Polyanna Was a Space Marine: Why Military Science Fiction Characters Are Too Good to be True

The first time I heard the criticism, it was aimed at the crew of the Enterprise D. Then it was Honor Harrington, followed shortly by Charlie Bass.  Most recently, I heard it said about the entire population of Grantville, West Virginia.

“Why is it?” the critique-laden-question goes, “that Military Science Fiction heroes are always perfect?”

“What?” I ask, “There are lots of flaws in the characters. Why Charlie Bass alone….”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” the nay-sayer says, “but the weaknesses are always really strengths aren’t they? Honor has a temper, but she’s always really correct and justified in getting angry.  Charlie shoots from the hip, but the UPUD really is a seriously flawed piece of equipment.”

And, truth be told I can’t argue with them.  Forget for a moment the same can be said about any number of heroes from other genres, it is true that MilFic heroes are often just too good to be real.

That got me wondering.  Why would that be?  Then, I remembered Aliens.

In particular, I remembered watching Aliens with an Ex-SEAL friend of mine who asked,  “Why is it in movies that the soldiers are always bad?”

“Bad as in kickass?”  I asked.

“Bad as in bad soldiers.  Look at these idiots!” he said, gesticulating at the scene where the soldiers are being briefed about the upcoming mission.  Hudson had just asked how he might get out of this chicken shit outfit.

“They’re out of uniform, they’re lounging around like frat boys, they’re insubordinate.  Jerkwads like that would be dead inside of ten minutes.”

I tried to explain about dramatic tension etc, but I knew he was right.  Though they make up some of the most memorable characters to hit the screen, the Marines in Aliens were just bad soldiers. They deserved to get cocooned up, but the edgy-disobedient-kissass-Marine-with-total-disregard-for-his-superior-officers is what sells to the punters.

So why isn’t that the case with MilFic books?  Well, for one thing, it’s tied to the definition of MilFic.

One of the best descriptions of Military Science Fiction is offered by none other than the creator of Honor Harrington, David Weber (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-VyvtO4wZVU).  He defines it as stories where the military culture is integral to the plot, rather than simply a backdrop.

I would add something more to that.  I would suggest that MilFic tries to portray a reality of military life in the far future.  To that end, it often critiques life in the military in its core nature (e.g. The Forever War), in the way it is deployed by civilian governments (e.g. Starfist: Double Jeopardy or indeed most other Starfist series), or in the way even individuals can try to abuse military protocol to their own ends (e.g. many, if not all, of the dilemmas facing Honor Harrington).

Thus, while the heroes of the MilFic story may be fighting bug-eyed aliens, the real problem that needs to be overcome is within the structure of the organization they are within.  In order to do that, one must have protagonists who are fundamentally less flawed than those who are causing the grief in the first place.  Effectively, you’ve got to have good soldiers.

Additionally, a good many MilFic stories are not about your typical unit. They are about Special Ops teams, elite crews on elite ships, or similar top-of-the-line military men/women/things.  To that end, if the stories are to be believable to anyone who knows about military life, they MUST have characters who are better than average and who actually follow orders.  Particularly if the are not criticizing the military per se, but only certain aspects of it.

To that end, Space Marines often seem to cut very close to being Pollyannas[1].  Now, does this mean that they MUST be perfect?  Well, no, and the very best don’t do so.  In Heinlein’s book Starship Troopers Johnny Rico begins as a raw recruit who joins for the wrong reasons, and grows into a top line commanding officer.  The action, however, occurs while he is still learning the ropes.  Indeed, we only see him as a good commander in the epilogue, and never see him actually in that role.  The most memorable scene in the book comes during his first real command, when he is (arguably) at his worst as a soldier.

So yes, Space Marines, Starship Captains and other MilFic heroes often do come across as Polyannas, but if one looks below the surface, the best are as flawed as the rest of us.  As for the others?  Well, can you really say the heroes of the majority of books in any genre are categorically different?

[1] A character who is just too good to be believed.


About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
This entry was posted in Military Science Fiction, Opinion Piece, Science Fiction, Strong Characters and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Polyanna Was a Space Marine: Why Military Science Fiction Characters Are Too Good to be True

  1. Pingback: The Problem with Military Science Fiction Part 3: The Myth of the Gung Ho Space Marine… | The Archaeologist's Guide to the Galaxy.. by Thomas Evans

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