Military Science Fiction Isn’t Military Science Fiction

On Thursday, io9 published a piece by me entitled Your Military Science Fiction Isn’t Military Science Fiction, which garnered a number of e-mails, praise, rejection and a lot of conversation about the thesis that I posed: Military Science Fiction is essentially Soldier Science Fiction, in a way that a Stephen Ambrose book isn’t really Military History. The elements are there, but when it comes down to it, there’s a lot of military science fiction out there that really looks to things other than warfare. Starship Troopers is about politics, the Forever War is about how societies change with time, and so forth.

While the premise sounds ridiculous on the first glance (It’s got soldiers, of course it’s about the military), the intentions behind this idea go a bit further. While stories incorporate the military within their plots and environments, there’s very few military science fiction (or speculative fiction or space opera, if you wish) stories that really makes sense within their finer details, such as tactical and technological ones, to larger elements of the worlds, such as the military thought and theory that goes behind the stories. In a number of cases, the stories look back on wars previously fought, such as the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam and so forth.

My argument stems from both issues. Military experiences are largely evolutionary, and the experiences that are borne out of one war are often applied to another, but not universally. Not only does theory change with the new information, the situation on the ground also changes. From my own readings of the straight-up military science fiction genre, there’s very few books that get this right – more often than not, these books take the visible aspects of recent wars or notable ones, and applies them to space. While the translation isn’t exact when it moves to science fiction novels, it’s a fairly close approximation, with smaller changes cropping up where needed.

One major tendency is that technology itself isn’t a silver bullet when it comes to military theory and practical combat operations. Amongst military historians, there is a ‘Western’ style of warfare, of which, there is a technological element, but one that contributes. Technology alone is rarely an element that dictates the successes of a mission, but its usage and integration into regular military formations, is. The lines here blur when it comes to far more modern technology, and it can be argued that the Cold War was entirely dictated by technological advances, and that major elements of the Gulf and Iraq Wars were likewise won because of superior technology – this is not the case. Within military science fiction, the technological aspect often takes precedent, whether it’s superior bombs, combat suits, guns or ships, but oftentimes, the surrounding culture and background history isn’t as well thought-out as to the implementation of such advances, which then pairs superior technology, but in situations and tactics that are largely borne out of older wars.

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This line of thinking isn’t necessarily a condemnation of these older books, and they’re certainly not held to any sort of predictive level – their view and existence is about other issues, decidedly not about where the future of the military will lie. However, they do act as a good sort of test case and examples of what can be done to do such a novel: the worlds behind these conflicts needs to be sought out and thought out. Readings of military theorists, such as Clausewitz and others make for good starting points, and within that context, an author can put together a background history that provides an environment for military operations that makes far more sense. There’s no need for a futuristic treatise on military thought and theory (On War was exceedingly dull – a sci-fi version of it would be only just a little less so), but within the proper context, there could be some fantastic books out there.

To be fair, there are a number of books out there that do have a number of elements that work extremely well – Dune, by Frank Herbert, provides such a look, but others, such as Nancy Kress’s Probability Trilogy, Charles Stross’s Singularity Sky/Iron Sunrise duo, Karen Traviss’s Wess’Har Wars, as well as a couple of others, which represent a certain amount of good thinking and conceptualization behind the worlds in which they exist, and tend to fall in more of the military science fiction realm, rather than the soldier science fiction side of the house.

This isn’t to say that the works out there are bad. I greatly enjoyed John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Joe Halderman’s The Forever War. They’re enjoyable, entertaining, and provide a good line of thinking behind their respective stories, but in a lot of ways, they represent a very different line of thinking than the military side of the house.

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2 thoughts on “Military Science Fiction Isn’t Military Science Fiction

  1. I think it is a matter of what level of the game in military fiction you are talking about. During the Vietnam War Coling Powell was on a different level than McNamara.

    But I have talked to Vietnam veterans who said they still did not understand what that war was about and this was 30 years after the fact. I was watching that crap in high school and no one was explaining how the US was allies with Ho Chi Mihn during WWII and the Vietnamese were not about to invite the French back in after fighting the Japanese for their own country.

    So all of the Americans that went to Vietnam were stupid pawns of a lying government. Ir was just another RACE WAR.

    Now I do not doubt that you can word your argument in a way that makse some degree of sense by saying people should look at it from a certain perspective. But the average grunt on the ground isn’t told the true BIG PICTURE. The pawns in the game are supposed to be DUMB. They are just supposed to believe in the glory and honor crap.

    • Well, that’s part of the issue, it does depend a lot on perspective, but I disagree about troopers on the ground being told the big picture – that’s not the case in the current operations, especially with the COIN doctrine that’s just been introduced, back in 2008. In this instance, it’s a good thing – soldiers who know exactly how their actions will affect the overall objective function better, and there are concrete results coming out of it. (There’ll be more on this site about that this week, when I get around to writing about the Colby Symposium).

      When it comes to Vietnam military history, I’m on a bit more shaky ground, but there’s a lot more to it than just race alone – what needed to be better explained was the strategic objectives of the war, and from everything I’ve read, the people higher up really didn’t know what that was. In the instance of military science fiction, that too needs to be the case – there needs to be an environment that the author can explain, or at least have the characters operate in.

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