Operation Eagle: Practically a Military Maneuver

Spy MissionWhen you’re a writer, you get to do unusual things, and it’s all right. Apparently eccentric behavior is expected for writers. A situation arose this weekend which allowed me to exploit this principle.

My sister-in-the-law had to go to Florida on a business trip. Her husband, Steve, my brother, already had a cross country motorcycle race he was scheduled to be in with some of his friends. So there was a twenty-four hour period where they had to do something with their daughter.

They arranged for their daughter, Bailey, to stay overnight and for most of the next day with the family of Bailey’s best friend. Everything was planned in detail, and then the plan fell apart.

Bailey got sick.

The family that was taking care of her was unsure what to do with a sick child that wasn’t their own. Many phone calls ensued between Virginia (where we’re all from), Florida (where Bailey’s mother was) and West Virginia (where Steve was). Operation Eagle was therefore created out of necessity to retrieve Bailey from the family that was taking care of her.

Everybody had a code name. The mission was set in motion by Control, in Florida. Bailey became the Package, located at the Target Site in Ashburn, VA. I was Liberator1, accompanied by Liberator2 (my wife) for backup. We drove over to pick up the Package and take her to the Safe House, otherwise known as our house. Bonehead (Steve) cruised in a few hours later to pick up the Package and take her back to Home Base.

My niece, Bailey, thought it was all pretty amusing, as well as being yet more proof that her uncle was crazy. Being the crazy writer uncle is kinda fun.

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The Defense of Duffer’s Drift

The Defense of Duffer's DriftDuring one of the recent meetings of the Loudoun County Writers Group, a local group to which I belong, I recommended a famous book about military tactics to the attendees. The reason is simple. One of the things that I’m seeing regularly (and I’m not picking on anyone in particular – I keep seeing it from multiple writers) is a lack of understanding when it comes to military activities. By which, I mean the use, or potential use, of force, to achieve an objective or to defend yourself from somebody else who is using force.

The book I recommended is called The Defense of Duffer’s Drift, by Major General Sir Ernest Dunlop Swinton, and was written in 1904 shortly after the Boer War in Africa. It’s a classic of small unit tactics…and it’s a fun book.

Yes, fun. That’s not a typo.

Swinton, by the way, was a famous, forward-thinking British military officer who is credited with 1) inventing (or at least promoting) the concept of the tank, 2) writing one of the seminal books on small unit tactics (this book), which is still required reading in many military curriculums, and 3) anticipating the potential impact of aerial warfare back in 1914. Yeah, so he’s got some serious military cred.

The hero of the book is Lt. Backsight Forethought (arguably one of the best names ever for a character), who has been given command of a 50-man reinforced platoon and assigned to protect Duffer’s Drift, a small valley where there is a militarily strategic river ford. While wondering how he’s going to accomplish his task, he has six dreams wherein he “tries” different tactics.

In essence, the book leads the reader through a series of possible solutions to the hapless lieutenant’s military problem by showing the tactics used in each dream…and the ensuing results. With each successive dream, the hero refines his tactics until his final solution is utterly brilliant and, yet, far different than even I would have expected. It’s fascinating stuff, and logically explained even for a military layman. It’s also illustrated, with detailed maps to ensure that it’s easy to visualize the terrain, the tactics and the disposition of forces.

Finally, it’s short, only 72 pages. And cheap. 99 cents on Kindle and around $5 for a paperback. It’s in the public domain, so there are numerous editions available, both in print and electronic form. I’ve linked to this edition because it looks like Praetorian Press did a solid Kindle edition of the book.

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John Hemry at Capclave

John Hemry and David Keener Saturday night at Capclave 2013, I decided to avoid the preparations for George R. R. Martin’s mass signing — he just about doubled the size of the conference, and the line for his signing wrapped around the interior of the Hilton. I checked the schedule and noticed that there was a John G. Hemry reading, so I decided to attend that session.

I got there a few minutes early, and there was another man also waiting outside the room for the previous session to end. So I joked around with him for a few minutes before I finally looked down at his badge. I’d been speaking to John Hemry for more than five minutes without realizing it, which just shows how observant I am.

Stark's War by John G. HemryWe both laughed when I explained to him that I had just realized who I’d been speaking to. Then I added, “By the way, I saw you speak the first time you were ever a panelist. You’d signed a publishing contract, and your first novel, Stark’s War, was due to be released but wasn’t out yet. So they added you as a panelist for the Baltimore Worldcon in 1998.”

Hemry said, “I bet I was a lot thinner, back then.”

“Well, me too.”

In fact, it was the 56th Worldcon, which was held in 1998 in downtown Baltimore. I remembered picking up his first novel a few months after the convention. So, I’ve been reading Hemry’s books for the last 15 years.

His career has had a very interesting trajectory. Like a lot of midlist SF writers his sales over his first seven books (the three books in his Stark’s War trilogy and the four books in his JAG in Space series featuring military legal expert Paul Sinclair) either diminished over time, or didn’t grow fast enough to suit the publisher. So he began publishing his Lost Fleet series under the pen name of Jack Campbell.

Henry / Campbell BrandingThat six-book series proved to be extremely successful, and allowed Hemry to “graduate” to hardcover releases. Hemry is now publishing two new series set in that universe, The Lost Stars and The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier. Plus, all of his backlist books have been re-published with better cover art and re-branded with both his regular name and his pen name.

This is actually a pretty big deal. Most writers who are forced switch to a pen name are fortunate if they subsequently achieve success under that pen name. It’s even less common for such a writer to resurrect their entire backlist or re-brand themselves back under their original name. So kudos to John G. Hemry for this feat.

