The Complete Hammer’s Slammers, Volume 1
The Complete Hammer’s Slammers, Volume 1.
Original Publication: 2009
Current Availability: Print (trade paper) and eBook
Editor’s Note: This review originally appeared on RPG.Net in February of 2010, and is reprinted in the March 2012 issue of Freelance Traveller and here with the author’s permission. At the time it appeared in Freelance Traveller, two more volumes of The Complete Hammer’s Slammers had been published, also in trade paper and eBook, by Baen Books.
Author’s Note: I think that one of the best ways to prepare yourself to run a game is to immerse yourself in its fiction, and thus get a real sense of its milieu. Thus, this series of reviews, which looks at some of the fiction that influenced Traveller, was influenced by Traveller, or is actually set in the Traveller universe.
When I began this series I covered several science-fiction works from the 1970s or earlier which might have influenced the Traveller game. At the time, I purposefully skipped two notable pre-Traveller works because new anthologies were just on the horizon. This review discusses one of them.
This eighteenth review covers The Complete Hammer’s Slammers, Volume 1, which became available in late 2009 in a cheap, trade-paperback edition.
The influence of the Hammer’s Slammers books on Traveller is perhaps a bit more questionable than some of the other books I’ve covered in this series. I’ve never seen it listed by Marc Miller as an influence. However, I’ve more than once seen it disucssed as a possible influence on Traveller Book 4: Mercenary. Three of the short stories that made up the original Hammer’s Slammers collection—“Under the Hammer”, “The Butcher’s Bill”, and “But Loyal to His Own”, all of which appear in this new collection as well—certainly predated the original publication of Mercenary. Given that, and the fact that there’s now a Hammer’s Slammers setting book for Traveller, I decided that it was worthwhile to review a Hammer’s Slammers collection as part of this Traveller fiction review series.
About the Stories
The Complete Hammer’s Slammers, Volume 1 is a huge anthology, collecting all of the short fiction ever written by David Drake about the Slammers. It contains the complete contents of the initial 1979 collection, Hammer’s Slammers, as well as a variety of stories written since. There are a total of 15 different stories in The Complete Hammer’s Slammers, Volume 1, running the gamut from short story to novella. Although I’m not going to talk about them all individually, I can speak some to the commonalities among them.
These stories are broadly about people—real human beings—who happen to be at war. They’re not stories of clever military maneuvers and tactical geniuses, but instead about how war affects those soldiers who participate in it. Among the stories, we see what might cause one woman to join a mercenary unit and the terrible experiences that another recruit has on his first day. We see the excesses of some soldiers and how some civilians are changed by their interactions with them.
Broadly, the stories of this volume cover a mercenary company called Hammer’s Slammers. However, the connectivity between them is very sparse. The first 200 or so pages of this 500 page anthology—the stories that made up that original Hammer’s Slammer collection—have a weak through-line, as the new recruits and veterans alike that we meet over the course of the first several stories come together in “Hangman”, one of the final stories of that set.
Among the 15 stories in this “Complete” volume, you can also see a bit of the tale of the mercenaries as a whole. “But Loyal to His Own” tells how Hammer’s Slammers came to be and “Standing Down” recounts their last mission. “A Death in Peacetime”, a story written new for this anthology, reveals the fate of some of the Slammers afterward.
That trio of stories centers on the big names of the Slammers—notably Hammer himself and his right-hand man, the cruel Joachim Steuben—however they’re very much the exception in this anthology. Most stories instead tell the small stories of individual tanks, cars, and their crew. Three of the stories don’t even center on the Slammers, but instead use them as backdrop.
Via the latter means “Liberty Port” tells the story of a port that offers pleasures to mercs, among them “fully-functional” robots, while “The Immovable Object” and “The Irresistable Force” tell of a man who steals a Hammer tank, and what becomes of him. Because of their wider focus, I think these three stories end up being three of the best in the anthology, but in talking about quality, I’m starting to sneak over into my next section, on how well the stories read.
Before I close out a discussion of the actual contents of this book, though, I should note that there are also about a half-dozen short background pieces on the Hammer’s Slammers universe. None is more than about two pages long, but they all manage to be pretty insightful as to how the mercenary system and the Slammers’ weaponry works.
Genre & Style
The Complete Hammer’s Slammers, Volume 1 is, without a doubt, a book of military science-fiction. Drake presents military warfare in a very detached and clinical manner, but his stories nonetheless manage to come across as tense and exciting. They’re also very personal, since—as already noted—the stories tend to be about people, not wars.
