Military Science Fiction is Soldier Science Fiction

Author Michael Williamson recently came across my article on io9, and posted up his own response. He makes some good points, but I wanted to address some of the areas where I disagree.

I have a couple of counterpoints to this that I’d like to address. I haven’t had a change to read through all of the comments and address them individually, but I’ll try and point out a couple of things that I think need corrected from the article above and my own on io9.

The first, major point is that no, I don’t want Clausewitz to write science fiction. After reading his works for my Military Thought and Theory course (I’ve received an M.A. in Military History from Norwich University. For my own disclosure, I work for the school and that specific program as an administrator for the students, but the Masters degree really pushed me in terms of what I knew and how I understood the military), I think he’s one of the more dry reads that I’ve yet to come across, and that while there is a lot of outdated information in the book, given the advances and changes in how militaries operate, there are some elements that I feel work well, conceptually.

The main point in the article wasn’t written to say that military science fiction had to be more like a Warfare 101 course in how future wars should be fought – far from it – but that military science fiction could certainly benefit from a larger understanding of warfare. As you note, there’s a lot of military themed SF stories about the people caught up in warfare, ones that examine how they perceive warfare, and how warfare impacts the individual in any number of ways. This comes in a couple of ways, one story related, the other more superficial.

There are very few  (I can’t recall any that specifically look to this) military SF novels that look at warfare in the same context. While I agree that stories are about characters, it’s also the challenges and the subsequent themes that embody their struggle that makes a story relevant and interesting to the reader. This, to me, as a reviewer and reader, is the element that will set up a book for success or for failure. Characters, the story/themes/plot, and the challenges that face him all work together to form the narrative. What the characters often learn from their challenges is what the reader should also be learning, and this, to me, is a missed opportunity for some elements of military science fiction. A majority of the Military SF/F stories out there have the characters impacted, but warfare is generally painted as a element of the narrative, not something in and of itself that can be learned from.

Superficially, wars are incredibly complicated events, and often, I don’t feel that they’re really given their due in fiction. There are a couple of points that I want to make in advance of this – this doesn’t mean that I want or require more detail on every element of warfare, from how the logistical setup for an interstellar war might be put into place, or how the X-35 Pulse rifle is put together to best minimize weight requirements in order to be effectively shipped through lightspeed. Those sorts of details aren’t important to the character’s journey in this, and they add up to extra fluff, in my opinion. Weapons and systems put into place for warfare are great, they sound great, and the same arguments are put into place in politics today. What makes the better story, in my opinion, is a better understanding of the mind behind the sights, from that individual soldier’s motivations to his commanding officer’s orders and training, and how war is understood on their terms. In a way, world-building for any story should firmly understand just what warfare is, or at least come to a consensus within the author’s mind as to how it will be approached.

Oftentimes, generals are accused of fighting the wars gone by. That’s certainly true in the ongoing conflict in Iraq/Afghanistan, and why there was quite a bit of resistance in shifting the military’s focus over to a counter-insurgency war, rather than one of armored columns and maneuvers: generals fight with what they have, and what they’ve trained for, and changes come afterwards. Starship Troopers, The Forever War and Old Man’s War all do the same thing, and that’s not really what I’m arguing against – the authors wrote what they knew – Heinlein, undoubtedly from his experience with the Second World War, Halderman from his own experiences in Vietnam, and Scalzi from observation and research. Science fiction looks to the future, but unless you’re a dedicated expert in a think tank, there’s really no expectation that these books will be predictors of the future, but also aren’t necessarily going to be good at the military thought and theory behind the battles on the pages. Will the individual soldier know anything about logistics and engineering solutions? Probably not, but those things certainly will influence how that soldier is operational on the battlefield, which will undoubtedly affect his view and outcome on the battlefield. While these elements might not surface in the text, they should be understood.

Art is formed within the context of its formation.  I don’t believe that a book written in the Post-WWII world should be really in depth on theoretical warfare on the character level, nor should it look beyond what the audience and writer really understands. However, as times change, context changes, and books are understood differently. There is no doubt in my mind that we will see science and speculative fiction stories in the next decade that are directly impacted by our understanding of the world since 9-11 and the warfare that has come as a result, because the current and budding writers are also changing their views on the world.

