Saturday, July 13, 2024

GRRM’s The Hero is a strong commentary on war

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Part of the GRRM Reading Project.

We started our journey through the works of George R. R. Martin (GRRM) with his early amateur writing, published for the first time in the Dreamsongs collection. Like The Fortress or And Death His Legacy, GRRM wrote The Hero during his college years. It marks an important point in his career: this is Martin’s first professionally published story. That’s right, our boy GRRM went pro!

The long story behind its publication is told in the autobiographical segments of Dreamsongs. I recommend you all to read it, since it’s an interesting account on the backstage of publishing in early ‘70s and what it meant to start a career in writing. Written in late ‘60s, The Hero was published for the first time in the February, 1971 issue of Galaxy.

How well did it age?

From here on, spoilers for The Hero. Due to the nature of the points chosen for analysis, that segment contains spoilers as well.

The Hero follows Field Officer John Kagen, a soldier from the Terran Expeditionary Force on a quest to conquer new planets. The natives of those planets are no match for Terran technology, in all the glory of its Hollywood Science

Back at the outpost, Kagen has orders to see Major Grady about this pesky little thing he wants:

“My term of enlistment is up within two weeks, Major. I don’t plan to reenlist. So I’ve requested transportation to Earth. That’s all there is to it.”

After twenty years of service, Kagen is entitled to retire with full pension. Major Grady doesn’t want him to leave, citing his great records and all the excitement that is to come now that they’re close to open war against the Hrangan Empire. Despite his insistence, Kagen is adamant about retiring and settling specifically on Earth. Born in one of the War Worlds that provide soldiers while Earth provides high-ranking officers, Kagen wants to see what he’s been fighting for all those years. He’s getting bored of fighting and feels he’s getting older and slower. Also:

As you say, everyone on Earth must know me. I’m a hero. […] On Wellington I’m just one of hundreds of old vets. Hell, every one of the troopers who does retire heads back to his old barracks. But on Earth I’ll be a celebrity. Why, I’ll be the fastest, strongest guy on the whole damn planet. That’s got to have some advantages.

When it becomes clar that Kagen knows his rights and won’t step down, Grady tries to reach his gun. Kagen stops him, but is seized by the tractor beams protecting Grady’s office. Still, Grady decides to give Kagen what he wants.

On the day of his retirement, Kagen takes a shuttlecraft for a starship to Earth. He’s kept in place with tractor beams for the liftoff, but instead of releasing him the tractor beams get tighter and tighter, to the point of hurting him.

“‘Cut it out!’ he cried, his voice shrill with pain. ‘You’re killing me. Damn you, you’re killing me!’ And suddenly he realized he was right.”

In the outpost, the perpetually bored Grady tells his aide to space Kagen’s corpse, release a fake news note on his death blaming the Hrangan Empire, and send his medals to the barracks museum in Kagen’s homeworld.

On Corps and Corpses

There are many reasons why I’m a fan of GRRM’s work, but when it comes to stories like A Song of Ice and Fire his skill with characters and worldbuilding stands out. To my disappointment, those two aspects fell flat in The Hero during my first read. It was only with time, thinking about the story and its themes, that I came to appreciate what GRRM was trying to achieve.

The story has only three named characters, but Ragelli doesn’t really count because he simply exists. Kagen and Grady have better characterization and we can tell more about their motivations and personalities, but they still feel quite bland.

The story constantly emphasizes how bored Grady is, and I think it’s part of the point that GRRM is trying to make with this character. He seems very aloof, seeing soldiers and natives as nothing but tools to achieve his goals. He clearly considers War Worlders second-class citizens, to the point of feeling offended with the idea of Kagen moving to Earth. Overall he reads as a sharp criticism against the people responsible for wars, who hide behind desks disregarding the lives of soldiers and civilians alike.

Kagen barely has any inner life and the only information we have about his personal motivations comes during his conversation with Grady. He feels more machine than human, particularly when he meets a group of natives early in the story:

One began to speak. He never finished.
During the brief flickering instant before the natives’ fingers began to tighten on their triggers, Kagen did not pause, Kagen did not hesitate, Kagen did not think. Kagen killed.
Kagen spun, still reacting, searching for the next foe. He was alone.

His reaction feels almost automatic, and it’s an effective moment to show how this violence has become a part of Kagen’s routine. His apparent lack of inner life does have a point: after twenty years of service that translated into killing, maiming, and conquering, there seems to be a little less humanity left in him. Kagen dedicated his life to military service and it took everything it could from him, both physically and emotionally. Even his death will serve to further an agenda against his personal wishes.

So both Kagen and Grady have a reason behind what feels like an apparent lack of characterization, but I wonder if the execution was done effectively or if they’re more commentaries than characters. 

