The Combat Fiction Bar & Grill by Hal Duncan – Notes from New Sodom

From Astounding Stories to The Wars My Destination

The SF Café is a curious place. Take a wrong turn when you step inside the door, and you can find yourself not where you expected at all. Or rather, not when you expected to be.

catch 22

You walk into the SF Café, and mostly you’re reckoning on seeing the shape of things to come — twenty minutes into the future, twenty years or twenty millennia — but there’s a corner of the SF Café that’s not the future at all. Take a step to the left, as the door swings shut behind you with a ting of the bell, and you may well find yourself in a today or yesterday where it’s not the science that’s strange but the history. This is the SF not of Suvin’s novum but of comparable errata, quirks of difference like the holes in your New Yorker’s Swiss Cheese, points of divergence and the oddities of a world evolved from them. You look around the café, find the posters of 1950s Sci-Fi flicks are gone, replaced by images of Confederate victories and Nazi triumphs. Where the salt cellars on the formica tables were once sleek chrome rocket-shapes, now they’re khaki and bulbous… grenades. What the fuck?

You step back out the door, gaze around. The downtown ghetto of Genre seems unchanged, but now when you turn and look up, you see the proof of your shift sideways across the timestreams: where the sign above the door should read The SF Café, now you’re standing before The Combat Fiction Bar & Grill. A parallel reality. An alternate history. And now, as you shrug and head inside, curious to explore this half-familiar elsewhen, the air shimmers around you; a jukebox comes alive with the sound of Swing. It’s bang in the middle of the 20th Century, and the Combat Fiction Bar and Grill has just opened for business.

Out of the pulp fiction boom, a new Genre has emerged, focused on warfare like that erupting in Europe even now. It comes from the industry of dime novels and magazines — Nick Carter Stories, Flying Aces, Marvel Tales, Buffalo Bill Weekly — draws on a 1920s/1930s recipe of hokey heroism, big explosions and valorous deaths as perfected in the Boy’s Own adventure. Without its American flavour it might not be so very different from the even earlier tales of Haggard and Buchan, except that in the hands of a few editors, in the magazines and publishing imprints that they run, a more solid shape has been given, with something of a novel twist to it.

Where it might be just one more in the stable of Street & Smith’s pulp publications, under the editorship of John W. Macdonald, Astounding Stories in particular is bringing a level of rationalism to this mode of Industrial Age Romance. Clear guidelines demand a sharp focus on plausibility: weaponry must work the way it works in reality; strategies must be authentic; the combat must be extrapolated with rigour. And so a whole new Genre is born — inheriting from its romantic forebears but essentially Modern in its fusion of plot dynamics and intellectual mechanics.

Macdonald names it Combat Fiction.

As this Genre matures, that rationalist bent takes its effect. As a new generation of writers enters the field, many turn a cold eye on the sensationalist fluff that is their roots. Oh, they devoured the pulps as kids and they retain a deep love of the boldness to be found there, the sheer vigour of stories driven by peril; but as adults they now appreciate more mature themes. For them, the crass and pandering jingoism is something to be subverted. For them, warfare is not merely a backdrop for heroic adventure stories; rather it is an intrinsic element of plot and theme through which to explore the human condition. The 20th Century is a century of combat, after all. What other Genre is better equipped to address the big philosophical questions of life and death, of what it is to be a human in this world of war? Writing in response to what has gone before, working with the accrued toolkit of tropes or simply with the substrate of war-as-metaphor or war-as-backdrop, this new generation begins to explore these ideas in greater depth, find new angles. Those who are conversant with the Genre are increasingly aware of its potential, keen to exploit it.

Certainly, the pulp roots show through. The commercial impetus of the Genre is evident. Some Combat Fiction readers will buy any old shit as long as you slap a cigar-chomping sergeant on the cover — they want more of the same — and there are plenty ready to serve that up. But that dedicated readership offers a ready-made market for literate — even experimental — works dealing with war. Some readers have read all the permutations of the Combat Fiction novel, even the gritty realist ones, and they’re bored now — they want something original, something novel, something different. So, publishers can take risks on unconventional works which might otherwise fail to reach an audience; the uncritical fans of Genre supports the innovations of a non-generic aesthetic idiom — not Combat Fiction but simply combat fiction… the fiction of combat.

