As much as it is a display of surreal visuals, Greg Bear’s 1983 Hardfought is also a novella featuring an engaging, important theme. Seemingly in dialogue with Starship Troopers, Bear proves following orders is a deeper, more convoluted human idea than Heinlein made it out to be. In line with the work of Ursula Le Guin or C.J. Cherryh, an interesting premise is mixed with exploration of the meaning of Other in a deep space, military setting.
Told in alternating form, Hardfought is on one side the story of Aryz, a branch mind of the Senexi tasked with discovering a way to communicate with the humans they’ve recently captured so as to fight the pestilent species. On the other is Prufax, a (post) human fighter being indoctrinated in the ways of war against the Senexi. Primed for her first battle, little does she know she will soon meet Aryz on his turf.
Aryz’s environment having a gas planet/The Gods Themselves/wholly, truly, wonderfully alien feel, Bear’s imagination soars in the scenes depicting the Senexi. Humanity not just another Star Trek ship in space, their lives are presented in scenes also quite disparate from the reality we know. Prufax speaks with her colleagues in a truncated version of English featuring a few neologisms, and their living quarters and training grounds are presented in such oblique terms that coming to terms with the visuals is most often a fleeting experience—lines and movement vague rather than painstakingly described. All these aspects a boon, Bear finds a certain alien—literal and figurative—groove in the novella’s setting and scenes.
Beyond the visuals, Bear likewise positions his tale well to drive at his chosen theme. The futility of war the ideal under examination, the fight with, and confrontation of, the Other are presented from both human and Senexi perspectives. Summing up the moral premise of Hardfought nicely, at one point a character asks “When evenly matched, you cannot win against your enemy unless you understand them. And if you truly understand, why are you fighting and not talking?”.
My review seeming to simplify matters, Bear in fact does a good job of presenting the factors which go into creating the perception of Other, the inevitable confrontation, and naturally, the denouement with sensibility. Not all handshakes and tears, the climax is as unpredictable as it is fitting—the symbolism inherent to the vivid scene also having impact. Hardfought thus comes recommended for anyone who enjoys imagining things truly alien in a story with integrity beyond laser blasts and spaceship chases.