There's no doubt that science fiction has thrown up some appalling militaristic nonsense in its time. Some of it, like Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, is redeemable by viewing it across a post-modern line of sight; some, like Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, is just wildly over-rated; some is offensive, like Jerry Pournelle's Jannisaries; and some is sublime, like Adam Roberts' New Model Army. But none of these are as convincing as Gordon R Dickson's various military sf ventures, perhaps because Dickson served with some distinction during World War Two, which adds gravitas to his Dorsai series, as well as a good deal of like detail and characterisation.
First published in Analog in 1969 and collected in The Star Road (Robert Hale, 1975), Jackal's Meal pits military honour against diplomatic expediency. During a conference to debate an alien request for a corridor through Earth-controlled space a strange being is found wandering around the cargo decks of the conference station. It is examined by human doctors and found not to be human, but they conclude it is not alien either. A rumour circulates amongst the station's garrison that the being is a genetically modified human - that it had been a human soldier captured by the aliens and modified for fun or sport. This rumour reaches the aliens, who deny the being was once human, but offer no explanation as to what it is - and so a tense stand-off develops, which must be defused by the diplomatic staff. The garrison is convinced that an atrocity has taken place and is outraged; the aliens view such outrage as an attempt to gain the upper hand in negotiations. The solution, which I won't reveal, is rather affecting and typical of an author who has seen at first hand how codes of honour and sacrifice can be erected as obstacles and traps on a battlefield.
Honourific systems appear to be a long-standing feature in Dickson's work; who can forget his stunning 1951 colony story, The Bleak and Barren Land, in which a human colonist and an alien fight a duel, the purpose of which is to serve legitimacy on the tide of humans to come.
I'm fortunate to have the Robert Hale edition of The Star Road. Hale editions are interesting, and always a welcome addition to my collection. They were printed almost exclusively for circulation in UK libraries; if you wanted to buy a copy of any of their books you had to make the trip in person to the company's office in Clerkenwell. And ask nicely.
Against a backdrop of war-time Britain, with Hitler's V-weapons raining death and destruction upon the streets of London and the Allied invasion of mainland Europe underway, Houghton's murder-mystery could easily be mistaken for a telegram, were it not that its contents are much too esoteric to be an official communication. Rather than a next of kin informed of their loved one's death, a dream informs an artist of his model's death. The artist, prone to sleep-walking, and with some very repressed childhood memories, suspects himself of her murder and determines truth will out, whether it destroys him or not.
There follows an odd mix of Crime and Punishment and The Picture of Dorian Gray, as the artist self-interrogates in the company of a series of bohemians who constitute a sort of home guard: in fact, Houghton specialises in this kind of character; for example, the ex-public schoolboy who finds himself the sole survivor of generations of aristocrats, and whose attempts to preserve the line in fact doom it to extinction; or the distressed gentlewoman whose mind gives way when the pressures brought to bear upon it are outside of her class experience; or the spiv whose spats are louder than bombs. Their war is not fought on the front line; rather it is fought for and against social and political change on the home front.
In the middle of all this is the model herself - Carol, also known as The Enigma, which is the title of her most famous sitting for the artist. The image is the pin-up of choice for many a soldier; and so it must be a tragedy for soldiers to return from the front to find their sweetheart dead - murdered by a home guard of loafers and ex-aristocrats. To this end, Transformation Scene is an angry novel and one that anticipates great social change, hence the title. It concerns itself with the casualties of this change - the hitherto untold statistics identified only as other.