Today, I came across this short story by George R. R. Martin called The Hero. It is his first published work of fiction. The story that got his name out there in print. A great stepping stone in his career as a writer. Originally written sometime during the 1960’s, it was finally publicized in the February ’71 issue of Galaxy magazine. You can read it online here. (Warning: major spoilers ahead!)
The Hero delivers a very engrossing tale of war and military malfeasance, all set in the backdrop of space. The story follows John Kagen, a field officer of the Terran Expeditionary Force, as they invade a new inhabited planet. Kagen has grown old and tired of military life and wants to retire, picking Earth as his planet of choice. A decision that ultimately gets him killed.
This story was written during a period in the United States when soldiers were returning home with mental and emotional scars from the war in Vietnam. George admits this in a recent interview, “… it was actually triggered by people coming back from Vietnam, particularly green berets and the like, who had been trained to respond violently to any kind of threat, and they had a hard time turning this off in civilian life”.
Two years after writing The Hero, George was called up to be drafted to Vietnam himself but applied for Conscientious Objector status instead. He submitted this story as proof that he had anti-war sentiments. As he mentions in the interview, “… it perhaps gave my application a little more credence”.
You can definitely see the influence this had on a young George at the time. The overall message of The Hero is that war brings the worst out of people, whether that is through killing or by other means. We see this with Kagen when he slaughters the natives of that mudhole planet without remorse. Almost like a machine. And it is certainly true of Major Grady’s character when he decides to kill and space Kagen for wanting to go to Earth.
From what little we know, War Worlders have very little to do outside of war. Kagen has clearly undergone some sort of conditioning to be such an effective killer on the battlefield, reacting to any minimal threat with utmost violence. Like the soldiers returning from Vietnam, Kagen would’ve had a hard time adapting to life on Earth, if he had been allowed to leave.
Grady certainly sees people like him as second-class citizens. When he tests Kagen with the laser pistol, and sees Kagen’s reaction first-hand, he is convinced at that point that Kagen should not be allowed on Earth. After all, letting one of their ‘killing machines’ loose among the gentry would be a bad idea. So, in a way, Grady might’ve believed he had “good intentions” for what he did, even as nefarious as he seemed to the rest of us. This morally gray ambiguity is something common among GRRM’s characters. And you can definitely see the beginnings of it here. “Nobody is a villain in their own story. We’re all the heroes of our own stories.” — GRRM
It’s an interesting take on the consequences of war, even as short-lived as it is. Military science fiction has always been a great way to explore things of this nature. The Hero is a nice introduction to George’s imaginative mind and writing style. He even gets to murder the main character in the end, which, as you may know, is his bread and butter. You can start to see the early machinations of a great writer in the making in its narrative. Something that would’ve definitely been worth buying an issue of Galaxy for back in the day.