I love the title of Robert Asprin’s 1979 novella. The Bug Wars. It tells you everything you need to know. There are bugs, and they go to war. There’s also the unattributed praise of “a brilliant and imaginative vision of galactic death struggle” that pitches wonder, horror, and other fantastical hyperbole, all with a distinct lack of modesty, and there’s a giant wasp attacking some kind of mechanical winged dogfighter on the cover. Silly name, big premise, and evocative cover art… how could I not review it?
The Bug Wars follows the lizard race of Tzen across several campaigns against various insect enemies. It opens in the middle of a pitched battle, following which Commander Rahm and his team are stranded, awaiting rescue during the next invasion.
Rahm’s first person narration is punctuated with explanations of Tzen culture and the responsibilities of his warrior caste. The reader is often told that particular behaviours or attitudes are naturally becoming of the Tzen, but it is never really explained why this background is necessary. Initially I wasn’t sure who Commander Rahm was talking to, or who as a reader I was supposed to be. This quickly changed.
Predictably, “galactic death struggle” comes with multiple surprises, defeats, and failed initiatives, and it is in these that Rahm’s narrative voice starts to make sense. He isn’t explaining his culture to the reading audience, he’s justifying his actions, either to himself or some imagined military debriefing or tribunal, drawing on Tzen culture as evidence for his motivations and the structures within which he’s forced to act.
When Rahm “[stands] aside to show my willingness to accept his company” the author isn’t labouring over obvious actions, but making a point of highlighting Rahm’s premeditated awareness how everything for the Tzen warriors is a piece of performance or strategy, part of their constant obsession with climbing a formal hierarchy through appropriate procedures and decorum.
What I found in this little pulp science fiction novella (that retailed for just £1/$1.50 in 1979!) was a series of apparent failings that steadily revealed themselves as effective narrative devices. Meticulous repetitive descriptions of each Tzen’s armaments allowed later combat sequences to flow more naturally, while a somewhat dull deployment meeting that explained each character and military manoeuvre in detail was an excellent way of introducing how newer characters’ attitudes disagreed, and really underlined the sense of failure when (spoilers!) the battle-plan fell apart.
I have criticisms, of course! There are time jumps early on, where seasons of what could have been interesting story are skipped, and mention of a trait of global honesty amongst the Tzen, which seems like a little bit of a shortcut around Rahm having to second guess his subordinates. They either tell the truth, or hold their forked tongues.
A past campaign against “The Aquatics”, and the knowledge that “Ants would be present on this planet” are revealed only when necessary for the plot, and there is a breadth of missing information regarding The Coalition of Insects, how they formed, and how long the Tzen have been fighting them. Often I felt as though I was reading the second book in a series, initially a disappointment given that the book that explains so much else in so much detail.
However, since the narrative voice belongs solely to Commander Rahm, it makes sense that concepts and activities are only explained if he deems them important. While being seen to perform an understanding of Tzen culture is important to Rahm, the recent history of his people certainly isn’t. As a warrior, he lives in the mission, in the moment of action.
When his squad-mate from the first half of the novella returns, all Rahm can remark is that he “had served with me” before. Rahm doesn’t care how many colony ships his people have left, or how far their genocide has advanced, he only cares to follow orders. Even the encroaching likelihood that his generation is becoming obsolete does not faze him beyond his desire to still be of use to his empire, and it is only with great effort and encouragement that he considers issues outside of his position and rank.
One of most remarkable aspects of The Bug Wars is its treatment of death. During one of the aforementioned time jumps, multiple members of Rahm’s squad die, and he lists their passing with limited emotion or detail. While at first this might feel like laziness in storytelling, it has a distinct element of realism. Not every death we face is a dramatic, drawn-out cinematic experience that happens in front of us. More often than not, people just die “off-page” and we hear of their passing through the reports of someone else.
In Bug Wars, any emotional or social impact of death is ignored, substituted for how it affects the greater campaign. Even death by friendly fire is approached from the angle of suggesting improvements to weaponry and training. Everyone except the commanders is considered expendable, while honour in combat and duty to the empire always come first.
The Bug Wars is clearly a decent study of death, combat, and the theatre of war, but where the novella really shines is in its representation of escalation.
As Rahm rises through the ranks with each campaign, the equipment and troops he takes with him increase exponentially. Each assault on the insect homeworld brings with it more complex and powerful weaponry, while stronger insect species only make their presence known after successful offensive against their allies. The Tzen push them, and they push back harder.
The further Rahm advances through the ranks, the more distant from combat he becomes. The three campaigns he is involved in are basically the same, but they become increasingly less personal. Rahm starts in the thick of an attack, then settles behind the lines of the next attack, before being completely removed from the final assault, to the extent that it only takes up a handful of pages, and is related to him largely via long distance reports.
So, the final word? The escalation of events in the text was mirrored by an escalation in my enjoyment. The Bug Wars is a silly looking book with a silly sounding concept, and it could easily have been ridiculous, camp, or badly written, but it is none of those things. It makes excellent points about accountability, mortality and the inconstant state of large scale conflict, and it does so in a way that is both smartly crafted and enjoyable.
It’s exactly the kind of book that Crap Looking Books loves to stumble upon, one that reveals its qualities slowly, demolishing preconceptions as it goes on.
You think you’ve got them all, but you forget about the eggs!