The General

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Spirit of Man of the Stars give me strength!

that is not my function.
—Raj Whitehall and Center
stochastic effects may randomize even the most rigorous calculation.
—Center
if the enemy reacts perfectly, both in making a plan on the basis of statistically-insignificant intelligence and in execution of that plan, then they could successfully attack us tonight. in that case, i will begin to believe in a god myself. theirs.
—Center

i am not god.

No, but you're the closest approximation available within current parameters
—Center and Raj Whitehall

Military Science Fiction series by David Drake and S.M. Stirling, who rather specialize in the genre.

The planet Bellevue was part of a vast, star spanning Federation until civil war destroyed the 'Tanaki Nets' that made interstellar travel possible and called down atomic fire on military installations and population centers alike. Technological civilization has been losing ground on Bellevue ever since.

1,103 years after 'the Fall', two young aristocrats, Raj Whitehall (a provincial seeking his fortune in the Civil Government's military) and his patrician friend Thom Poplanich are exploring the ancient catacombs beneath East Residence when they blunder into the centrum of Sector Command and Control Unit AZ12-b14-c000 Mk. XIV, a surviving AI supercomputer from pre-Fall times.

Center chooses Raj as its instrument to reunite Bellevue and reverse the entropic cycle that will, if uninterrupted, lead to the total destruction of Human civilization and possibly the end of Human life on Bellevue. Or, as Raj sees it, he has been chosen by an Angel of the Spirit of Man as an Avatar to serve the Spirit's purposes on 'This Earth'. Both man and computer realize that this will more likely than not lead to Raj's death, either in battle or at the hands of his paranoid Governor, the Sole Rightful Autocrat of the Gubierno Civil, Barholm Clerett.

The series is very obviously based on the history of 5th c. Byzantium. (Albeit with military technology more akin to that of the 1870s.) Barholm Clerett is a less-stable Justinian I. His wife Anne is a former 'entertainer' like the Empress Theodora, and Raj's campaigns show a more than passing similarity to those of Belisarius. Bellevue's Byzantium is 'The Civil Government', a theocratic state based on the literal worship of technology as relics of 'Holy Federation', the direct creation of 'The Spirit of Man of the Stars'. Interestingly, the 'Gubernio Civil' is descended from Hispanic colonists from the southwest United States and Latin America; their main language is Sponglish, similar to the Spanjol spoken by peons in the barbarian lands of the Brigade and the Squadron.

In addition to the Civil Government there is 'The Colony', a Moslem state founded by refugees from the Final Jihad and the Civil Government's most formidable rival. (The Colony was on Bellevue first; presumably they had their own name for the planet.) Its other enemies are the Brigade and the Squadron; blond, fair-skinned barbarians speaking a corrupted form of American English—Namerique—and descended from mutinous Federation troops stranded by the Fall.

After nearly losing his command and his life on a raid against the Colony, Raj returns to defeat the Colony's Settler and its great general Tewfik ibn Jamal in the first book of the series, The Forge. Raj's next assignment, in The Hammer, is the reconquest of the Southern Territories currently held by The Squadron, a barbarian naval power. Raj's campaign to retake the Western Territories from 'The Brigade' is covered in The Anvil and The Steel. In the final book The Sword Raj returns to the east to face the one general who's ever beaten him, Tewfik.

It should be noted that the series shares many similarities with Drake's later Belisarius Series (not surprising really).

A sequel series has Center and the recorded mind of Raj acting as Spirit Advisor to a couple of brothers on another world who must fight the Chosen, a Social Darwinist Empire of Space Nazis, (Expies of Stirling's own The Draka), to ready their planet for entry into The Alliance founded by The General. This series uses elements from The Spanish-American War, World War I, the Spanish Civil War, and World War II. A second sequel series does the same on another planet, with Eric Flint stepping in for Stirling after the first book (Flint also co-wrote with Drake in the Belisarius Series), and doesn't even try to disguise the nod to ancient Rome. Another sequel series is being written by Tony Daniel, starting with The Heretic; the situation in this is based on Ancient Egypt, with the complication that there's a not-quite-equivalent of Center maintaining the planet in primitive stasis, periodically encouraging barbarian conquests that aren't quite allowed to wipe out civilization.

The first series is available in its entirety on the free Baen CD here (titles 'Warlord' and 'Conqueror'). It's being reprinted again in two-books-per-volume form, including the first two sequel series, under the titles Hope Reborn, Hope Rearmed, Hope Renewed, and Hope Reformed. As of March 2014, only the first two are out.

If you're looking for the Buster Keaton movie of the same name, go here


Tropes used in The General include:
  • Suzette, Lady Whitehall is a whole bundle of tropes: Lady of War, The Medic, Femme Fatale, and even Broken Bird thanks to her impoverished childhood. She is also at the opposite end of the Sliding Scale from her idealistic husband—to Poisonous Friend levels.
  • All Planets Are Earthlike - Somewhat averted. Bellevue's native vegetation has a reddish coloration and native lifeforms are dangerous sauroids. It's mentioned repeatedly that without aggressive hunting of the sauroids, nobody can live on Bellevue except the barbarian Skinners.
  • And Man Grew Proud - the Fall of 'Holy Federation' that led to this mess.
  • Badass: Raj Whitehall.
  • Badass Crew: The Companions: Gerrin Staenbridge, Barton Foley, Antin M'Lewis, Kaltin Gruder...
  • Barbarian Tribe - The Military Governments, descended from Federation soldiers stationed out in the boonies. Some are VERY barbaric indeed - and NONE of the This Earth heretics speak proper Spanjol!
    • Allegedly Truth in Television, in that any who did not speak Latin were considered "barbarians". Because non-Latin speakers sounded like they were just saying "bar-bar-bar..."
      • Replace Latin with Greek and you've got the idea.
    • And when Raj refers to the barbarians as "vandals" there's serious wordplay in the context.
  • The Casanova: Major Kaltin Gruder, who averages three duels with outraged husbands per winter, keeps an entire mini-harem of slavegirl concubines, has had at least a one-night stand in every single town the army ever stopped in, and once managed to find a girlfriend to happily (and temporarily) shack up with within half an hour of first entering a city being sacked.
    • Was once heard joking that he enjoyed the opportunity to go on campaign because it gave him a chance to get out of the house and get some sleep.
  • The Cavalry: Riding eight hundred pound wardogs!!
    • Raising the threat index by several degrees. As Raj observes on several occasions, half-ton carnivores in a bad mood are very bad news.
  • The Chosen One - Raj, and in an unexpected way his friend Thom Poplanich as well.
  • Continuity Drift - Suzette's eyes keep changing color, as do the number of generations her family have been prominent and other admittedly minor details.
  • Deadly Decadent Court - East Residence is described even by its inhabitants as a 'snake pit' where murderous intrigue is the favored pastime of the patrician elite. Luckily for Raj Whitehall his wife, Lady Suzette, is a past mistress of all the arts from seduction to poison.
    • Raj is considered hopelessly honest, honorable, and blunt by East Residence standards. Which makes him a dangerously savvy, wily, and shifty SOB by the standards of virtually anywhere else on Bellevue.

Messer Enrike, merchant: The Brigade were far easier to deal with. Grovel a little and you could steal them blind. Small chance that that would work with Raj Whitehall. He might pass for a simple honest soldier in East Residence, that pit of vipers, but a simpleton from the Governor's court could give lessons in intrigue to Carson Barracks.

  • Days of Future Past
  • The Empire - Both the Civil Government and the Colony are like this.
  • Exact Words - Cheerfully abused at repeated opportunities, as you'd expect from a story inspired by Byzantine history. One amusing example is when Raj is about to undergo a delicate negotiation with a high-ranking Squadron nobleman re: the possibility of him betraying his ruler to the Civil Government, and the Bellamy is of course reluctant to have any witnesses at all to their conversation. Raj, not wanting to be alone with a possible enemy, asks that Gerrin stay because "this man is my kinsman and right arm", which by Squadron tradition means that Bellamy should respect his presence. Raj carefully does not tell the Bellamy that Gerrin's degree of relation to him is somewhere down around fourth or fifth cousin - i.e., that the only reason they are related at all is because they are both descended from aristocratic family lines of the Civil Government, who have all theoretically intermarried at least once in the past fifteen hundred years.
  • Ermine Cape Effect - East Residence court dress is extremely elaborate. The Governor is rarely seen out of his cloth-of-gold vestments and Suzette frequently wears her splendid and seductive court costume to awe and inflame provincial officials.
    • Also Subverted: Because of the local Cargo Cult religion, the Governor's 'fanciest' vestments, only brought out for the most important and holy of occasions, are ... the holy jumpsuit of a pre-Fall data technician.
    • Let us not forget that Suzette's 'dazzling' court outfit is in fact trailer-trash bling, but with real gold and jewels.
  • Evil Chancellor - Tzetzas. Literally the Chancellor. There's a joke in-story that a venomous reptile bit him and died in convulsions while Tzetzas was unaffected. Driving his own country's people so far into debt that he can enslave them and take their property for himself is just good business, as far as he's concerned.
    • Tzetzas' entire character can be summed up in one scene where he is confronting an underling who signed official documents against Tzetzas' interest and in Raj's favor, albeit entirely against his will.

