My introduction to Jerry Pournelle came through his frequent collaborations with Larry Niven. (Niven, of course, was my Hard SF gateway drug.) The public library had only the Janissaries books, so I missed out on John Falkenberg in my impressionable youth. Many years later, that name came up frequently in discussions of essential military SF, so I set out to read about him. This is somewhat easier said than done, since the Falkenberg books have been published as short stories, short novels, longer novels, compilations, and compilations of compilations. Baen Books has combined everything into The Prince, which is probably the best way to go about things, but I read the books as four novels. Pournelle alone wrote the older stuff, S.M. Stirling joined him for the two Sparta novels later on.
The Falkenberg stories are Mil SF in the style of David Drake or Gordon Dickson, but form a bridge to the more politically incendiary books by Heinlein and the Baen Books crowd. Like Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers, Pournelle is sympathetic to the grunt’s cause and the realities of being a pawn when diplomacy is carried on by other means. His soldiers are much less concerned with Honor and Valour, and more worried about not being killed in gruesome fashion. But while Drake and Dickson tend to leave things with the soldiers, Pournelle addresses bigger political questions as well. While he is more subtle than, say, David Weber or John Ringo, some of his philosophy is every bit as disturbing as Starship Troopers at its loopiest. Indeed, I have seen him inaccurately called “fascist” and “Right-wing” in various forums. First off, who hasn’t been called fascist recently? Second, he is not Right-wing in the contemporary sense. (Aggressive, Libertarian Christianity.) Instead, Pournelle is a throwback to the less well known H. Beam Piper; readers of Space Viking will recognize many of the same ideas about government and democracy.
As a pacifist and progressive liberal, I find that Pournelle’s politics aren’t always palatable, nor his solutions to problems the solutions that I would pursue. He takes a pretty dim view of democracy, which I am sympathetic to for wholly different reasons, and an overly optimistic view of monarchy. The recurring theme in the series is democracy being compromised by selfish or evil men, then unable to save itself because of the inherent weakness of democratic institutions. Again, this is a reasonable fear, but Pournelle is quick to dispatch the enemies of freedom in paroxysms of violence. Falkenberg is his avenging angel of freedom initially, and the torch is passed to Prince Lysander in the Sparta books. In all cases, the good guys win when someone finally realizes that sometimes we must unshackle ourselves from the demands of democracy and open up a proverbial can on the bad guys.
Herein lie the differences with both the current crop of angry Mil SF and with my worldview. A typical politician for John Ringo (in what little I have read) is venal, self-serving, and blind to reality. Dadgum pansy gubmint commies get in the way, regulate everything, and (in SF at least) get us all killed by aliens. (Come to think of it, a hilarious Tea Party sign would be something like “Big Govt. allows the Posleen to eat children.”) Pournelle’s politicians, on the other hand, are generally committed to protecting democracy and the people, but are so hamstrung by their dedication to justice, peace, or some other ideal that the bad guys slice and dice freely. Pournelle (and Piper, and Heinlein) disturbs me because, like his politicians, I am none too eager to toss our scruples in the bin and lower ourselves to the bad guy’s level. If we fight brutality with brutality and injustice with injustice, we are no better than the enemies we face. And that is where we all just agree to disagree, and also why I don’t read much John Ringo.
Now for some fun. The Co-Dominium is one of my favorite future histories. It’s nowhere I want to live, but world is carefully reasoned and very compelling. Readers born in the 1990s will probably be nothing but baffled with all the Cold War imagery, but those of us old enough to remember will find it chilling. The atmosphere of corruption and degeneration oozes off the pages. The idea of the US and USSR gradually becoming each other is not unique to Falkenberg, but I can easily imagine an early 1970s Pournelle looking at the Soviets on one side, and Nixon and Kissinger on the other, and being thoroughly gloomy. As the action moves into the second half and a new set of characters takes over on a new world, I found myself a little less interested. I’m uncertain how much of my dissatisfaction is a general reflection of the second half, or if I’m just clinging adolescently to heroes from the first stories. I will confess to enjoying the Falkenberg parts of the book more than the battle for Sparta, but I’m not entirely sure why.
I have a lot of books on the burner right now, leaving me jumping from series to series, trying to sample as much as possible and coming back later to pick up the sequels to the books I liked the most. Once I started Falkenberg, though, I read it straight through. Rarely do I stick with one series, or even one author, for four books in a row. Of course, anyone reading The Prince will just barrel through, so maybe my experience is less than indicative. Still, they are good books. Pournelle is under appreciated outside of the Mil SF crowd and should be read more widely. Inside the Mil SF world, John Falkenberg is up there with Alois Hammer, the Dorsai crowd, and all the faceless Starship Troopers that Heinlein feeds to bugs in The Pantheon of Influential Old Stuff.
Rating: The Magnificent Magyars. A Cold War relic, Hungary’s early 1950′s football team was the best in the world. Look it up.