Book Talk: 'Redliners' by David Drake - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'Redliners' by David Drake

Alexander Wallace crosses the red line.
War is hell. A great deal of literature exists to demonstrate this point; you have Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five and All Quiet On the Western Front to get through your skulls just how utterly awful it is when human beings decide to kill other human beings en masse.

But science fiction has a less-than-stellar track record in terms of reckoning with this deeply necessary point. Many works in the genre can be rightly tarred as jingoistic, or at least not giving proper due to the suffering that war entails. I know I have enjoyed many works of that nature, and that adventurous sort of science fiction isn’t bad per se; we simply need to keep in mind the little people involved in this aren’t having an adventure (as an old and probably misremembered saying goes, “an adventure is somebody freezing and starving to death far away from you”), but are suffering and dying. In 1972, science fiction got a much-needed bucket of ice water to the face in Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, a book that has haunted me in the year since I read it.
In 1996, David Drake filled up another bucket with icy water and once more coated science fiction in a frigid reminder of reality in his novel Redliners. The title of the book refers to how the world government of this universe labels soldiers who are so broken by combat that they will never be able to be successfully reintegrated into normal society; these soldiers are said to have ‘crossed the red line.’ The book starts with a brutal and pointless battle against an alien species, and a group of soldiers who fought there are then branded unsalvageable psychologically. This is not helped by the fact that they used armored vehicles in an attempt to enter a bar that did not desire their presence.

Fortunately for them (not that much in this book is fortunate) they are not executed or anything of the sort (at least so blunt); instead, they are assigned to be the guardians of a new human colony on a jungle world where just about everything is trying to kill them. The question the novel then goes on to ask: can these broken men and women succeed in doing something worthy, after being broken by such cruelty?

This is a book very clearly influenced by the author’s background: David Drake fought in Vietnam and was left shaken by the experience; he says that writing Redliners helped to come to terms with it all. This planet, and this war, feels almost like Vietnam in space; it is a deep jungle where danger lurks behind every blade of grass. Most memorable are the exploding plants that cause no end of misery for these human protagonists.

Much of the tension, other than that directly provided by the environment, is the conflict between the soldiers and the civilian leadership; indeed, to the soldiers, the civilians might as well be another alien species. Remember, these soldiers are people that their superiors thought were irrevocably made inhuman, and the clash between the two is potent. This is very much a commentary on how societies treat their veterans after they have outlived what the politicians view as their usefulness, and what more they can aspire to.

This book is a grinding mess, a story of human beings doing awful things in an awful place. Is that not all wars are? When we have so often turned war into mere backdrop for entertainment, we must remember the madness that they inherently are. As General Sherman said, war is cruelty and you cannot refine it. Drake does not seek to refine war, but to show it in all its ugliness, and the book is all the better for it.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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