Military Science Fiction, sometimes called MilSF but hereafter referred to as Military SF, is a genre that comes loaded with assumptions. In terms of the wider SF community, Military SF often ends up relegated to a niche, where few people from outside enter, and those within are regarded with some suspicion. Military SF has a rather unfair reputation for being the realm of right-wing gun-happy individuals, a reputation that has definitely done a lot to damage the genre’s standing in the eyes of the wider community. But the truth is that Military SF is as politically diverse (and thus politically neutral) as any other literary branch.
Another assumption that people make is that Military SF is all action. Guns, bug-eyed aliens, and explosions. Big muscular men throwing down. Yes, there is some of that, but there’s much more too. And to get to that, we first have to define what Military SF actually is. Obviously, everyone has there own idea of where the borders of a genre fall. For me, I have the following thoughts:
- A science fiction novel that features the military is not Military SF by default.
- Military SF requires not only the presence of the military, but some level of examination as to the role of the military in society.
- Not all characters involved need to be members of the military, but the focus should be on military concerns.
- Contrary to popular belief, battles and violence are not a prerequisite of Military SF.
Origins of the Genre
Science fiction stories about the military have been around for a very long time. H.G. Wells’ The Land Ironclads (1903) is an early story about how mechanisation might change the shape of warfare. But there are two significant novels that are, to my mind, foundational pillars of Military SF.
Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959) is the go-to for serious Military SF. Without going too deeply into the complex web of Heinlein’s politics, Starship Troopers is unashamedly pro-military. It shows a humanity at war with an alien species, and a resultant civilisation that glorifies war. The book goes to such extremes in its glamorising of the military that it feels at times like a parody, though the evidence suggests Heinlein was since in his intentions. The 1997 film of the same name is not a straight adaptation, but uses many of the book’s elements to create a satire of the messages in the book. Book and film are very different creatures, but both are well worth a read.
Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (1974) is another tale of humanity fighting an implacable alien foe. Haldeman’s tale takes a more anti-war stance, however. The main theme running through the book is the idea of soldiers becoming increasingly alienated from the civilians they serve to protect. That’s a phenomenon that occurs in real wars, notably the Vietnam conflict on which Haldeman models much of his narrative, but the science fiction element here sees the soldiers becoming distanced through time as well as sentiment.
If you live in the US, there’s a good chance you’ve come across Baen Books. Here in the UK, Baen is a much scarcer publisher. The name Baen has become synonymous with Military SF, largely thanks to a few names. The recently retired David Drake, like Haldeman, was heavily influenced by the war in Vietnam (having served there himself) in writing his Hammer’s Slammers series. I know him better for his RCN series, in which he adapts real historic battles to a science fiction setting. The end result is a setting that apes the traditions of the Napoleonic Wars to create tales that are equal parts warfare and adventure. These novels stray more into Space Opera than Military SF, illustrating how close the two genres are. Another Baen author inspired by this period of history is David Weber, whose Honor Harrington series, beginning with On Basilisk Station (1993), now runs to fourteen novels, and an equal number of spin-offs.
A Question of When
While some genres tend to have a common setting, Military SF can be found all over the place. Take, for example, Linda Nagata’s The Red: First Light (2013). This takes place only a few years into the future, and tackles the issue of Artificial Intelligence and their role in warfare. At the same time, it handles the difficulties of public relations. This second theme also emerges in John G. Hemry’s Stark’s War (2001), which is set significantly further in the future, with the United States going to war on the Moon.
John G. Hemry, writing as Jack Campbell, goes further still with his Lost Fleet series and its spin-offs. Set centuries from now, these books tell of a war that has been raging for a century, with a focus on fleet tactics. Despite the inevitable scientific advances, however, the combat portrayed here is rooted in submarine warfare, with which Hemry/Campbell has personal experience.
Even galaxies far, far away and a long time ago are not safe from military threats. The Rogue Squadron series by Michael A. Stackpole, and its successor Wraith Squadron by Aaron Allston show a less fantastical side to the war between Empire and New Republic as part of Star Wars’ Legends canon. Like the films that inspired them, the action is heavily derivative of World War Two dogfighting.
The Warhammer 40,000 universe boasts many Military SF novels. Among the best examples of this genre within the setting are Traitor Rock (2021), by Justin D Hill and Dan Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghosts series, both of which delve impressively deep into the psyche of soldiers who expect war to last forever.
More Than Combat
In reality, the military serves more purpose than just fighting wars, though that is of course what they are most well known for. Emergency rescue operations, policing and security, parades, these are all things the military has historically been used for. And even within war, there is more than shooting. Logistics plays a large role, as does public relations, peacekeeping, and medical services. While many books focus on the more action-packed aspects of military life, true Military SF doesn’t shy away from these other elements.
John G. Hemry’s JAG in Space series follows a new member of crew aboard a ship, who becomes the ship’s legal officer. It is a wholly unique take on an often overlooked part of military life. In addition, the series is more accurate than most in having an ever changing cast of characters as crew members die or are transferred to other vessels.
Michael Mammay’s Planetside (2018) mixes Military SF with crime thriller, as a veteran must investigate matters that could bring disrepute to the military if they were made public.
Dan Abnett’s Embedded (2012) focuses not so much on the military personnel, but on the journalists who follow them to the battlefield and relay the news to far-off civilians.
Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War series features not only military logistics, but the need for armed patrols to protect civilian traders against pirates and marauders. More than any other series, this tackles both economic and military matters with an equal hand.
Military SF is not the genre I spend the most time in, but it is probably the one that routinely interests me the most. As a civilian with no military experience, I can only guess at the accuracy of much of it. But with so many authors having military backgrounds, it seems the old adage ‘write what you know’ has some truth to it after all.
The examples listed in this article are but a fraction of what is available. The reader is encouraged to find more, while the author is always available for comment and to provide recommendations.
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