Wednesday, 18 December 2013

"Tanks" by Murray Leinster

I am not entirely convinced that this is a science fiction story. It's not a bad story, mind, but I'm having trouble seeing where the science fiction comes in. There are tanks, sure, but a previous story had tanks, and I'm pretty sure they were an established technology by 1930. (If not a perfected one.) I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for it to be revealed that they were really fighting some science fiction enemy - aliens or robots, or hell, mad scientists, since they seem to be the enemy du jour.

Unless I missed something glaring, though, that's not what happened here. The field of battle is never clearly defined, but one of the parties is the United States Army, and they seem to be fighting on American soil. The enemy appears to be human and have roughly equal tank technology. This is a military story, except that it's about a war of 1932 that never happened. Is that enough to make this science fiction? Only for extremely loose definitions of the term.

It's a tale of gas and tank tactics, mostly about two infantrymen who find themselves in a foxhole after a gas attack, and a general who must suss out what his counterpart is doing. Both sides seem to be Americans, although that's not clearly said - but when the two infantrymen take a prisoner of war, he's from New York, and he and one of the infantrymen have a grand conversation comparing favourite places.

The only real technological innovation seems to be a new deadly gas, but that is hardly enough to vault this into the speculative territory. It's a straightforward military cat-and-mouse story.

So, women? I wouldn't expect any, but there isn't even the mention of a girl at home.

Race? Well, that's interesting. There's little overt mention of race, although apparently the war is being fought between the United States and the "Yellow Empire," which certainly carries certain racial baggage. When a soldier from the Yellow Empire is caught, he's described as having "the beady eyes and coarse black hair that marked him racially as of the enemy." But that doesn't extend to other characteristics - the story is quick to point out that "his language[was]  utterly colloquial." So there's a hint of race here, but the enemy is not particularly othered. The whole conversation is between three guys who are pretty much the same - being infantry gives them more in common than race or warring faction divides them.

And science? Well, there's the gas. And the tanks. And that's it, really. No scientists, just divisions between infantrymen and tankmen. And generals.

This is an interesting story, but not science fiction.

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