The Problem with Military Science Fiction: Part 1

This week, I am starting an open ended series of blogs is intended to consider why Military Science Fiction has such a bad reputation, and what (if anything) can be done about it.

Now, I should start by saying that I like MilFic.  I read MilFic, I write MilFic.  Some MilFic is truly tremendous stuff.  Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959) Haldeman’s The Forever War(1974) create bookends for some of the best MilFic out there: one gung-ho, the other anti-war.  Orson Scott Card‘s Ender’s Game (1977) is one of my favorite books regardless of genre (or subgenre).  Yet, Military Science Fiction is really considered a literary ghetto by many  people, even many Science Fiction fans. Considering that Sci-Fi in general is often considered a literary ghetto, that puts MilFic Smack-Dab in the middle of one of Literature’s worst neighborhoods.  This is unfortunate for many reasons, not least of which is that many of MilFic books are well written and make poignant comments about society as a whole.

Even so, there are problems with MilFic that really need to be addressed: and we’ll start with the most basic complaint I’ve heard about it: a lot of even the good stuff is bad.[1]

I was recently listening to Luke Burrage’s Science Fiction Book Review Podcast[2] http://www.sfbrp.com/ when he started ranting on against David Weber‘s On Basilisk Station, the first volume in the Honor Harrington series.  Now, while I think he missed a trick while going off on fans of the series,[3] an awful lot of what he says is right. To that end, I thought I’d expand on some points I brought up in my recent review of Weber’s third book in his ‘Honorverse’ series, The Short Victorious War (http://wp.me/pWa2h-eV), as well as my more recent criticisms of Double Blind: Battletech 31 by Loren L. Coleman (http://wp.me/pWa2h-fT). Actually, now that I think about it… plays into an awful lot of my reviews of MilFic.

To begin with, I will note that what I am about to say is a grossly over generalizes and lumps all MilFic together. In truth, not even all the works of all the authors I discuss below fall into the traps I discuss.  Indeed, where there are series involved, the authors often break out of the stereotypes discussed here as the series continues and broaden their characters and the complexity of their storytelling.

Even so the problem remains that a great deal of Military Science Fiction literature oversimplifies the conflicts within their own storylines. There are many ways this occurs but the most often mistake is in the oversimplification of human-to-human conflicts. MilFic often suffers from the ailment that bad guys are EVIL and/or WRONG, good guys are GOOD and RIGHT, and the only reason why good guys have a struggle is due to the incompetence of others; i.e. If they had only listened to the hero, none of this would have happened syndrome.  What is more, if the good guys do follow their own plans, they not only succeed, but nothing bad comes of it.

In Starfist: First to Fight (Starfist Book 1)[4] by David Sherman and Dan Crag (Del Rey, 1997), the core of the story revolves around Staff Sergeant Charlie Bass and his struggle to keep his squad alive while fighting two thousand bloodthirsty savages and coping with improperly developed and poorly deployed hardware that leaves the space Marines high and dry.  To this end, the villains (savages) are horrible, bloodthirsty, raping, looting barbarians – there is no real capacity to sympathize with them at all.  They are orcs by any other name: villainous villains who are irredeemable.  The technology (in this case the rather amusingly named UPUD, pronounced you-pud) is a poorly developed, untested piece of communications device that CLEARLY should never have been deployed into an active combat environment to begin with.  In fact, in the prologue, we see that Charlie has previous experience with this badly tested bit of gear and argues against its use right from the get-go.  Indeed, the whole story would not have happened had others (read incompetence) not interfered with Charlie’s obviously superior judgment.  Thus, Charlie is good and right, the villains are bad (the barbarians) and incompetent (the designers/developers of the UPUD).

In the case of Honor Harrington‘s first outing,[5] the simplistic conflict is even more clearly spelled out.  The Peeps (People’s Republic of Haven) are an expansionist Empire that keeps the underprivileged masses underfoot by continually engaging in military campaigns (read: Villains).  Honor is a brilliant, attractive (though she doesn’t know it) and extremely competent young woman who has an innate understanding of starship combat and command (read: Good and Right). She is a Captain (and later Commodore, Admiral, etc) in the Manticorean Navy, a technologically superior fleet protecting the peace loving Star Kingdom of Manticore, which has an upwardly mobile Hereditary Meritocracy whose principal interest is trade (Read: Good Guys).

