Science Fiction as the Best Social Fiction of Our Time: The Chaplain’s War by Brad Torgersen

the-chaplains-warAuthor Doris Lessing once noted that “That function of a writer is to raise questions not find answers.”

A Nobel Prize winner, Lessing famously responded to a critic of her Canopus in Argos series–a work of science fiction, in contrast to what critics considered her more serious literature–by saying: “What they didn’t realize was that in science fiction is some of the best social fiction of our time.”

That was thirty years ago. Today, Brad Torgersen (a triple nominee for the Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell award in 2012 and twice nominated for the Hugo in 2014) carries on that tradition, raising and addressing questions in his science fiction. His first novel, The Chaplain’s War, is as much an examination of society, belief, and technology as it is of aliens, spaceships, and interstellar war. Whether you’re looking for military sci-fi or existential introspection, you’ll find it here. And, because Torgersen is a military man himself, his description of life in a boot camp in a near future war against alien species feels authentic and accurate.

Torgerson’s The Chaplain’s War began as the short story “The Chaplain’s Assistant,” which he later expanded into the novella “The Chaplain’s Legacy” before filling it out into a full novel. I discovered him for the first time at the 2013 Salt Lake Comic Con, where he was sitting on several panels on writing and science fiction.

The Chaplain’s War follows Harrison Barlow, a young soldier who is to become the pivotal figure in humanity’s war against a fearsome half cyborg, half insect alien race that is bent on humanity’s eradication from the universe. Alternating between the present–where Barlow is sequestered with other humans as POWs–and the past, Barlow is a Chaplain’s Assistant, becoming so almost by accident. It’s a story of the path less traveled making all the difference, and Torgersen executes it with a deft and sensitive touch.

It makes for a tale that is both exciting and thought-provoking, fresh even while harking back to a time when science fiction was less about the political agendas and more about the fantastic possibility and wonder that the future holds. He aims for broad appeal, not the narrow “diversity” crowd of science fiction literati struggling to find readers among the average Joes just looking for a good story.

This isn’t to say that Torgersen shies away from the controversial. Indeed, his story–that one man for peace can be as powerful as a whole armada of space going warships–may be controversial in itself. This is especially notable when you consider that movie audiences are flocking to see superhumans and lovable scoundrels (think Man of Steel, Thor, Captain America, or Guardians of the Galaxy) duke it out with the enemies of liberty, justice, and the American way, saving humanity by violence and destruction writ large.

Torgersen’s implicit question, never directly addressed, but clearly central to the solution, is whether violence is necessary.

But he doesn’t leave it at that. Torgersen weaves in themes on faith and technology, using the cyborg-insect alien menace to raise questions about the existence of deity, providence, and a divine guiding hand, both in the universe and in the individual lives of all sentient beings. At the same time, it’s impossible to miss Torgersen’s reticence to fully embrace technological innovation without thought for the consequences. Could acceptance and use of technology with humanity come at the cost of our humanity and our ability to connect to the natural and transcendent?

Even though his title character is a chaplain, he is by no means a believer. Belief in God is a bridge too far for him, and yet, it is his role as the chaplain’s assistant that thrusts him into his place as a mediator between two enemy races. There are scenes that seem reminiscent of Enemy Mine (take your pick: the novella by Barry Longyear or the movie starring Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett, Jr.), but Torgersen takes a more existential and transcendent approach and walks his readers through the process of how an unbeliever might begin to believe, even while trying to survive to live through another day.

Meanwhile, the bullets are flying and the action is intense. It’s cliché to say that there are no atheists in foxholes, and Torgersen seems willing to test that proposition.

And yet, his message–if there is one–is not a heavy-handed paean to religion. Rather, his approach seems to be a new spin on an oft addressed question: are we alone in the universe?

Torgersen’s perspective may just be that perhaps our existence alone, as that of any sentient race, is evidence that we are not alone, but that there is in nature a force greater than us with an interest in our happiness and progress. But it is a journey that every man, or woman, must walk on their own terms.

As I finished The Chaplain’s War, it was clear to me that Torgersen had raised as many questions as he had intimated answers. Rather than sewing confusion with his inquiries, though, his aim is towards hope and possibility, encouraging the reader to look out from himself rather than in.

I’ve often heard Torgersen note–at cons, on his blog, and in social media–that his aim is to entertain, reach a broad audience, and regain some of the footing that the science fiction genre lost when it became obsessed with pet ideological projects. The Chaplain’s War is a step in that direction (and one is tempted to make comparisons to Heinlein), entertaining and thoughtful at the same time, without forgetting what made science fiction great during its golden age. It bodes well for Torgersen’s career, and I look forward to what he crafts next.


The Chaplain's War Book Cover The Chaplain's War
Chaplain's War #1
Brad R. Torgersen
Science Fiction
October 7, 2014
Baen eARC

A chaplain serving in Earth's space fleet is trapped behind enemy lines where he struggles for both personal survival and humanity's future.

The mantis cyborgs: insectlike, cruel, and determined to wipe humanity from the face of the galaxy.

The Fleet is humanity’s last chance: a multi-world, multi-national task force assembled to hold the line against the aliens’ overwhelming technology and firepower. Enter Harrison Barlow, who like so many young men of wars past, simply wants to serve his people and partake of the grand adventure of military life. Only, Harrison is not a hot pilot, nor a crack shot with a rifle. What good is a Chaplain’s Assistant in the interstellar battles which will decide the fate of all?

More than he thinks. Because while the mantis insectoids are determined to eliminate the human threat to mantis supremacy, they remember the errors of their past. Is there the slightest chance that humans might have value? Especially since humans seem to have the one thing the mantes explicitly do not: an innate ability to believe in what cannot be proven nor seen God. Captured and stranded behind enemy lines, Barlow must come to grips with the fact that he is not only bargaining for his own life, but the lives of everyone he knows and loves. And so he embarks upon an improbable gambit, determined to alter the course of the entire war.

About Daniel

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. He reads about history, politics, and current events, as well as more serious genres such as science fiction and fantasy. You can also follow him on his blog where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas.