My trouble with battles in genre fiction

Having moved back home (yey, I am back to writing stuff and paying bills), I finally found time to rearrange the books I’ve been lugging around, while visiting conferences and parents. Going through the shelves, I noticed an interesting pattern: half of my academic interests revolve around military matters and social networks, while everything else is delegated to the side-lines. In genre fiction, however, I avoid battle scenes and war drama like plague, military sci-fi being my least favourite genre (ok, Honor Harrington gets some points from me just because she is Honor Harrington). Moreover, I dislike even the most well-written and well-researched battles. They simply bore me.

This admission seems strange given my undying love for the new Thrawn Trilogy and Legend of the Galactic Heroes that centre around brilliant military minds. Both series feature political and military struggles, not shying away from action. I adore them because they are not about battle descriptions, explosions and accuracy (‘Prussia in space’ is not supposed to be super accurate). They don’t focus on military manoeuvres as such, but rather on military thinking.   

Battle of minds. Not battles of weapons. Great strategists are masterminds. They already have a chessboard in front of them. All an author needs to do is to set the game and watch them play. And an action sequence is the most obvious, but not the most effective way of showcasing the game. It won’t work unless you are following the turning gearwheels of a commander’s mind. Detailed descriptions of troop movements do little for the story. They are boring to read, they occupy precious space and they only demonstrate, how well you did your homework. Someone’s inner struggle, on the other hand, is everything.

The brain – your most beautiful battlefield!

Assomeone, who is keen on military history, I do appreciate the thorough research required to produce great fantasy battles. I know how difficult it can be. Considering the effort, I still don’t care about spectacular fights and heavy artillery in genre fiction. It distracts me from the clash of minds and ideologies that is far more exciting. I can always read Clausewitz if I want to satisfy my craving. The only thing that stirs my interest in fiction is the struggle inside the person’s head, so I’d gladly watch an admiral going insane, while a battle is raging on…without the said battle actually being shown. 

I know how battles happen. What I don’t know are the commander’s thoughts.

Replacing a battle. There are quite a few approaches to elegant ‘battle-skipping’. The so-called blackout is one of my favourites. We all remember how Bilbo Baggins passes out at the start of the epic battle of the Five Armies, effectively missing the action. Well, I don’t regret not reading five chapters about the fighting. The battle itself is not nearly as interesting as the characters grappling with its consequences. Also, I would say a skipped battle is far better than twenty pages of military porn. We have all read that.

Your traditional sci-fi/fantasy battle: bigger, higher, cooler! 100 pages!

The bloody montage. The second battle-skipping technique is what I call a ‘horrors of war’ montage – a viceral description of how everything is going to hell without any nitty-gritty tactical details. With explosions. With gore. With dirt and blood. The Poppy War has a fair amount of these scenes, and they seem to fit the tone of the story well. The series does not focus much on the commanders’ psychology, but still captures the right mood. After all, the ‘horrors of war’ montage delivers everyone’s favourite message about war being disastrous without spending too much time on the details.

This approach merged with ‘battle-skipping’ is extremely popular. Especially in historical fiction that focuses on the social aspects of political turmoil. Many historical novels profit greatly from skipped wars, including my childhood’s favourite Hungarian Classic – Sons of the Stone-Hearted Man. At one point the protagonist Ödön and his Russian friend are literally trying to outrun a wolf pack, while on their way to Hungary. The chase is as hilarious as it is absurd. Simultaneously, the bloody action of the 1848-1849 revolution is barely in the novel.

While I don’t deny the impact of censorship in the Habsburg Empire at the time Jokai lived, I still find it most interesting that we never get to see any military action, although it is always in the background, influencing the destinies of all the Hungarian/Austrian/Russian characters, who appear in the novel. What matters is that the revolution happened and turned their lives upside down. The battle of Világos, thus, is only important in the novel because a beloved national poet died, and the course of history changed.

Your typical post-battle hero, staring at the mess he’s created. Cool and impractical.

Realistic does not mean believable. An action sequence in fiction may be both very accurate and very unnecessary. A fictional battle is only interesting when volley fire takes a back seat. Cool tactical manoeuvres do not make a story more interesting. In my beloved Legend of the Galactic Heroes, the true stake is not whether Yang Wen-Li will find a cool solution to a new military challenge (of course, he will), but the aftermath.

