Modern Classic: A Dry, Quiet War by Tony Daniel

Not many people remember this novelette.  It never got any awards, and instead faded away just like what its protagonist tried to do.  This makes it one of the most underrated science fiction stories I know of.  It not only features some amazing concepts (some of which were later repeated in award-winning stories), but it’s also beautifully written, letting the reader experience the world rather than look at it.

Henry Bone returns to his hometown after his war.  He had been gone for twenty years, and barely anyone recognizes him.  His father is dead, but his farm is still in a livable condition, and he sets off to work it again.  He even resumes his relationship with his former girlfriend.  But he never wants to talk about the war.  There is a good reason for that: he was fighting at the end of time, end of the universe.  He was jumping back and forth in time, as well as between parallel universes.  And if he talks about what was happening, he may change the future and will have to fight again to preserve the outcome.

All is well until other soldiers from the war show up.  These are people for whom the fighting never ended, who are working hard to forget.  They brutalize the local population for their amusement, and the locals can’t fight back because these newcomers aren’t fully in their reality or timeline.  Bone could fight them on equal terms, but by doing so he’d change the future as well, and he’d have to go back to the fighting.  And so, he impassively watches as people are assaulted, robbed, or even tortured to death.  But when his girlfriend becomes one of the victims, he must find a way to get involved.

There are several aspects of this story that I really loved.  On the most superficial level, this novella kickstarts the reader’s imagination.  The war, the opposing forces, methods of fighting or weapons are largely hinted at, and the reader is free to spend hours or days thinking about them.  One could spin a series of books just about the war and never be wrong, as there’s barely anything in this story to contradict anyone’s imagination.  As the finale draws near, just enough is revealed to feed the imagination with the promise of an awesome, yet undefined conflict.  The few mechanics that are mentioned, traveling upstream and downstream of timelines, jumping between strands of parallel universes, soldiers being nearly unkillable but hugely influential at various moments of human history, are all central to the plot of the multi-award winning This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone.  I don’t begrudge the authors for using the same concepts.  They are a wonderful example that you can adapt Daniel’s story in a myriad different ways because he leaves so much open for imagination.

Another thing that hit me hard was the writing style.  This novelette reads like pastoral fiction, akin to Bears Discover Fire by Terry Bisson.  It uses less introspection than classic pastoral fiction of Clifford Simak, and instead has the protagonist keep an emotional and often physical distance from his surroundings.  Henry Bone knows he’ll never mentally integrate back into mankind, but he is going through the motions because he has nothing better to do.  Still, he keeps detached from everyone.  This makes him a wonderful narrator, uninvolved, yet observant and intelligent.  He doesn’t rush, and he doesn’t get emotionally charged.  He slows down the story for us to relax with it, despite its high concepts and a very brutal action.

Finally, there is the moral ambiguity of the main character.  Bone is able to stand idly by as his neighbors are getting slaughtered in gruesome ways.  He gets out of his way to not draw attention to himself.  So, when he finally decides to act, the reader may think it’s a little too late, and he deserves the mental anguish to see a loved one suffer.  Then, however, the author throws a curveball by hinting at the atrocities Bone had to commit during the war, and we are left asking ourselves whether he’d be justified to see everyone in his town fall victim to the other soldiers.  My righteous anger at the impassive Bone instantly turned into understanding and agreement with his lack of action, and I was actually hoping he wouldn’t do anything stupid at the end.

In this sense, the story is a tragedy.  A very pleasant to read tragedy, but that won’t matter to Bone.  Once the reader gets over the infatuation with the war and the wonderful concepts it highlights, and once the deceptively smooth prose wears off, we are left with a man who thought he sacrificed his humanity, only to have his humanity betray him and throw him back to where he started.  A Dry, Quiet War is a wonderful piece of writing that has stayed with me for a long time, to the point where I suspect it established permanent residence in a small corner of my mind.  It should be recognized as a classic work of science fiction.

 

This story is available for free, and I encourage everyone to read and enjoy it.

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