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Situation Normal Author Commentary #8: "We, the Unwilling": Have a Situation Normal bonus story! And now, have a commentary essay on that story!

This is probably my very final Situation Normal author commentary, and I'm going to spoil, spoil, spoil this story and the novel and everything related.

I'm not foolish enough to say there's no other Thanksgiving-themed SF stories, given that both Thanksgiving (my favorite holiday) and SF (my favorite literary genre) are one easy conceptual jump away from colonialism, but... there's not many. There's one more now. But since this is the Situation Normal-verse, this story isn't about the actual experience of Thanksgiving, positive or negative. It's about the stories we tell ourselves about Thanksgiving, and what we'll do to make a story feel true.

"We, the Unwilling" has no causal connection to Situation Normal; it doesn't even take place when you think it does. This lets me do two things I couldn't do in the novel. The first is to put a "Lower Decks" type focus on the Outreach Navy's grunts. As my wording of the previous sentence implies, the second is to explicitly talk about Star Trek, the single biggest influence on Situation Normal.


Like Situation Normal, the title of the story comes from a saying popular in the American military. SNAFUs started in World War II, and this saying became popular during the Vietnam War. It's is a pretty long saying with a lot of variations, which makes me think it was translated from another language. The most reasonable attribution I've seen is to nineteenth-century historian Konstantin Josef Jireček. I mean, if it's not him, why him? Did you just pick a guy?

I tried some search-engine tricks to confirm this attribution, hoping this commentary could clear up the confusion once and for all, but nothing doing. Anyway, here's the most common version of the quote:

We, the unwilling, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much, for so long, with so little, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.

This perfectly describes Spaceman Imura's through-line, as he's forced into a Kobayashi Maru situation which he unwittingly solves by wrecking the experiment which was the real point of the test.

The rules of Situation Normal are that everyone gets thrown into an unexpected genre of story and ends up rewarded or punished based on their ability to roll with the punches. Imura gets put into a highly psychological story about his own failings as a spaceman, and ends up getting exactly what he wanted (honorable discharge), because the treatment he got to deal with those failings makes him way too good at rolling with the punches.

The unwilling

In Situation Normal, the person who gets the most "Lower Decks" treatment is Churryhoof, who despite being a pretty high-ranking officer is yanked around like an enlisted for most of the book: by Mrs. Chen, by Jaketown, by Styrqot and Vec, and finally by Captain Rebtet and Thrux. In Chapter 13 of Situation Normal, as Mrs. Chen is breaking Churryhoof down, there's a paragraph which sets the same tone as "We, the Unwilling":

Mrs. Chen, so experienced in psychological warfare, was manipulating Churryhoof in the most obvious way possible. This was how brands spoke to spacemen. It worked because there was no need to create complicated new consumer desires that only a brand could fulfill. Spacemen needed what soldiers have always needed: alcohol, better gear, sex, a good night’s sleep. A way to pretend the horrible thing wasn’t happening, or wouldn’t happen to you. It was working.

Of course, Churryhoof isn't "the unwilling"; she volunteered for the Navy whereas Imura was pressured into it. But Imura technically volunteered too, and Churryhoof was pressured to join by economic necessity. Here she is in chapter 26:

Churryhoof was terrible at talking to brands. That was why she’d joined the Navy: it was a good career that didn’t involve working for a brand. Military service was the only way off of a boondocks colony like Fallback, unless you had no pride and were willing to end up like [Jaketown].

Here's an enlisted being, Specialist Tellpesh, in chapter 38, talking about her upbringing in a boondocks colony:

The whole planet was segregated. Men in the northern hemisphere, women in the south. The equator was like a fucking demilitarized zone. I wanted up, so I went into a recruitment office and I lied about knowing computers.

The difference is that once Churryhoof and Tellpesh join the Navy, they become willing as they find their own competences. Whereas Imura—who has the same drone-pilot job Churryhoof started with—is bad at his job and can't even succeed at washing out.

Churryhoof begins the book with the attitude that has to be inculcated in Imura: "if [she] completed the assignment, step by step, it would cancel out everything [she’d] done to get from one step to the next." Tellpesh grumbles a lot ("Why do I let people talk me into this shit?") but at the end, after everything that's happened to her, she goes AWOL searching for the badass adventure she knows is out there for her. Even after being turned into a hyper-competent problem-solving machine, Imura just doesn't want to be here.

Star Trek: Door Repair Guy

In Constellation Games Ariel's mother calls him when he's on the moon, and you overhear a Bob Newhart type routine as Ariel tries to explain how he got there. "They don't use money, it's like Star Trek. Not the reboot, I'm talking like Next Generation."