I see most military science fiction like I see some types of military non-fiction. Stories like Starship Troopers are like Band of Brothers. They’re fun and good character stories, but anything by Stephen Ambrose is certainly not serious military nonfiction, and isn’t something that I would use to better understand the nature of the Second World War. Looking at a similar book, The First Men In, by Ed Ruggereo, is a better example, (one that I recommend highly, as a counterpoint), but that tells a good character story AND looks at the strategic nature of Airborne operations during Operation Overlord.

Military Science Fiction can best be summed up as soldier science fiction, with the characters learning much about themselves and society – that’s never been in dispute from me. What I would like to see someday added to a field is a novel that better understands the nature of warfare, and extrapolates some of the lessons that can be learned from it.

On Reviewing

Over the past year or so, I’ve begun to read and write more critically about various books, television series and films, which alternatively gets people interested in some of the things that I am reading, but also drives my friends nuts by picking apart everything that is supposed to simply entertain. The bottom line is, my brain likes to see how things work, how they fit together and what makes things work. I view literature, music, motion pictures, photography and so forth; as art, and accordingly, they are often a series of fairly complicated elements that come together to create the final product that evokes emotion and thought. This is what makes things interesting, and looking alternatively at the flaws and perfections within each piece is what I find interesting.

Reviewing is far more than just writing down what you like about any given book, television episode or movie. While a lot of reviews are made up of what the reviewer likes, it’s often a lost cause because everyone has their own individual tastes and appreciates things in their own way. The real trick comes in looking at the characters, the world building, the problems that cause the story in the first place, and the characters’ reaction to said problems. The second level often comes when a reviewer looks to the overarching themes and tone of the story that they are looking at.

When I read a book, there are a couple of things that I tend to keep in mind as I read. The first is that I’m not a teacher, reading a homework assignment that the author has turned into me. This is largely because I don’t have a good eye for what really constitutes good writing, so often, an author’s writing style doesn’t figure into things, unless there is something really strange about it. Grammar, spelling, and other technical things just don’t come onto my radar, because when I’m reading, I typically focus on the thing that will make the book really stand out for me: the story.

The story governs everything. A story, simply, is a challenge that arrives to confront the protagonist, disrupting their life and causing them to reevaluate their life or examine things differently as a result. This is a pretty basic element of reviewing, and the evaluation here is looking at where the character reacts to the problem in a way that might be somewhat realistic, based on their environment.

While I tend to review a lot of science, fantasy and other speculative fiction, realism is the thing that I look for. While elements of the story might be fantastic, the book or motion picture is written for an audience who live in the real world, and are typically looking for realistic actions on the parts of the characters. Art is created within the contexts of its surroundings. Thus, I find it harder to excuse a book that really acts illogically or unrealistically, whether it’s in the reactions that the characters have towards each other or their own surroundings. The mark of a good book is whether an author can properly balance the fantastic with the real, all the while creating something that the audience can relate to.

The actions of the characters and the problems that they face are elements that the audience can likewise relate to. The best works of science fiction and fantasy are ones that can connect to a large audience over numerous generations, either because there is a common connection between generations, exhibited in the themes of the stories, or the story is basic enough for a large number of people to really relate to it. Fiction is a way to look at the world through a different context. Stories take the problems that people face, and place their characters in similar instances. Science fiction and fantasy are especially good at this sort of thing, because they can take modern problems and really twist them out of context for a reader to see things differently.

Once the story is finished, the next step is to write down a sort of analysis of the piece – how did the story, characters and themes interact with one another, and do they work in a way that entertains, interests and provokes thought from the reader? There are a number of brilliant books out there, but often, the writer misses the entertainment point of the book. Ultimately, a good book is something that will be all of the above, and will make you want to re-read it, and buy copies for all of your friends. Precision is needed for a review, and throwing out terms like ‘Great’ and ‘Brilliant’ are things that are done far too often – the great books are few and far between, the rare gems that come rarely, but really make an impact. The really good books are far more numerous, and in all cases of reviewing, a reviewer must be accurate and precise with his/her words.

But, in the end, it does come down to one simple point: is this a book that you liked enough to read again, and something that your friends would like?

Changing The Name

Last night, I clicked a button, and transfered Worlds In A Grain of Sand to a new address, where you’re reading now. I did this for a couple of reasons, and while it will likely take a little while to get the traffic that I enjoyed on the prior site to get back to normal, I think this change will be a positive one.

