Paul Di Filippo reviews Douglas Lain’s Deserts of Fire

Deserts of Fire: Speculative Fiction and the Modern War, edited by Douglas Lain (Skyhorse/Night Shade Books 978-1-59780-852-1, $15.99, 372pp, trade paperback) July 2016

For the USA, the Vietnam War ended in April of 1975. Some twelve years later appeared In the Field of Fire, an anthology edited by Jack Dann and Jeanne van Buren Dann, applying the toolkit of speculative fiction to an attempt to understand that particular realworld conflict and analogous future military exploits.

Operation Desert Storm, or the First Gulf War, ended in 1991. Other linked conflicts, of course, are still in progress. But if we take 1991 as the start of the period when we would begin to try to parse what had happened, using that same SF armamentarium, then Doug Lain’s new project, Deserts of Fire—“a war-inspired anthology for the new millennium…the recent wars in the deserts of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East”— arrives some twenty-five years after its initial precipitating event.

Does this relative lag indicate that SF has slowed down and lost its fondness for topicality, its desire to perform autopsies on current events and use them as narrative springboards? To some significant degree, I think so. SF today seems politically engaged, perhaps more so than ever, even to the frequent detriment of storytelling. But the range of topics which such engagé works seem willing to address is incredibly limited and often narrow and almost solipsistically personal in scope. Where is the modern equivalent of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar or Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron today? Maybe some offerings from Kim Stanley Robinson or Ian McDonald come closest. But they are basically going it alone.

On the other hand, the aforementioned fact that these 21st-century wars against nebulous enemies are still underway might also have precluded the desire to address something whose lineaments are not yet fixed in history. I suspect the reason it took twenty-five years after Desert Storm for this book to appear is a combination of all those factors.

But whatever the case, Lain’s thought-provoking, brilliantly curated book—which features mostly reprints, with three original stories—is a welcome addition to the landscape that SF used to frequently visit. Perhaps this book—along with Hystopia, by David Means—signals a renewal of the willingness of SF to deal with such themes.

(Of course, in between Vietnam and Desert Storm came several Latin America adventures, which found their SF voice in the inimitable and irreplaceable Lucius Shepard, most notably in his Life During Wartime, a seminal work which must be slotted into this continuum for total accuracy.)

Lain’s main introduction and his introductions to each segment of the collection contain much wisdom about the relationship between art and war. They could easily be collated together as a valuable essay on the topic. And in fact he addresses my question about how 21st-century wars are different from 20th-century ones and thus alter their own fictional responses. One valuable insight Lain gives is the different role of media coverage nowadays, which presents a kind of filmic entertainment version of any ongoing war with which prose fiction has a hard time competing.

Although I will single out just a story or two from each section, I can attest that every entry is meritorious and well-wrought.

The first segment of the anthology is “Vietnam Syndrome” and uses that era’s war as a valuable launchpad for the new explorations. Two finer writers than Norman Spinrad and Kate Wilhelm could not have been found, and their vintage tales illustrate what SF was once prone to tackle.

Next comes “Terrorism.” Here we address that aspect uniquely at the heart of modern conflicts, the individual acts of violence and the responses they engender. Michael Canfield’s “The Language of Monsters” takes place in a prison setting where humanity is broken down, and the narrator, alien at the core, shows the only real empathy.

“Weapons of Mass Destruction” deals with the new phenomenon that “the apocalypse could be stretched out, like an eternal present rather than a future end.” Here I most enjoyed Jeff Ford’s astonishing “The Seventh Expression of the Robot General,” which reads like a fusion of Roger Zelazny and David Bunch.

Next up is “Shock, Awe, and Combat,” where we get right down in the trenches. Audrey Carroll’s tale, “The People We Kill,” is one of the previously unpublished items. A kind of Twilight Zone bardo phantasia, it opens with a great line: “Mike and Paulie died on Tuesday and woke up on Thursday.” Its surreal doings dig into the meat of combat almost better than most mimesis.

“Mission Accomplished” takes its name of course from the famous GW Bush-era photo-op, and focuses on the nature of victory nowadays. Here I encountered my absolute favorite story of the book, another one that is special to this volume, Rob McCleary’s “Winnebago Brave.” A counterfactual gonzo search-and-destroy mission, it’s juicy language and off-kilter action merit comparison to Thomas Pynchon and Hunter Thompson.

“The Sun Inside” by David J. Schwartz is a highlight from “Life After Wartime?” If you can imagine conflating war on Earth with war inside Earth—specifically, ERB’s Pellucidar—you will only begin to grasp the glory of this tale.

Finally we come to “War is Over (Do We Want It?)” which examines the possibility of decoupling from society’s madness. Here I’d nominate Lain’s own “Noam Chomsky and the Time Box” as the one to watch. A pocket time machine proves much less satisfactory than one might imagine.

Violating my opening observation that SF writers had become slow out of the gate, the story that concludes the volume, James Morrow’s “Arms and the Woman,” was first published in 1991, right as Desert Storm was winding down, and in its continuing relevance and artistry proves that so long as we have even just one or two writers with their antennae out for the tides of war, SF can offer valuable understanding and palliatives to this seemingly eternal condition.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

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