I just finished reading Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. It’s a novel about the Vietnam War and the actions of Bravo Company of the fictionalized Twenty-fourth Marines in fictional locations in the real Quang Tri province of Vietnam. It’s a phenomenally well-written book whose characters and story grabbed me in a way I hadn’t experienced in a war novel in a long time. I highly recommend it.
I’ve written a couple posts about the moral reality George R.R. Martin created in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin’s commitment to the rules of his fictional world is strong in the face of any desire for protagonists to win, to avoid suffering, and to survive. Adam Serwer of The American Prospect made the point that Martin’s series is analogous to HBO’s The Wire:
Like The Wire, the impulse to pick heroes and villains gives way to despair over the dumb, arbitrary cruelty of the system all the characters remain subject to. One’s talent for working the system is more important than commitments to abstract principles, and characters who adhere to society’s rules aren’t necessarily good, and those who reject those values altogether aren’t necessarily evil.
One thread that was dominant throughout Marlantes’ novel was the senselessness of violence in the Vietnam War, both on the level of pointless battles fought for useless pieces of land and the absence of any meaning to who died when. In many cases, beyond the absence of meaning from war, the way certain villainous characters (or if not villainous, at least despicable characters) played the systems they lived in, be they the Marine hierarchy or racial, was determinative of who lived and died, who was honored and who was disgraced. Marlantes is incredibly committed to the rules of his story at both of these levels. It makes for a brutal and sad tale, but one that undoubtedly is closer to reality than most you’ll ever read.