As that Honor is in a more technologically developed, and Navy, her principal foes are not those individuals she fights, but rather the incompetence of those around her.  Indeed, the bulk of the first three books in the series is really centered on the premise that Honor is right, people don’t listen to her, and so things go wrong.  In fact, in the first book, her principle antagonist is not the captain of the enemy ship, but the senior Captain of a Manticorean ship on the same post that Honor is patrolling.  This Captain, Pavel Young, is a cowardly attempted rapist who is blindly unaware of the extremely dangerous situation surrounding him. What is more, he is primarily motivated by revenge upon Honor (Read: Villain and Incompetent).  To that end, he has NO redeeming values. Thus, good guys are good and right, bad guys are irredeemably bad and wrong.

Now, I should say that as they progress, both series gain more complexity in their portrayal of this dynamic.  So much so that in The Short Victorious War Honor Harrington Book 3), one of those who disagrees with Honor is CLEARLY wrong, but he is not portrayed as a villain or a total idiot, and in Starfist: Double Jeopardy the dynamic of characters develops to a point that they begin making salient comments on the present military situation facing the United States Armed Forces.

Neither should the fact that I focused on these two stories be taken to mean they are the worst offenders in the genre.  Rather, they are popular series and as such make good illustrations.

So, the question becomes why?  Why do MilFic books have these problems and, perhaps more importantly, why do people like them despite that?

Well first off, it is important to note that the authors of most modern Military Science Fiction are American, and a great many of them come from the era of the Vietnam War.  That was a war in which many of those that fought it felt (and still feel) that they were hamstrung by the incompetence of their COs, and/or the politicians who limited their ability to actually win the war.  Not being an expert on said topic, I have no ability to comment on that, but I can certainly see their point.

To that end, I cannot help but feel that much of their writing has been highly influenced by said personal history (as is the case with all writers, really). There is, however, another issue at hand: most of these authors are writing a thinly guised tale about the military forces of the United States and/or 19th Century Imperial Britain. To that end, they are writing about the most powerful forces around fighting inferior forces.  In Weber’s Honorverse, Harrington is a Captain in the most powerful (though not the largest) Navy in the region.  In Starfist, Charlie Bass starts as a senor NCO in the Confederation Marine Corps, similarly the most experienced and powerful human fighting force around.  Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time is about modern Americans sent back to the Bronze Age.  End result?  These people are writing about those who arguably sit at the pinnacle of scientific and military power at the time.

The problem becomes, how does one create a challenging adventure for one’s characters when they are the best people with the best equipment into a situation where they are up against the odds?  After all, who wants to read a story about a lopsided battle from the point-of-view of the people who hold all the cards?[6]  Excitement comes from reading about people forced up against the wall, not reading about people who put others up against the wall.

Obviously, the answer is incompetence. Competent heroes with good equipment and a superior military force can only really be put in danger if they someone somewhere makes a mistake.  Thus, incompetence rules the day.

Furthermore, if we are reading stories from the point of view of the more powerful side, clearly the antagonists need to be truly villainous.  Otherwise, aren’t the good guys just being bullies?  As a result, the authors often make their bad guys really bad.

And why are the Heroes so good?  Well, I’ve already addressed that in Polyanna was a Space Marine http://wp.me/pWa2h-63.

But this brings us to another question: why do these tales appeal to people?

Well, if you listen to Luke Burrage’s blog, his theory is that total nerds buy these books and the reason they like them is because it reflects the world as they would like it to be: a complete meritocracy where interpersonal skills have no value and technical competence is all that matters. He calls it Nerd Porn.[7] While he may well have a point in some cases, I think he is missing two other elements that play a role.

First off, for myself and many others out there, the real enjoyment about Military Science Fiction is one part Rip-roaring Adventure, and one part enjoyment of watching military protocol and “forged-in-fire” camaraderie.  So, yes… I like the technical aspects of spaceships and guns and combat actions.  Yes, I like reading about military chains of command, both when they work and when they don’t work.  And yes, I like reading about men and women (and things) under fire and seeing how they bond, or fail to bond when the s*** hits the fan.

So, despite the fact that I constantly comment and critique the poor elements of style and writing that are shown in many of the better known MilFic books, I keep reading them.  Why?  Well, because despite the fact that many of them drive me round the bend with bad stylistic elements, they are the only examples of new literature out there that are about such topics.  Sorry to say it, but there are very few books out there that show life as a space marine or other such grunt.  Books that show life focus on ship-to-ship space based combat are even fewer.  So, I put up with it, and yes, at times even enjoy it.

Is Honor Harrington to the level of Heinlein, Haldeman or Card?  No.  Then again, how many mysteries are up to the level of Arthur Conan Doyle?  How many spy stories come up to John LeCarre?