So, one writer called Alfred Bester, in his seminal novel, THE WARS MY DESTINATION, boldly flies his modernist colours in typographic trickery. In the opening pages of the book, he proclaims where he’s coming from in no uncertain terms, with the rhyme quoted above, directly based on a similar rhyme from James Joyce’s A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN.

From The Naked and the Dead to Catch-22

Unfortunately, there’s a catch. The marketing of these works as Combat Fiction places them below the radar of many middle-brow readers. They look at Astounding Stories and they see only another Boys’ Own pulp. Little wonder — it’s sold as a Boys’ Own pulp, with covers of All-American GIs socking Nazis, storming bunkers, stopping tanks in their tracks with a well-aimed grenade. And amongst its siblings, there might be a subtler title like The Magazine of Espionage and Combat Fiction here and there, (espionage being a bedfellow of combat fiction from its earliest days,) but it’s mostly Bloody Battle Tales and Glory and Heroic War Stories.

And more than anything, the public perception of Combat Fiction is shaped by John Wayne movies, where hokey heroism, big explosions and valorous deaths are still the order of the day. Not familiar with the written form, but seeing the lurid covers and sensational titles, they imagine all Combat Fiction to be written at that intellectual level; that’s how it presents itself. They’d only have to read THE NAKED AND THE DEAD to realise this perception was bollocks, but unfortunately, THE NAKED AND THE DEAD is on sale from one of the most successful Combat Fiction imprints, with a brauny GI on the cover, cigar clenched in his gritted teeth. It’s selling shit-loads, but not to those who look at that cover and think “John Wayne movie”.

(In another parallel reality, by the way, just another half-step to the left, Mailer’s novel is sold without the label, and is as widely regarded as a 20th century classic as it is in our reality. It’s not really regarded as Combat Fiction at all, in fact, much to the chagrin of the patrons of the Combat Fiction Bar and Grill. This is just literary snobbery, they say. THE NAKED AND THE DEAD is clearly Combat Fiction, clearly of the same Genre as BIGGLES DEFIES THE SWASTIKA and 300 — and THE ILIAD, no less! But that’s another fold. In this one, those patrons need not worry; here, THE NAKED AND THE DEAD is where it belongs, shelved in Combat Fiction.)

Mailer’s novel is only the first of many to meet this fate. One day, a young writer called Joseph Heller sends his novel, CATCH-22 to an editor, and the editor finds himself in a quandary. It’s obvious from the first few pages of the manuscript that this is about warfare. But it’s also obvious that this is a literary masterpiece. To a public who thinks Combat Fiction means “John Wayne movies,” this non-linear, absurdist narrative might well be seen simply as what it is — a great work of fiction. To some reactionary fans of Combat Fiction, indeed, it might be too flagrant a breach of their expectations. But then again, to a public who thinks Combat Fiction means “John Wayne movies,” the first hint of a WW2 setting might be enough to turn them off. And to the progressive fans of Combat Fiction, this will be exactly what they’re clamouring for.

Marketed as General Fiction, it might stand a better chance of critical and commercial success. But its unconventional nature makes it a risky proposition. Maybe readers unfamiliar with Combat Fiction won’t understand it. Maybe readers wary of Combat Fiction won’t be open enough to understand it. Will they just see a confusion of conventions — brothels and bombing runs — and a silliness they can’t make sense of, lacking the protocols of combat fiction? Will they simply be alienated by the strangeness of it all?

And there is this ready-made market for Combat Fiction. There are the fans who will buy it simply because there’s an airstrip being blown up on the cover. There are a lot of them. And there are a whole lot of the others too, the ones crying out for a work just like this. The non-linear absurdism is a unique selling-point for them. This is an original take on the established tropes if ever there was one, a work which pushes the boundaries of Combat Fiction further than ever before. Within the genre, the editor is convinced, this will win instant renown.

And he’s right. Whole generations of readers too young for it now, readers who haven’t yet graduated to the mature works, readers who haven’t yet been born, will one day buy CATCH-22 as part of the Combat Fiction Masterworks series.

