Live from HMS Ulysses: Walter Jon Williams: Random Acts of Violence: "I’ve been mostly reading stuff by World War II vets who became writers...

...like Ronald Bassett, Philip McCutchan, and the very early Alastair MacLean of HMS Ulysses, though I’ve also been reading works by more contemporary writers dealing with period material.  And I’ve noticed one big difference.... There’s a completely different attitude toward death. In the veterans’ work, death is completely random and completely arbitrary.  Anyone can die at any time.  People die for no damn reason at all. Whereas in the more contemporary writers, death occurs when it is necessary for the plot.

In the latter, a ship’s captain might die in order that a subordinate might rise to command and demonstrate his genius in defeating the enemy.

Whereas in the veterans’ work, a ship’s captain might die in some horribly pointless way, only to have his replacement discover that his situation is still hopeless, that he’s still out of options, and basically he’s just as fucked as the last guy, and there’s nothing he can do about it except soldier on and hope for the best....

Characters in the veterans’ stories survive because (1) they won’t give up, and (2) they’re very, very lucky.  They may or may not be gifted commanders, but that hardly matters, because they hardly ever have a good choice to make— they’re put in peril by circumstance, or usually by their superiors, who leave them with very few options, mostly between one horrible decision and another, perhaps slightly less horrible decision.  (Decision #1— everybody dies. Decision #2— only 90% of us die.) The whole point of a fight against hopeless odds, I remind, is that it’s hopeless....

It has to be admitted that the more modern novels produce a somewhat more satisfactory reading experience.  They’re better writers than those self-taught vets, for one thing, but mainly it’s because the stories they tell are closer to what readers want.  Readers want the bright up-and-coming heroes to succeed and be rewarded, and not to be shredded into paste by some completely random act of industrialized violence...

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