Today is Memorial Day here in the US—the day set aside to remember the men and women in the armed forces who sacrificed their lives in the performance of their duties. It has special meaning, of course, for those who are grieving the loss of a friend or family member, but even those of us who have no immediate connection with such a tragedy nevertheless have a sense of gratitude that others put their lives on the line because those in authority deemed it necessary—for the protection of our nation or as part of the moral obligation we have to the world (think Germany, Korea, Kosovo, Sudan)—to send troops where they would be in harm’s way.
In thinking about Memorial Day and speculative fiction, I wonder which writers have applied this reality of our experience—soldiers dying in battle and a national commemoration established in their honor—to our speculative worlds.
In the past I’ve discussed celebrations in general and Thanksgiving Day in particular. It only seems right to add Memorial Day as a holiday that could deepen the world-building of a culture—whether fantasy or science fiction.
It doesn’t seem to me that speculative stories are short on wars, and therefore people serving the rest of their culture or nation or species by marching into danger and possible death. What novels actually show beloved characters dying as part of their commitment to fight for right? I can think of several.
Frodo might be the most well-known character who marched into danger and possible death, but of course, he survived. Similarly Harry Potter either died and came back to life or survived, depending on your particular view of the ending of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Other beloved character, not the protagonist, however, did die: Dobby, Sirius Black, and Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books, and Reepicheep (though not in battle, per se) in Narnia.
The greater question: what books have some type of ceremony or observation or tribute to those who gave their lives? Especially to those who gave their lives in some time past, before the events of the present story?
In reality, a type of Memorial Day accomplishes several things in speculative fiction. First it acknowledges the reality of death even as it underscores the danger of confronting the evil at hand. But such a commemoration day also anchors a story to the past. It requires a history of this make-believe world—past wars between nations or people groups, past leaders, past heroes, perhaps past songs or paintings or statues constructed in their memory. It also requires present ceremonies and special days and acknowledgment of grief and loss, of national pride or shame, of bitterness or inspiration. There is an emotional reaction to days like Memorial Day.
Here’s your turn, writers and readers: what books have you read that incorporate death on the battle field and/or the commemoration of those who have fallen? Are you writing a book with such a scene? Care to share it with us?
This article first appeared here three years ago.