From The Sands of Iwo Jima to The Guns of Navarone

This is the death knell for such books, of course, in terms of wider recognition — to be shelved in a section of the bookstore that many readers simply will not think to browse. They don’t particularly dislike John Wayne movies, those readers, but they’re not fans of them, so why should they bother with that Combat Fiction section? If such a book gets reviewed it’s in the Combat Fiction magazines. It may be hailed as a classic by the patrons of the Combat Fiction Bar and Grill, but when they try to persuade genrephobes of its value they’re met with arched eyebrows of doubt.

Their skeptical friend lowers the copy of NEUROMANCER he happens to be reading.

(He sighs. He’s only just finished arguing with a Crime Fiction fan that NEUROMANCER is not, as they were insisting, “really Crime Fiction” simply because it has criminals in it. In this fold, it should be noted, where fantasy is the third mask between tragedy and comedy, and where Marquezian magical realism has its bedfellow in Orwellian speculative realism, there is no question of such features rendering a work “genre fiction.” Still, those Crime Fiction fans will insist on laying claim to literature like NEUROMANCER that explores the noir idiom as part of its dystopian approach.)

He looks at the copy of CATCH-22 that’s being waved in front of him.

But that’s Combat Fiction, he says. That’s just formulaic dreck, isn’t it? All hokey heroism, big explosions and valorous deaths.

The Combat Fiction fan tries; they really do. They list Combat Fiction works, detail their merits, insisting that the field is not intrinsically formulaic. The genrephobe is dubious that any Genre novel could really achieve the profundity of a Nobel prize winner, or stand the test of time, or satisfy a number of vague criteria of literary quality, that it could really be that good. The fan points to THE NAKED AND THE DEAD as proof. But the title doesn’t ring any bells to the genrephobe. Eventually the Combat Fiction fan must point outside the Genre simply to find something the genrephobe has read. So they point to Hemingway’s FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, a recognised classic. This is dismissed as at most an influence on Combat Fiction, a taproot text, not an actual work of Combat Fiction.

Finally the genrephobe is persuaded, against their will, to give CATCH-22 a go; he’ll find it funny, honestly. He approaches the book with skepticism, expecting something like that John Wayne movie he caught on the TV the other day. It immediately becomes apparent that this is not THE SANDS OF IWO JIMA, and by fuck, it turns out that he loves it. The blend of tragedy and comedy, the fragmented narrative, the dark humanism, the core conceit extrapolated not unlike the speculative realism that is their normal taste. An ambitious book like this is not really Combat Fiction at all. No, it belongs with FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, not WHERE EAGLES DARE.

When he returns it to the fan, he happily confesses his appreciation, oblivious of the dark look flashing across the fan’s face when he praises it as “not really Combat Fiction“. The exasperated fan is just about to hit their clueless friend upside the head when another mate happens by. one of two things happens. Also a patron of the Combat Fiction Bar and Grill, but with more conventional tastes, Philadelphia Stein — Philly for short — can’t help but clock the book he hated. It’s “not proper” Combat Fiction as far as he’s concerned, not like Alistair Maclean’s 1957 classic, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE. Or Robert A. Heinlein’s seminal work from just two years later, STARSHIP TROOPERS. Now, that’s proper Combat Fiction.

As the two fans argue over what is and what isn’t Combat Fiction, the genrephobe turns the copy of CATCH-22 over in his hands. On the back of it, a blurb proclaims of how this work “transcends the genre”. Well, he thinks, it certainly breaks the boundaries that stretch from THE SANDS OF IWO JIMA all the way to THE GUNS OF NAVARONE.

So it goes.

From Perilous Visions to War Stars

What is and what isn’t Combat Fiction? It’s an argument that begins with Catch-22, if not before, and slowly comes to consume the discourse. With Vietnam and the sexual revolution as a backdrop, the 60s and 70s see a renaissance in Combat Fiction, much of it socio-political and experimental, treating the fractured world of war as a reflection of the confusing (post)modern condition. Dubbed the New Wave, some writers in this mode become uncomfortable with the very label Combat Fiction. Many works of Combat Fiction now deal with guerrilla warfare, terrorism, the Holocaust, the Cold War, civil unrest, psychological warfare, inner city gang culture, drug wars, even disputes between neighbours or the “war of the sexes.” Some of it is so abstract in its connection with war that confrontational fiction might be more accurate a term. It’s not combat that’s makes this fiction what it is so much as it’s the “confrontational element.” Though coined by Heinlein, that term is taken up by writers like Ellison, like the cohort of Young Turks who appear in his seminal anthology, PERILOUS VISIONS.

