Robert Buettner Interview
by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu Feature: I ISBN/ITEM#: 0411RBuett
Date: 11/15/04 / Show Official Info /
SFRevu: Robert, all in all a terrific book. I've got some mixed comments in the review, but the trouble with quibbles is that you hope the baby doesn't get thrown out with the bathwater. I'm looking forward to the sequel. Feel free to tell me I?m off the mark.
Robert Buettner: Thanks for the kind words.
Thanks, too, for the invitation to "push back." However, the comments you describe as "mixed" raise no hackles in this quarter, especially because they are embedded in a thoughtful review that conveys an affection for the book and its characters that flatters a debut novelist.
All I can say about similarities to Heinlein's The Puppet Masters and Gerrold's Chtorr books is that only after Orphanage was at copy edit and it became obvious that I would be facing Heinlein questions and comparisons from fans did I educate myself about the greater body of Heinlein?s work. Only then I discovered that The Puppet Masters existed, much less that it involved cephalopods from Ganymede. Perhaps I am channeling The Lieutenant. Warner came up with the Chtorr comparison and even now I know of that book(s) only that the author also invented Star Trek's Tribbles.
You can see my own take, on why and how Orphanage fits with Heinlein and Haldeman, in the article I wrote for Aspect's Authors Lounge, at www.twbookmark.com this month.
SFRevu: Even though you seem to be trying to sell women in combat, you create all the situations that you warn against. What?s up? And you make all drugs a scapegoat, even Prozac. It seems like there are some officers that could have used Prozac.
Robert: I can see how one could divine "anti-drug" or "selling women in combat" messages in some Orphanage plot elements. I have seen too many lives twisted or ended by drugs (including Prozac, believe it or not). Also, I do believe women are a damn sight better than men at an awful lot of things. But no crusades were intended . I simply fictionalized life experiences (examples: the hand grenade pits at Ft. Benning, July, 1969; the irony that the smallest soldier in the platoon always seemed to end up carrying the machine gun) that illustrated the book's central tenet. That tenet is that amid all the faceless drill and monolithic lunacy that is the military, when the chips are down individual soldiers make noble sacrifices for other individual soldiers at the most basic human-to-human level.
Already, in its first release week, this unheralded paperback seems to be connecting at a very human level with an audience ranging from military vets to fifth graders, all across the country, who have been sending me those "up-all-night-to finish" emails at the rate of two or more per day. Orphanage came in at #50 on B&N's mass market bestseller list in this, its first week on the shelves. It will be a Book-of-the-month Club February selection and Warner has put the book into a second printing, already.
SFRevu: It seems to me that you've probably absorbed more from the cited books indirectly than directly. In my life as a photographer I was bemused to realize how much I owed the great WPA photographers for my style, and like you, I'd never consciously been aware of them until long after I had been shooting.
Robert: Point taken. After Orphanage's manuscript had been completed, I reread a long-forgotten, youthful-favorite Heinlein juvenile, Have Spacesuit Will Travel. Some say it is Heinlein's best book for any age group. To my surprise, the voice of Heinlein's protagonist, Kip, seemed to me to echo Jason's voice. Of course, Jason's voice is more in touch with this millennium. Kip's after school job as a "soda jerk" would mystify most contemporary teen readers and neither he nor his coarsest antagonists utters a curse stronger than "shucks, and other things."
SFRevu: Reading Orphanage, I was struck by how reassuring this sort of mil-sf is. I think it may be due to the reduction of moral chaos that occurs in boot. There's something very appealing to transition from confused civilian to clear headed soldier. What do you think?
Robert: One man's "clear-headed soldier" is another's brainwashed automaton. Certainly, many drifting young people mature when challenged by military discipline. Those "Outward Bound" self-reliance programs borrow much from Infantry Basic.
But the Army isn't the Boy Scouts with live ammunition. We train soldiers that in combat they must unquestioningly do terrible things. To themselves, the literal equivalent of touching a hot stove, or far worse. To their comrades , to order their death. To perfect strangers, to murder them wholesale.
No moral society should ever find that "appealing," even if society finds it necessary. But we owe the people we ask to do those things the right, if not to feel good about them, at least to know that they did the right thing.