Administrator Chayvez: The . . . the hill-bandit of a Descotter occupied my headquarters with troops loyal only to him! One of his thugs started to strangle me with a wire noose until I signed. What could I do?
Tzetzas: Oh, I can understand your fears. In fact, it isn't the first time that Whitehall and those ruffian Companions of his have caused me substantial trouble. They brutalized a number of my placemen and employees in Komar, when stationed there. Brutalized them so thoroughly -- I believe they began to skin one of them -- that they revealed far, far too much, and I was forced to turn over all my investments in the province to the Chair to avoid serious disfavor.
Chayvez: The man is a menace to peace and orderly government, Your Most Excellent Honorability.
Tzetzas: True. You will understand, then.
Chayvez: Ah... understand, Your-?
Tzetzas: Yes, yes. That I cannot have my servants more afraid of Whitehall than of me. I believe his tame thug began to strangle you?
(calls in his own tame thug, who immediately strangles Chayvez to death)

  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: The Civil Government is Byzantine Rome, the Colony is the Sassanid Empire, the Squadron and Brigade are Vandals and Ostrogoths respectively, and the Skinners are the Huns.
  • A Father to His Men: Raj Whitehall, of course, but his subordinate commanders also qualify.
  • Handguns - The standard Civil Government sidearm is a five-shot revolver, similar to an early Colt. Barton Foley, however, prefers a cut-down shotgun he carries in a shoulder holster.
  • The Federation - although by the time of the novels it has long since been destroyed.
  • God Guise: The Civil Government's religion equates the Federation with Heaven, Computers as Angels, etc... It's also a good example of a Crystal Dragon Jesus as the Spirit of Man of the Stars faith's rites and temples bear a more than passing resemblance to the Orthodox Catholic Church.
    • There's also a schism between the 'Gubierno Civils Spirit of Man of the Stars and the Military Governments' Spirit of Man of This Earth (the equivalent of the Arian heresy).
    • The "computers as angels" aspect is played up for comic relief ... and this series deals realistically enough with war to need a lot of comic relief. Raj will notice some "holy relic" of computer technology, to which Center replies by telling him it's a minor piece of circuitry, and tended to malfunction a lot, too. And as the Arch-Sysup (equivalent to the Pope) says:

"My son, my son ... I shall pray for you. Avoid the sin of rashly assuming that your program is debugged ... do not in your pride refuse to copy to your system the wisdom others have been granted by long experience."

  • Horse of a Different Color - More like a different species, would you believe riding dogs??
    • That's eight hundred to sixteen hundred pound dogs. About the size of a horse. Mind you, it's a carnivorous beastie with fangs.
  • I Did What I Had to Do - You might call this Raj's theme song - pity he can never quite believe it.
    • An example is Raj's first meeting with Jorg Menyez, immediately after dismissing his corrupt superior officer from the service and promoting him:

Jorg Menyez: Thank you. For the men's sake. I tried, but-- what will Colonel Dyaz say?
Raj Whitehall: Colonel - Messer Dyaz has taken indefinite leave of absence for reasons of health, Messer Acting Colonel.
Menyez: Well. It must be... satisfying, to have such power.
Raj: (explodes in anger) No it isn't! It isn't satisfying at all to have to act like a mountain bandit to get people to do their fucking jobs! It isn't satisfying that the agents of the Civil Government won't perform without a fucking pistol up their nose! But it's better than having this city undefended.