Situation Normal also takes place in a world where people know about Star Trek as a TV show ("Do you also have Mene and Jean-Luc Picard on board?"), but more than that, it's my attempt to provide a revisionist view of Star Trek as, effectively, Federation propaganda.

My absolute favorite bits of Star Trek are the arc-sized villains I call the "anti-Federations"—collective organizations that critique the Federation while mirroring its multi-species structure. Off the top of my head we've got the Terran Empire (evil imperial Federation), the Borg (Federation as cultural homogenizer), the Maquis (breakaways betrayed by the Federation), the Dominion (evil genetic-enslavement Federation), the Xindi (blood-and-soil Federation), and the Emerald Chain (mostly-evil capitalist Federation).

Both civilizations in Situation Normal are anti-Federations of this sort. I mentioned in an earlier commentary that "the Fist of Joy is how Star Trek's Federation sees itself, and the Outreach is the Federation we actually see on screen most of the time." The Terran Outreach is uptight, militaristic, human-dominated, paying lip service to scientific exploration but not delivering much. The Fist of Joy is diverse, decadent, inefficient, ungovernable, superficially friendly but full of hidden pockets that are willing to fight very dirty.

There's a bit in "We, the Unwilling" that looks like a throwaway joke but is actually a reference: Spaceman Imura's declaration that on Enterprise "even the door repair guys were top of their class." The reference is to Douglas A. McLeod's 1990s fanfic "Star Trek: Door Repair Guy", a parody series that debuted prior to the "Lower Decks" ST:TNG episode.

To get a feel for the times, heed this warning from McLeod as he prepares to repost the saga to alt.startrek.creative: "Each episode is about 25k in length, so if you want to save it to disc bear in mind that it's well over a megabyte all together." I reread some of ST:DRG while writing this and 1) the early episodes aren't terrific, but by the time Door Repair Guy gets reassigned to DS9 it's really solid, 2) although not written in screenplay format, each episode is structured like an episode of Star Trek, with commercial breaks that are themselves clever works of science fiction.

ST:DRG did something I've never forgotten, something that has influenced all of my fiction: it focused on the absolute lowest-ranking person in the service. Star Trek has shown the people who get the crappy assignments (source: Lower Decks) and some people who really shouldn't have joined Starfleet (source: some Voyager episode I can't find because Voyager episodes all have super generic names), but they're all officers. All the lower-deckers in the "Lower Decks" episode are officers. I can think of three non-officer Starfleet characters in all of Star Trek: Chief O'Brien, Yeoman Rand, and Crewman Daniels (who, spoiler, is not really in Starfleet!).

Here's me complaining about this a year ago, so you've heard this from me before. Things improved dramatically after I completed Situation Normal, with the debut of Lower Decks, which does a good job of showing people in Starfleet who are effectively enlisted beings, even if they all went to Starfleet Academy for some reason. Situation Normal shows something more like a real-world military, with officers commanding crews full of petty officers and enlisteds, but the enlisted POV isn't represented in the novel.

What you don't see in Star Trek or Situation Normal is Starfleet officers/Outreach spacemen who don't want to or really shouldn't be here. This is entirely fitting since Starfleet is (Leonard's headcanon, but not only Leonard's headcanon) an escape valve for people who just can't even with the post-scarcity Federation—sort of like the Constellation contact missions. And Situation Normal gets so dangerous so quickly that any such character would, like the apparently competent Spaceman Heiss, be killed a third of the way through the book.

Put it all together: "We, the Unwilling" features a grunt who doesn't want to be in the Outreach Navy and really shouldn't be there. This is prior to the war, so his unfitness won't immediately lead to his death. He's given a fantasy memetic framework to justify his service and act as a scaffolding for building real competence. And the fantasy is... Star Trek. Not Next Generation, the reboot. An Abrams-like telling of Captain Kirk's exploits that treats Starfleet as a big adventure and doesn't offer any substantive critique of the society Starfleet protects or the society that created Star Trek. The same Star Trek watched by the people who chose the logo for the United States Space Force.

Star Trek is so big and old and sprawling that you can't just have one critique of it. I can think of two SF novels that get by just parodying the "redshirt" trope. My main fascination is with the friction between the Federation's professed ideals and what we see onscreen. Situation Normal played that out on the large-scale political level, and "We, the Unwilling" plays it out on the much smaller level of family drama and thankless work assignments.

I don't generally offer to do work-for-hire, but I'd love to write a Lower Decks tie-in novel. I think I could pull off something like this while staying within the series bible.


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