Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2004 | People

War of the Words: David Drake

By Tina Owen

As bombs, bullets, and bodies exploded around him in the Vietnam jungle in 1970, David Drake, 67BA, knew that he’d never be the same again. But he had no idea just how much his life would change.

Now a best-selling and prolific science fiction and fantasy author based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Drake has made a name for himself in the subgenre of military fiction. Although he sets many of his books in galaxies far away, their authenticity resonates with readers.

Vietnam veterans—and their children—have thanked him for telling the war like it was, particularly in his own favorite work, Redliners, a tale of redemption and the reintegration of soldiers into civilian society. “People write, ‘My dad never talked about the war and now I understand why,’” he says. “If I can help other people, that’s great, but I didn’t write the book for that reason. I wrote it as therapy for myself.”

From his signature military sci-fi to “space opera” adventures to Tolkienesque fantasies, Drake has written, co-written, or edited hundreds of books and short stories. He credits Vietnam for providing not only raw material for some of his works, but also for the discipline to marshal his creative talents. “When I was drafted out of Duke University law school, I was fortunate to be assigned to an elite unit, the 11th Armored Cavalry, the Blackhorse Regiment, where everybody did his job,” Drake says. “We knew we weren’t doing any good and that the war wasn’t a good thing, but we still did our jobs and didn’t make excuses—because we were the Blackhorse. That’s a really good mindset—and the reason I never get writer’s block.”

This war-forged author also finds inspiration in older conflicts. Drawing on his passion for history and the classics that was nurtured during his undergraduate years at the UI, he often uses Greek and Roman history and legends as the basis for his novels. In his recent popular Isles fantasy series, he creates a religion based on one from ancient Sumaria. It’s not as simple as putting a one-eyed giant on a planet to trap unwary space travelers, though.

"You have to transmute the classical references into terms that work in your setting,” says Drake. “Iowa gave me a very good education, so I’m not acting in ignorance when I incorporate this material into my books. I’ve got all of history to mine, and I love doing it. I love telling stories.”