    • It's also Suzette's theme song, and she sings it much more enthusiastically than her idealistic husband.
    • At one point, one of the savage Skinners cheerfully says Raj is "bad like us" because of all the death he's caused. Raj starts to nod in agreement, but Center reminds him he's working to build a future in which there's nobody like the Skinners, anywhere.
  • If My Calculations Are Correct - Center's extrapolative faculty is indistinguishable from prophecy, but it's Either/Or Prophecy based on probabilities.
  • Impoverished Patrician - Suzette's backstory. It helps explain some of her ruthlessness; her fierce love for Raj covers the rest.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills - Center can do things to your perceptions, just starting with overlaying gunsights on your vision, that make unlikely shots rather more likely. Battle-hardened vets stare in awe after Raj takes down several enemies with rapid pistol fire, one-shot-one-kill. At one point it enables him to shoot a thrown grenade out of the air—and from that point on, his troops were absolutely convinced that Raj was benefiting from direct divine intervention.
    • A minor character in the first novel is Captain Stanson, who despite being generally incompetent and corrupt in all other military aspects is legitimately one of the greatest marksmen in the Civil Government's army. In that he has matched all of Raj's feats of gunplay (well, except the one about the grenade) without the benefit of cyborg augmentation, and at one point had Center advising Raj to avoid confronting him too directly because if Stanson challenged Raj to a pistol duel, even Center couldn't guarantee Raj's victory.
  • Magic From Technology - Center claims to not be a supernatural being, but a lot of what it can do for/through Raj puts the lie to that.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guys - the Skinners, who are anything but noble savages!
  • Rape, Pillage and Burn - According to Bellevue rules of war, what the troops are entitled to do after a city is taken by storm. The officers either take part or close their eyes to it. Things are usually brought back under control in twenty-four hours or so. In Raj's army, any violation of civilian property or persons after that is punishable by hanging.
  • The Rival - Tewfik ibn Jamal to Raj Whitehall.
    • More a Worthy Opponent and Friendly Enemy I'd say. There is a definite hint they will become good friends in the future. At the very end of the series, Center predicts Raj's daughter marrying Tewfik's grandson.
    • Although Center also once showed Raj a scenario where Center's main server node had been located in Al-Kebir (the capital of the Colony) rather than East Residence. It was an exact mirror of the current situation... except that Raj was surrendering his sword to Tewfik, who in the alternate timeline would have been Center's chosen operative instead of Raj.
    • Also, Cabot Clerett (see below).
  • Royally Screwed-Up - Governor Barholm and his nephew and heir Cabot Clerett are both raging paranoids.
    • At least they have their good points; Barholm is a competent ruler, and Cabot a genuinely brave and talented military commander who, unfortunately, covets everything Raj has: his fame, his position, and especially his beautiful wife. Settler Ali ibn'Jamal, ruler of the Colony, is just a complete psycho.
      • It might even be argued that some level of paranoia is not an unreasonable response to the Deadly Decadent Court that is Byzantium, er, East Residence. The only reason Raj isn't a threat to the Chair is that he's an utterly incorruptible idealist with Center sitting on his shoulder, whispering in his ear what will happen (plus or minus some percent) if he does try to take it for himself.
        • Directly lampshaded in a scene in The Anvil where Suzette, while talking to Cabot, is musing to herself that Cabot's ruthless paranoid streak is an ideal and necessary survival quality in a future Governor so she cannot fairly fault him for possessing it. This is at the same time said paranoid streak is driving Cabot to plot to murder her husband and take Suzette for his wife. (Of course, Suzette is entirely the type of person who can sincerely regret the necessity of killing you while at the same time blowing your brains out in cold blood, so, eventually she does.)
        • The climactic scene of The Steel has Raj actually being offered a chance to depose Governor Barholm and conquer the known world for himself... and Raj is about to cheerfully go for it until Center intervenes and tells him that the attempt is doomed to destroy everything Raj has worked for, and that there is no way to try it and succeed. Governor Barholm was actually bordering on Properly Paranoid here.
      • Center acknowledges Barholm's competence with a couple of scenarios in the first book: if Barholm himself takes action on certain problems, justice and prosperity will result. If he instead delegates the matter to Tzetzas, the common people will suffer grinding poverty and enslavement. Unfortunately, he delegates....
  • Science Is Bad - Inverted. The goal of the series is to restore the High Tech civilization that once flourished on Bellevue and, if necessary, rebuild The Federation from there.
  • Schizo-Tech: Armored cars powered by diesel engines coexisting with a largely 1860's tech base. Then there's Center...
