War and Space: Recent Combat, from editors Rich Horton and Sean Wallace is possibly one of the finest anthologies that I've ever come across. This anthology looks at the nature of war, and how it might impact our future civilizations in space. Fans of high-octane stories with lots of action might be let down by the relative lack of flying bullets or lasers, (although it's not as if the anthology is devoid of those.) But what the anthology lacks in action, it makes up for in numerous other ways.
While reading this book, I came to think of it not as military science fiction, but science fiction about war — and I think that there's a real distinction that can be made between the two. Throughout the book, we see futuristic militaries at work, but this book isn't about combat, which military SF seems to focus most of its attention on. Frequently, I was surprised at the topics the stories cover, and the fact that they often cover much more than just the battlefields in space. We see stories that cover relationships between soldiers and civilians, the politicians who instigate war, veterans who return home in pieces, and scientists who study their enemies.
There's an impressive roster of talent in the book — such as Ken MacLeod, Adam-Troy Castro, Kristine Katheryn Rusch, Nancy Kress, Genevieve Valentine, Robert Reed, and Catherynne Valente, just to name a few. Just under half of the stories (nine) are by female authors, giving this anthology a nice sense of balance. And that's certainly something that makes the anthology stand out, especially in a subgenre that feels predominantly populated by male authors.
And the anthology does a good job of steering clear of stories that transparently paint today's issues into the future. Instead, these stories imagine some genuinely bold new worlds that demonstrate just how far into the future conflict will live with us, no matter what form it might take. Some of these stories take place in relatively modern settings, while others take place far into the future, over light years. This anthology works to bend the military science fiction genre as we know it, and it succeeds marvelously.
There's a lot of cerebral science fiction packed into this volume — but given the focus, there's also a fair share of action that keep the stories rolling along. Three of my favorite stories, "A Soldier of the City" by David Moles, "Palace Resolution" by Tom Purdom, and "Rats of the System" by Paul McAuley, hit hard with x-ray lasers, missiles and planetary impactors as war explodes around the characters.
Other stories, like "Carthago Delanda Est" by Genevieve Valentine, "Her Husband"s Hands" by Adam-Troy Castro, and "Remembrance" by Beth Bernobich, show another important side of war: the impact on those around the edges of the fighting and at home, as we look at the lengths to which people go to, for some form of security. Further still, in some stories, such as "The Long Chase", by Geoffrey Landis, and "Scales" by Alastair Reynolds, the question is how far humanity will go to win a war, rather than just being pushed to it. The results are unsettling, emotional and tense throughout the book.
It's easy to caricature science fiction stories about the military or warfare as jingoistic or simplistic — but that's an unfair generalization. There are certainly stories out there that meet that description, but this anthology demonstrates that there"s a far wider range of stories that can be told about war and violence. Above all, these twenty stories are good stories, above and beyond the central premise that links them all together. There are stories of daring, heroism and duty, all of which together, make up one hell of a collection.