds) – War Stories

gatesliptak-warstoriesWar is everywhere. Not only among the firefights, in the sweat dripping from heavy armor and the clenching grip on your weapon, but also wedging itself deep into families, infiltrating our love letters, hovering in the air above our heads. It’s in our dreams and our text messages. At times it roars with adrenaline, while at others it slips in silently so it can sit beside you until you forget it’s there.

Join Joe Haldeman, Linda Nagata, Karin Lowachee, Ken Liu, Jay Posey, and more as they take you on a tour of the battlefields, from those hurtling through space in spaceships and winding along trails deep in the jungle with bullets whizzing overhead, to the ones hiding behind calm smiles, waiting patiently to reveal itself in those quiet moments when we feel safest. War Stories brings us 23 stories of the impacts of war, showcasing the systems, combat, armor, and aftermath without condemnation or glorification.

Instead, War Stories reveals the truth.

War is what we are.

Conflict is part of the human condition. In every age, at any moment, conflict has been present in our history. Be it on a large or a small scale, people have always picked sides against each other, whether on political or religious grounds. And conflict unfortunately turned to war more often than not. War is devastating on many levels; whether it’s material damage like shot-up buildings, physical damage such as war wounds for both civilians and combatants, or psychological trauma for those involved, no human is unchanged by the experience of war. As such, it’s unsurprising that war and conflict are huge wellsprings of inspiration for authors in any field, not least that of SFF. Ranging from military SF, such as David Weber’s works, to fantasy, like Erikson’s Malazan series, from the epic to the intimate, war is told in many guises. But it’s easy to glorify war and violence and not think beyond the adrenaline of battle. In War Stories, Jaym Gates and Andrew Liptak do just that. They chose stories dealing with the human cost of war, with the aftermath, and with those left behind. This doesn’t mean there aren’t battle stories here or those showing the brotherhood of soldiers, because there are, but they aim to go beyond the usual and look to the human element of war.  

The anthology contains twenty-three stories divided in four parts. None of the stories disappoint and while I’d planned to read the anthology two stories a day, I found myself unable to keep to that schedule as I just wanted to discover the next story and the next. I really enjoyed the structure of the anthology and the way the stories were grouped. The categories not only highlighted some of the main aspects of combat, but they also allowed for a clearer cohesion between thematically linked stories, making it possible to read the sections as separate elements and out of order. Of course as with any anthology, some stories work better for a particular reader than others and which stories click is highly personal. For me the Bigelow, Jacobsen, Broaddus, Nagata, Sutter, Dorman, and Lowachee stories were the ones that really stood out.

Susan Jane Bigelow – The Radio
Set in a future where we’re a space-faring people and fighting wars on other planets, we’ve also learned to build bionic soldiers from dead people. Yet this story is about the after, when the troops have gone home and Kay, one of the bionic soldiers called Synthetics, has been left for lost when her compatriots pulled out. The main theme is letting go, not just of those we lose in the case of the inhabitants of Ianas Alpha, but Kay the Synthetic’s having to let go and accept that she has been abandoned and forgotten. I found the narrative touching and Kay’s development and attachment to the group that saves her wonderful.

Mark Jacobsen – The Wasp Keepers
This story set in Syria feels current, even if set in the future, and it’ll be interesting to see how this one ages. It’s very much a commentary on the current (and past) situation in the Middle East and the West’s tendency to interpose itself and its views and solutions on non-Western territories. I loved the protagonist Um Hamza and the way that we see the ‘other’ side of the conflict. Her courage and determination to keep her son and her people safe, to set something in motion is amazing.

Maurice Broaddus – Valkyrie
To me this story felt like Operation Market Garden with a twist. I loved the world-building and how subtle clues pointed at some development in the world. Such as mention of the hills of Holland made me think that perhaps the Holland of the story has grown substantially, because Holland? Doesn’t have that many hills and certainly isn’t known for them. And given that the world has fractured into a Christian part and an Islamic part and an atheistic part and the atheistic part was Holland it made sense for the territory to be bigger than my tiny country. Also given Holland’s history as a free-thinkers safe haven in the Golden Age, it seemed fitting for it to be so once again. The focus of the story however, is on how war can break a person and crack their moral conscience, perhaps even their sanity. It also features and interesting way of creating soldiers: taking criminals and people who do not confirm to the Church’s rules and flushing them of who they are, making them clean slates and good soldiers.

Linda Nagata – Light and Shadow
Combat stress can be fatal; it can cause those who suffer from it to lose concentration and make deadly mistakes. Imagine the military had found a way to monitor your every emotion and to compensate for it, thereby making combat stress disappear, at least temporarily. In Nagata’s tale this is accomplished by the skull caps the soldiers need to wear. Light and Shadow shows the importance of dealing with what happens to you when you wage war — and perhaps applies to general trauma as well. Feelings and emotions cannot be suppressed without creating a dependency on the suppressant, leaving people vulnerable to extreme trauma and reactions if the suppressant is taken away. Sakai’s belief that she’ll never be able to function as a ‘normal’ human again, that her only option is to permanently get out is tragic. It also connects it to several other stories that give the sense that a combat soldier can never truly go home again.

James Sutter – Suits
Sutter packs some big themes in an oddly intimate story. Set within a military base and its direct environs on a hostile planet, Suits features exactly that: huge mecha suits. And these suits are so special and costly, they have their own special sort of techs. Halfie and his buddy Tom are the techs of the base and they have never left it since arriving, even only having been outside just a handful of times and always in the course of duty. They were specially created to take care of the suits and as such they aren’t considered fully human. Except not all the human soldiers just see them as little better than favoured pets; Sergeant Billings seems to look beyond these prejudices and treats them as valid and valued members of the team. This dehumanisation of the two techs foreshadows the later dehumanisation and othering of their opponents, which in turns is only punctured by the outsider gazes of Halfie and Tom, who have learned from Billings’ attitude to look beyond the generally held opinions. The ending was bittersweet and left me hoping they’d done the wise thing.

Nerine Dorman – Always the Stars and the Void Between
This story featuring a soldier who returns from interstellar war to her home, a farm in rural South Africa, is heart-breaking. It’s the story that showcases that after combat you can never go home and never go back to the way things were before the strongest. I loved how it’s the relatives that are immoral, violent, and cruel, while it’s Rachel, who feels herself to be tainted due to her service, who is the more compassionate and human. The decision she makes will raise some eyebrows, but are never about expediency and always about love and compassion.

Karin Lowachee – Enemy States
This story gave me shivers both times I read it. It is both the sweetest love story and the most harrowing depiction of what happens to those who are left behind. The endless waiting and worrying, the feelings of helplessness and pride. I loved Jake and Tuvi’s story so much. The emotions reverberated of the page and Jake’s voice is great. The ending of the story was lovely and I just wanted it to be a happily ever-after.

War Stories is a great collection of stories that hold up on second reading beautifully, revealing more layers and meaning. I truly enjoyed the anthology and I hope that the follow-up volume mentioned on the Skiffy and Fanty show will come about, because I’d love to read more of these stories and to see how Gates and Liptak will select them. This is an intelligent, compelling anthology and one I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in military or social SF independent of their world views. The diversity in this collection of stories ensures that everyone will see themselves reflected.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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  • Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin)

    There *are* some truly excellent stories here. I particularly liked Linda’s out of your list.

  • have you read anything else by Nagata? Just curious.
    Good selection to review; this may be my favorite short story collection I have read. Good diverse set of themes and almost every last one of them good to great

    • No, I’ve heard her name before and I think I’ve heard some interviews with her on the various podcasts I listen too, but I hadn’t read anything by her before.