There is no such thing as a realistic fantasy battle. Memoirs of commanders and strategists are realistic (even though this statement is up for debate). Genre fiction remains fiction first. And while I do enjoy military memoirs, I grow tired of authors trying to replicate their accuracy in genre fiction, depicting every tiny detail. Artists do not need to compete with historians when analysing military tactics. Fiction does not need to offer a perfect unbiased analysis of military manoeuvres and realistic fights. Believable does not always mean historically accurate. Not in fiction.

Consequences make realism. Believable means consequences: ruined infrastructure, political shifts, mental breakdowns, etc. Action scenes, showcasing great battles are fun, but, ultimately, they are as good as the commanders, who participate in them. I expect a great character to lead your battle. Otherwise, I can go and read the ‘real’ stuff. I can buy your Mary-Tzu general, who wins battles with some arcane technique that would not have worked in real life (ok, that’s Grand Admiral Thrawn and his art in a nutshell). I don’t mind if you just state that this is the Admiral Yi of your universe and never really show his tactical miracles. If the book is about him navigating court intrigue, I don’t mind never seeing him lead an attack in real-time. His military accomplishments can all happen off-screen. I don’t mind the skips if I see the result of brilliance and the impact it has on him.  

I understand there are some superb examples of well-crafted fantasy battles – the battle of Blackwater in the Song of Ice and Fire is one of them. I realize that many genre fiction fans crave fantasy battles. And I am hardly one of them. I don’t see the point in a lengthy description of military action. Even if it is spectacular. Even if the commanders are the best characters one can imagine. I’d rather have them talk and predict each other’s moves.

Fantasy military action has ruined a couple of otherwise decent fantasy novels for me – I simple could not trudge through fifty pages of heavy cavalry attacks from both flanks. The only battles I can sit through are the ones, where the real action happens in a person’s head, while all the surrounding noise serves as a background. 

Fantasy and sci fi battles are undeniably a great part of the genre that many people enjoy. I don’t. Not because I don’t like gore. I do. I often notice that these battles sacrifice the most important psychological and personal stakes in favour of something so grand that it ends up being a simple action sequence.

3 thoughts on “My trouble with battles in genre fiction

  1. I have to admit I enjoy some military porn every now and then. Although it should be a part of the whole package, with battles having solid causes, and believable consequences. I really liked the early Honor Harrington novels, with some battles lasting for dozens and dozens of pages – but I felt they are a part of strategy, and not just spaceships firing missiles.

    One of my favourite fantasy battles is the entire novel “The Heroes” by Abercrombie. The battle is integrated into the wider, multi-novel plot, and experienced on all the levels, from footsoldiers to the leaders. And the very true idea that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy is fully confirmed 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, ‘the Heroes’! I though about them a lot when trying to figure out why exactly battles are so tricky to nail. I am still not certain where ‘the Heroes’ fit. On the one hand, the whole military action seemed organic to me when I read it – it’s not one of those cases, where you want to set the book on fire because the glorious battle/war/campaign never ends (Warhammer 40 000 in real time and without a break). On the other, I was disappointed because I did not get to see much outside the battlefield.

      As to Honor, well….she’s Honor. I think I could simply read ten novels about her walking around and drinking tea. I too swallowed the first three in high school. Then the whole Manticore thing became a bit tiresome. But Honor was still impressive. I haven’t re-read the series ever since. Perhaps, today I’d see it differently.

      I was absolutely into military porn when I started the university. By the time I graduated, my interest faded. I guess, it’s genre fatigue as well, because I began reading a ton of historical novels about the military. Those novels sucked the pleasure out of it. In 90% of cases, you get amazing accuracy, cool descriptions, clever tactics. And nothing else. It all lands flat.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sure, we’re all grown up and the simple pleasures of a fictional war in all its ugliness are not as much fun as it used to be 😉 David Weber, especially, I’m done with him, and the last few volumes I’ve only read because I’m a completionist. Anyway, you go a bit too far for me, in the post, but I agree in general, there are way too many poorly written battles in genre fiction, and not enough operational and strategic realism 😉

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