Many fans of Golden Age Combat Fiction consider these writers of the New Wave to be “not real” Combat Fiction. Where is the solid grounding in actual warfare here? they say. Where is the rigour in weaponry and tactics? Hell, where’s the damn story? Give me FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE any day.

Meanwhile, the fan who sees this strange modern idiom as a battlefield of any and all literary techniques and tactics, a free-for-all where the rules of engagement have long since been lost, can hardly mention Combat Fiction to a hardcore genrephobe without facing a dismissive sneer and a reference to those WAR TREK fans who go to conventions dressed up as Spock, in their khaki WAR TREK uniforms, with their papier-mache helmets, and toy rifles. It doesn’t help that, in their uncritical love for all things Combat Fiction, those with the most devotion refer to the Genre by the cute and clever moniker of Com-Fi (pronounced “comfy” by those in the know these days.) It’s hardly a damning indictment — a charge of enthusiasm to the point of silliness — but these strange subcultural shenanigans turn the brand image of Combat Fiction into a barricade.

The situation isn’t helped when a young director named George Lucas, in homage to the G.I. Joe comics he loved as a kid, makes a puerile but rollicking piece of hokum called WAR STARS. John Wayne movies are out of fashion now, so Combat Fiction isn’t a box office draw any more, but WAR STARS is a surprise smash hit. Kids and adults around the world fall in love with it, and it changes the face of cinema, ushering in a new era of blockbusters, many of which have strong elements of Combat Fiction, but few of which have the depth of the written form. BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS is no 2001: A SPACE ILIAD. Most of the those who lap up this Com-Fi would not class themselves as fans. While arching their eyebrows at the fans, indeed, they feel no shame at enjoying this cinematic junk food, because they don’t take it seriously, treat it on the level it essentially belongs, as a frippery. With disdain or disregard, they’ll tell the proselytising fan, they don’t mind spending a few hours on a flick like WAR STARS, but if they’re going to read a book they prefer something substantial.

But WAR STARS, some fans of the written form begin to declare, isn’t really Combat Fiction. With its plot revolving around stolen plans, the infiltration of an enemy base, and the rescue of a captive agent of a resistance movement, it’s clearly Espionage. Which is not a good thing, as far as they’re concerned. The cult of Fleming has exploded by now, and the 1970s sees a glut of derivatives, often hugely successful; most follow such a rigid formula in their tales of James Bond clones on missions to uncover and foil the Evil Genius’s plans for world domination that the term “espionage” becomes synonymous with sub-Fleming wank fantasy. Puerile wish-fulfillment, scorn the hardcore Combat Fiction devotees, hardly wrong but turning a blind eye to the subtleties of Le Carre and Greene in the idiom they abject, and to the testosterone-fueled power-tripping in their own backyard, in writers like Maclean. No, Espionage is the enemy. For some fans, anything from Perilous Visions to War Stars might be the enemy.

Genrephobes, knowing nothing of this territorial squabble and seeing no sense in the distinctions being made… nod and smile.

So it goes.

From Slaughterhouse Five to Harry Potter

Time passes. Down in the ghetto, in the Combat Fiction Bar & Grill, there’s unrest. One of the writers who’s pushed the boundaries the most, Kurt Vonnegut, author of the classic Combat Fiction novel, SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, denies that his work is Genre in an attempt to escape the inexorable taint of formulaic shit that goes with the label Combat Fiction. Regardless of the blatant and direct tackling of the subject matter of Combat Fiction, he rejects the confines of a Genre dismissed by the general public as “John Wayne movies” and celebrated by many of its most ardent admirers on the basis of its “sense of glory.” A large proportion of fans who now vehemently reject Com-Fi as an implicitly derogatory term in favour of a less loaded CF — standing for combat fiction, confrontational fiction, or any number of alternatives — consider this a betrayal of the worst kind.

