Myke Cole is a military reservist and writer. Control Point, just out from Ace (Penguin-Putnam), is the first novel in his military fantasy Shadow Ops series.
SF SIGNAL: Hi Myke, thanks for taking a couple of moments to speak with us! The first question that I’ve got is: why military fantasy, over something like Military Science Fiction or superpowers?
Myke Cole: Two reasons, really. The first is that my experience is in the military and that I have been a die-hard traditional fantasy fan (though I also love SF) since my earliest days. It’s a neat combination of the two old axioms “write what you know” and “write what you’d want to read.”
The second reason is that military SF has been, frankly, done to death, as have traditional superhero stories (though more in comics than novels). To the best of my knowledge (and I certainly could be wrong), a modern (and truly modern, by which I mean counterinsurgent focused) military tale blended with high fantasy monsters and magic hasn’t been done as a mass-market novel. I wanted to see if I could push the envelope a little bit.
SFS: Oscar Britton finds himself in a bit of an impossible situation: forfeit his rights because of a power that he didn’t ask for, or turn himself in to an organization in the morally gray area.
MC: As so many of us do, especially when you’re committing to military service. People don’t seem to realize that the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) requires us to forfeit many of the rights we would die to defend. Members of the military do not enjoy rights to free speech and free association the way civilians do. We don’t even have an automatic right to civilian trial, and military courts can do a lot more to us for a lot more reasons. “At the Commander’s Discretion,” and “Conduct Unbecoming,” are 2 general terms in the UCMJ that give senior members broad disciplinary powers.
You accept that when you go in. And if you don’t agree with the mission you’re assigned? Too bad, so sad. The military MUST be an instrument of policy and not a creator. When that happens you get military dictatorship.
Oscar’s situation is that central conflict (which I think is part and parcel of the military experience) and extrapolates it into a universe shaken by the existence of magic.
SFS: How does that work when you’re in a contractor position, though? Presumably, most of the skills are similar, but what about the overall goals and status of the employees?
MC: There was this weird window just after 9/11 when contractors were given license to do much of the same work we now reserve for civil-servants and uniformed personnel. I think the public’s fear of terrorist attack drove them to accept a level of mercenary activity that they later recoiled from once we’d gone a few years without another 9/11. That mandate was then withdrawn, and you see a LOT less mercenaries these days (at least in US ops). It was during that odd window that I did my contracting work. I basically operated in almost all ways like a government agent. When I finally made the transition to actual government service (employed directly by the federal government) just before my 3rd tour in Iraq, I felt almost no change at all.
I tried to treat the Great Reawakening (the event the introduces magic into the modern world) as producing the same degree of general terror that 9/11 did. Hence, the public is once again allowing mercenaries to do, well, pretty much everything the army does.
SFS: You’re a former military contractor who worked overseas, and are now serving as a member of the Coast Guard: how did this impact the direction that you took Control Point in?
MC: It is the bedrock of Control Point. The vocabulary, the characters, the settings, the equipment, everything is touched and influenced by my career working in and around the military. Even my personal sense of discipline, urgency and my ability to embrace misery (which led to me getting a book deal) is largely a product of that experience.
SFS: Something that I found particularly striking was the treatment of fellow native contractors in the Source by US defense contractors. How much of this story draws on the real situations and attitudes on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan by real contractors or service personnel?
MC: Our relationship with the Iraqis was the biggest dichotomy in our mission there. On the one hand, we were supposed to be building bonds (winning hearts and minds) and protecting them from the depredations of al-Qa’ida and the Sadrist militias. On the other hand, there was tremendous pressure not to trust them, because you never knew when one of them was secretly an insurgent. I actually just did a guest blog post on this very topic. You can read it here.
If you’re seeing some of that crazy contradiction in Control Point, then that means (I think), that I got it right.
SFS: Something that I’ve read recently in COIN circles is the contradiction inherent for the soldiers on the ground, especially in light of the scandal with the Marines in Afghanistan: it’s okay to shoot them, but not to piss on a corpse? Do you think that the dynamic would change drastically if faced with a non human – fantasy or alien – race?
MC: Absolutely. In real life, we understand that our enemies, no matter how much we hate them, are still human. In the world of Shadow Ops, there is a range of opinions regarding Source Indig. Some officers believe that the indig are sentient beings and therefore require as much attention as is given under COIN doctrine to “human terrain” anywhere else. Others see them simply as stupid monsters and feel no obligation to treat them any different than they would dogs or rats. I really hope that dichotomy is coming across on the page, I find it fascinating to explore those issues in a fantasy setting.
