Joe is spot on with one of my complaints about glorifying war and the military through fiction in his novel The Fortress at the End of Time. I come from a military family and background. His thoughts hit the nail on the head.
The student loan crisis is also a spiritual crisis. We tell students this dream, sell them on the idea of a future where anything is possible. Then, we encourage them to sign up for the dream, and to take out loans. Then, after schooling and the promise of the bright, shining future arrives, it's not so bright, and not so shining, because wages have not kept up with the cost of tuition. That college degree becomes an anchor that holds aspirants down into the lower classes for the crime of trying to lift themselves up.
My family members all served in the military. (Yes, all of them. My parents met in the Army. My sister is a West Point graduate and decorated Iraq war veteran. My brother is a retired Marine. I got an MFA in Writing. I chose a different path than them. That is another story, though, for another time.) The military sells folks a dream of glory. There are all these videos of people jumping out of planes, and running, and shouting, and it's very exciting. On TV and Film, it all looks so vigorous and important and intense. Yet, that is not true to the stories I hear around the kitchen table. Even my sister, a decorated war veteran, an MP (the only combat MOS available to women at the time), who has jumped out of planes and all of that exciting stuff, will not tell you about shooting a weapon in the direction of an enemy. I will leave her stories for her to tell; they belong to her.
I just think that there's this huge disconnect between what is sold and what is experienced. In fact, from where I stand, military service looked like a lot of paperwork and a lot of training for something that, for most soldiers, never comes. The vast majority of military personnel will never stare down a gun barrel at the mythical enemy. The gunships will be kept ready, but rarely fire. What little extreme violence occurs will be rare, I hope, very short and precise. It's not a bad thing, that so few actually face down the guns and bombs, comparatively, but it is also the opposite of what is being sold to us in the stories of military service that are often not at all like 24 or Saving Private Ryan.
While I was reading Military Science Fiction, I felt that this fact of military life was not present. Very few members of the military actually train for combat. The rest live and work inside an exceptionally brutal version of a government bureaucracy. Inside this massive bureaucracy, the facade of war is maintained, and desk clerks shout HOORAH! but even in an actual war, most members of the service are not hopping between houses hunting after bad guys. The majority of the military is a bureaucratic support structure for those few and proud that do that dangerous, bloody, patriotic work. And, I did not see a lot of military science fiction about this side of the military: the soul-crushing bureaucracy that chews up bright, young, energetic people and dumps them out on the other side more broken than when they began, and nary a shot fired, nary a moment of the glory they dreamed about.
It's a hard career, and it isn't for everyone. And, everything around it, everything inside of it, sells this dream of glory; for an overwhelming majority, the glory never comes.
This is one of the things I was thinking about when I thought about writing an old-fashioned space opera. There are all these huge, beautiful exciting ships and battles and weapons. But, most of the people who spend their whole careers inside those ships will never get what they want. They will never experience the dream that they were sold when they were young.
That crisis of spirit, when the revelation comes, is what I wanted to write about inside this deep space universe, inspired by Ursula K. Leguin and Dino Buzzati and Julian Gracq. I wanted space to be the thing that strips the dreams away, to reveal the self, and the lengths that people will go to survive, mentally, the soul-crushing bureaucracy wrapped in a shell of the dream of glory. What happens at the deep space stations when the enemy is not imminent? What happens in those long stretches of darkness where nothing and everything is looking back, and you don't even know what you're looking for? What happens when you realize all those dreams you had are narrowed to a room more like a prison cell than a home?
Different characters deal with this crisis of spirit differently. Captain Ronaldo Aldo deals with this by committing a crime against every human colony in the universe, and calls his crime his triumph.
His confession is out in January from Tor.com, called FORTRESS AT THE END OF TIME, and I hope you check it out. Thanks, Jennifer, for letting me come around and talk about it.
JOE M. McDERMOTT is best known for the novels Last Dragon, Never Knew Another, and Maze. His work has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. He holds an MFA from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Program. He lives in Texas.