SFRevu: A criticism that never made it into the review is that most of the problems encountered by the expeditionary force could have been avoided by some intel. Wait a minute...that's your specialty...what gives?
Robert: As General Cobb tells Jason, "Battle seldom goes as planned." Orphanage's military blunders deliberately echo history. Battles have always turned on human screw-ups that seem obvious in hindsight.
Despite years of training, rehearsal and intelligence gathering, an entire battalion of "swimming tanks" sank like stones off Normandy on D-Day. Paratroops were dropped so far from where they were supposed to be that they were off the maps they carried. ? With the Japanese fleet vanished and diplomatic relations crumbling, America lined up the Pacific Fleet's battleships two-by-two like ducks in a shooting gallery, clustered its warplanes into convenient runway targets and slept late on December 7, 1941. The German Army made an end run around the French Maginot line that nearly lost World War I. Yet the French rebuilt the line the same way and the German Army end-ran around the Maginot again in the early days of World War II. ? The brilliant Robert E. Lee charged General George Pickett's troops across a mile of open ground into the teeth of Union defenses at Gettysburg.
We lack space here to chronicle follies of war that far exceed those just described. The Ganymede Expeditionary Force traded intelligence-gathering for speed and surprise, a common warrior's gamble that often loses.
SFRevu: What is the name of the next book? Do we take the fight to the stars? Do we get to grab some slug-ftl to get there?
Robert: Working title: Orphan's Destiny. I'll just quote Chairman Mao, a soldier of some repute, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step." It's gonna be a long war.
SFRevu: What branch were you in?
Robert: I talked my way into Military Intelligence. Now there was a military blunder. As Vietnam wound down, the Army was overstocked with Intel lieutenants and made them into Artillery Forward Observers. FOs had, as I recall, the shortest combat life expectancy of any military operational specialty, something insane like eleven seconds. Dealing with that made it into Orphanage.
SFRevu: What were your formative experinces? Do you remember the first SF you read?
Robert: Probably the Classics Illustrated Comic of H.G. Wells' The War Of The Worlds. Those images live for me today more vividly than any holographic Nintendo.
SFRevu: How old were you when you read Starship Troopers?
Robert: Eighth grade. Shortly thereafter I realized that mature men read James Bond, not SF. I simultaneously realized that girls were interested in mature men. You do the math.
SFRevu: The Forever War?
Robert: Sometime after I completed active duty and married the most beautiful woman in the world, Joe's book reintroduced me to the genre.
SFRevu: What did you think? How did military life stack up against them?
Robert: The military hasn't changed much. There were Sergeants at Valley Forge. But the viewing prism of the times changes how authors see the military. Heinlein and Haldeman ground the same military grain. But Haldeman baked a darker bread. Heinlein wrote when Hitler and Stalin were more than virtual reality, and everybody liked Ike. Joe Haldeman wrote on the historical down slope of the watershed 'sixties, after America had come to question its goodness. So Heinlein shows war's nobility and Joe shows its folly. I hope I show both.
SFRevu: The public still seems to consider government incompetent, but soldiers are getting higher marks for thier integrity and courage than ever. Would you agree? Will it last?
Robert: I'd hardly limit current rancor to government. "The public" cuts no slack to doctors, lawyers or fans who interfere with pop fouls. As for current soldierly popularity, soldiering's been a noble profession in most cultures for centuries. America just climbed out of the Vietnam pothole and got back on the long pavement of history.
It's been one deep pothole. I had to wear a uniform on an Ohio college campus the day after Kent State. Let's just say nobody congratulated me.
SFRevu: Do you really think Pax Americana will come about?
Robert: Since World War II, Pax Americana has already existed. That sounds insane to orphans from Somalia to Saigon. But despite weapons technology at human fingertips that would allow us to end the world in less time than it takes to further review a fumble, the world has been a relatively peaceful place, in historical terms, since VJ day. Vis a vis conventional nation states, I think Uncle Sam will keep the peace. But one fanatic with the wrong suitcase can make a thousand Vietnams in a finger-snap.