A little while ago, I wrote an article/commentary for io9, which generated a number of e-mail and comments. While I was thrilled at the response, good and bad, what bothered me the most was two people, one who wrote to me directly and another on another website who made a couple of judgements of my argument simply on the basis of my email alone, with the screen name JediTrilobite.

JediTrilobite is a screen name that I’ve used for over a decade at this point: it started off in 1999 on the TheForce.net forums, combining a couple of my favorite interests. As I got more into Star Wars fandom and other places in the Internet, I continued the usage- I started up a blog and generally used it as a sort of online persona. That worked fine within the massive Star Wars community on the Internet, but over the past year, I’ve begun far more serious work online, writing for io9 and SF Signal, where my real name is far more important. Plus, my interest in Star Wars has largely waned from my fanboy days back in high school. I still like it, but not unadbashably so. These days, I’m far more interested in history and popular culture, and when writing about these things, I found that it’ll be harder for people to take my arguments seriously if they can’t get past a silly email/ online handle.

Only two people really commented on it. But, out of the 35,000 or so people who read that article, I can’t help but wonder what others might have thought, either other fans or other people who might have otherwise looked at my article differently. Plus, I always operated under the assumption that in some circles, JediTrilobite generally was associated with Andrew Liptak. I don’t know if that’s as much of a healthy association professionally, and I’ve begun to take a bit more of a professional stance with how I appear online.

Thus, Worlds In A Grain of Sand now has the slightly less fun handle, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing either. As I begin to write more and more, and hopefully more professionally, it’s essential to tie my writing to me, as a sort of brand (god, that sounds horribly pretentious), rather than some random online persona.

Structures in History

I’m continually astounded at just how few people really know how to put together a decent argument and work to convince someone of some basic fact or side of any sort of story, especially at a graduate school. I’ve always loved school, learning and writing, and when as part of my job, I was to take a graduate program; I jumped at the chance, entering a writing-heavy course that emphasized scholarly knowledge and being able to write a point down in a way that is designed to teach someone something new. History is so much more than merely an order of dates strung together; it is the interpretation of the events that happened at a specific point in time, designed to explain how said events occurred within a specific context.

Much of what I have learned at Norwich and elsewhere makes a lot of sense to me, in all manners of writing, from historical essays to fiction, and more and more, I’ve become far more aware of just how the structure of making a good argument can make or break the information that you’re trying to convey. Frequently, I’ve been paying far more attention to the books that I read, people I hear and television that I watch, and find that structure is everywhere in how we are trying to do things, and I’m beginning to realize just how this has impacted how I view things far beyond writing.

Most crucial is the intent behind a piece of interpretation. History is never a clear cut set of events, and often, the actions of people long dead are used to prove a theory or point in how they relate to the present day, the event itself or some other element that relates to a historical point. Numerous times, I’ve seen proposals for thesis papers that don’t set out to prove anything, but just examine a larger set of events in narrative form. When it comes to history, especially critical history, a straight up account of the events that transpired is the last thing that needs to be written about: it has no place, unless it’s a primary source of some sort, as history, because it does not examine: it shows, but doesn’t explain.

History is a way to interpret, and through that, explain what has transpired in the past. At a number of points, I’ve largely given up reading soldier biographies from the Second World War, not because their stories aren’t important, but because they do not do more than cover that soldier’s individual experiences and relate it to a larger picture. This is a general argument, and there are plenty of books that fall on both sides, but when it comes to critical history, the works of someone like Peter Paret are far more important and useful than those of Stephen Ambrose.

When it comes to the execution of the history, or any form of writing, one of the biggest issues that I’ve seen with my writing and others is that the argument is under supported by the evidence that the writer puts together. The basic structure of any argument is an introduction, where the writer puts forth their argument, and exactly what they are trying to prove. That introduction is then used to bring out the arguments that ultimately prove the point that the author is arguing, using evidence to support that basic argument. The conclusion is then used to tie everything together, utilizing the argument, what was found in the evidence. For some reason, this sort of format isn’t used very much, either in schools, or in stories, movies, television shows, and it undermines what the author or creator is trying to do. Ideas and intentions are good, but when they fail in their execution, it doesn’t matter how good the idea is; the entire effort fails.