So it goes.

Time passes. Mainstream writers start turning their hand to combat fiction only to be regarded with extreme suspicion, if not outright hostility. Pat Barker’s REGENERATION, a novel set during World War One but taking place almost entirely in Craiglockhart War Hospital, is a point of controversy. For some fans, the problem is simply that Barker’s book is old hat, done before. If Barker were familiar with the genre she’d know that the War Hospital story was a hoary old cliche, done to death. For others, the problem is that Barker leaves the trenches in the background, which is utterly at odds with the conventions of this Genre of hokey heroism, big explosions and valorous deaths. Barker, as a dabbling mainstream writer, doesn’t really understand the way Combat Fiction works, and so her novel doesn’t work as Combat Fiction. Barker compounds her crime by, in an interview, denying that she writes Combat Fiction, which she dismisses as “grunts with guns” stories. She accepts the label confrontational fiction, but few CF fans notice this.

So it goes.

Time passes. An Espionage series aimed at children and young adults — J.K. Rowling’s HARRY POTTER books — takes hold in the public imagination. Adults who haven’t read a novel in years are suddenly obsessed with HARRY POTTER, with its secret weapons to be sought after, intrigues to be uncovered, plots to be foiled. People like reading about machinations, it seems, and given the choice between middle-class, middle-brow, mid-life crisis novels and books in which a trainee secret agent thwarts the schemes of the Evil Genius Voldemort, they’ll opt for the latter. Some of those writers who now treat Confrontational Fiction as an umbrella term for Combat Fiction and Espionage (“and stuff”) keep their fingers crossed that this will translate to an influx of new readers as fans of HARRY POTTER graduate to more mature works. Others simply see this as a mainstreaming of the confrontational genres in their most commercial and juvenile form, dubious that Rowling’s fans will really move on to Heller and the like.

So it goes.

From The Iliad to War and Peace

In the uptown district of Literature, in some bistro where contemporary realism is the order of the day and critique is always on the menu, a discussion kicks off about this trend in reader tastes. A bookshop assistant who hangs out down in the Combat Fiction Bar & Grill from time to time tries to explain. She describes the simple desire of readers for something more heroic, and the expectations readers have of Genre fiction fulfilling that desire. She begins to speak of the thwarting of those expectations by fiction which does not, in fact, fulfill this desire — but this last point is lost amid the horrified cries of the middle-class and middle brow regulars of the bistro, busy bewailing the debased taste of adult readers who would lower themselves to reading Genre, denying point blank that any work of Combat Fiction could be more than formulaic dreck. To the bookshop assistant they seem driven by some bourgeois neurosis about genre cooties eating away at the foundations of civilisation.

The bookshop assistant, as a reader of cf — in lower case as a marker of mode rather than identity, not a brand label but a shorthand for an aesthetic idiom — is all too familiar with this prejudice, knows that argument is futile. She might point to everything from the ILIAD to WAR AND PEACE as examples of combat fiction, but the very idea will be dismissed as ludicrous; these aren’t Com-Fi. She knows that FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS will likewise be disregarded along with any work that wasn’t published in the actual marketing category. She knows that SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE will be classed as satire or postmodernism. And there’s no point even mentioning THE NAKED AND THE DEAD; this will be entirely unfamiliar, having been published under a Combat Fiction imprint, consigned to the ghetto of Genre. Why should anyone take her word that there are cf novels of the very highest calibre? With a mind already made up about Com-Fi and its freakish fans, why should anyone sift through the shit of that section in their local bookstore for the gems these crazies claim are hidden in the muck?

