The stories in this collection are in chronological order, so this story wasn't placed at the beginning because the editor thought it was the best. But this story of General Custer in the Kalahari Desert of Africa was one of my personal favorites.
The plot is fairly straightforward: Custer, the famed Yankee general known for "Custer's Last Stand" became persona non grata after refusing to lead troops against apparently overwhelming Indian forces. Drummed out of the military in America, he responded to the invitation of an old associate to go to Africa where the Draka empire was looking for experienced field officers.
Although he once led multiple regiments of troops, Custer's first assignment for the Draka is to hunt down and exterminate Kalahari Bushmen (also known today as the "San") who stole cattle and killed some of the white Draka ranchers. Custer is given the assignment partly because of his reputation as an Indian fighter. He understands that the Draka leadership expects him to send a violent message to all the Bushmen, and that they aren't really concerned with vengeance against the same individual Bushmen involved in the raid. Custer's small force of twelve men massacre one Bushmen encampment (including women and children) before the Bushmen manage to get the upper hand.
Science fiction stories about the Kalahari are rare, and it was interesting to read about the region and the indigenous people who live there, although none were major characters. For readers unfamiliar with Sterling's Draka, the story serves as an appropriate introduction to their brutality, immorality, and will to dominate. Yet Custer himself is not Draka, and his internal conflict regarding his assignment, and his horror at things he sees the Draka do, are highlights of the story.
David Drake's rather short story about Draka brutality during an analogue to World War II is an interesting, worthwhile story. Yet its characters are essentially all Draka, and their actions and personalities are almost entirely reprehensible.
This is a deceptively simple story about some events in a mostly forgotten "line of communications" military outpost. The commanding officer assigned there has a crippled leg (which is why he's there, and not at an important command), and the base is notoriously under-supplied by headquarters in Capetown.
The plot begins as the commanding officer's nephew Janni arrives en route to a prestigious posting. While the two get reacquainted, word arrives from Capetown that the base must reduce the bounty awarded to free-lance independent hunters who roam the countryside exterminating any remaining enemy civilians, and bringing back their ears as proof. These hunters, while not Draka soldiers, are nevertheless ruthless and dangerous, and it take all of the C.O.'s negotiating skill to confront them with the lower pay, and keep his head.
One of the hunters is a Draka mother with small children of her own, the other is a hard-drinking Slavic man. A central element of the story is the description these two hunters provide of how they found and killed enemy civilians, including the elderly, children, and babies.
The entire story could easily be converted into a one-act play. All of the action takes place "off stage." Yet despite lacking many of the surface trappings which would seem to make a story interesting (action, different cultures, a perceptible "good guy", etc.), "The Tradesmen" is very compelling. It is much better, for instance, than Roland J. Green's much longer, action-packed story "Written by the Wind."
There are some objectionable elements in "The Tradesmen." In retrospect, it almost seemed too much like a play. The coincidence of having all of the characters converge in the C.O.'s office at roughly the same time almost seemed too convenient, although it is an important plot device. And some of the vulgar language was unnecessarily harsh and probably anachronistic.
But overall, the story works because its characters are frightening yet believable in their mixture of some redeeming values and many flaws. Rather than simply being revolting, the characters are understandable. It is unnerving, because one can see how people like ourselves, with family and a need to provide for them, can be responsible for actions so evil we would normally dismiss them as being the work of an insane person. The hunters and the Draka officers who order enlist them to kill children are portrayed uncomfortably human. The eager and naive nephew who witnesses the exchanges further draws the reader into the events, serving the reader's surrogate, injecting one into the story itself. We're not just a silent observer, we're a relative and a friend, shocked, but unable to do anything.
"The Tradesmen" is not preachy or moralistic, yet it is powerful. It is better than some of the other stories in this anthology because its characters are so real, and because the author more evidently has passion and an adult human soul. This is evident despite the soulless actions of the characters.
"The Big Lie" has the virtue of being based on a very clever idea, and also being imaginative and well told. The "clever" part is that this story retells events from an earlier Draka novel by series creator S.M. Sterling, but is told from a different perspective. Despite the fact that this story revisits previously written material, the characters, ideas and plot seem fresh and original. I have not read the original novel that "The Big Lie" relates to, but I found the story easy to follow and enjoyed the author's skewering of a past novel's heroic self-image.
My only real complaint about the story was its excessive sexual depravity. While rarely graphic about such things, the story makes mention of all sorts of Draka forays into promiscuity, rape, homosexuality, bestialty and incest. Part of this is the point of the story -- the narrator character is impugning the reputations of Sterling's established characters by associating them with scandals not previously revealed, and even rumors of things that probably didn't happen. While I understand the author's purpose, it seemed at times she went overboard. The narrator is a man but the author is a woman, and at times the narrator's desciptions of the sexual adventuring of himself and others seemed less like a man being frank, and more like a woman trying to write and think like a man.
But that's being picky. Overall this is an impressive story, not so much about sex, violence and depravity during wartime as it is about alternate perceptions on the same events, and the propoganda promulgated by victors and those in power. "The Big Lie" is very much a "parallel story" (or "parallax"), like Card's Ender's Shadow. Its "adult" material renders it inappropriate for some readers, but it will be of particular interest to fans of Sterling Draka's novels.
"A Walk in the Park" is thankfully short. It is essentially a one-gimmick story in which a contemporary woman walking in a park encounters two people who seem like Draka from the science fiction novels she has read. And they turn out to really be Draka. The whole punchline is given away in the introduction, and there's little else to the story. This "clever" and recursive story isn't even particularly original. Admittedly, this sort of thing isn't done a lot, mainly because the concept of fictional characters entering a world that regards them as fiction may seem fun, but it's inevitably awkward, unbelievable, and rarely sufficient fodder for real literature.
That "A Walk in the Park" hangs on this potentially tenuous thread would be entirely excusable if it were imaginative or funny or interesting, which it is not. The narrator is hopelessly bland. She makes no real decisions. She seems like nothing more than a surrogate for the author, transcribed to prose purely as an ingredient in this contrived stew. The author's main character is a boring and essentially soulless person. The two Draka she encounters in the park are even worse. While every other story has featured interestingly varied and nuanced Draka, "A Walk in the Park" serves up an unseasoned base. These Draka, in appearance, speech, and action are not archetypes, they're simply stereotypes.
I don't suggest skipping this story. It's short enough that it hardly takes any time to read. You might find it interesting, but I remember it mainly because I was annoyed at it for being so shallow.