Many reviewers compare Weber to Forrester, but I think that’s wrong.  Weber is more akin to Tom Clancy… lots of technobabble and some tactics. For that matter, Sherman and Cragg are closer to WEB Griffiths than they are to Stephen Crane.  In both circumstances, they are what they are.  For myself, I read the stories I get and enjoy them for being what they set out to be.

But yes, I do really long for intelligent MilFic with shady areas of right and wrong, and more showing and less telling.[8]

Go To The Problem with Military Science Fiction Part 2

To To The Problem with Military Science Fiction Part 3


[1] Huh?  What is this flippin’ archaeologist on about this time?

[2] For those of you unfamiliar with Luke and his blog, it is really a highly enjoyable podcast that gives one of the very few critical reviews of Science Fiction books that is available in audio format.  It’s fun, funny and often catches insights to books that other reviewers miss.

[3] Luke’s rants are usually highly amusing, and some of the best of his episodes.  In this case, however, I think he actually went a bit off target… but we’ll get to that later.

[4] Which I should point out is a great Ripping Yarn that does exactly what it says on the tin: it is an action adventure tale and that’s that. It is a must read for anyone who looks at MilFic, and a must avoid to anyone who dislikes the subgenre.

[5] Again, a must read Ripping Yarn for anyone who likes MilFic, but a must avoid for anyone who doesn’t like books about military protocol.

[6] Unless, of course, you are talking about fictionalizations of Rorke’s Drift or the like, where the British weren’t quite as overwhelmingly better as they thought they were… then again, see the rest of the article.

[7] Actually, I think his use of Nerd Porn may be a bit closer to the mark for some readers than he gives himself credit for.  This is not because of the world being shown as it should be, but because the Honor stories portray an idealized woman.

[8] Now see, if only someone would publish my books.…

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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.
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5 Responses to The Problem with Military Science Fiction: Part 1

  1. MB says:

    Very interesting post. It could be argues it is more of a fusion genre with military (non-science) fiction. Much of it certainly has roots in this genre, in many cases perhaps more so than in science fiction, such as the works of Alistair MacLean and Jack Higgins where the protagonists are often a small elite ‘special force’ group, or are sent on ‘special force’ type missions. This premise is merely transferred it into the future. It is interesting to note where general (and science) military fiction seems to work well it is often where the author has some experience of the military themselves.

    • Thomas Evans says:

      MilFic is fairly well recognised as a sub-genre of Science Fiction, but I think you are completely correct. It really has much more in common with Military Action fiction rather than Science fiction, and indeed, the technology aspects we see are often more closely attuned to extensions of modern weaponry rather than the development or consequences of new technology (thus, Blasters are really just better guns, UPUDs are just developed GPS systems, etc).

      Also, the military background of many of the authors really does give an authenticity to the work. The only problem is that often the combat seems dated because it is stuck in a past style of combat. Thus, many of the ground troop stories really do seem very restricted to a style of warfare reminscent of Vietnam. Still, to get the real feel of combat, there is nothing like the telling of a tale by someone who knows what it is like o have someone else shooting at themm.

  2. Karry says:

    >I was recently listening to Luke Burrage’s Science Fiction Book Review Podcast
    Ah, that rude ********** ?

    > Now, while I think he missed a trick while going off on fans of the series,
    Not surprising, by his own admission he doesnt actually read any of the books, he listens to audio. What comprehension of material can the lamebrained ******** possibly get from that ?

    > The Peeps (People’s Republic of Haven) are an expansionist Empire that keeps the underprivileged masses underfoot by continually engaging in military campaigns (read: Villains).
    Sounds much like USA of today, if you ask me…

    >This Captain, Pavel Young, is a cowardly attempted rapist who is blindly unaware of the extremely dangerous situation surrounding him. What is more, he is primarily motivated by revenge
    Sounds much like one very recent USA president, if you ask me…

  3. scifi jon says:

    Reblogged this on On a sci-fictional mission and commented:
    I might be in the minority here (am I?), but I’ve been looking for articles on military sci-fi for years. Thomas Evans presents one of the better articles I’ve found on the sub-genre. Very interesting and true.

    The points that Thomas hits on, are the exact reasons why I rarely finish a military sci-fi book, yet the ones I do finish are the books I love the best.

    I wish there were more books that didn’t have good guys be a lawful good Paladin and bad guys be chaotic-evil barbarians. Through them both in the gray zone, that makes for fun reading.

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