SFS: Another interesting point that I caught was when a native contractor is beaten when his customs aren’t understood. How vital is the role of communications in wartime situations, amongst military personnel and locals?
MC: In Clauswitzian War (old school war), it’s not that important. In Post-Clauswitzian War (counterinsurgency, the kinds of wars we fight these days) it’s CRITICAL. The watchword in every unit in Iraq and Afghanistan is “Human Terrain.” Mao Tse-Tung, one of the grandfathers of modern insurgent warfare put it best in his treatise Guerilla War. “The insurgent is the fish and the people are the sea. So long as the sea is hospitable to the fish, you will never catch them all.”
SFS: The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been ongoing for the better part of a decade now: do you think that they will begin to impact the speculative fiction fields in the near future? How so?
MC: I think they already have impacted the genre extensively, but it’s a lot more subtle than the direct story I’m telling in the Shadow Ops series. When you add in the global financial crisis, these are dark times we’re living in. There’s a lot of talk of a “dark fantasy” genre that is taking a bleaker look at the fantasy tropes we know and love from Tolkien, Brooks and Jordan. Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, Peter V. Brett, Sam Sykes and others are known for writing stories that tip their hat to the knights and sorcerers of our favorite fantasy stories, but are looking much more closely at their warts. I think this is a direct reaction to our darker outlook in a post-9/11 world.
I also think it’s a good thing. Characters that breath and bleed, that RESONATE, are far more compelling for me than misty faeries that yank swords out of rocks. Just because something is magical, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t also be BELIEVABLE.
SFS: More specifically, what do you think the military science fiction (and now fantasy) worlds hold for readers?
MC: I also did a blog post on this topic, which you can read here. The basic thesis is that a real divide has arisen in society between the military and civilian population. This runs counter to our goal of a military that SERVES the civilian policy makers, rather than an organ of policy itself (as it is in Egypt). That division also makes military members (and stories about them) exotic and exciting. I think people respond to that. Warfighting also provides instant crises, the kind of which are at the core of most great stories.
SFS: A very cool aspect of the book is that my home state of Vermont is prominently featured. Why did you choose Vermont?
MC: I guess I was something of a trial, because my parents sent me away to boarding school in Putney, VT (right near Brattleboro). I was only there for a year, but the state made a really strong (positive) impression on me, especially during my agricultural work (I ran on a maple sugaring team, drove draft horses and worked on a diary farm that was attached to the school). I never forgot the state, and when I was trying to craft Britton’s character as a guy who was disconnected from a sense of home, I immediately hit on “Black guy having to grow up in Vermont.” I wanted Britton to be . . . cut adrift, so that he could connect more solidly to the army (and thus hurt more dramatically when he loses his place there). I figured that having him grow up in Vermont would exacerbate that more than having him grow up in New York City, or DC. It helped that I already knew something about the state from having lived there. Britton was raised in Shelburne (Route 7 even has a role in the story), went to South Burlington High School and was stationed at the Air National Guard base there. The 158th is a real unit. I didn’t make it up.
SFS: Have you heard from any of the people who work with those units about the book?
MC: Not so far. Really nervous to hear their reactions.
SFS: Something that I thought was very interesting was that the main character was different from the typical fantasy grind, and that’s reflected on the cover, which I’ve seen praise from a couple of corners for. What was behind this?
MC: I assume you’re referring to Britton being black? I’m thrilled that I’m helping to break barriers, but I’d be lying if I said that was my intention. Britton came to my mind, fully formed, as an African-American guy growing up in Vermont as I stated above. It was more his sense of dislocation that I was interested in. Once the character was lodged in my mind, he was . . . like a real person: formed. Alive. He WAS black. That was a fact on the ground and it wasn’t going to change. A few people tried to get me to change that, and I got really pissed off at the suggestion. It felt like someone coming to me and saying, “Hey, your brother, I think you should force him to get a sex-change operation.” I have to admit I was prepared to fight like a wild-dog if the publisher tried to portray him differently on the cover, but they didn’t even blink.
SFS: What’s next for you? Shadow Ops is the first of a series, yes?
MC: Yup. Two more books to come. The 2nd, Fortress Frontier, is written and turned into the publisher (waiting for comments from my editor). The 3rd, Breach Zone is a pile of notes that I really ought to get around to organizing. I’m excited for Fortress Frontier. Not only does it continue to tell the story of all the characters you got to know in Control Point, but it gives a fairly in-depth look at the magic-using military arm of the army of the Republic of India. Exploring how foreign militaries use magic was always a goal for the Shadow Ops series, and I’m psyched to finally get to do that.