Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: Seth Dickinson

What inspired “A Tank Only Fears Four Things”?

This is going to get a little roundabout!

My brother and I grew up as game-players, and although we’re now in separate cities leading very different lives, we like to hang out on Skype and play games together. In the last couple years, we’ve become devoted to a Cold War strategy game by Eugen Systems, a French studio. We play two-versus-two matches against other people on the Internet.

The game positions you as the commander of a battalion of soldiers during some terrible, smoldering, alt-history conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. You’re a commander with a god’s-eye-view of the battlefield, and you have to maneuver your troops to victory.

It’s a really grim premise—you know that right after you finish your 40-minute match against “TRIPLE X MANSTEIN” and “pro_weed_macnamara,” everything would probably collapse into an exchange of nuclear weapons and the end of human life on Earth. But at the same time, the game is a gleeful, unapologetic toy box: a chance to grab all the weird tanks and frighteningly slick killing machines of the Cold War and actually pit them against each other. So there’s an interesting tension there between ‘war is awful’ and ‘wow, war!’

As my brother and I played, we gathered stories about the hilarious things that happened—a tank that couldn’t be killed, a supply truck that took a wrong turn and drove into the enemy base, an opponent with charmingly weird tactics. People are storytellers and games give them amazing material.

My brother became an expert at micromanaging a single, powerful tank to victory. In particular, everyone in the game became terrified of the T80U, a Soviet tank that seemed nigh invincible. My brother could use a single tank to crumble enemy lines. But he’d spend any available resource to do it: for example, driving empty supply trucks ahead to bait enemy anti-tank missiles.

Of course, we started to think about those supply truck drivers, and what they’d think about their orders. Whether they’d wish they could be in the monster tank.

The characters are named after personal heroes of mine from the Soviet space program. I chose to write about women because—why not?, because I’m tired of the role of women in warfare being elided from the genre conversation, and because if I was going to write about the Soviet military, I wanted to remind Western readers that some of the bravest fighters in history were women in the Soviet armed forces.

The first line, “The surgery makes Tereshkova into a tank,” evokes the idea of a physical strengthening, though we later find out that it’s Tereshkova’s mind that becomes the tank. Can you tell us more about this contrast? How did this opening line come into being?

We live in a society that fetishizes military hardware. It’s on movie posters, in our games, our bestselling books. There are discussion forums full of people arguing whether this plane could outfight that one. And I totally understand this: I think it’s the same psychological engine that brings people into Pokémon, or bird watching, or sports. We love to catalog things, understand how they work, and try to figure out whether they could compete.

But war isn’t about empty machines colliding. War has enormous human cost. And it’s not just the camera-friendly pain of a soldier losing a friend or struggling with the decision to pull the trigger: It’s the mingled terror and boredom of patrolling with the chance of constant, random death, or the emotional isolation of being deployed away from friends and family.

Tereshkova wants to be strong like a tank: a complicated, deadly, invincible machine. She wants to be effective and empty. She wants her experience of war to play out like a video game or a blockbuster movie, a spectacular collision of mechanisms without human cost.

I wanted to connect our fiction of war as a physical contest—the sleek warplane, the invincible tank—with the truth of war as psychological damage.

The story is structured around the four weaknesses of a tank. How did this structure develop? Why did you choose the tank?

I knew it was a story about the weakness of strength. Tereshkova wants to be invincible, and that invincibility destroys her. By grasping for self-sufficient invulnerability, she loses the ability to connect with Yorkina.

(I feel like everyone’s struggled with this in their friendships and relationships—Am I allowed to be in pain? Wouldn’t I be a better friend if I were invincible, always happy, always able to help?)

If Tereshkova tried to claim tankhood as a way to become invincible, I had to show how that invincibility would destroy her. Even the tank needs help. Nobody wants to love a person who never needs love.

Tereshkova was a supply runner, never fighting on the front lines, but she is still greatly affected by the events of the war. Why did you choose to place her in this role?

Part of it was neuroscience. People associate PTSD with single traumatic events—rightly so! But I wanted to point out that constant, low-level fear and anxiety can also do immense harm. It’s one thing to face your fear, and another one to know that it could come for you at any moment, any place, without warning or chance for counteraction.

If the story worked right—and that’s not my call to make—I hope the American stealth fighters overhead are the constant dread faced by the disempowered: women confronting perpetual street harassment, queer people afraid they will be targeted if they come out, people of color treated unjustly by law enforcement. Constant, environmental anxieties.

I also wanted to recognize that even those who don’t fight still fight. War sweeps civilizations. Front-line soldiers aren’t the only ones who pay a price. So much of the American cultural narrative is about World War II, our brave soldiers going overseas to fight and coming home heroes. We think of war as a distant arena, rather than an all-consuming disaster.

Tereshkova chooses to undergo experimental surgery, and then, perhaps more surprisingly, chooses to have it undone. Was there ever a draft of this story in which she did not have the surgery reversed? What went into the decision for her to go back to feeling her fear?

The first draft of the story ended with Tereshkova’s follow-up visit to the doctor, and the line: ‘“No,” Tereshkova says. “Nothing else.”’ It was a grim, eerie, cynical place to end: Tereshkova would be a tank forever, and Yorkina would either leave in frustration or accept a distant, unilateral relationship. (The story’s title at this point was Kontakt-5, after the armor that explodes when something comes too close, moving too fast.)

I’m glad that decision changed. I think this type of story tends to end sadly, and I’m much happier with a note of hope. And I think the metaphor of the tank feels more complete now. The armies of the world spent the twentieth century learning that the tank can’t operate alone. I can only hope that most people spend their lives learning that it’s okay to be vulnerable, to reach out with need.

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Amber Barkley

Amber BarkleyAmber Barkley is a recent graduate of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. She was born in Idaho and grew up in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Her favorite animals are cats and horses, and she considers it a great injustice that she is allergic to both—though that doesn’t stop her from being around them whenever she has the chance. Amber writes high fantasy with a dark twist, and is currently working on her first novel.