As a last resort, the bookshop assistant draws a wild comparison to fiction which focuses on, for example, science as a metaphor or backdrop rather than combat. Imagine, she says, a hypothetical and absurd new genre label… call it Science Fiction. And then she traces out a strange counterfactual scenario where such recognised modern classics as Delany’s DALGHREN, Lem’s SOLARIS, Ballard’s THE DROWNED WORLD, a whole host of modern classics, are all lumped together under an arbitrary marketing label. She conjures a pseudo-history of the world, a parallel timestream where — crazy as it may sound — these sort of books are considered “genre fiction.” If the course of events only played out a little differently, she says, you can see how a disjunct could exist between the reality of this field and the popular perception of it. Just as it does, she argues, for combat fiction. Or confrontational fiction, as she prefers to call it. Surely, she says, you can’t fail to see the absurdity of a prejudice dismissing these works simply because they’re “genre fiction,” where this “genre fiction” contains a novel like DHALGREN.

(She doesn’t stop to think before picking DALGHREN as an example. It’s so familiar in its renown that the very name of its apocalyptic city-setting, Bellona, has passed into common usage as a term for any catastrophic collapse from civilisation to senselessness. Bosnia was “a real Bellona.” Rwanda was “a real Bellona.” New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was “a real Bellona.”)

Trust me, she says. CATCH-22 is at least as good as that, to my mind, maybe even better. The only reason it’s not considered a modern classic is because it’s seen as Com-Fi, and Com-Fi is seen as hokey heroism, big explosions and valorous deaths — all that John Wayne movie shit. But the real combat fiction that’s out there is about as far away from that as you can get. It’s not all plot-driven Boys’ Own adventures. It’s not all about weaponry and strategies. The characters and themes and prose can be way more important than any of that — and are in CATCH-22. If it wasn’t for the misperceptions surrounding that Combat Fiction label, CATCH-22 might be as much of a household name as DALGHREN is today.

The genrephobe remains unconvinced. The sort of breadth of definition she’s talking about would cover everything from the ILIAD to WAR AND PEACE, and that’s not a Genre just a gesture.

From The Guns of the South to The Plot Against America

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22.”
Joseph Heller, Catch-22

So our bookstore assistant heads back to the Combat Fiction Bar and Grill. She begins to wonder, on her way, how events might have played out for the field of confrontational fiction if the label had never been coined, if they just had “war novels” — like modernity novels, but focusing on combat rather than progress as their background and theme. She imagines a world where KELLY’S HEROES isn’t blithely lumped in with SCHINDLER’S LIST, or LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL with WHERE EAGLES DARE; where fans of John Wayne movies, Commando comics, Alistair Maclean novels and other such Combat Fiction don’t kvetch about some latter-day CATCH-22 not playing by the rules; where SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE doesn’t need to be validated with a tradition stretching back through Faulkner and Tolstoy and Shakespeare to the ILIAD itself; where there’s no bitter resentment of the lack of respect for “genre fiction” like THE NAKED AND THE DEAD or STARSHIP TROOPERS; no bitching about mainstream writers who deny their work is Combat Fiction when it’s set in a war hospital; no teacup tempests over how Combat Fiction is polluted by Intrigue; no cringing at the self-coined nickname of Com-Fi because that’s really just the movies and TV shows, which really just give confrontational fiction a bad rep.

It’s natural for her to think this way. Alternate History is part of the Genre, after all, with all its counterfactuals of Confederate victories and Nazi triumphs. She’s not that big on the whole GUNS OF THE SOUTH approach herself, but the sub-genre’s been a corner of CF from way back. She’s imagining a world where there’s no argument over whether or not Philip Roth’s THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA is “really combat fiction,” just at the point where she pushes open the door of the Combat Fiction Bar and Grill. As she walks inside, takes a step to the left, she’s imagining a world where the lack of classifications means CATCH-22 isn’t “not really” Combat Fiction to either fan or genrephobe.

Because in her fold, there’s a double-bind of double-binds. As much as the genrephobes apply that notorious axiom — If it’s Combat Fiction, it can’t be good; if it’s good, it can’t be Combat Fiction — the fans have their own, it sometimes seems, those who’re looking for “more of the same” at least: if it’s “not really” Combat Fiction, it can’t be good, if it’s good, it can’t “not really” be Combat Fiction. That fan axiom is written into the very nature of Genre itself, the demand of readers for something that coheres as a Genre.

If it’s exceptional, it can’t be exemplary; if it’s exemplary, it can’t be exceptional.

It’s a real Catch-22, she thinks.