In fiction, it’s fun to think about “What If…?” scenarios, especially where history is concerned.
For instance, what if the first human on the moon was Russian? Y’know, like in the TV show For All Mankind. Or what if the Nazis won World War II? Like they do in Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man In The High Castle and the recent Wolfenstein games.
It’s this kind of questioning that sets the stage for Nir Yaniv’s satirical military science fiction novel The Good Soldier (paperback, Kindle); a stage in which neither the first World War, nor the second, ever happened, but Europe still kneeled before Germany after the other nations split…for space.
In the following email interview, Yaniv discusses what inspired and influenced this novel, including why he made the main character so Gomer Pyle-esque.
To begin, what is The Good Soldier about, and when and where is this story set?
The Good Soldier is a satirical military science fiction novel, taking place few hundred years from now, in an alternate-future history in which the world wars never happened. Instead, a major conflict in the 19th century caused the proto-states of Europe to flee into space, while a ruthless Germanic empire took control of Earth, and, later, of most of the galaxy.
The plot revolves around a self-proclaimed “idiot” drafted into the army of a galactic empire. This character, pre-private Fux, is friendly, cheerful, and quick to agree with whatever anyone may say, which, as we know, is a sure way of driving any military-oriented person insane.
Then there are the persons affected by Fux’s arrival: Lieutenant Lipton, a young and promising officer lamenting his lost love; Nightingale, the ultra-logical ship Doctor, and her malfunctioning infirmary; Commander Kapust of the political division (political officers are common in some questionable regimes); the murderous Colonel Havock; and an assortment of soldiers who have no idea what’s coming to them.
Where did you get the idea for The Good Soldier? What inspired it?
Having spent three years in the Israeli army (as a non-combatant, to be sure, unless one counts a large bee that ambushed me once while I was sleeping in the barracks), the subject is close to my heart. It’s less about war itself and more about the inherent stupidity of large, inflexible systems, and the ways the people who inhabit those systems fight back, sometimes consciously, sometimes without realizing what they’re doing. I remember reading [Joseph Heller’s] Catch-22 and [Jaroslav Hašek’s] The Good Soldier Švejk for the first time, after my service, and thinking, “that person is me!”
But then, when reading military science fiction novels, most notable Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, I felt that this aspect of the army life was missing. Too much combat, too many justifications for anything the holy army or the mighty commanders might decide to do, too much politics. No stress on the foot soldiers, the cooks, the clerks, the seemingly insignificant people without whom the army will never move. And definitely no mention of the constant stream of nonsensical incidents that any soldier, my past self included, faces almost every day. And so I figured I’ll scratch that itch by writing my own novel.
In The Good Soldier, bad luck seems to follow Fux around, but he’s good-natured about it. Why did you decide to have him be that way, as opposed to bitter about it?
It’s a part of his subversiveness. Sure, bad luck follows him, but it doesn’t happen to him — only to those around him. There is some ambiguity as to whether he’s really that cheerful or it’s all for show, but in order to know what’s what you’ll have to read the book…
As you said, The Good Soldier is a satirical military sci-fi story. But is the humor jokey or absurdist like Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, or is it more situational, like one of John Scalzi’s relatively more serious novels?
It’s more situational, but the situations — considering much of it takes place inside a slowly discombobulating military unit on a badly repaired military spaceship of a 1984-like dystopian empire — are absurd. Sure, I’m not beyond adding a dash of Adams-esque humor here and there, but much of it is about the inherent, fully justified inability of most people to play by artificial, nonsensical rules.
So, who do you see as being the biggest influences on the humor in The Good Soldier?
I’d say there are two major sources: one is East-European humor, as found in the writings of Jaroslav Hašek, Mikhail Bulgakov, and some others. The other is my own military experience. I mean, sure, it didn’t involve spaceships or energy weapons, but there were enough bizarre and unfortunate incidents involving tin cans (rusty, exploded, squashed by a jeep), rifles (rusty, taken apart, squashed by a jeep), paint (in all the wrong places), uniforms (same) or lack thereof (no comment).
Aside from Hašek, Bulgakov, and Adams, what writers do you feel had the biggest influence on both what you wrote in The Good Soldier as well as how you wrote it?
Another should go to Philip K. Dick, less for his great ideas, and more for his uncanny ability to take the reader from a perfectly normal and sensible situation into a weird and uncanny one in the space of three sentences.
And how about non-literary influences; was The Good Soldier influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
I included some references to major science fiction films, such as 2001: Space Odyssey (“Open the pod bay door please, Fux!”), and to popular culture in general, but my main inspirations remain literary.
Military sci-fi novels, be they comedic or not, are sometimes stand-alone stories and sometimes they’re part of larger sagas. What is The Good Soldier?
It’s pretty much self-contained. The end of the novel is very, eh, end-y. A done deal. While there may be more military science fiction novels or stories in me, I feel that this particular universe has served its purpose.
But, as the late Douglas Adams wrote in The Resteraunt At The End Of The Univese, “In an infinite Universe, anything is possible.”
Now, along with writing, you’re also an artist. Did you ever consider doing The Good Soldier as a graphic novel?
In a fit of uncharacteristic modesty, I have to admit that I lack the technical ability to draw comics. Not even close. However, if someone else took it upon themselves, I think it could work splendidly.
Earlier I asked if The Good Soldier was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think The Good Soldier could work as a movie, show, or game?
Oh, I can totally see it as a movie or a TV series. Most of the scenes are on the visual side: airlocks imploding, zero-gravity cooking accidents, other zero-grav incidents, ludicrous combats, and whatnot. Plus lots of snappy dialogue. I think it’ll be great fun. Not to mention that I can’t recall even one science fiction film or series even remotely like it. And that’s me being modest.
And if someone wanted to adapt The Good Soldier into a movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as Fux, Lt. Lipton, and the other main characters?
Can’t say I spent any time thinking about this. Top of my head: I wish the great Bob Hoskins [Brazil] was alive. He would have been a perfect Fux. Ageless, slightly chubby, and with perfect comedic timing.
[Ahsoka‘s] Rosario Dawson would be amazing as the ship’s doctor, Lieutenant Commander Nightingale, a calm and calculated figure of authority with the sharpest mind within a parsec or two.
Lieutenant Lipton? Hmmm…perhaps a younger Bill Hader [Barry]? But then, what do I know?
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about The Good Soldier?
Think M.A.S.H. meets Starship Troopers, with a dash of 1984.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Good Soldier, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next and why that one?
There’s a novel I co-wrote with (world fantasy award winner) Lavie Tidhar called The Tel Aviv Dossier. It’s definitely as crazy as The Good Soldier, yet totally different.
Other than that, I fear you’ll have to wait: this is my first solo English-language novel (I used to write mostly in Hebrew before I moved to the U.S.). But I hope to remedy that in the future.