I’ve found that I like minimalism, as an art subject, but also when it comes to writing. While there are plenty of writers out there who utilize a lot of words to get their point across, there is generally a purpose to that: they better explain what is going on, and help to create an environment that ultimately helps the book. When it comes to writing, of any sort, the main intent of any form of writing is to get the information across to the reader, whether it be fictional or coming out of real life. In that, every bit of historical evidence, from examples harvested from primary sources to other author’s words and analysis, must go towards proving that article, without extra stops along the way for an extra tidbit of information. In critical history, the main point is often a very small, dedicated idea that seeks to prove a specific point within a larger context.

If I was to select one lesson that I learned in high school as the most important, I would point to something that my Three Democracies (and later American Studies) teacher, Tom Dean, taught me: Microcosm vs. Macrocosm, i.e., how a small event can be taken out and applied to a larger context. The experiences of three men in the Philippines during the Second World War highlight some of the atrocities on the part of the Japanese, or the career of a race horse in the Great Depression as a way to look at the changing lives of people during the 1930s are two examples of this sort of thinking, and it goes hand in hand with how stories should be structured. Every chapter should work to prove the point of the introduction, while every paragraph should be used as a way to prove the point of the chapter, and so on. Books, in and of themselves, should follow this sort of microcosm / macrocosm effect, to the end. to prove the point of the author.

Stories are important, for the information that they contain, but also for what they teach us at the same time. Amongst the years of history are countless events, occurrences and actions that all have reactions and continued impact on each other and indeed, the present day. The execution of how stories are told is how history is remembered and thus learned.

The Limitations of Tie-In Fiction

A year ago, I wrote up something about the perceptions of tie-In fiction and how it compared to other, more original stories. Author Karen Traviss came up at one point, because she has remained a staunch supporter of tie-in fiction as a sort of professional writing, on the same level as other, more original stories. I’ve never really come down on either side as to whether tie-in fiction is better or worse than other ones, but Traviss’s recent announcement that she was pulling out of the Star Wars universe came with a bit of interest from me.

Karen’s approach to tie-in fiction is one that I think needs to be emulated by other writers. There is a reason why this sort of genre is looked down upon, I suspect, because authors essentially work from a script, and do little beyond transcribe the script and a couple more details. In contrast, Karen seems to get the stories, and really makes them into a worthwhile book while she’s doing it – Matthew Stover has done much the same thing with his own books, as well as a couple other authors who have dabbled in the Star Wars universe for their various tie-in books. The Star Wars editors and LFL have a pretty good grasp of their universe, which ultimately helps things.

Because of this, and because of Karen’s article, Sprinting the Marathon, I’m honestly a little surprised that she decided to pull out. Though out this essay, she stresses the importance for authors working in the tie-in field to be creative, and just how this field quite literally forces one to be far more creative than other avenues of the literary world – working within a tie-in universe has many constraints, and especially something with Star Wars, the challenges in putting together a book are far more frequent.

In a recent blog entry on her website, Traviss announced that she was going to be moving on from the Star Wars universe. The reasons that she listed are mainly that the established story lines that she’s put into place over the past couple of books, and with the new Clone Wars series, there will be conflicts with the higher up canon within the universe. While I’m happy that she isn’t going to be changing over a couple of the story lines and screwing things up more for the literature people to argue about, I’m a little annoyed that she’s throwing in the towel, because she’s one of the better writers to have come to the Star Wars universe in a while.

I have to wonder if there’s more at play here. Traviss is clearly aware of the limitations that are placed upon her as a writer, and that the story lines that she comes up with – original within the universe it might be – but essentially, they’re hers to come up with, not to totally own. Therein lies the big difference, I think, between tie-in fiction and an author’s original story: ownership. There are limitations to what you can do with a story that you don’t own, even if you’re given relatively free rein, because the higher ups at LFL can do pretty much whatever they want in the universe, no matter how it tramples on other stories. This was a big issue that a lot of the books and authors had to dance around prior to the prequel trilogy. Authors who got it wrong, got it wrong, and these are bits of the books that fans will endlessly argue over.

When it comes to tie-in fiction, and the ownership distinction, I’m a little baffled at this sort of distinction – if it is just ownership that separates the two (I think that it is), at least on an academic level, why is it that people take such notice and relegate the significance? I think the answer there lies in precisely why I think that Karen’s books are a step above, say someone like Max Allen Collins or Keith R.A. DeCandido – the writing style, attention to the story and the focus on the story over a mere paycheck is the deciding factor (Not to say that these guys only write for the money). Traviss’s books are different because there is the attempt to make these books a real reading experience, while other times, I get the impression that other authors don’t care nearly as much, and essentially are just trying to pay the bills. Whether this is intentional or not, I don’t know, but as a reader, I appreciate being able to read a story that is more than the screenplay. If I wanted that, I would just go see the film.