The result leaves you making your own decisions about what war’s any good for. However, with the real costs that you see, both to those killed and to the survivors, it’s pretty likely that your conclusions will be similar to those of author and Vietnam vet, David Drake. Though I find the first three-quarters of most of these stories pretty dry, by the end—as Drake has revealed those self-same costs—they tend to reach an emotional crescendo that feels true and real.
I like some of the ways that these individual stories are told, but I’m less impressed with how The Complete Hammer’s Slammers, Volume 1 hangs together as a whole. Many of the stories feel to me like mere vignettes—20 or 25 pages of text written with the sole goal of getting you to a meaningful conclusion. Also, all too often the Slammers exists largely as a MacGuffin to highlight a single idea or interaction that Drake wanted to show off. The few times where a character or plotline was continued from one story to another felt like they were far too few.
Perhaps I was served ill by reading these stories all together, rather than over the 30 years that David Drake had written them. However, I can only rate these stories as they’re now offered, in a single anthology. Beyond that, in reading them, I did follow the advice of noted short-story author Gene Wolfe, who in his Book of Days wrote, “I urge you not to read one after another, the way I eat potato chips. The simple act of closing this book and putting it away for another day will do a great deal for the story you have just read and even more for the next.” I read The Complete Hammer’s Slammers, Volume 1 over the course of at least two months, and never read two stories in a day.
Overall, I generally think that the Hammer stories are truthful and touching, and thus I’ve given them a Style of “4”. However I think that the anthology hangs together pretty poorly as a set of stories all about one thing, and it left me hungry for more, thus I give it a Substance of “3”.
Applicability to Mongoose Traveller
So, did Hammer’s Slammers influence Traveller or not? It’s hard for me to say. I certainly don't see as direct of influences as I did in Dorsai!—another pivotal work of military science-fiction. Nonetheless, Hammer’s Slammers could have influenced the game, and there’s of course no doubt that it’s influenced Mongoose’s Traveller through the Hammer’s Slammers setting book.
The more important question, however, is whether Hammer’s Slammers Volume 1 is a good reference for a military-oriented science-fiction campaign. Here I feel more comfortably saying, absolutely, yes. Dorsai! gave some great background on how mercenary tickets might work, but it was big picture enough that it didn’t provide a lot of insight into what life might be like for the average merc. The Complete Hammer’s Slammers, Volume 1 does, with individual stories being practically a checklist of topics you could address in a mercenary campaign.
When talking about how well Hammer’s Slammers Volume 1 coheres as a work of fiction, I said that I thought it fell down because so many of the stories felt like they were vignettes, each addressing a single idea. It’s that same thing that makes them strong as potential adventure hooks.
“Under the Hammer” shows the brutality of war and what a new recruit might experience. “The Butcher’s Bill” covers mercs’ relations with citizens. “But Loyal to His Own” addresses the question of how badly things can go wrong when relations break down between a mercenary unit and its employer. “Caught in the Crossfire” suggests more reasons that people might become mercs. “Cultural Conflict” is about misunderstandings leading to war. “The Tank Lords” shows how high-tech mercenaries might be seen on a low-tech world, a contrast that’s very true to the heart of Traveller. “Liberty Port” portrays what mercs do while at play, and “The Immovable Object” and “The Irresistable Force” together show what might happen to a planet after the mercs leave.
So, ironically, while I don’t think The Complete Hammer’s Slammers Volume 1 offers a very coherent whole when presenting its own stories, I think it offers a huge number of adventure hooks that could be used by Traveller GMs to present their own coherent Mercenary campaigns. Each story in the book could easily be used to form the basis of a Traveller adventure—whether you’re playing in the Slammers universe or not.
The Complete Hammer’s Slammers Volume 1 was a book that I really went back and forth on. Though I was intrigued by a lot of the individual stories, they were hard to read as a whole. However, when I finished the last story—another one of the better ones in the book—I decided that I wanted to read Volume 2, with the hope that its longer stories will be more to my liking—and provide a more coherent vision of both the Slammers universe and the unit itself.
However, looking at this existing volume from the viewpoint of a Mercenary Traveller GM, The Complete Hammer’s Slammers, Volume 1 is perfect iridium-plated gold, practically a checklist of the things that could go wrong for a Mercenary unit.