The setting suffers from a similar problem, because for the most part it feels very generic. There are a few hints of something more interesting underneath the surface: the near paranoia of the Terran Expeditionary Force, the fact that soldiers are expected to be on drugs to keep their performance, the hinted conditioning of soldiers in the War Worlds, the dynamic between Earthers and War Worlders… but most of this isn’t explored.

I suspect this also has a point: it’s not about this planet in particular or these people in particular, but the pattern on this military and those behaviors that GRRM denounces. The fact that the setting is so generic turns it into a surrogate for any real life conflict the reader may see on it. We never learn the reasons behind this conflict, but it doesn’t really matter.

So both characters and setting share this quality, an apparent blandness that is almost the point. I can’t say how well it worked for me, but I can understand why they were written this way.

What I can’t really understand is again the lack of diversity. Yes, I’m going to insist on this in every single story of this reading project, because it’s becoming a pattern in GRRM’s early writing. All his stories are about men, presumably white, straight, cis, etc. I say “presumably” because I don’t like the idea of assuming whiteness or heterosexuality as default, but he doesn’t give us any hint that this may not be the case. I realize the story has very few characters, but women aren’t even mentioned.

War… war never changes

The most interesting aspect of The Hero for me is GRRM’s commentary on war. Different readers may have a different reading since each country has different views on war and military forces—as for me, coming from a country that experienced a long military dictatorship in a not so distant past, I must confess I’m not very fond of the guys. It’s useful, however, to keep in mind the context during which The Hero was written.

GRRM wrote this story in the late ‘60s, during Cold War. We know from the autobiographical segments of Dreamsongs that he opposed the war in Vietnam and even applied for conscientious objector status. When we consider those circumstances, we can see their influence in the story.

The Hero isn’t even subtle on its sharp criticism on war. We never learn the reasons of the conflict between Earth and the Hrangan Empire, so the whole thing feels somewhat pointless. It’s two major nations measuring forces against each other in a cold war, conquered people and territories be damned, but we never understand what they’re fighting for besides this expansionism. It doesn’t help that Kagen himself says he wants to see what he’s been fighting for, implying he doesn’t know that yet.

What we do see of this conflict are its consequences, from the vivid description of the assault of a nameless city in the story’s opening scene to everything that happens with Kagen. Furthermore, we have no reason to believe that Kagen’s exhaustion or his drug use are exceptions. It’s just how it is.

Those issues, the character of Kagen as a whole, and his dynamic with Grady remind me a lot of the way GRRM handles war in A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF). I’ve seen fans defending that ASOIAF is an anti-war statement, but I don’t think that’s the case. It’s hard not to see a point in conflicts like Robert’s Rebellion or the war against the Lannisters, even if we don’t agree with how they were conducted. I think ASOIAF, much like The Hero, wants you to think about the consequences of war. It argues that the people fighting this war or suffering its effects more directly are often not the ones that will benefit from it.

I see echoes of Kagen’s story in the famous “broken man speech” from A Feast for Crows. The speech is too long to copy on its entirety, but it deserves its place among the most well-remembered lines in ASOIAF:

“One day they look around and realize all their friends and kin are gone, that they are fighting beside strangers beneath a banner that they hardly recognize. They don’t know where they are or how to get back home and the lord they’re fighting for does not know their names, yet here he comes, shouting for them to form up, to make a line with their spears and scythes and sharpened hoes, to stand their ground. And the knights come down on them, faceless men clad all in steel, and the iron thunder of their charge seems to fill the world . . . And the man breaks.”

One could argue that Kagen is a broken man, or a man in the verge of breaking. War isn’t glorious, but now there’s no going back. And who is he fighting this conflict for, anyway? He gave so much of himself, physically and emotionally, and it was sort of… expected?

The ending is perhaps the sharpest criticism of all: what do we do with our war heroes? Once the war is done and we took everything we wanted from them, what do we do? Do we fulfill whatever promises that sent them away from home? Do they get rest, peace, an exciting life for themselves? Are they honored as heroes or celebrities? Or do we honor just their medals, but not the person carrying them? What do we do with that person?

Closing thoughts

Despite its shortness and shortcomings, The Hero was a surprisingly deep story. It’s still not classic GRRM destroying our hearts with his sweet, sweet themes, but he’s getting there.

The story’s commentary on war and the treatment of war heroes are surprisingly contemporary. It’s not the first time one of GRRM’s old stories touches issues similar to the ones we’ve been dealing with, and I suspect it won’t be the last time either. It’s not very subtle and the execution isn’t perfect, but I think The Hero is very successful in making the reader question those issues in real life.

Next time: haunted highways and genre mash-up await us in “Exit to San Breta”


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