Really, the ownership issue is a really minor one – it all comes down to the one thing that I continue to gripe about, and that’s the story, story, story. The reason why tie-in fiction is disliked and looked down upon is the long bibliography of less than stellar, and if Karen’s example is anything to go by, the number of restrictions and lack of ownership tend to put off other authors who might otherwise write for a franchise. I find that second part a little more sobering than the first, because with more authors willing to write tie-in fiction, the genre as a whole would improve quite a bit.


I just turned in my final paper, The Military Roots of Spaceflight and the Symbolization of the Cold War Arms Race, coming in at 11,220 words, 38 pages. I’m done, done, DONE with Grad School!*

*Provided I don’t have this kicked back to me with more edits. Still, it’s more substancial than my last draft, better worded and with more information that’s far better organized.

Why We Write

That’s a bit of a bad pun but while talking with someone earlier today, I realized just how much I write. When I was in high school, I wanted to be a science fiction writer; I penned a number of really bad short stories, and submitted several of them to publishers, in hopes that I would become the next Isaac Asimov. Unsurprisingly, that never happened, although it’s still a hope kicking around in the back of my head that someday, I’ll be able to publish a science fiction story somewhere.

In college, I began to maintain a blog, which is what this has ended up being. I’ve culled a lot of the older entries, over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed that I’ve begun to refine my writing style, and the topics that I write about. This blog, which was originally more of a personal project, has gone towards something that is more analytical, rather than personal. This is something that I’ve noticed change over the past couple of years, influenced by several people whom I’ve come into contact with socially and through school.

I’ve begun to write again for my music blog, Carry You Away, something that I had backed off from because of problems that I had with the music industry, but also the fans of the music that I posted up. Writing there turned from a personal pleasure towards something that was more along the lines of regurgitating press releases that I received from publicists, pushing things on me that I had no interest in writing about, and over the past couple of weeks, while reviewing several albums from bands that I did like, I remembered just how much I enjoyed doing this, and how I was able to help them.

Another reason why I pulled back from CYA was my recent addition to the staff of io9 as their ‘Research Fellow’, which I have been enjoying immensely. There, I’ve written a number of articles about subjects that I really enjoyed: What a Stormtrooper Is Made Of , Stalking NASA, Trilobites: The Greatest Survivors in Earth’s History, The History (and Future) of Commercial Space Flight, Angels and Aliens Meet on Your February Bookshelf, Nine SciFi Books that Deserve to be Films, Tragedy for NASA’s Climate Science Satellite Program and China Lands on the Moon – Sort of, with more to come. This site has proven to be a fantastic outlet for some of my interests, such as space exploration, science fiction and history. Some of my articles have received tens of thousands of hits, with hundreds of comments, which is both facinating and gratifying.

Looking over these places, I’ve wondered why I like to write – it’s a lot more than I generally would have expected, and I suspect that it’s a bit more than the average person. Coupled with my master’s work with my Military History degree, there’s certainly a lot there. I like to tell people about things. I guess blogging is one of the natural extensions of how I can do this, because I’ve never been the most comfortable around people, and it takes me a little while to really warm up to people, with a few very rare exceptions. Writing, I’ve found, is a way for me to get ideas down on paper (virtual or otherwise), in a logical fashion, and is a means for me to really examine things, for all their flaws, whether it is looking at a new album, a book, news, history or any other random idea that I’ve got bouncing around. In a way, it’s a form of teaching, I guess, which is something that I would really like to do, especially in the academic history fields, which is what I’m mainly striving towards for my Master’s. Already, I’m beginning to start thinking about my thesis, as well as extended work on the Norwich University D-Day paper that I did for my Senior thesis as an undergrad, not to mention my Byron Clark paper, which deals with local history during the progressive era.

It’s fun to tell people about new things, and I like to think that I can help open people’s minds, turn them to new things or see things in a different light than they had before.Thinking back to my conversation earlier today, I do write a lot. I guess it just comes naturally.