    • But justified by the Fall. Some artifacts and knowledge managed to survive even if most didn't.
    • There are no diesel engines. The highest technology available is a steam engine.
      • Generally, but very specifically in there's mention of some of the rare internal combustion engines available being used (steam engines are external combustion).
  • Shout-Out - almost too many to list.
    • Raj is called "the King of Spades" as was Robert E. Lee, and his nickname of 'Messer Raj' is very similar to Lee's "Marse Robert".
    • Shakespeare's Henry V is cribbed on more than one occasion.
      • Lampshaded in the books: Raj asks Bartin Foley where he got the words for that speech, and Bartin replies that it's from a surviving fragment of a "pre-Fall" drama.
    • Raj utters a variant of Cromwell's famous before-battle prayer. "Oh Spirit of Man of the Stars, you know how busy I must be this day. Do not forget me, even if I forget You."
    • Suzette quotes Stonewall Jackson. "No, I don't want them to be brave. Kill them all."
    • The lines: "He fears his fate too much or his desserts are small/ who will not put it to the touch to win or lose it all." are used as a toast.
      • Originally said by James Graham, Marquis of Montrose (1612 - 1650). Brilliant Scottish general who finally 'put it to the touch' a few times too many.
    • And then there's all the Rudyard Kipling...
    • ...and one to Bill Mauldin. In 'The Steel', Raj's soldiers are trudging through the muddy landscape of the Brigade's lands, heading for Old Residence, and one asks, "What's the name of this river?" On being told it's the Wolturno, he replies "Ever fukkin' river in dis country is named Wolturno."
    • The second sequel series makes two mentions of an evidently frog-like native creature ... called a kermitoid.
    • One of the characters mentions the story of an incorruptible cop who, after being framed and thrown into a prison with loads of convicts who hated him, used Rorshach's line: "I'm not locked up in here with you. You're locked up in here with me."
  • Story-Boarding the Apocalypse: Center can show Raj detailed audiovisual scenarios of the most likely results of various courses of action. Sometimes, just to rub in for us what a World Half Empty they're in, it'll show him situations he can't do anything about.
  • Suffer the Slings
  • Take That - It's mentioned that the war dogs are often fed a particular kind of fish, a bottom-feeder with a disgusting smell, utterly unfit to be eaten by humans. The fish is called the avocati—clearly derived from the Spanjol for "lawyer." Only good for dog food, eh....
  • Throw-Away Guns - Barbarians like the Squadrones and Brigaderos still use flintlocks and muzzle loaders and so carry a lot of spares.
  • True Companions- Literally, the Companions, a circle of loyal lieutenants around Raj.
    • The Lancer - Colonel Gerrin Staenbridge, second in command. A classic Lancer in that he's simultaneously the most similar to Raj (closest in social status, education, and interests, almost as talented, similar in temperament) and Raj's thematic opposite (Gerrin's explicit character flaw is that while hardly lazy he only pushes himself to the minimum extent necessary and prefer to follow rather than command, while Raj is ferociously driven, gives 200% effort even to inconsequential things, and instinctively grabs the lead in any situation).
    • Loveable Rogue - Antin M'Lewis, former Bufford parish thief and captain of scouts.
    • The Smart Guy - Colonel Jorg Menyez, infantry leader and fortifications expert (unfortunately allergic to dogs); Colonel Dinnalsyn, chief of artillery and combat engineer.
    • The Big Guy—Major Kaltin Gruder, the straightforward & unimaginative blunt instrument. (Amusingly, he's actually one of the shortest of the Companions—he earns his spot as this trope both by process of elimination and by the fact that in the midst of a group of reluctant heroes, cultured aristocrats, and philosophical soul-searchers he is a cheerful and uncomplicated Blood Knight.)
    • Sergeant Rock - Master Sergeant DaCruz.
      • Subverted when DaCruz gets killed in a skirmish with the Squadrones in the second book.
  • Vestigial Empire - the Gubierno Civil is practically a text book example. Indeed the shrinkage is a serious problem that might lead to the extinction of Human life on Bellevue if not reversed.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist - Center, who considers the cause of Human civilization worth any number of individual Human lives ... though he becomes less and less happy about it the longer he knows Raj.
  • Would Not Shoot a Civilian: Crimes against non-combatants are harshly punished in Raj's army, except after a city that refuses to surrender is taken by storm, in which case all bets are off.
    • Which is still a mix of Pragmatic Villainy and tough love—Raj tolerates this exemption precisely because it encourages people to surrender to him, so he doesn't have to kill them. In fact, the one time Raj is defied on this isn't because they think he's unwilling to go through with it—the enemy are absolutely certain that if Raj comes over their walls by force, he will be determined to kill them to the last man. The only reason they didn't surrender is because they thought had a good chance of winning the siege, and they almost did.