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless - by John G. Hemry Anyway, his reading was scheduled for thirty minutes, and about twelve people eventually showed up for his reading (which is a respectable number). Hemry opted to read a chapter from his latest hardcover, The Lost Worlds: Perilous Shield, featuring an incident in which a commanding officer had to remove another officer from their position.

What I like about Hemry’s work is that he leverages his own military experience to provide thoughtful military fiction that isn’t just about the glory to be won in battle. His stories show not just the battlefield, but also the behind-the-scenes problems of leadership, discipline, political maneuvering and strategy that all effect the outcome of conflicts. In short, if you like military fiction, you should check out his books — you won’t be disappointed.

I recommend starting with the Stark’s War or Lost Fleet series, both of which are shown on this page and conveniently link over to Amazon for you.

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Armageddon 2419 A.D.

Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan, 1972 combined edition - the original Buck Rogers novel
Armageddon 2419 - Another Ace cover for the combined novel
Armageddon 2419 - Unknown Edition
Armageddon 2419 - Advertisement
Armageddon 2419 - Amazing Stories 1928
Airlords of the Han - Amazing Stories 1929

In my Forgotten Gems blog entries, I try to highlight novels older than 20 years that are still worth reading, but which might otherwise be all but forgotten by most SF aficionados. This time around, I chose Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan. Those with a grounding in SF history may recognize this novel as the original basis for Buck Rogers, an SF character who has been featured in novels, newspaper strips, serials, films, television shows and role-playing games. The character also spawned imitations, notably Flash Gordon.

In all honesty, Armageddon 2419 A.D. is a decidedly mixed bag. There’s much in it that is admirable, a fair amount that is seriously dated, and some parts that may be moderately offensive to modern sensibilities (particularly if you’re a woman).

Where Can I Get It?

The novel originated as two novellas, including “Armageddon 2419 A.D,” published in 1928, and “Airlords of the Han,” published in 1929. They were both published in the magazine, Amazing Stories. Both novellas are now in the public domain and available for free from Project Gutenberg:

    Armageddon 2419 A.D.
    The Airlords of the Han

Most e-readers can accommodate the formats (such as PDF, Kindle and Epub) that are available from Project Gutenberg. There are also links to Amazon on the right, where you can purchase the story in paperback form (generally with both stories combined to form a single novel) or as a Kindle download from various vendors.

What’s It About?

I first encountered Armageddon 2419 A.D. in the seventies. My father had a copy of the 1972 Ace release of the novel, which was actually composed of two separate novellas. I was first attracted to it by the dynamic cover which, to me, is one of the best covers that the book ever received in all its years of publication. That cover is the top one shown on the right side of this page.

The main character of the novel is Anthony Rogers, a veteran of the Great War (World War I, in other words). Note that the nickname of “Buck” never made an appearance until the newspaper strip came along. While investigating an abandoned coal mine, he is trapped by a cave-in. Subsequently, some sort of radioactive gas leaked into the cave and preserved him in suspended animation for almost 500 years.

He awakens to a future in which America, and the world, have been conquered by the Air Lords of the Han. The Han are Mongols who may have fallen under some unspecified, soulless influence. They rule the world with their airships and disintegrator rays.

Americans have been reduced to gangs, rather like tribes, living in the woods. They’ve spent years working in secrecy to develop technologies that they can use to defeat the Han. They also have notable knowledge gaps, having lost a great deal of knowledge during the last 500 years, including historical information and data on large-scale military tactics.

Anthony Rogers is introduced to these gangs by a classic damsel in distress, Wilma Deering, whom he rescues from some Han pursuers. Once he’s accepted by the gangs, his knowledge and experience as a soldier prove invaluable to the cause of freedom.

A Balanced View

Let’s talk pros and cons. On the plus side, it’s a surprisingly militaristic novel, with much thought given to realistic tactics given the various imaginary technologies in play. It’s also unflinchingly realistic about the risks of, and casualties incurred in, military actions. Likewise, the “fish out of water” premise is intriguing. Everybody likes a story about that one special character who can “make a difference.”

On the negative side, we have a bunch of issues.

The most glaring one is that Wilma Deering isn’t allowed to be competent in any way. Every time you turn around, she’s being knocked out so the hero can rescue her. Her main role is to introduce Rogers to her gang, and then to become his sidekick and/or damsel-in-distress. This is reflective of the time period, perhaps, but still not overly thrilling to female readers.

There are no real aliens in this story, so the Han are really just a thinly veiled reference to the Chinese, who were thought of as the Yellow Peril back in the 1920’s. The second novella makes some references to how the Han were “infected” by some soulless, alien influence, but nothing more concrete than that is ever presented to explain the background or futuristic technology of the Han.

In the political realm, Anthony Rogers is too readily accepted as a leader. Also, to my taste, the author provides way too much exposition about how the various technologies work. Finally, the “radioactive gas” that causes suspended animation stretches the bounds of believability.


So, why is it a Forgotten Gem?

Well, the story has certainly got flaws, but it still represents, to some degree, where SF started. Even as late as the 1960’s and early 1970’s, there were very few female “leading ladies” in SF stories. Nevertheless, next to Harry Potter, Conan and, perhaps, The Lord of the Rings, Buck Rogers is one of the most successful and most recognized SF creations of all time.

Despite the novel’s obvious flaws and despite the 85 years that have passed since the initial novella was published, there’s a story in there that still resonates. We should recognize that story’s power and historical influence, while acknowledging its flaws. As we produce SF and Fantasy today, we should strive to overcome the issues that make so much older SF virtually unreadable to modern women, while remembering the power that slumbers still in some of those forgotten gems.

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