Cover of The Mercenary

The Mercenary
Jerry Pournelle
223 pages
published in 1977

The Mercenary is one of those books in my collection I'm a bit ashamed of. Not because it's so badly written, but because its politics are so embarrassing. Having it on my bookshelves is a bit like owning a collection of books about the nazis and the Second World War; you can be genuinely interested but it still looks bad to see a row of red and black bookspines with swastikas plastered all over them. Yet it's precisely because of its politics that I kept it when I was purging my collection a few years back and why I reread it now. The Mercenary is a book that stands at the root of one of the more succesful --and distasteful-- science fiction subgenres: mil-sf and in it can be found a lot of what makes the genre so awful so often.

Science fiction has always had a large conservative, rightwing streak running through it and Pournelle falls squarely in this tradition. This in itself is not a problem; some of science fiction's best writers, like Poul Anderson, H. Beam Piper or Robert Heinlein were conservatives or had rightwing sympathies and you can still enjoy (most of) their stories without necessarily agreeing with their politics, even when they've made them explicit. What makes Pournelle different is that he goes beyond this. He's not just a conservative, but a reactionary. His politics as shown in The Mercenary have fascist overtones, though I don't believe he's a fascist himself. No doubt if you asked him he would describe himself as an American conservative and believer in a strong democracy, though weary of the wisdom of the average voter, but what comes across here is his deep pessimism and mistrust of democracy and his yearning for a saviour to safe democracy from itself.

The original stories that make up The Mercenary were written in 1971-1973, not a happy time for America, with the War on Vietnam being lost overseas while at home there's all kinds of political corruption, civil unrest and a stagnant economy. Pournelle projects these circumstances largely unchanged (but for the Vietnam war) into the future. America has become a corrupt mock-democracy, with the population divided into a smallish elite of taxpayers and a large mass of unemployed Citizens on welfare, kept docile with television and drugs. Internationally the detente of the seventies between the US and USSR by the nineties has evolved into the CoDominium, in which each of the two superpowers gets to rule its half of the world and the nuclear arms race is finally stopped, but at a cost. Scientific research is strictly controlled and international relations are kept frozen, with the problems facing the world not so much solved as postponed. While interstellar travel is routine and involuntary colonisation has been under way for decades, Earth at the end of the twentyfirst century is still dangerously overcrowded and once again in the grip of growing nationalistic tensions.

In this corrupt, overpopulated, barely working world there's only one group that's pure and noble aand dedicated to keeping the CoDominium intact as it is the only thing that keeps Earth from collapsing into nuclear war. It's not the huddled masses, who at best are shown as nameless cowed victims of the system, at worst as greedy lazy morons incapable of understanding why the government can't give them everything they want. Nor is it the politicians, who are either completely corrupt or worse, starry-eyed reformers unable to understand why the system, corrupt asd it has to be kept in place. No, the only people who do understand the pressures the system is under and why the Codominium is necessary are the Codominium Space Navy and Marines and their precious few allies in the CoDominium Senate.

John Christian Falkenberg is an officer in the CoDominium Marine corps, unfairly drummed out of the corps for stepping on the toes of a big political donor and who becomes a mercenary leader of a famous mercenary company: Falkenberg's Mercenary Legion. The first third of The Mercenary decribes the political background I sketched above, through a series of vignettes. It's only with chapter five that the story proper begins, with Falkenberg's first campaign. With the CoDominium ever more absorbed by what's happening on Earth and only interested in the more commercially succesful colonies, the sudden and often forced independence of many colonies inevitably lead to war, hence the creation of mercenary companies with the means and discipline to wage real wars, as few colonies can afford a proper national army. Falkenberg's Legion is hired by the incipient government of Hadley to keep the order after it will officially cease to be a colony and become a real state.

Hadley has a lot of problems, but the largest is the prensence of hundreds of thousands of involuntary colonists, dumped there from Earth with none of the skills or willingness to survive on a barely settled planet. Politically organised by the socalled Freedom Party, which holds huge rallies in the giant sport stadium build on Hadley by one of the construction companies with ties to the CoDominium navy. This party promises welfare for everybody without taking into account the limits of what's possible on Hadley, while society as a whole is on the point of collapse already. A fight between the original colonists and the Freedom Party is inevitable and Falkenberg's Legion is there to organise the government forces and create a breathing space in which Hadley's problems can be solved.

They do so, but not in ways Hadley's government expected. Specically, they solve most of Hadley's problems by massacring the opposition in that big stadium I mentioned, in a nod to the way Byzantium emperor Justinian dealt with the Nika Rioters. Pournelle portrays this killing of thousands of mostly unarmed people as an awful but necessary tragedy, as without the destruction of the Freedom Party and their supporters the entire civilisation of Hadley would've been destroyed eventually. Pournelle also makes sure that we know these people are incorrigable, completely evil or stupid and of course completey unable to see the simple truth of the matter. To call them strawmen would be too much of an honour; cardboard has more depth. Not that they are shown as anything other but faceless masses anyway. The rest of The Mercenary is slightly less objectionable, though we are supposed to cheer on the military takeover of another colony that had entrusted Falkenberg with their security.

As you see, the fascist overtones of The Mercenary are not subtle. The military (including mercenaries) is consistently presented as the sole honourable, trustworthy institute while politicans are at best shown to be amoral monsters or naive civilians out of their depth. Democracy is paid lip service to, but government is shown as too important to leave to the masses; rather a small elite of wise, tough men (and the occasional woman) should take care of it. Problems can only be solved by violence, up to mass murder, cities are not to be trusted and the ideal lifestyle is seen as a sort of farmer/soldier hybrid. That's why I'm ashamed of having this book in my collection, even if it's one of the corner stones of the mil-sf genre.

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Webpage created 17-08-2008, last updated 13-09-2008.