Questions for a Soldier

by John Scalzi

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Publisher: Subterranean
Copyright: 2005
Printing: 2012
ISBN: 1-59606-468-4
Format: Kindle
Pages: 28

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Yet another short story from the Subterranean Scalzi Super Bundle collection, which is padding out my numbers this year since I don't seem to be writing as many reviews. It was originally published as a chapbook and then reprinted in Subterranean Magazine, and is now available on the Kindle for 99 cents.

Questions for a Soldier is really a short story, and slight even for that. It's a pendant to Old Man's War, a close-up of one stop in a good will tour that John Perry, the protagonist of that novel, does during it. In universe, it's basically a propaganda piece for the Colonial Defense Force that fleshes out some more of the background, mainly from the CDF side, of Scalzi's future universe.

What Scalzi is doing here is mildly interesting: he's trying to capture the style of this sort of public affairs, feel-good speaking engagement but balance that against his portrayal of Perry as an honest straight shooter. Perry does a lot of the careful presentation of both sides that one would expect from someone who knows he's standing up to represent one side of an issue but doesn't want to make the propaganda too obvious. As a portrayal of a political speech of the subgenre "trying not to act like a politician," I think Scalzi successfully captures the tone.

That's probably also why I found it vaguely annoying, since I think such speeches are a classic form of manipulation. Take someone (who may even honestly be a person of good will), put them up in front of a crowd, don't tell them what they have to say but make sure they're representing something that they're at least somewhat proud of, and let social pressure and expectations take care of the rest. The person will come across as honest and open (since they consider themselves to be), they don't actually know anything damaging, and they'll want to present their side in a good light. Humans are wonderful at rationalizations. The audience comes away feeling like the people they may be politically opposed to are human, and good people, and they can't be doing anything that upsetting since that fellow was a nice, upstanding person who told some great war stories and was clearly putting themselves in danger to protect the rest of us. It blunts political outrage and anger, justified or not, with a bit of "we're all on the same side and we're all good people" emotional camaraderie without any danger of any real revelations, uncomfortable information, or dangerous theories being expressed.

Scalzi does a good job holding up a mirror here, and he also gives Perry the opportunity to make the solid (if quite predictable and dangerously incomplete) case for a professional military (and a completely cliched case for world, or galactic, peace). It all sounds quite believable because Perry obviously believes it. (That does not mean that Scalzi believes it; he's writing a character in a time, place, and role when the character believed those things.)

But, at the end, it's a bit of political fluff that isn't really a story (no plot) and adds little to the larger series in which it was embedded. The later novels in the Old Man's War series raise the questions asked here in a much more forceful and direct way, in ways that produce at least a few answers. The general style is the sort of speech that you could find almost anywhere in US politics. If you have the collection anyway, it's mildly interesting to take apart what Scalzi is portraying here and think about it a bit, but it's completely missable.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-04-30

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21